February 2014: Embers
Stir the Embers
In Sándor Márai’s haunting novel, two childhood friends meet again, after more than 40 years of estrangement, for dinner in a secluded castle. They talk about their past, the curious end of their friendship, a onetime love, and a way of life that is dying at the dawn of World War II. Deb Curtis, the director of audience development at Time Inc.’s Lifestyle Group Digital, moderated the discussion of Embers.
Embers: Chapters 1 Through 7
Happy Friday! For the record, I am coming into reading this book cold. Physically cold, thanks to the introduction of “polar vortex” to my vocab, which sets the stage for cozy evening reading. But also cold because other than the book jacket and my friend’s recommendation that it was a lovely read, I don’t have any idea what this book has in store. It’s a little like watching a movie having only read the Cable Guide’s description…so far, I’m pleased with our choice!
The story begins with a retired wealthy Austro-Hungarian general in his mid-seventies, in 1940, who lives in a castle that is beautifully described, albeit in decay. He gets word that an old friend is coming to visit after 41 years abroad. I admit I was a bit thrown by referring to characters as the General and the Officer of the Guards. I reread a few paragraphs to be sure I knew who the father was and who was the son, and who the story is actually focused on. Did these references and the chapter jumps in time make you do a double-take? The introduction of the beloved, maternal, and elderly childhood nurse Nini helped to define the focus on the General and gave our first glimpse of character development after setting us up with a vivid description of their current—and future—setting.
We get to know of their past—the General was a boy named Henrik whose sustenance is not food, clothing, and shelter, but the singular LOVE, given to him wholly by Nini. (Happy early Valentine’s Day, dear readers!) Even when surrounded by his biological family in the Paris home of his aristocratic grandmother, Henrik falls ill and a resourceful Nini is called upon to coddle him until the pink is back in his cheeks. We’ve barely cracked the spine of this book and we’re already seeing the beauty in the sadness that I was told to expect. Were you moved by this chapter as well?
Henrik’s future in the military is inevitable and innate. So when he’s sent away to school with his little sword, we wonder how he will make do without his dear Nini. It isn’t long before he gravitates to his assigned bunkmate, Konrad, a quiet, husky boy whose family had fallen from aristocracy in Poland; we learn quickly he seems the yin to Henrik’s yang. Henrik seizes the opportunity to attach himself to this boy who can keep him nourished, and he forms a permanent and somewhat mystical connection to Konrad. As the boys age, we get a glimpse of their social and personality differences: Henrik as a social butterfly, and Konrad the loner, embarrassed by his status in society. Yet their dependence on each other remains constant. They were inseparable for years into adulthood, but as we near the end of this set of chapters, we’re introduced to the ladies who I can’t help but think are about to shake things up…
I haven’t quite pinpointed Marai’s style; perhaps I need to read the next set of chapters without interruption to look for patterns and rhythm. I wonder what I’ll find, given that this story has been translated from Hungarian to English. Please feel free to shed some light on what you’ve picked up on and what to look for! I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject. And I know I’ll be paying attention while we read Chapters 8 through 14 for next week.
Embers: Chapters 8 Through 14
When we left Henrik and Konrad, on the verge of manhood, we were given a glimpse into their social lives (or lack thereof in Konrad’s case). Chapter 8 opens some 40 years later, as the General dresses and prepares for Konrad’s arrival. His memory serves him all too well, dictating every minute detail of how the castle should look to reflect the same environment Konrad saw last, down to Krisztina’s favorite flowers. Only this time, it’s clear that the General is prepared for more than just catching up on old times.
The next few chapters are short and the pace of my reading picked up dramatically as we breezed through Konrad’s tales of the topics. I didn’t find much emotion in his description of his time abroad, did you? I do have a clear picture of the climate and the cultural demographics, but really no sense of how he spent so much of his time. Henrik doesn’t seem to care. So focused on his task at hand, he jumps right in with a bit of sarcasm to guide the conversation back to the when/where/why Konrad took off. I got excited that the story was moving so quickly, we were going to learn soon what caused their great divide!
Then we reach lucky number Chapter 13. I felt the pace slow down as Henrik climbed on his soapbox to share his view of Konrad’s departure. His diatribe on instinct and man being able to hunt and kill, and his references to ritual sacrifice, picked up from his own travels, now paint Henrik as a very dark character. We already know he’s an experienced shot, and he’s got that pistol in his pocket... And then finally, after such a winding story leading us in a few directions, we learn why he’s got Konrad in his figurative sights. I didn’t expect the hunting story to resolve in Konrad holding the gun. But we know he survived to tell the tale. So as Henrik reflects back on Konrad’s interactions with Krisztina, how intertwined he is in their married life, and his exposing her to what the tropics are all about, I think we know where this is going. Juicy!
At this point, did you think he might be capable of taking Konrad’s life? And what did you make of his references to twins? Does he believe they are duplicates of each other or, as I mentioned previously, two halves of a whole person?
I’m so curious about what’s to come, and I hope we hear more than just a few words from Konrad as we head to the end.
See our discussion of Chapters 1 through 7.
Embers: Chapters 15 Through 20
In the final chapters of Embers, Henrik’s personal trial of Konrad continues, finally shedding light on the dissolution of the friendship. I had grown accustomed to Henrik’s repetition, but to be candid, it was a bit exhausting. I found myself wanting to skim-read through some of the overly colorful examples of his thoughts. But when I reflect on it now, I imagine being in Konrad’s seat, and how absolutely tortured he must have felt when Henrik belabored the point about how men, women, friends, parents, and the closest of allies bear the weight of a secret, even if everyone knows what it is.
My impatience in reading Henrik’s innermost thoughts is coming out as I write this now, so I will cut to the chase and highlight the moments that were most exciting and meaningful to me. I’d love to hear how you felt about these, and let us all know what stood out to you:
• As telling as Krisztina’s arriving to find Henrik at Konrad’s apartment was, I found it much more thrilling that she called Konrad a coward. Henrik does a great job of playing out the meanings that one word could hold, but it was Konrad’s reaction that said more than anything (after all, he has barely said a word). Although Henrik has done all the talking, I think Konrad has been wondering what impression he left on the world he abandoned.
• I was so caught up in thinking about Konrad’s response and change in composure that when Henrik got to his very pointed question, it caught me off-guard! Did Krisztina know that Konrad planned to kill Henrik? I’m not sure she did. But it leaves us imagining she could have….
• And so now we know what’s been brewing in Henrik for 40 years. I thought it was quite sweet that he retracted his initial question. To me, it showed that in all of his preparation and his thinking through every detail of putting the puzzle together, he still got tripped up over asking such an important question because it involved the two people he loved most. And the two people he expected loved him the same.
• My expectation was that Henrik buried his version of their secret for the remaining years, while he and Krisztina lived in cold, dark silence together. Were you surprised to learn that he went off to live on his own, and even on her deathbed, their equal stubbornness kept them from reaching out?
• We had some discussion in the previous chapters about Nini’s role in the latter years of Henrik’s life. I was so pleased the loop is closed with her on the final page. It seems so fitting that she is the last person left in his world, and that with that one kiss on an old man’s forehead, she lets him know that after all he has been through, yearned for and sought after, he has been and is still truly loved.
Lastly, I thought the final symbolic burning of the Krisztina’s version of their secret, engulfed in flames out of embers, ties perfectly to the title. However, the original translation of the book’s title is Candles Burn Until the End. How would you interpret the adaptation of the title?
Thanks for reading along with me!