This book, apparently an Eastern European classic, did not resonate with me at all, but for a different kind of reader it will be just right.
Embers is about two old men who meet for the first time in decades, after some mysterious event disrupted their friendship. The short book is told from the point-of-view of Henrik, who receives his long-lost friend, Konrad, after the latter returns from over 40 years abroad. The early part of the book covers the preparations for their dinner and preliminary conversation; the second half consists of Henrik’s near-uninterrupted monologue.
Objectively speaking, I wouldn’t call this a bad book. Its imagery and atmospherics are decent, and it manages to evoke a sense of the “old world” that passed away with the beginning of the 20th century. The translation is fluid; the writing and character development are not bad. I did feel some curiosity about what had happened between the two men and how things would turn out. However, the story did not resonate with me. Henrik’s monologue on confronting the friend he feels betrayed him doesn’t much resemble the way anyone is likely to confront a former friend in the real world. For instance, he spends quite a bit of time on narrative conventions like scene-setting:
“ ‘It was still dark,’ he says. . . . ‘It was the moment that separates night from day, the underworld from the world above. And perhaps other things separate themselves out, too. It is the last second, when the depths and heights, the dark and the light, of the world and of men still brush against each other, when sleepers waken with a start from troubling dreams, when the sick begin to groan because they sense that the nightly hell is nearing its end and now the more distinct pain will begin again. Light and the natural ordering that accompanies the day will separate and tease out the layers of desire, the secret longings, the twitches of excitement that had been tangled in the night.’”
Evocative, yes. Representative of how people actually talk, particularly in emotional moments, no.
Marai is also one of those writers who feel the need to pepper their text with authoritative statements, to universalize everything: “Like all those compelled . . . to premature solitude, Konrad’s tone as he spoke of the world was gently ironic, gently disdainful, and yet in some involuntary fashion full of curiosity.” If you’re the kind of reader who loves books where characters talk about The Meaning of Life and True Friendship, you’ll eat this up. I’m of the opinion that readers have lived in the world and don’t need to be told what it’s like, that if the author is doing his job properly the story will resonate without that and if not, the insistence that this is what life is like for everyone only highlights the author’s limitations. There are some true-to-life observations here, but then Marai tends to fall on his face with, say, the insistence that friendship is “known only to men.” Readers should be prepared for sexism, racism (Malaysians are referred to as “yellow and brown devils”) and homophobia; perhaps not atypical for a book written in the early 1940s, but at least you’ve been warned.
In the end, a quick read but not one I particularly enjoyed. It may be Literature, but it’s not my cup of tea.