For The Someday Book

Book Review: Embers

Posted on: October 7, 2014

Sandor Marai, Embers, translated by Carol Brown Janeway, Vintage International, 2008, 213 pp.

EmbersThis novel was originally written in Hungarian in 1942, and somehow drew my eye on the library shelf. There was something dark and haunting about the cover, and the title, Embers, seemed to speak of something smoldering, a dormant heat that made me curious to read more.

The story is a beautiful and agonizing account of an old man confronting his past, in the form of a lifelong friendship turned estranged and a long-dead conflict that effectively ended the man’s joy many, many years before. The novel is a study in the interior life of a man betrayed, who spends the rest of his days plotting a quiet revenge and resolution. It is a book in which very little action happens, but the General at the center of the story narrates–slowly, carefully–the unfolding of his soul as it has been wracked by the events of his friend Konrad.

The book is a study in relationships, guilt, betrayal and patience. The details of the past wounds drip out at a painstaking pace, but as a reader, I was hooked on the beauty of the language and the power of the General’s depth of self-analysis. The book distills more than 50 years of contemplation into a single conversation, the texture of a memory that has been handled and re-handled over and over again, every possible angle and outcome fully known. I am finding it difficult to even describe the book without giving away too much, or failing to convey the weighty beauty of it. It is extraordinary.

I recommend this book highly, for its depth of an interior journey, for the way it traces a man’s thoughts over decades, for the way it unpacks the tangle of guilt and betrayal, all in the fascinating context of the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire. I’m glad someone made this translation, and Vintage has brought this book into circulation. It is not easy, fun or gentle to read, but it is magnificent.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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