Tag-Archive for ◊ Candle Burns ◊

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• Saturday, March 31st, 2007

Sandor Marai was born in Kassa in the Austro-Hungarian empire, on April 11, 1900 to an old Saxon family. He became famous in 1930 as one of the prominent writers in Hungary. When he was young, Marai lived in many different cities: Frankfurt, Berlin, Paris, then lived in Budapest in 1928.

Persecuted by the communist regime in 1948 – the communists banned Marai’s books and destroyed every copy they could find – Marai escaped to Italy before deciding to settle in San Diego in the USA where he obtained citizenship.

Marai considered writing in German but in the end settled for Hungarian, his mother tongue. Even when living in San Diego he continued to write in his native language. His work was not published in English until the mid 1990s. After his wife’s death, Marai lived a secluded life before committing suicide by shooting himself in the head in 1989 in San Diego.

Marai is a novelist, short story and memoir writer, a poet, a journalist and a playwright. He wrote “Casanova in Bolzano” in 1940, “Embers”in 1942, “The Rebels” to be published in 2007 and “Memoir of Hungary” in 1971. Marai was the first reviewer of Kafka’s work.

Marai’s work was unknown outside Hungary for a long time. He has been rediscovered recently and republished in English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, and many other languages. He is now considered one of the important writers of the 20th century. In 1990 he posthumously received the Kossuth prize. “Embers” became a best-seller both in Europe and the USA, and the English version of “Embers” has been translated from German.

“Embers”is an original and unusual book. The setting is a fairy tale from the pre-war splendid era of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The aristocrat’s life is described with all its splendour, its rules and values. The novel is set along those lines. It’s about how sacred friendship is, and how the important sentiment of honour, betrayal, love, hate and passion can grow old and weak with time. It’s a deeply moving monologue, a sort of meditation related out loud. It is also about age and patience that grows wise with maturity.

The General had all the patience it took to wait for 41 years for the return of his one and only best friend Konrad. He was convinced that like all criminals, Konrad was bound one day to return to the scene of the crime, when his waiting has been rewarded, by Konrad announcing his long awaited visit. He set meticulously the same setting of the last dinner the three of them had together forty one years ago, the General, his wife Krisztina and his best friend Konrad, after the unforgettable stag hunt in the forest. Not forgetting any little detail. It’s in the same dining room, in the same old castle at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains. He even remembers the exact date: the 2nd of July 1899, 41 years and 43 days ago.

The General spent his life counting the days until his friend Konrad came back after the unspoken act of betrayal that shattered three lives, and left each one of the inseparable threesome to live in complete solitude.

Now the time for explanation has arrived, at last. Since the memorable day of the hunt in the forest with Konrad, Henrik (the General) lived secluded like a hermit. He knew the day would come when things will be solved. He spent a good part of his existence dreaming of this day and preparing for it, for his revenge. But with age he become more wise and deliberate. His revenge ended up being like a duel without swords. The two old men who were once the best of friends, sit opposite each other after dinner in front of a smoldering fire. The General in front of an almost silent protagonist, starts to unravel very slowly, layer by layer, their whole, long dead past friendship. He ponders over all the events that lead to break the honourable tie that once united them, despite their differences and despite the fact that Henrik was born into nobility and Konrad was impoverished.

The seventy five year-old retired general keeps us in suspense. Throughout his pedantic narration we expect a twist at the end. We discover that the twist is that there is no twist, as the guest, Konrad says quietly: “why do you ask me when you know that the answer is yes”. The general knew the answer to all his questions all the way along, but because of his obstinate obsession, he had to go through this confrontation for his peace of mind and as a last farewell to his once best and loyal friend.

In “Embers” or “The Candle Burns to a Stub” (its Hungarian title), nothing much happens, there is no plot. Just the smoldering fire inside an old man’s heart and soul. We discover that for him finding the truth is of no importance any more; with age and time everything mellows, the important thing is to discharge oneself from a burden. Once this is dealt with, his wife’s portrait can be hung back on the wall again, and he can sleep peacefully, knowing that he accomplished the task he has been longing to accomplish all these years. “Now you may hang it up again.” “Yes,” says the nurse (Nini). “It’s of no importance anymore” the general says. “Are you feeling calmer now? asks Nini. “Yes,” says the General.” Now he is relieved after things have been said once and for all. He can go to sleep now. “Good night Nini.” “Good night.”

“Embers”is a sad book. A lot of sadness is revealed in the General’s monologues and throughout his reminiscence, which he had time to develop and dwell upon during his many years of solitude. “And when the longing for joy disappears, all that are left are memories or vanity, and then finally, we are truly old. One day we wake up and rub our eyes and do not know why we have woken… Nothing surprising can ever happen again.”