Dupe of History

Embers

by Sándor Márai,translated by Carol Brown Janeway
Knopf, 213 pp., $21.00

Land, Land! Erinnerungen(Land, Land: A Memoir)

by Sándor Márai, translated by Hans Skirecki
Munich: Piper, 317 pp., DM19.90 (paper)

Memoir of Hungary, 1944–1948

by Sándor Márai, translated by Albert Tezla
Budapest: Corvina/Central European University Press, 427 pp., $26.95 (paper)

We are with the old General, Henrik, in his castle in Hungary. The year is 1940. For twenty years the General has not appeared in public. Now he is to have a visitor, the bosom friend of his youth, Konrad.

The General gazes at the portraits of his parents: his father the guards officer, his mother the French noblewoman who tried to fill the granite mausoleum of a castle with color and music but in the end succumbed to its cold weight. In a long flashback he remembers how, as a boy, he was taken to Vienna to be enrolled in a military academy. There he met Konrad, and the two became inseparable. During vacations in Hungary they rode together, fenced together, swearing to remain chaste. “There is nothing to equal the delicacy of such a relationship. Everything that life has to offer later, sentimental yearnings or raw desire, intense feelings and eventually the bonds of passion, will all be coarser, more barbaric.”

The boys grew up, joined the guards together, shared quarters. Konrad began to spend evenings alone, reading. Henrik lived a conventional guards officer life. Even when he married the beautiful Krisztina, the bonds of comradeship seemed unbroken.

The flashback ends. The old General opens a secret drawer and removes a loaded revolver.

Konrad arrives at the castle and tells Henrik the story of his life since they parted. After a long career in the tropics, working for the “Colonial Company,” he settled in England. In turn Henrik tells of his resignation from the army when the monarchy was abolished. The two agree that the post-1919 order means nothing to them. Konrad: “My homeland was a feeling, and that feeling was mortally wounded…. What we swore to uphold no longer exists…. There was a world for which it was worth living and dying. That world is dead.” Henrik disagrees: “That world is still alive, even if in reality it no longer exists. It lives, because I swore an oath to uphold it.”

Lightning strikes the electricity network. In the castle the two old men continue their dinner by candlelight. A hundred pages have passed. We are halfway through Embers (Hungarian title: The Candles Burn Down). It is time for Henrik to proceed to business.

For forty-one years, he tells Konrad, he has been plagued by a question to which he must now have an answer. In fact, if Konrad had not come, he would have set out to find him, even in “the bowels of hell.” For Konrad’s benefit, and the reader’s, he rehearses what occurred on a certain fateful day in 1899 when he called at Konrad’s bachelor apartment, and to his surprise—he had never been there before, he was expecting a spartan setup—found it full of beautiful objects, “curtains and carpets, silver, ancient bronzes, crystal and furniture, rare woven materials.” As he stood marveling, Krisztina stepped through the door. The scales fell from his eyes.

Now he wants the truth: Konrad …

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