Sándor Márai’s Embers is about memory. The first part of the novel is the General reminiscing on his childhood. We learn that the General cannot survive being alone. Yet for 41 years what keeps him ticking is the memory of one day.
While the General repeats that he is looking for the truth, we only receive one person’s thoughts and memories- the General’s. The General says he wants answers to two questions, but when he asks the first he doesn’t let Konrad respond. When the General asks the second, Konrad scoffs at him for asking it. The novel is not about finding truth, but how we are incapable of finding truth when we are consumed with our own world view. We don’t hear Konrad’s perspective and we don’t even open Krisztina’s diary. Or perhaps a better way to frame it is how the truth is malleable. The General describes facts as being the events themselves. The General and Konrad went hunting together is a fact. The General sees the truth as being the human side behind the facts, the motivation and feeling behind what happened. The truth would be why did Konrad want to kill the General.
Other than being self absorbed, why can’t the General see the truth? The General places an emphasis on music and how he hates it because he doesn’t understand it. He sees music as the enemy that takes away the people he loves, like his mother and Konrad. Music is the connection to the ethereal. Music allows for self dispossession and with this disconnect from the self the ability to see the truth. The General is never able to disconnect from himself. His story is framed around himself. He never opens Krisztina’s diary that we would consider to be a primary source, a participant’s own account. The General’s life is ruled not by the truth but by his memories.
An interesting note about the title, at Stanford’s book club, a woman noted that in Hungarian the title means the end of a burning candle not embers. The burning of a candle makes me think of Macbeth’s “Out, out brief candle!” The original title is referring to the dinner candles and how the General’s and Konrad’s lives keep burning while they go through their memories. And how life is brief like a candle. The original title puts the novel in a reflection about how life burns. The English title links to the embers of an old flame and a rekindling passion, but the novel is not a romance. It isn’t until half way through that the love triangle is brought to light. I think the original title is important to show the novel as a philosophical book rather than a heated romance.
The author is ambitious in writing a novel that spans a day and night with no action. All the General does is talk. The tension is created from the General’s great storytelling skills and the sweeping language. If you’re interested in hearing an old man’s investigation into friendship, truth, and memory, this is an engaging read. Dialogue, action, and physical movement are what make a dynamic narrative. Embers has none of that, but is obsessed with memory, truth, and friendship.