Sándor Márai began his literary career as a poet whose artistry is well suited for this novel of a marriage viewed from the three corners of a love triangle. Márai deftly manipulates his reader through the novel's intense narrative, allowing his three main characters to perform their passionate monologues, each a moving tale as distinct and contrasting as their differing social backgrounds.
The story opens in a bar in post-war Budapest with Ilonka, who comes from a middle class family, holds marriage as sacrosanct, and divorce a sacrilege; recalling her marriage to Peter, an aristocrat, with loneliness and bitter regret. "I understood that my husband whom I had previously believed to be entirely mine - every last inch of him, as they say, right down to the recesses of his soul - was not at all mine but a stranger with secrets." Her rendition of marital disillusionment, disappointment, and the betrayal that drove them to divorce is touching and sensitive.
Peter's perspective follows, formed by a highly privileged upbringing, therefore more cerebral than emotional; adding the necessary detail that sheds some light on the relationship that baffled the innocent Ilonka. "A man's life depends on the state of his soul.... Your heart must let me go. I can't live under conditions of such emotional tension. There are men more feminine than me, for whom it is vital to be loved. There are others who, even at the best of times, can only just about tolerate the feeling of being loved. I am that kind." Peter later matured in his thinking but remained cynical. He was not my favorite character.
The most striking voice comes from Judit, the second wife, whose dirt-poor rags to riches story gives the reader a clear vision of the change also occurring in Hungary. Her version is the most earthbound and realistic, her own change the most dramatic. "The whole business of the bourgeois and the class war was different from what we proles were told. These people were sure they had a role in the world; I don't mean just in business, copying those people who had had great power when they themselves had little power. What they believed was that when it came down to it, they were putting the world into some sort of order, that with them in charge, the lords of the world would not be such great lords as they had been and the proles would not remain in abject poverty, as we once were. They thought the whole world would eventually accept their values; that even while one group moved down and another one up, they, the bourgeois, would keep their position - even in a world where everything was being turned upside down."
On the surface, Márai created a soulful, deeply intimate story built on themes of love, marital disillusionment, jealousy, social class, even death. Since much of the flashback events occurred in wartime, the book is not only a journal of the deconstruction of a marriage, it chronicles the decline and dissolution of a strictly hierarchical society, and the barbaric destruction and widespread devastation that left Europe in ruins as a result of the war. The ill-fated marriage and Europe might serve as metaphors, leaving one in no doubt of Márai's genius in weaving this historical and psychological work of art.
From the back matter-
A Note about the Author:
Sándor Márai was born in Kassa in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1900, and died in San Diego, California, in 1989. He rose to fame as one of the leading literary novelists in Hungary in the 1930s. Profoundly anti-fascist he survived the war but persecution by the Communists drove him from the country in 1948, first to Italy, then to the United States. His [highly acclaimed] novel Embers was published for the first time in English in 2001.
“Do you also believe that what gives our lives their meaning is the passion that suddenly invades us heart, soul, and body, and burns in us forever, no matter what else happens in our lives? And that if we have experienced this much, then perhaps we haven’t lived in vain? Is passion so deep and terrible and magnificent and inhuman? Is it indeed about desiring any one person, or is it about desiring desire itself? That is the question. Or perhaps, is it indeed about desiring a particular person, a single, mysterious other, once and for always, no matter whether that person is good or bad, and the intensity of our feelings bears no relation to that individual’s qualities or behavior?”
― Sándor Márai, Embers