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Embers by Sándor Márai

May 25, 2015 25 comments

Embers by Sándor Márai (1942) French title: Les braises. Translated by Marcelle et Georges Régnier.

Marai_braisesEmbers is set in 1941 in an odd aristocratic castle in Hungary. Henri is 75, a widower and a former general from the Austro-Hungarian army. His wife died years ago and he lives a solitary life. He’s retreated in a small part of the castle and lives among his servants. One night, a messenger comes with a letter, informing him that Conrad is back. Henri sends a car to fetch him and while he waits for him, he reminisces their childhood, their youth, their friendship in the military academy in Vienna.

They haven’t seen each other in 41 years. Conrad left and we soon understand that they parted abruptly and that Henri has been waiting for this reunion for all his life. He survived everything to be there and alive for this confrontation. We will witness their exchange and see the two men’s story unravel in front of us. I won’t say more about the plot to avoid spoilers. I will only say that their talk involves the general’s wife Christine and a love triangle.

Márai explores several paths in this beautiful novel. Through the general’s eyes, we see a lost world, the one he grew up in and saw crumble after the Great War. His father was in the military too and his mother was French. They met in France and lived in Hungary after they got married. We gather that their marriage was complicated as they had opposite personalities. The general’s father was rather stern and closed-off, a soldier to the core while his mother was more open and artistic. It sounds simplistic but that’s the way Márai presents it, even saying that being French led her to be more eager to talk about her feelings. (I still haven’t understood that statement.)

Their son Henri enjoyed is career path. He didn’t have trouble adapting to military academy and had the wealth and charisma to play the role expected from him. He did it effortlessly …because Conrad was by his side. Young Henri needs affection to be healthy and happy. Somehow, Márai makes it sound like an oddity, a weakness while our modern world finds it obvious.

Conrad and Henri met when they were ten. Conrad comes from an impoverished family from Poland (His mother was a relative of Chopin’s) and his parents sacrificed everything to pay for his education. Contrary to Henri, he had a hard time feeling comfortable in military clothes. He’s musical, he has an artistic temper and wearing a uniform is like wearing a costume for him.

He and Henri were close, though. Conrad spent his holidays at the castle and Henri’s family took him under their wing. Conrad and Henri’s mother got along very well as they both loved music. They were are carried away by Chopin’s music while Henri and his father didn’t understand what the fuss was all about. That’s the symbol of the rift between the characters.

The novel could be a theatre play, a tragedy by Racine or Corneille. It’s set in one place with two characters and Henri’s old nanny. Most of the book is a dialogue between Conrad and Henri. Henri is the one doing most of the talking, letting out the result of 41 years of ruminations. He discourses on friendship, memories, revenge and what men learn when they get old. There’s something disturbing about the way Márai describes passion and duty.

Although I loved the book and the description of passionate feelings, I remained aloof, a spectator. I wanted to find out what had happened, I wasn’t bored at all and I found the discussion between the two men very interesting. The novel is full of thoughts about friendship, love, honour, betrayal, ageing and human experience. Although part of these thoughts touched me, the story didn’t engage me emotionally. Sometimes when you read a book, you come across thoughts and feelings that are yours. It can be a relief to find a writer who put words on inner thoughts you’re not able to express and to find out that these confused or semi-formed thoughts are only human. When I read about great passions that lead to dramatic gestures or behaviours, I don’t feel like I’m sharing human experience. I need a bit of suspension of belief to enter the story because if I let my brain take over, I’ll just roll my eyes and think “Really, how is that plausible?” I need it to read Wuthering Heights or Romeo and Juliet. That’s why I have a hard time enjoying Phèdre by Racine or Le Cid by Corneille. I can’t relate to these extreme reactions and grand and long-lasting passions; I remain a spectator.

The same thing happened here. Henri’s course of action sounds improbable to me, especially since it lasted 41 years. I understand burning passion leading to murder in the heat of the moment. But to put one’s life on hold to maintain embers of old feelings and resentment during 41 years and only live to meet Conrad again and hear the truth? I don’t believe in such a steady consuming passion. Perhaps I’m far too practical for that.

In parallel to the personal story between Henri and Conrad, Márai uses his two characters to show the end of an era, the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its values. Henri is stuck in his ways. His life didn’t unfold as expected but he never adapted his goals to the new situation. Perhaps it’s a vision from the 21st century, of someone living in an ever changing world where constant adaptation is crucial. Perhaps Márai wanted to emphasise Henri’s shortcomings to picture why this empire declined.

On another note, I noticed that some details don’t add up in the novel. Henri’s nanny is 91 when the novel starts and she’s been with him since he was born and she was 16 then. (Chapter 2) So Henri is 75 but later Conrad says they’re 73 (Chapter 10). Anyway, they were born around 1866. In the first part of the novel, Márai describes how Henri’s parents met and he says they attended a party thrown by the king of France. (Chapter 3) There hasn’t been a king in France since 1848. Somehow I don’t believe that twenty years happened between their meeting and Henri’s birth. I assumed that the said king is actually Napoléon III. I’d be happy to know how this passage in the Chapter 3 is translated into English: do they see the king of France or the Emperor? I wonder if it’s a slip from the translator or if it was in the original text.

Reading my billet again, it’s not as enthusiastic as it should be. Embers is an incredible novel. It’s rather short and still packs a lot of thoughts; the story is gripping and the style is wonderful. Márai was talented, that’s certain. If someone has read it and remembers it enough to discuss it, I’m ready to exchange in the comments, spoilers included.

Writing doesn’t know any other country than that of their mother tongue.

August 22, 2013 24 comments

The Confessions of a Bourgeois by Sándor Márai. 1934. Egy Polgár Vallomásai. French title: Les Confessions d’un bourgeois.

After a billet about the events told in Confessions of a Bourgeois, I thought that the book deserved a billet dedicated to literature. Márai exposes his views on writing, on being a writer and he unravels how he came to his vision of literature and writing. For him, it’s an obsession and naming it a calling is just a way to embellish an urge. He was 14 when he knew he had to write but it took him years to know what he would write. He’s not a writer who spent his youth scribbling stories or writing theatre plays he would play with his cousins in front of the family. Márai doesn’t mention a lot of influential writers but he does refer to Kafka as a writer who “spoke” to him:

Il s’avère toujours difficile de cerner la notion d’influence littéraire et de rester objectif et sincère à l’endroit des auteurs qui ont déclenché en vous ce qu’on peut appeler une vision littéraire du monde. La littérature, comme la vie, comporte des affinités mystérieuses. Il m’est arrivé une ou deux fois— pas plus— de rencontrer des êtres qui me paraissaient aussitôt douloureusement familiers, comme si, en quelque époque préhistorique, j’eusse manqué avec eux je ne sais quel rendez-vous. Ces êtres ont la faculté de m’arrêter sur mon chemin et de me révéler à moi-même. It’s always difficult to grasp the notion of literary influence and to remain honest and objective about the authors who triggered in you what you may call a literary vision of the world. Literature, like life, has mysterious affinities. I happened once or twice –not more often—to meet with a being that immediately seemed painfully familiar, as if I had missed a rendezvous with them in some prehistoric era. Such beings have the power to stop me on my journey and to reveal myself to me.

I think all readers have had this experience of reading a book which suddenly seemed to have been created only for them. Some writers have a direct access to our inner selves, knocking down the barriers of time, sex or language. That’s a wonderfully soothing effect of reading. After a few years, Márai made up his mind about what a writer should be:

Je me méfie de ces âmes délicates qui fuient la vie, comme je trouve profondément antipathique l’écrivain « naturaliste », qui, semblable à un violoniste tsigane, « n’écoute que son cœur » et « décrit l’existence » avec une précision minutieuse. C’est entre ces deux pôles extrêmes que vit, crée et se débat l’écrivain. I am wary of these delicate souls who shy away from life, just as I deeply dislike the naturalist writer who, like a Hungarian Gypsy fiddler only listens to his heart and describes life with a thorough precision. An author lives, creates and struggles somewhere between these two extremes.

For me, Rilke is a writer of the first category, it is clear in his Letters to a Young Poet while Zola is, of course, one of the other category. As a reader, I enjoy both and struggle with both. I’ve had a hard time following all of Malte’s inner musings in The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge and I didn’t enjoy much the lengthy descriptions of Les Halles in The Belly of Paris. I guess Márai has a point when he says a writer should find a middle ground between the two. Philip Roth manages that brilliantly; he can mix the most down-to-earth details with deep thinking. However, I’m not sure about Márai’s idea of writing only in your mother tongue:

L’écrivain ne peut travailler que dans l’atmosphère de sa langue maternelle, et ma langue maternelle était le hongrois. C’est pourquoi, quelques dizaines d’années plus tard, alors que j’écrivais déjà passablement en allemand, et baragouinais tant bien que mal le français, pris de panique devant ma surdité quant à l’essence même de ces langues étrangères, je rentrai précipitamment au pays pour me réfugier au sein de ma langue maternelle. A writer can only work in the atmosphere of his mother tongue and my mother tongue was the Hungarian language. Therefore, a few decades later, when I could passably write in German and jabber away in French, I panicked because I was deaf to the essence of these foreign languages. I hurried home to find shelter in my mother tongue.

Zachary Karabashliev wrote his book set in America in Bulgarian, even if he’s been living in Ohio for years now. He didn’t translate his book into English himself. It seems to confirm Márai’s theory. I’m not a writer and I’m not sure my opinion about this is worth anything. But still. On the one hand, writing in another language can be liberating because the words aren’t loaded with unconscious meanings or don’t carry the same emotional weight. On the other hand, they’re new to the writer but aren’t new to the reader who may load them with a meaning unexpected by the author. More importantly, I wonder if writing in another language doesn’t give the writer to innovate in their adopted language. Perhaps it is an opportunity for the adopted language. Romain Gary never wrote a book in Russian. However, he transposed some of his Russian heritage in his writing in French. He has a unique way of using the French language, something someone with a French background may not have invented. I wonder what Márai who have thought about Beckett or Milán Kundera?

Then, if a writer can only write in their mother tongue, translators are vital. Márai also mentions translations as he discovered French literature in translation.

Etrange métier que celui du traducteur, qui requiert toujours la présence de deux artistes. Le traducteur est souvent un écrivain avorté, comme le photographe un peintre dévoyé. Translator is a strange profession as it always requires two artists. A translator is often an aborted writer, just as a photographer is a corrupted painter.

While I agree that translating literature requires more artistic skills than translating directions for use, the rest of the quote is a little too harsh for me.  I think that photography is an art of its own; it’s not the residue of a more noble art called painting. Plus, aren’t translators literature lovers who strive to promote foreign literature in their language? They bring the world to us, readers and allow us to wander outside of our culture, our language. I like better what Zachary Karabashliev wrote in the Acknowledgments section of 18% Gray “I grew up in a country whose language is spoken by fewer than nine million people. Most of the literature that shaped me as a reader and an individual, and later as a writer, was in translation, mostly English works in Bulgarian. This translation of 18% Gray from Bulgarian to English is, in a way, my chance to give back what’s been borrowed, a raindrop returning to the ocean it came from.” I told you I liked the man behind the book.

Last, but not least, I leave you with a quote coming just after Márai sold his first article written in German:

Ce fut mon premier article écrit directement en allemand. Je rédigeai en cette langue étrangère avec une assurance aveugle. Après coup, l’entreprise me parut d’une folle témérité. Fixer mes idées en un idiome, que certes, je comprenais et parlais, mais en lequel je n’avais jamais encore écrit la moindre ligne, relevait de la gageure. This was my first article written directly in German. I wrote in this foreign language with a blind assurance. Afterwards, this initiative seemed to be of a crazy boldness. To lay down my ideas in a language that I could understand and speak but in which I had never written a line was a real challenge.

At my own little level, I know the feeling quite well…

Happy who like Ulysses has explored

August 19, 2013 16 comments

The Confessions of a Bourgeois by Sándor Márai. 1934. (Egy Polgár Vallomásai). French title: Les Confessions d’un bourgeois. Not available in English.

du_bellay

Although the title of the book refers to La Confession d’un enfant du siècle by Alfred de Musset, I felt that these verses by Joachim du Bellay suited better to the book. Sándor Márai (1900-1989) is a Hungarian writer and this memoir was published in 1934, which means Márai was still young and had many years to live, which of course he wasn’t aware of. The Confessions of a Bourgeois relate his formative years until he became a writer. The first part covers his fourteen first years until the Great War starts. The second part relates his years from 1919 to 1928 and ends when his father dies.

The first part interested me for the description of his hometown, Kassa. He describes the architecture, the society, the rules, the way of life. There’s a fantastic passage about servants in the Hungarian bourgeoisie and I intend to come by to it when I read Anna Edes. He pictures a society where Catholic and Jews live at peace, where people speak both German and Hungarian. Márai was born in a family from the small bourgeoisie. His father was a lawyer and he built a successful career. Márai had a strict education with every component of what was considered as good education: high school + French + English + piano. He portrays his extended family, showing the most colourful characters, some wealthier than others. Later, he was miserable in his boarding school in Budapest.

Mes ambitions me liaient à la famille et celle-ci appartenait corps et âme à une classe. Tout ce qui se trouvait en dehors de cette famille et de cette classe –hommes, femmes, intérêts ou relations—n’était que matière informe, brute, impure, assimilable aux déchets. Même à l’église, les pauvres étaient considérés comme des malades responsables de leur état, car ils n’avaient pas sur maîtriser leur vie. My ambitions were linked to my family which belonged heart and soul to a certain social class. Everything that was out of the realm of this family and this social class –men, women, interests, connections—were only made of an undefined, gross and impure clay comparable to trash. Even in church, the poor were considered as sick people responsible for their circumstances because they didn’t manage to shape their lives.

marai_confessionsAfter high school, he went to university in Leipzig. This is the starting point of a decade of living abroad. He lived in Leipzig, Frankfurt, Berlin and then six years in Paris, interrupted by months in Florence and frequent visits to London. He wants to discover “Europe” and in his mind, Western Europe means France and Great Britain. What did he do during these years? He wrote articles for different newspapers, especially for the prestigious Frankfurter Zeitung, lived hand to mouth and went from one rented room to the other. He mingled into all kinds of circles. He went to class but never actually got a diploma. He wandered, dreamed, drank and contemplated life.

There are fascinating passages about Berlin in the early 1920s, insight about the French society in the 1920s. (Some observations match with what Edith Wharton wrote in French Ways and their Meaning.) During that time, he got married with Lola, a woman from Kassa who was also in Berlin. These ten years are the decade during which he matures into a writer. He stores – consciously or not – material for future books.

Then, he eventually decided it was time for him to go home, not in Kassa, but in Budapest. He wanted to come back to his culture, but more importantly, to his language. He didn’t think that a writer could fully express themselves in another language than their mother tongue. (More of that in an upcoming billet) Hence the du Bellay reference.

What did I think of this memoir? First, a word about the translation. My French copy was translated by Georges Kassai and Zéno Bianu. I found it annoying because of the extensive use of quotation marks around words. For example:

Je n’avais aucune intention de “faire carrière” et, au fond, je n’attribuais guère d’importance à mes relations avec ce “journal de province” I had no intention to “make a career” and actually, I didn’t care much about my connection with this “provincial newspapers”

Please tell me why we need quotation marks here. Either it’s the right choice of word, either it’s not, and then the French dictionary is thick enough to provide the translator with a better fit. Isn’t making a choice –no matter how imperfect it is—the job of the translator? It’s not the first time I’ve noticed this under Kassai’s pen. This frequent indecision irritated me.

I’m not much into knowing writers through their memoirs or their detailed bios. I bought this because I wanted to read about Hungary at the beginning of the 20thC to illustrate and understand its literature better. Save for the first part, most of the book (almost 600 pages) is set outside of Hungary. I was very disappointed that he totally skipped the Great War’s years and politics in the 1920s. Two sentences about the war (he was mobilized at 18) and not a word about the devastating consequences it had on the Austro-Hungarian empire and thus, on his life. In once sentence, you learn that he can’t go back to Kassa since it’s now in Czechoslovakia. The war made him stateless. Isn’t this a major event? He mentions the fascists when he relates his stay in Florence, he mentions the economic disaster experienced by the German bourgeoisie, the riots in Berlin. But all this is said on a light tone, in the middle of a paragraph, without analysis or personnel assessment of the events. Frustrating, especially when he writer is a journalist.

What does he say, then? He’s self-centred, talks a bit about the characters that cross his life. He was quite a womaniser and never was seriously involved with a woman and suddenly, he’s married. One meeting for tea and a few months later, they’re married. He must have been in love, given his track record with women but he doesn’t say a word about his feelings. It’s called “confessions” but the man himself remains aloof. He neither uses this book to analyse the world he lives in –which Musset did—nor to expose his inner self—which Rousseau did. It’s just his peregrinations, his thoughts about writing, being a writer and his slow process of turning from an adolescent to a man, an author. To be honest, I didn’t like much the man half revealed in this book. I want to read one of his novels now, to see how this mildly interesting man was as a writer.

What happened to him later? The fled from Hungary in 1948, lived in different European countries and eventually settled for the rest of his life in San Diego, California. He only wrote in Hungarian.

Here’s one last quote:

Mais dans les instants privilégiés de notre existence, une explosion assourdissante –le pianissimo du silence équivaut quelquefois au fortissimo d’une déflagration—nous avertit que nous nous sommes trompés de chemin, que nous n’habitons pas là où nous voudrions vivre, que nous n’exerçons pas le métier pour lequel nous sommes faits, que nous recherchons les faveurs et suscitons la colère de personnes avec lesquels nous n’avons pas grand-chose en commun, alors que nous traitons avec indifférence celles qui nous importent vraiment. Si l’on reste sourd à ce genre d’avertissement, on risque de passer à côté de la vie, de passer une existence mutilée et superficielle. Il ne s’agit nullement d’un rêve, fût-il diurne, mais d’une sorte d’illumination qui nous révèle notre réalité profonde, nos obligations, nos engagements et notre destinée personnelle –tout ce qui, au-delà de la misère échue à la condition humaine, nous appartient en propre. But during the precious moments of our existence, a deafening explosion—the pianissimo of a silence sometimes equals the fortissimo of a blow—warns us that we have taken the wrong path, that we don’t live where we’d like to, that we don’t have the profession we are meant for, that we seek the favours and raise the anger of people with whom we have barely anything in common while we treat with indifference the ones who really matter. If one remains deaf to that kind of warning, one risks to miss out on life, to live a mutilated and shallow existence. It has nothing to do with a dream, even diurnal. It is a sort of enlightenment which reveals us our true reality, our obligations, our commitments and our personal destiny, everything that belongs to us, above the misery inherent to the human condition.

Here’s another review by Passage à l’Est.

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