The first English translation of a brooding, densely atmospheric, forgotten 1942 novel whose eminent Hungarian expatriate author (b. 1900) committed suicide, while living in the US, in his 89th year.
It’s set in the late 1930s at a remote castle near the Carpathian Mountains, where a retired general prepares to receive a visit from a former comrade in arms, whom he hasn’t seen in more than 40 years. A lengthy prelude hints at a scandal of long duration, introduces the sibylline figure of Henrik’s (i.e., the general’s) elderly nursemaid, and dredges up memories of Henrik’s privileged boyhood, successful military career and outwardly successful marriage, and conflicted longtime closeness (“Ours was a friendship out of the ancient sagas”) with Konrad (the expected visitor), the companion of his youth, and, it is hinted, the destroyer of Henrik’s happiness. Konrad arrives; the two old men greet each other cordially, dine, then sit together as Henrik pours out an increasingly tense tale of the unequal comradeship of a boy born to great wealth and another whose career was fed by his family’s sacrifices; of Henrik’s marriage to delicate, musically inclined Krisztina and the “story à trois” created by her increasing intimacy with the introverted, similarly gifted Konrad; and of a climactic day in their common history—that of a stag hunt, following which Konrad immediately resigned his commission and departed for the tropics, and Henrik and Krisztina began living apart, never to speak or meet again during her brief lifetime. Márai communicates these judiciously staggered revelations in a carefully wrought epigrammatic style (filled with complex extended metaphors) that’s a bit reminiscent of early Thomas Mann. The end result is a mesmerizing dramatization of the tensions between culture and militarism, tradition and impulse, which captures in a perfectly controlled larger metaphor the vanity and rigidity of an old order threatened by unrestraint and passion and destined to flare up and destroy itself, leaving only “embers” behind.
A major rediscovery, arguably comparable to those of Bruno Schulz, Leo Perutz, and Joseph Roth. A small, beautifully fashioned masterpiece.