Every year as many as eleven thousand novels may be published in Britain, of which only a handful amount to much. So it is all the more surprising to come across a masterpiece. Such is Embers by the Hungarian writer Sándor Márai. I found myself so gripped by this elegiac novel, so seduced by its limpid prose, that when I came to the final page I turned back to the first and began to reread.
The world evoked by Embers is one I recognize imaginatively and in which I feel at home. Perhaps this is partly due to my own background. Though I was born in England my roots lie elsewhere, in continental Europe, and my family’s story is one of exile and dispossession – my maternal great-grandfather is said to have walked from the Black Sea to Manchester in the late nineteenth century, while my father’s family came from Latvia. Both sides settled in England, but they remained essentially European in style and outlook.
Sándor Márai was born in 1900 in Kassa, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father was a lawyer, his mother came from a family of military officers and bureaucrats. Márai first published poetry and quickly became an all-round man of letters – playwright, journalist, diarist, novelist and critic – as he moved erratically, displaced between Budapest, Berlin and Paris. After the Second World War he emigrated to the United States where, following the death of his beloved wife and adopted son, loneliness led him to commit suicide in 1989.
The background to Embers is romantic, and prescient – young countesses at society balls, elegantly accoutred guardsmen, carriages rumbling over cobbled streets, and the Emperor’s summer palace, Schönbrunn, sparkling at the centre of an ordered park. But the Austro-Hungarian Empire is in decline; culture has given way to civilization, and civilization is approaching chaos.
Embers is narrated by Henrik, a retired general waiting in his castle in the Carp
The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.Subscribe now or Sign in