Embers by Sandor Marai

The general has been waiting for the return of his childhood friend Konrad for 41 years.  41 years ago their lifelong friendship came to an abrupt end, and Konrad left the country without a word of goodbye.  For 41 years The General has lived like a hermit, alone in his ancestral castle, receiving only a handful of visitors, servants and employees, business partners.

As the novel opens The General learns that his old friend has at last returned and will be arriving that evening for one final dinner.

When they were in school,  the two men had a rare friendship:

All societies recognize these relationships instinctively and envy them; men yearn for disinterested friendship and usually they yearn in vain.  The boys in the academy took refuge in family pride or in their studies, in precocious debauchery or physical prowess, in the confusions of premature and painful infatuations.  In this emotional turbulence the friendship between Konrad and Henrik had the glow of a quiet and ceremonial oath of loyalty in the Middle Ages.

How this friendship came to be and what forced the two men to part ways are the subject of Embers.  As The General prepares for his guest, the narrator tells the story of a friendship between a boy born into privilege and a boy whose parents sold everything they had just to keep him in school.  After Konrad arrives, the two sit down for dinner and we learn the rest of their story through their conversation. The General has been waiting 41 years for his chance to question Konrad about the events of their final day together.  He will not let the evening pass without hearing the truth at last.

Embers is a quiet novel, but a novel full of tension.  We don’t learn until late in the story why the two men’s friendship ended so abruptly, and it’s the desire to know this that gives the book it’s forward momentum.  But it’s a problematic device, because it is a device.  The dinner the two men share is a long one, made longer by the chapter length speech The General insists on giving Konrad.  The two have waited too long to reconcile, so long that when the time for revelation finally comes around, neither is all that interested.

Unfortunately, the same will be true for many readers.


This review first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2010.  It’s certainly a mixed review.