Sandor Marai, born in the Austrian-Hungarian empire in 1900, was a major novelist in his own region, but until 'Embers' became popular in the English speaking world, he was hardly known in the West. Several of his novels, novellas and a book of poems are now available in English, translated by the noted poet George Szirtes. 'The Rebels' is one of them. He is now being 'rediscovered' as a major middle-European writer of the twentieth century (he died in California, where he fled the Communists in Hungary, in 1989).
The four school friends in this novel were born at the same time, in the same place, as Marai; perhaps there is a certain autobiographical element to it. They are all eighteen, just graduating from high school, waiting to go to the front, restless, bored, alienated, ready to rebel - but not too much, and never publicly - not sure how to spend their summer. They are the original 'inbetweeners', half boy, half adult. We meet Abel first, the doctor's son, perhaps the most sympathetic of the four. He is secretly in love with Tibor, the most popular, handsome and sports-orientated of the gang. They are joined by Bela, a colourful character, somewhat effeminate - he is the least developed character of the four and we hardly get to know him at all. And then there's the odd one out, Erno, the cobbler's son, whom the others pity because of his working-class poverty: they extend the hand of friendship to him, little realising what resentment against them is building up inside him. They are joined by Tibor's older brother, who has returned from the Front minus one arm; he is often rather callously called 'the one-armed man'; and also by a middle-aged, rather dubious, camp actor who is appearing at the local theatre and whose interest in the boys is not at all clear beyond his constant need for an audience.
Apart from the cobbler, the boys' fathers are away doing war work, and this creates a kind of moral vacuum. The boys steal money and items of value from their homes, storing them in their secret hideaway, an act of childish rebellion against their parents' bourgeois values. One theft becomes crucial: a collection of silver belonging to Tibor's parents. Their attempt to retrieve this from the porn broker, who is a kind of brooding, Dickensian presence in the background, leads to the dramatic conclusion of the story, which involves revenge, class warfare, betrayal, blackmail and suicide. Money and class is at the heart of this novel.
French writers of the time, writing about this age group - Gide, Cocteau, Alain-Fournier, Roger Peyreffite - would concentrate on character, on their intense relationships, on scholastic achievement, on romance and sex, especially of the homoerotic kind. Marai's emphasis is different. He is less interested in the boys' intimate relationships with each other, or their psychology, or sex (all the boys confess to being virgins), he is more interested in the cultural and historical forces that shape their characters, in the forms of rebellion open to boys of the bourgeoisie. He is interested in how the prospect of war destabilizes this up-and-coming generation (they are unaware that the war is soon to end). He explores how poisonous class envy can be.
Nevertheless, there is a thread of homoeroticism running through the novel. The actor, for instance, conducts a curious orgy on the stage of the empty theatre during which Tibor impersonates a female, the climax of which is a theatrical kiss between the actor and the boy. (Was the actor's interest in the boys a gay one? We are left to make up our own mind on that one). And twice Abel confesses his love to Tibor, who does not return his friend's feeling. But, unlike his French counterparts, Marai does not seem interested in this aspect of the boys' experience.
It is a coming-of-age story, but not a psychological novel, nor a gay romance, nor a historical thriller. Not a great deal happens until the last few pages, and though the prose - and the translation - is of a high standard, the story did not grip me. I don't think we were adequately prepared for that bloody denouement, either, it had the feel of a rabbit being pulled from a hat. But definitely worth reading.
See also my review of Marai's 'Portraits of a Marriage'.