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Customer Review

on 19 February 2013
'Embers' is the translation into English (apparently from the German) of Sándor Márai's 1942 novel 'A gyertyák csonkig égnek' - literally, 'The Candles Burn Down to Their Stumps'. The book took fifty years to come to the attention of readers outside Hungary, and has been very well received.

It is probably best read as a study in incompatible temperaments, and as a meditation on those aspects of life that so often come as a terrible shock: the fact that some breakages cannot be repaired, and that the degree to which one human being can truly understand another is limited. Márai's protagonist is an elderly officer, Henrik, who has lived through the First World War and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire whose service gave his life meaning. As a child and a young man he was sustained by a deep male friendship that ended in disastrous circumstances. As the book opens, the world is plunging into the darkness of the Second World War, and Henrik is hoping for a final encounter that will explain his life to him.

Inevitably, Márai has been compared with Joseph Roth, author of 'The Radetzky March' and another writer of the period seemingly nostalgic for a vanished Empire and the certainties of duty. In fact, they are significantly different, and Márai is no more purely nostalgic than Roth, though Henrik's sense of loss is palpable. 'Embers' is a little old-fashioned in its preoccupations, and may have seemed so even at the time of publication: but it is a serious and effectively constructed novel that builds towards successive peaks of bitter self-knowledge. Its success in translation means that it hardly stands in need of another recommendation; but perhaps it should be said that this is not one of those flashy successes manufactured by publicists, but genuinely deserved.
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