I can no longer recall how I stumbled upon Sándor Márai’s exquisite short novel Embers, which is set on a single day when the 75-year-old General is visited at his woodland castle by his nemesis, his childhood friend Konrad, whom he has not seen in 41 years. Like the first prelude in Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier or Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid,” it possesses that rare concert of content and form that makes a work feel bottomless and eternal. I’ve read it now half a dozen times.
Strangely, though, I never consciously thought about Embers during the writing of my own novel Tinderbox, so going back to it now, I am surprised by the depth of its influence on me thematically and structurally. An important element in Embers is the love between a nursemaid, Nini, now 91, who came to the castle at 16 to suckle the infant General, and the General, whom Nini has tended ever since: “They were neither brother and sister nor lovers. But there are other ties, numinous ones, and of these they were aware. There is a kind of consanguinity both closer and more powerful than that of twins in a mother’s womb. Life had melded their days and their nights, each knew the other’s body just as each knew the other’s dreams.” In my novel, a troubled young housekeeper comes to work for a troubled New York family, also with numinous ties, though of a darker cast than those between Nini and the General.
Márai emboldened me to trust that a novel can have a tight frame—in Embers, a day—while telling the story of an entire life and era. Embedded in its first half are the tales of the meeting of the General’s parents at a ball in Paris and of the General’s childhood and youth, most of which is spent with Konrad. There is no sense of a dichotomy between front story and back story, of plot line and flashback. I’ve only read the novel in its translation by Carol Brown Janeway, so it is possible that there are differences in the Hungarian original, but in the book as I know it, Márai eschews the use of the past perfect, that signal of the flashback. Instead, using a simple past tense, he leisurely tells the story of the unhappy marriage of the General’s parents: his father, the Hungarian Officer of the Guards; his mother, a French countess who weeps to her new husband, “Darling, I feel dizzy. There is no end to all of this,” while they traverse the mountains and desiccated plains and barren hamlets to reach the father’s castle where he hunts every day of the year “as if he were set on killing someone.”
When Konrad arrives at the castle after his long absence, the narrative proceeds in simple past tense. The men converse about Konrad’s years in the tropics, which he says changes a man so that “inside everything looks different.” “Tell me what’s inside,” the General asks. With this query, the narrative shifts into the present tense, where it remains for the rest of the novel as though only now, when the General invites Konrad to speak his heart and then proceeds to do so himself, can he exit the mausoleum in which he has lived since he and Konrad last saw one another.
Revisiting Embers with Tinderbox complete, I am struck that even my title owes a metaphoric debt to Márai’s. Embers tells the story of lives and an era as they turn to ash, but for this author it ignited a vision of what a novel can achieve.
Lisa Gornick is the author of A Private Sorcery and Tinderbox, which Sarah Crichton Books will publish in September 2013. She has a BS from Princeton, and a PhD in clinical psychology from Yale, and is a graduate of the writing program at New York University and the psychoanalytic training program at Columbia, where she is currently on the faculty.