It has been said that a man lives for as long he has something to live for, as if some deeper yearning fuels the engines of his fabric and binds the bones, muscle and sinew in a being of definite and concrete boundaries - an aspect of some primordial fire whose nature it is to burn its true and only flame before self-consuming its conflagration.
A man as such is Hénrik, center character and narrator, an hermit in his own castle-house deep in the forests of Hungary. He waits as a hunter waits his prey for the imminent return of Konrád, a friend whose departure has left him with forty-one years of reflection about the nature of his hasty farewell. But there is one question that has been left unanswered.
Sandór Marái’s “Embers” is an engrossing novel about the significance of human relationships in its many facets, the joys and bitter agonies of friendship and romantic love, portrayed in the dialogue between the two friends who recollect over sixty years of shared existence, even when living on the other side of the world. As Marái explores the relationship between the two characters, the more one understands the almost antagonistic nature of their personalities.
Hénrik is the wealthy son of the Officer of the Guard, the soldier, the man whose worldview permits only the orderly disposition of things, as each man and woman, every peasant, nobleman and king fall into their proper places in the hierarchy of the world, each of them a cog that spins the machine of sensuality and soft delights.
Konrád, on the other hand, is the product of the ambition of his poor parents whose senseless life has demanded that they craft of the young boy what they themselves could not achieve for them. Alas, Konrád is different, he lingers in the substance of music, the raw, serious tune which can instill the breadth of passion and sorrow.
But as much as Hénrik is the light of civilization and Konrád the darkness of the earth, the reader soon follows that none of them exists wholly without the other. Hénrik longs for the primal jungle, the scent of moist leaves as dawns breaks before the hunt - the kill is the ultimate ritual and the ultimate mark of manhood. Konrád envies the wealth of his friend, not because he truly desires riches but because it was its lack which tumbled his parents into enrolling Konrád into military school, at the high cost of Konrád’s free and unseasoned living, dedicated to the pursuit of his lyrical passions.
As the novel softly settles to a close, a new understanding dawns in Hénrik. As all the fury and anger erupted by the leaving of his friend lessened with the years and gave way only to acceptance and tranquility, a change also took him, an ineffable knowledge that when the wick is black, it is only passion in its tempestuous nature that can justify a life.
If modern theatre is considered an intellectual pastime not fit for the consumption of the casual viewer, then Tchékhov’s plays strike at the heart of drama’s subtetlies. And rightly so for the plays, filled with undersayings, carve a complex structure out of the amalgam of thoughts and feelings that litter the human psyche.
It would be unfair, though, to describe the pieces as an unintelligible rant. In fact, the plots and characters are robust and strongly developed and despite the apparent mayhem of an histrionic burgoise there is a very fine message that’s never openly uttered but which lingers in the air and, as if poetic mist, hazes the dramatic landscape before settling on the heart of the reader.
Perhaps what struck me the most is Tchékhov’s insistence on the otiosity inherent to the country life, described as a sort of malingering miasma which clouds the human drive and sucks even the steadfast into a state of idleness and bestiality, poles apart from the city life, the vanguard of knowledge, reason and achievement - curiously contrary to Tolstoy’s worldview and ascetic preferences, to whom Tchékhov was a contemporary.
Despite the regret-filled thoughts that the characters have or acquire throughout the plays, I feel there reads a text other than the prophecy for the dark doom of humanity: a beacon, hiding among the words, lighting the path and calling the reader to embrace the rational him, the only fit tool to cross the dark waters of sloth and reach the greatness to which he is bound.
O ye old blind master of tale thus long
Though in darkness sole left but not of light
Removed: what heavenly orient beam
Must lone hath shone upon the intellect
Of thine and spring divine inspiration.
O weaver of the story of man: in
A single narrative alone it stands
But encompassing all the theatre
Which is humanity: what is the fall
Of fair ancestral couple first if not
The fall of every human thence: all spite
And malice, Pandemonium’s domain,
Lay dormant not but endlessly renewed
As each day trial over trial’s heaped.
But meekness twined along obedience,
A foul conscription fated, shatters soon:
To yearn for more than what allotted is
To tempters ever inner found transgress
Is destiny and doom to man reserved,
If self-caused doom it be for who but God
Hath tilled lone action impious upon
His seed most pure and made of guilt first free?
Can thus be sin among the offspring found,
Amid the serpent’s bruisers, children all
To Eve, if she of Adam's rib was bred
And he in turn creation prime of God?
Is one fit perfect ergo capable sole
Of art imperfect? Proved thus false, decreed
The godhead then perdition void of flight.
Of tyrants chthonic is this fair land plagued
At length; what need exists of petulant
Unearthly lords? Be gone creator sad!
In mischief made, in mischief we thus fell.
But leave to us this all corrupted plane:
Though our poor beating hearts in darkness cast
With hope never brightest glimmer still
That holy edifice be built from ruin.
To free will bound, to freedom our not lost.
O father high who hath forsaken us
In our raw hour of need! So, tarry not
In cause thence solitary, made next strong:
Within ourselves long godhood we soon found.
On heaven earth and earth in heaven’s gone,
Left unregainable, but I tell thee
A paradise as such is better lost.
(Thank you for reading that! Actual [practical] review: beautifully crafted verse, Milton's a true master when it comes to developing eternal characters. If you're even remotely interested in epic poetry please be kind to yourself and read this.)