By Sandor Marai
Translated by Carol Brown Janeway from a German translation of the original Hungarian
New York: Vintage Books, 2002 from the 1942
213 pages
ISBN # 0-375-70742-5.

Comments by Bob Corbett
July 2004

Sandor Marai presents a gripping story of suspense with an ominous gloom hanging over all; the axe ready to fall. Henrik, a 75 year-old retired general from the Austrio-Hungarian army, is the narrator and Marai’s tale is more about his inner life than the events of “the accident” itself. The narration is from 1940 at the general’s manor home in Hungary, but the action of the story occurred 41 years prior in 1899, but took place here at the manor. I found it fascinating that a novel could be situated in Hungary in 1940 and the current war was never mentioned.

The novel, while being a dark tale, it is really more about the consciousness and life views of the general, a man whom I disliked a great deal. That’s not to criticize author Marai; for I suspect he doesn’t like this character any more than I do, but it is to attest that the focus of the novel is more on the narrator than the narrated tale, intense as that external tale is itself.

I don’t plan to tell much of the main story line itself. The curiosity as to what this is all about is what drives much of the plot, and the reader shouldn’t know much at all before approaching the novel. The setting itself doesn’t give away too much. These 41 years since July 2, 1899, Henrik has lived much as a hermit on his huge estate awaiting this day he know would come – his closest friend in life, Konrad, is returning. The “accident” of 41 years ago involved Konrad and Henrik, and has driven Henrik into his hermitic life, yet Henrik always knew that Konrad would return, now things would be settled and solved.

We do learn that the general regards his guest to be a different sort of person than he. There are, on Konrad’s view, two sorts of persons, and that difference is rooted in one’s view and response to music. It is also a given fact of life, seemingly not learned or developed, but given full blown in one very nature.

(Note for the quotes below that Henrik often calls himself “the son of the Officer of the Guards,” never using his father’s name.)

The son of the Officer of the Guards handed the coachman a coin, paused in the silent street in front of the old door, took off his gloves, reached for the key, and had a faint sense that once again this evening he had betrayed his friend. He came from the world where soft music lilted through dining rooms and ballrooms and salons, but not the way his friend liked it. It was played to make life sweeter and more festive, to make women's eyes flash and men's vanity throw sparks; that was its raison d'etre throughout the city, wherever the son of the Officer of the Guards whiled away the nights of his youth. Konrad's music, on the other hand, didn't offer forgetfulness; it aroused people to feelings of passion and guilt, and demanded that people be truer to themselves in heart and mind. Such music is upsetting, the son of the Officer of the Guards thought to himself, and began rebelliously to whistle a waltz.

Konrad is “other.” Henrik takes his own way of life to be closer to “the natural” and he practices the “male virtues”: silence, solitude, inviolability of one’s own word, and the pursuit of women. Konrad, on the other hand is passionate, involved in the world, but not bound to convention. Henrik simply can’t understand such a world.

My own relationship to the characters is such that I have a love/hate relationship to the novel itself. It is brilliantly told from “within” the character of Henrik.. My own life bears more resemblance to Konrad and his relationship to music is much like my own relationship to ideas, a passionate driving and organizing force of all else, that which gives life its raison d’etre. Henrik is more comfortable settling into values and meanings as he found them in Hapsburg Austria. Marai catches that spirit in a passage when the two young men, both officers in training, are at their apartment in Vienna in 1899.

The two of them, young officers in Vienna. The son of the Officer of the Guards climbed the rotted stairs, whistling his waltz half under his breath. Everything in this house smelled a little musty, the stairs, the rooms, and yet it was somehow a pleasant smell, as if the interior retained a lingering odor of fruit preserves. That winter, carnival season broke out like a happy epidemic. Every evening in the white-and-gold salons there was dancing under the flickering tongues of flame in the gaslit chandeliers. Snow kept falling, and coachmen drove pairs of lovers silently through the white air. All Vienna danced in the snowflakes and every morning the son of the Officer of the Guards went to the old indoor riding ring to watch the Spanish riders and their Lippizaners going through their paces. Riders and horses shared a nobility and distinction, an almost guilty ease and rhythm inborn in soul and body. Then, because he was young, he went walking. As he sauntered past the shops in the center of the city in the company of other strollers, he would occasionally be greeted by a waiter or the driver of a hansom cab because he looked so like his father. Vienna and the monarchy made up one enormous family of Hungarians, Germans, Moravians, Czechs, Serbs, Croats, and Italians, all of whom secretly understood that the only person who could keep order among this fantastical welter of longings, impulses, and emotions was the Emperor, in his capacity of Sergeant Major and Imperial Majesty, government clerk in sleeve protectors and Grand Seigneur, unmannerly clod and absolute ruler. Vienna was in high, good mood. The stuffy high-vaulted taverns in the old city served the best beer in the world, and as the bells chimed midday the streets filled with the rich smells of goulash, spreading friendliness and goodwill as if there were eternal peace on earth. Women carried fur muffs and wore hats with feathers, and veils that they pulled down over their faces against the snow, leaving a glimpse of nose and flashing eyes. At four in the afternoon the gaslights were lit in the cafes and coffee with whipped cream was served to the generals and officials at their regular tables while, outside, blushing women shrank into the corners of hired carriages as they raced toward bachelor apartments where the log fires were already lit, for it was carnival and there was an uprising of love throughout the city, as if the agents of some giant conspiracy were goading and inflaming hearts across all levels of society.

Everything is in its place, familiar, clear, unchanging. Just what Henrik needs and loves so much about his world.

The accident ended all of that and Henrik retired from a world he neither understood nor could bear. He dreamt of this day and he planned his revenge. However, it was not understanding which ate at him more than the revenge, and by the time Konrad returns Henrik is more interested in knowing; knowing what really happened. Reality for him is in memory, the creation not of facts, but of meanings, fitting things together in their place. It is in meaningfulness that things get their importance and value, not in the mere facts of events. Henrik needs to question Konrad and has no doubt he, too, will recognize his obligation in honor to satisfy this need of Henrik.

Henrik is obsessed by this radical division of people into two classes: those like himself who are rooted in reality as it is given in their surroundings, and those like Konrad who are driven by some other worldliness, especially music, emotion and individuality.

“That is why we were lonely even when we were with you. But because music spoke to both you and Krisztina, you could continue to communicate with each other even after all conversation between her and me had been silenced. I hate music." His voice rises, and for the first time this evening he speaks with a hoarse intensity. "I hate this incomprehensible, melodious language which select people can understand and use to say uninhibited, irregular things that are also probably indecent and immoral. Watch their faces and see how strangely they change when they're listening to music. You and Krisztina never sought out music -- I do not remember you ever playing four-handed together, you never sat down at the piano in front of Krisztina, at least not in my presence. Evidently her sense of tact and shame restrained her from listening to music with you while I was there. And because music's power is inexpressible, it seems t carry a larger danger in that it has the power to arose the deepest emotions in people who come together to listen to it and discover that it is their fate to belong to each other. Do you not agree?" "Yes, I do," says the guest.

Reading this book was a strange experience for me. I was utterly captivated by Sandor Marai’s writing, but despised the narrator and central character, the general Henrik. I found myself disliking nearly everything about him. But I couldn’t stop turning the pages. I think it is a great testimony to Marai’s ability to draw a reader into his world and I was reminded at times by the dark, even threatening, style of Joseph Konrad, and some of the darkness of a Franz Kafka, but not of the purposeful unclarity. General Henrik knows what he is after and what his world is about with an arrogant certainty.

I did feel a kinship with the thesis that Fydor Dostoyevsky reveals in the passage The Grand Inquisitor in his novel THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV. Dostoyevsky and the general are on opposite sides of the dichotomy. The general divides the world by one’s response to music and deplores those, who like Konrad, respond, as do the few, with passion and abandon. Dostoyevsky divides the world into the few, with whom he sides, who take responsibility for themselves and embrace freedom, and he condemns the rest, the masses, who weakly and meekly allow others to usurp their freedom in exchange for comfort and ease in living and meaningfulness. Both authors separate the world neatly into to two groups, lumping people without much regard for any larger division by degree. I tend to want to embrace the freedom seekers of Dostoyevsky and deplore the traditionalism of the general.

What makes this novel so compelling is not the philosophical or psychological insights, those I found rather trivial. It is the alluring suspense of plot development, and the brilliance of Sandor Marai’s telling of the story. He has a wonderful control of prose, creating images that bring the world to life in strange and insightful ways.

I was captivated by Marai’s writing style in all manners, and even when he wasn’t necessarily driving the main plot and themes forward, passage here and there read like magnificent poetry and I would stop, read them again, look off into space, smile, sit quietly, read them again, and finally move on. I close with one such passage, though it was difficult for me to chose just one from my notes, there were so many. This one, however, for some reason just warmed and pleased me more than others. While Sandor Marai uses his reflections on the coming of morning to nature to reflect on the similar process to humans, I was just riveted to his account of the coming of morning to the woods themselves.

“It was still dark," he says, when the other man makes no reply, puts up no defense, gives no sign with a movement of the eye or hand that he has heard the accusation. "It was the moment that separates night from day, the underworld from the world above. And perhaps other things separate themselves out, too. It is the last second, when the depths and heights, the dark and the light, of the world and of men still brush against each other, when sleepers waken with a start from troubling dreams, when the sick begin to groan because they sense that the nightly hell is nearing its end and now the more distinct pain will begin again. Light and the natural ordering that accompanies the day will separate and tease out the layers of desire, the secret longings, the twitches of excitement that had been tangled in the darkness of the night. Both huntsmen and their game love this moment. It is no longer dark, it is not yet light. The forest smells so raw and wild, as if every living thing-plants, animals, people were slowly coming back to consciousness in the dormitory of the world, exhaling all their secrets and bad thoughts.

"The wind stirs, too, at this moment, gently, carefully, like the sigh of a sleeping man as he senses the return of the earthly reality into which he was born. The scent of wet leaves, of ferns, of crumbling tree trunks, of rotting pine cones, of the soft carpet of fallen leaves and pine needles slippery from the dew, rises up from the earth to assault you like the smell of two lovers locked in sweat-soaked embrace. A magical moment, which our heathen ancestors used to celebrate deep in the forest, worshipfully, arms outstretched, facing East: earthbound man in the eternally recurring, spellbound expectation of light, insight, reason. This is the time when the game begins to move, heading for water. Night has still not quite ended, things are still happening in the forest, the nocturnal animals are still hunting, still ready, the wildcat is still on the watch, the bear is tearing the last scraps of flesh off his prey, the rutting stag still recalls the fury of the moonlit night and stands in the clearing where the sexual battle took place, raises his wounded head proudly, and surveys the scene with grave, bloodshot eyes, as if to fix the passion of that duel in his memory forever. In the heart of the forest night lives on, as does everything associated with it: prey, animal passion, the freedom to roam, pure love of life and the struggle for survival. It's the moment when something happens not just deep among the trees but also in the dark interior of the human heart, for the heart, too, has its night and its wild surges, as strong an instinct for the hunt as a wolf or a stag. The human night is filled with the crouching forms of dreams, desires, vanities, self-interest, mad love, envy, and the thirst for revenge, as the desert night conceals the puma, the hawk and the jackal. It is the moment when it is neither night nor day in man's heart, because the wild beasts have slunk out of the hidden corners of our souls, and something rouses itself, transmits itself from mind to hand, something we thought we had tamed and trained to obedience over the course of years, decades even. In vain, we have lied to ourselves about the significance of this feeling, but it has proved stronger than all our intentions, indissolvable, unrelenting. Every human relationship has a tangible core, and we can think about it, analyze it all we want, it is unchangeable.”
Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu