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Maryka Biaggio Headshot

On Writing, Self-Reproach, and Modernity

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I have just read a novel so finely rendered, so raw in its honesty, and so moving and singular, that it forces self-reproach upon me. How is it that I never before heard of it? Could it be because the author, Sándor Márai, was Hungarian? Or because, though published in 1942, it was not translated into English until 2001?

I only stumbled upon this work because my mother, ever the bargain hunter, found it in the stack of books being put out to pasture at her public library. But Márai's novel Embers is so touching that it should be widely known, and I, who pride myself on being familiar with such obscure gems as Zeno's Conscience and Wide Sargasso Sea, am puzzled and shaken by my failure to have previously unearthed it.

Still, I wonder: Why did it not, even after its translation, meet with more notice? Is it because we Americans seldom search out or pay homage to writers beyond our own boundaries? Then I am ashamed for us. For Márai, who lived from 1900 to 1989, not only straddled many countries and cultures (including the U.S.) but also witnessed important transitions -- from the dying of the Austro-Hungarian empire to the rise and fall of fascism to the birth of the modern democratic world.

Could it be that Embers -- a profound meditation on friendship, honor, and the art of patience and conversation -- is too old-fashioned in its subject to stir contemporary readers? Do we require a story that begins with a bang and holds us by the throat with flying bullets or careening cars? Then we modern readers have lost something, for the relentless unwinding of Márai's tale -- over a conversation between old friends, no less -- is as suspenseful and inexorable as any of Edgar Allan Poe's tales.

Or does our quest for the next new "high concept" keep us from casting our gaze back to books that may, by their very reflection on times gone by, provide us with fresh lessons? Are we so caught up in the modern world, with all its hubbub, buzz, and gadgetry, that we eschew the books that reward us only if we pause to contemplate their fervent sincerity?

I can only cast off my own self-reproach over having missed this book by urging it upon others. If you wish to explore the deep meaning of friendship, if you dare to reflect on what it means to truly encounter another person, I challenge you to search out and read Sándor Márai's Embers. And I promise: If you give yourself over to the world it creates, you will find the sodden everydayness of life scratched away; you will be renewed by a deep appreciation for writing from the heart and wonderment at the rawness of human emotion laid bare.