This is the title of a book by Sandor Marai which I have just finished reading. It was originally published in Hungary in 1942 and now in an English version translated by Carol Brown Janeway, first published in this country in 2002. It is one of several books by the author which are being republished. He survived the 1939-45 war but after being persecuted by the communists, escaped to Italy and then to the U.S.A.
I have never read anything quite like it. The novel has practically no plot or story line. Basically it is about the friendship of two men who loved the same woman. Much of it consists almost entirely of the reflections of ‘the General’, the older of the two, as he meets his friend again after an interval of forty one years. During that time there has been no communication between them. They have this one-sided conversation long into the night until dawn breaks, when at least for the older man, some sort of resolution has been made, but the friendship is not restored.
It’s a very powerful, atmospheric book, but marked for me by a pervasive pessimism that I found disturbing, especially when the main character reflects on the subject of these postings.
“We age slowly. First, our pleasure in life and other people declines, everything gradually becomes so real, we understand the significance of everything, everything repeats itself in a kind of troubling boredom. Its’ the function of age….Then our bodies age: not all at once. First, it is the eyes, or the legs, or the heart. We age by instalments. And then suddenly our spirits begin to age: the body may have grown old, but our souls still yearn and remember and search and celebrate and long for joy. And when the longing for joy disappears, all that are left are memories or vanity, and then finally, we are truly old…..Nothing surprising can ever happen again….
there’s nothing we want anymore, either good or bad. That is old age.”
I can see some reality in this description of ageing, but it was the reference to everything repeating itself ‘in a kind of troubling boredom’ that pulled me up in my tracks. I do hope that isn’t true of me. The trouble is that I recognise the possibility of it being so. It has a resonance that is near to how it could be. As I age the agenda of each day is no longer prescribed by work and responsibilities and the challenge – which mostly I accept – is to fill the day, rather than drift through it.
An ember is what remains when the fire dies down. But it still burns. The longing for joy that Marai refers to is for me more than mere longing. It happens. Even more the experience that remains. which he doesn’t mention, is love and loving.
The motor and purpose of life however old we get.