Sandor Marai was a Hungarian novelist born in 1900 in Kassa, a small town which now belongs to Czech-Republic. He spent years in exile in Germany and France in the 1920’s until he immigrated to the United States, and the subsequent ban of his work in Hungary caused his novels to be forgotten for many years. Now he is considered one of the most important writers of central Europe after his work was resuscitated from the rubble of communism. He committed suicide in 1989 in San Diego, California.
The Last Encounter is a novel centered around the life-long relationship between Henrik, a Hungarian general and aristocrat, and Konrad, whose humble origins, as well as his instinctive inclination towards music, are the cause of an ever-present rift in their intense friendship as young imperial guards-in-training, during a time of splendour and elegance in Vienna. The story unravels with the secret affair between Konrad and Henrik’s wife, Krisztina, and Konrad’s subsequent disappearance to the East, but although it is an important component and catalyst in the novel, the affair takes backseat to the book’s focus on the meaning of friendship in the life of a man and how his view of it develops after an entire lifetime of thought and solitude. After 40 years of separation and of slow decadence, the two friends have their last encounter in the old castle-mansion of Hungary, where Henrik spends his life waiting for answers to the questions that undergo decades in the making.
The novel is brooding, contemplative, nostalgiac, and full of passionate description, at times overly ornate, but other times truly striking; particularly, passages which refer to the nature of memory and to the old Hungarian mansion, whose function as a temple of aging recollections is especially important for the mood of the novel:
One spends his entire life preparing for something. At first one becomes angry. Next, one wants revenge. And then one waits. He had spent a long time waiting. Now he couldn’t even remember the moment in which the anger and the desire for revenge had given way to waiting. Time preserves everything, but everything fades, like old photographs fixed in their metal plaques. The light and the passage of time wear away the precise details which characterize the faces. One must observe the image from different angles and find the appropriate light in order to recognize the face of the person whose features have become fixed within the blind mirror of the frame. In the same way, all human memories vanish in time….
The mansion understood everything, like a great tomb of carved stone where the remains of several generations crumble and the gray silk and black wool garments of the women and men of days gone by unravel. It understood also silence, as if it were a fervent and faithful prisoner who dies slowly in the corner of his cell, growing a long beard over his rags, laying on a pile of rotting straw. It also understood memories, the memory of the dead which remained hidden in the nooks of the rooms, memories which grow like fungus, like mold, which multiply like bats, like rats or insects in the humid basements of ancient houses. On the doorknobs were felt the tremble of hands of time past, the glow of past moments, full of doubt, when such hands didn’t dare to open the door. All houses inhabited by people touched by such passion are full of these imprecise things. (translation from Spanish courtesy of yours truly)
I love that the dusty remains of the mansion can suggest such “imprecise” yet tensely defining moments of hesitancy, which linger like ghostly reminders of regret, or of eternal uncertainty. And that is exactly what the novel tries to depict in the Hungarian general’s character — a doubt so prolonged that it has been calcified as an answer resounding from his lonely, old spirit; questions which have eaten away at him for years about the relationship between Konrad and Krisztina, and above all, about a certain moment on a hunting excursion when Henrik feels the imperceptible yet sure presence of Konrad’s rifle upon him, meters behind.
So many years have passed that the feelings from youth — anger, hurt, revenge — have also been crystallized, into an intellectual analysis of what friendship may mean after a betrayal, between two people who used to be so close. The prose is intense, stretching tautly from line to line; nothing really happens in the novel except for an encounter between two elderly men who revisit their past, but the lines are brimming with controlled intensity, like the progress of a ticking bomb.
With rich, seamless, and stirring prose, this novel kept me turning page after page, not because of a fast-paced plot, but because of its engaging dialogue, a meaningful conversation which revives the ghosts of the past, above all the ghosts of themselves and of their friendship which, like the “blind mirror” in a picture frame, disappeared over the years.