Embers . . . Casanova in Bolzano . . . and now The Rebels: the third of the rediscovered novels of the great Hungarian writer—the jolting story of a troubled group of young men on the cusp of life, and death, in World War I.
It is the summer of 1918. As graduation approaches at a boys’ academy in provincial Hungary, the senior class finds itself in a ghost town. Fathers, uncles, older brothers—all have been called to the front. Surrounded only by old men, mothers, aunts, and sisters, the boys are keenly aware that graduation will propel them into the army and imminently toward likely death on the battlefield. In the final weeks of the academic year, four of these young men—and the war-wounded older brother of one of them—are drawn tightly together, sensing in one another a mutual alienation from their bleak, death-mapped future. Soon they are acting out their frustrations and fears in a series of increasingly serious, strange, and subversive games and petty thefts. But when they attract the attention of a stranger in town—an actor with a traveling theater company—their games, and their lives, begin to move in a direction they could not have predicted and cannot control.
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Sándor Márai was born in Kassa, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1900, and died in San Diego, California, in 1989. He rose to fame as one of the leading literary novelists in Hungary in the 1930s. Profoundly antifascist, he survived World War II, but persecution by the Communists drove him from the country in 1948. He went into exile, first in Italy, then in the United States.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The actor had arrived in town with the company in the early autumn, saying he had had a contract in the capital first, but the theater had closed. He was forty-five years old but claimed to be thirty-five. Not even the gang believed this though they eagerly swallowed everything else he told them. He tended to play comic, dancing roles but referred to himself as a ballet instructor. The contract laid down that the company was obliged to supply divas and leading men each season for a few highlights from popular operettas. It was the comedian dancer’s task to teach them the appropriate elements of ballet.
He had put on weight, developing a proper paunch and jowls, a rare thing in the world of comedians and dancers. The audience liked him because he included a lot of current gossip in his act. He wore a wig of light chestnut color. His head was large and equine. His jaw was thrust forward and he was so near-sighted that he couldn’t see the prompter’s box, but he refused to wear glasses out of vanity, not even in real life, as he put it.
His stage name was Amadé: Amadé Volpay was how they billed him. He spoke with his mouth full as if chewing on a dumpling. He wore generously fitting, light suits that skillfully disguised his fatness as did his corset that was laced so tightly when he was on stage that his face was practically red, so that he didn’t look half as fat as he did in life. It was as if his girth were no more than some kind of misapprehension that existed between him and the world at large, and he never ceased talking about it. He spoke eloquently and at length to both intimates and strangers in the effort to persuade them that he was not fat. He produced precise measurements and medical tables showing average proportions to prove he was as slender as a flamingo and that his figure was in all respects the manly ideal, his belly swelling as he did so because, in his passion, he forgot to hold it in.
Bearing this in mind he would walk down the street like a ballet dancer, practically mincing. He propelled his substantial body along on points, with delicate, genuinely airy steps, as if it weighed nothing, as if he feared being blown away by the next gust of wind. He always shaved his jowls to the same dazzling pale blue sheen. He would then apply powders and creams to them, and arrange them carefully in the space allowed by his folded-over collar as if they were a discrete and separate part of his body. Occasionally he would touch them tenderly with his short, pudgy, remarkably pale fingers to check that nothing was awry, that everything was where it ought to be.
The actor spent all day on the street, on the most frequented stretch of the high street, between the church and the café, from which he could keep an eye on the side entrance to the theater. You could see him there at all hours, patrolling up and down, usually holding forth and surrounded by a gaggle of people. It was only after supper that he retreated to the middle picture window of the café where anyone passing was obliged to acknowledge his presence and from which position he, in his turn, could keep track of everyone. He didn’t play cards. He didn’t drink. He appeared to avoid his fellow actors. His clothes carried the sweet but choking smell of cinnamon. It was this smell that emanated from him to the outside so that anyone passing him would know that Amadé Volpay was around.
He wore two rings on his fleshy fingers, one signet ring with a red stone and a wedding ring. He never denied that he was Jewish and unmarried. The rings were only for show.
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