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The Rebels

The Rebels

4.3 3
by Sandor Marai

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An early novel from the great rediscovered Hungarian writer Sándor Márai, The Rebels is a haunting story of a group of alienated boys on the cusp of adult life—and possibly death—during World War I.

It is the summer of 1918, and four boys approaching graduation are living in a ghost town bereft of fathers, uncles, and older brothers


An early novel from the great rediscovered Hungarian writer Sándor Márai, The Rebels is a haunting story of a group of alienated boys on the cusp of adult life—and possibly death—during World War I.

It is the summer of 1918, and four boys approaching graduation are living in a ghost town bereft of fathers, uncles, and older brothers, who are off fighting at the front. The boys know they will very soon be sent to join their elders, and in their final weeks of freedom they begin acting out their frustrations and fears in a series of 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, and one that reveals them to be strangers to one another. Resisting and defying adulthood, they find themselves still subject to its baffling power even in their attempted rebellion.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Tibor Fischer
The distinguished poet George Szirtes has translated Marai gracefully. Marai’s style, especially in his later works, is extremely clear and spare (there’s an almost Balzacian inventory of Abel’s household here, something you won’t find again). But the clarity is deceptive. You read a sentence and then 10 minutes later you find yourself thinking, What did he really mean by that? You’ll be wondering about The Rebels a long time after you’ve put it down.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

First published in 1930, this lugubrious novel is the third by Hungarian novelist Márai (1900–1989) to be translated into English in the last decade. Four class of 1918 students expect to be in uniform and at the front by the end of the summer. Over the course of their last year of school, they have played an elaborate game of thievery, stealing petty cash and useless items—mostly from their own families—and storing the purloined objects in rooms rented from a local inn, to which they repair after lunch to "continue playing at childhood." By the end of the school year, however, the game has escalated beyond their control; Tibor Prockauer, the most aristocratic of the group, has pawned the family silver, and the gang (including grocer's son Béla, doctor's son Ábel and poor cobbler's son Ernõ) has no means to recover it. The war as a malevolent backdrop to the students' desperate game makes their plight vivid, but the characters themselves are less so. By the time Márai's moody, uneven narration gives way to the students' long-winded confessions, the novel's seams are clearly visible. (Mar.)

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Library Journal

The rebels here are Hungarian youths in the waning days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire living in a backwater while waiting to be called to the front and a likely death. They form a tight group to sneer at life's absurdities and eventually become involved with an older actor and a sinister pawn broker, with whom the two brothers of the group pawn the family silver for what they hope is the short term. Márai (1900-89) is a noted Hungarian author of the last century whose works are being brought out in English by Knopf. His Embersenjoyed critical acclaim, but Rebelsdoes not live up to that promise. The author's ruminations and digressions bog down the narrative, and our rebels are viewed at such close range that they are not well differentiated till late in the book. Even World War I remains distant and hardly seems the threat it's supposed to be. Readers who enjoy a central European setting would do better with Zsuzsa Bank's The Swimmers. Recommended for larger literary collections.
—Edward Cone

Kirkus Reviews
A newly translated 1930 novel by Hungarian author Marai, set among a group of young men during WWI, joins two other works by the author to enjoy recent play in the publishing sun: Embers (2001) and Casanova in Bolzano (2004). This novel is set in 1918 in a small, provincial Hungarian town, where a group of schoolboys known to each other from youth have created a gang that empowers them in the face of a larger impending crisis of war and uncertainty. They have just taken their final exams and must decide what to do with their lives: Abel, the doctor's son, is orphaned, living under the care of his aunt, and, while dissolute, acts as the conscience among the others; Bela is the scruples-less grocer's son; Tibor and Lajos Prockauer are brothers of a prominent colonel off at war, the latter boy having lost an arm in battle; and Erno is the cobbler's son whose friendship with the others allows him entree into a more genteel society. It is largely through Lajos that the gang makes the acquaintance of an obese itinerant actor overstaying his welcome in town, Amade Volpay, whose flashy, insinuating ways draw in the young boys. The gang falls into petty thievery and even cheating among themselves, and they begin to resent all forms of authority: "They felt that the system that worked against them and dragged them back acted as perniciously in insignificant matters as in great affairs of state." Tibor sells his sick mother's priceless monogrammed silver to the shady pawnbroker Havas for quick money, which will eventually allow the grotesque Havas to blackmail them when he learns about their dissipated nights drinking and dancing with the actor. Marai weaves in elements of latent homosexuality amidthe tangled relationships of the men and frequent chest-beating speeches about the crumbling of class and society that all point to the overall "cleansing" wrought by the war. A compelling novel that nonetheless carries the ponderous weight of the era's events and ideas.
From the Publisher
“A darkly comic, war-ravaged coming-of-age tale that displays much of the genius visible in his later works, but [is] also funnier and more extravagantly imaginative.” —The New Yorker

“The emotional power of the story is that of a simple, straightforward narrative . . . followed by stunning revelation.” —The Boston Globe

“A morbidly comic novel . . . marked by passages of bleak elegiac grandeur.” —The New York Sun

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

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.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Sandor Marai 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.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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