Just occasionally, a book is published that transports the reader through time and space to another world. The world in question here is that of Habsburg Mitteleuropa: a place of duels and balls, opera and cafés. It is a rickety, multinational empire of ten languages, and at least twice as many minorities, all ruled over by one emperor, with an arcanely complicated infrastructure of rank and privilege.
Sándor Márai, who was born in 1900 in the Hungarian city of Kassa (now Kosice, in Slovakia), brilliantly recreates the atmosphere of the declining Habsburg Empire, in prose as clear and smooth as the Danube on a summer’s day: the clatter of carriages across cobbled streets, the glint of candlelight on bemedalled uniforms, the flashing eyes of the young countesses at a society ball. Into this sparkling world are born Konrad and Henrik. Both grow up to be citizens of Austria–Hungary and loyal subjects of the Emperor, who meet while attending military academy in Vienna. They become close friends.