"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

December 6, 2014

Three Great Nostalgic Novels from Hungary

Hungarian novels can be beautifully melancholic and romantic, but strangely enough, they are very little known outside their country of origin. Here are three great novels and story collections from the first half of the 20th century:

1. The Adventures of Sindbad by Gyula Krúdy. Translated by George Szirtes (New York Review Books).
Twenty-four fantastic and nostalgic tales, originally published between 1911 and 1917, about a sort of Hungarian Casanova called (why not?) "Sindbad." Sindbad haunts both Hungary's capital and the obscure corners of its provinces, looking for love - or rather, revisiting past lovers. For in most of the stories Sindbad is already dead, he is like that other, more famous count from Transsylania (a region that used to be part of the Hungarian lands in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire) "undead" - but although this lovesick suicide keeps coming back to revisit past loves, there is nothing horrible about him, on the contrary, these stories are all filled with romantic nostalgia. Each story is the evocation of a past love affair, from which not only Sindbad is unable to free himself, also the women he has loved still need him to gratify their fantasies. But it is love with the grave hanging over it, passion that is unavoidable but futile, and the memories are sweet but also painful. These stories are like La Valse by Ravel, a dirge for a lost world, for the year Krúdy finished writing about Sindbad, the empire collapsed. Krúdy's prose is enchanting and evocative (thanks to the excellent translation by the poet George Szirtes), a repetition of sighing sentences building up the dream of Sindbad's life - and ours. For Krúdy, love never dies, but it keeps coming back all the time to haunt us.

The Hungarian author Gyula Krúdy (1878-1933) worked as a newspaper editor and writer of short stories, much against the wishes of his father, who disinherited him. Krúdy had to support his wife and children with his writings, and therefore the success of Sindbad, of which the first stories were published in 1911, was very welcome. Krúdy also wrote novels about Budapest and the Hungarian revolution. His popularity started to fade in the 1920s and 1930s, when his health also failed due to his excessive lifestyle. He was in fact forgotten until the writer Sándor Márai published a novel about Krúdy's last day - this succesful book also again generated interest in Krúdy's own writings and today he is considered as one of the most original Hungarian writers of the 20th century.

2. Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb. Translated by Len Rix (New York Review Books).
This beloved classical novel, written in 1937, follows Mihály, and his new bride, Erzsi, on their honeymoon in Italy. Mihály possesses a romantic and poetic nature and has lived a wild youth with his four friends János Szepetneki (a sort of conman), Ervin (who wanted to devote his life to religion), Tamás (a friend who suffered from life and has committed suicide) and Éva Ulpius (the type of the femme fatale, who was involved with the suicide). To please his conservative father, Mihály has now resigned himself to a bourgeois existence: he has taken a position in the family company and married Erzsi, a practical woman (although with one complicating factor; Erzsi is using Mihály as a tool for her own liberation, she wanted to get out of her first marriage that was suffocating to her). But Mihály is unable to shake off the nostalgia for his bohemian youth, and his romantic feelings are aroused by the towns and countryside of Italy, a country he visits for the first time. Unfortunately, Italy also calls up the death-haunted and erotic elements of Mihály's past. Not surprisingly, Mihály manages to "loose" his bride by missing the train at a small provincial station and then starts a hallucinatory and bizarre journey through Italy that will eventually make him rejoin the three surviving friends from his youth - and also face something hidden deeply in his psyche, an erotic death-wish connected with the friend with whom he is secretly in love, Éva Ulpius. At the same time, the novel also follows his wife Erszi on her own journey to Paris. Finally, both Mihály and Erszi will have to make the choice what to do with their lives. A beautiful, poetic novel about vacillation between the expectations of society and their incompatibility with our youthful ideals.

Antal Szerb (1901-1945) had a Jewish background, although he was baptized as a Catholic. He was a great scholar, who studied Hungarian, German and English and established a formidable reputation with his studies on Blake and Ibsen. He also lived for five years in France and Italy, and one year in England. In 1933 he was elected as president of the Hungarian Literary Academy and later became professor of literature at the university of Szeged. In 1941, he published his magnum opus, a huge history of world literature, which remains authoritative even today. He also wrote about the history of Hungarian literature and the theory of the novel. His own first novel was published in 1934, The Pendragon Legend, followed in 1937 by his best-known work, Journey by Moonlight (Utas és holdvilág). Despite antisemitic persecution, Szerb choose to remain in Hungary, although his third novel, Oliver VII, had to passed off as a translation from the English. In 1944, Szerb was incarcerated in a concentration camp, where in early 1945 he was beaten to death, at age 43.

3. Embers by Sándor Márai. Translated by Carol Brown Janeway from the German translation (Vintage International)
This novel written in 1942 is another La Valse, an expression of profound nostalgia for the destroyed multi-ethnic and multicultural society of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. There is a clear link with the work of Joseph Roth such Radetzky March. The Hungarian title (A gyertyák csonkig égnek) means "The Candles Burn Down to the Stump" and that is what literally happens in the novel, during the night-long conversation between an seventy-five year-old general (Henrik) and the man who used to be his closest friend (Konrad), whom he now meets after the passage of forty-one years. The mournful glamour of the lost empire is called up in the secluded woodland castle of the general, where time seems to have stopped. The novel is a duel in words and silences between host and guest, where the general gives a long monologue, a sort of rant, accusing the guest, who mostly answers by acknowledging silences. The back story is only gradually revealed. Henrik and Konrad were close friends from their school days on, despite their difference in status and wealth. They were inseparable as brothers and it was Konrad who introduced Krisztina, who became Henrik's wife. The three often meet together and the reader will already guess what happened - something the general also realizes when at a hunting party he sees Konrad point his gun at him (without being able to pull the trigger), before leaving without saying goodbye for a far-away, foreign destination. Searching for Konrad, the general visits his apartment where to his shock he meets his wife Krisztina, who only speaks one word, referring to Konrad: "Coward." After that, the life of the general falls to pieces. He never speaks another word to his wife until she dies eight years later, living apart in the hunting lodge. Now, so many years later, Konrad who has made his fortune in the colonies, has briefly returned to Hungary and takes the opportunity to meet his old friend. The general wants Konrad to confess not only his own guilt, but also that of Krisztina, whom he suspects of having enticed Konrad to kill him. But Konrad meets his long accusations with silence, because, after all, Henrik already knows perfectly well what happened on that day, forty-one years ago, when something was lost forever. During their conversation, the candles have burned down, just as the candles of their lives have almost burned down to the stump, and just as only embers are left of the glory of the empire they once served. An exquisite structured novel about the disillusion that life inevitably brings, told with melancholy grandeur.

Sándor Márai (1900-1989) was born to an old Hungarian family in a part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire that is now Slovakia. He travelled in his youth and lived in Frankfurt, Berlin and Paris, and even considered writing in German. But in 1928 he settled in Budapest and chose his mother language. He was active as a journalist, critic and author, and became known for his clear realist style. Márai wrote more than 40 novels and was one of the most influential representatives of Hungarian literature during the interbellum. Although Márai was highly critical of the Nazis and known as antifascist, he remained in Hungary during the war, but was driven away by the Communist regime that seized power after WWII. He left Hungary in 1948 and after a brief stint in Italy, settled in San Diego in California. Cut off from his own culture, he sank in depression and finally died by his own hand in 1989. He was only discovered as a great European author in the 1990s, when the first translations of his work appeared in French, and then in many other languages as well.

P.S. In Hungarian, family name comes before personal name, just as in Japanese or Chinese. However, in this post, I have followed the English custom.