"Sunflower" was translated into English by John Bátki in 1997 as part of a continuing series put out by the New York Review of Books that publishes "revived classics". It has an informative critical Introduction by John Lukacs, the Hungarian-American historian of broad experience and interests, a range that encompasses an obvious love of the literature of his native land. You can also read Lukacs's positive evaluations of Krúdy in his retrospective group portrait of a talented generation, Budapest 1900, and in his Introduction to a collection of Krúdy's newspaper pieces, "Krúdy's Chronicles", both worth reading if you have any interest in Hungarian life and letters. Krúdy lived and wrote (and made his living solely through writing) during the last three decades of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the first fifteen years of the Horthy Regency. In spite of its post-1867 political autonomy Hungary was a troubled half of that empire, ill at ease with its role and perhaps always wanting more than it could handle, given its ruling class's political short-sightedness and a consequent succession of self-inflicted crises. The picture did not improve within an independent but much shrunken nation that became obsessed with revisions of the Trianon Treaty that dismembered "Greater Hungary" (aka "millennial Hungary"). It was in this milieu that Krúdy was a bright shining star of Hungarian prose from his teen years to his forties, at which point, while he did not exactly vanish from his countrymen's consciousness, he became "old news", reclusive, probably alcoholic, certainly distressed and anxious about the direction of his personal life, and less prolific than he had been as a younger writer (and that was very prolific indeed). "Sunflower" was originally published in 1918, thus it comes from the tail-end of Krúdy's "middle period" when he retained all the forceful command of language that he is known for among speakers of that isolated -- and difficult -- language. (Perhaps that last adjective should be qualified - how difficult can it be if even babies learn it, as one wag said to another before stumbling over a simple request in Magyar.)
The novel has a sort of "hero of everyday life" - Pistoli -- if we allow heroism to embrace a character whose flaws are conspicuous yet brash and indicative of a certain flamboyance. Let's just say that he is a weathered old scoundrel who runs from one affair to another with local women of all classes and walks of life, yet he's firmly convinced that he loved them all and they all loved him and that their arrangements were mutually beneficial. He's akin to the "superfluous man" (usually a member of the country gentry) of mid-19th century Russian novels, but a veritable ball of fire and directed energy in comparison to his useless fictional counterparts from farther east. Pistoli is one of a set of six main characters who are arrayed in some kind of characterological matrix, something like the set of attractions/repulsions seen in Goethe's odd novel, "Elective Affinities". Real and potential erotic (and possibly Romantic, in the full-blown sense of that term) relationships, connect the characters; it must be added that they usually take a farcical turn. The set of six (I can't imagine the symbols that would connect them - maybe wavy lines with arrows at each end) is:
Kálmán Ossuary . . . . .Eveline Nyíres (Birch)
Andor Álmos-Dreamer . . . . .Risoulette
Pistoli . . . . .Malvina Maszkerádi
Of course the reader's attention is arrested by the names, allegorical in intent. The translator, John Bátki, has split his approach to these names: He never uses the Magyar for "Ossuary" (which might be something like Csontváry) or the English (Birch) for Nyíres. (Eveline Nyíres, a benign young woman who appears to be waiting for "her one true love" to arrive, is at the center of the story that begins in Budapest. Soon she is on her way to her country home - "Bujdos" or "The Hideaway" -- where she is the object of the hapless love of Álmos-Dreamer, of Pistoli's romantic pursuit that gets sidetracked as soon as he meets Maszkerádi, and of Ossuary's far more cynical pursuit.) On the other hand "Álmos" itself means something like "dreamer" or "sleeper", yet Bátki opts for the redundancy in his case. Pistoli is once alluded to as "Pistol" (its meaning). Risoulette's Magyar name is never given. Everyone thinks of her in terms of her French nickname, perhaps alluding to her outlook on life and her behavior (she has been a mistress to many local men, and she remains on good terms with them after the break-ups, even happy to dispense maternal and courtship advice to them). Her life reflects a portrait of a middle-class Parisian woman of numerous affairs, as presented in French novels of the late romantic era, and perhaps it follows a model created by the novels she and Eveline read. Maszkerádi (a detester of just such novels) comes over into English straightforwardly as "masquerader" or "woman wearing a mask", one designed, in her case, to keep men at their distance. She is not opposed to erotic flings in principle, but rather to the misguided notions that men have of enshrining or attempting to totally possess women to whom they have made love. Something of a female Nietzschean, she's a skeptic about the dance between the sexes (as is Pistoli, though he tries to remember his partners fondly -- one of his ways of putting himself to sleep each night is engaging in imaginary conversations with loves of the past and the future). As to the name Ossuary, what metaphorical graveyard or boneyard does the author have in mind? Probably the fact that young Kálmán, a fop and wastrel from Budapest (who has been pursuing Eveline, his main source of funds, but settles for her friend Maszkerádi as a bed partner), a man who wanders nightly from casino to brothel to café and lives off hand-outs, is bereft of any and all spiritual qualities. His soul is the hard and empty repository of affections and passions that he has no intention of requiting. While the relations among these six form the backbone of the story, the novel has other heroes and objects of contemplation: the Magyar language itself and the style and pace of Hungarian small-town and country life in the 1880s-1890s. Much of this portrait of a place and time is carried by minor characters (see below); as a depiction of a way of life still intact during the author's childhood, it has an elegant twin in Deszö Kostolányi's "Skylark".
The region of the story is "The Birches" in northeastern Hungary at the edge of that land's great plain. Its main town, now a city of 100,000, is Nyíregyháza, Krúdy's hometown. While there are a few scenes set in Budapest, exhibiting Krúdy's familiarity with the city's demi-monde and its nightlife (about which he wrote many colorful feuilletons when he was a journalist), the story's heart is in the countryside, depicted in a rich descriptive prose that tries to recapture a bygone era that resonates with Krúdy, probably because it was the scene of his own youth. It's a countryside filled with eccentrics and men and women who are fatalists, but very lively and entertaining ones at that (gypsies and lovers of gypsy music who drink in the sunrise, doughty innkeepers, obsessive fondlers of family heirlooms, vagrants). They seem to wring every possible pleasure (and pleasurable pain) out of their simple surroundings. And this is where Krúdy's mastery of prose comes into play, with extended metaphors, tropes, and phrases that overflow the boundaries of the rational and the sensible. Rather than engaging in the "pathetic fallacy" his writing is full of nature poetry that implies a kind of pantheism extending not only to the usual flora and fauna, but to inanimate and homely objects as well. Here are a few examples:
"High above the reeds, where the air is as empty as space floats a nameless solitary bird, musing about the aimlessness of life on earth. The clods on the road, serf-souls many centuries old, cling to the carriage wheels."
"A glove pulled off the hand might feel as Mr. Pistoli felt. The russet brown cloak's undone buttons might have sensed his keen disappointment."
"The moonlight over The Birches advanced hugger-mugger in the sky like a shepherd hiding a lamb under his coat."
When is the last time you read an ascription of consciousness to buttons or gloves? And, with respect to convolutions of the human mind, Krúdy' is equally eccentric in his comparisons and descriptive phrases:
"Mr. Álmos-Dreamer nodded without emotion, a most peculiar nod, like a one-legged man confronting his lost limb preserved in spirits."
Regarding Risoulette's husband, the Captain, an old man housebound by gout:
"His head, topped by an otter hat, sank a little lower. Next he struck up a conversation with his own foot, evidence that he had not renounced social life for good."
One more example will serve to demonstrate the author's ambiguous relationship with romantic conceits, highlighted by deflating remarks made at the end of someone's (or his own authorial) rhetorical excess. In response to Eveline's worries about nocturnal sounds in the yard behind her country house, Maszkerádi says:
"Nah, it's just the unusual weather we're having . . . It's all that meteoric crap, -- ashes and dust from burnt-out stars - the winds sweep into the atmosphere ... It's only the night plucking an old mandolin string that's been lying silent for years. No need to go mushroom-crazy, like some fungus that suddenly pops up, so glad to be among us."
If, like me, the reader knows no Magyar other than a few useful traveler's phrases, he or she has to take Lukac's word that Krúdy is the 20th century master of Hungarian prose. Lukacs was skeptical that Sunflower could be translated in any meaningful way, but John Bátki's translation has persuaded him otherwise, and I agree with that assessment based on just how well - and oddly! - this English-language version reads). Minor characters fill in the picture of an era and a place, women with nicknames like "Stony Dinka" (née Jolan Weiss, daughter of the local furrier); Kakuk ("Cuckoo"), a vagrant who acts as Pistoli's courier delivering love letters and requests for assignations; and another likeable scoundrel, Zõld Diamant ("Green Diamond"), a philosophical old Jewish habitué of Budapest's casinos and brothels, who is an intelligent foil to the general thoughtlessness and narcissism of his companion on a night-raid, Kálmán Ossuary.
I won't give away how the story ends, though it involves a preternatural grand finale for Pistoli and the possible inception of a sedate romance leading to marriage. The book is, in brief, a romantic comedy tinged with worldliness and given an extra charge by the vividness of its language. It's also a reverie for a world that has just vanished, to the chagrin of its author.
- Paperback: 272 pages
- Publisher: NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS; 1 edition (15 August 2007)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1590171861
- ISBN-13: 978-1590171868
- Product Dimensions: 12.8 x 1.6 x 20.2 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 272 g
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