Gyula Krúdy – Night shatters like a worn-out curse. At the call of that crazy bird, the sluggish, motionless curtain of darkness begins to stir

Gyula Krúdy, Sunflower, New York Review Books, 2007.

«Gyula Krúdy is a marvelous writer who haunted the taverns of Budapest and lived on its streets while turning out a series of mesmerizing, revelatory novels that are among the masterpieces of modern literature. Krúdy conjures up a world that is entirely his own—dreamy, macabre, comic, and erotic—where urbane sophistication can erupt without warning into passion and madness.
In Sunflower young Eveline leaves the city and returns to her country estate to escape the memory of her desperate love for the unscrupulous charmer Kálmán. There she encounters the melancholy Álmos-Dreamer, who is languishing for love of her, and is visited by the bizarre and beautiful Miss Maszkerádi, a woman who is a force of nature. The plot twists and turns; elemental myth mingles with sheer farce: Krúdy brilliantly illuminates the shifting contours and acid colors of the landscape of desire. John Bátki’s outstanding translation of Sunflower is the perfect introduction to the world of Gyula Krúdy, a genius as singular as Robert Walser, Bruno Schulz, or Joseph Roth.»

«Summary of the book: Gyula Krúdy's 1918 novel, sets turn-of-the-century Budapest hustle and the timeless, "peacetime" mode of the Hungarian countryside as backdrops for this sensually observed episode in Womanhood's ongoing, ever-variable encounter with the male principle. A richly quintessentialized cast of characters offers a fivefold bevy of females, variously engaged with a trio of males. World-weary, proto-feminist Miss Maszkerádi sojourns at her friend the introspective ingénue Eveline's country estate; the provincial hetaera Risoulette assists as they confront the amorous, cantankerous hunk of Magyar manhood, Mr. Pistoli, flanked by a duo of younger men: the dangerous, entrepreneurial gambler Ossuary, and the hermit-like country gentleman Álmos-Dreamer. But this is also a novel of the land, a paean, to the primal powers of Mother Nature as observed and worshipped in the birch-studded marshlands of North-east Hungary, a land teeming with sites and relics of the Old World Goddess. This powerful ancient Deity illumines the women in Sunflower and so becomes the major character in one of the roundest and most fully realized works of Gyula Krúdy's commending oeuvre.»

"A reverie on love and death, countryside and city, this gothic fairy tale from Hungarian Krúdy (1878-1933) was originally published in Hungary in early 1918. Spooked by a midnight intruder, 22-year-old Eveline leaves her home in Budapest and returns to her Hun-garian riverfront estate. There, Eveline is haunted by the memory of her ex-fiancé, the dissolute Kálmán Ossuary, and is courted by a patient local bachelor, Andor Álmos-Dreamer. The meandering plot takes a turn upon the arrival of Eveline's best friend and opposite, Malvina Maszkerádi. Malvina is 'the wealthiest heiress in Budapest: somber, frosty, intrepid, and miserable,' and she proceeds to stir things up considerably. The book's only acknowledgement of WWI is, perhaps, through its celebration of what is being lost: 'old Hungary, silent with the sleep of the blessed, the humble, the poor.' Given to expansive lyric digressions, Krúdy is now recognized as a great prose stylist, but an English equivalent proves elusive here. The story, however, rewards patience: the last chapter, where the year has circled back to autumn and an opportunity opens for Eveline, is surprising and moving." - Publishers Weekly

"Krudy, a well-known early 20th-century Hungarian author, produced a prolific body of 60 novels and 3000 short stories before dying in relative obscurity. In this novel, appearing in English for the first time... Krudy eulogizes a way of life already disappearing as the work was being written and presents a glimpse of rural Hungary that is at once comic, nostalgic, romantic, and erotic. The introduction by John Lukacs provides insight into Krudy's life and works. Recommended for academic collections or large public libraries." - Library Journal

“Gyula Krudy… a Hungarian Proust.” - Charles Champlin

"[Krudy's] literary power and greatness are almost past comprehension... Few in world literature could so vivify the mythical in reality... With a few pencil strokes he draws apocalyptic scenes about sex, flesh, human cruelty and hopelessness." - Sándor Márai

“Krudy writes of imaginary people, of imaginary events, in dream-like settings; but the spiritual essence of his persons and of their places is stunningly real, it reverberates in our minds and strikes at our hearts.” - John Lukacs

“There were few outside, actual events in Krudys life… he was always conscious of his landed gentry origins yet he preferred the company of the poor, the simple, the dispossessed… he spent most of his life in the capital…He knew every street, every inn, almost every house. For him Budapest was Paris and London, Rome and New York; I dont think he spent more than a few months of his entire life away from Hungary.” - Paul Tabori

“Gyula Krudys luminous and willful pastoral, people with archaic, semi-mythical figures–damned poets and doomed aristocrats, dreamily erotic hetaerae and rude country squires–is pure fin-de-siècle, art nouveau in prose for which I cant think of a real Anglo-Saxon or even Celtic-English literary equivalent… approach him and his Sunflower as a happy stumbling on an extraordinary attic of the rambling house of the European imagination, strangely lit, and crammed with richly faded dreams.” - W.L. Webb

«MAYBE I should just write, "Read 'Sunflower' " and leave it at that. Otherwise, I might lose control; fans of the great Hungarian novelist Gyula Krúdy (1878-1933) tend toward gibberish when trying to explain his unique appeal.
Here, for example, is one of his translators, the usually sober-minded poet George Szirtes, describing Krúdy's Sindbad stories (no relation to the Arab sailor): "The language comes to pieces... leaving a curiously sweet erotic vacuum, like an ache without a centre." Besides whetting your appetite for some sweet erotic vacuuming, does that make Krúdy's literary power clear to you? No? Well, perhaps this old jacket copy will help: "Krúdy's verbal / shamanistic trance-and-dance translates historical reverie into a vision that transcends national and ethnic borderlines." Not quite clear yet? Historian John Lukacs, probably Krúdy's greatest promoter in English, finally nails it: Krúdy "is translatable only with the greatest of difficulty - in essence hardly translatable at all."
Krúdy has been compared to his great contemporaries (Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Joseph Roth) and his great successors (Isabel Allende and Gabriel García Márquez). Other comparisons come to mind. His work purrs with the fin-de-siècle urbane eroticism in Arthur Schnitzler's stories. His shifting viewpoints and streams of consciousness recall Virginia Woolf. Like Kafka, he's willing to let dream and reality mingle. He's ironic and wise about the human heart and life's futility, like Chekhov. His fond portrayal of rural life evokes the Levin scenes in "Anna Karenina." Yet these faint resemblances leave most of him in shadow. Moreover, as Lukacs notes, "No one has, even remotely, written like Krúdy in Hungarian." Given that Hungarian is utterly unlike English, a writer who is unique in that language poses a profound challenge, which may be why there is so little of him here: only three volumes of fiction and one of journalism, though he wrote more than 50 novels and 3,000 short stories, starting when he was 13. So it's cause for celebration that New York Review Books has reissued this 1997 translation, introduced by Lukacs, his champion.
"Sunflower" (1918), written toward the end of a world war in which Hungary was losing, is set in the demimonde of Budapest and the birches and marshes of northeastern Hungary, the countryside of Krúdy's origin. It is not a realistic novel: The dead recover, ghosts cuckold the living, and love affairs persist in the afterlife.
The innocent Eveline loves Kálmán, gambler and hound dog, who sponges off her and other women, with whom he repeatedly betrays her. Andor Álmos, a lonely country gentleman, loves her and dies for her - though when she weeps over his corpse he comes back to life. Álmos' mother (also named Eveline) has lost three husbands, the first two in duels and the third because she vowed to sleep with him only if he promised to kill himself afterward. Mr. Pistoli, an aging Don Juan, sent three wives to the insane asylum; one night they all escape and turn up for a farewell foursome. When Miss Maszkerádi, a brassy feminist, reverts to men, she sleeps with Pistoli; the pleasure kills him, apparently permanently. Eveline and Álmos consider marrying and settling down to a passionless life in birch country. That's it.
"Sunflower" is an erotic carnival. Respectable noblewomen are "familiar with the notorious Marquis's book of recipes." Rakes devour the maidens of Budapest. An infatuated lover's eyes are "a hair's breadth away from madness." But references to death are just as pervasive; the carnival is held under stormy skies and in the high winds of passing time. By turns smutty, nostalgic, slapstick and tender, cynical and hopeful, the novel's real subjects are the futility but unavoidability of passion, the pain and pleasure of memory, and the grave that awaits us all. One character scolds another, who's sick with love: "[Y]ou went and climbed up on the high wire at the traveling circus and now you can't come down. Why go in for this goggle-eyed torment when you can live your life painlessly. . . ?" That is the book's main question, answered differently by dozens of characters; this novelist examines his specimens through a kaleidoscope.
The plot and big ideas are easily summarized; "Sunflower" is a great novel not for these but for Krúdy's images, insights, twists of language, portraits of Budapest and the countryside and their inhabitants. Here's a womanizer you won't forget: "Mr. Pistoli's favorites were women prone to hysteria, whom he would sniff out seven counties off... He capered like a billy goat when a woman confessed to him that she had swallowed her child." Slow down and dig in. Krúdy's style is built of imagery that halts you at sentence's end to ponder what it reveals about the subject: "Her face was unapproachably severe, like a façade with shuttered windows, where no crimson-clad girls ever lean out over the windowsill." Wait, one more: an old woman, dressed up in feathered hat and finery, "on parade like some superannuated circus steed that, come tomorrow, might be harnessed to a hearse."
The sheer richness is overwhelming. Krúdy's trademark is the linked comparison - one extended simile or metaphor stacked upon another, with magical impossibilities sprinkled throughout: "The mirror's reflection grows faint, or perhaps the face itself does, taking on an acrid, fastidious look like that of a cobwebbed old daguerreotype set by sentimental hands on a headstone. In the pupil of the eye tiny, swimming dots appear: they are rowboats steered by melancholy boatmen conveying luggage and traveler - departing life - from the shore to the vast old bark awaiting." Such writing, grumps will say, "draws attention to itself." But, grumps, that's the point: the storyteller captivating you. Listen to him. His voice is as important as what happens to his characters. The imaginary people are introducing you to a real one.
So who is this writer I have come to love? Is it Krúdy by way of translator Eszter Molnár?
There used to be an old painting in the monastery of Podolin - a grey-haired man thought to himself one night towards autumn, while outside the mist curled into shades of chimney-sweeps walking the rooftops in the damp moonlight - a painting of a shaggy-haired man with bushy moustaches turning up at the tips like a gallant's... ringed eyes that were almond-shaped and of a very light blue, and a ruddy face the colour of wine sparkling on a white table on a sunny winter day. This was Prince Lubomirski. Or by way of Szirtes?
Once upon a damp and moonlit night a man with greying hair was watching the autumn mist form figures of chimney-sweeps on the rooftops. Somewhere in the monastery at Podolin, he was thinking, there is, or was, an old painting, showing a shaggy-haired figure with a wild upcurled moustache... two big round eyes with elongated pale blue pupils, and a complexion as ruddy as the colour of a white tablecloth when light passes through a full wine glass on a sunny winter noon. This man was Prince Lubomirski.
Surely Hungarian isn't as subjective as all that. Molnár produced two sentences; Szirtes three. Molnár's prince has a face the color of wine; Szirtes' the color of light passing through wine and projected onto a tablecloth. Molnár's prince has almond-shaped blue eyes -- plausible enough, though "ringed" makes me think he's a raccoon. Szirtes' prince has elongated blue pupils, suggesting either a painting by Modigliani or severe cataracts. And what happened to the gallant? "Once upon" sets a fairy-tale tone - is it Krúdy's? Or did he intend the casual "There used to be an old painting"? The translators cannot even agree on the story's title. Precision matters especially for a writer such as Krúdy, for whom dreams, memories and desires blend like rivers converging. Still, two translations are better than one.
John Bátki, translator of several Hungarian poets, makes some strange decisions that mar his extraordinary work in "Sunflower." He anglicizes some names but not others. He translates the names of some streets but not others. He translates a district of Budapest (Józsefváros) not into English (the Joseph district) but into German (Josephstadt). He translates one character's surname literally and sticks it onto the Hungarian as a hyphenate ("Andor Álmos-Dreamer"). The novel opens with 19th century diction ("The young miss lay abed") and ends rich in 1950s-era slang. Whether the original similarly relaxed I cannot say, but I doubt any Hungarian can aptly be translated as "Hot diggety-dog."
But Krúdy-Bátki, Krúdy-Molnár, and Krúdy-Szirtes are enough to win this reader's heart. The more translations of this untranslatable genius there are, the closer we'll be to his shimmering, melancholy world.» - Arthur Phillip

«Mostly it's about the love affairs of a handful of characters living in and around Budapest in the early 20th century.
Eveline, the 22-year-old woman who flees the city for her house in the country, to escape thoughts of her former fiancé; Kálmán, said lover, who is gambling her money way; Álmos-Dreamer, a 40-year-old bachelor country aristocrat who pines for Eveline and is quite literally wasting away with romantic longing; Malvina Maszkerádi, a friend staying with Eveline, who outwardly appears modern and worldly, but who fears engaging in life — her ideal love is an ancient, calmly virile tree, to whom no man can compare; Pistoli, patron of village Gypsies, whose three former wives ended up in the madhouse, now determinedly wooing Miss Maszkerádi, much to her consternation.
We encounter their lovers, former lovers, the lovers of their former lovers, their ancestors, their ancestors' lovers, ghosts, and fortunetellers.
There's not much by way of plot speak of. The narrative shifts focus often and with such intensity that it seems unlikely to return to a character once it's moved on, but we do achieve a sense of resolution regarding those people we come to care about.
Sunflower reminds me of the Russians: the lush tone with which Turgenev paints his scenes, the portraits of aristocrats (in particular I'm thinking of Dostoevsky's wry touch in The Gambler), and Tolstoy, well, I'll get to that.
Beyond all the romantic intrigues, Sunflower is about the meaning of life and death. Krúdy sets out to tackle the issue of "Why bother to set out in life when it was over so soon?"
There are sufficient tales told throughout the novel to show that death in itself should prove no obstacle to achieving romantic (or sexual) fulfillment. While Eveline in her confused state of mind clings to life's sidelines, Kálmán grabs life by the balls (with mixed results), Álmos-Dreamer straddles both sides of death's divide (proving its inconsequence), and Miss Maszkerádi is paralyzed by some combination of fear, boredom, pointlessness.
"I can't resign myself to the fact that I live in order to die some day. I'd love to step off this well-trodden straight and boring path. To somehow live differently, think different thoughts, feel different feelings than others. It wouldn't bother me to be as alone as a tree on the plains. My leaves would be like no other tree's. [...]"
While Sunflower often flirts with morbidity, it is deeply fecund and organic.
There's an episode that stands out as the heart of the book, to my mind, serving much the same function as does Natasha's dance in War and Peace. In this sense: the scene doesn't really match the rest of the book and yet seems to be the book's whole reason for being. Natasha's dance sings her Russianness, the Russianness of all of them, peasant, servant, or aristocrat, whether a traditionalist or someone with modern views, it strips that all away to allow something organic to manifest itself. And here in Sunflower is this Gypsy serenade, unacceptable to the Miss Maszkerádi's urban attitude, her sense of social decorum, clashing with her modern views. Mr Pistoli, a rustic bon vivant, breaks down her defenses, with music, wine, words. And Miss Maszkerádi rises to his bait, gives herself over to it, which gives way to revelry, each of them playing a trickster while fully enchanted, for a few hours at least. It's a lovely scene, full of erotic potential, where something gypsy and Hungarian and human is being realized. Sadly, the moment passes.
The comparison of Gyula Krúdy to Bruno Schulz is a valid one (at least, what I've read of Schulz), both in subject somewhat preternatural and how the language feeds the senses.
Krúdy's language is dense with images and, it seems to me, secret meanings — that is, it manages to create an aura of the surreal, the otherwordly, and the erotic, without contrivance. The opening pages have the feel of a gothic romance, but this mood rather quickly congeals into something much thicker, pervading the very air these characters breathe, often in a disconcertingly creepy way.
How quickly some images (at first even banal) can take a sinister turn. For example: "Miss Maszkerádi's steely-glinting eyes appeared as serene as an idol's or a maniac's." Or (my favourite sentence of the book): "Meanwhile Risoulette stood in the door, bewildered, like a woman who has spilled kerosene on her skirt but cannot find a match."
Many pastoral scenes meander in and out of dark crevices.
'But cock's crow signals the arrival of those never-glimpsed vagabonds who stand stock still under your window in the dead of night, with murder in their hears, guilt and terror in their eyes. Come morning, they regain their original shapes and turn into solitary trees at crossroads or hat-waving, curly-haired young travelers with small knapsacks and large staffs, humming a merry tune and marching bright-eyed toward distant lands to bring glad tidings, fun and games, new songs and youthful flaring passions to small houses that somnolently await them. There they sit down at the kitchen table, earn their dinner by telling glorious tall tales, help pour the wine, chop the wood, nab the fattened pig by the ear; they also repair the grandfather clock that had not chimed in forty years and leave in the middle of the night, taking along the young miss's heart as well as her innocence. How enviably cheerful the lives of these vagabonds who pass your house at cock's crow after a night of sleeplessness . . . As if their knee-deep pockets contained some seed they drop in front of the window, to sprout into a yellow-crowned sunflower; no sooner are they gone than it is already tall enough to peek through the window pane. While, inside, the young lady of the house is already fast asleep, like Aladdin in the enchanted cave.'
The sunflower, of course, turns to follow the sun, turns toward life. We are the sunflower at the window, gazing in. Eveline watches the sunflowers, while being one much of the time herself, rooted in her place and rotating to seek out a life source outside of herself. By autumn, she comes to bask.
Sunflower is a wonderful but demanding novel. It serves as the perfect bridge between 19th-century Russians and 20th-century surrealists. If you give yourself over to it, it is magical and profound.» - Isabella Kratynski

Gyula Krúdy, Life Is a Dream, Penguin, 2010.

«Life is a Dream (1931) is Gyula Krudy's magical collection of ten short stories. Creating a world where editors shoot themselves after a hard day's brunching, men attend duels incognito and lovers fall out over salad dressing, Life is a Dream is a comic, nostalgic, romantic and erotic glimpse into the Hungary of the early twentieth century. Focussing on the poor and dispossessed, these tales of love, food, death and sex are ironic and wise about the human condition and the futility of life, and display fully Krudy's wit and mastery of the form.»

Gyula Krúdy, Adventures of Sindbad, Central European University, 1998.

«In these marvellously written tales, Sindbad, a voyager in the realms of memory and imagination, travels through the centuries in pursuit of an ideal of love that is directed as much at the feminine essence as at his individual lovers. Whether the women he seduces and loves are projections of his desire, or he of theirs, is a moot question.
These short stories flow without a strict narrative framework Sindbad journeys between the past and the present and is merely a ghost in many of his adventures. Although Sindbad can move through time, it is time that proves his chief enemy, and youth that remains his real love. This deeply autumnal book, full of resonances and associations, is an erotic elegy to the dying Habsburg empire.»

Gyula Krúdy (1878-1933) was born in Nyíregyháza in northeastern Hungary. His mother had been a maid for the aristocratic Krúdy family, and she and his father, a lawyer, did not marry until Gyula was seventeen. Krúdy began writing short stories and publishing brief newspaper pieces while still in his teens. Rebelling against his father’s wish that he become a lawyer, he worked as a newspaper editor for several years before moving to Budapest. Disinherited, Krúdy supported himself, his wife (a writer known as Satanella), and their children by publishing two collections of short stories, found success with the publication of Sinbad’s Youth in 1911. Sinbad, a ghostly lover who has only his name in common with the hero from the Arabian Nights, became a signature character and figured in stories written throughout Krúdy’s life. Krúdy’s novels about contemporary Budapest proved popular during the turbulent years of the First World War and the Hungarian Revolution, but his incessant drinking, gambling, and philandering left him broke and led to the dissolution of his first marriage. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Krúdy suffered from declining health and a diminishing readership, even as he was awarded Hungary’s most prestigious literary award, the Baumgarten Prize. Forgotten in the years after his death, Krúdy was rediscovered in 1940, when Sándor Márai published Sinbad Comes Home, a fictionalized account of Krúdy’s last day. The success of the book led to a revival of Krúdy’s works and to his recognition as one of the greatest Hungarian writers.

Read also: «Gyula Krúdy: Intoxication and Seduction»