N.N. by Gyula Krúdy. Translation Tragedy

N.N. by Gyula Krúdy (1922) Translated from the Hungarian into French by Ibolya Virág.

Il est nécessaire que chacun ait sa propre cigale dont les chants et les bercements lui font oublier toute sa vie. It is necessary that everyone has their own cicada whose songs and lullabies make them forget their whole life.

Krudy_NNN.N. stands for nomen nescio and is used to describe someone anonymous or undefined. It refers to Gyula Krúdy who was the natural child of an attorney descended from minor nobility and a servant. He was born in 1878 in Nyíregyháza, Hungary. His parents eventually got married, after their seventh child was born. Gyula Krúdy lived in Budapest where he was famous for being a gambler, a womanizer, a “prince of night”. He’s one of Hungary’s most famous writers. He wrote more than eighty-six novels and thousands of short stories. He contributed to the most important newspapers and reviews of his time, Nyugat included. He died in 1933. Sadly, most of his novels aren’t available in translation.

I usually don’t give biographical elements about writers, anyone can research them and they are, most of the time, not directly relevant with the book I’m writing about. It’s different here as N.N. is autobiographical. Gyula Krúdy wrote it during the winter 1919, after the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell apart. He was 41 at the time. N.N. is the story of a man who, after being famous in Budapest, comes home to Eastern Hungary and wanders between dream and reality on his childhood land. He resuscitates his youth, the people, the places, the customs.

It’s lyrical, poetic, full of wonderful images. I’m sharing with you several quotes, I tried to translate them as best I could but honestly, my English is not good enough for Krúdy’s prose. If a native English speaker who can read French has other suggestions for the translations, don’t hesitate to write them in the comments.

On eût dit qu’une femme géante jetait sa jupe sur le monde lorsque la nuit tombait.


When the night came, it was as if a giant woman spread her skirt on the world.
Les jardins faisaient des rêves profonds à la manière des vieillards qui rêvent de leur jeunesse, d’étreinte amoureuse, de secrets sur lesquels les jardins des petites villes en savent long.


Gardens were dreaming deeply like old people who dream about their youth, love embraces or about secrets that gardens in small towns know a lot about.
Les étoiles d’été regardaient le monde avec une douce indulgence au travers des feuillages épais des chênes.


The summer stars looked at the world with sweet benevolence through the oaks’ thick foliage.
Sóvágó savait que des vents glacés hurlaient dans les montagnes, que les arbres restaient cruellement silencieux face aux plaintes désespérées de l’homme, que le prunier n’apprenait à parler que lorsqu’on taillait en lui une potence pour les sans-espoir.


Sóvágó knew that icy winds howled in the mountains, that trees remained cruelly silent faced with the desperate moans of mankind; that the plum tree only started to talk when someone used it to carve gallows for the hopeless.

It’s laced with nostalgia. It’s the spleen of a man who is not so young anymore, who has lived through a terrible war and whose country is dismembered. His old world does not exist anymore. He’s the cicada of the novel. He’s had his summer in Budapest, he’s had fun and now it’s over.

Krúdy describes the inn where he used to have a drink and listen to travelers and Tsiganes. He loved listening to their stories of their lives on the road. He remembers his grand-parents, his first love Juliska, his departure to Budapest. More than his former life, he depicts the seasons, the nature and the old habits.

He comes back to Juliska who now has a small farm and meets with the son they had together and that he had never met. He comes back to a simple peasant life and conjures up the smells, the landscape, the food and the cozy homes. His style is musical and evocative. It’s as if the dreamlike style of Klimt’s paintings were mixed with the themes of old Dutch masters.

It’s a difficult book to summarize, it needs to be experienced.

The picture on the cover of my book is a portrait of Gyula Krúdy. Given the theme of the book and the style of this portrait, it’s hard not to think about Marcel Proust here. However, even if the two writers were contemporaries, their writing styles differ. Krúdy’s style reminded me more of Alain Fournier but Krúdy is more anchored in reality.

Let’s face it, this is a terrible Translation Tragedy. (For newcomers, a Translation Tragedy is a fantastic book available in French but not translated into English. Or vice-versa) It seems like something Pushkin Press or NYRB Classics would publish, though.

A word about my copy of N.N. There are useful notes to give information about Hungarian references, from the names of writers or cities to the race of dogs. (I wish they’d do that with Japanese literature as well) The font used is named Janson, as an homage to a typeface created in the 17th century by the Transylvanian Miklós Misztótfalusi. The only flaw of this book as an object is that the pages are a bit hard to turn, and it’s a bit tiring for the hand to keep the book open.

I have read N.N. with Bénédicte from the blog Passage à l’Est. Check out her billets about Eastern Europe literature.

  1. August 31, 2015 at 10:28 pm

    You hit the nail on the head. When I saw that you were reading this, I went to see if it was available in English. Horror of Horrors! It wasn’t. What the hell are the publishers playing at??


    • August 31, 2015 at 10:29 pm

      It’s such a beautiful book, it’s really a shame it’s not available in English.
      I wish I could do something about it.


      • August 31, 2015 at 10:45 pm

        There’s a possibility that NYRB might translate it (as you mentioned) as they have translated others by the same author.


        • August 31, 2015 at 10:48 pm

          Well, I sent them a “please translate it into English” on Tweeter. I doubt it’ll do anything but one can dream.


          • September 1, 2015 at 12:12 am

            They have or had a place you could submit suggestions on their website


            • September 1, 2015 at 9:07 pm

              That’s good to know. Perhaps we should all post a request at the same time. 🙂


  2. September 1, 2015 at 2:58 am

    *sigh* Guy has saved me the trouble of searching for it in English too.

    But *brightening up* my French is getting better, I didn’t need to sneak-peek at so many words in your translations to work out the French. I mean, I didn’t have cicadas and oaks and plum trees in my vocab, but now I do. I love it when you put these translations in your posts because I used them to test myself *wide smile*

    Some hesitant suggestions, since you’ve asked – but really, your translation seems lovely to me, making such an exquisite imagery ‘sing’ to us across languages:
    1. I think we would say ‘spread her skirts across the world’. (The plural is idiomatic, it implies a full, gathered skirt made with a lot of material).
    2. I think we would say ‘amorous embraces’ and ‘that gardens have long known’ (meaning that things have gone on gardens for a long, long time). You could also say that the gardens were ‘in reverie’ which is a more poetic way of personifying them.
    3. I think we would use ‘indulgence’ too, that would imply a kind of benevolent knowingness on the part of the stars, that they who have seen it all before over time allow themselves to be partially blocked by the puny oaks.
    4. You could also say that the trees were cruelly silent ‘against the desperate pleas of humanity’ and that the plum tree ‘spoke only when it was used for the gallows.

    Other readers, please correct me if I’m wrong, but when Ismail Kadare won the Booker International, there was a great flurry to translate his books from the Albanian into English, but of course there are not too many Albanian translators just hanging about waiting for English people to take an interest in Albanian books, so Kadare’s books are translated into English from French translations.
    So it could be that now NN is available in French, one of the army of French/English translators could take it on?


    • September 1, 2015 at 9:21 pm

      In my experience with reading in English, flowers, trees and animals are the worst. It’s not something you learn on purpose and when you’re reading a description, you can’t fathom what kind of bird or tree the writer is talking about. Often, there’s no way to guess the meaning.
      I’m glad the bilingual quotes are useful. I leave the French when it’s a French author and when I translate quotes myself. If I leave the French, at least readers who can read that language have access to the original text or the text translated by a professional translator.
      Did you manage to read the Philippe Delerm or is it still too difficult?

      Thanks for the comments and suggestions on the translations. It’s helpful for my knowledge of the English language. I would never have written “amorous embraces” or “indulgence”, it seems too close to the French. I’d have had the impression to translate literally and poorly! I need to remember to use “French” words when it borders on poetry.
      A special thanks for helping with the fourth quote: I had difficulties with it.

      I guess someone could translate it from the French but with this level of poetry in the original, I think it deserves to be translated from the Hungarian. Someone wants to suggest it to George Szirtes?


  3. September 1, 2015 at 7:37 am

    Sounds like a really interesting book and I do wish it could be translated into English. I’m sure there are enough East Europeans who are fluent in English who could translate the literature of their countries if there was sufficient interest amongst publishers or reading public!
    And thank you also for introducing me to Bénédicte – the previous review, before Guyla Krudy, is for a Romanian author I rather admire: Camil Petrescu. So I’ll be reading much more of her blog posts.


    • September 1, 2015 at 9:24 pm

      You’ll probably like it, Marina. I hope it gets translated into English.

      I was sure you’d be interested in Passage à L’Est. I’m glad I won her another reader, her blog is interesting.


  4. September 1, 2015 at 8:55 am

    Oh, I do hope NYRB or Pushkin pick this up and run with a translation as I would love to read it. So many things appeal – the lyrical style, the sense of nostalgia, the feeling of a lost world. Your wonderful billet calls to mind Antal Szerb’s Journey to Moonlight, a book I enjoyed very much indeed. Thanks for reviewing this one, Emma.


    • September 1, 2015 at 9:25 pm

      Let’s hope some publisher decides to translate and publish it.
      I have Journey to Moonlight on my Book Club list for this year. I’m looking forward to it.


  5. September 1, 2015 at 4:05 pm

    Sounds great Emma, a book I would love to read if it were available in English.

    Will just add that it sounds very much akin (in spirit and content) to Gregor Von Rezzori’s trilogy of memoir-novels: Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, The Snows of Yesteryear and An Ermine in Czernopol. All from NYRB and all highly recommended as a follow-up to this (or as an alternative for those pining for Krudy’s book).


    • September 1, 2015 at 9:28 pm

      Like I said to Guy, if everyone makes the same suggestion to NYRB, they might get the message!
      Thanks for the recommendation, I’d never heard of Gregor Von Rezzori. What a life! I’ll keep him in mind.


  6. September 1, 2015 at 10:25 pm

    At first I was puzzled by your “translation tragedy” tag, I thought you meant the translation itself was appalling. I was glad to see the explanation (with which I agree)!
    I loved Krudy’s style in this book: it’s wonderfully evocative, and like you I noted many images which I enjoyed not only because they are simple but well crafted, but also because they show a great deal of sensitivity.
    I mentioned somewhere else N.N. surprised me because it’s so pastoral, but I think several of his other books (including perhaps L’affaire Eszter Solymosi) are rather more journalistic in style.
    For all those who are interested to read Krúdy in English, NYRB has Sunflower, and CEU Press has The Adventures of Sindbad, which should both be fairly easy to buy online.


    • September 1, 2015 at 10:36 pm

      “Translation Tragedy” came as a joke when I posted about Je dénonce l’humanité by F. Karinthy, another fantastic Hungarian book which is not available in English.
      It’s now part of my odd categories along with Beach & Public Transport and Suggar Without Cellulite. 🙂

      Krúdy’s style is amazing. I loved the comparisons with nature. I don’t remember what kind of stylistic device it is when you give human characteristics to things. (I’m terrible at text explanation, I never got good grades in French, despite all this reading)
      It’s sad without being bleak. Despite all the autumnal description, there’s a lightness in his prose that sounds like a song. The cicada comparison he chose is the best one, I suppose.

      Thanks for the recommendation of Krúdy’s book in English.


    • September 2, 2015 at 11:48 am

      Great suggestions: I’ve read Sindbad, which is wonderful. I have Sunflower as well, as yet unread.

      “Sad without being bleak” is perfect – melancholy, by another name.


      • September 6, 2015 at 6:14 pm

        I have Sindbad too. Happy to know it’s a good one.

        I’d say it’s lighter than what melancholy would be, but that’s only my opinion.


  7. September 3, 2015 at 8:15 am

    I loved this one:

    “Gardens were dreaming deeply like old people who dream about their youth, love embraces or about secrets that gardens in small towns know a lot about.”

    This reminds me of Sandor Marai’s ‘Embers’, which deals with events that occur around the same time, and the same region.


    • September 6, 2015 at 10:33 am

      I’ve read Embers too. I liked this one better. There’s something dry in Marai’s style that’s absent from Krudy’s.


  8. September 5, 2015 at 9:57 am

    Wonderful review. I’ve had him on my piles for a while but the book also doesn’t seem to have been translated into English. A lot is available in German. This sounds like a book I’d love to read once I’ve got to the one I have.
    I’m so reluctant to read in any other language than English these days, that all those woderful books just stay unread on my piles.


    • September 6, 2015 at 6:13 pm

      It is a wonderful book, Caroline.

      I have the feeling that a lot of care was put in this French translation. The translator is also involved in publishing this novel and making Hungarian literature available to the French public.

      Lots of Hungarian books were translated into German for the DDR public, no?


      • September 7, 2015 at 9:15 am

        I wouldn’t know. I suppose it’s an older tradition even.


  1. August 31, 2015 at 10:55 pm
  2. February 4, 2018 at 1:54 pm
  3. September 13, 2020 at 11:52 am
  4. March 6, 2022 at 9:54 pm

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