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20 Books of Summer #17: The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda by Gyula Krúdy – Budapest in 1913

September 13, 2020 6 comments

The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda by Gyula Krúdy (1933) Translated by John Bátki. Not available in French, as far as I know.

Everyone lived their lives, only Rezeda lived in a dream.

Gyula Krúdy wrote The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda in 1933, the year he died. The book opens at a New Year’s Eve party at the Hotel Royale in Budapest, one or two years before the Great War. Even if some birds of ill omen talk about the war, the atmosphere is light and the tone set on futility.

Back then we lived in an era when the description “virtuoso of love” may have ranked higher than Royal Councillor or any such pre-war honors that gentlemen ambitioned to attain.

The star of the evening is a certain Fanny Tardy, wife of a fashionable journalist nicknamed Nine. Kázmér Rezeda is a rising journalist and writer, he’s handsome, well-mannered and quite successful with the ladies. Fanny believes that she should take a lover and her eyes are set on Rezeda. He nicknames her Fruzsina Kaiser and that’s how Krúdy names her for the rest of the book.

She’s a force to be reckoned with and she’ll make all the overtures and steps needed to start a liaison with him. Rezeda is no match against such determination and surrenders. We see him unattached and bending over backwards to be available whenever Fruzsina is free. Krúdy takes us to pre-Great War Budapest and Rezeda is his young alter ego. He lives in a boarding house run by a Madame, a place where a lot of fellow journalists rent rooms too.

Fruzsina moves him into a room where she can meet him more discreetly, a hotel famous for hosting illicit couples. Krúdy describes their affair with a lot of humor. The sentiments professed sounded staged and I felt like Fruzsina was more into having an affair with a pretty and rising journalist than into Rezeda himself.

Her social standing demanded that she have a lover. She picked him. He was putty in her hands. I don’t think he actually fell for her; he just went along with the ride. No deep feelings are involved and Fruzsina seems to stage love scenes from novels or paintings, in an attempt to live the full liaison experience. And Krúdy observes his character with amusement, after his mistress organized an outing to Crown Woods for a tryst:

But the actual scene of lovemaking left precious few memories to sweeten the times to come. “You must be a Nymph or a Faun to properly enjoy making love in the great outdoors. These sylvan deities are used to the forest floor, the grass, the fallen leaves and those ants that take you by surprise; but we, mere mortals with sensitive skins, can’t really enjoy even a tumble in the hay!” thought Rezeda.

Rezeda seems to attract female attention without actually looking for it and several amorous adventures follow. If he weren’t so detached, you’d think of him as a victim of predatory women. One even cornered him at her own party to have her ways with him.

Krúdy looks back to his youth with a bit of nostalgia but above all, with a lot of humor. His Rezeda self is a young man who glides in life, taking new development with stride and not bothering about tomorrow. People talked about an upcoming war at the New Year’s party but it doesn’t worry him. He’s a we’ll-cross-that-bridge-when-we-come-to-it kind of person. He’s centered on foolish matters of the heart, on writing his feuilleton and turning his papers on time.

Krúdy writes a brilliant picture of Budapest at the time, of the society he kept. His tone is caustic at times, pointing out changes in mores.

The apartment of a Budapest lady of that time was quite unimaginable without a telephone (another channel for her “social life”), but Fruzsina needed daily telephone conversations for nurturing her liaison as desperately as a flower needs daily watering by the gardener.

The correspondence kept up by gentlewomen of yore, those marvelous, ten-page love letters, were now replaced by the telephone, which dealt with all things that a few years earlier had to be arranged by the way of missives.

Each era has their technology leaps, eh? I’m sure that Fruzsina would have been all over social media these days. No need to rant, people haven’t changed much, they just adapt to the technology they have.

The pages at Johanna’s brothel/boarding house are funny and take us among the journalists of the time. Krúdy wrote for the famous Nyygat and was part of this crowd.

The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda is a picture of a world doomed to disappear and the Great War accelerated the process.

According to Wikipedia, Krúdy wrote 86 novels, thousands of short stories and thousands of articles that haven’t been all listed. Only ten novels are available in French and the same number in English, but not the same books. I read this one in English and there’s no French translation. A translation tragedy.

Other billets about Krúdy’s work: The Adventures of Sindbad and N.N. I also have Le Compagnon de voyage on the shelf.

They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy

December 27, 2017 21 comments

They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy (1934) French title: Vos jours sont comptés. Translated from the Hungarian by Jean-Luc Moreau.

For December, our Book Club had picked They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy, the first volume of his famous Transylvanian Trilogy. Miklós Bánffy (1873-1950) was a liberal Hungarian nobleman from Transylvania involved in politics. He was part of the high society in Budapest and in Transylvania. His Transylvanian Trilogy pictures Hungary before WWI and the downfall of the Austro-Hungarian empire. While Joseph Roth describes this decline on the Austrian side in The Radetzky March, Bánffy shows the other side of the coin in Hungary.

They Were Counted is a great picture of the high society in Budapest. We follow two cousins, Bálint Abády and László Gyerőffy. We’re in 1904 and they’re both in their twenties. Bálint went to university in Vienna and spent a few years in Foreign Affairs abroad. He has just been elected at the Hungarian Parliament. Bálint is now ready to take part in the country’s political future and to take the reins of his estate. László lost his parents when he was young and was raised by relatives. He’s a talented pianist but could not go to music school as he would have liked. He feels that he doesn’t belong to any family, that he’s barely tolerated in high society and it’s a big chip on his shoulder. He’s secretly in love with one of his cousin, Klára Kollonich. His future is uncertain because he would love to be a musician and he doesn’t have the fortune to stay idle and just go to music school.

The century is young, they’re at the beginning of their adult life and they have to choose their path.

Bánffi describes the life in Hungarian high society, a life made of balls, hunting parties in the country. It’s the classic life of European nobility at the turning of the century. According to the atmosphere and the mores, Budapest sounded closer to Paris than to London though.

Bánffi also portrays the complicated political issues that Bálint has to face in Parliament. I suppose that everything is accurate as Bánffi was part of this world. I have to confess I got lost in the intricacies of Hungarian politics. I got the big picture though: they were always in opposition with Vienna, they were not over the missed opportunity of the 1848 revolution and they were fighting futile battles instead of concentrating on real issues to improve their fellow citizen’s living conditions. In mirror to Roth’s Radetzky March, we see a Hungarian nobility who fails to see the real challenges of a changing world and a country hindered by old-fashioned politicians unable to renew themselves. The situation in Transylvania is even more complicated as the Hungarians and the Romanians have to live together and don’t speak the same language. I understood that the Romanians were oppressed by the Hungarians who had the actual power. (Power lent by the Austrian emperor.)

I suspect that of the two main characters, Bálint is the closest to Bánffy himself. He’s open-minded and a progressist. Now that he’s a deputy and that he’s back home on his land, he wants to modernize his country. Bálint’s father died when he was young and during his illness, he left a set of directives to help his wife manage their estate and keep it intact for their son. Now that he’s old enough to manage it, Bálint is determined to improve the economy on his land. He visits with his steward and tries to implement new methods. His naïve enthusiasm bumps into the established order. His men don’t dare to speak their mind in front of him and say yes to everything. They have also implemented a system made of corruption and violence and they don’t want the master to shatter it through misplaced modernism. The conservatism that kills the country is not the prerogative of the noble leading class.

László is more like a Balzacian hero. He goes to Budapest firmly decided to live modestly on his income and study music now that he’s the master of himself and can afford this choice. This lasts a few weeks until he’s sucked into a whirlwind of parties as the new season starts in Budapest. These social events are opportunities to see Klára and it pushes him to attend as many balls and soirées as possible. This high life costs a lot of money though and puts him in a difficult financial position. He’s also too charming for his own good and craves acceptance from this world. With this personality, he was set to be snatched by this life and drown in it.

Both Bálint and László have a complicated love life. Bálint found out too late that he was in love with Adrienne Milóth, someone he could have married. They had a real friendship, made of deep conversations and complicity. But at the time, Bálint was blinded by his affair with a married woman and when he came back from abroad, Adrienne was married to the oaf Pál Uzdy. It’s not a love marriage, Adrienne only wanted to be independent from her parents. On László’s side, we have the classic love for someone he can’t marry because Klára’s parents would not approve of it. Her mother has other plans for her daughters and they all involve climbing the social ladder through prestigious marriages. Nothing new here compared to 19thC literature.

However, Bánffi goes further than putting his heroes in desperate situations. He also shows how stifling their world was for women. They have no freedom at all. They go from their parents’ rule to their husbands’ one. They have no opportunity to have a career and he doesn’t picture the equivalent of literary salons in Budapest. Surely there were some. Bánffy draws a sad picture of the men of his class. They objectify women, they are predatory and wooing means hunting. Even the polished and respectful Bálint acts this way around Adrienne. And at the same time, we see women who cheat on their husbands, select a new lover and weave a well-thought trap to get them. All in all, the relationships between men and women didn’t seem very healthy to me. It’s violent under the politeness. And again, we are in a society that discards half of their brains because these brains belong to females.

They Were Counted is a fabulous picture of Hungary and Transylvania at the time. Bánffy wrote it in 1934 after the war and the collapse of the empire. He’s very lucid about the nobility’s failure to handle changes. This world was dying and WWI only accelerated its agony.

The original title of Bánffy’s masterpiece is Erdélyi Tőtenét – Megszámláltattál. Sometimes I like to check the original title of a book and see if the French title is the direct translation of the original or if it’s something different for the French public. Since I don’t speak Hungarian, I went to Google Translate to see the translation in French and in English. Same result in both languages, the title means Transylvanian torture with anxiety. It gives another vision to the book, doesn’t it?

They Were Counted ends with a double cliffhanger. With 750 pages, it’s a long book and I haven’t decided yet if I’ll read the two volumes left. On the one hand, I want to know what will become of Bálint and László. On the other hand, I’m not sure I want to start another 600 pages book right now. Still on the fence on this. If you’ve read it, how are the two other volumes?

Colours and Years by Margit Kaffka

June 6, 2016 11 comments

Colours and Years by Margit Kaffka. (1912) Translated from the Hungarian by George F. Cushing French title: Couleurs et années.

What a peculiar menagerie this world is!

KaffkaMargitt Kakfa (1880-1918) was a Hungarian writer. She was born in the provincial town of Nagykároly, now Carei in Romania. She was a schoolteacher by trade but turned to writing. She belonged to the circle of writers who ran the literary journal Nyugat. She spent time in coffee-houses and wrote stories about the condition of women in the Hungary of her time. She died of the Spanish influenza in 1918.

I usually don’t read foreign books in English translation but when I saw Colours and Years in a bookstore in Budapest, I couldn’t resist. What, a Hungarian novel written in 1912 by a woman who was acquainted with the Nyugat writers? I had to read this.

Coulours and Years is a first person narrative. Magda is over 50 years old, she lives alone, her daughters are grown up and live in another city. Madga lives modestly and remembers of her youth, her life. She will tell us about her childhood, her marriages and all the tragedies of her life.

She was born in a family of provincial nobility, the kind of nobility you find in Jane Austen’s books. They live in the country, are attached to the family tree and their little privileges and rank. Money was always a problem. Her father died when she was young, her mother was inconsistent, a flirt more interested in men than in raising her children. Magda’s grand-mother was the one to keep the household together.

I gathered that Magda was 18 in 1878 or something like that. Like European women of her time and of her status, her choice of “career” was: find a husband, a rich one if possible and make babies. She went out in the local society, danced and met young men. She was genuinely in love with Endre Tabódy but he wasn’t a suitable match. We follow Madga during her life journey until this little peaceful house.

Along the way, we hear about the society she lives in and it looks like other provincial towns in other countries. It’s narrow-minded, there aren’t many opportunities and life choices for women are limited. We see everything through Magda’s eyes and she talks about other women around her. Her mother who bet on men until she met one she liked well enough. Her grand-mother who had the kind of temper to run the show and depend on herself only. Her aunt Marika in Pest, who lives a boring city life. Her aunt Piroska who married a farmer and embraced farm life, always busy with housework or farm work but never missing the basics. Women around her who help their husbands build their career by being the perfect society/trophy wife.

While the theme of the novel appeals to me, I struggled with Magda and Margit Kaffka’s style.

I though Magda was a bit silly, a bit lacking in the courage department. When in financial need, she never imagines she could work. She lets her in-laws steamroll her. She has aspirations for grandeur that she cannot afford. She’s certainly the product of her childhood but she lacks the capacity to put it aside and do differently. If she were a character in Romance of a Shop, she’d be Fanny. Now that she’s older, she reflects on her life and see how ill-prepared she was to face the hurdles of life. She didn’t manage to go past her education and her environment.

Magda rejoices that the times have changed and that her daughters have different prospects and more freedom to choose their life:

Now, from the distance of three decades, I once again see the destiny of my own daughters and keep comparing it with my own. The youngest is eighteen years old now, preparing for her diploma, struggling hard, giving lessons and begging funds for herself, poor little thing. Yet all the same she writes, and sometimes I feel that she may be right, that her life is a more honest life, and her youth a more honest youth. She is still on the threshold, she can wait, make plans, rejoice in the future she feels has been put in her own hands. I suspect she has some exchange of letters and affairs of love, but as yet she has no plans or intentions to follow up on them; she continues them just for the sweetness of little thrills, festivities and tears. We folk of old knew nothing like this…

Young Magda didn’t have the guts to live her life like her daughter does. She wouldn’t have wanted to scrape by for freedom, to work for her independence. She was too willing to put herself under the protection –and the power—of a man, father, husband or uncle. She has admiration for her daughter, whose destiny resembles Kaffka’s own life. However, she’s also wise enough not to have regrets because the decisions she made at the time she made them seemed the best ones:

The years ground me down and wore me away. But would I not have grown old just the same in a life of refinement and beauty, quiet and gentle calm, I wonder? I should be exactly where I am! At this stage, I no longer ponder on what went wrong. Perhaps everyone’s life develops according to their nature; or their essential being adapts to their circumstances. Now I cannot imagine myself with a different past and present from those that became part of me and made me what I am.

Kaffka’s style is made of long sentences and lots of descriptions. It was a bit difficult to read sometimes, especially at night after a day in the office. It took me a while to read it and I guess my reading was too fragmented to really embrace the flow of Kaffka’s voice. So, perhaps it’ll be better for a native English speaker. I suppose it would have been easier in French, except that the French edition is apparently not so good. A friend of mine bought it and found  the translation clumsy and there were typos.

To be honest, I was also a bit lost in the family tree. Magda sure had a lot of aunts and uncles. Kaffka shows the life in a provincial town, full of gossip and of family interactions. Kaffka put in a lot of thoughts about women, marriage and life in general. She pictures the changes in this town at the turn of the 20th century and she based her novel on autobiographical elements. Like Krúdy, she gives life to the region of her childhood and left us a testimony of life in pre-WWI Hungary.

Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb

March 5, 2016 24 comments

Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb (1937) Translated by Peter Hargitai. French title: Le voyageur et le clair de lune. (Translated by Natalia Zaremba-Huzsvai and Charles Zaremba.)

Preamble: Although all the quotes I inserted in this billet come from the English translation by Peter Hargitai, I have read Journey by Moonlight in French. This English translation dates back to 2015 and its actual title is Traveler and the Moonlight, which is the same as in French. (Le voyageur et le clair de lune). Since Szerb’s novel is better known under Journey by Moonlight, I’ll refer to it under this title in my billet.

The practical life is a myth, a bluff, invented by idiots as a consolation for being impotent as intellectuals.

SZERB_voyageurJourney by Moonlight starts in Venice where Erzsi and Mihály have just arrived from Budapest. They’re on their honeymoon and Mihály is a bit wary. It’s his first time in Italy and we learn from the first page that he has lived in France and England, travelled a lot but avoided Italy like the plague because it was a country for grown-ups. So he thinks. And now that he’s married, he’s an adult and he should be protected against Italy’s power of attraction.

Erzsi and Mihály leave Venice for Ravenna and Mihály’s past catches up with him in the form of János Szepetneki, one of his old classmates. Suddenly, his youth resurfaces and Mihály reveals to Erzsi a whole part of his past that she’s unware of. As an adolescent, Mihály suffered from what I’ll call panic attacks. It lasted until he became friends with Tamás Ulpius, who seemed to have the power to prevent the attacks from happening. Tamás and his sister Éva are free spirits, living in a strange household. Their mother is dead, their father is very strict and their eccentric grand-father encourages their weird activities. There is no schedule in this house and Tomas and Éva do as they please. They love theatre and keep playing dramatic deaths. They have a fusional relationship. Mihály is drawn to their world. He comes from a close-knit bourgeois family. His father owns a small company and the atmosphere at home is loving but conformist. Mihály finds it smothering and he’s madly attracted to the Ulpius lifestyle. They represent freedom. But despite his efforts, Mihály doesn’t really fit in, he feels like a fraud:

“At the same time, I didn’t feel quite right about Tamás and Éva. I felt like I was betraying them. What they regarded as natural and free was for me a difficult, agonizing rebellion. I was too bourgeois. I was raised that way, as you well know. I had to take a deep breath the first time I allowed my cigarette ashes to fall to the floor. Tamás and Éva couldn’t imagine otherwise. The few times I mustered the courage to skip school with Tamás, I suffered from stomach cramps the entire day. My nature was such that I’d get up early, sleep at night, and eat lunch at lunchtime and supper at supper time. I’d prefer to eat my meals from a plate, and I’d never start with dessert. I like order, and I’m terrified of policemen. I tried to conceal from Tamás and Éva a part of me that was order-loving, conscientious and petite bourgeois. Of course they saw right through the roles I was playing, even had opinions on the subject, but were polite enough not to bring it up with me, and kindly looked the other way whenever I tried to save money or had an attack of orderliness.

It’s not easy to leave your background behind and yet adolescence is really the time to question one’s education. Later, another student joins them and the group dynamic changes and Ervin is also an outsider.

Mihály relates his high-school years with Tamás and Éva and explains to Erzsi that Tamás is dead, that he committed suicide a few years before, that Éva got married and disappeared and that the rumour says that Ervin has become a monk. They didn’t keep in touch. Mihály never knew the exact circumstances of Tamás’s death and he never recovered from it. He tried to close the door of his past:

What had his life been like these last fifteen years? He was educated in his profession both at home and abroad. Not the profession of his choosing but the one conferred on him by his family, his father, his father’s company, which did not interest him but which he joined nevertheless. He struggled to learn amusements appropriate for a young aspiring partner of the company. To play bridge. To ski. To drive a car. He bent over backwards to become entangled in adventures of the heart appropriate for a company man, found Erzsi, and entered into a relationship with her which would elicit in society just the right amount of gossip, appropriate to an up-and-coming partner of a prestigious company. And, finally, he married a beautiful, intelligent and wealthy woman with whom he had carried on an affair and whose reputation of carrying on affairs was a notable advantage, befitting a wife of an aspiring partner. Who knows, another year and he may become a full partner. Attitudes about identity, about who one is and what one does go through a hardening process that cuts to the inner core of one’s being until it becomes callous beyond recognition. One starts out as so and so who happens to work as an engineer, and with time he is an engineer and who he really is no longer matters.

He thought he had moved on, that his marriage to Erzsi had sealed the door to this part of himself who yearned for a freer life. He tried to leave his past behind and grow up. The problem is he didn’t move on, he tried really hard to fit the designated mould. The encounter with Janos acts as a catalyst and Mihály unfolds from his mould, he breaks free and he rebounds back to his former self after being compressed.

He leaves Erzsi behind and starts a journey through Italy, revisiting his past, trying to find himself and to put the past to rest. He’s on a travel and on a journey, the French is more convenient here because “voyage” covers both meanings.

Journey by Moonlight is a picaresque novel. We follow Mihály in Italy and Erzsi in France. Mihály needs to find Ervin and Éva. But both have their past resurfacing and meddling into their present. For Erzsi, it’s in the form of her ex-husband who wants her back, even if she left him for Mihály. She had a comfortable life but she wanted to step out of conformity and marrying Mihály was a way to do it.

With just about everything, she’d been a conformist, as Mihály would point out. But then she got bored. Bored to the point of mind-numbing neurosis, and that’s when she sought out Mihály, sensing that he at least was a man, an individual who resisted the insufferable taboos inherent in social boundaries and their rock-solid walls. She believed that with Mihály she could scale those walls, beyond which were wild thickets and forbidden pastures that spread far toward an exotic horizon. But, as it turned out, Mihály was actually conforming through her, using her as a means to become respectable, and he’d only rarely break out and wander off to graze among those forbidden pastures, usually when he got fed up with following the herd and retreated back as far as the thickets.

They had found a middle ground in Budapest but change the setting, add Janos as a deus ex-machina and the fragile balance shatters. What’s as the end of this journey? Will Mihály find his peace of mind? Will Erzsi and Mihály go through a parallel journey or will they meet midway?

Journey by Moonlight is a thoughtful novel about identity, the weight of family expectations and the force of ingrained education. One’s education grounds them. Most of the time, it’s in a positive way. Sometimes, it fills one’s shoes with lead and prevent them from soaring and being themselves. It could be a sad book but it’s not, thanks to Szerb’s subtle sense of humour.

Pataki read somewhere that the only difference between a married man and a bachelor was that the married man could always count on someone to dine with.

It breaks the tension and puts the characters’ inner turmoil in perspective. What is their angst in the grand scheme of things? Nothing. His sense of humour also appears in descriptions:

That was Italy for you, he thought. Pelting each other with history. Two thousand years as natural to them as the smell of dung in a village.

Journey by Moonlight is also a wonderful tribute to Italy. Szerb is cosmopolitan, cultured and a humanist who lived in several European countries. His novel makes you touch the concept of “Europeanity”. He points out clichés but always with affection. About London:

He loved wallowing in London’s melancholy climate, its damp, foggy mist, loyal companion to solitude and the spleen. “London in November is not so much a month,” he said, “as a condition of the soul.”

And about the French:

Finding themselves alone in their first-class compartment, they were soon kissing as ardently as the French. For both, this was left over from their years of study in Paris.

Szerb shows local quirks but indirectly puts forward our common culture, the Europe built by art and intellectuals. The three first parts of the novel start with a quote by a poet. Mihály visits Keats’s grave in Rome. Journey by Moonlight was published in 1937, in troubled times for Europe. Italy, Germany and Spain were run by dictators. Eastern European countries were fragile after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire. In Szerb, I sense a man of peace, an intellectual who would promote unity against division. In times of Brexit and of the migrant crisis, he’d urge us to remember who we are and that there is indeed such an impalpable thing as European identity. It’s that  something that made our Australian guest gush over the phone “Oh my gosh, they’re so European!”

I’ll end this billet with a book recommendation: if you loved Journey by Moonlight, then there’s a good chance that you’ll like Les Enchanteurs by Romain Gary.

For other reviews, find Max’s here and Guy’s here.

PS: Szerb was Jewish. He died in 1945, executed by the Nazis. As usual, my French copy came with no comments of any sort. My English copy has a fascinating afterword by Peter Hargitai. He’s a translator of this novel into English and he paid for its publication. That’s how important it is for him. He was acquainted to Szerb’s widow and taught this novel for years to American students. He wanted to honour Szerb’s memory. His afterword gives a brilliant explanation of the novel and he also reminds us of the horrible fate of Hungarian Jews. (See my billet about Fateless by Imre Kertesz here)

PPS: Don’t ask me anything about the French cover, I’m clueless.

The Adventures of Sindbad by Gyula Krúdy

January 13, 2016 14 comments

The Adventures of Sindbad by Gyula Krúdy. French: Sindbad ou la nostalgie.

Krudy_SindbadThis is the English version of the billet written in French here. The English collection of stories is translated by Georges Szirtes and is different from the French one. They have some stories in common but not all. However, I don’t think that the general atmosphere of the stories differs much from one collection to the other.

The Adventures of Sindbad are short stories written by the Hungarian author Gyula Krúdy (1878-1933). The stories are all centered around Sindbad, a recurring character in Krúdy’s work, his literary double, his imaginary adventurer. Sindbad is a love adventurer who’s doing pilgrimages and trips on the premises of old loves, either to reminisce better times or do penance for his past conduct.

The stories have been published between 1911 and 1935, a span of time of more than 20 years that saw the end of the Hungary of Krúdy’s youth. Sindbad gets older too in the stories and they become darker with time, witnesses of the ageing writer and of the state of the country.

Showing just beneath the surface is a Sindbad, traveller and bohemian, forever in love, not with one woman but with eternal feminity.

Sindbad confiait le destin de sa vie au destin et au hasard ; il pressentait obscurément que, maintenant encore, comme déjà tant de fois, une jeune fille ou une femme allait se trouver sur son chemin ; elle lui insufflerait une nouvelle vie, elle verserait un sang frais dans ses veines, des pensées neuves dans sa cervelle brûlée. Il avait trente ans, et depuis l’âge de quinze ans, il ne vivait que pour les femmes.

 Voyage vers la mort (1911)

 

Sindbad left his life in the hands of Fate and chance. He felt obscurely that now, as many times before, a girl or a woman would cross his path. She would inspire him with a new life, she would pour new blood in his veins, new thoughts in his rattled brain. He was thirty years old and since the age of fifteen, he had only lived for women.

Journey to Death (1911). Not included in The Adventures of Sindbad. My translation from the French.

He’s a gallant from a Fragonard painting. He loves women and falls hard each time. No donjuanesque cynicism in Sindbad. No. He behaves with women like a child in a candy store. Like a gourmand. He’s attracted to all of them. He wants to taste them all, the inn-keeper’s wife, the actress, the shop-keeper, the photographer, the pianist, the girl next door. He’s always tipsy on love.

The stories slowly reveal the damages done by this hopeless womanizer, all the more dangerous that he’s sincere. At a given time. Afterwards, it’s something else. He’s a charming charmer, they are delighted, bewitched and changed. And devastated. He doesn’t hesitate to abduct or compromise them. He leaves miserable women behind. Some commit suicide; he has children he’s not aware of. He finds himself in perilous situations.

A cette époque, Sindbad ne pouvait pas quitter l’auberge à l’enseigne du Bœuf Rouge. Il avait semé la discorde en ville en provoquant une demande de divorce qui se termina par une réconciliation et, à cause de lui, une demoiselle fut envoyée au couvent, celle-là même qui avait voulu se suicider à tout prix, tandis que des années plus, tard, elle devint la mère de quelque demi-douzaine d’enfants magnifiques.

Le Bœuf Rouge (1915)

In those days Sindbad spent all his time at The Red Ox inn. He had gained some notoriety in town on account of a divorce which was settled amicably enough, and of one young lady, who had been determined to commit suicide on his account, then being despatched to a convent, though within a few years she had given birth to half a dozen beautiful children.

The Red Ox (1915) Translation by George Szirtes

marc-chagall-les-trois-bougiesHe’s upset about it, but not for long. Sindbad is elusive, unfaithful, he hops from one woman in flower to the other; he plays the field. Despite my earlier vision of a Sindbad coming out of a painting by Fragonard, we are far from the libertine salons of the 18th century. The setting reflects the Hungarian countryside, horse-driven cars, snow, cold and the odd atmosphere, a little romantic, mysterious and almost mythical of these rigorous winters. Sometimes we are a bit in the dreamlike universe of a painting by Chagall.

 

Une vache se mit à meugler dans l’étable, (depuis les temps bibliques cet animal aime prendre part aux événements familiaux), le chien de garde, qui dormait sur la neige, se rendit au milieu de la cour pour mieux voir l’âme qui s’envolait vers les étoiles scintillantes ; là il s’acquitta de sa cérémonie funèbre en hurlant à la mort.  

Une étrange mort (1925)

 

A cow started to moo in the cowshed, (since biblical times this animal likes to participate to family events), the guard dog who was sleeping on the snow, went in the middle of the yard to better see the soul that was flying away to the twinkling stars. Then he carried out his funeral ceremony by baying at the moon.

A Strange Death (1925) My translation from the French.

Krúdy is a poet in prose. It took me time to read this short collection of stories because Krúdy can’t be gulped, he needs to be sipped to fully grasp the beauty of the images, the lightness of the descriptions and the eerie sense of place.

Dans les jardins, les semis pointaient frais et verts. Seuls les peupliers plantés de part et d’autre de la rue avaient l’immobilité désabusée de ceux à qui tout est égal. Une de leurs feuilles tombait de temps à autre dans la voiture de Sindbad.

 Sindbad et l’actrice. (1911)

Vegetables shone, green and fresh, in the gardens. Only the poplars stood bitter and unmoving on the pavement, indifferent to the world around them. They dropped a leaf or two into Sindbad’s carriage as he passed.

Sindbad and the Actress (1911) Translation by George Szirtes

I think it sounds better in French. Sindbad is full of nostalgia and Krúdy excels at writing down memories and brushing upon impressions.

Pendant les heures du soir et de la nuit, dès que Sindbad avait posé la tête sur l’oreiller, ses pensées voletaient comme des oiseaux migrateurs en partance, de plus en plus rares, de plus en plus lointaines, autour de lui ; ou bien pendant les grasses matinées, lorsque le rêve agréable, chaleureux, plein de baisers de la nuit demeurait encore à demi-enfoui sous la couverture, sur l’oreiller douillet, dans le moelleux velouté du tapis, et la reine des songes semblait se tenir encore sur le seuil avec son masque rouge, sa robe de soie noire, ses petits souliers vernis et ses bas aussi fins que ceux que portaient les suivantes à l’insu de leurs princesses…dans ces moments-là, Sindbad, recevait fréquemment la visite d’une petite actrice brune dans sa chambre solitaire.

Voyage d’hiver (1912)

 

In the night hours, when Sindbad laid his head down on the pillow and thoughts swirled about his head like departing birds of passage, ever fewer in number and ever further off; and later, in the morning, while the warm kisses of the previous night’s dream still lingered with him in bed under the covers, on the soft cushion, or lay tangled in the woolly weave of the carpet; when the aristocratic woman in the black silk dress and scarlet mask, the woman of his dreams, was still standing on the threshold in her lacquered ankle boots and delicate silk stockings, the kind court ladies wear without the queen’s knowledge — at such times, a dark-haired little actress dressed in black with black silk stockings and an eagle’s feather in her hat would often come to visit him in his lonely room, the hair behind her ears soft and loose but freshly combed, just as Sindbad the sailor had last seen her.

Winter Journey (1912) Translation by George Szirtes.

Nostalgia pushed Sindbad to the premises of the love affairs of his youth, flings or short-term relationships. His old lovers stayed in the village where he had picked them. Some died after starting over or without recovering from their blazing affair with a fickle Sindbad. We are between dream and reality, remembrance and ghostly apparitions from past times coming to haunt an ageing Sindbad.

The reader feels ambivalent towards Sindbad and it is to the credit of Krúdy’s prose. Sindbad is selfish and cruel. The poetry in the stories tones down the darkness of his actions. He’s no better than Rodolphe seducing Madame Bovary but the nostalgia filter that Krúdy puts between the reader and the facts mitigates the gravity of his actions and tempers with the horrible consequences of his amorous impulses.

Sindbad’s true thoughts will remain his.

Chaque homme a son secret dont il ne parle jamais durant sa vie. Des choses qui se sont passées voilà bien longtemps, des actions honteuses, des aventures, des peines de cœur et des humiliations. Rien ne serait plus intéressant que de lire ce que, sur son lit de mort, quelqu’un dirait franchement, en toute sincérité, à propos des secrets qu’il a tus au cours de son existence.

Le secret de Sindbad (1911)

Each man has his secret that remains untold during his life. Some things happened a long time ago, shameful actions, heartbreak and humiliations. Nothing would be more interesting that to read what someone on their deathbed would say frankly about the secrets he kept his whole life.

Sindbad’s Secret (1911) My translation from the French.

My French copy came to my mail box courtesy of the publisher, Les éditions La Baconnière. The short stories are translated into French by Juliette Clancier and Ibolya Virág.

As expected, I had a lot of trouble to switch from the French to the English on this billet. The English and the French language don’t talk about love the same way or maybe I don’t know the right English words. While the vocabulary I used in French is rather light, a bit playful, the translation is laced with words tainted with negativity or plainness. In French, we have lots of light images to describe “casual affairs”. We say papillonner (to butterfly), avoir un coeur d’artichaut (to have an artichoke heart, ie to be constantly falling in and out of love). Our language is more forgiving to inconsistent hearts, conveying the tolerance we have for these things.

Sindbad ou la nostalgie, de Gyula Krúdy. L’aventurier de l’amour

January 10, 2016 5 comments

Sindbad ou la nostalgie de Gyula Krúdy (Nouelles: 1911-1935)

For readers who can’t read in French, I will publish another post in English about Sindbad by Gyula Krúdy

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Krudy_SindbadSindbad ou la nostalgie est un recueil de nouvelles de l’écrivain hongrois Gyula Krúdy (1878-1933). Les textes sont tous centrés autour du personnage de Sindbad, un personnage récurrent de Krúdy, son double littéraire, son aventurier imaginaire. Sindbad est un aventurier de l’amour qui effectue des voyages-pèlerinages sur les lieux d’anciennes amours, soit pour se remémorer des temps meilleurs, soit pour se faire pardonner sa conduite passée.

Les nouvelles ont été publiées entre 1911 et 1935, une période de plus de 20 ans qui a vu la mort de la Hongrie de la jeunesse de Krúdy. Sindbad vieillit lui aussi, au fil des nouvelles et les textes deviennent plus noirs au fil du temps, témoins de l’écrivain qui vieillit et de la situation du pays. Il se dessine en filigrane un Sindbad voyageur et bohème, éternel amoureux, non pas d’une femme mais des femmes et de l’éternel féminin.

Sindbad confiait le destin de sa vie au destin et au hasard ; il pressentait obscurément que, maintenant encore, comme déjà tant de fois, une jeune fille ou une femme allait se trouver sur son chemin ; elle lui insufflerait une nouvelle vie, elle verserait un sang frais dans ses veines, des pensées neuves dans sa cervelle brûlée. Il avait trente ans, et depuis l’âge de quinze ans, il ne vivait que pour les femmes.

Voyage vers la mort (1911)

C’est un galant d’un tableau de Fragonard. Il prend plaisir avec les femmes et se sent éperdument amoureux à chaque fois. Pas de cynisme don-juanesque chez Sindbad. Non. Il se comporte avec les femmes comme un enfant dans une confiserie. En gourmand. Tout lui fait envie. Il a envie de toutes les goûter, la femme de l’aubergiste, l’actrice, la marchande, la photographe, la pianiste, la jeune fille d’à côté. Aimer est le grand point, qu’importe la maîtresse ? Qu’importe le flacon, pourvu qu’on ait l’ivresse. Ces vers de Musset conviennent parfaitement à Sindbad qui est toujours légèrement intoxiqué d’amour.

Au fil des nouvelles pourtant s’égrènent les ravages faits par ce cœur d’artichaut, d’autant plus dangereux qu’il est sincère. A l’instant t. Après, c’est autre chose. Il est charmant, charmeur, elles sont charmées, envoutées et changées. Et dévastées. Il n’hésite pas à les enlever, à les compromettre. Il est impulsif. Il laisse derrière lui des femmes désespérées, certaines se suicident ; il a des enfants qu’il ne connait pas. Il s’en trouve dans des situations périlleuses :

A cette époque, Sindbad ne pouvait pas quitter l’auberge à l’enseigne du Bœuf Rouge. Il avait semé la discorde en ville en provoquant une demande de divorce qui se termina par une réconciliation et, à cause de lui, une demoiselle fut envoyée au couvent, celle-là même qui avait voulu se suicider à tout prix, tandis que des années plus, tard, elle devint la mère de quelque demi-douzaine d’enfants magnifiques.

Le Bœuf Rouge (1915)

Il s’en tourmente, mais pas longtemps. Sindbad est insaisissable, volage, il butine de fleur en fleur, papillonne.

marc-chagall-les-trois-bougiesMalgré ma vision d’un Sindbad sorti d’un tableau de Fragonard, on est loin des salons libertins du 18ème siècle. L’ambiance est plutôt celle des provinces hongroises, des voitures tirées par des chevaux, de la neige, du froid et de l’ambiance un peu romantique, mystérieuse et presque mythique de ces hivers rigoureux. On est parfois un peu dans l’univers onirique d’un tableau de Chagall

Une vache se mit à meugler dans l’étable, (depuis les temps bibliques cet animal aime prendre part aux événements familiaux), le chien de garde, qui dormait sur la neige, se rendit au milieu de la cour pour mieux voir l’âme qui s’envolait vers les étoiles scintillantes ; là il s’acquitta de sa cérémonie funèbre en hurlant à la mort.

Une étrange mort (1925)

Krúdy est un poète en prose. Il m’a fallu du temps pour lire ce cours recueil de nouvelles par que l’écriture de Krúdy ne se boit pas à grandes lampées, elle se déguste à petites gorgées pour mieux saisir et apprécier la beauté des images, la légèreté des descriptions, le caractère irréel des lieux.

Une chauve-souris passait comme un soupir tremblant surgi du passé malheureux d’un inconnu.

Sindbad part en pèlerinage. (1925)

Dans les jardins, les semis pointaient frais et verts. Seuls les peupliers plantés de part et d’autre de la rue avaient l’immobilité désabusée de ceux à qui tout est égal. Une de leurs feuilles tombait de temps à autre dans la voiture de Sindbad.

Sindbad et l’actrice. (1911)

Sindbad est nostalgique et Krúdy n’a pas son pareil pour écrire des souvenirs, nous faire palper des impressions.

Pendant les heures du soir et de la nuit, dès que Sindbad avait posé la tête sur l’oreiller, ses pensées voletaient comme des oiseaux migrateurs en partance, de plus en plus rares, de plus en plus lointaines, autour de lui ; ou bien pendant les grasses matinées, lorsque le rêve agréable, chaleureux, plein de baisers de la nuit demeurait encore à demi-enfoui sous la couverture, sur l’oreiller douillet, dans le moelleux velouté du tapis, et la reine des songes semblait se tenir encore sur le seuil avec son masque rouge, sa robe de soie noire, ses petits souliers vernis et ses bas aussi fins que ceux que portaient les suivantes à l’insu de leurs princesses…dans ces moments-là, Sindbad, recevait fréquemment la vitire d’une petite actrice brune dans sa chambre solitaire.

Voyage d’hiver (1912)

La nostalgie pousse Sindbad à revenir sur les lieux de ses amours de jeunesse, histoires d’un soir ou de quelques mois. Ses anciennes amantes sont restées dans le village où il les avait cueillies. Certaines sont mortes après avoir refait leur vie ou sans s’être remises de leur histoire flamboyante avec un Sindbad inconstant. On est entre rêve et réalité, entre réminiscence et apparitions de fantômes des temps anciens venus hanter un Sindbad vieillissant.

On est ambivalent à l’égard de Sindbad et c’est la prose de Krúdy qui crée cette ambivalence. Sindbad est égoïste et cruel. La poésie des textes atténue la noirceur de ses actes. Il ne vaut pas mieux que le Rodolphe qui séduit Madame Bovary mais le filtre nostalgique mis par le style de Krúdy entre le lecteur et les faits tamise la gravité des actions de Sindbad et tempère l’horreur des conséquences de ses pulsions amoureuses.

Au bout du bout, les véritables pensées de Sindbad lui sont propres et le resteront.

Chaque homme a son secret dont il ne parle jamais durant sa vie. Des choses qui se sont passées voilà bien longtemps, des actions honteuses, des aventures, des peines de cœur et des humiliations. Rien ne serait plus intéressant que de lire ce que, sur son lit de mort, quelqu’un dirait franchement, en toute sincérité, à propose des secrets qu’il a tus au cours de son existence.

Le secret de Sindbad (1911)

Sindbad ou la nostalgie est publié aux éditions La Baconnière. Les nouvelles sont traduites par Juliette Clancier et Ibolya Virág, qui dirige la collection de littérature d’Europe Centrale pour La Baconnière. Je remercie l’éditeur et Ibolya Virág de m’avoir envoyé un exemplaire de ce recueil de nouvelles.

Fatelessness or Fateless by Imre Kertész

September 30, 2015 33 comments

Fateless or Fatelessness by Imre Kertész (1975) French title: Etre sans destin. (Translated from the Hungarian by Natalia Zaremba-Huszai and Charles Zaremba.)

Il y a dans notre personnalité un domaine, qui, comme je l’ai appris est notre propriété perpétuelle et inaliénable. As I discovered later, there is a place in our personality that forever and inalienably belongs to us.

Fateless or Fatelessness is a novel based upon Imre Kertész’s experience at Buchenwald. I’m not keen on reading books about concentration camps, as I find them hard to bear. Then Caroline picked it up for Literature and War Readalong and I decided it was time to give myself a kick and read it. (Her review is here)

KerteszIt starts like this… I didn’t go to school today. Or rather, I did go but only to ask my class teacher’s permission to take the day off. …and it propelled me to another novel that starts with Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I can’t be sure. (The Stranger by Albert Camus) A few short sentences that let you know the narrator’s world is about to change forever but that also set the tone of the narration. It’s not going to be warm; this person is aloof, hard to reach and blunt.

Köves György, the narrator of Fateless is a Jew from Budapest. He’s 15 when the bus he takes to go to work is hijacked and the passengers are sent to Auschwitz. He relates his journey from Budapest to Auschwitz, then to Buchenwald until he comes back to Budapest after the liberation of the camps.

I’ve read two other books by survivors of concentration camps, If This Is a Man by Primo Levi (Auschwitz) and Literature or Life by Jorge Semprún. (Buchenwald). Fateless is an autobiographical novel and the other two are non-fiction. If we set aside the fiction / non-fiction part, the main difference with Fateless is that Levi and Semprún were grown men when they were deported and they were Resistants. They knew they were taking risks, they knew about camps and they knew why the Nazis would go after them.

Here, we have a coming-of-age novel about an adolescent who became a man too fast and in terrible circumstances. The book begins with the deportation of the narrator’s father to labor camp. The narrator is a bit annoyed to be retrieved from school to help with the preparation of his father’s departure. He’s a “normal” adolescent: selfish, interested in girls, unwilling to spend time with his family and not really interested in the news. He’s 15 and everybody wonders who they are at this age but for him, the angst takes another dimension. He’s is an assimilated Jew, doesn’t go to the synagogue, doesn’t speak Yiddish or Hebrew and he doesn’t understand why he’s different from other Hungarian citizens. The Nazis’ intrinsic hatred for Jews puzzles him. He looks at himself and wonders “why?”, “What substance am I made of to be ostracized that way?”

Later, he feels a sense of security when he’s given papers to go out of town and work in a factory. Legit papers seemed a good protection. But the whole bus full of Jews is taken by the Hungarian authorities in the summer 1944 and he’s shipped to Auschwitz. He relates the time spent in Budapest, waiting for their destination, the trip on the train without water, the arrival in Auschwitz, all the procedures he went through. Then he’s sent to Zeitz and eventually to Buchenwald.

The most unsettling thing about the novel is the narrator’s ignorance. He’s just a Jewish boy who doesn’t know much about Jewish religion, about the world. He definitely doesn’t know anything about concentration camps. At first, he’s even a bit excited about his adventure, until he gets to Auschwitz and he is enlightened by other prisoners about the workings of the camp and the gas chambers.

He relates the process to sort out the prisoners, the meticulous, well-oiled process. He goes through the motions and tells candidly what he sees, what he does, how his body is rapidly disintegrating under the harshness of the living conditions. His naiveté is baffling for the reader who knows better and reads between the lines. It emphasizes the horror of the camp. György’s descriptions show how the camps were so perfectly ruled, like efficient death factories. Sometimes he gives a full description of the bucolic countryside around the camps and the reader’s feeling of horror moves up another notch. The rampant question is always the same: How? How could this happen at this scale with this thorough and cold blooded savagery?

His tone is detached, focused on material things (food, clothes, showers, sleep). He’s reverted to basic needs. His detachment and his focusing on surviving take all his strength and willpower. He goes by, one day after the other, one step after the other.

C’est seulement à Zeitz que j’ai compris que la captivité a aussi ses jours ordinaires, et même que la véritable captivité se compose en fait exclusivement de grisaille quotidienne. It is only in Zeitz that I understood that captivity also has its ordinary days, and even that real captivity is exclusively made of the greyness of the quotidian.

Everything seems absurd and he goes with the flow. He’s not very likeable because his dehumanization seeps through his narration. The whole novel bathes in absurdity. I’ve read it’s a bit like The Castle by Kafka. It certainly is for the sheer absurdity of bureaucracy, for the blind and incomprehensible hatred for Jews. The narrator tries to understand what’s happening around him but he doesn’t get it. The absurdity is so total that the most surreal things seem natural. The more the book progresses, the more he punctuates his sentences with naturally. As if the most horrific things were natural in camps, and if course, they were as they had become the new normality. The difference of understanding between the boy and the reader enforces this impression of absurdity. And absurdity brings me back to Camus.

A word about the title. In English, it’s been translated as Fateless or Fatelessness. In French, it is Etre sans destin, which means To be fateless and A being without a fate. And György is both. His fate is ripped away from him.

J’essayais de regarder vers l’avant, mais l’horizon se limitait au lendemain, et le lendemain était le même jour, c’est-à-dire encore un jour parfaitement identique, dans le meilleur des cas, bien sûr. I tried to look forward but the horizon was limited to tomorrow and tomorrow was the same day, that is to say another perfectly identical day, in the best case scenario, of course.

While in Buchenwald, he can’t imagine his future, he doesn’t have one anymore. And when he comes home, the future he had no longer exists. This former fate has been taken from him. He can’t erase what happened to him, it shaped him into someone else, he can’t resume his former life and he doesn’t know what his new fate is. He’s fateless, left to face his fatelessness.

But for me, this fatelessness also refers to something else.

Wikipedia mentions that “Between 15 May and 9 July [1944], Hungarian authorities deported 437,402 Jews. All but 15,000 of these Jews were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and 90% of those were immediately killed. One in three of all Jews killed at Auschwitz were Hungarian citizens.” György’s (and Kertész’s) survival is a miracle. His fate is sealed by chance. (Same thing for Levi and Semprún). When he arrives in Auschwitz, another prisoner makes him understand he needs to lie about his age and say he’s 16. He doesn’t know why but instinctively follows the advice. It saves his life. In Buchenwald, he ends up in the hospital and it saves his life too. At the beginning, one of the characters caught on the bus on the way to the factory keeps saying that he was going to see his mother, that he almost missed the bus, that he wouldn’t have been there if he had missed that bus and decided to go home instead of giving it a chance and try to catch it. Back to Camus again. Life is unpredictable. The events flow randomly and fate is against us. He ended up in Buchenwald but he could have escaped it or ended up in the Danube like other Jews from Budapest.

S’il y a un destin, la liberté n’est pas possible ; si, au contraire, ai-je poursuivi de plus en plus surpris et me piquant au jeu, si la liberté existe, alors il n’y a pas de destin, c’est-à-dire—je me suis interrompu, mais juste le temps de reprendre mon souffle—c’est-à-dire qu’alors nous sommes nous-mêmes le destin : c’est ce qu’à cet instant-là j’ai compris plus clairement que jamais. If there is a fate, then liberty isn’t possible. If, on the contrary, I said, more and more surprised and getting into it, if liberty exists, then there is no fate. That is to say—I stopped, just long enough to catch my breath—that is to say we are fate ourselves. That’s what I understood at that moment, with the greatest clarity.

Yes fate doesn’t exist or more exactly what we think as fate is a succession of tiny decisions, barely conscious sometimes, that change our route, our life. Even in this barbaric, dictatorial steamroller that what the organization of the Holocaust, the narrator did make decisions that changed his life, like lying about his age. As all of us, the narrator is fateless, his future is not determined by any superior being.

Here’s another review by Lisa.

DSC_1170Memorial of the Jews who were killed and thrown into the Danube during WWII in Budapest.

N.N. by Gyula Krúdy. Translation Tragedy

August 31, 2015 26 comments

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.

Embers by Sándor Márai

May 25, 2015 25 comments

Embers by Sándor Márai (1942) French title: Les braises. Translated by Marcelle et Georges Régnier.

Marai_braisesEmbers is set in 1941 in an odd aristocratic castle in Hungary. Henri is 75, a widower and a former general from the Austro-Hungarian army. His wife died years ago and he lives a solitary life. He’s retreated in a small part of the castle and lives among his servants. One night, a messenger comes with a letter, informing him that Conrad is back. Henri sends a car to fetch him and while he waits for him, he reminisces their childhood, their youth, their friendship in the military academy in Vienna.

They haven’t seen each other in 41 years. Conrad left and we soon understand that they parted abruptly and that Henri has been waiting for this reunion for all his life. He survived everything to be there and alive for this confrontation. We will witness their exchange and see the two men’s story unravel in front of us. I won’t say more about the plot to avoid spoilers. I will only say that their talk involves the general’s wife Christine and a love triangle.

Márai explores several paths in this beautiful novel. Through the general’s eyes, we see a lost world, the one he grew up in and saw crumble after the Great War. His father was in the military too and his mother was French. They met in France and lived in Hungary after they got married. We gather that their marriage was complicated as they had opposite personalities. The general’s father was rather stern and closed-off, a soldier to the core while his mother was more open and artistic. It sounds simplistic but that’s the way Márai presents it, even saying that being French led her to be more eager to talk about her feelings. (I still haven’t understood that statement.)

Their son Henri enjoyed is career path. He didn’t have trouble adapting to military academy and had the wealth and charisma to play the role expected from him. He did it effortlessly …because Conrad was by his side. Young Henri needs affection to be healthy and happy. Somehow, Márai makes it sound like an oddity, a weakness while our modern world finds it obvious.

Conrad and Henri met when they were ten. Conrad comes from an impoverished family from Poland (His mother was a relative of Chopin’s) and his parents sacrificed everything to pay for his education. Contrary to Henri, he had a hard time feeling comfortable in military clothes. He’s musical, he has an artistic temper and wearing a uniform is like wearing a costume for him.

He and Henri were close, though. Conrad spent his holidays at the castle and Henri’s family took him under their wing. Conrad and Henri’s mother got along very well as they both loved music. They were are carried away by Chopin’s music while Henri and his father didn’t understand what the fuss was all about. That’s the symbol of the rift between the characters.

The novel could be a theatre play, a tragedy by Racine or Corneille. It’s set in one place with two characters and Henri’s old nanny. Most of the book is a dialogue between Conrad and Henri. Henri is the one doing most of the talking, letting out the result of 41 years of ruminations. He discourses on friendship, memories, revenge and what men learn when they get old. There’s something disturbing about the way Márai describes passion and duty.

Although I loved the book and the description of passionate feelings, I remained aloof, a spectator. I wanted to find out what had happened, I wasn’t bored at all and I found the discussion between the two men very interesting. The novel is full of thoughts about friendship, love, honour, betrayal, ageing and human experience. Although part of these thoughts touched me, the story didn’t engage me emotionally. Sometimes when you read a book, you come across thoughts and feelings that are yours. It can be a relief to find a writer who put words on inner thoughts you’re not able to express and to find out that these confused or semi-formed thoughts are only human. When I read about great passions that lead to dramatic gestures or behaviours, I don’t feel like I’m sharing human experience. I need a bit of suspension of belief to enter the story because if I let my brain take over, I’ll just roll my eyes and think “Really, how is that plausible?” I need it to read Wuthering Heights or Romeo and Juliet. That’s why I have a hard time enjoying Phèdre by Racine or Le Cid by Corneille. I can’t relate to these extreme reactions and grand and long-lasting passions; I remain a spectator.

The same thing happened here. Henri’s course of action sounds improbable to me, especially since it lasted 41 years. I understand burning passion leading to murder in the heat of the moment. But to put one’s life on hold to maintain embers of old feelings and resentment during 41 years and only live to meet Conrad again and hear the truth? I don’t believe in such a steady consuming passion. Perhaps I’m far too practical for that.

In parallel to the personal story between Henri and Conrad, Márai uses his two characters to show the end of an era, the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its values. Henri is stuck in his ways. His life didn’t unfold as expected but he never adapted his goals to the new situation. Perhaps it’s a vision from the 21st century, of someone living in an ever changing world where constant adaptation is crucial. Perhaps Márai wanted to emphasise Henri’s shortcomings to picture why this empire declined.

On another note, I noticed that some details don’t add up in the novel. Henri’s nanny is 91 when the novel starts and she’s been with him since he was born and she was 16 then. (Chapter 2) So Henri is 75 but later Conrad says they’re 73 (Chapter 10). Anyway, they were born around 1866. In the first part of the novel, Márai describes how Henri’s parents met and he says they attended a party thrown by the king of France. (Chapter 3) There hasn’t been a king in France since 1848. Somehow I don’t believe that twenty years happened between their meeting and Henri’s birth. I assumed that the said king is actually Napoléon III. I’d be happy to know how this passage in the Chapter 3 is translated into English: do they see the king of France or the Emperor? I wonder if it’s a slip from the translator or if it was in the original text.

Reading my billet again, it’s not as enthusiastic as it should be. Embers is an incredible novel. It’s rather short and still packs a lot of thoughts; the story is gripping and the style is wonderful. Márai was talented, that’s certain. If someone has read it and remembers it enough to discuss it, I’m ready to exchange in the comments, spoilers included.

My Hungarian Könyvespolc (Bookshelf)

April 25, 2015 47 comments

As mentioned in my entry about my literary escapade in Budapest, I gathered some names while traveling. There’s a great list of Hungarian writers on Wikipedia; my list isn’t here to compete with what Wikipedia can provide.  It’s a personal list, a reminder of the names that caught my eyes.

I visited Mór Jókai’s residence in Balatonfüred where I learnt he was the most famous Hungarian writer of the 19th century.

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As I’d never heard of him, I had to check him out later on. Only Rêve et vie is available in French but he did write a lot of novels. I wonder why they aren’t translated.

I’ve also visited the Petőfi Sándor museum. Sándor Petőfi (1823-1849) was something like the Hungarian Lermontov (1814-1841). Both were poets, died young and were in the military. Sándor Petőfi was a renowned poet and only 26 when he disappeared during the war following the Hungarian revolution of 1848. He’s considered as Hungary’s national poet. I’m curious about his poetry –although he’s a Romantic—but I wonder how Hungarian poetry can be successfully translated into French without losing too much.

Of course, I spent some time in a bookstore and came back with books:

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I’m looking forward to read them, especially Colours and Years because it’s written by a woman. Apart from these, my TBR of Hungarian literature consists of a few other novels:

  • Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb
  • Oliver VII by Antal Szerb
  • Epépé by Férenc Kárinthy
  • N.N. by Gyula Krúdy that I intend to read with Passage à l’Est in July
  • Fateless by Imre Kertész that I’ll read in September with Caroline

I know I should read The Door by Magda Szabó and Satantango by László Krasznahorkai but every time I’ve had them in hand in a bookstore, I’ve put them down. Dark and daunting. I’m not sure they’re for me. I’d rather read Journey Around My Skull by Frigyes Kárinthy.

Here’s a list of writers I want to explore, the problem is time, time, time…

Writer   In English In French
Endre Ady 1877-1919 Neighbours of the Night. Selected Short Stories
Iván Bächer 1957-2013 Magyar Menu
Miklos Banffy 1973-1950 The Transilvania Trilogy La Trilogie de Transylvanie
Adam Biro Two Jews on a Train: Stories from the Old Country and the New.One Must Also Be Hungarian Deux Juifs voyagent dans un train
Peter Esterházy 1950- The Glance of Countess Hahn-Hahn (down the Danube)Celestial HarmoniesShe Loves Me L’œillade de la comtesse Hahn-HahnHarmonia cælestisUne femme
Géza Gardonyi 1963-1922 Eclipse of the Crescent Moon
Mór Jókai 1825-1904 The Man With The Golden Touch Rêve et vie
Margit Kaffka 1880-1918 Colours and Years. A Novel Couleurs et années
Győrgy Konrád 1933- The Case Worker Départ et retour
Endre Kukorelly 1951- Je flânerai un peu moins
Gyula Krúdy 1878-1933 The Charmed Life of Kázmér RezedaThe Adventures of Sinbad N.N.
André Lorant Le perroquet de Budapest : une enfance revisitée
Kálmán Mikszáth 1847-1910 St Peter’s Umbrella. A Novel Le parapluie de Saint Pierre
Ferenc Mólnar 1878-1952 The Paul Street Boys Les gens de la rue Paul (jeunesse)Liliom ou la vie et la mort d’un vaurien pour le moment. (théâtre)
Zsigmond Móricz 1879-1942 RelationsBe Faithful Unto Death L’épouse rebelle
Péter Nádas 1942- Parallel Stories Histoires parallèles
Petőfi Sándor 1823-1849 Selection From Poems Nuages
János Székely 1901-1958 L’Enfant du DanubeLes infortunes de Svoboda
Lajos Zilahy The Dukays Les Dukays

If someone is interested, you can find my billets about Hungarian books filed under the category Hungarian literature. (Sándor Márai, István Örkény, Zsigmond Móricz, Dezső Kosztolányi, Frigyes Karinthy, Antal Szerb, Milán Füst)

Do you know any of these writers? If yes which ones and who would you recommend?

Literary escapade in Budapest

April 19, 2015 24 comments

At the beginning of the 20th century, Budapest had around 500 cafés or kávéház in Hungarian. Some were literary cafés. They were open night and day and were the writers’ second offices. Some even provided them with free quills, ink and paper and waiters granted credit to writers. Sándor Márai relates in Confessions d’un bourgeois how he had to choose a café to become a writer.

Obeying to a tacit convention of our fraternity, I chose myself a café. According to a passably romantic theory dating back to the beginning of the century, any real Hungarian writer spends his life in a café. It wasn’t the same abroad (In London, that kind of places didn’t even exist). But in Buda, I thought, one had to frequent these literary aquariums where writers, like objects in an exhibition, were gathering dust behind bow windows. I decided to choose an old café from before war, located near the Horváth garden and opened until midnight. I befriended the waiter and the tobacconist and I soon realized that my mail and my phone calls were directly transferred to the café. My visitors first came to my “annex”. I settled down in the local climate without any difficulty. I was treated with regard, my whims were taken with benevolence. I always found on my table an inkpot, a quill “made in Great Britain”, a pot of fresh water and matches. All the conditions seemed met for me to become a real writer in the way my country meant it. I started to envision my literary career with confidence. Abroad, in cafés full of noisy clients and rude waiters who are always in a hurry, I never benefited from such a heavenly quiet. There never had been fresh water and an inkpot on my table. As soon as these accessories were in place, I started to work. (my translation from the French translation)

Amazing, isn’t it? I believe the rude and hurried waiters come from Márai’s stay in Paris. I had to visit at least two of these cafés that have been renovated, the New York Café and the Central Café.

The New York café opened on October 23rd, 1894 and was nicknamed the most beautiful café in the world.

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It is built is eclectic style, Italian Renaissance and baroque, and it’s beautiful but a bit flashy for my taste.

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It’s hard to imagine struggling writers in this place. It’s not exactly the same as Hemingway’s time in Paris. The history of the café is more interesting to me than its architecture. It became the meeting point of the writers of the time. The café even had a writer’s special (a plate with cold meat, cheese and bread) and a writer’s discount! This is where the famous literary journal Nyugat (West) was founded in 1908. It lasted until 1941 and three generations of writers contributed to this journal. Dezső Kosztolányi, Antal Szerb, Sándor Márai, Frigyes Karinthy, Zsigmond Móricz and other writers I haven’t read yet wrote for it. The journal was about literature, poetry, philosophy and it contributed to make psychoanalysis known. They had their editorial office at the New York café. It is reported that the writer Ferenc Molnár threw the key of the New York café in the Danube to ensure that it stays open night and day.

The New York café relies on its famous past but the Central Café has truly been renovated to sing the praise of its literary past.

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There’s a wall full of pictures of writers

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In this very café, in March 1936 at 7 am, Frigyes Karinthy had a hallucination: he heard a train leave the station. This became the ground material of his novel Journey Around My Skull. In this novel, he describes his operation of a brain tumor. I haven’t read it yet but it sounds fantastic and quite funny. He has his picture on the wall of the Central Café.

DSC_1234And you can see copies of Nyugat journals in displays.

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I love to visit places like this an imagining all these great writers lingering, thinking, discussing and creating the books we discover later. I hope for Budapest that other places like this celebrate the city’s literary past and I think it deserves a museum of literature like the one in Dublin.

More to come about Hungarian literature since I gathered names here and there and I want to check them out before sharing the information with you.

I denounce humanity by Frigyes Karinthy

March 17, 2015 31 comments

Je dénonce l’humanité (1912-1929) by Frigyes Karinthy. Not available in English.

Because we only run left and right in this tormented world. We hop high and low without thinking of the particular path our soul is taking in an invisible world…

Karinthy_humanitéJe dénonce l’humanité is a collection of very short stories (2-3 pages each) written by Frigyes Karinthy between 1912 and 1934. There are 39 stories gathered in this volume. Fifteen were written before the Great War, four during the war and the rest in the 1920s. These delightful texts are full of fun and of every brand of humour possible: comedy, irony, absurd, self-deprecating humour, black humour. Karinthy plays with paradoxes, points out inconsistencies. He made me laugh-out-loud, chuckle under my breath in trains, attracting intrigued looks from fellow passengers.

The stories cover domestic situations, they mock the Hungarian society and talk about the Great War through circuitous paths.

I loved the one about a boy struggling with his homework. He’s in front of a math problem and his father stops to help him. He wants to show off how clever he is and he starts reading the wording. He realises he’s clueless but he doesn’t want to lose face. So he turns the tables on his son, accusing him of being distracted and not enough into his work. He forges his own reasons to yell and leave his son to his own devices. As soon as he’s done, it dawns on him that his father did exactly the same when he was a little boy and he understands his father was also clueless…

There’s another fantastic one about a man engaging conversation with a stranger in a café. He makes a heartfelt speech on the importance of being discreet. He gives as an example his affair with a married woman. The more he tries to hammer his point, the more he discloses private information about the woman until he lets her name slip. Then the other man reveals his name and…he’s this woman’s husband!

Black humour seeps through one story written during the war. Two men chat in a café –there are a lot of cafés in Budapest—about the use of gas in the trenches. After a few paragraphs, we understand that the man talking is not worried about the use of gas on the soldiers but he’s worried about his business. Indeed, he makes a living out of exterminating bugs and all this mustard gas kills bugs, who, poor things, don’t wear a mask. It destroys the bugs and jeopardises the future of his business.

The stories are also a mirror of their time, like in At the Neurologist’s where Karinthy makes fun of the enthusiasm for Freud’s theories.

I gazed pensively and said:

– I like yellow broad bean soup.

My friend, who’s been practicing Freud’s psychoanalysis lately looked at me sharply.

– Why do you say that you like yellow broad bean soup?

– Because I like it, I said truthfully

– Didn’t you date a blue-haired woman when you were six?

– I don’t remember. Why?

– Because blue and yellow are complementary colours. One never says anything without a reason: it’s one of psychoanalysis’s accepted facts. Every assertion is either unintentional repressed sadism or repressed masochism. Everything stems from something sexual and can be reduced to childhood memories. You dated a blue-haired woman, therefore you like yellow broad bean soup.

The stories also reflect the history of Hungary. In some tales, people pay in koronas, in others in pengoes. The currency of Hungary was koronas until 1927. Then it was replaced by pengoes until it was changed for the forint in 1946. Three different banknotes and coins in fifty years. And by the way, there’s a fantastic story based on currency. It dates back to 1917 and it’s actually a letter written by a critic to the Hungarian central bank in Budapest. The critic requests a sample of the new 1000 koronas banknote for the sole purpose of writing a review about its artistic form. Of course, getting a “review copy” of a 1000 koronas banknote wouldn’t hurt his wallet…

As you’ve guessed by now, Karinthy is extremely funny, witty and literate. There’s a change in tone between the stories written before the war and the ones written after. His natural confidence in progress and humanity was swiped away by the butchery of the war and its devastating aftermath. Industrialised killings made their toll on his morale. Karinthy saw himself as an heir of the Encyclopaedists. He had faith in Reason and science. His experience with war sounds like a wakeup call and I can’t help thinking about Candide. The Great War rattled his faith in men. Karinthy died in 1938, so he never witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust. I bet this would have shattered his faith in humanity for good.

I loved this book and I’m extremely sorry to report that these stories are not available in English. We French readers owe the delight to read them to the publisher Viviane Hamy. They also publish Dezső Kosztolányi and I’m pleased that Frigyes Karinthy is reunited with his dear friend Dezső on the shelves of their French publisher.

For French readers, I’ll say that Viviane Hamy advertises that book with a jacket which asks “What if Desproges was Hungarian?” It’s true, you can imagine Desproges telling Karinthy’s books on stage. The acerbic tone, the absurdity of life, the peskiness of people and the black humour would have suited him.

PS : For non-French readers, Pierre Desproges was a comedian who used to do one-man shows. He had a nasty but oh-so-funny brand of humour. He was ruthless when it came to denounce the stupidity of the human species. He denounced humanity too.

Many a true word is spoken in jest

March 14, 2015 16 comments

L’Epouse rebelle (1934) by Zsigmond Móricz (1879-1942). Translated into French by Suzanne Horvath. Not available in English (I think) Original title: Az asszony beleszol, which means “She says” according to Google Translate.

Zsigmond MóriczImre and Ilonka Vigh are a young married couple in Budapest. The book starts on March 28th, 1933. Imre is a journalist of what we call in French the “faits-divers”. There’s no exact translation of that word in English, I think. It means that Imre writes articles about odd stories, murders, conjugal disputes and various accidents. He’s often out late at night, chasing stories for the newspapers he works for. Of course, Ilonka doesn’t work and spends all her time in their apartment, cleaning, cooking and waiting for him to come home. The country, like the rest of the world, is in a deep economic crisis. Ilonka juggles with money and indeed, money is a central character of this falsely humoristic novel.

The novel opens on a special night where Imre witnesses something intriguing in his own building and starts investigating to dig out a juicy story. That same night he receives four free tickets to go to the theatre. When he comes home, he says to Ilonka that they should go and invite her aunt and cousin who help them financially. It’s a way to thank them for their generosity.

Ilonka immediately points out that they don’t have the money for this evening at this time of month. Indeed, the tickets are free but they would still have to pay for the tramway to go there, the cloakroom at the theatre and sweets for the family. Despite Imre’s wishes, she decides to offer the tickets to a neighbor, Mrs Véghely, so that they don’t go to waste. What seems like a nice gesture is actually a poisonous gift since the Véghelys face the same problem as the Vighs: they don’t have the money for all the side expenses attached to going to the theatre. The tickets make their way to the Schultheiszes. The husband is a civil servant, he should have the money. But are they really better off? Follows a comedy in the apartment building where women meet and try to place these tickets somewhere.

It is funny to witness the circus created by these four free tickets. But it allows us readers to enter the homes of several families in the apartment building. It is mostly occupied by bourgeois families and we discover everything through the wives’ point of views. Zsigmond Móricz discloses the tricks they use to save money, the consequences of the crisis on families from all social circles. The story of the tickets that nobody wants is a pretext to show a society that has reached the end of its rope. What should be an opportunity –free tickets—turns into a nightmare. These tickets aren’t a gift anymore but a burden because money is so tight that finding the cash to cover the extra-expenses to enjoy the evening requires too much energy. And at the same time, they have too much pride to cut-off these expenses and see the play without the extras. Zsigmond Móricz mocks these bourgeois who are too attached to their social status to see how ridiculous they are.

All the families struggle with money and it weakens the husbands’ place in the family and in society. They’re used to having all the power for being the provider and protector of the family. They also run the State and the institutions. The wives accepted their position in the household as natural. Husband and wife had a role and they played by the rules. As the economic crisis lasts and worms its way in every aspect of their lives and as the end of the tunnel is yet to be seen, the wives start questioning their husbands’ “natural” position in society. They go down from their pedestal: they don’t know how to solve the crisis, they don’t know how to keep or improve their income and they fail to provide for their family. So why should they rely on them? Why should the wives accept their submissive position? They start to rebel.

L’Epouse rebelle would make an excellent film: it is a situation comedy with twists and turns, misunderstandings and funny dialogues. And yet it shows a realistic vision of the crisis. Some passages are painfully contemporary like this one:

– Les jeunes gens d’aujourd’hui n’ont ni emploi ni avenir. A trente ans, ils ne travaillent pas encore. Un technicien diplômé a trente-deux ans et il n’a pas encore gagné un sou ; de notre temps un homme de trente-deux ans occupait déjà un poste de dirigeant, on le prenait presque pour un homme âgé.

– Et ça ne changera jamais ?

– Crois-moi, Gizi, ici il n’y a aucune perspective.

– Tu seras d’accord avec moi : on supporte n’importe quoi, à condition de pouvoir espérer un meilleur avenir pour ses enfants, mais sinon ?…

– Tout ce qu’on peut faire, c’est les pousser dans les études. Mais quand un garçon ne trouve pas de travail, ce sera bien pire encore pour les filles.

– Young men have no job and no future. At thirty, they don’t work yet. A technician with a diploma is thirty-two and has never earned money. In our time, a thirty-two year old man had already a managing position. He was almost an old man.

– And it will never change?

– Believe me, Gizi, here, there’s no perspective.

– You’ll agree with me: we can bear anything as long as we can hope a better future for our children. But otherwise?…

– All you can do is push them to study. But when a boy doesn’t find a job, it will be even worse for girls.

Or this one, where a housekeeper talks with Ilonka:

– L’argent…Çui qui veut du pain, la ville lui en donne à gogo. On le distribue par kilo ou par deux kilos…Et il suffit d’aller à la soupe populaire pour avoir des déjeuners comme c’est pas croyable. Il ne faut rien d’autre pour les avoir que d’être en chômage. Moi, Madame, j’y ai pas droit, parce que moi, je travaille.

– Mais ne vous montrez pas si cruelle. On leur en donne parce qu’ils sont dans le besoin. N’enviez pas un tel pain.

– Pourquoi ? J’suis pas dans le besoin, peut-être ? C’est justement mon malheur. Comment que je peux leur expliquer qu’entre mon mari et un chômeur, c’est du pareil au même ?

– Money…If someone wants bread, the city gives him as much as he wants. It’s given away in kilos…You just have to go to the soup kitchen to have incredible lunches. You need nothing else that to be unemployed to have them. Me, I can’t have them because I work.

– Don’t be so cruel. They give them bread because they’re in need. Don’t be envious of such bread.

– Why not? Am I not in need too? That’s my misfortune. How can I explain that between my husband and an unemployed person, it’s all the same?

Sounds familiar, eh? It reminds me of many discussions I’ve heard about poor workers and workers who earn just enough to be above thresholds to receive social benefits but still struggle to make ends meet. It’s a bit disheartening to discover something like that in a novel from the 1930s, especially when you know where this economic crisis led Europe.

In the foreword of the book, they say Zsigmond Móricz could have immigrated to the United States. He chose to stay in Hungary and write about the life there. His tone is light but his lightness is deceitful. Many a true word is spoken in jest could be the symbol of this book that uses comedy to describe a very serious economic situation for the population of Budapest.

I heard about L’Epouse rebelle on the French blog Passage à L’Est. Thanks Bénédicte, that was a find.

This review is my first contribution to Stu’s Eastern European Lit Month.

 

 

Catsplay

February 15, 2015 13 comments

Catsplay: A tragi-comedy in two acts (1974) by Istvan Örkény (1912-1979) French title: Le chat et la souris. Translated by Natalia Zaremba-Huzsvai and Charles Zaremba. Original title: Macskajáték. 

Nous voulons tous quelque chose les uns des autres. Il n’y a qu’aux vieux qu’on ne demande plus rien.Mais quand les vieux veulent quelque chose les uns des autres, cela nous fait rire. We all want something from other people. Old people are the only ones we want nothing from.But when old people want something from other old people, it makes us laugh.

orkény_chat_sourisThis is the first chapter of Catsplay, a novel by Hungarian writer Istvan Örkény. He was renowned for his short stories and plays and is considered as a master of grotesque. You can find more about his work here. Catsplay is an epistolary-telephone novel and I bet today it would be an email novel like Gut Gegen Nordwind by Daniel Glattauer except that Castplay is a comedy.

Right after that first short chapter, Örkény describes a picture of two sisters taken in 1919. They belong to the local bourgeoisie and they are in their early twenties. We discover later it’s a picture of the golden age of Giza and Erzsi Szkalla in Léta, their hometown.

We are now in the 1960s, the sisters are two old ladies. Giza lives in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany and Erzsi is still in Budapest. The two sisters keep in touch through letters and phone calls and this is how, us readers know what’s happening with their lives. Giza is disabled and stays with her successful son Michou (I’m sure this name has been translated into French). She’s well taken care of. Erzsi is the widow of Béla Órban. She’s struggling to survive, working as a housekeeper and neglecting herself. Her dissatisfaction with life makes her bitter and cranky. Her only distraction is her weekly diner with Viktor. He’s 71, a former opera singer who is now obese and loves to eat.

At the beginning of the novel, she writes to Giza how she had a fight with the butcher and was not even dressed properly. This is when she reconnects with Paula who is four years older than her and used to live in Léta. Paula has a totally different approach to life. She’s old but she has not given up on life. She’s still interested in pampering, going out and flirting. She turns Erzsi’s life upside down and teaches her that she’s not dead yet.

Erzsi starts dyeing her hair, wearing more fashionable clothes and seeing Viktor through different eyes. He was her old flame, isn’t he still? And isn’t Paula trying to steal him from her? Far away in her German comfort, Giza is corseted by propriety and never fails to admonish her sister from afar. She’s horrified by her sister’s new behavior (and maybe a little jealous).

Catsplay is a comedie de boulevard, one you’d see on stage. It is grotesque in many ways and funny and all. But it is marred with tragedy because the characters are older. They have a past. They were rich and carefree and WWI and the 1929 crisis took it away. Giza has been ill for a long time now and left her country. Her son is more considerate than kind. Erzsi stayed in Budapest and endured WWII and the communist regime. Her marriage was OK but she’s not very close to her only daughter. Love is missing in their lives. Erzsi comments:

On devient aussi minable que sa vie. A force d’être pris pour un rien, on devient un rien. You become as pathetic as your life. By being taken for a nothing, you become a nothing.

There’s an underlying sadness in her words and it is palpable in her exchanges with her sister about their youth. Paula gives Erzsi the opportunity to have a last ride and enjoy life again. She gives herself a chance to reconnect the old woman she is with the young woman she used to be.

Although it is definitely grotesque, it reflects everyday life in Hungary and a generation who suffered from two world wars, the cold war and lived in troubled times.

PS : Other reviews by Passage à l’Est (in French, sorry)

Masters and servants

July 31, 2014 18 comments

Anna Edes by Dezső Kosztolányi 1926 French title: Anna la douce

Kosztolanyi_Anna_DouceFor July our book club read Anna Edes by Dezső Kosztolányi and Passage à L’Est decided to re-read it along with us. You can find her billet here. (spoilers) This is my third novel Dezső Kosztolányi, after Skylark and Le cerf-volant d’or.

We’re in Budapest in 1919. The novel opens with the flight by plane of the communist leader Béla Kun. He governed Hungary from March to July 1919 and he leaves the country with a lot of jewels in his pockets. The end of this short communist period in Budapest is the start of another part of Kornél Vizy’s life as a civil servant. The city is coming out of a miserable time and Vizy’s house, as a bourgeois house, has been occupied by the new power. The caretaker of his house, Ficsor, supported the Bolsheviks and is now in a delicate position towards the inhabitants of the house and needs to make himself useful to the soon-to-be powerful Vizy.

Mrs Vizy is a housewife, still grieving the untimely death of her only daughter. She has nothing better to do than take care of the house and pick at her servant. The current one, Katitza crystallises all the faults a servant could have in Mrs Vizy’s eyes: she eats too much, she’s insolent, she likes to go out with men and she doesn’t respect curfew. Mrs Vizy complains, and complains and complains.

Ficsor must redeem himself for being a communist and decides to provide Mrs Vizy with a new servant, his young acquaintance Anna Édes, or the sweet Anna, since Édes means sweet in Hungarian. She’s currently rather happy with her employment at a widower’s house because she watches two small children. She’s reluctant to leave but Ficsor brings her back to Mrs Vizy. And Anna is the perfect servant. She doesn’t go out, doesn’t steal, doesn’t eat much and works, works, works. A curious relationship grows between Anna and Mrs Vizy but no warm feelings are exchanged. Anna is tamed but doesn’t say much. Nobody really knows what she thinks and according to appearances, she’s the best servant ever. What will become of that?

In Anna Édes, Kosztolányi pursues two aims. He pictures the condition of servants in the Hungarian bourgeoisie at the time. And what he pictures is exactly what Sándor Márai describes in Confession d’un bourgeois. Servants slept in the kitchen, they had dirty bedclothes, they were poorly paid and were supposed to be happy to get bed and board. They were treated like animals or machines and there was no affection. The mistresses always suspected them to steal and complains about servants were common topic of discussion among bourgeois housewives. Márai says they were not better treated in aristocratic houses but at least aristocrats wouldn’t let go an elderly servant and considered them as part of the family.

What Kosztolányi describes is close to slavery for the living conditions but what amplifies everything is the pettiness of the mistresses. Mrs Vizy and her neighbours have nothing else to discuss but their servants. Talk about narrow-mindedness. While the men had a life outside the house, they live shut out indoors and as they don’t have the education a Lady could have, they have nothing to do. They are in a bad place: they’re too high class to work themselves and be occupied by household duties and they’re not high class enough to have had a solid education. They don’t read, don’t follow politics, don’t go to the theatre, barely play an instrument and don’t write letters to relatives. It’s terrible. They have nothing better to do than watch what their servants do. What a waste of life.

Anna Édes concentrates on the story of Anna in the Vizy household but Kosztolányi also relates the professional raise of Mr Vizy. He’s described as a fair and honest civil servant. He works seriously, doesn’t encourage corruption and is willing to improve the services brought to the population. Mr and Mrs Vizy don’t have a happy marriage, he’s utterly bored with his wife and her one and only topic of conversation. Anna’s qualities are a relief to him not so much because the work is better done than because he escapes the endless whining of an irritated wife.

The political context of the years 1919-1920 is also an important part of the book. I didn’t know about that short episode of Bolshevik power in Budapest in 1919. Actually, I didn’t know that communists came to power anywhere else than Russia before WWII. What happened in 1945 seems like a simple repetition of what had already happened in 1919. Same methods. They used intimidation, purged the opposition and anything bourgeois was suspect. It’s the classic consequences of a change of power, similar to the French revolution, the Empire, the Restauration. Don’t tell me they didn’t know what would happen when they shared the world at the Yalta conference.

During our book club meeting, we debated about the best comparison to Kosztolányi. Is Anna Édes more a Zola or a Balzac? Although Kosztolányi’s luminous and precise style is far from Zola’s luxuriant prose, it is true that both show the living condition of poor people and their lack of opportunities in life. However, I think Kosztolányi is closer to Balzac because more than picturing the poverty of these servants, he pictures the nastiness of the bourgeois, their selfishness and lack of humanity. They are grotesque and Kosztolányi shows them as heartless as the daughters in Le Père Goriot. Zola has a political and social agenda. Balzac and Kosztolányi dissect human nature and expose its cruelty. The changing political context also brings back to Balzac whose novels are often set during the Restauration and after the fall of Napoleon. He pictures the shifts in the society and how everyone tries to reposition in the new game. The same atmosphere applies to Anna Édes and I can’t help thinking it’s also a political novel for Kosztolányi, especially when you see how he winks at us in the last chapter.

I’ve read Anna Édes in French, in a translation by Eva Vingiano de Piňa Martins. It was retranslated in 1992 and improved as the first 1944 translation had some passages changed and was bowdlerised (everything related to sex was cut off) Kosztolányi’s style is glorious, at least in this French translation but I don’t see why it doesn’t reflect the original. I’m happy it’s been retranslated and I highly recommend this book. Skylark was deeper in the psychological exploration of the characters, Le cerf-volant d’or depicted well the microcosm of small town life and Anna Édes is the most political of the three. I still prefer Skylark out of the three but all are a pure pleasure to read.

Other reviews: Guy’s here and Max’s here

PS: Don’t ask me why there’s cheese on the cover of that book.

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