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Authors: Gyula Krudy

Sunflower

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

JOHN LUKACS
was born in Budapest in 1924. He has written twenty-five works of history and criticism, including
Budapest 1900: A Historical Portrait of a City and Its Culture; Historical Consciousness: Or, The Remembered Past; The Duel: The Eighty-Day Struggle Between Churchill and Hitler
; and, most recently,
George Kennan: A Study of Character.

SUNFLOWER

GYULA KRÚDY

Translated from the Hungarian by

JOHN BÁTKI

Introduction by

JOHN LUKACS

New York Review Books
New York

Contents

Cover

Biographical Notes

Title Page

Introduction

Sunflower

1. The Touchable Eveline

2. The Return of a Bygone Eveline

3. The Lover Foretold by a Fortune-Teller's Cards

4. An Unusual Young Lady and Her Unusual Beaux

5. Our Lady's Fountain

6. Toward Eveningtime

7. Pistoli Goes on a Long Journey

8. Life's Pleasures

9. Pistoli's Twilight

10. Pistoli's Funeral

11. Autumn Arrives

Notes

Copyright and More Information

Introduction

“The Sound of a Cello” was the title of the profile of—or, rather, an essay on—Gyula Krúdy that I wrote in
1986
, published in
The New Yorker
on December
1, 1986
. Its entire text follows.

***

"This city” wrote Gyula Krúdy, the magician of the Magyar language, about Budapest, “smells of violets in the spring, as do mesdames along the promenade above the river on the Pest side. In the fall, it is Buda that suggests the tone; the odd thud of chestnuts dropping on the Castle walk; fragments of the music of the military band from the kiosk on the other side wafting over in the forlorn silence. Autumn and Buda were born of the same mother.” When he wrote this, he was thirty-seven, and well known. Yet few people in Budapest knew that Krúdy would be the greatest prose writer of Hungary in the twentieth century, and surely one of the great writers of Europe. Few people outside Hungary know his name even now. There are two reasons for this. One of them is the loneliness of the Hungarian language, which has no relationship to the great Latin and Germanic and Slavic families. The other is the character of Krúdy's writing, which, because of its lyrical and deeply Magyar qualities, is translatable only with the greatest of efforts, unlike the work of more superficial Hungarian writers.

He was not yet eighteen when he arrived in Budapest. His eyes must have been heavy with sleep; he had traveled through the night in the provincial train that came in before six in the morning. From the cool, smoke-laden darkness under the glass dome of the East Station he came into the sun. Now, he would remember many years later, his eyes were opened wide, as he marveled at the people gathering on the broad commercial boulevard that stretched from the station square tower toward the heart of the city. This was the wondrous metropolis, the fastest-growing city in Europe and the largest between Vienna and St. Petersburg—and this was the summer of 1896, the city half bedecked and stirring with a proud fever for the ceremonies of the thousandth anniversary of the founding of Hungary. This was the city that the gangling, inordinately tall boy set out to conquer with his pen. He was no mere Rastignac, the creation of a writer. He was his own creation. There was another difference. When Balzac's Rastignac arrived in Paris, he was still an innocent. Gyula Krúdy was not.

Already behind him were an angry father, a turbulent family, three different schools, occurrences of love, and at least three years of the life of a newspaper writer. He was born in the country town of Nyíregyháza, in the Krúdy family house: one story high, yellow-stuccoed, with a faded tile roof and large double-winged Empire windows overlooking the wide village street, where geese picked their way in the muddy rivulets between the pavement and the cobblestones. It was a town with the countryside not only around it but present at its very heart: the country of the Nyírség (The Birches)—flat, melancholy, foggy, mysterious, with silent copses, and rich marshes undrained and unchanneled, reaching to the bottom of the Krúdys' garden. This was the quiet, murmuring, backward Hungary of decades past, of peeling country houses in which an old-fashioned gentry lived, endlessly raveling the strands of their lives and quarrels and dreams. His grandfather was a hero of the Hungarian War of Independence of 1848–49, whose wife divorced him in his eighties, because of his innumerable escapades with all kinds of women. Krúdy's father was more sedate: a courthouse lawyer with an honest reputation—except that he lived with a common-law wife, a peasant maid who had fallen in love with him at sixteen and bore him ten children. He finally married her for the sake of his children, five years before he died. Grandfather, father, son—and, later, Krúdy's only son—were all christened Gyula. (Jules, Julius. The quick-footed Jules, the heavy-Germanic Julius: neither of these translations will do.)

He was an indifferent student, a quarrelsome boy. After a while, his father sent him away to the Piarist Fathers' cloistered
Gymnasium
in the small northern Hungarian town of Podolin. He spent his twelfth and thirteenth years there. What he remembered of that snowy, quiet little town, with its old burghers, its iron-hinged gates and iron-hasped doors, would eventually fill a dozen books and thousands of pages in his stories. “There are such towns in the north of Hungary,” he would write.

What somehow echo through the clanging of the town bells are memories of old kings and of ancient gentlemen who had come from afar. Men long dead, once loved or unloved by calm, indifferent women, since women customarily do not concern themselves much with history. During the embraces of her lover, no woman feels any happiness knowing that a chronicler would scribble about those arms and legs and beards after they had turned to dust. Beards, breastplates, hearts disappeared, the women went on knitting their stockings; they closed their doors early in the evening, and during the night no one came back from the bridge at whose stone railing he had once gazed long at his own countenance in the mirrory water. The historic steps were gone, new steps were heard approaching; spring came, winter came, illnesses and loves came and went, the women ripened and then grew old, the men coughed, cursed, and lay down in their coffins. A small town was this, in northern Hungary, with foot-thick walls, convent windows, stoves from which smoke wafted off. Why should people look for the heroines of this story among the kneeling women at Sunday Mass or among the ladies waltzing at the fire company's annual picnic in May? One day the heroines will die, and the care of their graves will be the entertainment of those who are still alive.

He began to write when he was brought back to be enrolled in the Nyíregyháza
Gymnasium
. He began to be published at fourteen. He sent out fillers—short stories for provincial newspapers. In two years, there were a hundred of them. Then he fled from his family. He presented himself to the editors of newspapers in Nagyvárad and Debrecen. They were startled: they had thought that the Krúdy who had been plaguing them with his reminiscences was the grandfather, the noted veteran. He liked the coffeehouses of Nagyvárad, where the journalists and other writers argued and drank into the night. He went after soubrettes. His father and his favorite teacher hauled him home. They squeezed him through his baccalaureate. The father wanted him to become a lawyer. “I shall be a poet in Budapest,” the son said.

In Budapest, he lived in the old Joseph district, among ancient smithies, dusty courtyards, cobblers' shops, taverns. Sometimes he returned home. His mother slipped him some money. There was a morning when his father called for his coach and pair; they were gone. The son was found drinking in a country tavern; he had mortgaged the horses and the carriage to the tavernkeeper. Except for a gold watch, his father disinherited him. He had little to live on, but he found himself in the cafés, literary conventicles, middle-class salons of the city. He met a pleasant, plump, literary Jewish schoolteacher, several years older than he, who had made a small name for herself writing stories under the pseudonym Satanella. He was not yet twenty-one. He married her.

This was the Budapest of the turn of the century. Summer was galloping in its skies and in its heart. Foreign visitors arriving in that unknown portion of Europe, east of Vienna, were astounded to find a modern city, with first-class hotels, plate-glass windows, electric tramcars, elegant men and women, the largest parliament building in the world about to be completed. Yet the city was not wholly cosmopolitan. In some ways, it was less cosmopolitan than the backward, unkempt town of a century before, whose population was a mixture of Magyars, Germans, Swabians, Greeks, Serbs. Now everyone, including the considerable number of Jews, spoke and sang, ate and drank, thought and dreamt in Hungarian. That ancient language, the vocabulary of which had been reconstructed and enriched with infinite care, sometimes haltingly, by the patriot writers and classicists of the early nineteenth century, had become rich, muscular, flexible and declarative, lyrical and telling. This was a class-conscious society: there was as great a difference between the National Casino of the feudal aristocracy and the Café New-York of the literary people as there was between the clubhouse and the grandstand at the racetrack. These worlds were separate physically, yet they were not entirely unbridgeable. A number of the aristocrats respected the writers and the painters; in turn, most of the writers and the painters admired the aristocrats, especially when these were to the manner born. They all read the same papers, sometimes the same books, saw the same plays, knew the same purveyors. They dined in different places, their tables were set differently; but their national dishes, their favorite Gypsy musicians, their physicians, and their actresses were often the same. In Budapest, there was no particular
vie de bohème
restricted to writers and artists; indeed, the city did not have an artists' quarter—no Bloomsbury or Soho, no Montmartre or Montparnasse, no Munich Schwabing. It was a grand place for literature. It was a grand place for the young Krúdy.

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