The Adventures of Sindbad by Gyula Krúdy (tr. George Szirtes)

When I put together my list for the Classics Club back in December 2015, I included a few translations alongside various British and American novels I had been intending to read for a while. The Adventures of Sindbad was one of my random picks, a collection of interlinked stories by the Hungarian writer Gyula Krúdy (the pieces were originally published in journals/magazines from 1911 to 1917 and then collated together in this volume in 1944). Krúdy was something of a literary star in his day, producing over fifty novels and some three thousand short pieces before his death in 1933. The Adventures of Sindbad comprises a series of stories and sketches featuring the titular character, Sindbad, a sort of Hungarian Don Juan, whose reminiscences of times past are recounted in this somewhat strange and haunting book.

Right from the start, Sindbad is portrayed as a rather charming rogue, a serial seducer and heart-breaker who flits from one desirable woman to another whenever the mood takes him. He loves the thrill of the chase, the constant stalking of his prey, so much so that he has a tendency to lose interest once the lady in question is within his grasp. If there was ever a quote that typified a character’s modus operandi, then this must surely be it:

His whole long life he had been ‘my darling’ to two or three women at any one time. He wouldn’t leave a woman in peace until she had fallen in love with him. And that was why he had spent one tenth of his life waiting under windows, gazing longingly, humbly, unhappily or threateningly. He had a genius for observing women, for following them secretly and discovering their hopes, secrets and desires. Sindbad spent so much time standing motionless, listening to the whirring of sewing machines in small suburban houses, or taking a carriage in order to follow another carriage that galloped along bearing a sweet-scented woman in a wide hat, or stealthily watching a lace-curtained window lit up for the night, or observing a woman at prayer in the church and trying to guess who or what she might be praying for, that sometimes he barely had time to pluck the fruit he coveted. He tired of the business: some new adventure attracted him, excited his blood, his dreams, his appetite, so he failed to complete his previous mission. And thus it was that in the course of his life some eleven or twelve women waited for him in vain, at rendezvous, in closed carriages, on walks through woods or at distant stations where two trains should have met. Sinbad wasn’t on the train, and the woman, that special one, would be standing hopefully at the window, watching from behind the curtains, frightened, wetting her dry lips with her tongue. And several trains would rattle by… (pp. 13-14)

Over the course of this book, Sindbad recalls the various women he has loved and lost over the course of his life. From peasant girls to countesses, from widows to actresses, Sindbad is hugely possessive over his conquests, often expecting them to remain faithful to him even when he has forsaken them for another. Here is a man with rather unrealistic expectations of his lovers, whose view of love is highly idealised, passionate and romantic. To Sindbad, love is everything; if there is no love, what is there left to live for?

He woke and the procession of dream women faded in the half-light of like a lantern carried by some housewife across a snow-covered yard on a winter evening. For a while the glow of the lamp may be seen against a wall or haystack; a dark-haired female figure sways on the ripples of darkness, then the last woman, bright-eye, wearing a feathered hat, finally disappears in the far distance – leaving Sindbad alone with his heartache. And shortly after this he began to feel ever more certain that very soon, perhaps within the hour, he would die. (pp. 28-29)

While there is little plot to speak of here, the sketches are packed full of vivid images. Pictures of these characters in their natural surroundings come to life in Krúdy’s hands.  Sinbad is especially fascinated by his conquests’ clothes. In his eyes, all women look the same when they are naked – but when they are dressed in all their finery (or not-so-finery), that’s another matter altogether. He has a penchant for a finely turned ankle, especially when it is clothed in a delicate stocking.

Sindbad could still see the trace left by his kiss on the fading velvet of her lips: amorous farm-girls’ bodies left just such marks among the meadow flowers, their contours still apparent on the crushed lawn. The white neck which craned so curiously from the black dress was like a bird’s neck twinkling under the black velvet ribbon, the pocket of her coat was warm and lined with cat fur and made a little nest into which Sindbad slid his hand to find hers. (pp. 63-64)

Hungary suffered heavily in the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the First World War, and I think it’s possible to detect a sense of this pain in Krúdy’s stories. As George Szirtes explains in his excellent introduction to the NYRB edition of this book, the country lost two-thirds of its land and one-third of its population to neighbouring territories when the Treaties of Versailles and Trianon were agreed. Krúdy’s tone is highly melancholy and elegiac; the veil of nostalgia lies over every story, and the shadow of death – suicide, in particular – is never far away. (Sinbad is heavily preoccupied with his own mortality, and thoughts of his impending death feature in several of his reminiscences from the afterlife.) Interestingly though, Krúdy’s style could also be described as modernist, a feature that provides a fascinating contrast to the long-established, traditional world he depicts in these sketches. There are early elements of magical realism here as Sinbad’s spirit comes back as a sprig of mistletoe; and then he wonders whether it might have been more interesting to return as an ornamental comb instead – perhaps so. Either way, there are playful notes in some of these stories, ironic touches that serve to balance some of the underlying sadness and sense of loss.

I think I heard about this book via Emma at Book Around the Corner. As Emma quite rightly points out in her excellent billet – do read it – these stories need to be spaced out over time. There is some wonderful writing here, sumptuous and evocative in style; but as with anything rich, it is best consumed in small doses. If I have a criticism of these pieces, I would say that for me they lack an element of differentiation. After a while, there is a tendency for several these individual romantic encounters to merge into one. For the most part, the objects of Sindbad’s attention are lightly sketched in terms of character/personality, an approach that doesn’t always make it easy to distinguish one story from the next. Nevertheless, I’m glad I decided to read this collection; I think it would suit lovers of European literature, particularly those interested in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the early part of the 20th century. Fans of Gaito Gazdanov’s work should take a look at these stories too; there are some interesting parallels between these writers, particularly in terms of tone and themes.

The Adventures of Sindbad is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

39 thoughts on “The Adventures of Sindbad by Gyula Krúdy (tr. George Szirtes)

  1. madamebibilophile

    Great review as always Jacqui. I wouldn’t have thought this would appeal to me, especially as Sinbad seems to be such a creep, but reading it as a commentary on post-war Hungary expands the story & makes it seem much more interesting.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The historical/political context definitely puts a slightly different spin on these stories. I found the introduction very helpful in that respect as my knowledge of that period of history was fairly sketchy to say the least. I guess it made me think about the book in a slightly different way…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, it’s good to mix things up every now and again (Szirtes was a selling point, for sure). I can safely say that I’ve never read anything quite like these stories before! They’re rather challenging to capture in a review.

      Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    Great review as always Jacqui.

    Sindbad sounds like a compelling character. As for a lack of differentiation in the stories, I find this to be true with many good and great writers. An example being the novels of Philip Roth. In some ways it is like a composer repeating a musical theme over and over again. Sometimes it is enjoyable just taking in variations on that theme.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. That’s a fair point and a good way of thinking of it – your musical analogy is a good one. Even so, I would have liked a little more variety across the collection as a whole. Sometimes these ideas or themes can build over the course of book, giving a kind of cumulative effect, but that wasn’t so much the case here (at least not for me). Instead, I found myself getting a little tired of Sinbad and his dalliances by the end!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      No, I probably wouldn’t recommend it to you either, Ali. Someone like Stefan Zweig might be more your cup of tea if you fancy trying some European fiction in the future. (I know you liked the Magda Szabo you read a while back.) As for Sindbad, he’s certainly an unusual character, quite entertaining at times.

      Reply
  3. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    Initially, I thought the cover picture was an odd one to use, but after reading your review, I think it fits exactly right. I can hear the melancholy in the quotes you selected, and I can see how this is best read in small doses.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the image is perfect for this book. The NYRB covers can be a bit hit or miss, but this one feels just right – it captures Sindbad to a T!

      Reply
  4. Guy Savage

    I have this one on the shelf. I’ve had good luck with both Hungarian (and Czech books) in the past, and the subject matter here is appealing.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I have a feeling you’ll enjoy this more than something like Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight. The writing is very evocative without being too romancey. I just found it a little samey after a while.

      Reply
  5. Emma

    I’m glad you liked it, Jacqui. Sindbad is a curious character, I’m not sure I liked him very much. Krudy was a gifted writer, very evocative. I loved the journeys in snowy winters.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I liked it in small doses, but I didn’t love it. The writing is beautiful – as you say, very evocative and stylish – but that wasn’t enough for me. I was hoping for some more differentiation between the individual sketches, especially towards the end.

      Maybe I should take a break from translations for a while just to see if that makes a difference to my reading. I’ve just read a Norwegian novel (also on my Classics Club list) that proved to be a bit of a disappointment. I might even try to write it up at the weekend to get it out of the way!

      Reply
  6. BookerTalk

    He sounds what we would consider today to be a stalker…. I think I might have given this a go but for your description that in part its a series of interlinked stories. I’ve tried a few of those in the past and didn’t find them very satisfying – they’re too much like short stories which don’t grab be much

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Maybe, although I think he just enjoys gazing at women! I didn’t find him overly creepy, just a bit of a Casanova.

      I know what you mean about interlinked stories as they can be a bit hit-or-miss. Krudy’s sketches are good — they’re very evocative and stylish — but a little more variety across the collection wouldn’t have gone amiss.

      Reply
  7. Resh Susan @ The Book Satchel

    I have read those spin offs on Sindbad for children as a kid. I had no idea there was an actual book. I thought it was just a children’s story. He seems to be an interesting character and possessive as well, like a mini- Casanova

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Are you thinking about Sinbad the Sailor from One Thousand and One Nights? I don’t think Krudy’s Sindbad is connected to the mythical one (unless I’ve missed a link somewhere).

      Yes, possessive is a good way of describing his character. He expects his conquests to remain faithful to him even when he has moved on and forsaken them for another…

      Reply
      1. Resh Susan @ The Book Satchel

        In fact, yes I was. I thought these were like retellings of the same character; like how we have modern Young adult books based on old fairytales. And that the adventures with women (sailing adventures in the children’s classic) in the book were part of the changes we see in different retellings. Maybe it was the name I guess. I have never heard or read about another Sindbad;so my mind just locked itself into the sailor Sindbad. And now it does seem quite silly and funny at the same time.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Actually, now that I’ve had time to look into it a little further, it does appear as though these stories may have been loosely based on some of the tales from the Arabian Nights. As you say, maybe he was riffing on the same theme, taking the spirit of the character and transporting him to another setting. Good spot!

          Reply
  8. bookbii

    Lovely review Jacqui, those passages are quite beautifully written. I quite enjoy books which are episodic in tone, building on a repeating theme. This sounds like something I would quite enjoy.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda. You may well enjoy these pieces, especially if you like the quotes, The writing is rather beautiful (if a little rich). Krudy’s sketches are very stylish and evocative, full of little details and flourishes which add to the mood.

      Reply
  9. Scott W

    This is rather beside the point of your very fine review, which makes me want to read the book, but I recall reading about Krúdy’s prodigious output (50 novels & 3,000 stories!) and wondered how anyone could ever make a successful selection for translation. What a task – to be a Krúdy scholar!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, indeed! It makes one wonder about the quality of all those short stories. 3,000 is quite a number. It’s hard to believe that they were all up to scratch…

      Returning to Sindbad for a moment, I think you might like these pieces. They’re beautifully written. Plus, you have form with Hungarian literature – I’m thinking particularly of the Banffy trilogy and Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight – so this might be a good bet for you.

      Reply
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  11. Naomi

    I like the sound of this, but I wonder of his character might get to be too much over time? Maybe another reason to space out the stories?
    I found the background information of the author interesting!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, exactly! I started off really enjoying these sketches, but then the more I read about Sindbad, the less I engaged with him as a character. This would be a great book to dip into every now and again, just to put a decent amount of space between each story.

      Reply
  12. Max Cairnduff

    Like Grant I have Life is a Dream so I’ll be reading that first. I’ve read a couple of stories from that collection and they read very well, and seemed to have perhaps more variety than this (which makes sense as that’s simply a short story collection with no attempt at overarching character).

    I understand that in Hungary Krúdy is one of those authors whose unique tone gave rise to a neologism, best translated as Krúdyesque. It’s like Ballardian or Joycean or whatever. Quite a compliment.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That is quite an achievement! I shall have to work it into my vocabulary at some point. He certainly has a distinctive style, very stylish and evocative which suits the subject matter at hand here.

      I’ll be interested to know what you think of Life is a Dream. Good to hear that it seems to be a bit more varied that this collection – that’s a positive, I think.

      Reply
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