More Was Lost by Eleanor Perényi

First published in 1946 (and now back in print courtesy of NYRB Classics), More Was Lost is a remarkable memoir by the American-born writer, editor and keen gardener, Eleanor Perényi. In essence, the memoir covers the early years of Eleanor’s marriage to Zsiga Perényi, a relatively poor Hungarian baron whom she meets while visiting Europe with her parents in 1937. It’s a gem of a book, both charming and poignant in its depiction of a vanishing and unstable world, all but swept away by the ravages of war. I hope to find a place for it in my end-of-year highlights.

Eleanor Stone is just nineteen years of age when she is captivated by Zsiga, an unconventional, liberal man with a keen interest in people. At thirty-seven, Zsiga is somewhat older than Eleanor, but personality-wise he is a good match; so, following a short courtship and engagement, the pair marry and ultimately make their way to Zsiga’s Ruthenian estate at the edge of the Carpathian Mountains.

It was no Eastern European Versailles. It was small, and infinitely lovable. It had a sort of touching elegance. And there were little barbaric bits here and there that were particularly pleasing in a building meant to be so classic. For instance, the water spouts, which were fierce little mermaids wearing crowns. (p. 121)

While the Perényis have little money to speak of, their assets are substantial as the estate comprises 750 acres of gardens and farmland, a vineyard, a distillery and a sizeable forest. The baroque property itself is characterful but dilapidated and in significant need of repair – there is much work to be done to make the dwelling comfortable for the newlyweds.

While the Stones are fearful for their daughter’s future in an unfamiliar land, Eleanor herself is much more optimistic, buoyed by the richness of her new life with Zsiga. Money is of little importance to her, particularly compared to the pleasures of the estate.

We walked over the fields toward an acacia-shaded road. The earth was fine and crumbly under our feet. I had not expected to feel very much about the land. It was the house and the garden that I had thought of. But I was wrong. The land was the reason for everything. And standing there, we felt rich. We wondered what everyone had meant by saying we had no money, and no future, and should not marry. Nonsense! At that moment, we felt we had everything. (p. 45)

The first two-thirds of the memoir focuses on Eleanor’s adjustment to her new world, situated as it is on the shifting borders between Hungary and Czechoslovakia. At the time of her arrival, the area surrounding the estate is under the auspices of the Czechs; however, as Zsiga speaks Hungarian, this is the language she decides to learn, aided by the trusty Györffy, a long-standing employee of the Perényi family and manager of the estate.

Alongside her lessons, Eleanor must also get to grips with managing the household, the gardens and ultimately the orchard, all of which need regular care and attention. There is little time for her to feel bored, especially as there are several renovations and refurbishments to be made around the house. With her flair for colour and interior design, Eleanor sets about rearranging and furnishing the rooms, rescuing past glories including paintings, maps and a collection of old books, many of which belonged to Zsiga’s grandfather, Alexei. With most of the ground floor given over to the kitchen, office and storerooms, the Perényis establish their living quarters in the upstairs rooms of the house, complete with a new library furnished by Eleanor.

There were the books and the maps; and this room, too, was frescoed. On the vaulted ceiling there were four panels, representing the seasons of the year. In the firelight, with the red brocade curtains drawn, this room seemed to vibrate with faint motion. Everything moved and looked alive, the gleaming backs of the books, the shadowy little figures on the ceiling, and the old Turk over the fireplace. (p. 130)

This section of the memoir reads like a sequence of vignettes – snapshots of the Perényis’ lives as they lovingly restore the estate. There are local dignitaries to visit, traditional festivities to host, and strange customs to uphold, all of which Eleanor handles beautifully – she doesn’t seem phased by any of it. In one particularly evocative episode, the couple cross the border into Hungary to stay with Zsiga’s cousin Laci, a larger-than-life character with an enormous bushy beard. Eleanor is captivated by Laci and his dashing friend, Bottka, with their enduring stamina and thirst for enjoyment.

All too soon, however, developments in the outside world begin to impinge on the Perényis’ existence, and their position in the liminal zone between borders becomes all too perilous. Eleanor is acutely aware that if Czechoslovakia were to enter the war against Germany, Zsiga’s status as a Hungarian national would lead to his internment as a foreign subject. The situation in Europe is changing fast; too fast for Zsiga to arrange for Czech citizenship to secure his position. So, after much soul-searching, the couple make a dash for the border in the hope of making it into Hungary and back to Budapest.

We left. All the frontiers were closed, except for one spot about a hundred miles away. We had managed to keep the car, and we drove it to this place. Our exit was very melodramatic, considering that Chamberlain was already on his way to Munich. We didn’t know this, however, and neither apparently did the Czechs. The roads were clogged with military vehicles, and with soldiers. (p. 168)

They make it, but only just – crossing the border at the last barrier where the frontline defences are in the process of being established.

Back in Hungary, the Perényis find themselves caught up in the schizophrenic, illogical nature of Hungarian politics. As the disputes over the Czech territories rumble on, the couple dearly hope that their area will be returned to Hungary. (While a continuation of life under the Czechs would be perfectly acceptable, all hopes for the nation’s survival are rapidly ebbing away; it seems merely a matter of time before the capitulation occurs.) Alternatively, the prospect of being ruled by the Ruthenians is unthinkable, a situation that would leave the Perényis exposed to the whims of barbarians.

We would have been quite happy to go on living under the Czechs, but if in this nearly final partition of Czechoslovakia we were left to the Ruthenians, we knew it would be very bad news indeed. There was all the difference in the world between the enlightened civilized Czechs and the savage Ruthenians. If that happened to us, we would be left without any competent authority, lost in a remote province. For there was no doubt that the Ruthenians were going to demand and, with the Czechs reduced to complete impotence by this latest blow, get complete autonomy. (p. 178)

I won’t reveal how the decision on these territories works out for Eleanor and Zsiga; you’ll have to read the memoir yourselves to discover the outcome. Suffice it to say that there are testing times ahead for this couple as they try to navigate the turmoil of war.

More Was Lost found its way onto my radar when Dorian wrote so enthusiastically about it back in 2016 (do take a look at his posts which you can find here). It is by turns beautiful, illuminating, poignant and sad; one of those rare books that feel expansive in scope yet intimate in detail all at once. There is a sense of lives being swept up in the devastating impact of broader events as the uncertainty of the political situation begins to escalate. The pivotal decisions that Eleanor and Zsiga must take are conveyed with clarity and openness, qualities that make their story all the more moving to read.

Perényi is a wonderful writer, describing her life on the estate and the changing of the seasons with great attention to detail. There are some beautiful descriptive passages in the book, from the snowy landscapes of the surrounding areas to the grand portraits and photographs of Zsiga’s ancestors – the last remnants of an idyllic vanished world.

The book comes with a lovely introduction from J. D. McClatchy, an author and close friend of   Perényi, which outlines what happened to Eleanor and Zsiga both during and after the war. Like many introductions, it is probably best left to the end to avoid any spoilers.

All in all, this is a superb memoir written in a thoroughly engaging, straightforward style. Very highly recommended, particularly for readers with an interest in the period.

More Was Lost is published by NYRB Classics. Huge thanks to Dorian for kindly gifting me a copy of the book.

44 thoughts on “More Was Lost by Eleanor Perényi

  1. heavenali

    I had heard of this somewhere before, and had it in the back of my mind as one I really want to read. Such a beautiful edition too. I shall have to make sure it’s on my wishlist.

    Reply
  2. Marina Sofia

    Sounds like a good companion piece to Miklos Banffy’s Transylvanian trilogy. Why oh why are you all tempting me when I have a book ban on?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, absolutely! I couldn’t help but be reminded of Balint’s adventures, especially during the section where Eleanor and Zsiga visit cousin Laci at his home in Hungary. Such an evocative portrayal of a particular milieu, all the more poignant due to the developments looming on the horizon. I know you’re trying to cut back at the moment, but I genuinely think you would appreciate this one…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The good thing about reading my way through the TBR over the past year or so is that I’ve finally been able get around to gems like this. A wonderful rediscovery on the part of NYRB.

      Reply
  3. Brian Joseph

    Pre – World War II memoirs have such a pending sense of ominousness partially because we know of what is to come. Sometimes the authors sense that something is also comming. I think thaf the same was true for other wars but our knowledge of World War II makes it obvious when we read books about that era.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very true. I’m currently reading South Riding, which Winifred Holtby wrote in the early 1930s, and while it’s not a war novel, the spectre of war is undeniably there – both the hangover from WW1 and the threat of more conflict to come. It must have such a difficult time for people in Europe, so much uncertainty and worry about the potential developments across countries.

      Reply
  4. Simon T

    Lovely review! I read this for Shiny New Books when NYRB reprinted it, and I thought it was such a mesmeric evocation of place and a stage of life. I found the end so affecting.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Simon. As I mentioned on Twitter, I found it quite hard to write about this book — partly because of the knowledge of what subsequently happened during WW2, and partly because of my attachment to Eleanor as a person. (Her blend of grace, charm and honesty won me over completely!) Without wishing to give away too much about the ending, I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Eleanor at that point. As you say, the final section is so poignant and affecting. I’ll definitely take a look at your review for Shiny – many thanks for the heads up.

      Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely and thoughtful post as always Jacqui. It’s a wonderful memoir, isn’t it? So evocative (I covered it on my blog when it came out). And I definitely agree about leaving the intro till after you’ve read the book, although I felt it complemented the book brilliantly because I desperately wanted to know what happened after the end.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, so poignant and evocative. She captures that world so beautifully before external events and developments start to break in. I couldn’t help but think how challenging it must have been for her, getting married, moving to a new country, learning a new language and culture, all at the tender age of nineteen. What an amazing experience to have had at such a pivotal point in life.

      Reply
  6. banff1972

    I’m so pleased you liked it! (Chuffed, if that what you say? I’m chuffed! Maybe nobody actually says that.) I still think of this book all the time–like once a week. It’s the kind of bittersweet thing I like best. And Laci, what a character. I really must get to those Banffi books. And yes definitely leave the introduction for last. Makes the whole thing all the more poignant.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yay! I still say chuffed. It’s a fine word in my humble opinion. As for the book, I loved it! Really, truly, genuinely loved it (which is a huge relief, as I don’t know what I would have said to you if I hadn’t). It so deserves to be better known. The visits to Laci’s house reminded a lot of some of the sections in those Banffy books, both the culture/way of living and the descriptions of the landscape. I think you would enjoy that trilogy very much. It gives such a wonderful insight into a vanished world and the characters who inhabited it, another very poignant read, especially towards the end.

      Reply
      1. banff1972

        I know what you mean about being anxious when reading something somebody loves and gave me. (Put like this, it actually wasn’t much of a gift!) But I hope you’d have said whatever you felt. I can take it! I did start those Banffy books, either last year or the year before. But I confess I found it a little confusing going at first, and I gave up after just a few pages. But I think it’s just about approaching it at the right time. BTW I can’t remember if you’ve read the Fermor trilogy, but there are great bits in Hungary and Transylvania, evocative depictions of those great estates.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ha! Re the Banffy books…if it’s any consolation, I nearly gave up on the Banffy trilogy after the first 40 pages as the characters just kept on coming! It is rather confusing at first, especially as you don’t really have a feel for the significance of each one at that point in the story, but it’s definitely worth persevering. I actually ended up re-reading those first 40 pages, just to get a better fix on what Banffy was trying to do there. After that, I was up and running! Oh, and I haven’t read the Fremor trilogy – thank you for the reminder! I do recall making a mental note of it at the time, but you know how these things disappear into the ether. I’ll take another look.

          Reply
  7. Scott W.

    I think what I most loved about this book was the intrepidity of Perényi herself, the leap into adventure she took at such a young age and the courage she continued to display in her commitment to that leap. And of course the resonances with Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy had a particular appeal.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, amazing! I was just saying to Karen earlier how daunting it must have been for Eleanor to have taken all that on at such a young age. Getting married, moving halfway across the world to a new country, learning a new language, not to mention getting to grips with running the domestic side of the estate. Any one of those things could have floored another person, but Eleanor wasn’t phased by any of it. I really fell for her winning blend of charm, graciousness and openness which came through so clearly from the book.

      Did you write it up, Scott? Apologies if I’ve missed your review.

      Reply
  8. bookbii

    This sounds lovely. I wonder how much the sense of idyll at the early years on the dilapidated estate arises from the contrast of the turmoil of war? Irrespective it’s always interesting to read first hand experiences and I often wonder if the years leading up to the war aren’t more fascinating than the war itself, though often less focused upon. I think I would like this book. You seem to have great success with the NYRB Classics.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you would like it too, Belinda. Perenyi’s style is so straightforward and engaging, without a hint of pretentiousness or self-importance. I’m sure the contrast with the turmoil of war adds to the sense of idyll, and the fact that the couple are so busy managing the various elements on the estate gives them a degree of insulation from external events – in those early years at least.

      I do have a bit of a soft spot for these rediscovered gems from NYRB Classics. They always seem to have something interesting to offer.

      Reply
  9. 1streading

    Sounds like a fascinating insight into what is an intriguing moment in history – someone who is both an outside and an insider. I really think you should be on commission for NYRB Classics!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! If only…They even have their own shelf on one of my bookcases, all lined up with their beautifully coloured spines. As for the book, I think you make a very good point – it’s a great example of how one individual’s experiences can illuminate our understanding of a key period in history. The combination of the personal and political makes it such a fascinating read.

      Reply
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  12. madamebibilophile

    What an incredible series of events in such a young life! This sounds wonderful. NYRB are such a reliable, interesting publisher aren’t they? I’m not a big memoir/biography reader but this sounds too good to miss.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s amazing to think that Eleanor was just nineteen when she embarked on this adventure, so far removed from her previous life in the diplomatic circles of America. (Her father was a diplomat.) It’s a great find on the part of NYRB, just the kind of fascinating rediscovery they seem to specialise in.

      Reply
  13. gina in alabama

    I must add to my list. I read the author’s Green Thoughts some years ago, had no idea she had written a memoir. It also sounds as though More Was Lost might be a good companion to Manning’s Balkan Trilogy as well as the Banffy and the Fermor trilogies. I find this particular time and place to be fascinating.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s a great shout about Manning’s Balkan Trilogy. I actually have a copy of that series on the shelf, but it might have to wait until I’ve finished Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. Two chunky series at once might be pushing it a bit, particularly given the overlapping time periods. It is on my radar though, for sure. Like you, I’m fascinated by this setting and history. There’s something terribly poignant about what happened to these countries, whole worlds and ways of life swept away by the ravages of war.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You would like this, Emma, for sure. It’s a fascinating insight into a key period of history. Beautifully written, too. The ending, in particular, is very poignant.

      Reply
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    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Caroline. I don’t know if you’re planning to continue with the Literature and War readalongs in the future…but if so, this might be worth considering. Even though it’s not a pure war memoir as such, it does illustrate the impact of the conflict on those living in the midst of uncertainty. I think you’d the style too – it’s beautifully written.

      Reply
      1. Caroline

        I’m tempted to continue the Literature and War readalong and this sounds good. I like stories from the fringes if war as well. Not just battlefield stories.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, me too. In some ways they’re broader and more interesting. I think this would be a good fit if you were thinking of starting it up again.

          Reply
  15. gina in alabama

    Eleanor Perenyi’s mother was “Grace Zaring Stone (January 9, 1891 – September 29, 1991) was an American novelist and short-story writer. She is perhaps best known for having three of her novels made into films: The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Winter Meeting, and Escape. She also used the pseudonym Ethel Vance. [She] had one child, the author and gardener, Eleanor Perenyi. Stone had used the pseudonym of Ethel Vance to write her 1939 anti-Nazi thriller Escape to avoid jeopardizing her daughter, who was living in occupied Europe during the Second World War.” from wikipedia

    Bitter Tea of General Yen was filmed with Barbara Stanwyck in 1933. It screens sometimes on Turner Classic Movies. I knew there was something else about Eleanor Perenyi and finally it hit the surface of my brain this morning!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      How fascinating. The introduction to my NYRB edition mentioned that Eleanor’s mother was a writer, but I don’t think it gave any further details of her work. Funnily enough, there’s a Barbara Stanwyck retrospective at the BFI (British Film Institute) at the moment. Maybe they’ll be showing the film you’ve mentioned…I’ll take a look.

      Reply

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