Tag Archives: Hungary

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.

New post: They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy – the politics

Earlier in the week, I reviewed They Were Counted, the first book in Hungarian writer and politician Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy (also known as The Writing on the Wall). It’s a sweeping epic full of politics, love affairs, family tensions and dirty dealings, days at the races and nights at the ballroom – quite different from the stereotypical image of Transylvania as the land of gothic castles and vampires. If you missed it, you can read my review here.

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At nearly 600 pages, They Were Counted is a big book in every sense of the phrase. As such, I couldn’t find enough room in my review to include a passage on the political developments of the time. So, for the interested, I thought I would post a couple of extended quotes here, particularly as they help to illustrate one of the key themes in the book, the tensions over the fate of the Hungarian nation in the early 20th century. (The trilogy spans the ten years prior to the start of WW1 and the subsequent dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.) Hopefully, they will give you a flavour of some of the political themes and the tone.

The novel covers the key political developments affecting Hungary in the run-up to the Great War. Other than Count Balint Abády, the young independent politician and the main protagonist in Banffy’s marvellous epic, many of the other Hungarian politicians of the day seem rather blinkered and insular in their focus. Several of the parliamentary debates end in mayhem with politicians eagerly jostling for position, and there is much dogmatic, underhand behaviour along the way.

First up is a quote from one of the early chapters of the first book – it is worth reading in full. The year is 1905: Tisza is the Prime Minister of Hungary; Slawata, a Counsellor to the Foreign Office, is rumoured to be close to the heir to Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Austro-Hungarian throne. Unlike the ruler of the day (Franz Joseph I), the Heir is a fan of centralisation with one grand central council controlling everything from the politics to the economy to the armed forces, a point that Slawata has already revealed to Balint during a previous conversation. The quote also says much about Balint’s character, that of an inherently good man trying to do his best in a rapidly evolving world.

Balint pondered the programme outlined by Slawata: centralization, rule by an Imperial Council, the ancient kingdom of Hungary reduced to an Austrian province, and national boundaries to be re-arranged statistically according to the ethnic origin of the inhabitants! Why all this? To what purpose? Slawata had given him the answer: Imperial expansion in the Balkans so that feudal kingdoms for the Habsburgs reached the Sea of Marmora; and it was all to be achieved with the blood of Hungarian soldiers and paid for by Hungarian tax-money! So it was merely to help Vienna spread Austrian hegemony over the nations of the Balkans that Tisza was to be helped to build up the Hungarian national armed forces.

It seemed now to Balint that both parties in Parliament were fighting instinctively, but without a clear understanding either of their motives or of the inevitable results of their policies and strategy. While Tisza battled to strengthen the army, he could have no inkling that, once strengthened, it would be used to suppress the very independence it was designed to assure – and when the opposition delayed the implementation of Tisza’s policy by petty arguments about shoulder-flashes and army commands, they were unaware that, inadvertently, they were providing ammunition for those very arguments that in the near future would threaten the integrity of the constitution.

How simple everything could seem if one looked only at the figures, those cold statistics that took no account of people’s feelings and traditions. How much would be destroyed if men were to be treated as robots! What of the myriad of individual characteristics, passions, aspirations, triumphs and disappointments that together made one people different from another? How could anyone ignore all the different threads of experience that, over the centuries, had formed and deepened the differences that distinguished each nation?

How would anyone believe that any good was to be obtained by adding the Balkan states to the already unwieldy Dual Monarchy and so increasing the Empire to a hundred million souls with differing cultures and traditions? Of course armies could be recruited and young men could die, but great States evolved only through centuries of social tradition and mutual self-interest; they were not imposed by bayonets. To believe the contrary would be as mad as the folly which had put the Archduke Maximilian on the throne of Mexico. (pgs. 126-127, Arcadia Books)

This next quote highlights the insular nature of the Hungarian politicians, many of whom are intent on focusing on their own internal affairs at the expense of keeping abreast of developments on the broader European stage, By now we are a couple of years down the line.

In the great world outside Hungary events were taking place that would change all their lives: the uprising in Russia, the dispute over Crete, the Kaiser Wilhelm’s ill-timed visit to Tangier, the revelation of Germany’s plans to expand its navy – but such matters were of no importance to the members of the Hungarian Parliament. Even events closer to home, such as the rabble-rousing speech of an Austrian politician in Salzburg urging revolt among the German-speaking minorities in northern Hungary, or the anonymous pamphlet, which appeared in Vienna and revealed the total unpreparedness of the Austro-Hungarian forces compared with those of the other European powers, went unnoticed in Budapest. Naturally when Apponyi made a speech in favour of Deszo Baffy’s proposal to limit the demand for Hungarian commands in the army to using Hungarian only in regimental matters, everyone listened and discussed it as if their very lives depended on it. (pg. 314)

I may well write another (shorter!) piece on Banffy’s evocation of the natural world, one of the many pleasures of this trilogy. Next weekend, perhaps.

They Were Counted is published by Arcadia Books.

They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy (tr. Patrick Thursfield & Katalin Bánffy-Jelen)

Originally published in 1930s, They Were Counted is the first book in Hungarian writer and politician Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy, also known as The Writing on the Wall. It’s a sweeping epic full of politics, love affairs, family tensions and dirty dealings, days at the races and nights at the ballroom – quite different from the stereotypical image of Transylvania as the land of gothic castles and vampires. If you’re in the mood for a winter (or summer) chunkster, this trilogy is well worth a look. They Were Counted may well turn out to be one of my reading highlights of the year – all in all, I consider it a truly great work of literature.

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Broad in scope yet intimate in detail, Bánffy’s trilogy covers the period leading up to the start of WW1 and the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the early part of the 20th century. The first book, which opens in 1905, features a number of interconnected narrative strands. The most engaging of these is, perhaps, the life of the young independent politician and former diplomat, Count Balint Abády, an inherently good man who is trying to do his best in a rapidly evolving world. At a fairly early stage in the novel, we learn that Balint is attracted to Adrienne Miloth, a beautiful, cultured young woman from his past who is now trapped in a loveless marriage to a sadistic and brutal nobleman, Pali Uzdy. On the surface, the couple’s marriage appears respectable, but when Adrienne comes back into Balint’s life, he can tell that something is terribly wrong.

He was worried about Adrienne. What was troubling her? Why did she seem so disillusioned? She had married Pal Uzdy of her own free will – she had chosen him herself. No one had forced her. Presumably she had been in love and so she had married him: why else? But, if that were so, whence came that inner revolt, that tension, the bitter tone in her voice when she spoke of the purpose of life and its aims? Perhaps her husband had turned out to be cruel. Perhaps he even struck her. Balint would not have put it past that evil-faced satanic man. […]

And why did she still retain that girlish, maidenly appearance? She did not have either the assurance or the mature look that came to most girls with marriage and motherhood. The oddly shy movement on the terrace when she pulled the stole up round her bare shoulders was not the normal assured gesture of a fulfilled woman. (pgs. 72-73)

Bánffy is very strong when it comes to portraying the inner thoughts and feelings of his central characters. The novel is full of sensitive and insightful observations, particularly those on the treatment of women in this society – for example, Balint only discovers the true horror of Adrienne’s private life by gradually piecing together a series of clues based on her behaviour.

The relationship between Balint and Adrienne, their growing love for one another, forms the beating heart of this novel. It is quite wonderful to observe the gradual reawakening of Adrienne as Balint gently and carefully teaches her how to love. She is a luminous creature, and Balint is utterly captivated by her. In this scene, Balint watches Adrienne as she skates across a frozen lake – in effect she is dancing on ice as a barrel organ plays in the background.

How beautiful she was! She looked weightless and ethereally tall as she danced with both men at once, doing a few turns with one and then, with a double turn, seeming to fly into the arms of the other, […].

As she danced Adrienne seemed more youthful than Balint had ever seen her, her fine elongated silhouette more slender, more alluring, watching her now, passing so lightly from one admirer to another, her lips parted in a dazzling smile of pleasure as each man in turn caught her by the waist and whirled her away with the speed of an eagle taking its prey. (pg. 169)

Also of note is Balint’s somewhat troubled cousin and dear friend, Laszlo Geyeróffy, as his story forms another highly compelling stand in the novel. Orphaned at an early age and raised by a series of aunts, Laszlo has struggled to gain true acceptance within his adopted family (and to a certain extent, within the broader society of the day). As the years pass by, he becomes increasingly conscious of the gulf that separates him from his cousins, of the ‘financial and social differences that set him apart’.  Consequently, Laszlo is left feeling rather inferior to his peers – all this despite the fact that he is a highly talented musician.

As Laszlo and Balint had passed through the red salon, and again as they had greeted their hostess and the others present, Laszlo could not help noticing his cousin’s calm assurance. Though every bit as polite as and deferential as the occasion demanded, every movement, every word showed that he belonged to these circles, that he knew himself to be in every way their equal and in no way an intruder. Laszlo watched him with envy, wondering if he had acquired this air of smooth distinction while en poste abroad, and wondering too if he could ever attain the same ease, he to whom every greeting, every nod and handshake seemed fraught with condescension, as if he were no more than a humble serf tolerated by consciously superior beings. (pg. 94)

Laszlo’s desire for acceptance leads him into deep trouble, both romantically and financially. He is in love with his young cousin, Klara Kollonich (and she with him), but the path of true love never runs smooth, especially so in this instance. Moreover, several of Laszlo’s nights are spent gambling at the casino, the one place where he feels accepted by others as an equal – after all, only luck and style matter here, not rank or social standing. And it’s not just Laszlo’s own money at stake at the card table, but that of his lover, too – as such, he has to face the possibility of financial and personal ruin on more than one occasion.

Love, money and honour are the cause of much friction between the characters in this story. There are hearts to be won and lost, debts to settled, and reputations to be maintained. For the most part, it’s thoroughly absorbing stuff.

There’s a fair bit of politics here, too. We follow Balint as he becomes involved in various political developments in Budapest. I must admit to finding these sections (which are threaded through They Were Counted) a little less engaging than the other strands in the story, but I soon got the hang of stepping back from the minutiae. The overall direction of developments is the important thing here – that and the tone of the debates as they typically end in mayhem with politicians eagerly jostling for position. (There is much dogmatic underhand behaviour along the way – virtually everyone’s focus seems terribly insular and short-sighted.) Developments on a local level also feature in the shape of Balint’s efforts to establish a farmers’ co-operative in support of the working classes – social enterprise in the community for want of a better phrase.

For the most part, They Were Counted reads like a sumptuous 19th-century novel. There are shooting parties, duels, lavish balls and excursions to the country. Central politics aside, the novel is largely set in the Transylvanian city of Koloszvar, alongside grand country houses such as the Kollonich residence at Veszprem. The descriptions of the surrounding landscape and natural world are wonderfully evocative, too. By conveying a portrait of this society, Bánffy opens up the history of the nation. This, coupled with the novel’s elegiac tone, adds to the feeling that we are witnessing a world that has vanished, a society swept away by the passage of history.

As this first volume draws to a close, various threads are left hanging. How will Balint and Adrienne’s relationship develop? What will become of Laszlo? What does the future hold for Transylvania? All these questions and more left me eager to read the second instalment of the trilogy, They Were Found Wanting, which I finished over the holidays.

I’ll wrap up with a quote from one of the novel’s wonderful society scenes as it gives a good indication of the style. In this scene, the crowds are gathering for a day at the races.

There were smart two-in-hands drawn by high-stepping trotters, four-horse English coaches driven by their owners with eight people seated on the roof together with a liveried coachman whose only function on that day was to blow lustily on his coaching horn. […] In the open carriages the ladies would sit with lace-covered hats; and when one of the rare automobiles entered the procession, with its rattling engine-noise and stinking exhaust fumes it seemed as if even the horses turned up their noses, sensing, perhaps that these horrible new-fangled machines had been sent to destroy them. (pg. 331)

I’ve barely scratched the surface of They Were Counted here. For a more detailed analysis, do take a look at Scott’s excellent review of the trilogy over at the seraillon blog. The novel also comes with a fascinating introduction by one of the translators, Patrick Thursfield, and a forward by the esteemed author, Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Update: The ever-reliable Stu at Winstonsdad has also reviewed this book – click here to read his review.

They Were Counted is published by Arcadia Books.