Exquisite journey

Arthur Phillips' "Prague" won the 2003 Los Angeles Times' Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. His most recent novel is "Angelica."

MAYBE I should just write, “Read ‘Sunflower’ ” and leave it at that. Otherwise, I might lose control; fans of the great Hungarian novelist Gyula Krúdy (1878-1933) tend toward gibberish when trying to explain his unique appeal.

Here, for example, is one of his translators, the usually sober-minded poet George Szirtes, describing Krúdy’s Sindbad stories (no relation to the Arab sailor): “The language comes to pieces . . . leaving a curiously sweet erotic vacuum, like an ache without a centre.” Besides whetting your appetite for some sweet erotic vacuuming, does that make Krúdy’s literary power clear to you? No? Well, perhaps this old jacket copy will help: “Krúdy’s verbal / shamanistic trance-and-dance translates historical reverie into a vision that transcends national and ethnic borderlines.” Not quite clear yet? Historian John Lukacs, probably Krúdy’s greatest promoter in English, finally nails it: Krúdy “is translatable only with the greatest of difficulty -- in essence hardly translatable at all.”

Krúdy has been compared to his great contemporaries (Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Joseph Roth) and his great successors (Isabel Allende and Gabriel García Márquez). Other comparisons come to mind. His work purrs with the fin-de-siècle urbane eroticism in Arthur Schnitzler’s stories. His shifting viewpoints and streams of consciousness recall Virginia Woolf. Like Kafka, he’s willing to let dream and reality mingle. He’s ironic and wise about the human heart and life’s futility, like Chekhov. His fond portrayal of rural life evokes the Levin scenes in “Anna Karenina.” Yet these faint resemblances leave most of him in shadow. Moreover, as Lukacs notes, “No one has, even remotely, written like Krúdy in Hungarian.” Given that Hungarian is utterly unlike English, a writer who is unique in that language poses a profound challenge, which may be why there is so little of him here: only three volumes of fiction and one of journalism, though he wrote more than 50 novels and 3,000 short stories, starting when he was 13. So it’s cause for celebration that New York Review Books has reissued this 1997 translation, introduced by Lukacs, his champion.

“Sunflower” (1918), written toward the end of a world war in which Hungary was losing, is set in the demimonde of Budapest and the birches and marshes of northeastern Hungary, the countryside of Krúdy’s origin. It is not a realistic novel: The dead recover, ghosts cuckold the living, and love affairs persist in the afterlife.


The innocent Eveline loves Kálmán, gambler and hound dog, who sponges off her and other women, with whom he repeatedly betrays her. Andor Álmos, a lonely country gentleman, loves her and dies for her -- though when she weeps over his corpse he comes back to life. Álmos’ mother (also named Eveline) has lost three husbands, the first two in duels and the third because she vowed to sleep with him only if he promised to kill himself afterward. Mr. Pistoli, an aging Don Juan, sent three wives to the insane asylum; one night they all escape and turn up for a farewell foursome. When Miss Maszkerádi, a brassy feminist, reverts to men, she sleeps with Pistoli; the pleasure kills him, apparently permanently. Eveline and Álmos consider marrying and settling down to a passionless life in birch country. That’s it.

“Sunflower” is an erotic carnival. Respectable noblewomen are “familiar with the notorious Marquis’s book of recipes.” Rakes devour the maidens of Budapest. An infatuated lover’s eyes are “a hair’s breadth away from madness.” But references to death are just as pervasive; the carnival is held under stormy skies and in the high winds of passing time. By turns smutty, nostalgic, slapstick and tender, cynical and hopeful, the novel’s real subjects are the futility but unavoidability of passion, the pain and pleasure of memory, and the grave that awaits us all. One character scolds another, who’s sick with love: "[Y]ou went and climbed up on the high wire at the traveling circus and now you can’t come down. Why go in for this goggle-eyed torment when you can live your life painlessly. . . ?” That is the book’s main question, answered differently by dozens of characters; this novelist examines his specimens through a kaleidoscope.

The plot and big ideas are easily summarized; “Sunflower” is a great novel not for these but for Krúdy’s images, insights, twists of language, portraits of Budapest and the countryside and their inhabitants. Here’s a womanizer you won’t forget: “Mr. Pistoli’s favorites were women prone to hysteria, whom he would sniff out seven counties off. . . . He capered like a billy goat when a woman confessed to him that she had swallowed her child.” Slow down and dig in. Krúdy’s style is built of imagery that halts you at sentence’s end to ponder what it reveals about the subject: “Her face was unapproachably severe, like a façade with shuttered windows, where no crimson-clad girls ever lean out over the windowsill.” Wait, one more: an old woman, dressed up in feathered hat and finery, “on parade like some superannuated circus steed that, come tomorrow, might be harnessed to a hearse.”

The sheer richness is overwhelming. Krúdy’s trademark is the linked comparison -- one extended simile or metaphor stacked upon another, with magical impossibilities sprinkled throughout: “The mirror’s reflection grows faint, or perhaps the face itself does, taking on an acrid, fastidious look like that of a cobwebbed old daguerreotype set by sentimental hands on a headstone. In the pupil of the eye tiny, swimming dots appear: they are rowboats steered by melancholy boatmen conveying luggage and traveler -- departing life -- from the shore to the vast old bark awaiting.” Such writing, grumps will say, “draws attention to itself.” But, grumps, that’s the point: the storyteller captivating you. Listen to him. His voice is as important as what happens to his characters. The imaginary people are introducing you to a real one.


So who is this writer I have come to love? Is it Krúdy by way of translator Eszter Molnár?

There used to be an old painting in the monastery of Podolin -- a grey-haired man thought to himself one night towards autumn, while outside the mist curled into shades of chimney-sweeps walking the rooftops in the damp moonlight -- a painting of a shaggy-haired man with bushy moustaches turning up at the tips like a gallant’s, . . . ringed eyes that were almond-shaped and of a very light blue, and a ruddy face the colour of wine sparkling on a white table on a sunny winter day. This was Prince Lubomirski.

Or by way of Szirtes?

Once upon a damp and moonlit night a man with greying hair was watching the autumn mist form figures of chimney-sweeps on the rooftops. Somewhere in the monastery at Podolin, he was thinking, there is, or was, an old painting, showing a shaggy-haired figure with a wild upcurled moustache, . . . two big round eyes with elongated pale blue pupils, and a complexion as ruddy as the colour of a white tablecloth when light passes through a full wine glass on a sunny winter noon. This man was Prince Lubomirski.

Surely Hungarian isn’t as subjective as all that. Molnár produced two sentences; Szirtes three. Molnár’s prince has a face the color of wine; Szirtes’ the color of light passing through wine and projected onto a tablecloth. Molnár’s prince has almond-shaped blue eyes -- plausible enough, though “ringed” makes me think he’s a raccoon. Szirtes’ prince has elongated blue pupils, suggesting either a painting by Modigliani or severe cataracts. And what happened to the gallant? “Once upon” sets a fairy-tale tone -- is it Krúdy’s? Or did he intend the casual “There used to be an old painting”? The translators cannot even agree on the story’s title. Precision matters especially for a writer such as Krúdy, for whom dreams, memories and desires blend like rivers converging. Still, two translations are better than one.

John Bátki, translator of several Hungarian poets, makes some strange decisions that mar his extraordinary work in “Sunflower.” He anglicizes some names but not others. He translates the names of some streets but not others. He translates a district of Budapest (Józsefváros) not into English (the Joseph district) but into German (Josephstadt). He translates one character’s surname literally and sticks it onto the Hungarian as a hyphenate (“Andor Álmos-Dreamer”). The novel opens with 19th century diction (“The young miss lay abed”) and ends rich in 1950s-era slang. Whether the original similarly relaxed I cannot say, but I doubt any Hungarian can aptly be translated as “Hot diggety-dog.”

But Krúdy-Bátki, Krúdy-Molnár, and Krúdy-Szirtes are enough to win this reader’s heart. The more translations of this untranslatable genius there are, the closer we’ll be to his shimmering, melancholy world.