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.