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.