Biography of Gyula Krúdy
I discovered Trevor at The Mookse and the Gripes has reviewed this and another NYRB Classic I started, so I’ll be sure and link his posts. While there will be some overlap in our reviews I’ll try to focus on additional topics in Krúdy’s work.
Translator George Szirtes provides a helpful introduction to this compilation of stories, informing the reader that “In Hungary, the terms ‘Krúdyesque’ and ‘the world of Krúdy’ have a currency which extends beyond books and conjures an experience comprised of the nostalgic, the fantastic and the ironic.” Szirtes’ description provides a framework to understand the tales but Krúdy’s stories have to be read to appreciate the mystical world he creates. Although ‘mistical’ might be a better term since so much occurs in a misty netherworld, including a healthy amount of dreams and ghosts.
First, the name: we find out in the first story that Sindbad “selected his name from his favourite book of stories, The Thousand and One Nights, for in those days, it was still fairly common for knight errants, poets, actors and passionate scholars to choose names from themselves.” The name proves appropriate—rarely satisfied with his lot, Sindbad wanders often and far. Sindbad, though, is an adventurer of a different sort, his attempted conquests of a carnal nature instead of financial gain. While the original Sindbad never let shipwrecks set him back, so the more recent version won’t let death keep him from his goal—to live on in the memory and dreams of the women he seduces.
Relations between men and women follow a script: men are supposed to try to take a woman’s virtue, using every means at their disposal. The women are supposed to know the men lie and hold out…well, at least hold out longer than they do. In “The Secret Room”, as in other stories, falling in love is the same as imprisonment, longings are ruined by their realization, and familiarity breeds boredom. As explicitly stated in another tale, “what would be the point of dreaming if dreams came true?”
In “Escape from Women”, Sindbad’s appraisal of women proves to be harsh but generous while laying out a game scripted in advance:
‘The strange thing,’ he thought to himself, ‘is that women tend to behave better than one has a right to expect. Poor things, giving their all, their kisses, their dreams and sighs, smuggling my name into their evening prayers—I’d be surprised if the angels didn’t wonder at times what my name was doing among the usual company of aged faters, mothers and tiny children… They were very good indeed, poor creatures. From now on Sindbad will teach the young to cherish women, as they do flowers, as indeed they do so many odd, weak, cheated, robbed, often tortured beings…Is it not touching that for all the times they have been disappointed, the hours they have wept and mourned, nothing continues to engage them so intensely as the serious subject of love. Love is everything to them: the air they breathe, the water they thirst for, the miracle they marvel at. They talk of love as though it were something that had independent existence, something so solid it might be grasped. Though it is true that the subject of fashion runs a close second to love in their thoughts.
‘God bless you then, dear good women—virgins, countesses, women of affairs, half-crazed Jewesses—all who listened with trembling lips, skeptical smiles and with desire and astonishment in your hears when Sindbad favoured you with softly spoken, delicately enunciated lies that filled your heads and souls, that heightened your colour and your mood, and gave you something to think about…For his part, Sindbad would go on to leap from the windows of cursed castles and cry his eyes out for some other woman. At other times, in a complete daze, wholly undiscriminating, he would reach out to pluck one of you, almost anyone—a tea-rose or a roadside thistle—and would have forgotten your name by morning. Forgotten names and voices, voices into which whole lives were poured, your endless self-sacrifice, the dangers into which your passions led you, and the peculiar, precious vows which Sindbad managed to extract from you with the skill of a practised father-confessor—all forgotten. You were all happy to forswear yourselves in the hour of love…Really it hardly mattered that not one of you ever kept her vow.
(Ellipses in original)
[Skip to the end of the story] As the years went by there were messages from far away. Women wanted him to come back: they were bored, they felt nostalgic; they wanted to laugh, cry, cackle, fret and be happy. But Sindbad did not go back because he kept account of the lovers that had succeeded him in their affections. The subsequent pain and bitter disappointment prevented him ever forgiving their unfaithfulness. He was a rogue: in the Middle Ages he would have gone the rounds of the prisons where he would have been shorn, first of his nose, then of his ears. Furthermore, he always believed he was speaking the truth and one can ask no clearer proof of a man’s wickedness. He could never forgive women. He thought he perceived miraculous qualities in them, a combination of the fidelity of the saints with the virtues of the martyrs. And how he would rage when one of them took up with another man though it was he who had done the leaving.
Let us therefore close the file on Sindbad’s not altogether pointless and occasionally amusing existence.
A few comments on Krúdy’s tales, which at times read like nostalgia while at the same time rejecting the past. The living and those in the afterlife both appear melancholy, the line between their worlds of existence blurred or nonexistent. The dead can appear and interact with the living, while at other times they provide the living’s subconscious. Desires held during life carry over into the afterworld. If nothing changes, what is the point of life and death?
Sindbad would often sit down to consider how it was that an entire world, a world that was supposed to have disappeared some time ago, could so resurrect itself before him. It was as if Hungarian village life had remained unchanged over the centuries. The people had changed but they had they had been replaced by others precisely like them. As if birth, death and marriage were all part of some curious joke.
Update: My notes on the 1971 movie Szindbád, directed by Zoltán Huszárik