Friday, March 13, 2015

What's Wrong With Me? Part I

Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman

Gyula Krudy, Sunflower


A list of things that I admire includes literary novels, the beautiful and damned city of Beirut (any beautiful and damned city), bucolic Transylvania, the art of literary translation, novels that are wholly lacking in the conventions of ordinary fiction--lacking plots, dialogue, and obvious authorial grasping after popularity or sales. I am drawn to books of all kinds written by East Europeans, especially Romanians and Hungarians, to claustrophobic fiction that keeps its story in a room in a small village or in a dank Stalinesque apartment in an unimaginable city like Bucharest. Frankly I've grown weary of New York City as the center of the literary universe and eagerly await the first novel to be set entirely in Szigetszentmiklós. I enjoy books about solitary characters and dislike fiction that is focused on suburban life, "self-realization," and love affairs that don't end badly. So: Bernhard, Beckett, Skvorecky, Manea, that sort of thing. If you've been paying attention these past two-and-one-half years none of this will come as a surprise. But what I don't get is why I sometimes turn my back on novels that seem to fit all of my idiosyncratic (idiotic?) criteria--books like the two under review here.

Gyula Krúdy was born in Nyiregyhaza, in Hungry. I've left out the many diacritical marks. How could you not love a novel by "the Hungarian Proust," a man whose collected works fill fifty volumes in the world's most inscrutable language, a writer beloved of Sandor Marai, whose gem of a novel Embers (A gyertyák csonkig égnek in Hungarian, if you can believe it) is one of my all time favorite books--how? Yet Sunflower, recently Englished by John Bakti and published by the saintly people at New York Review Books, nearly did me in. I couldn't finish it. Perhaps it was that I kept imagining I was reading Dracula, a novel I loathed in high school--the popular culture of blood-sucking fiction has always left me cold. Krudy's landscape is bleak; his central character (with a whiff of succubus) Eveline resides in a "country estate" in a place that must be Transylvania--emptiness to spare and an eccentric neighbor named Almos-Dreamer who periodically dies and comes back to life. (I kept wondering: Is he a bat?)  "Life is a mere flick of the hand. It isn't important. And not very interesting either." I like this sentiment, but it's what everyone believes in Eveline's corner of the world, a place where creepy attachments reeking of suppressed sexuality are the order of the day and where counts and princes play the violin and shoot themselves. But none of this is sufficient reason not to love this masterpiece (John Lukacs, who is often right, calls it that). So what's my problem? Is it that spring has come and a book like this one requires a pitch-black and wintery night? Don't I care about the characters? Not that. I never care about the characters; I've too many real-life people to care about. Isn't the novel psychologically interesting, rich in Freudian innuendo, replete with hints of dark passion? Yes, it most certainly is possessed of these qualities, if they are qualities. Is it that Krudy published the novel in 1918, a year whose deeper resonances keep me from understanding the frivolity that lies at the heart of the story? What's my problem with this novel--it's obscure, Hungarian, and cheerless. Everything one wants in a good read.

Having given the matter some thought I've concluded that my problem is with Krudy's style, his florid prose (at least in Batki's translation), the hothouse atmosphere; it's as if the novel transpired in a room full of orchids. By page 100 I was gasping for air: "Eveline strapped the red garter around her knees, and dug up a warm crimson house coat. She bustled about like a colorful pollen-laden moth, above the midnight flower-bed." A "bustling" moth?

                                      (A splendid example of Hyalophora cecropia, not bustling)

It came to me that Krudy's style, at least in English, bears a distinct kinship to early 19th century English fiction of the Wuthering Heights variety. Overwrought. Sentimental and chilling, poetic but in the mode of the worst Romantics--George Crabbe's "The Village" or some of the insufferable stanzas of Byron's "Don Juan": "She lay, her dark eyes flashing through their [sic] tears,/Like skies that rain and lighten: as a veil/Waved and o'ershading her wan cheek/appears/her streaming hair." 

One thing I've never cared for is fiction or poetry that pitches emotions so high that their credibility is unsustainable. Of course depicting deep feeling is at the heart of all great writing, but the romantic flaw, and perhaps Krudy's in this book, is to push the limits of feeling too hard, to go too far in a direction that leads to bathos rather than art. I will try Sunflower again next winter. And I've ordered Krudy's other novels in English as well. And Marai's Sinbad Comes Home, a novel about the last day in the life of Gyula Krudy, Marai's, and most other Hungarians, literary idol.  What's wrong with me?

[to be continued]

George Ovitt (3/13/15)

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