Gyula Krúdy makes me wish my Hungarian went beyond “szeretlek” and “a viszontlátásra.” John Lukacs warns in his indispensable introduction to the NYRB edition of Sunflower that no matter how beautiful it may seem, we are missing so much in even a good translation, and based on what I have read I would definitely believe it. But as I will probably not master Hungarian and its eighteen case endings in this lifetime, please, NYRB, give us more.
Sunflower is like a fairy tale, only more like a dream. Eveline, a “country miss” living in Budapest, has her house broken into by her former fiancé, a wastrel who’s been using her for money. Next morning she packs up the household and returns to her country estate, the Hideaway. Her dearest friend in rural Hungary is a solitary and melancholy man, Andor Álmos-Dreamer, with a fantastical family history and a devotion to Eveline that will lead him to end his life—then begin it again at her request.
Eveline is also joined by her best female friend, Malvina Maszkerádi, a wealthy cosmopolitan heiress who is a bit caustic for the countryside. Kálmán, Eveline’s beau, also follows her to Hideaway. Rural life is full of beautiful dreams, epic loves, and constant torment. Everything is poetic and doomed, and described so vividly and mythically as to bring the reader himself into the same dream Miss Eveline is experiencing.
A few curiosities particularly intrigued me and left me wanting more Krúdy—not something readily available. The whole of the novel is told in the third person, but for a strange aside halfway through, a parenthetical about a quadrille. And when Eveline speaks to Miss Maszkerádi “as if from the pages of some novel” I can’t help but smile.
Krúdy lived at a time when the Hungary of his youth was disappearing. Growing up in the Birches, the rural area where Sunflower is set, he spent most of his adult life in Budapest writing about the countryside and the old Hungarian ways. Eveline, and Álmos-Dreamer, are the foundation of those ways—cold winters spent wrapped in furs in front of the fire, reading and drinking local wine; paying respect to the old and debauched country squire; leaving behind the unfortunate acquaintances one has made in the city. Eveline had fled to the Hideaway at the end of winter; after spending most of the year there she has realized she wants to remain in her home through the coming autumn. Álmos-Dreamer, though in love, only wishes to take care of her.
The melancholy, and the bursts of life amid the melancholy, Krúdy captures them both with mythical and moving language. Sunflower is like a sea to dive into and swim around in, not a book for wading in or just dipping a toe.