06. 07. 2012. 07:30

The Knight of the Cordon Bleu (excerpt)

"How could a poet defend himself against physicians of the body and their henchmen, the nurses?" - An excerpt from Gyula Krúdy's 1931 novel, to be published by Corvina, Budapest in 2013 in John Batki's translation.


                Without a doubt, the countess loves me!
                At the theater she keeps smiling at me.
                            (Anonymous author)

    The month of May in Buda had always been different from May in her twin city.  While in Pest, a generation of folks under Francis Joseph’s reign abandoned themselves to the breezy moods of May, residents of Buda had always cautiously consulted the barometer and heard out the opinions of older experts (who could look back on long years of experience) before they earnestly summoned the enthusiasm to give themselves over to the pleasures of the season.
    The man who was drenched at the fair on St. Gellert Hill, or had to spend most of an outing taking shelter from the thunderstorm in some cave or a watchman’s hut, or got so hopelessly entangled in the labyrinths and thickets of love, or the woods of Zugliget, that his only choice was hanging himself from a great oak, or exchanging wedding vows in the chapel on Schwab Hill with the young miss he had gotten saddled with: such a man was usually a native of Pest, for the Buda locals, with their innate barometer for the ups and downs of spring weather, would never venture attending a St. Gellert Hill fair without the proper accoutrements. As for the realm of love suffice it to say that a true citizen of Buda did not take his lady on excursions in the woods, but headed instead for a stroll under the palazzo windows on the Buda esplanade if he wished to coordinate his footfalls with the dance of female feet, or else gave serious thought to urban renewal before fatally falling in love with a lady who dwelt in one of the long-condemned houses of the Taban district. Only people from Pest journeyed to Buda in May to commit irreparable follies under the pretext of pub-crawling, excursions, dreamy strolls or an evening at the theater.
    Having stated the above it will come as no surprise that Kazmer Rezeda (a young man we have neglected for some time), now that he moved body and soul to Buda, metamorphosed into a veritable "Buda citizen", and took the precaution of never leaving home without raincoat and umbrella, even in May.  He also learned to politely greet priests, elderly ladies and  anyone older and more respectable than himself. 
    And so, when Mr. Alvinczi in his "Buda office" received Rezeda, in place of the former nihilistic butterfly of a poet he saw a not too shabby gentleman in a coffee-brown overcoat who deposited his gleaming galoshes in a corner of the hall, for his impeccable footwear could now be exhibited without rubber overshoes. He left his umbrella opened on the roofed porch and shot several glances out of the window of the Alvinczi mansion to make sure no amateur felt like taking the umbrella for a stroll while its owner discussed all sorts of business in the "Buda office".
     Mr. Alvinczi started out by inquiring where and how Kazmer Rezeda had spent his last year or two. Was there any truth to the rumor that he had found employment in the secretarial office of an insane asylum, addressing brochures, reviewing bills, and practicing bookkeeping, as Arthur Görgey, Jr. had done, who, although fluent in most major languages, having been disinherited by his famous father the General on account of noxious addictions, was compelled in his old age to work as a clerk in the offices of the Lipótmező madhouse?  ("Alas," quoth Mr. Alvinczi, "there was no reconciliation even at the General’s death bed, for father and son were equally obstinate in nature.")
    "Why yes, Szilveszter has introduced me to Baron Babarczi, who in turn asked me to organize several theatrical evenings for the lunatics at the Baron’s neuropathological establishment," replied Rezeda.
    "They say that poets benefit immensely from hydrotherapy," opined Mr. Alvinczi. Furthermore, he considered it an "an old wives’ tale" that envious, sardonic doctors liked to tie up poets before dripping ice-cold water on their heads. True, doctors believed themselves more infallible than poets, for which reason there has always been a certain tension between physicians of bodily illnesses and savants of spiritual afflictions (poets), but it was hard to believe that doctors, once they got hold of a poet who surpassed them in brains, talent and fame, aspired to flay him alive…
    Mr. Rezeda calmly replied:
    "It is true that nowhere do you hear such God-awful screams as around a madhouse. But as a rule the patients themselves are to blame for thoughtlessly letting themselves be incarcerated. I was always amazed that no patient undergoing such tortures ever thought of setting fire to his bed."
    "I, too, have wondered about that," agreed Mr. Alvinczi. "But how do you suppose someone, say, a poet, could defend himself if nurses tied him up, and demanded that he admit clysters are more effective than the lyre, and that healers of the corruptible body were more valuable than poets born to doctor the soul… How could a poet defend himself against physicians of the body and their henchmen, the nurses?"
    Mr. Alvinczi, true to form, once again poked his nose into the intimate affairs of poetry by wanting to learn how was it possible for Mr. Kazmer Rezeda to exist in the world at large when ever since early youth he should have been confined to a "closed institution". The gentleman who had thus far managed to evade this fate replied:
    "I could invoke the work of a well-known French poet who had plainly and explicitly described how an unlucky Foreign Legionnaire must behave in a lioness’ cave if, by chance waking up there he should unexpectedly find himself in the company of the lioness. To save his life, the soldier has to make love to the lioness to the best of his ability, just as he would to a chambermaid. But it’s simpler if I let your Lordship hear my own system. When my situation seemed unbearable, I usually dangled the carrot of poetry in front of the physicians of my body and the bloodthirsty keepers in their employ, in order to yank them out of the morass of ‘old-fashioned teachings’ in which medical science and nursing still stagnate."
    (Kazmer Rezeda had known Mr. Alvinczi long enough to be aware of the words which made this gentleman, so interested in medical matters, perk up his ears.) 
    "Yes sir, for doctors I recommend poesy in the field of science, when I hear that they still enchain mental patients in dungeons, and stick ice-packs on the heads of the severely depressed. To keep the patient under observation there should be no need to drill holes into walls, ceilings and doors, for the patient soon realizes that it is merely a hireling male nurse with a red mustache, and not the devil himself, who is rattling those chains overhead at midnight. Nor should a modern physician rely on listening devices installed in the wall, for the patient will sooner or later discover the eavesdropper and start making unkind comments about the doctor’s honorable mother."
    "In my opinion a physician should be prepared for remarks made non compos mentis…"
    "Granted, my dear Sir. But doctors still get very touchy when patients committed to their care constantly curse them and their mothers. For the same reason I do not recommend for medical practitioners the method whereby, in the guise of father confessor they probe into the patient’s life history. During the period of my confinement I confessed to every murder and robbery committed in and around the city simply to satisfy the curiosity of my doctor. In response to his demands I made up horror stories for this prurient gentleman who saw himself sometimes as detective, sometimes as magistrate. All right, I said to myself, you’ll hear how I robbed the mail coach back in the 1860’s! … Very well, I’ll tell you the true story of how the Chief Justice was murdered! Three innocents were sentenced to hang while the real culprit lies tied to this bed as you, bloody fool of a doctor, are listening to his groans through the barred window!"
    Mr. Alvinczi sternly wrinkled his brows:
    "In other words you committed an imposture?"
    "Yes, just as ninety percent of physicians do, my good sir. You would not believe what a pleasure it is for a patient to find a gullible doctor to whom he can tell a big lie. For a poet there is no finer revenge than fooling those who would spy on his secrets… Take me back to the madhouse if I ever let a single word of truth be squeezed from me by those frauds who call themselves psychiatrists or by the illiterate peasants they employ as nurses."
    "Mr. Rezeda, are you saying that Professor Moravcsik should personally apply ointment to your feet?"
    "No, not at all.  But I was most amazed when my nurse, that peasant, made bold to daub my feet with chicken blood while I slept dreaming at night. As if the psychiatrist and his helper could have made me believe that I walked on broken glass in my sleep. We all have to die by ourselves. Who needs the help of a jack-booted, ill-smelling attendant or an ancient hag with her belly hanging down to her knees, whom I ended up kicking in the knee when she attempted to gouge out two of my incisors with her unclean warty fingers!"
    "A gentleman does not kick a woman."
    "Your lordship is right as far as that goes," said Kazmer Rezeda. "If the occasion arises, strangling is far more appropriate."
    Having thus accounted for the events, physicians and nurses of his recent past, the journalist Mr. Rezeda felt it was time to inquire about what other services could he perform for Mr. Alvinczi beyond discussing medical issues. Indulgent, Mr. Alvinczi replied:
    "Indeed, there are certain matters that need to be 'taken in hand', dealt with and settled,  something as unfamiliar to me as your struggle with medical science that, after all, enabled you to have this conversation with me."
    "I owe far more to Mr. Tinodi for the restoration of my health than to all the scientific literature ever written about mental illness," was Kazmer Rezeda’s impassive reply. "Without Tinodi, my oft-mentioned skull would right now be simmering in the soup kettle of the housekeeper at the mental institute. Tinodi donned the brown robe of missionary priest, glued on a fake beard like some oriental monk's, and carried a pilgrim's staff, to help me escape the iron bars of the fence around the sanatorium. That’s the real reason I can be here, conversing with you, Mr. Alvinczi."
    (Here Mr. Rezeda concluded with a hand gesture indicating he wished to say no more on this subject. Thus Alvinczi would never hear how Rezeda had succeeded in teaching the red-mustached keeper at the Bellevue Asylum first of all to write, then to write poetry, thereby allowing his ward more and more free time, until finally even omitting to apply the heavy irons on the ankles at night. The red-mustached attendant wrote a poem to a countess he had once glimpsed at the theater, and Dr. Schumayer on the floor above at times overheard the lovesick keeper’s howls which he mistook to be Rezeda’s way of requesting his release. The nurse wrote: "Without a doubt the countess loves me! / At the theater she keeps smiling at me." The patient said: "Very good, Mr. Tinodi, but you will also have to recite this poem!" That was when the howls issued that Dr. Schumayer came to expect every night from his patient‘s cell. -- But all this would have been of no interest to Mr. Alvinczi, who, being a gentleman of wealth, would never have been able to escape from Dr. Schumayer’s institution, which was operated on the principle that the patient must be grilled as long his money lasts. Mr. Alvinczi’s funds were unlimited.)
    "So let’s hear about those matters that must be 'taken in hand'!" said Rezeda.
    Done with  preliminaries, having learned all that Kazmer Rezeda wished to share about his past, Mr. Alvinczi still hesitated to broach the subject he had meant to discuss. Finally Rezeda helped him out (although this meant giving the opponent a "rook's advantage"):
    "The press has not dealt fairly with Your Excellency’s writing because nowadays editorial posts are not awarded to ideally suited candidates," offered Rezeda to relax Alvinczi, who was pacing the room.
    Since Rezeda did not continue, Alvinczi stopped pacing.
    "Has anyone noticed my book at all? I don’t think so. What’s more, probably no one would believe the Alvinczi who wrote this book is the same man who, come May, usually seeks success at the race track, and not in literature."
    "Sic transit gloria mundi," grunted Rezeda.
    "But I am not surprised by the silence of the Press," continued Mr. Alvinczi, still affecting a dispassionate tone. "I am not surprised by anything in the Budapest press… But I do wonder why the youth of this country fails to respond to the lines I addressed to them. I simply cannot fathom this deep silence on the part of our youth."
    For the time being Rezeda pondered the tip of his shoe. What did Alvinczi really want? A torchlight procession, or successful reviews? Or perhaps both?
    Alvinczi continued:
    "Could it be true that we are living in a time when even the young have lost their idealism? Perhaps these days they would ignore even Istvan Szechenyi. Would Petofi’s poems still move people today?" 
    "Well, most likely far fewer than back in his days… The Hungarian freedom fight of 1848 proved far less fruitful than could be expected," replied Mr. Rezeda. "In fact we can’t even know for sure what the revolution would have given birth to, had it not been squelched by the intervention of Nicholas, Tzar of the Russians. Most likely this country would have split into two or three parts. There would have been a Gorgey County, a Kossuth County, a Bem, a Szemere, a Perczel, and so on… Only a Petofi County would have been missing, because they would have done away with the poet in any case. If  no one else, his esteemed family would have finished him off."
    Perhaps for the first time in this conversation Alvinczi stared at Rezeda with some surprise. Could Dr. Schumayer have had valid reasons for keeping his patient at the sanatorium?
    "We are talking about something else here, my most esteemed friend. I wish to consult you about where has the flame of enthusiasm flown from the soul of today’s Hungarian youth who, instead of listening to those who would lead the lost sheep back into the splendid realm of ideals, prefer the path of corruption, nepotism, and of democracy even, if that’s where success lies. Today’s youth rejects socialism only because socialists must perform some manual labor, if I understand it correctly."
    "Not everyone has to be a carpenter’s apprentice, like Jakab Walter!" said Rezeda reassuringly. "But I am no socialist because this new phalanstery is just as boring, its sky just as gray and without dimension as the old utopias. It aims to turn humankind into one great mass of Ennui, the same as the religions that promise salvation in the world to come for anyone managing to obey the required rules and eke out an antlike existence. With due respect to those scientists who want to turn people into identical ants and bees, if it were up to me, for a single flash of genius I’d gladly sweep away the whole empire of ants… For instance, for the sake of the notion that humans can live a merry, happy and long life right here on earth without starving or having to work, which comes to the same thing."
    Mr. Alvinczi began to realize that Mr. Rezeda was trying to steer the conversation as far away from the intended goal, as from the insane asylum on which he dwelled with such relish at the start of their colloquy.
    "Fortunately I hold a different view. In fact I want to unite my country’s youth specifically by means of solidarity through shared ideals and a common task…"
    "Great idea!" Kazmer Rezeda cried out. "Maybe there are young people who at the dawn of their lives, at the start of their careers, instead of laying the foundations of their future, are crazy enough to waste their energies on ideals proposed by retired gentlemen sitting on the sidelines! My dear Sir, every young man has his own ideal regarding the future. The only difference between them is that one youth can dress his ideals in better clothes, in a more pleasing outfit. One ideal compels the young to follow the crowd, dance the fashionable dances. Another ideal demands a wreath of straw, hair uncombed, roaming alone in rags on the outskirts of town, searching for a mate. But it’s impossible to tell which ideal is more valuable, and more human. That’s what I think of this matter."
    Over the years Mr. Alvinczi had learned to expect that Rezeda did not always go along with him the way his other employees did, and perhaps for this very reason he had persisted in his high regard and "special affection" for the venturesome young man. But  Mr. Rezeda’s brazenness was unprecedented …
    ("This man takes advantage of his having been in a madhouse," Mr. Alvinczi thought.)
    ("This man thinks he’s smarter than I am!" was Rezeda’s unspoken thought, "whereas he’s simply been luckier in life. We’ll see if sheer luck is sufficient in wielding the pen!")
    …Who can tell how long these two would have played this fashionable game (a fashion in Pest, Buda and all of Hungary dictating that one had to be cleverer than the next person to get ahead in life) -- when the door suddenly opened and Ilona Alvinczi entered the room.
    "Father, I hope I’m not interrupting your conference with this gentleman… In any case I’ve heard so many good things about Mr. Rezeda as a writer, that I am happy to meet at last the man who has served my father so well!"
    Thus spoke the unexpected intruder and held out her hand to Mr. Rezeda, who now stood up somewhat confused and a bit awed.
    "I wouldn’t have dared to hope for this good fortune…" Kazmer Rezeda stammered. And these few words were just about all that remained of the former Kazmer Rezeda not only till the end of that day, but until much later in life (when the journalist was at last able to sort out the peculiar impressions created in him by Ilona Alvinczi’s appearance, handshake, voice, and friendly words.)
    Mr. Alvinczi, too, stood surprised for some time, for even he had been unprepared for such instinctive audacity on his daughter’s part.
     "Father, I just came to let you know that Miss Rex and I are going to view the new art exhibition," announced the young lady, as she kissed Mr. Alvinczi on the forehead and, casting a glance at Kazmer Rezeda, left the room, leaving behind a scent of springtime. Whereupon the journalist Kazmer Rezeda reached into a pocket of his brown coat and withdrew a crumpled booklet: it was Alvinczi’s tract To the Youth of My Nation.
    "So let’s see, what would this work say to any well-meaning, honest, decent-minded man who reads it from cover to cover?" he said and started to read the text with apparent absorption.
    "What a great idea!" Kazmer Rezeda exclaimed enthusiastically, after a while.
"To teach marksmanship to our youth, Your Excellency."
    …It was May in Buda, and the locals had no use for the umbrellas and raincoats they carried about for sudden changes in the weather. The same held true for those who had only recently made a surreptitious move to Buda.
    It was May in Buda, and male nurses with red mustaches chose pseudonyms such as Tinodi to write poems to countesses they had never seen. As for the patients under their care, we may imagine the poems they were moved to write in May!
    Since it was May in Buda, the birds sang in the garden. For all these reasons, Kazmer Rezeda, absorbed in the pamphlet, commented with increasing enthusiasm:
    "We’ll have the press eating out of our hands and cooing like turtledoves. The young will cheer like cuckoos hollering. And I will sing like a nightingale until the break of day, after reading this pamphlet. Yes, our young people must be taught target-shooting! Upon my word, that’s the best idea I’ve ever heard!" raved Mr. Rezeda, and he meant every word he said.

Translated by: John Batki

Tags: Gyula Krúdy