06. 08. 2008. 09:26
Gyula Krúdy’s novel Sunflower treats the ultimate themes: Life, Death, Transformation. The author states his aims in a December 1917 letter to the editor of the Budapest daily where the novel was to appear in installments, January through May 1918.
My work aims to be a modern Hungarian novel, yet its contents are as old as the soil of this land… In back of this novel lies an old desire, the suspended momentum of a long-absent concentrated effort. Also, a furtive little cemetery breeze that nudges me: What will you leave behind after you’re gone? …So, let’s see what remains in life by the time you consider yourself wise, calm, and collected.
Overt goals notwithstanding, Krúdy in this novel – as in his best works – seems to write in a trance state, weaving webs of images that, upon reflection, astonish as evocations of the oft-forgotten Great Goddess of the Old World, as old as the soul of the soil. Her multifarious apparitions set and rule the scene, the matrix out of which arise the female and male principal characters. We watch larger-than-life Pistoli, the “Hungarian Falstaff”, hankering after young Malvina Maszkerádi, and the pastorale of Eveline Nyirjes and her suitor Andor Álmos-Dreamer, playing out assorted parables of death in life and life in death, while diverse manifestations of the ancient Goddess animate the novel’s dazzling cotillion of characters to fill out the narrative tapestry.
Sunflower is apparently set in Hungary in the early 1900’s... plus or minus a few years/decades/centuries/millennia. Other than the first, introductory scenes in Budapest, the novel’s actual location is Krúdy’s native Nyírség (“The Birches”) region by the River Tisza in the Great Lowlands of Eastern Hungary. Here Eveline, haunted by her ex-paramour, the gambler Ossuary, and sheltered by her country squire neighbors Álmos-Dreamer and Pistoli, all partake of the bucolic life. But the novel’s panoramic view embraces far more than the constellation of three male figures surrounded by no less than nine females that include, in addition to young Eveline and her pal Malvina Maszkerádi, the mustered-out local hetaera Risoulette, Álmos-Dreamer’s mother (the femme fatale “bygone Eveline”), Pistoli’s mistresses Stony Dinka and Fanny Late, and his three former wives, confined in the county madhouse. Still, the underlying, main character in Sunflower is the land itself, as it proceeds through the seasons, and the unnamed, mysterious spirit that rules this soil.
As the novel opens, Eveline Nyirjes, twenty-two and alone in life, is leaving her Budapest town house and her good-for-nothing beau Kálmán Ossuary, to return to the country estate where she was born. Her close friend and former classmate Malvina Maszkerádi, a fascinating early-twentieth century “liberated woman”, soon joins her for a sojourn, to be wooed by the maniacally womanizing, middle-aged Pistoli, “patron of village Gypsies”, “growling like a wild boar”. But Miss Maszkerádi is far from impressed by this “provincial stumblebum”, his “Tartar manners” and his ragtag band of itinerant musicians. She thinks herself a “modern woman” and holds “every man to be insane”, proud that she has never been in love. The only love object she admits in her life is a solitary old willow tree standing with “virile, calm, patriarchal equanimity” on the bank of a dry streambed. She fancies the tree as an “aging vagabond…aimless as a muddy dog…” and proceeds to make passionate love – to the willow, to herself – “embracing the tree as an idol is embraced by some wild tribeswoman…her arms and legs wound around the trunk”.
Eveline, in turn, is courted by her neighbor, the gentle Andor Álmos-Dreamer, named after the ancient Magyar chieftain who followed a dream to lead his tribes West across the steppes north of the Black Sea to their present-day home in the Carpathian Basin. Álmos-Dreamer lives alone on an island in the Tisza; “calm as twilight in the country…persisting…with the utter tenacity of an otter…a natural scientist …[who] despised electioneering and politicians”. In his solitude he plays the violin and, following ancient family tradition, once a year dies for a woman. His pseudo-suicide leads to a flashback that tells the tale of his mother, the “bygone Eveline”, a demonic doppelganger of his neighbor the living, “palpable Eveline”. Here we enter mythic dimensions emanating from the female participants in Sunflower’s timeless dance beyond life and death.
This “bygone Eveline”, Andor’s mother, had already driven two husbands to their early deaths via duels fought on her behalf by the time she encountered Ákos Álmos-Dreamer who, in turn, “had buried his three former wives without undue emotional stress”. He is the scion of a family famous for males who had, over the centuries, “stalked wealthy widows, moneyed elderly women and females with prize dowries, pretty much the way they had hunted the rarer kinds of egret in the marshy reeds”. The linking of woman and water bird is as significant as the location, which, we now know, happens to be a region rich in archaeological relics of the 7000-year old “Tisza Culture” that worshipped the Great Goddess in her manifold manifestations, chief among them the water bird.
So a generation earlier, the proud, predatory, patriarchal Ákos Álmos-Dreamer met his match in this “bygone Eveline”, a “blonde witch in whose blue eyes shone all the colors of a mountain stream. She was as supple as a silvery birch in the springtime. And like tumbleweed, she clung to men’s heads. She spoke the language of grasses, old trees and crossroads. She could make herself understood by beasts. The windmill’s blades stopped when she blew at them.” – But let us pause for a moment. Where are we, all of a sudden? A late-nineteenth-century witch…wielding the power of life and death over men… Let us step outside Sunflower and consult Marija Gimbutas’s pioneering works The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe (1982) and The Language of the Goddess (1989) about the Neolithic cults of the Great Goddess.
Gimbutas’s oeuvre provides a painstaking marshalling of archaeological finds from Eastern Europe, mythic cult images in stone, bone and earthenware –many from the “Tisza Culture” dating back to around 5000 B.C. These relics were excavated from numerous sites along the upper reaches of the Tisza River, precisely where Eveline’s estate is located in Krúdy’s novel. Fiction and (arti)fact emerge from the same soil. This geographical “co-incidence” does not necessarily mean Krúdy possessed conscious knowledge of the “Tisza Culture” at the time he wrote Sunflower. He did know Dr. András Jósa, physician and archeologist, founder of the museum in Krúdy’s native Nyíregyháza. Jósa, who appears in Krúdy’s series of nonfiction pieces, “Yesterday’s Mist Riders”, studied mainly the periods of migrations, the nomad Steppe Art relics of the first millennium A.D., around the time of the Magyar tribes’ arrival and “Home-Founding” in the Carpathian Basin (honfoglalás, usually mis-translated as “Conquest”). Gimbutas, dealing with a far older culture, describes three aspects of the “Old World Goddess”: creative, destructive, and transformative/regenerative. This primordial Goddess cult became gradually displaced and hybridized by later Indo-European cultures. But as Gimbutas points out, “the Old European sacred images and symbols were never totally uprooted…The Goddess gradually retreated into the depths of forests or onto mountaintops…”
Many, if not most, of the cult images illustrated in Gimbutas’s research turn up in Krúdy’s Sunflower, in elegiac, epic, and lyric prose presenting the past Goddess, for future eyes. In her primary role of fertility Mother the cult objects depict her as Bird or Snake Goddess from “beyond the Upper Waters” and meandering labyrinths, her images decorated with abstract meanders and zigzags, the glyphs for water. Krúdy’s novel, in turn, renders her aqueous realm as the watery terrain, marshy wetlands, the “island world” of the upper Tisza amply showered by spring rains, inhabited by the Bird, her main epiphany as Giver of All –alias Fate. Waterfowl such as ducks, geese, swans, heron, egret and crane bring happiness, wealth, nourishment; birds of prey (eagle, vulture, hawk, owl, raven, crow) are omens of the Goddess’ other aspect: warfare, death and destruction. The cuckoo and owl are reputedly prophetic birds. (Pistoli’s sidekick and messenger is named Kakuk, Cuckoo in Hungarian.) And Sunflower is teeming with birds. It starts with Eveline’s recollection of her first love “whooshing by like a gull on the north wind”. Her antique town house features geometric motifs: a “labyrinth of zigzag corridors” and a spiral staircase. From here she moves to her Lowlands estate where “the marshy groves, reeds, snaking rills were all snowed under, disappearing like enraptured women sequestered with pagan lovers…All creatures here – dogs, horses, humans – saluted her as their queen.” Pistoli’s verbose toast welcomes her return, calling Eveline “the dove-hearted mistress of the house…whose hands shower …blessings as abundant as the lily’s pollen”. He extols her as “the snow-white egret whose return tenderizes the barren soil of local hearts, like springtime rain quickening the hard crust of the field…”
Equally garbed in bird imagery is the benevolent young Eveline’s negative doppelganger, the “bygone Eveline”, femme fatale, bewitching wife who eases Ákos Álmos-Dreamer’s passage from life. By adamantly refusing her husband’s advances, she drives her man to distraction, drink, and ultimate suicide. Krúdy weaves water birds into her tale:
The island that sheltered from men’s eyes his stolen treasure, the beloved wife, was surrounded by Tisza floodlands. The Birches lay in the distance, monotone sandy hills barren of all thought, darkling furze thickets asleep on the horizon like so many trembling widows, the wild geese departing from this region under night’s dark tapestry like fleeing spirits honking farewells in weird voices from the sad heights, as if summoning every unhappy person below. “Ghee-gaw!” cry these enigmatic birds of other worlds and other shores. That’s what these voices sound like to the fisherman in his marshy lair, but one who loves life’s wonders will find all sorts of meaning in the sounds coming from the dark. Ákos Álmos-Dreamer had been awaiting the wild geese to summon him into the blue yonder. He would go from here like a dark, drenched, frost-winged wild goose, far, far away…
And the doomed man does away with himself after at last winning his untouchable wife’s favors, engendering his son Andor on a spring night when “the water snake sheds its old skin, fish and lizards borrow their brightness from the moon, and ancient, mute waterfowl vow eternal silence…” Their son Andor is in turn rescued from the death-like torpor of self-willed extinction by the timely appearance of his beloved Eveline, who confronts the portrait of her doppelganger, Andor’s sorceress mother, in a scene that suggests the two women’s near-identity as different emanations of the Goddess:
The late Eveline’s life-size portrait hung on the wall, and next to it the living Eveline now appeared, the very image of the painting come to life and stepped out of its frame. The resemblance was striking. As if that extraordinary woman – who had wreaked such havoc in the lives of patient, gullible men, setting frozen hearts ablaze like bonfires built by shivering woodcutters at a forest’s edge – as if that woman had come back to life. Being exceptional, she was given a second life to live, one life had not been enough to accomplish all that was waiting for her to do here on earth. As if she had turned back at the gates of eternal repose, aware that her limbs were still youthful, eyes still fiery, the candle flame still unextinguished in her cold heart. …Only her rich, honey-blonde mane had been left behind underground. When she arose from the soil, along with cowslips and dragonflies, the fields bore a thick crop of rye. She plaited her own crown of hair: a wreath of ripe rye, spiky copper and gold grasses. Red-brown tiger spots streaked her hair. The first moonlit night taught her the arts of witchcraft and sorcery, dead souls gliding like so many bats among the sleeping boughs. Young birches ooze a sap that pale-skin local women lap up to make their legs forever limber so that even in old age their bright gleaming knees ride wrapped around the broomstick. In this region they need take no special lessons in using the evil eye. Migrating birds’ early spring calls like strange local melodies wind their way into the voices of these women whose hips radiate brooding ducks’ nestling warmth, whose eyes emulate the sun-worship in the lanky sunflower’s eye seeking after the sun. And whose hair like tender young crops in the field is raked by the capricious fingers of wayward winds.
The younger Eveline’s alignment with her precursor instantly makes her feel “her strange power in this house where all things owed her allegiance…she had come home to claim the heritage of the former mistress of the house”. By the time Andor confesses his love for Eveline in a later scene, he refers to her “bird-like sadness” and declares, “You are death and you are life”. She responds by “lowering her arms like a bird’s wounded wings”. Afterward, on her ride home, “bright magpies fly up on hedges… The shaggy, leafless grove…hides frog-headed, owl-footed, twittering shadows… Lingering crows inscribe wavering circles overhead, in hopes of a feast – it’s all the same to them if the next meal is kith or kin…High up above the reeds… all by its lonesome self floats a nameless bird…”
The Goddess appears in her nurturing aspect during Pistoli’s visit to his mistress Stony Dinka, when he breaks down and cries like a child, wiping his tear-soaked face in her skirt and confessing:
I could always feel myself secure by your side… Your toughness, your extraordinary feminine strength made sure no harm came to me at your place. In my dreams you were the tall chestnut mare whose neck I clasped to escape the flood. Your two fine eyes looked at me through that mare’s glance.
According to Gimbutas, during the Bronze Age the death-dealing Bird of Prey Goddess transformed… into a mare. Nonetheless “long-legged herons still strutted in the wetlands” around Stony Dinka’s tavern.
Toward the end of the novel, on his way home Pistoli witnesses a procession of pilgrims, in a passage that shows ancient Goddess worship surviving transmogrified in the Christian cult of the Virgin. Again, Krúdy weaves in the bird motif:
It was the Feast of Our Lady… The daughters of the soil marched barefoot and chanted…Our Blessed Lady was awaiting at the church…shedding tears for devotees…The women trudged on like turkey hens, wings weighted by leaden rains of sins and sorrows…chanting “Mary, Mother of God, have mercy on us”.
In Pistoli’s final vision we see a striking image of Sunflower’s twin heroines as two different embodiments of the death Goddess:
Up on one mountaintop in the distance sat Eveline. Her kind face twisted in a grimace, her curls clung in grizzled knots, eyes veiled by cataracts, night descending on her lips like a madwoman’s…this hag had been her, once, kind and noble, lamb-like and dove-hearted…Through his tears, Pistoli could see the other mountaintop on the horizon where Miss Maszkerádi throbbed like a frenzied belly-dancer. Screeching, tresses flying loose, talons curved, eyes spitting flames and knives, on wolf legs, her neck ringed like a serpent.
This same Maszkerádi’s sexual challenge mesmerizes Pistoli who dies after performing at her dare the Fox Dance, according to traditional Gypsy rite, in a scene evocative of Native American death chants and Japanese Noh drama. Pistoli’s last journey is to the cemetery, to unite with the Earth Mother in her role as transformative queen of the watery realm and underworld:
Blessed May rain kept falling through the vast night, on grasses, trees, meadows – heaven’s waters descending to fertilize all things down here on earth. Each drop of rain swaddled a newborn that would grow up to man’s estate by summer’s end. One would become an ear of wheat, another a bunch of grapes, the third only a clunky-headed onion. A downpour, an infinite host of tiny newborns in the mysterious night. The patter of millions of little feet woke the tiller of the soil, who crossed himself gratefully, lying on his cot. The fields, the shaggy trees, the sleeping, deeply respiring shrubs lay sprawled under the rain’s kisses, like dreaming women. To make sure the labor of fertilization goes on underground as well, was now the task of Pistoli and his compatriots, all those who died here tonight. They would stoke the furnace down below, turning into coal and fuel…to nurture anemones that grow in the graveyard.
A slew of other details in Sunflower can be cited to corroborate the presence of the Goddess: both Eveline and her neighbor Risoulette (also called “our Lady’s Fountain”) have circular gardens that resemble the circular “energy center” imagery associated with the Goddess cult; the oft-seen “double-headed Goddess” image is echoed by three sets of “twin” female characters in the novel; Miss Maszkerádi’s name reflects the “masked Goddess” image; even the so-called “padded knickers” worn by these masked figurines crop up in Sunflower in the form of references to women’s old-fashioned flannel knickers with their zig-zag stitching that are frowned upon by the “modern” Maszkerádi, but favored by Eveline, and praised by Pistoli…And many other common companions of the Goddess are repeatedly evoked: bulls, bees, butterflies, swallows, snakes, frogs, hedgehogs and footprints.
And so, trying to determine the “time frame” of Sunflower, we may imagine a diagram of three concentric circles. The innermost one is the novel’s “present”: some unspecified time in the early 1900’s. The second ring of time stands for the recent past, the 19th-century family histories of the “bygone Eveline” and Miss Maszkerádi’s father. Surrounding all this is the outermost circle that should be drawn with dotted line, indicating that it expands into unrecorded reaches of time, the boundless realms of the ancient Goddess that emanate the earliest forms of culture: incantation, weaving, pottery. Krúdy’s poetic vision reflects this open matrix that curves around to include the future.
Gyula Krúdy: Sunflower
Translated by John Batki, with an introduction by John Lukacs
New York: New York Review Books Classics, 2007
Tags: Gyula Krúdy