01. 14. 2008. 08:57

The knight of mist

Gyula Krúdy (1878–1933): a portrait

The Hungarian Proust – this commonplace holds most stubbornly when it comes to Krúdy. Yet, there are no two more diametrically opposed artistic sensibilities.

True, Krúdy's narrative manner is sometimes characterized by a sort of dreamlike eroticism, a floating style or mood and a predilection for long, poetic sentences; and undoubtedly one of his greatest themes is Time. Still, all parallels seem to end here, and this makes for a very thin and superficial argument, since Time is a basic experience for all great 20th century authors, from Thomas Mann to Virginia Woolf or James Joyce. Although Krúdy lived in the same age as these great innovators, he most probably never even heard their names – he read no contemporary literature, spoke no foreign languages and was uninterested in modern art and music. He did not travel, and when he did, very rarely, he got only as far as Vienna, a three-hour train ride from Budapest. Even then, his hurried steps took him to the nearest pub rather than to the Opera or the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Yes, Krúdy was an alcoholic, as fatefully as Proust suffered from asthma.
The differences between the two are more significant. Proust was a great chronicler of the society – the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie – of his age, even if he did so unconventionally rather than adhering to realism à la Balzac. This is the merit of his great novel (besides, of course, the reflections of its main character). It is also more than mere contingency that while the rich Proust worked on one single work all his life, Krúdy, poor and living solely by his pen, disseminated his genius into dozens of novels, hundreds of short stories and thousands of newspaper articles. Proust wrote about le temps in both senses: A la recherche… is a novel of Time and the Age – Proust's age – simultaneously. Krúdy, on the other hand, was never directly interested in society or his age, and even less so in representing them. To be sure, he was also influenced by the world he lived in, but he lived in it and represented it in a dreamlike way, especially in his later works. Also, history interested him only as a vision, rather than factual material or sociological reality. There is not much in his so-called historical novels by way of history or an authentic portrait of a milieu. One of his first critics, the novelist László Németh, observed that his novel Mohács, supposedly depicting one of the greatest cataclysms of Hungarian history, a defeat by the Ottoman Turks in 1526, devotes more space to the love reveries of the adolescent king and queen, Louis II and Mary of Habsburg, than to the defence against the Turks or anything related to sober historical sense, not to mention its complete negligence of historical facts. It is the story of two decadent adolescents caught in a web of social and historical forces.

As opposed to Proust, Gyula Krúdy (b. 1878) was a rather uneducated man. He acquired all his knowledge and education in various editorial offices – first in provincial towns, then in Budapest – from anecdotes and gossip rather than books. His father had to apply force to make him pass his final exams in secondary school, since by then the young Krúdy was already employed as a journalist at a paper in a provincial town. The end of the 19th century found him in Budapest, the capital city, merely twenty years old and already employed by prestigious papers and garnering renown as a writer, only enhanced by his reputation for fighting duels. Although according to each and every recollection Krúdy drank excessively and unceasingly and was an assiduous visitor of Budapest brothels, he was an extremely keen worker. At early dawn, when he was still sober, he wrote a daily quota of seventeen pages. He produced an infinite number of articles. His complete works, to be published by Kalligram Press in Hungarian, will include three thousand (!) hitherto unpublished pieces by Krúdy. Without doubt, neither the debauchery nor the insane rate of work were conducive to thoroughness. As opposed to Proust, who corrected his novel unceasingly, Krúdy wrote his works quite carelessly, in a fever of inspiration, which makes it even harder to account for the incredibly original language of his works, the forcefulness of his visions, and the fact that in this frenzied production there were hardly any repetitions. In his obituary, Sándor Márai claims that Krúdy never wrote a faulty sentence, which might be an exaggeration, but is far from an absurd claim. Until the outbreak of World War I, Krúdy was the “Knight of the Sun”, who found professional as well as personal success. Since he was a strikingly attractive man, almost two meters tall, women practically besieged him as they would a film star nowadays; sometimes women attacked him in the street, broke into his hotel room and offered themselves to him. This tremendous amount of erotic experience found expression in his short-story cycles about Sinbad, a hero from the One Thousand and One Nights. (Two selections of the Sinbad stories were published in English by Hungarian publishers: CEU Press, 1988, and Noran, 1999.) The first part of the cycle was published in 1911, and Sinbad accompanied him until his death. In the imagination of the reading public, Krúdy became almost inseparable from Sinbad, and it is no accident that Márai's beautiful novel about the death of Krúdy is entitled Szindbád hazamegy (Sinbad Returns Home).
Two years later he published his most successful (but by no means perfect) novel, A vörös postakocsi (The Crimson Coach). One of the central characters of this novel, Eduárd Alvinczi, is a prototype of Hungarian “knights of mist”. The definition of this word, coined by Krúdy, is not easy. It designates someone who has lost all short- and long-term aims in life and who, bereft of all his illusions, rambles in the world with resignation or daydreams idly in the mist of the remains of his life; someone who walks along his way in perfect solitude, believing in nothing or only in some crazy idée fixe that he has no hope of realizing. The less hope of realization, the more the knight of mist clings to his fixation – he is also a knight of self-deception. In a late novel entitled Valakit elvisz az ördög (Taken by the Devil), the hero, Eduárd Alvinczi again, swears to save the depraved Hungarian middle class. In another (Etel király kince – The Treasures of King Etel) impoverished provincial gentlemen, fleeing from their creditors, decide to look for the legendary treasures of Attila the Hun, but instead of a real investigation, they merely stagger from one pub to another. Evidently, the treasure does not even exist. This is, of course, cruel satire bordering on the absurd. In the works of the late Krúdy, we can clearly see that his world is much more akin to the world of Gogol's Dead Souls than to that of Proust.
However, let us proceed chronologically. After the immense success of The Crimson Coach and his two masterpieces, Asszonyságok díja and Napraforgó, written during the war (and now published in English as Ladies' Day and Sunflower, respectively), the author suffered setbacks. World War I and its aftermath in Hungary – the two revolutions, first the civil uprising in 1918 and then the 1919 Commune, which lasted only a few months – were tragic for Krúdy, both in a personal and in an artistic sense. Although not directly threatened, he fled from the terror following the Commune to the castle of Baron Lajos Hatvany, one of the great patrons of Hungarian literature. There, he did not work, but drank at a pace that crushed even his iron constitution. He spent the 1920s in and out of various hospitals and psychiatric institutions. It was at this time that he wrote his most eerie novel, bordering on the wildest surrealism and laden with grave sexual aberrations: Mit látott Vak Béla szerelemben és bánatban? (What Did Béla the Blind See in Love and Sorrow?) (Unfortunately, this novel came down to us only in fragments.) The audience turned their back on him; he now seemed outdated, a disqualified knight of fogginess. Unable to repeat his earlier successes, he wrote significant, but mostly unsellable works. He lived in penury, unable to wriggle out of debt. In 1932, when he won a 500-pound prize founded by Lord Rothermere, he sent a letter to the curator (Dezső Kosztolányi, the great Hungarian writer and poet) asking him not to reveal the amount of the prize, for fear of being assaulted by his creditors.
At the end of his life, he wrote two great works. One is a volume of short stories, published in 1931, with the telling title Az élet álom (Life Is a Dream). In this volume, he mixes the partly surrealistic, partly impressionistic artistic tools of his youth with some icy realism, culminating in quite a demonic effect. The other is a novel published in 1930, Boldogult úrfikoromban (My Late Lamented Days as a Dandy). Like in his late short stories, there is hardly any action to speak of. It is about a merry company passing the time eating, drinking and talking about food and drink, telling an infinite number of stupid anecdotes from morning to night. The narrator's point of view is offered by the company of three at another table. There sit a young couple and their elderly guide who merely dropped in to have a quick breakfast, but they are enchanted by the spectacle of the merry company and their empty drivel, so they also stay until closing time. The end of the novel is dreamlike and fantastic. A Habsburg archduke and his aide-de-camp show up, but we do not know who they are in reality – quite possibly, they are only smart impostors. By the time the completely frenzied guests have a piano brought to the inn and start dancing, we do not know any more where all these people and things are located in reality. Time is out of joint; the Devil peeps in the window. This is Gyula Krúdy's artistic testament.
In physical reality, he bequeathed nothing to posterity. Towards the end of his life, the electricity was turned off in his apartment, because he could not pay the bills, and when he died in 1933, he left behind only a few shabby clothes and an incomplete pack of cards. He also left – since he was a writer, after all – a few books, some tattered horse-racing schedules that were long out of date.

Zoltán András Bán

Tags: Gyula Krúdy