“Here’s to War!” rings out the New Year’s toast that frames Gyula Krúdy’s final novel, the posthumously published Rezeda Kázmér szép élete (The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda).
Uttered on a pre-1914 St. Sylvester’s Eve at the Budapest Hotel Royal the invisible, ghostly party-pooper’s ominous toast remains ignored by most merrymakers but it is heard loud and clear by the novel’s central character Kázmér Rezeda, who, as Krúdy’s daughter stated, is a stand-in for the author. Early in his career Gyula Krúdy had actually written under this nom de plume. In this ultimate work many details about the eponymous hero, such as his age (35), his involvement with the “Madame” of a famous brothel, his being commissioned to produce a serialized novel for the weekly periodical A Hét, as well as a slew of other motifs, all correspond to biographical facts in Krúdy’s life.
In Krúdy’s oeuvre, few fictional characters -- such as his “Hungarian Falstaff” (Sunflower's Pistoli) – loom larger than life, and appear in more than one work. Best known is his Szindbad, hero of a hundred tales spanning the author’s career. Krúdy’s Szindbad is often literally (mis)taken for its creator, thanks to later legends engendered, revived and animated most famously by Sándor Márai’s tour de force novella about the last day of Szindbad-Krúdy’s life, Szindbád hazamegy (Szindbad Goes Home) published in 1940. Another influential myth-maker is the cult-status filmic montage Szindbád, directed by Zoltán Huszárik (1971), featuring the brilliant Latinovits in the title role.
Szindbad, the hauntingly charismatic, enduring traveler on journeys of the heart, may well be Krúdy’s most memorable fictional character. He is an endless variation on the theme of Love, post-Romantic yet helplessly entangled in the web of his “ewige weiblichkeit” -inspired dreams, daydreams, reveries and trances. Szindbad’s career by and large reflects his creator’s experiences, chiefly within the realm of masculine/feminine tensions, especially during Krúdy’s “heroic middle years”, circa 1908--1918, when the writer was age 30 to 40. The various parts of this “Szindbad cycle” accurately reflect the corresponding stylistic periods in their author’s career.
Kázmér Rezeda is the other major, “larger than life” figure in Krúdy’s oeuvre, appearing in six longer works -- novels and novellas – starting with the 1913 novel The Crimson Coach (tr. Paul Tabori, Corvina, 1967) and ending with The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda, a novel that appeared in serial installments right after Krúdy’s death in 1933. (English translation in progress.)
Rezeda is mostly an off-center, elliptic “central character” who is at times spectacularly upstaged by others, chiefly by Edouard Alvinczi, the dazzling gambler/grand seigneur, owner of the red mail coach riding through the pages of The Crimson Coach and its sequel Autumn Journeys on the Crimson Coach, as well as several other novels and a host of stories, portraits, reminiscences. The lordly Alvinczi is an unforgettable figure of fiction, just as his real-life model Miklós Szemere’s portraits stand out in the gallery of Krúdy’s biographic sketches, A tegnapok ködlovagjai (Yesterdays’ Knights of Mist).
Szemere was an early patron of Gyula Krúdy, whom he introduced to the “high life” of Vienna and Budapest during the last decade of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Szemere’s racing stables, exploits at high-stake card play, as well as the “court” he kept are faithfully documented in Krúdy’s oeuvre, both non-fiction and fiction. As Edouard Alvinczi, he is a consistently and elaborately depicted character who appears in the first two “Crimson Coach” novels, as well as in two of the later ones included among the six works published in the two-volume collection Utazások a vörös postakocsin (Journeys on the Crimson Coach) in 1977. This publication includes an afterword by the author’s daughter Zsuzsa and a facsimile of Krúdy’s handwritten note outlining the “order of the Crimson Coach volumes” for a projected collection that never materialized during his lifetime: 1. The Crimson Coach, 2. Autumn Journeys on the Crimson Coach, 3. The Great Scoundrel, 4. The Prince of Wales, 5. Last Stop of the Crimson Coach. This latter work, completed in 1930, eventually received the title Kékszalag hose (Champion of the Cordon Bleu), and was published in serialized form in 1931. The hand-written note does not yet include The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda, the sixth and last novel of the series. As Krúdy’s final novel, it carries the author’s “last take” on life and literature, expressed through a Kázmér Rezeda who is a far more nuanced, and deeper character than his earlier version in The Crimson Coach.
In his 1913 novel Krúdy depicts a Rezeda in his twenties, a young writer from the provinces, a promising talent making his living as a journalist in Budapest. Although affecting worldliness, he is still a “dreamy and melancholy youth” obsessed by Romantic ideals and illusions, and woos his women by reading poems (Byron and Pushkin) and enthusing about Lermontov, Turgenev or Heinrich von Kleist. None of his love affairs are consummated, he does not “even get as far as the bedroom of the merchant’s widow”, nor does he get to lay a hand on either of the two young provincial actresses, Clara and Sylvia, whom he escorts throughout The Crimson Coach.
But in the later work Kázmér Rezeda reappers in quite a different reincarnation. The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda takes place within a time frame that, for a Krúdy fiction, is unusually well-defined, with only a slight telescoping of two pre-World War One years into one. We are introduced to a 35-year old Rezeda, a thoroughly disillusioned and reformed former Romantic who now lives in a well-known brothel, the “Amicable House”, as the kept man of Madame Johanna. By now he has come to believe that “novels should be lived, not written”, but is proud to be commissioned by the respected poet and editor József Kiss to write a novel for serialization in the latter’s weekly periodical, A Hét. Moreover, he has come to possess a sense of perspective over his life, looking back at his provincial origins as he compares his early youth to that of the sophisticated Budapest lady Fanny, with whom he falls in love at the outset of the novel:
Back then he had been sitting around in an autumnal house in the provinces, soaking up rambling tales told by an old rake about the peculiar habits of maidservants, housekeepers, and innkeepers’ wives – while up in the capital "demi-virgins" walked the streets! He regretted missing out on all of that.
At the outset of their affair Rezeda still compares Fanny to Tatyana in Pushkin’s Onegin, for, admittedly, “he attributed great significance to words, wanting first and foremost to enjoy his female friends by way of the mind”. But this intellectual distancing rapidly leads to a critical, and downright blasé reaction to his new-found lady love. This added dimension to a formerly rather transparent Romantic-lyric character is adumbrated by the author’s playful perspective on Rezeda’s initial response to Fanny, for Rezeda hurrying to the appointed rendez-vous is described as “just like some lover in a serialized novel, whose only task is to cater to the reader’s fancy”. Indeed, this love affair that bursts upon Rezeda with earth-shaking promise very soon degenerates into being merely the first in a rapid succession of brief flings. This cavalcade of entanglements reinforces the image of a “sadder but wiser” Rezeda, who, at age 35, seems to carry the 55-year old author’s ripened vision of life (Krúdy titled his last collection of stories Life Is a Dream). This is Rezeda addressing his faithful, older mistress, Madame Johanna, after she begs him to “come to his senses”:
- If I came to my senses, it might be bad news for both of us… Meanwhile, for now, this life style is most suitable, as long as I haven’t come to my senses. Sleep until evening, hear in a half-dreaming state the sounds of life going on, without taking any of it seriously, the way one regards things that happen in a dream. To go about with eyes closed, unafraid, like a moonstruck sleepwalker, staying close to the walls…
- I have left life behind, left all of its gains and losses, like one leaving a gambling casino, or the marketplace where real life is played out and the bargaining goes on. I thought I’d had enough of the fickleness of fortune, time to admit that nothing new will ever happen to me again, no loves, no sorrows, no lottery prizes, no bankruptcies. In this little room I listen to the organ grinder’s music and song coming from the street, and that is enough of the world for me. … But I believe I’ll live longer than those rushing past me on the street, at full gallop, all heated up, all chasing some goal. They reach their goal, but any moment death may reach them. What interest could death have in me, since I have no goals, and am in nobody’s way?
Unfaithful to Johanna, Rezeda still allows himself to fall in love with Fanny, with whom he at first takes daily walks in the City Park awaking from its winter sleep. There, near the statue of Anonymous, the mysterious, hooded scribe of medieval Magyar kings, they encounter the “convalescing gentleman” Kornél Ördögh (whose last name means “devil”) accompanied by his attendant male nurse. This ailing older man, in his mid-fifties, is clearly another stand-in for the author, who, after a severe breakdown had to spend several months in a sanatorium in 1929. This experience is described in Krúdy’s Purgatorium, another work of the author’s last year, published posthumously as the ultimate piece of the “Szindbad cycle”. And it is this sobered-up “convalescent old man” who delivers a monologue, addressed to Kázmér Rezeda and his paramour Fanny, that may be taken as the dying Krúdy’s “final word”:
For a long time he looked at the ground in front of him, as if fighting off his cowardice. When he unexpectedly spoke up, it was the sound of a violin out of tune:
- In my time people got to know each other on the basis of their ideas and concepts. And this may well have been the right way, for the human word is the mightiest power that exists: it can express anything and everything – said the out of tune violin, at last finding the right intonation, even though the speaker seemed to be addressing no one in particular.
- If I may be permitted, I would like to express my views.
- We humans are one and all subservient and live in servitude.
- First of all we are subservient to the past, haunted by our ancestors and our traditions, as if we were incapable of taking a single step toward the future without an awareness of ages past, without their support behind our back. Times past have an especially miraculous, just about life-preserving power in Hungary, for this is what we have been feeding off, even during the most recent times. We take all from the past: our laws, customs, morals, worldviews and political convictions. Our fathers and grandfathers, with all their mistakes, stand enshrined upon divine heights. We dare not relinquish their ways, and so willy-nilly we are nothing else than continuations of old times; our footprints follow the old path, and only the sharpest eye can tell where the footprints of one generation end and the next one’s begin. One can tell by the turns in the chosen path where one generation yields its place to another.
- Second, we are subservient to the present time, which is a considerable burden for a person unable to think as originally as a Nietzsche, Dostoyevski or Tolstoy.
- What does it mean to be subservient to the present? It means the sufferings of the young, stemming from bodily and spiritual hungers. It means all the sufferable diseases of ambition that cripple a young man’s life. There are some who want to be better than their fathers and end up more or less the same, as we can see from the example of the sons of Counts Gyula Andrássy and István Tisza, as well as our university professors and bankers. The boundless ambition that suddenly seizes the young to replace their elders embitters precisely their most beautiful years. As if no one among the young were aware of the secret of life, none enjoy life amidst all that striving. Most don’t even have the time to look around in the world in their eagerness to saddle up, rearing to go. And yet the world is most beautiful when seen through young eyes, with illusions still intact.
- A second curse of youth, and of the present time, is love, which may cause almost as much suffering as ambition. Unrequited love, the fate of most young men, brings even greater torments to a life that was meant for joy. It can rob all appetite, savor and ecstasy of life; oftentimes it may prove fatal. Especially if the young man falls prey to a woman whose conscience goes only as far as her own self, who can think only of herself, whose heart knows, among all human emotions, only private desires, that is, selfishness, who sees the world only through her own eyes, who is incapable of renunciation, suffering and self-sacrifice. She wants to be forever and exclusively the one and only in the young man’s thoughts; no matter if her name is Madame Bovary or Maria Nikolaevna, these are women whose selfishness destroys lives. And the same goes for every woman who loves a young man by taking him away from life.
--Third, the greatest disaster, which is none other than starting a family. I won’t say that Rousseau is right about everything when proclaiming freedom in his Reveries of a Solitary Walker, but this work should be read by every young man before he thinks of starting a family. Not that I consider it right when an old paterfamilias runs away from his family because of an overwhelming sense of piety, as Tolstoy did in his old age. But some semblance of freedom should still remain in a man’s life, instead of sacrificing it all for the sake of founding a family. A family man cannot fully know life! Beholding the delightful sight of blue mountains, his wife comes to mind. If he strays into a flowery meadow, his children appear before his eyes. If he would sample the joys of life, he immediately thinks of sharing them with his family. Starting a family in one’s youth is the most disastrous thing imaginable; such a man is lost forever to the human community of higher ideals, true culture and progress, because his fledgling children make him incapable of thinking straight.
This “convalescent gentleman” echoes the narrative tone of voice assigned to the aged Szindbad of Purgatorium, which may very well have been written around the same time as The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda. There are, in fact, very similar passages in the two narratives, such as the old invalid’s description of the swordfight of devils and angels for his soul, matching a corresponding account in Chapter One of Purgatorium. Thus we may conclude that it is the recently hospitalized Sindbad, narrator of Purgatorium, who appears in the disguise of Kornél Ördögh (Devil), in The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda. In the final blaze of his creative energies Gyula Krúdy managed to complete two major narrative works, and by some legerdemain, create a colloquy between his two immortal fictional alteregos.