The inquisitive reader may grow a bit uncertain when he espies the title on the erotically slender, silky spine of the book. “Do I dare,” Prufrock’s perennial vacillation may come to mind, but he nonetheless reaches hesitatingly for it. Then taking it in his grasp he sees a beautiful girl, almost embryonic, on the cover, and as he flips through it, reading the front material and the back material, the paternalistic, moralizing zeal abates. For this is a morally virginal little book, shimmering and flawless, brimming with wondrous enigma.
The initial pleasure of reading into the book so sweeps one up that by the time the reader has regained his senses after a few pages, if he is for the moment unebriated, he will take a swig of the Riesling on hand, only then, at the book’s end, prompted by its more enduring aromas, to rummage the shelves in some little 24-hour shop in search of more lasting French wines with mysterious, foreign names.
What is it that makes this book so exquisite, full, and cathartic?
If we attempt to examine the period in which the novel is set, which itself is lost in obscurity, we must conclude that the events it depicts take place sometime around the early 1910s, and while this is not of primary significance, it nonetheless cannot be ignored from the point of view of the style. In the Budapest City Park the institutes of which Gyula Krúdy sung can still be found, and the friend of Uncle Zsigó, the main character, can be none other than the unfortunate critic and music aesthetician Jeno Péterfy, who shot himself in the head in 1899 on a train between Fiume and Budapest, an event in the life of Zsigó that, like a cold autumn wind, awoke him to the transitory nature of his own ephemeral being.
There are innumerable trifles that demand our attention, but what can, at a glance, be declared the most important is simply that the style props up the entire contrivance and all of its details, both true and invented. The novel is a promising attempt to nurture a particular literary tradition and revive a narrative style rooted in Hungarian literature. The question, in essence, is the following: can the Hungarian prose tradition, which ascends to great heights in the work of Jókai, is popularized and rendered increasingly realistic in Mikszáth, and the grandest, most brilliant sides of which were written by Gyula Krúdy, be continued? Krúdy, who created masterpieces by the dozen, was nonetheless unable to exert any enduring influence on Hungarian prose. After his death his poetic style took a turn into a dead-end street, it seems, as if Hungarian writers had declared that the most magnificent oeuvre of 20th century Hungarian prose had simply never existed. The most significant such attempt was Márai’s Krúdy book (entitled Szindbád hazamegy, or Sinbad Returns Home), but this was more a pale reworking, a salute to the great writer, than a restoration of the oeuvre to the main currents of the vibrant flow of Hungarian prose. This is not to say that Hungarian writers do not consider Krúdy’s work significant, but either they do not much concern themselves with it or they think that for a Hungarian writer of sound mind this prose style is the frayed curtain and abandoned scenery of a bygone notion of life, a style that cannot be continued.
Zoltán András Bán (1954) courageously treads down this path, which for some mysterious reason is a bit disdained by intellectual postmodern literature and criticism. The plot of the first genuine Krúdy novel, A vörös postakocsi (translated as The Crimson Coach by Pál Tábori and published by Corvina, Budapest, in 1967) and Susánka are both set around 1910, and Krúdy himself might have sat in one of the taverns in which the characters of the novel loaf and potter had the author been guided by retrospective resignation instead of the intention of creating a new novelistic world. But our author seems to know every flavor, scent, linguistic trick, and obligatory locale of this operetta-like literary tradition, resplendent with pastels, enriching sentiment and mood with an abundance of hues, imagistic adornments, and similes.
Yet we are dealing with something else, with serious matters: fates, emotions, human tragedies that are quietly fraying. An exhausted human fate unfolds before us, bereft of illusion and bequest. Zsigó takes his place in contemporary Hungarian literature as if he had always been there, but for some reason had not wanted to come out from his prompter’s box or music library until now. He found what was taking place in the opera house far more interesting than anything the muddle of life might have offered. Now he stops for a drink at his regular haunt and stumbles across life, or rather across that which for an aged man is more worthy of attention than anything else, a flesh and blood maiden, not caked with maquillage, and life, which had already been pickled and begun to sphacelate, turns into destiny.
The fate of the two main characters and their playful, shy, melancholy, sometimes wildly erotic, though platonic love begs a long analysis. But it is narrated in such an intensive and penetrating style that one would need to possess similar stylistic bravura in order to describe it (the brooding, the forgotten glances, the silences, the hesitant gesture of trembling hands, Zsigó’s changes of mood, all filtered through his sense of inner discipline and lapsed zeal for life, yet sometimes feverish nonetheless, and his endless affirmations and renunciations). On the one hand an embittered music librarian and intellectual opera enthusiast and on the other the eternal female, maddeningly alluring even in a sweat, the unforgettable woman, beyond grasp and beyond possession in her uniqueness. The novella approaches its subject matter so delicately that only at its close can the reader know for certain whether the author has indeed seen the naked body of a woman. Well, we will disclose this here, he has. He did not acquire this knowledge from the literature of the turn of the century. Because while stylistically he steps back in time, his depiction of man and the complexity of the soul, his intricate narrative, and the manner in which he portrays female duality taken to the point of madness are very modern indeed.
Part of the ingenuity of the novel is that it is not only the female essence that is split and multiplied, but Zsigó too. A Kafkaesque bureaucratic mechanism known as the Nervous Center sets in motion a mass of “informants” who report every word Zsigó utters on the subject of love, every thought, every motion and gesture in Susánka’s direction, his every act, dream and desire. Everything that takes place outwardly or lurks as intention inwardly is richly documented and analyzed, each of his notable deeds the subject of commentary. And the reports are only ignorant of those happenings about which the protagonist himself is uncertain, uncertain as to exactly what befell him during this particular opera season, spanning from one autumn to the next. The one night spent together comes to an end merely with “nothing happened. The room gradually grew cooler. Time convulsed a few times on the clock on the wall, then expired.” The plenteous material of the reports constitutes a parody of the tradition of documentary literature. In the life of Zsigó, all this should come together as a story within a single framework, but if it does not come together in Zsigó’s own head, then the innumerable commentaries enrich only the vacillating plot, the legend. In the end the protagonist does not make room for the thoughts wandering in his mind. Demanding an independent part in the counterpoint and a decisive role for himself, he breaks into the Nervous Center and “becomes the free artist of himself,” allowing himself to take place and to become undocumentable, and in a beautiful, delicate and restrained dénouement reminiscent of L'Éducation sentimentale Zsigó decides to bring an end to the bitter comedy that has been his life up to this point, hunched over beneath the weight of his love for Susánka, itself gnawed to tatters by jealousy.
“Just don’t let me die at eventide in these lands…” Thus begins Krúdy’s death-hymn in the novel Sunflower (tr. John Batki), and Zsigó’s death-wish rhymes with this. He sets off for the public baths to die with a bottle of bordeaux, a cigar, and a razor blade. “But the soapy water nipped at him unpleasantly. Aggravating. Then the bleeding stopped, what else could it have done?” But the red wine is quite fine and the cigar passable, and in the nearby opera house the performance is beginning soon. What else could he do, he drinks the wine, smokes a few cigars, and decides to return to his life as it was, as if nothing significant had befallen him in recent months. And so the old bachelor comes out of the adventure as he began it. Perhaps he did indeed go mad?
Or perhaps the inquisitive reader noticed nothing of what he should have seen? He throws phosphorescent dust in Susánka’s empty, dark room to cast light once and for all on the events past: how the bodies that never became each other’s had writhed on the old double nuptial bed – in waking dream. Or is it the writer himself who scatters the phosphorescent dust, and is it nothing more than – brilliant style?
Bán Zoltán András: Susánka és Selyempina
Budapest: Scolar, 2007