Review – 19th October, 2011

With head held high. Gyula Krúdy: Life is a Dream

Review–19th October, 2011


With head held high. Gyula Krúdy: Life is a Dream
Of the five senses, Krúdy’s short stories tickle that of taste. They revolve around ceremonies related to preparing, consuming and digesting food.

How does one hold a piece of bread on the point of a knife to clean the platter? How is cabbage-trampling performed in the right way? Should one suck on the bones first or leave them for last? Each character in this book of ten short stories—journalists, editors, publicans and waiters in 19th and early 20th century Budapest—is a connoisseur, a self-appointed scholar of gastro-science and an accomplished and articulate food critic, always willing and able to enter into discussions about food. Many of them have their own particular methods, techniques and utensils—one of the characters in the story entitled “The Landlady or: the Bewitched Guests” has a survival kit consisting of the most common spices (pepper, paprika, onion and leak), procured at the right places. The secrets of Hungarian cuisine, admittedly not very compatible with reform eating, are revealed in this book. No reader truly converted by Krúdy is likely to visit hypermarkets or fast food restaurants ever again, nor will they engage in any business, private or public, with people who do so. The consumption of the fastidiously acquired food is itself a ritual, an artistic performance:

First of all he made sure to tie a napkin around his neck. Next he lined up the salt and pepper shakers and even the mustard jar within easy reach, even though it was unlikely he would need the latter, given the plate of horseradish in vinegar served up, alongside the beef, by the sleepy waiter. The shoemaker certainly did not spare the salt. He used it liberally over the bits of vegetables that partially covered the meat, paying especial attention to the slices of potatoes, carrots, celeries and Savoy cabbage that came with the soup, always a favorite of cobblers who work sitting on three-legged stools. He salted the meat and turned it over to inspect it from the bottom with hungry eyes, as if he were checking out some female from head to toe. And he even salted the horseradish.
-    Hmm – reflected Sortiment, pushing away his half-consumed dish. – This shoemaker is a bigger scoundrel than I would have believed… (“Betty, Nursemaid of the Editorial Office”)

The seemingly compulsive acts, creeds and idiosyncrasies of the characters of these stories, however, amount to much more than mere hedonism. The conversations and monologues of the characters betray utter seriousness about matters of food, but we also learn about their predilections, opinions, philosophy and ethical principles through their food stories. These people seem to be looking for authenticity, truth and character in food. Eating, a central activity and topic of conversation, and everything related to it (cooking, laying the table, preparing, consuming and digesting food), becomes a metaphor for life, love and art. Words denoting food items—even, and often especially, the most humble ones like radish, pepper or cucumber—have a taste themselves. The narrator and the characters relish these words in a way that they become emblematic of their excitement with life.

Take the story about the wanderer who can tell the character of the cook from the smell of the food:

Let’s take for instance the aroma of a meat broth… We can immediately sense what kind of woman boiled the water, since water, as it flows through a woman’s hands, instantly picks up her scent, just as it does the tang of minerals in a mountain. And don’t the noodles that go into the soup similarly betray the entire inner life of a woman, thus her innermost scent? A woman’s hand takes especial care with the noodles that go into her soup. While she shapes, lengthens, flattens, and cuts it into squares or ribbons, her mind watches over the pasta, even if she happens to use a cutter shaped like a hussar’s spur. The shell, the dumpling, the matzoh ball, as it takes shape under a woman’s hands, is able to command the nose’s attention, or to repel it. I dare say, my good sir, that only soups possess truly individual smells in this province. I can tell immediately if the soup was cooked by a parish priest’s housekeeper worrying about her future, or some little housewife who pins the vagaries of her fortune on a single button or tree or stake. But all things considered the best scent emanates from soups cooked with the intent to arouse love or prepared for a guest who comes as a suitor. I always thought that for a soup of that kind a woman will not hesitate to add a pinprick’s worth of her own blood.

Particularly noteworthy are the set of twin stories—“Last Cigar at the Grey Arabian” and “The Journalist and Death”—in the beginning of the book, each telling about the night before a duel from the perspective of the two duelers: a journalist and a colonel, respectively. (“Last Cigar” was not part of the original edition, though it already figured in the 1957 Hungarian edition.) The journalist had written an article offensive to the Casino, and the Casino delegated a retired colonel, “known as the best shot in all of Hungary”, to take revenge, which amounts to a death sentence for the journalist. Aware that the next morning they will either kill someone or die—as it turns out, the roles will be inverted—they spend their last night in restaurants: the journalist, who thinks he has nothing to lose, trying to look, act and spend his last pennies like a gentleman (luckily he manages to get an advance from his employer), the colonel disguised in civilian clothes and deciding to spend just one night like his adversary, this poor devil. Thus, they change roles for just one night, and it remains a matter for conjecture whether the outcome of the duel has anything to do with this capricious idea. For the self-confidence of the colonel, brimming and intact in the beginning of the story, seems to crack somewhat towards the end, whereas the journalist, after acquiring a green Tyrolean hat and an umbrella-cane and after a night spent drinking champagne in the company of a “lady of fashion” and having “meat on the bone” with a double portion of sauce, musters enough courage to kill the colonel in the duel. The twin stories are a veritable tour de force which, by describing the scenes and props of both the well-off and the needy, and juxtaposing the inner life, the thoughts, opinions and worries of a rich man in a poor environment with those of a poor man in a rich environment, make us reflect not only on the fragility of status, but also on the craft of the writer who does precisely that on a daily basis—invent and invade consciousnesses—as well as the consequences of this activity.

Deception and illusion are central motifs in “The Waiter’s Nightmare”, a surrealistic story about a waiter who falls asleep in the tavern in the middle of the afternoon. In his dream a guest turns up at the restaurant and orders immense quantities of food. There is, of course, ample description of the courses, and one finds it extremely hard not to run to a restaurant immediately. While eating, the guest sometimes blurts out a sentence or two, always referring to death: “Only what you eat is truly yours, because once you’re in the coffin nobody will serve you any more helpings!” Or: “A man is just like a hare. He never knows when the fatal shot will hit him as he flees.” And indeed, he turns out to be an envoy of the Grim Reaper himself: an undertaker. Yet he lures the waiter with a promise of a fuller life: he confides to him that he knows lots of widows who might be interested in marrying the waiter, and when the waiter goes out to buy a stamp for a letter to his wife-to-be, the guest disappears without paying. Waking up, the waiter realizes that his nightmare, which contained all his lost dreams, bad conscience and anxiety in a nutshell, was due to his negligence: he had forgotten to wind up the clock—The Clock—that gave its name to the tavern.

In this book about culinary delights there is an inordinately high number of people with stomach problems, as well as people preparing for or intimately related to death, and this lends a nostalgic character to many of their musings about food. It is as if the old Krúdy, himself preparing for death, was looking back on the joys of life that are no more available to him. Life is a dream, the title of the collection claims, suggesting a narrative perspective from which all our efforts, opinions, joys and sufferings are seen as vain and fleeting, independently of their character and relative import; and also reminding the reader of the logic of dreams in which psychological truths are often clothed in seemingly casual, unimportant or absurd stories and images. In certain cases, like in “Betty, Nursemaid of the Editorial Office”, in which an editor-in-chief shoots himself through the heart, seemingly without any reason, the characters’ actions elude us, we find no explanation for them. This is especially true for “The Green Ace. The Edifying History of How a Soul, Lost in a Jug of Wine, Was Found”, which, far from being ‘edifying’ in any traditional sense, starts with lyrical passages commemorating the Buda district of Tabán, continues with dreamlike stories of alcoholics, lunatics, unhappy lovers and suicides, and ends with a miracle. The scene of this long short story, the bohemian district of Tabán, demolished a few years after Krúdy’s death, was a remnant of the past even in Krúdy’s time with its ”streets winding uphill toward unknowable dead ends, doorsills that only make one stumble, ailing doors that are ready to fall off their hinges at the touch of an unpracticed hand, furniture that had been new in the days of your grandmother and before”.

The writer himself was in a sense a remnant of the past at the time of writing. Publishers repeatedly refused his manuscripts, and he had to publish this book, his last, at his own expense, what’s more, on credit. Broken by illnesses, alcohol as well as the general situation in Hungary—the economic crisis and the looming war—Krúdy died a year and a half later. Thus, we may take the last sentences of “The Ejected Patron”, the last story in Life is a Dream, as his words of farewell:

Mr. Draggle released the wine glass, stood up, and without a word to the waiter, paused only to admonish his table companion:
- I’ll drop by again after lunch and we’ll continue our chat about the peculiarities of foodstuffs. The goodness of bread. Or the sweetness of wine. – And he walked out with head held high.

Gyula Krúdy: Life Is a Dream
Penguin Classics, 2010
Translated by John Batki

Ágnes Orzóy


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