I didn’t realise until the end of a recent relationship that I could be so viscerally, dramatically affected by a break up. Usually I take these things in my stride, but this time it was different. I felt, without exaggeration, as though someone had told me that I have six months to live; and, for better or worse, I have since behaved accordingly. Indeed, after a painful period of acclimatisation, during which the most basic functions were impossible for me, I have been overwhelmed by a kind of devil-may-care, quixotic dreaminess. Suddenly everything seems beautiful to me, more vibrant even, and I tread the streets with a head full of adventure and wild ideas and inexplicable positivity. I am, all told, not far from tilting at some windmills. Don’t get me wrong, I realise that this will not last, that it is a kind of madness, that it is my body, or brain, going into self-defence mode as a means of coping, but I am, nevertheless, profoundly grateful for it.
As you might imagine, in my current mood reading hasn’t been much of a priority for me. Over the last few months I have attempted to complete numerous books, but have given up on nearly all of them, and even the ones that I have finished have been something of a struggle. For example, last week I started Tanizaki’s Some Prefer Nettles, a slight novel of barely over a hundred pages, and while I admired the quality of the writing and the insights into a souring relationship, it felt too real to me, and reality is not what I need right now. What I need, I have since discovered, is Sunflower by Gyula Krudy, the great Hungarian author whose work has only recently started to appear in English.
“I’d love to step off this well-trodden straight and boring path. To somehow live differently, think different thoughts, feel different feelings than others. It wouldn’t bother me to be as alone as a tree on the plains. My leaves would be like no other tree’s.”
Sunflower begins with a ‘young miss reading a novel by the light of the candelabra’ who hears ‘faint creaks’ coming from another part of the house. As one works one’s way through the book one comes to realise just how many of Krudy’s preoccupations are evident in these opening sentences, and how much, specifically, they tell us about Eveline, who is one of the main characters. First of all, there is the use of the term ‘miss,’ rather than, say, something like lady, which of course suggests youth, but innocence also. As does her activity, which is wholesome, if one assumes that she isn’t perusing a copy of the Kama Sutra [she isn’t]. Even the name Eveline is significant, a name one would affectionately shorten to Eve, and in doing so draw parallels, as Krudy no doubt intended, between his naive, inexperienced creation and God’s.
Eveline’s role in Sunflower is essentially that of the fairytale princess. She is, at twenty two, a ‘pure virgin’ who is ‘the very image of health and serenity.’ It is, moreover, telling that she is alone, that she has lost her parents, for aren’t all fairytale heroines vulnerable in some way? Indeed, Eveline is, in a sense, being stalked, or certainly taken advantage of, as those ‘faint creaks’ mentioned in the previous paragraph are caused by her good-for-nothing former beau, Kalman, to whom her purse, and the perfumed bank notes within, is always available. However, one does not see the would-be intruder, one only hears him rattling the doorknob and then fleeing, leaving imprints in the snow. It is a clever, thrilling way to introduce the wolf, or the snake, who is the threat to Eveline’s innocence, without him actually appearing on stage.
The attempted break-in, or the re-emergence of Kalman, motivates Eveline to move from the city to the country, to her home estate where all creatures salute her as their queen, and where she can be away from ‘the smoky ghostriders of depression.’ Upon arrival she is reacquainted with Akos Almos-Dreamer, ‘a dreamy and retiring Hungarian country gentleman.’ Akos is something of a loner, who has not been heard to laugh in years. At this stage, one of course thinks that Sunflower is going to be a love story, during which the withdrawn Akos and the innocent Eveline will, after a number of obstacles are surmounted, come together as one. And it kind of is, but these two are by far the least interesting characters in the novel, and it is almost as though Krudy thought so too, because he relegates them to the sidelines pretty quickly.
[The Nightmare, Henry Fuseli’s gothic masterpiece]
Sunflower‘s star, and one of the most memorable characters in all literature, is Eveline’s ‘strange friend’, Malvina Maszkeradi. Unlike the sentimental, tender-hearted Eveline, Malvina is a realist. Indeed, with characteristic bluntness, she says that while the ‘crazy’ Kalman sees Eveline as ‘other-worldly’, she is in fact merely ‘a scatterbrained, bored, orphaned young miss.’ Men, as far as Malvina is concerned, ‘stink’; they are inane, with their romantic bombast, and their womanising ways. She is, therefore, decidedly unimpressed when Mr Pistoli, an aged local lothario, comes courting, complete with gypsy band, at midnight. When the wily old beast is invited in, what ensues is a tense, yet strangely erotic, showdown between two different generations and ideologies. This lengthy battle of wits is, for me, the novel’s centrepiece and high-point.
As with many Japanese novels written around the same time, one of Sunflower‘s central themes is the conflict between the old ways of life, attitudes, etc and the new, between the modern and the traditional. The aforementioned scene between Malvina and Pistoli, in fact their entire relationship, is perhaps the most obvious example of this. Pistoli represents the traditional, of course; he is the embodiment of an old Hungary when men were men, which is to say that they abducted their women, and beat them, they duelled on a whim, gambled away entire fortunes, caroused, drank copious amounts of wine [it is worth noting that the younger Kalman refuses alcohol] and, to all intents and purposes, behaved like pirates or Vikings. Moreover, there is much in the novel about the city as contrasted with the country, and it is clear that the city is another emblem of modernity, and excitement, while the country is, of course, the old or traditional.
It is usually the case with my reviews that I pay very little attention to plot, and this one is no different. However, even if I wanted to focus on action over theme or character, Sunflower is not the novel with which to do that. It is, all told, essentially plotless, and not only plotless, but constantly running down dead-ends. Indeed, in many ways it reads like a sketch of a novel, a great French novel in the Stendhalian tradition, rather than one that is fully formed or brought to completion. For example, much of the action is related in summary, or even list form. Yes, Krudy was particularly fond of lists, beautifully rambling lists full of intriguing, sometimes baffling imagery. I tend to stay away from comparing authors to one another, but there is certainly much about his style that is reminiscent of Robert Walser and Bruno Schulz.
“Perhaps if she had been sad and conscience stricken…Then Pistoli would have stood aside, closed his eyes, swallowed the bitter pill, and come next winter, might have scrawled on the wall something about women’s unpredictability. Then he would have glimpsed ghostly, skeletal pelvic bones reflected in his wine goblet, and strands of female hair, once wrapped around the executioner’s wrist, hanging from his rafters; and would have heard wails and cackles emanating from the cellar’s musty wine casks, but eventually Pistoli would have forgiven this fading memory, simply because women are related to the sea and the moon.”
In short, Sunflower is pretty much all atmosphere, and whether you buy into that atmosphere will, I imagine, decide whether you will enjoy the book or not. Much of this atmosphere is, moreover, gothic in flavour. The book begins at midnight, with, as previously mentioned, an invisible presence in a house, and the sound of creaking floorboards, and rattling doorknobs. Krudy writes about howling wind, mysterious strangers, secret passageways, ghosts [one of whom has an orgy!], murder [the threesome-loving ghost was, when still alive, killed with a needle through the heart and a nail in the head], tarot, doppelgängers, and so on. Wonderfully, there is a man who asks Malvina to let down her hair so that he can tie it around his neck, and Pistoli actually leaves the girl one of his hands in his will! I love all this stuff, as you can probably tell. In fact, I loved everything about the book, all the madness, the ridiculousness, and the beauty. Reading it was one of those rare, but cherishable, moments of synchronicity, when one encounters a piece of art that encapsulates, gives voice, to an urgent, inexpressible, perhaps fleeting, feeling within you.