Gyula Krúdy

When Ady appeared on the literary scene, Hungarian poetry was badly in need of innovation; the burden of national classicism often choked the individual talent of poets. The same cannot be said of fiction; while no outstanding prose-writer arose at the end of the nineteenth century, the impact of new trends was to be felt both in style and in subject-matter, and most authors did not lack the spirit to experiment. Young writers revolted against the authority and tradition of national Romanticism, as represented by the overwhelming presence of Jókai (who died only in 1904) and his faithful followers; they also despised the comfortable framework of the literary anecdote as institutionalized by Mikszáth. Yet at the beginning of this century there emerged a truly significant innovator in the person of Gyula Krúdy (1878-1933), who produced a narrative technique which had no direct antecedents in the diversity of literary currents, and which in many respects was a forerunner of the trend that became finally shaped as ‘stream-of-consciousness’ in the writings of such great authors as James Joyce or Virginia Woolf in the 1920s.

Krúdy’s background shared many similarities with Ady’s, and they were close friends. Both came from the lesser nobility; Krúdy was born in Nyírség, a region not far from Ady’s Szilágyság in Eastern Hungary, and thus they grew up in a largely overlapping social and geographical environment. True, Krúdy was a Catholic, but his religion was never as prominent in his works as Calvinism was in Ady’s poetry. In addition, Krúdy had no other ambition than to be a writer; he definitely lacked Ady’s responsiveness to social injustice, and political issues or controversies were beyond his horizon. Furthermore, Krúdy was a solitary figure who dissociated himself from literary cliques, – perhaps the only major writer in the first half of the century who was not even loosely connected with the Nyugat group of writers.

A prolific writer, who earned his living by journalism in Budapest, where he moved in the year of the Millennium in 1896 (having previously worked on the staff of Debrecen and Nagyvárad papers), Krúdy became a legend in his own lifetime. Many episodes of his apparently Bohemian life – Romantic duels, horse-racing, gambling, or all-night drinking bouts, all vigorous signs of his Gargantuan appetite for the pleasures of life – entered Budapest folklore via the night cafés and taverns where the wits always seemed to know the latest details in the life of this solitary figure parading in the mask of a latter-day Casanova. While the legends contributed to his growing popularity, they also damaged his reputation as a serious writer; the extensive Krúdy literature abounds in vivid personal recollections, but is sadly lacking in any analytical approach to his works. In the past it was customary to dismiss his works as ‘pure entertainment by a romantic dreamer’, or, whilst paying lip-service to the subtleties of his style, to claim that he lacked ‘profundity’.

It is only recently that Krúdy has received the attention he deserved. Yet the facts remain: in spite of his allegedly flamboyant living, he was an extremely hard-working and artistically conscious author, whose progress from his early stories (marked by a somewhat Jókaiesque romantic mood, and by a gusto for story-telling like Mikszáth’s) to the stage where he could create a world of his own, with its peculiarly blurred images, soft colours, and evocative atmosphere, took a long time. For the development of his own characteristic technique was slow; it is almost impossible to pinpoint the exact moment of transformation from those early, straightforward stories. Krúdy never busied himself with studies of the technique of narrative art; he instinctively disregarded the time-structure of the story. This is his great innovation, for the time-factor has always been crucial in the narrative art. For centuries story-tellers had believed, not unlike painters who attempted to reflect reality as it appeared to the naked eye only, that events could be recounted only in the order of their occurrence. To be sure, writers occasionally broke the continuity of the narrative to concentrate attention or to maintain suspense, or made slight changes in the sequence of events largely for the same purposes. Krúdy’s half-conscious preoccupation with the time-structure led him to discard plot as such; not many of his novels or short stories can boast a well-delineated plot. Action, or rather actions, take place side by side or at different levels; occasionally they intermingle in associative references, or diverge and are lost in a subordinate clause at the end of a paragraph. The true significance of Krúdy’s technique lies not in any possible theoretical interpretation, but rather in the liberating effect it has on the mind of his reader.

In bringing about total, or, more often, partial disruption in the time unity of a ‘linear’ story, Krúdy employs mainly stylistic devices. His sentences contain a profusion of subordinate clauses, frequently starting with ‘as ifs’, inviting the participation of the reader in the world evoked by his narrative, where one set of associations leads to another in both writer and reader; the latter is taken down paths of memory where he can explore strange, nostalgic sensations in hidden corners, or re-live his own past, though fragmentarily and momentarily, in the continuous present; the result is a complete breakup of the time structure. When past, past perfect and present intermingle in one long stream of consciousness without an apparent beginning or end, the effect is a dream-like quality; illusion and reality, phantoms and human beings are no longer separate entities.

Although Krúdy began to publish at a very early age (he was not even twenty when his first collection of short stories appeared), critics agree that his artistically significant period of creativity started with the publication of the Sindbad stories (The Travels of Sindbad, 1912; The Resurrection of Sindbad, 1916; The Youth and Grief of Sindbad, 1917). The background of these stories differs very little from that of his earlier writing-memory is the chief source of his narrative material: memories of the gentry world of the Nyírség, of his school-years in Podolin (The Ghost of Podolin, 1906, one of the best of his early novels) and the night-life of Budapest. This background is, however, peopled with timeless figures, first of all Sindbad himself, the nostalgic traveller who is haunted by memories of his amorous adventures, or of certain taverns where this or that of his favourite dishes tasted better than anywhere else. Sindbad is not an active participant in the affairs of the world; he is merely observing life as it passes him by, as, for example, when he lives alone in a small village on the bank of the Danube and muses about the passing boats and trains:

Lanky telegraph-poles stared at the row of carriages, as if frightened or bewildered; refined ladies and gentlemen stood at the windows; white tablecloths and bottles of wine flashed behind the gleaming window-panes of the dining-car; the chef, in his white hat, looks at the scenery, and the stoker covered in grime stands with a grave look and a deliberate air on the foot-plate. The long carriages rush swiftly towards their destination and a gentleman holds a lady’s hand in the corridor of the last carriage. (Naturally Sindbad would have liked to be on a honeymoon with a young girl, gazing seriously into her eyes, seated on green cushions, when the white-coated waiter taps discretely on the door: ‘Luncheon is now being served’ …)

The main characters of Krúdy’s novels and cycles of short stories are almost exclusively male. It is a type: Sindbad resembles Kázmér Rezeda (The Beautiful Life of Kázmér Rezeda, 1944) or Pálfi (The Companion, 1919). These men are around forty; frivolity is their main charm, they have had numerous adventures, they love sensuous pleasures, they often fancy themselves too old for an active life, and therefore they retrospectively re-live their lives; the inner monologues are made up of their nostalgic longings and insatiable desires. When Krúdy feels that his heroes are slipping towards Romantic cliché he injects them with ample doses of self-irony, thereby re-establishing their reality – although this does not prevent Sindbad, for example, moving freely in various ages, in Podolin at the end of the last century, in a timeless Orient, or at the court of a medieval English king.

Krúdy’s heroines in the main are married women, whose inner restlessness leads them to amorous adventures; their outward shyness may serve only to conceal their perversity (Miss Maszkerádi in Sunflower, 1918, or Fruzsina Császár in The Beautiful Life of Kázmér Rezeda). Some of these heroines are perhaps late urban descendants of Madame Bovary. Another type of Krúdy heroine is the ‘Mother Earth’ type; these love country life and cooking. Their devotion to religion may make them appear mystic souls, they have no disquieting notions, they are comforting mother-figures very near to nature (Juliska in N. N., 1922); but primarily they are alien to the restless world of the other main types. The gallery of Krúdy’s heroines is full of minor characters who assist the heroes in their eternal search. The plots of many of the novels revolve around the heroes’ hesitation between the two different types of women, which are of course only projections of the different roles assigned to women by the male ego. Reality and the acting out of fantasies are mingled with natural ease, yet the blend always contains an element of surprise. The hero of The Prize of Ladies (1919), for example, is sitting in the drawing-room of a brothel with his alter ego looking at various objects in boredom, when suddenly lovers, painted on an ashtray, ‘leave the ashtray, and the lady in a hat with roses shows her naked leg provokingly to the funeral director’.

Therefore it is difficult to speak about the plots of Krúdy’s novels, in which wishful thinking, desires, dreams, and fantasies not only mingle freely with reality but frequently may have precedence over any ‘objective reality’ which accidentally appears in the novels. There seems to be a set of private natural laws governing the shifts in time and place, and the probability of occurrences in the novels. The heroes do not possess a ‘character’ in the everyday sense; the rules of traditional psychology are disregarded in the same way as are the rules of ‘objective reality’, since facts in a historical or sociological sense disappear under a veil of poetry. To be sure, this disregard for psychological truths could be seen as a fault, when the reader’s expectations are limited by the rigid rules of the nineteenth-century novel in which psychological validity is achieved by minute descriptions of various states of mind; but Krúdy is not didactic – he attempts to capture states of minds and streams of consciousness which may have deeper psychological relevance.

The most frequently used motifs of sex, dream, and death, and their relationship, seem to reveal that Krúdy used or instinctively applied not traditional psychology, but Freudian concepts. This was a definite novelty in the 1910s. In the same way, Krúdy is perhaps the first Hungarian writer to describe various aspects of fetishism – for example Miss Fátyol, in The Red Stage-Coach (1917), who ‘never wore her shoes longer than a week. Then she sent them back to the shoemaker in Pest. The shoes were eagerly awaited by an elderly gentleman who bought the worn shoes, letting the shoemaker make ample profit on the transaction’, or there is the other old gentleman in The Prize of Ladies who begs to be whipped when in a bordello. (‘He wished to atone his sins’, adds Krúdy rather maliciously.)

Yet the relationship between sex and death in Krúdy’s works goes deeper than a simple adaptation of Freudian principles. While Freud’s notion of the Wunschverkehrung is part of a complex theory, Krúdy seems to have accepted the unalterable principles of a merciless Nature: sex is merely an accomplice to death. Krúdy seems to suggest that man should follow the outrageously inexplicable Will manifested in Creation: he should contemplate, bring up children, bury the old – follow the laws of Nature. Otherwise man is forever doomed to searching, restlessness, and scepticism – Sindbad has known only uncertainty. Krúdy’s imagery is perhaps shaped by this philosophy: those who comply with the timeless rites of life are depicted in rich and mellow tones with pleasing metaphors, those who are foolish enough to revolt against the unbending rules are ridiculed, or at best are tragicomic.

It is not entirely without foundation to ascribe, as some Krúdy scholars do, symbolic significance to Krúdy’s dream world in which he is able to balance ingeniously the possible and the probable. In one of his novels, Krúdy claims that ‘life is a concluded, ready-made task’. The acceptance of this tenet brings a kind of Oriental resignation, no doubt deeply seated in Krúdy’s mind. His timeless world may also be interpreted as the manifestation of the cult of illusion in its most refined form; when one dreams, the world ceases to be a confusing place.

Essentially, the art of dreaming unfolds Krúdy’s identity. If there is any truth in the saying that man is style, it certainly rings true in his case – Krúdy is style. His spirit is related to that rhythm, colour, and music of human nature which in the deepest layers of the self always triumph enigmatically over utilitarian existence. Yet man cannot do without the endless search and restlessness, as if the final outcome could not be foreseen: ‘I have been perhaps everywhere. At parties and funerals. In forests and by the banks of rivers. In vice and virtue. I have often travelled. Now I am tired …’

Needless to say, not all the fiction Krúdy wrote consisted of flawless masterpieces; the pressure of journalistic work strained his unquestionable talents. When he attempted straightforward historical fiction he often failed; mannerism was his main fault. The greatest pitfall of stylistic originality seems to be mannerism; there are poems by Ady and stories by Krúdy which seem to have been written by a clever imitator. But real followers never set out in their footsteps; both Ady and Krúdy achieved the fullest realization of their respective stylistic innovations, and did not leave any unexplored avenues open to those who were attracted to them.

Neither Ady nor Krúdy went beyond their native land for possible models or subject-matter; their art subsisted on what can only be described, for want of a better expression, as the ‘Hungarian experience’. By renewing their respective genres they were successful in setting a different ideal against the népies, which seemed until then to have monopolized Hungarian literature, at least as far as the major writers were concerned; yet at the same time, they retained that particular Hungarian flavour in their works which has made them unique in addition to being modern. True, public taste was not ready for their artistic message, as witnessed by the long drawn-out controversies, particularly about Ady, and to a lesser degree about Krúdy who was readily accepted as an entertainer, although for some time scholars were to have reservations about his artistic merit. For a minority of critics, however, Krúdy has always been accepted for what he unquestionably is, the most original prose-writer of the first half of the twentieth century.