"Let crazy life rush headlong on the highway for others; we shall contemplate the sunflowers, watch them sprout, blossom, fade away. Yesterday they were still giants, but now, in autumn, they are thatch on the roof."
Sunflower, by Gyula Krúdy, is a remarkable book featuring some deeply weird prose.
Mostly it's about the love affairs of a handful of characters living in and around Budapest in the early 20th century.
Eveline, the 22-year-old woman who flees the city for her house in the country, to escape thoughts of her former fiancé; Kálmán, said lover, who is gambling her money way; Álmos-Dreamer, a 40-year-old bachelor country aristocrat who pines for Eveline and is quite literally wasting away with romantic longing; Malvina Maszkerádi, a friend staying with Eveline, who outwardly appears modern and worldly, but who fears engaging in life — her ideal love is an ancient, calmly virile tree, to whom no man can compare; Pistoli, patron of village Gypsies, whose three former wives ended up in the madhouse, now determinedly wooing Miss Maszkerádi, much to her consternation.
We encounter their lovers, former lovers, the lovers of their former lovers, their ancestors, their ancestors' lovers, ghosts, and fortunetellers.
Sunflower reminds me of the Russians: the lush tone with which Turgenev paints his scenes, the portraits of aristocrats (in particular I'm thinking of Dostoevsky's wry touch in The Gambler), and Tolstoy, well, I'll get to that.
Beyond all the romantic intrigues, Sunflower is about the meaning of life and death. Krúdy sets out to tackle the issue of "Why bother to set out in life when it was over so soon?"
There are sufficient tales told throughout the novel to show that death in itself should prove no obstacle to achieving romantic (or sexual) fulfillment. While Eveline in her confused state of mind clings to life's sidelines, Kálmán grabs life by the balls (with mixed results), Álmos-Dreamer straddles both sides of death's divide (proving its inconsequence), and Miss Maszkerádi is paralyzed by some combination of fear, boredom, pointlessness.
"I can't resign myself to the fact that I live in order to die some day. 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. [...] (p 88)"
While Sunflower often flirts with morbidity, it is deeply fecund and organic.
There's an episode that stands out as the heart of the book, to my mind, serving much the same function as does Natasha's dance in War and Peace. In this sense: the scene doesn't really match the rest of the book and yet seems to be the book's whole reason for being. Natasha's dance sings her Russianness, the Russianness of all of them, peasant, servant, or aristocrat, whether a traditionalist or someone with modern views, it strips that all away to allow something organic to manifest itself. And here in Sunflower is this Gypsy serenade, unacceptable to the Miss Maszkerádi's urban attitude, her sense of social decorum, clashing with her modern views. Mr Pistoli, a rustic bon vivant, breaks down her defenses, with music, wine, words. And Miss Maszkerádi rises to his bait, gives herself over to it, which gives way to revelry, each of them playing a trickster while fully enchanted, for a few hours at least. It's a lovely scene, full of erotic potential, where something gypsy and Hungarian and human is being realized. Sadly, the moment passes.
The comparison of Gyula Krúdy to Bruno Schulz is a valid one (at least, what I've read of Schulz), both in subject somewhat preternatural and how the language feeds the senses.
Krúdy's language is dense with images and, it seems to me, secret meanings — that is, it manages to create an aura of the surreal, the otherwordly, and the erotic, without contrivance. The opening pages have the feel of a gothic romance, but this mood rather quickly congeals into something much thicker, pervading the very air these characters breathe, often in a disconcertingly creepy way.
How quickly some images (at first even banal) can take a sinister turn. For example: "Miss Maszkerádi's steely-glinting eyes appeared as serene as an idol's or a maniac's. (p 89)" Or (my favourite sentence of the book): "Meanwhile Risoulette stood in the door, bewildered, like a woman who has spilled kerosene on her skirt but cannot find a match. (p 138)"
Many pastoral scenes meander in and out of dark crevices.
But cock's crow signals the arrival of those never-glimpsed vagabonds who stand stock still under your window in the dead of night, with murder in their hears, guilt and terror in their eyes. Come morning, they regain their original shapes and turn into solitary trees at crossroads or hat-waving, curly-haired young travelers with small knapsacks and large staffs, humming a merry tune and marching bright-eyed toward distant lands to bring glad tidings, fun and games, new songs and youthful flaring passions to small houses that somnolently await them. There they sit down at the kitchen table, earn their dinner by telling glorious tall tales, help pour the wine, chop the wood, nab the fattened pig by the ear; they also repair the grandfather clock that had not chimed in forty years and leave in the middle of the night, taking along the young miss's heart as well as her innocence. How enviably cheerful the lives of these vagabonds who pass your house at cock's crow after a night of sleeplessness . . . As if their knee-deep pockets contained some seed they drop in front of the window, to sprout into a yellow-crowned sunflower; no sooner are they gone than it is already tall enough to peek through the window pane. While, inside, the young lady of the house is already fast asleep, like Aladdin in the enchanted cave. (p 15)
The sunflower, of course, turns to follow the sun, turns toward life. We are the sunflower at the window, gazing in. Eveline watches the sunflowers, while being one much of the time herself, rooted in her place and rotating to seek out a life source outside of herself. By autumn, she comes to bask.
Sunflower is a wonderful but demanding novel. It serves as the perfect bridge between 19th-century Russians and 20th-century surrealists. If you give yourself over to it, it is magical and profound.
A note on the cover
The cover image comes from a photograph by Witkacy, a turn-of-the-century Polish playwright, painter, drug-experimenter, philosopher... all-round artist extraordinaire... you get the idea. The photo is of Jadwiga Janczewska, his fiancée, who committed suicide (he himself committed suicide many years later). I'm not sure what about the cover I want to say, really, apart from that it feels connected and appropriate that Witkacy's work would appear in connection with Sunflower. I've seen some of his plays as well as movies based on his work; he had a strange and strong sense of Polishness, which might be considered parallel to Krúdy's Hungarianness, and an absurdist (and quite possibly morbid) sensibility. He and his work both were pretty fucked up for their time. Witkacy also championed the work of Bruno Schulz, to whom Krúdy is compared. Somehow, this cover fits.
I've previously written about the following NYRB Classics: