I knew nothing about Gyula Krúdy or about this book before picking it up — what does this Hungarian have to do with the more famous Persian sailor? — but with NYRB Classics one doesn’t have to worry too much about such things. Just pick up a book and begin. And when I opened up The Adventures of Sindbad (Szindbád Három Könyve, 1944; tr. from the Hungarian by George Szirtes, 1998) I was in for many pleasant surprises.
Krúdy was a prolific writer who lived from 1878 to 1933, and he wrote many stories focused on the young (or old — or dead — or mistletoed) Sindbad, from 1911 to 1917. Here we have them collected in one volume. In his introduction, translator George Szirtes tells readers what’s to come, though I don’t think we can entirely understand until we read the stories. They are so unique, in Hungary there is a term: “Krúdyesque.” I think a good example, then, is to refer to the other “-esque” author from roughly the same period: Can you imagine trying to explain — beyond simple plot — a Kafka story to someone who hadn’t experienced the Kafkaesque first-hand? Me either. So here we have the Krúdyesque, which Szirtes aptly describes as “an experience comprised of the nostalgic, the fantastic and the ironic.”
We first meet Sindbad in “Youth,” a rather conventional story that in no way foreshadows the strangeness that is to come, though it does touch upon central themes, particularly love and lust. The story begins by taking us to “a damp and moonlit night” when an old man is “watching the autumn mist form figures of chimney-sweeps on the rooftops.” His mind is taken to an old monastery where, as a child, he used to see a painting of an intimidating and authoritative Prince Lubomirski. The red-bearded, shaggy-haired Prince has been dead for two centuries, but still “[t]he young ladies of Podolin who came to the monks for absolution would wreathe his picture with flowers fresh from the meadow, and women, who a couple of centuries before would have given birth to red-bearded, shaggy-haired children, prayed before the prince’s image precisely as they did before pictures of the saints.”
This opening — the introduction of an old man looking back to a painting of someone then two-centuries’ dead, as well as the adoration of the image — foreshadows the idea that the boundaries of time do not always hold up. Sure, two centuries ago the Prince would remove his gloves in the presence of ladies and cannot do so now, but that isn’t stopping their current adoration.
We soon learn that the old man in “Youth” is Sindbad, who was a student at the monastery. Because “in those days” it was common for romantic souls to choose their own name, Sindbad indeed named himself after the sailor in The Thousand and One Nights. In many ways, this collection of short stories is just as varied in time and form as The Thousand and One Nights, and just as populated with a type of mystical eroticism. And, perhaps in homage to the tales, Krúdy wastes no time giving us a conclusion that keeps us wondering “How did all this happen?”: “It was in this office one Sunday, while wearing his red surplice, that [Sindbad] succeeded in seducing Anna Kacksó, who had come to Mass along with a few friends of hers.”
But this is a false start (one of many). As the story moves from “How did all this happen?,” we meet Anna’s two sisters and the story focuses on Róza, the youngest, the real love interest. Róza teases Sindbad as they study together. Sindbad deals with this by playing with a fellow classmate he often picks on, Pope Gregory (his chosen name), who has a hunchback. Róza is mean and withholds affection. Sindbad deals with this by going swimming with Pope Gregory. Krúdy has the ability here to make the reader’s mind become quiet.
Naturally, the boys bathed in the deep still water, holding on to the iron staples in the timber, dangling their legs in the bottomless pool. The little hunchback felt absolutely safe in the company of the brave and admirable Sindbad. Suddenly he gave a triumphant cry, ‘Hey, I can feel the river bed here!’ He extended his thin legs. His inky fingers let go of the metal bar and the water silently closed over him. For a brief second Sindbad could still see the curious hump on his back under the surface of the river, then the water, the shore and the tall limes nearby grew unaccountably quiet as if the monastery had touched them with a magic wand and they had died on the spot, as in The Thousand and One Nights.
Sindbad is terrified. He searches for Pope Gregory, imagining that the Prince is already coming out of his gilt frame, knowing he will be blamed for the drowning. The story ends (it’s a short story, and the first of many, so I don’t feel terrible giving all of this away) with Sindbad in bed, and Róza leans over and whispers into his ear: “You are a brave boy. And I will love you for ever now.”
It’s a dark story. The death of a foolishly trusting young boy is used to move the action between a young man and a young woman. I immediately turned to the next one.
As I mentioned above, “Youth” is a bit more conventional than the rest, and because of this is kind of an outlier. In some stories, he is dreaming. In one he is a sprig of mistletoe. But painful love remains because Sindbad is always “a tireless voyager, a friend to women, a knight errant for those in sleepy provincial towns; he was the last worldly thought of virgins about to enter convents and the hope of the ageing.” In fact, not even death (Sindbad is dead in many of the stories but just as mobile and influential as Sindbad imagined the Prince to be) can stop him; indeed, that last line I quote comes from a passage where Sindbad is wandering out of the graveyard periodically for affairs before returning, listening to the rain on the gravestones for maybe a year, and then lying in the crypt to talk to his dead relatives around him.
That image — returning to a graveyard after an affair, sitting pensively in the rain, then communicating with the dead, all the while waiting for the next affair to start — encapsulates a lot of the feelings in the book. There’s a lot of wandering through space and time, and melancholic (but somehow pleasant) love prevails, so well, in fact, that even the grave is nothing terrible — a moment to yearn, thus making the heart grow even more. Of course, all of that is still tinged with shadow and is quite disturbing if you think about it. It is beautifully done here, in the same way, say, a dusty wedding dress from the 1850s — that someone died in — is beautiful.
One aspect of the book that I cannot comment on other than to pass along what I read is the fact that these stories were written at the end of the Hapsburg Empire. Hungary would no longer be the Hungary of these tales, and both the introduction and the book’s blurb speak about “the uncanny evocation of the Hapsburg Empire.” As I said, I cannot comment on this because I know so little about this time period at that part of the world. What I experienced while reading the book, however, was just that nostalgia, fantasy, and irony — the Krúdyesque, and I could see connections with the ending of an epoch — autumn or early winter is a great time to read this fantastic book.