The picture that graces the cover of the recently published NYRB Classics edition of Béla Zombory-Moldován’s memoir The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914 (tr. from the Hungarian by the author’s grandson Peter Zombory-Moldován’s and published for the first time in any language by NYRB Classics, 2014), shows the author in white, seated in the front left. He was on holiday with friends when this photo was taken on July 25, 1914 (probably, the writing in the corner says 25/ vii / 1914). He was twenty-nine.
Three days later, he’d find out that his county, Austria-Hungary, was at war, and he was required to report for service by August 4.
The memoir begins moments before he hears war has been declared. He’s enjoying his vacation (“I could never get enough of this beauty.”), when a man is walking quickly along the beach:
“Good morning.” He stopped. “Well, I say goodbye now.” He struggled a little with the Hungarian.
“Why? You’re not leaving, are you?”
“Leaving? I must go in the army. There is going to be a war.”
“What are you talking about?” Aghast, I stared at him.
“Please. The notice is there on the wall of the bathing station.”
He rushes to the bathing station and “stared at the poster as if I had just suffered a stroke.”
Within one page, Zombory-Moldován’s tone shifts from the pleasant walk on the beach, which he’s doing early in the morning because he’s a bit sick from the drinks he enjoyed the night before, to this dumbstruck blankness. This blankness is emphasized and he sinks into a realization that his whole future could be blank.
“A soldier dies, that others may live.” Fine words! But I am twenty-nine, at the start of my career, filled with plans and the urge to create, with some early success. I wanted to work! I was born to create, and I loathe destruction of any kind.
The memoir is quite brief, only 135 pages, and Zombory-Moldován moves relatively quickly through 1914. Despite the brevity, it is incredibly rich, while never feeling dense.
It achieves its richness through the emotions, most slightly muffled by fear and numbness. We start to feel slightly numb as well, so the memoir is often poignant when there’s some surprising welling of emotion, such as when the author sees his parents, forced to suffer with their own terror as they watch their mild-mannered, pleasant, fully alive child carted off to battle and then brought home with injuries.
Those are the tender, bitter-sweet surprises. The book has its share of violent horror, as well, and there’s an overwhelming sense of loss. This world, the world Zombory-Moldován grew up in, the world he painted, would cease to exist.
This edition comes with a fantastic, wrenching quote from another great Hungarian writer, László Krasznahorkai. Besides my full recommendation that you pick up this memoir, I want to end with his quote:
To be in a war, within it, to know what that means, to understand the appalling and dreadful significance of all that is appalling and dreadful — such was the fate of this gentle Hungarian painter. This book is perilous reading: the reader is invited, along with the writer, the one who remembers, to take part in what happened. But this is what we must do: from sympathy, from compassion, so that the one who truly lived through all of this will not be so utterly, unbearably alone.