Béla Zombory-Moldován: The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914

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.

Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.

Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.

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.

6 thoughts on “Béla Zombory-Moldován: The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914

  1. leroyhunter says:

    Straight on the wishlist Trevor.

  2. Lee Monks says:

    Yes, I second that. The Reck book was great and this would seem to be similar.

  3. This why I follow NYRB editions. Something I never heard of by someone I never heard of, but boy, does it grab my attention. NYRB books are sooften books I didn’t know I had to read until I came across them. I’ll have to look for this one next time I visit Dog Eared Books in San Francisco where they keep a decent sized bookcase full of NYRB editions.

  4. This book is very much on my radar. Guy Savage of His Futile Preoccupations covered it too, and while he also liked it one point he picked up was Zombory-Moldován’s attitude to his batman, whom he seemed to see as barely human. Guy thought there was a definite element of unexamined privilege on the part of Zombory-Moldován, which wouldn’t be surprising given his background. Any thoughts on that?

  5. Guy is right, I think, though I admit to not paying particular attention to this when I was reading. When the story begins, after all, Zombory-Moldován is enjoying a holiday and is particularly peeved that he must go to war and potentially lose the opportunity to be an artist. That said, this didn’t diminish it a bit for me, especially as a legitimate response from a very real person. It’s rich, and some of that richness comes from the man’s flaws as well as his strengths.

    I feel a bit preachy there, which isn’t intended at all.

  6. Didn’t feel preachy. Guy loved the book too, his take overall was definitely in line with yours. You’ve both put the book distinctly on my radar.

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