Sunflower by Gyula Krúdy

“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.”

So says Álmos-Dreamer at the end of Gyula Krúdy’s Sunflower, one of the oddest and most entirely unique books I’ve read in a long while. John Lukacs’s introduction to this fine NYRB edition dwells rather disconcertingly on how the idiosyncratic language of Krúdy is virtually untranslatable, although Lukacs goes on to concede that the translator John Bátki has made a decent fist of it. I couldn’t possibly judge in this respect, but the language of this novel is certainly singular. Krúdy is, to say the least, unafraid of simile. Almost every action or reaction happens “like a shepherd hiding a lamb under his coat” or “like a one-legged man confronting his lost limb preserved in spirits”. This makes the prose rather hard going at times. The novel has a hallucinatory, dream-like atmosphere; nothing particularly happens, but it still makes for compelling reading. The characters circle round each other in ever-narrowingly arcs of desire, confidence and mistrust. Krúdy was an extraordinarily prolific writer, an alcoholic and a gambling addict whose writing sought to memorialise the lost rural Hungary of the end of the nineteenth century. He is said to have never re-drafted his work, disdaining proofs – moving on to the next piece of writing, and the one after, and the one after that. His writing has a not-unpleasant sense of loose ends and untamed flights of rhetorical or metaphorical fancy.

In short, I’m not sure what to make of this novel. Part of me thinks that I should desperately like it, as it’s the sort of book Central European literature lovers like myself should desperately like. Some people have gone quite dribbly with excitment over Krúdy, but I can’t say that’s happened to me. However, since finishing it, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the book, and I’ve been somewhat infected by it. My mind keeps wandering off into strange lyrical backwaters, quite pleasantly. His style haunts you; I can imagine dipping back into the book again for another measure. There’s nothing quite like it, and I’m certainly glad to have read it. Thank you AD and UG for giving it to me.

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