Every now and again I do a straight random pull off the stacks in the library and give a book a go that nothing in my experience would have led me to intentionally seek. To some extent, I fool myself, because it’s not entirely random. I tend to do this when I find myself in some section that I intended to go to and maybe I end up getting the book I came for and maybe I don’t. In this case, I had accidentally stepped on my Kobo and broke the screen, so I had gone to the library to get their copy of The Water Margin, which was on my Kobo. The library only had one volume of it, so I figured I’d just bite the bullet and replace my device. But my eyes wandered around the shelf where The Water Margin was, and I found Gyula Krudy. One book of his, my library has, but it is fantastic.
It’s a bad tendency of people from the United States to group together disparate societies into fictional wholes because they know next to nothing about them. Africa becomes a country, for example. So I feel somewhat hesitant in even mentioning that I went through a semi-significant phase of reading Czech literature, primarily Jaroslav Hasek and Karel Capek, in my 20’s. The impact was strong and there was a musical artifact of my own.
[bandcamp width=100% height=42 album=1624471956 size=small bgcol=ffffff linkcol=0687f5 track=3293574352
I’m sort of embarrassed that having read a modest amount of Czech literature that I feel I have some background that primes me for a Hungarian writer. And yet, there it is.
I do know enough to know that I know very little about what we in the United States call Eastern Europe to know that nobody ever taught me very much about Hungary except that Magyar is not a Slavic language. This strikes me as really important in terms of why I had never heard of Krudy, who strikes me, at least from this preliminary example, as one of the finest novelists I’ve come across. The back cover uses descriptive words like “satirical” and “surreal,” or at least words along those lines, and there’s talk in the introduction of Krudy as a “modern” novelist. I’ve since returned the book so I can’t check for precision here. The point here is that upon reading the book it’s clear why someone would call much of what happens in the book “surreal,” or “satirical,” but when one says “surreal” one immediately calls to mind someone like Andre Breton, and the comparison is misleading. There is an outsized absurdity to the characterization–in an entirely satisfying way–that at times made me think of Gogol, but I like Gogol so much that I compare basically anything satirical to him and, in fact, Krudy’s satire, if we want to call it that, is not really Gogolian. And it’s a mistake to try to lump him in with literary modernism in the sense most people in this country understand it–Joyce, Stein, etc. He’s not really operating with the same parameters as that crowd. I got the feeling, reading him, that much as Magyar sustained an endogamous development, that I imagine its literature did as well. I could be horribly wrong, but Krudy’s work is, among what I’ve read, totally unique, and it’s for that reason that I make these suppositions.
Get the book. Krudy should be read much more widely in this country.