“I have been dead for years, and the door only opens before me if someone urgently desires me to call.” These are the words of Sindbad, “the voyager,” hero of a cycle of stories by the Hungarian prose lyricist and journalist Gyula Krúdy (1878-1933), who moved to surging fin-de-siècle Budapest from the country when he was 17 and there began compiling a bibliography and list of lovers, both of impressive length.
New York Review Books, who began to address the dearth of readily available English-language Krúdy with a run of his masterpiece novel Sunflower, has now reprinted the translation and introduction of The Adventures of Sindbad by George Szirtes previously published in a 1998 Central European University Press edition.
In 24 tales, few exceeding ten pages, the roué Krúdy’s literary alter-ego is seen haunting obscure corners of the prewar capital and provinces, revisiting past lovers and trailing femmes perdues. Sindbad is represented, alternately, as the ghost of a lovelorn suicide, undead, silver-haired, a reincarnated shapeshifter, three hundred years old. He might be taken as a similarly supernatural relation to that Transylvanian Dracula—indeed, Sindbad spends much time in the highlands beneath the Carpathians, and, as noted above, he can only enter a home when invited. Krúdy/Sindbad’s idea of the exchange of desire is, however, rather subtler than Stoker’s Victorian incubi/victim relationship: Hunter Sindbad is also prey. The deceiver is also deceived, not least by himself. Fated to cater perpetually to the fantasies of his women, he has barely any existence of his own.The Adventures follows a dream-weaving seducer, and Krúdy’s prose is appropriately seductive, a litany of long, languid, sighing sentences that introduce an element of enchantment to Sindbad’s universe of provincial inns and restaurants in Pest where one might rendezvous with an actress or a goldsmith’s wife. Two of the finest tales introduce Sindbad to his female analog, Pauline von Boldogfalve, a flower girl risen to the rank of grand dame who has discovered the same secret that Sindbad has: “Is it not the case that everyone would soonest hear the story he believes in his heart of hearts, the one where he dreams his own life?”
I was introduced to Krúdy’s dream-life by the Hungarian-American historian John Lukacs’s wonderful Budapest 1900, which described Krúdy’s working technique thusly: “Like Balzac, he was always short of money; he wrote twelve, sixteen sheets every morning, with an old fashioned steel pen, in violet ink.” And here is Krúdy, on Sindbad’s style: “He lied continuously, fluently, without any let or hindrance, perpetually grinding out his insincerities like some busy watermill on the great River Danube.” Sindbad’s Adventures, then, are some of the loveliest violet-tinted lies ever put to paper—wreathed around some very nettling truths about what we call love.