“Everyone appears ridiculous when in love,” writes Gyula Krúdy in Sunflower. I’m cynical enough to believe it. Love inspires people to greatness. It also inspires people to stage elaborate, embarassingly public marriage proposals involving scoreboards, skywriters, and/or mariachi bands. I don’t understand why women say yes to these things. This is one major reason why I do not expect ever to marry.
Sunflower looks at love from all angles, and finds it ridiculous. All angles contained in Budapest’s upper class, sometime around the turn of the 20th century, anyway, and for the same reason P. G. Wodehouse wrote about the upper class. Poverty isn’t funny.
Sunflower isn’t ridiculous in the way Wodehouse is ridiculous. Wodehouse is funny ha ha. Krudy is funny peculiar. Sunflower has a dark side. Everyone’s falling in love, or out of love, or just worrying about love, but death isn’t far away; you don’t get love without danger. As soon as we meet Andor Álmos-Dreamer he dies for love. He gets better, but it sets the tone. The novel skips back and forth through family histories. Men fight duels over women, or just drop dead, sometimes because their wives asked them to. Death doesn’t stop love: one character, Miss Maszkerádi, was fathered by a ghost.
All this is described in stunning prose, with images and metaphors packed in one after the other, urgently running together. It’s like Krúdy wasn’t sure this slim novel would have room for them all. Hungarian, and Krudy in particular, is apparently next to impossible to translate. I don’t know how well this book represents Krudy, or how much came from the translator. Either way it’s a marvel. (This despite the fact that the translation sometimes turns incongruously modern. Would a young woman around 1900 or so call a guy a “creep?” Or, for that matter, a “guy?” Would she say “crap,” or “Men stink?”)
Miss Maszkerádi isn’t into looking ridiculous. She judges her present as though she’s looking back at a distance of fifty years. She doesn’t want to do anything she might feel embarassed about later. The one thing she loves, and identifies with, is a solid and immovable willow tree. Pistoli, the local squire, feels the trees inviting him to hang himself on their branches. He’s smitten with Miss Maszkerádi. This can’t end well. And it doesn’t… Krudy foreshadows heavily enough that I’m not spoiling anything by letting slip that Pistoli doesn’t survive the book. But it doesn’t end too badly, either—or at least no worse than anything else. Hardly anyone minds appearing ridiculous, or even dying. It’s the price you pay for living.