Life is a Dream
 by Gyula Krúdy

(modern Classics)

2010 (1931), Paperback
First collection

"Now there are all sorts of red moustaches. Most of them are angry, malevolent, neglected emblems of manhood, unworthy of grooming, if for no other reason than their colour. But this red moustache happened to be one out of a hundred, the red moustache that radiated good humour, cheer, satisfaction and joie de vivre, as if under that moustache the corners of the mouth were elevated into a permanent smile. This red moustache had earned the right to grow full, to be twirled to a point and often caressed like some faithful hound."

Reviewed by Mira Mattar

Gyula Krúdy's Life is a Dream opens Penguin's Central European Classics series; a ten title collection of short stories, memoirs, essays, philosophy and novels, featuring Ota Pavel and Czesław Miłosz and ending in a glorious snarl with Thomas Bernhard's Old Masters. The series was launched in May 2010 with the aim to reconfigure these literatures as more than the work of dispossessed and oppressed central Europeans but as major players in world literature. In Krúdy's playful collection (nine short stories and one novella) a world of food, drink, life, death and love magically emerge from 1920s Budapest.

Krúdy's well known Last Cigar at the Grey Arabian opens the collection; a colonel has to shoot a journalist who has publicly insulted the Casino – an exclusive member's club – in a duel. In an attempt to identify with the poor writer, the colonel, who like most of Krúdy's finely drawn characters is hungry, drops in to the Grey Arabian - an out of the way tavern frequented by hearse drivers. Eager not to be recognised in so down-and-out a place the pompous colonel disguises himself as a mere civilian and eats and drinks what he thinks a penniless journalist might choose for his potentially last meal. But the clue is of course in the title, and as the colonel lights an expensive cigar we realise what has been hinted at since the beginning of this darkly comic tale of comeuppance.

Still enjoying this fairy-tale-like justice we are led straight into the second story, The Journalist and Death which mirrors the previous story. Krúdy structures it with verve and wit, encouraging the reader to root for the journalist who – on what he presumes is his last day but we know is not – treats himself to a fine meal and the afternoon off work. Simple details such as the journalist's borrowed hat and umbrella-cane – to make him look more gentlemanly - deftly bring the character to life. One cannot help but think Krúdy, who made his living "by his pen" from an early age and consequently drank, gambled and generally misspent his money, is cheering for the underdog – the indispensable and oddly lucky writer.

Krúdy is as obsessed by the characters that visit and work in taverns and bars as he is by the food. He tells us everything, from the cut of the meat to the way the bone is sucked by the meticulous customer and the precise taste of beer as it is swallowed. Seemingly Fridolin "gawky, ageing waiter" from The Waiter's Nightmare is also haunted by such themes, even as takes his afternoon nap. He enters a terrifying dreamscape where bodiless overcoats gorge themselves on offal and a monstrous customer orders everything on the menu for lunch while dispensing dream wisdom to the waiter about food, life and how to progress as a waiter. Revealing himself to be an undertaker the dream character proclaims "only what we eat is truly ours, because once we're in the coffin we won't be served any more helpings".

Similar ideas of control, transience and appetite return in Betty, Nursemaid of the Editorial Office where a dyspeptic editor regretting his order in a tavern, recalls the idea that "only what we eat is truly ours" and promptly orders himself a second lunch – a meat plate he sees another diner eating. Concerned about the poetry in the latest issue of his Budapest weekly, he becomes entranced by a diner dismantling and sucking at the bones of his meal. The editor, like Krúdy's other characters, is not simply greedy or grotesque, he sees poetry in food more than anywhere else. Food is described with an almost obscene passion as it seems to be the only thing one can really possess. Life is short and Krúdy's fickle women are not to be trusted.

The Landlady, or the Bewitched Guests for example features a landlady who uses her feminine wiles to cajole four male customers into trampling her cabbages for her. In return she indulges their loneliness and flirts, "the landlady stared at him with wide-eyed docility that implied she would remember each word for the rest of her life". Gender roles are simple to say the least, with women often as manipulative and destructive, but this is to be expected from literature of this time from almost anywhere and if we were to dismiss the text on this failing we would also have to cast aside the majority of our worldwide literary heritage. Furthermore, Krúdy's men are far from perfect.

However, what Krúdy lacks in some areas he more than makes up for by the sheer power of his imagination: The Apostle of Heavenly Scents focuses on an unexpected guest with an otherworldly sense of smell and a nose which keeps changing appearance. It is a witty and disorienting study of sensuality and the undeniable link between food and sex.

This fine collection ends fittingly on The Ejected Patron, who is thrown out of every establishment because he cannot pay his bill. But strangely, we are rooting for poor Mr Draggle; he knows the finest things in life but unfortunately the rest of the world is unwilling to play along.

The translator, John Bakti seems to have captured the energy of the original text, Krúdy's syntactical quirks and fantastically long meandering descriptions retain the unique style of the original. The simple language within these exciting structures allows Krúdy's power for creating characters with a few choice details and masterful strokes to come across with great energy. There is a fairy-tale logic to these stories, where strange juxtapositions and bizarre intensities make up a world full of desire, limitation, depravity and worst of all – luck.

Mira Mattar is a tutor, freelance writer and reviewer for the TLS and other publications. Her fiction has been published in Spilt Milk Magazine and Melusine and is forthcoming from Dog Horn Publishing. She is also one third of Monster Emporium Press. She lives in South London where she is currently working on her first collection of short stories.

Mira's other Short Reviews: Jo Glanville (ed) "Qissat: Short Stories by Palestinian Women"
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Gyula Krúdy was one of Hungary's most popular writers, publishing four novels, a collection of journalism and a short story collection. Having worked as a journalist for most of his life against his family's will he made his living by writing from an early age and was successful until his life was blighted by alcoholism and gambling.