This book is a collection of ten stories written during the last decade of Gyula Krúdy's life. It brings to five the number of Krúdy's works now in print in English translation: two novels, two collections of stories, and a collection of journalistic pieces centered on city life and colorful personages in Budapest from the 1890s through the end of World War I ("Krúdy's Chronicles"). Throw in his novel "The Crimson Coach", still available though out of print, and readers now have an even half-dozen works in English (this merely skims the surface of his voluminous output in all of the above genres). His place as an influential stylist in the Magyar language has been described and detailed several times by the historian John Lukacs, in both Introductions to some of the above books and in his survey of two generations of talented Hungarian, writers, painters, musicians and scientists, "Budapest 1900".
To summarize briefly (and perhaps too glibly), nine of the ten stories in "Life Is a Dream" give us what might be called "the gastronomic view of reality" - the world seen through the eyes and felt through the taste buds and stomachs of diners, drinkers, waiters, cooks, barmaids, and even one very talented smeller of food and other everyday articles. (The tenth story is a "Szindbad" tale, dealing with just one of the many magical interludes of a fantastic character central to Krúdy's fiction.) The book opens with a pair of linked stories, each depicting the "last day" (and presumably the last meals) of two men about to participate in a duel. The Colonel, an imperturbable retired military man who thinks it's the most natural thing in the world to dispatch a wretch of a journalist who has insulted his club, The Casino, turns his meal into a sort of empathetic ritual in which he imagines, because he is dining in a local café-bar well beneath his station in life, that he must be eating in the style of his opponent, living the life of a marginal cur. In this story's complement the journalist, harried, underpaid and overworked (at least in his own mind), cadges a new outfit and enough cash to dine -- and to be seen dining, equally important to him - in a restaurant that he cannot normally afford; he wants to go out in style. I will not reveal how the duel ends. Farce and wry tragicomedy, two Krúdy specialties, combine effortlessly in these stories.
Meals are more than they seem, often providing the pretext for the meditations of their characters, or progressing along with dialogues that wander away from the table and into the past lives and minds of the diners. Exemplary of this is "Betty, Nursemaid of the Editorial Office", in which a dyspeptic newspaper editor, Sortiment, tries to compete with two fellow diners whose appetite he envies. His efforts engage the sympathy of the waiter, Mozel, whose recounting of his father's and step-daughter's misadventures (the former a failed counterfeiter, the latter an aspiring poet) lead Sortiment into an unexpected meeting and a rather shocking and demoralizing ending.
The longest piece in the collection - a novella -- is "The Green Ace" (the name of another tavern), ostensibly a love-story about a romance going off the rails. Here is where Krúdy's prose shines and where we encounter a tale with all the touches of what later came to be called "magic realism". To get an idea of what I mean by superlative prose, consider the page-long sentence at the outset of the story that describes Tabán, now a fashionably gentrified neighborhood, but in the author's day a haunt of hopeless drunks and vagrants. Like the topography it describes the sentence winds its way sinuously up and down a hillside street that mirrors the ups and downs and swift changes from the holy exaltations of inebriation to the depths of vacuity, abandonment, and depression. The romance develops amid a temperance campaign organized by a local Countess, wherein the perils of drink are made vivid. Unexpectedly, the perils of sudden abstinence and its social and psychological consequences are made equally vivid; and therein hangs the story of a soured romance and a rather amazing transformation of a man who gives up the bottle and winds up giving up everything else that gave his life savor and significance.
As usual with John Batki's translations, the spirit and style of the writer is captured, especially the dream-like fluidity and pantheistic metaphors of Krúdy's descriptive passages. He has also supplied useful introductory notes (notes which also give us clues that allow us to judge just how many of Krúdy's protagonists were the man's fictional alter egos). The combination of John Lukacs and John Batki constitutes a serious - and successful, I believe - effort to revive the fortunes of one of Hungary's great writers and to bring his work to English-language readers. Life as experienced in the vanished world of the late Austro-Hungarian Empire (often lamented, just as often viewed critically) has been represented superbly in fiction by a host of talented writers: in German by Kafka, Schnitzler, Roth, Zweig, above all, Musil; in Czech by Neruda and Hasek; in Yiddish by Singer. Krúdy, along with Kosztolányi, Márai, and Móricz, provide us with an equally skilled and pensive representation of this era as lived and observed in Hungary. Let's hope for more English translations of their work, both fiction and non-fiction.
One final note. My four-star rating is a "within-Krúdy" evaluation. I would reserve five stars for his novels "Sunflower" and "The Crimson Coach". The first of these (another wonderful Batki translation) develops a clever schema relating its characters to each other along the lines of Goethe's novel "Elective Affinities" through prose that is supercharged in its lyricism, and it also constitutes a paean to the countryside of his own youth, a region in northeastern Hungary known as "The Birches". The second takes the author's abundant documentary materials about life in Budapest during the 1890s-1900s (presented to the public through his journalism) and weaves them into a tale that embeds a skeptical-yet-empathetic view of life and its excitements within an impossibly late-Romantic story line. Readers who are impressed by "Life Is a Dream" should certainly give both these novels a try.