Reviewed by Simon
If you’re anything like me, you might be unfamiliar with the political dynamics of Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the years leading up to the Second World War. They form the backdrop to this involving and poignant memoir that manages to combine the personal and the global in an extraordinary way: More Was Lost, published in 1946 and now clothed in the loveliness of a NYRB Classics edition.
Perényi was only 19 when, as a young American abroad and suffering through a tedious party, she met the man who would become her husband:
In the doorway stood a rather tall thin young man, or rather I could see that he was young though he did not look it in our sense of the word. He looked a little worn. He was blond, and had a blond mustache like an Englishman, but he was not English. I knew that too. He caught my eye and smiled shyly. Then he came into the room, and I saw with some relief that he was coming to talk to me. I had not noticed him when we were introduced, and he did not introduce himself. He took out a silver cigarette case, engraved all over with names, and offered me a cigarette.
This is Zsiga Perényi, a moneyless Hungarian baron whose estate was in inaccessible Czech territory. Throughout the book, he is successfully portrayed as an entirely lovable, wise, kind man – no mean feat. This excerpt is also an example of the unpretentious prose which Perényi uses throughout More Was Lost, whether describing people, places, events, or emotions. It gives the memoir a straightforward and direct feel that conveys everything simply and effectively. It also has the effect of making all her experiences feel beautifully simple, even when they were fraught or dangerous or bizarre.
Perhaps naivety is the right word, or innocence. This pervades the memoir and its descriptions. Perényi is not foolish and she certainly isn’t ineffectual, but the people she describes are entirely without cynicism. Here, for example, is her portrayal of trying to learn Hungarian and cross language barriers with the household:
We kept a pile of dictionaries beside us. We followed words from Hungarian to German to French to English, because none of our dictionaries had the right two languages. A Hungarian-English dictionary would have solved the problem, but we never got around to getting one. And really there was nothing like the satisfaction we felt when we had run a word down. We sat beaming because, for a moment, we understood each other.
Perényi and her new husband speak English to one another, but by this stage – and for the bulk of the memoir – they are living on his estate, which they have eventually been permitted to occupy. It is a precarious situation; the land is ruled by Czechs but everybody there considers themselves Hungarian. There is no open rebellion, but there is always a sense of the past and of dispossession, and an unsettling awareness of the potential uproar of the future – and, indeed, from Perényi’s perspective in writing, a knowledge that their temporary oasis of calm could not last.
There is a curious and entirely beguiling mix of the political and the everyday. Perényi is not a spoilt interloper – she is not unconscious of the hardships that the people face, and feels the impermanence of the current state – but, at the same time, she is a young bride who wants to decorate her new home, and needs to establish herself as mistress to servants and member of society, such as it was. She is able to write these elements with a genuine charm that inspires nostalgia in a reader who has never been anywhere near this area, let alone this time period. Perhaps it is simply the permeating sense of halcyon days.
The halcyon days, of course, cannot last. The charm Perényi imbues them with is, indeed, partly reliant upon this transience. It is not only the separation between them caused by conflict, but the potential end of their marriage as they must live on either side of an ocean. To turn from the final words (‘There he is – my loving Zsiga. So perhaps the story has not ended after all’) to J. D. McClatchy’s introduction, is to break one’s heart – so do it with due caution.
Memoirs, offering a slice of life, are often bounded rather arbitrarily. A childhood ends only because somebody continues to get older; a residency ends only because one moves house. In More Was Lost, Perényi is able to focus on a marriage, a country, and a political moment, all of which coincided in one short period that was never idyllic or unthreatened, but somehow becomes captivating and beautiful in a way that a perfect example of marriage, home, or politics would not be capable of on the page. It’s an extraordinary little book, and a window into a small world that shouldn’t be missed.
Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors.
Eleanor Perényi, More Was Lost: a Memoir (New York Review of Books, 2016). 978-1590179499, 278pp., paperback.
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