Between Before and After

I’ve recently returned from a month-long trip to Europe—first Oxford (to visit our daughter, who’s studying art history at the university there for her junior year abroad), then London (to give a reading at University College London), and then to Hungary, to explore a city—Budapest—that my wife and I had never been to before. Before the First World War, Budapest was then a capital of one of the largest and most powerful countries in Europe: the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The two parts of this beautiful city—Buda and Pest—are divided by the Danube River, and are joined by a series of magnificent bridges and by tragic history.

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Just before arriving in Budapest and also while exploring there, I read two works of Hungarian literature, both first-rate in their own different ways: The Door, a novel by Magda Szabo, and The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914, by the artist Béla Zombory-Moldován.

Different—novel, memoir—and yet united in their stunning opening pages. Each engenders in a reader an unsettling dread that at the same time piques curiosity.

In the case of The Burning of the World, the dread begins with the introduction of the translator, Peter Zombory-Moldován (a grandson of the author). He begins by describing a photo (a partial version of which serves as the book’s cover) that was taken of his grandfather vacationing with friends at an Adriatic beach resort:

“The beach is at Novi Vinodolksi, on the Adriatic. The confident man of twenty-nine sitting at the bottom of the photograph is my grandfather Béla Zombory-Moldován, a young artist oblivious to the fact that his carefree holiday is about to be cut short. In three days his country, Austria-Hungary, will be at war. A week from now he will be in uniform, and in just over a month he will be a thousand kilometers away, watching in horror as his comrades are torn apart by Russian artillery in the forests of Galicia.”

The Burning of the World

The translator/grandson continues:

“Béla’s birthplace, on April 20, 1885, was the small and ancient city of Munkács, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. It lay in the east of what was then the Kingdom of Hungary, part of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy ruled by Franz Joseph I, the emperor of Austria and holy apostolic king of Hungary.

“The Carpathians are still there. All the rest is gone.”

When the memoir proper begins, we soon see Béla receiving word of the declaration of war and the announcement that he has been called up to serve in the military. The reader knows that terrible, terrible events will soon follow, but can also assume that Béla will somehow survive them in order to write his memoir. So how can a reader with an ounce of curiosity not turn the page?

Magda Szabo’s novel The Door is set many decades later in the 20th century, after all that hadn’t yet been lost in Zombory-Moldován’s memoir has been lost, and a dreary post-World War II Soviet-puppet government in Hungary has settled in place. But politics and history are mostly vague presences in this novel.

The Door

It begins with a dream.

“I seldom dream. When I do, I wake up with a start, bathed in sweat. Then I lie back, waiting for my frantic heart to slow, and reflect on the overwhelming power of night’s spell. As a child and a young woman, I had no dreams, either good or bad, but in old age I am confronted repeatedly with horrors of my past, all the more dismaying because, compressed and compacted, and more terrible than anything I have lived through. In fact nothing ever happened to me of the kind that now drags me screaming from my sleep.

“My dreams are always the same, down to the finest detail, a vision that returns again and again. In this never-changing dream I am standing in our entrance hall at the foot of the stairs, facing the steel frame and reinforced shatterproof window of the outer door, and I am struggling to turn the lock. Outside in the street is an ambulance. Through the glass I can make out the shimmering silhouettes of the paramedics, distorted to unnatural size, their swollen faces haloed like moons. The key turns, but my efforts are in vain: I cannot open the door. But I must let the rescuers in, or they’ll be too late to save my patient. The lock refuses to budge, the door remains solid, as if welded to its steel frame. I shout for help, but none of the residents of our three-story building responds; and they cannot because—I am suddenly aware—I’m mouthing vacantly, like a fish, and the horror of the dream reaches new depths as I realize that not only am I unable to open the door to the rescuers but I have also lost the power of speech.”

The narrator goes on to confess that this dream is a vivid though distorted return to the past and a door she once did open, and should never have. The novel then goes back in time, and who she betrayed, and how, and why, slowly unfurls. The reader, filled with terrible knowledge of a predicted doom, understands more than any of the characters–including the self-justifying narrator–and yet the pages turn, in this case for, I think, two reasons. One, the nature of that inevitable and yet unplanned betrayal isn’t clear until it finally occurs, and two, the reader comes to care so much about the two main characters that he/she continues reading with the frail, foolish and yet utterly human hope that what will happen will somehow be averted.

Why does the fuel of conflicted emotion drive us forward?

When I read the first page of Zombory-Moldován’s memoir, I found the description of his friends at the resort, who cannot see the future awaiting them, nearly unbearable to read, and yet I kept returning to and rereading the passage:

“The usual group of us had gone on an outing to Bribir. Knoll, who was a county magistrate, had planned the itinerary . . . Judge Kriegl’s two daughters were lively young women, and easy company. Antal Hajnal, from the Franklin publishing house, was there; his factotum, Jankoviusz, flirted outrageously with one of the Kriegl girls. There was much eating and drinking of vino nero, and almost childlike high spirits . . .”

And soon, all to be altered! I couldn’t help being reminded that everyone has some sort of life-altering event, whether caused by an unexpected historical crisis or a family drama, that scorches the past into an eternal before. Though Zombory-Moldován’s memoir takes place over a century ago, and in a country far from my experience until my visit, it haunts because we are all haunted by at least one border between before and after.

The narrator of The Door is haunted by a similar border: a door remains closed, that door is opened, and all is changed. And no manner of regret will undo what was done. And no reader is a stranger to that regret, however personal and secret his or hers might be. Thus does the “local” of a book expand to the “global” of the memories of every potential reader. The best books give us the guise of ourselves, their time and place become our own, as we relive what has been irrevocably lived.

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