I woke up early this morning to finish reading More Was Lost by Eleanor Perényi. In 1937, the American Eleanor was travelling in Europe with her mother when she met her future husband, Zsiga Perényi, a minor Hungarian nobleman almost twice her age (not difficult when you are still in your teens). After a brief courtship, they married and returned to the Perényi family home in Hungarian lands that had been given over to Czechoslovakia after the First World War (lands that are now part of the Ukraine).
One of the guiding rules for the women of my family is that you do not marry Hungarians. Especially aristocratic ones as they are inevitably impoverished. They may be romantic and dramatic, but they inevitably morph into morose depressives with a penchant for attempting to kill and/or further bankrupt themselves (see Sunflower, another NYRB Classics reprint). I can’t say this has been a pressing concern in my life so far but it is excellent advice nonetheless and has steered other women in my family out of the path of danger. Clearly, no one had ever thought to pass this advice on to Perényi.
It is a fascinating world that the young Baroness Perényi finds herself in. Not the shallow artificial whirl of Budapest society but a deeply rural hamlet where feudalism is still the preferred way of life for both peasants and masters. The first half of the book follows Perényi as she settles in her new home, making her mark on the family’s castle (really more of a large house, in the way of most Central Europe castles), studying Hungarian (to the disapproval of both nobles and peasants, who view this adaptability as disappointingly middle class), and learning to run both the castle and the estate, with the help of the family’s various servants. It is not a difficult life by any means and Perényi has great fun for several years, gossiping with the steward, redecorating the castle, and meeting her husband’s marvellously colourful friends and relatives. Modesty and reserve, she soon learned, were not Hungarian virtues:
In the conversation there was constant interruption. Nobody seemed to listen very attentively to what anyone else was saying. Also no one dreamed of trying not to talk about himself all the time, and setting forth his ideas with great care. There was a phrase which literally meant “I am so with this thing.” Or in other words, “This is the way I feel about it” – and I heard it all the time.
Coming from hardworking America – and witnessing daily the efficiency of the Czech-run state in which she lived – Perényi was somewhat baffled by the Hungarian aversion to work. Her comments on this were some of my favourite passages in the entire book:
No one in Hungary is interested in business, and most Hungarians are certainly not very good at it in any case. After the last war, a good many members of the nobility had to go to work. They were fantastically inefficient, and it was not entirely lack of training. There was really no excuse for the inability to cope with practical affairs that most of them showed. It was simply that they despised business because it was middle-class. The peasants, too, looked down on commerce. And as everyone seemed to be either a noble or a peasant, business and the professions were gratefully turned over to the Jews. So, of course, were the arts.
Let’s be honest: the most enjoyable aspect of this book, for me, were all of the comments about the the efficiency of Czech bureaucrats and the general useless of Hungarians. I believe the book should be subtitled “Ways in Which Czechs are Better than All Other Central Europeans”. As this is pretty much the theme of my life, it was very gratifying. Perényi clearly had a soft spot for the Czechs, who were nowhere near as romantic or appealing as the Hungarians, but whose roads were passable, border guards efficient, and policies fair to all citizens.
In the second half of the book, the war intrudes. From the Munich Crisis in 1938 to 1940, when, pregnant and at her husband’s urging, she left Europe to return to America with her parents, Perényi bounced around Europe, seeing the action unfold from Budapest, their country estate (whose location – in terms of what country – was in flux), Paris (where her father was working), the south of France, and Italy. It is less cohesive or original than the first half but fascinating nonetheless.
This is very much a young woman’s book. Perényi was only in her late teens and early twenties in the years she describes and still only twenty-eight when the book was published in 1946. She is happy to be the charming American girl who married a handsome man and went to live in a castle, rather than a political commentator and it shows. Perényi is far better at chronicling her delight with her new husband, 20th Century feudalism, and Hungarian country gentry than she is at contextualizing her place in a world tearing itself apart. She wanted a simple love story and the world gave her a war instead.
It is no wonder then that, when she sat down a few years later to write this book, she used it to mourn what she had lost: a home, a way of life, and so many beloved people – some of whom were by then dead, some of whom lived but she despaired of ever seeing again, and some of whom, like her husband, had drifted too far away to ever return to the old intimacies.