“Snow, Heavy at Times”: Joseph Kertes’s The Afterlife of Stars

Three years after its first Canadian publication, Joseph Kertes’s The Afterlife of Stars has appeared in the US. Was it worth the wait? I’m honestly not sure. Although I read it quickly, even avidly, I have mixed feelings. Sometimes it’s terrific. But sometimes it’s unconvincing and clunky.

The novel begins in Budapest. The narrator, Robert Beck, turns 9.8 years old, as he puts it, on October 24, 1956. But that’s hardly the most important news of the day: the city is in upheaval. Students protesting the Communist government have been fired upon by the secret police; it won’t be long before Soviet tanks would be in the streets. The Becks—who we learn survived the last war in dramatic fashion—don’t wait to see how things turn out. Any hesitation they might have had about leaving is erased when Soviet officials arrive to requisition their apartment. They manage to get on one of the last trains leaving Budapest and walk across the border to Austria, where they are welcomed, if not with open arms, then at least with food and shelter. Robert and his older brother, Attila, treat it all as a bit of an adventure. But their father, in particular, wants nothing more to do with Europe. He arranges passage first to Paris, where his wife’s sister, a former opera star, lives in comfort, and then eventually to a new life in Canada.

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As befits his name, Attila is a firebrand, equal parts annoying and entertaining, though I found him more the first than the second. The thirteen-year-old Attila knows more than Robert, though mostly what he knows is how, in the self-satisfied yet probing way of teenagers, to ask irritating questions, demanding to know everything from why sperm, so important, so exciting, so able “to make babies, humans, soldiers, beauties, love, courage, heroism” should be such a “drab pearly cream color” to why, if heaven is so wonderful, God and the angels should spend so much time looking down at the world.

Attila is a bit larger-than-life, supercilious, world weary before his time, mostly desperately uncertain. Robert is kinder, gentler, young and a bit naïve. Kertes chooses to narrate from within events: the older isn’t looking back on the events of his past and considering them with the knowledge of hindsight. This means the book eschews exposition: it helps to know something about the Hungarian Revolution. But it’s impressive how clearly we can follow what’s going on. We don’t need to know the full complexity of the crisis. We just need to know that this family, which has been persecuted before and barely survived, is determined to avoid getting into the same situation. The Becks, we gradually learn, are Jewish. And we see how much they have to fear when, on the bus to Paris, an older man spews anti-Semitic invective that leads to a fight.

Even before that Kertes has made clear how dangerous the situation in Hungary has become. Robert and Attila slip out of the apartment where the grownups are frantically packing and slink through the suddenly dangerous streets of Budapest. We feel the menace all the more because Robert isn’t really sure exactly what’s happening. The boys hoist themselves up onto the plinth of a toppled statue of Stalin and burrow into the shoes that are the only part left standing. They narrowly avoid being shot at. Minutes later, they get caught up in a group of protesters and again they are fired on. They duck into a side street and come across a movie theater. A man is standing calmly outside it:

He was dressed in a brown gabardine suit and wore a matching brown fedora. He was lighting a cigarette, turning away from the wind that brought us. … We caught up to the man just as he exhaled his first full puff of smoke, and a shot sounded, taking off his hat. For a stark and childish moment, I tried, in my own mind, to trace the path of the bullet through the man’s head as it knocked over everything in his path: his day, his night, his next puff of smoke, his dinner plate of veal paprkas, his smiling daughter holding up a glass to the light to see if it was cracked, his wife entering the dining room with the wine, wiping a damp hand on her apron.

This is just the sort of thing I meant when I said I didn’t know how to take the book. I’m not buying the last part of this passage. The childish tracing of the bullet through the man and his life, okay, fine, but that the boy would imagine the man’s daughter and his wife, I don’t buy it. Maybe this contradicts what I said before—maybe this is retrospective narration, though it isn’t cued as such. I think it’s just a bit of a slip, a sentimental litany of the small things in life that undoes what’s best about the passage, namely, how suddenly the man dies.

At first I thought this scene was going to be played for laughs, the way the scene with Stalin’s statue mostly is: it would be fitting to place the sort of gag that might appear in silent film—man lights cigarette, bullet takes his hat, man continues to smoke calmly—in front of a movie theater. But as we soon learn it’s the man’s head not his hat that’s shot. The boys speed into the theater, through “white doors now spattered with blood.” They stay for a Tarzan movie, not sure what else to do, part terrified and part interested in the show.

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The Budapest scenes use this unstable tone to mimic the utter uncertainty of the situation. But the scenes in Paris work less well. Without the chaos of the revolution it’s hard to understand why the text veers from jaunty to somber, from laughs to horrors.

There are horrors in Paris, but they turn out to be in the past, specifically in the wartime experiences of the elder members of the Beck family (Robert wasn’t yet born, Attila was only a baby). Behind their aunt’s house, the brothers find a trunk filled with letters that explain how the boy’s uncle Paul, who worked for Raoul Wallenberg, saved the Becks from deportation, managing in the most dramatic and implausible way (though admittedly this was a time when implausible things happened regularly) to get them off the train that was taking them to the camps in the East. Wallenberg is the Swedish diplomat who in 1944 saved thousands of Jews by issuing certificates of protection; he disappeared late in the war under mysterious circumstances—he was last seen with Soviet officials in January 1945 who is thought took him back to Moscow.  More than likely he was executed at K G.B. headquarters.

Wallenberg is only a peripheral figure in the novel, and I’m really not sure what he’s doing in it. I’m similarly unsure what the book wants to say about the relation of the past to the present. The brothers’ investigation into the family’s past has none of the lightness and menace of the descriptions of the escape from Hungary. Instead it feels lumbering and clunky. It’s implausible how easily the boys find out what their elders have steadfastly refused to tell them, though I suppose it’s possible the novel could, through the ease of the way the past comes to light, be satirizing the very idea that traumatic memories can be understood.

But notwithstanding its title, which intimates that the past does indeed linger into and even distort or contaminate the present, The Afterlife of Stars fails to convince that it’s as in control of its depiction as that reading would require.

That lack of control is most evident in a scene towards the end of the book when the boys, implausibly on the trail of the Nazi who tortured their aunt, and in thrall to the Paris that they only know from Les Miserables, make their way through the sewers of Paris. The main function of the scene seems to be allows Kertes to offer an extensive description of the filth of Paris:

We had to pause to admire the dark river glubbing by, this wonder of the world. Lights down below lit up everything the city had expelled from the land above: leftover cabbage soup, even digested cabbage soup, fingernails and toenails, and earring, the nightly bathwater, a razor blade with a bit of face still stuck to it, cigar butts, the flow of a bad stomach, the flow of a good one, a gold wedding band, bones, knives, guns, vomit, dead goldfish, live mollies, hairs—blond, brunette, gray, auburn, true black, dyed black, dyed blond, dyed red—hairs by the millions and trillions, short hairs, long ones, curly ones, eyelashes….

The passage continues for almost another page. I do like that “glubbing,” though.

We could read this as a metaphor for repression—for all the things no one wants to acknowledge about the traumas of the past. And indeed the razor blade “with a bit of face still stuck to it” recalls the man shot outside the Budapest theatre. But my sense is that the text is interested in this underground world for its own sake. It seems to share the boys’ wonder at the place they’ve found their way into. Kertes likes lists, they seem to stand for him for an idea about the world’s plenitude—is the fulsomeness of these descriptions supposed to console his characters for their many losses?

These questions lead me back to the question of the book’s tone. Is it supposed to be a boys’ own adventure? Or a depiction of 20th century horrors? I guess it could be both: there’s nothing necessarily wrong with a book that’s hard to pin down. And certainly the adventure ends soon enough, with grave consequences for the Beck family. (At first I thought this was an accomplished YA novel, but although its style is straightforward and its protagonists young it’s awfully dark, even by the standards of today’s grim and apocalyptic YA fiction.)

But the book’s inability to choose a note and sustain it ultimately seems to me more a failure of execution than a commentary on the world the Beck brothers are forced to navigate.

 

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My favourite passage—another list—is the only clearly retrospective one in the novel. It comes right at the end, when Robert, on board the ship to Canada, meets a boy who is eager to play his shortwave radio for him. Robert doesn’t understand what he’s listening to. The other boy, who has some English, explains:

“The man is saying snow—there’s lots of snow falling. It’s a weather forecast, and he’s naming the Ontario counties and towns. An early blast of winter—in November!”

“Snow,” I repeated, my new English word.

We listened. The radio man’s voice sounded soft and calm. I did not know the names then, but I have heard them many times since, lying alone in my room, listening to the feathery snow tick against the window as I wait for sleep: Essex, Kent, Lambton, Elgin, Middlesex: snow, high of twelve. Huron, Perth, Grey, Bruce, Waterloo, Wellington, Oxford, Brant: snow, heavy at times, high of eight. York, Durham, Bellville, Quinte, Northumberland: snow, mixed with freezing rain. Peterborough and the Kawarthas, Parry Sound, Muskoka: heavy snow, whiteout conditions through the night, and bitterly cold, high of minus twenty-two. Algonquin, Renfrew, Pembrooke, Barry’s Bay, periods of snow, clearning in the morning, high of eight. Ottawa, Prescott, Russell, Cornwall, Morrisburg: light snow, but very cold, high of minus seven. Wawa, the Sault, Cocrane, Timmins, Lake of the Woods: whiteout conditions, high of minus twenty.

It sounded as if the gentle radio announcer were calling each of his children to bed, by name, one by one.

I’m all over this passage. It feeds my homesickness and nostalgia; it promises to support my need to believe that Canada really is as good a place as it thinks it is. At a time when my adopted country wants to turn away those in need and repudiate the generosity that is its best characteristic, it’s nice to be reminded that my native land has been—and still is, though I worry for how much longer—a place welcoming to others.

It would be false and indeed stupid to think that Canada is a perfect place, a place with no problems other than the weather, but coming at the end of this novel, the weather forecast is indeed a kind of lullaby. No matter how bitter the cold or fearsome the whiteouts, this scenario feels like a relief after the events the Beck family has been through.

My pleasure in this passage was dimmed only by the references to Fahrenheit temperatures. Surely this was changed from the Canadian edition. Although I suppose it matters when the “many times since” of this passage is supposed to be. If it’s in the years shortly after Robert’s arrival in Canada—that is, if he’s still supposed to be a boy—then I guess it would make sense, since no one used Celsius before 1975. If it’s supposed to be much later, closer to our present time, if the narrator is now an old man, then it wouldn’t.

Anyway, that quibble doesn’t dim the book’s ending for me. Although I wasn’t totally sold on The Afterlife of Stars I liked it enough to get Kertes’s first novel, Gratitude, form the library. It’s about the Beck family’s wartime experiences, and I’m curious how the new book does or doesn’t complement it. Has anyone read it?

 

 

 

 

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“A Long Continuity”: Eleanor Perényi’s More Was Lost

In 1937, the nineteen-year-old Eleanor Stone, daughter of a career naval officer and a novelist, was invited to a dinner party at the American legation in Budapest. There she met an Oxford-educated, communist-sympathizing Hungarian nobleman, Baron Zsigmon (Zsiga) Perényi. He called on her the next day and they spent the rest of her week in Budapest together. On her last evening, they went out to dinner. Here’s how the now Eleanor Perényi would describe it a decade later in her wonderful memoir More Was Lost:

We sat and drank Tokay for a long time. I felt surprisingly miserable.

At last he said, “It’s a pity we are both so poor.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because otherwise we could perhaps marry.”

I looked into my wineglass.

“Yes, we could,”

There was another pause which seemed to me interminable. Then he said, “Do you think you could marry me anyway?”

“I think I could decidedly.”

So we were engaged.

This could come from a Lubitsch movie, and indeed both Eleanor and Zsiga have qualities recognizable from the pictures of that time—her pluck, his debonair decency (he always introduces bad news, and there’s quite a lot of it in this book, by saying, “Fancy, darling…”).

But even if this passage reads like a more reticent version of the “meet cute” scenes so beloved of 1930s Hollywood, there’s nothing cute about this book. Zsiga gives up his job in Budapest so that the two of them can return to and manage his ancestral home of Szöllös. Sounds romantic, but there are several problems with this idea. Eleanor especially has no idea how to run an estate. They don’t have any money. And worst of all the estate isn’t even in Hungary anymore. It was part of the territory given to the Czechs after WWI: Zsiga needs a passport and permission from the authorities to be there at all.

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The young couple isn’t dissuaded by these difficulties—but they don’t ignore them either. Eleanor in particular sees things for what they are. She is hardly the stereotypical naïve American abroad. It might seem as though she has fallen into a fairytale, but she’s a careful, thoroughly unsentimental observer of her situation. Consider for example her description of the estate at Szöllös:

The property was at the exact geographical end of the Danubian plane, and at the beginning of the Carpathians. Our farm was on the plain, and on a mountain that was the first spur of the Carpathians we had a large forest, and a vineyard. The farm was managed by a tenant. He paid us an outrageously low rent, but the forest and the vineyard brought in some money too. An old tutor managed them. He did what he could, but it was a thankless job, and he was tired of it. The place was not in good condition.

Hardly rosy. And here she is meditating on the new circumstances of her life:

 A young couple are supposed to be lucky if they can build their own home. It may be so. For me, the theory did not work that way. My favorite idea as a child was what happened in French fairy stories. You were lost in a forest, and suddenly you came on a castle, which in some way had been left for you to wander in. Sometimes, of course, there were sleeping princes, but in one special one there were cats dressed like Louis XIV, who waited on you. Sometimes it was empty, but it always belonged to you without any effort on your part. Maybe it’s incorrigible laziness, but I like things to be ready-made. And when I went into my new home, I had just the feeling of the child’s story. It was all there waiting for me. This house was the result of the imaginations of other people. If a chair stood in a certain corner it was because of reasons in the life of someone who had liked it that way. I would change it, of course, but what I added would only be part of a long continuity, and so it would have both a particular and a general value. If we had built it, it would certainly have been more comfortable, and perhaps even more beautiful, but I doubt it, and I should have missed this pleasure of stepping into a complete world. And there would have been no thrill of discovery. As it was, I ran from room to room, examining everything. I liked it all.

I admire how Perényi moves so assuredly from analysis into narration in that last sentence. I appreciate the self-assurance that’s gone into that off-handed but firm remark about putting her stamp on the place, “I would change it, of course.” And I love that she has the largeness of spirit to feel enriched rather than threatened by that sense of “long continuity.” She’s also a bit strange: is that bit about the cats dressed as Louis XIV a reference to a real tale? Either way, it’s wonderful that what she wants isn’t a prince but someone (or something) to wait on her. But what could make a worse servant than a cat? Even Perényi’s fantasies are unusual. That’s fitting though, for the period she’s living through, when dreams most often turned to nightmares. More Was Lost presents itself as slight, even whimsical, but as this passage clearly reveals, it’s anything but.

Perényi can be tart (the Czech trains, she tells us, were always dirty, “but I know enough not to associate clean trains with political freedom”). She can be reticent, which might seem counter intuitive in a memoir but which only makes us feel more strongly how personal this story is (writing of the restaurant in a rural train station, she says, “I had a special reason for liking this restaurant. We had been there often, and once, sitting at a corner table drinking coffee between trains, Zsiga had said the nicest thing he ever said to me. It doesn’t matter what it was.”) But mostly she can appreciate things, for in this world of continuity paradoxically nothing lasts. Everything has been overturned by the last war—Szöllös was looted three times—and will be overturned still further by the next.

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In the first half of the book Eleanor and Zsiga bring the estate back to life. Perényi was a wonderful gardener—much later in life she wrote a book about gardening that I gather is considered to be her masterpiece, though I can’t imagine how it could better this book—and we hear a lot about how she took the 10 acres of jardin anglais in hand. More pertinently, the gardener’s need to take the long view, her sense of time passing according to seasons rather than days or months, structures the first half of the book. Perényi referrs to passing seasons, uses phrases like “over time” and “eventually,” and generally marks time quite vaguely: “Once we had a sudden influx of visitors”; “In the summer the ripe eating grapes were packed outside the winehouse in the vineyard.” In this way, the narrative of the young American who learns to be a Baroness is continually eclipsed by a bigger story, which isn’t really a story at all, but rather a scenario or situation, about a house and the way of life supported by it. As much as I loved this section, I was kept off-balance—I kept wondering what year it was—and I fretted over the war that my knowledge of history and Perényi’s gentle foreshadowing told me was coming.

The war comes, of course. But first we follow Perényi as she gets the house into shape, learns passable Hungarian, navigates the Church, manages servants, pays calls on the local families, and, most charmingly, is invited for opulent house parties at the much more expansive estate of Zsiga’s cousin across the border in Hungary. (Count Laci is one of those larger than life characters it’s so delightful to delight in.) You can just imagine the terrible movie to be made from this book: plucky American gal becomes a Baroness, overcomes obstacles, wins the hearts of the locals, and lives happily ever after.

But More Was Lost never falls prey to cliché. Nor, alas, does it have a happy ending. The second half of the book is narrated more straightforwardly: story swallows up situation. Events begin with Britain and France’s refusal to support the Czechs when Hitler demands the Sudetenland. In the ensuing shakeup, Hungary gained back most of its lost territory, but not the land around Szöllös. That became part of a new and short-lived Ruthenian separatist state called Carpatho-Ukrainia which was quickly defeated by the Hungarians. (After the war, Szöllös became part of the Ukranian province of the Soviet Union—the estate was turned first into a museum and then into a school administration office, its furnishings and moldings stripped.) Hungary was an initially tacit and eventually (after 1940) official ally of the Germans. When Zsiga got his call up notice in 1939 he already knew it was likely he would have to fight in support of the Germans. For an avowed anti-fascist, this was intolerable. But Hungary was his country, and he loved it. What to do? In the midst of everything, Eleanor gets pregnant. Life continues somewhat normally for a few more months, and Eleanor enjoys one more spring on the estate. But when Germany invades Belgium in May 1940, it becomes clear that Sziga would have to fight. He urges her to return to America while she still can, and after some anguished uncertainty she does.

Perényi is convinced the absence will be relatively short and that she and Zsiga and the baby will be reunited after the war, but that’s not the way things turn out:

 When you leave a place you are never going to see again, you are supposed to have some sort of premonition. I have been mildly clairvoyant in my life, but not this time. I left as if I expected to be back the following week, straightening one of the little cherubs on each side of the clock, reminding Laci to throw out last month’s New Yorkers on the table by the porcelain stove, leaving the lid of the rosewood piano open… a hasty glance around the garden over which I had worked so hard… I didn’t pay any farewell calls. I didn’t go to take a last look at my trees in the orchard. I walked out with only one bag, got into the carriage to be driven to the station by Sandor as usual, and never looked back.

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I’m a sucker for stories of decaying, tragic Mitteleuropa; I’m really the ideal audience for this book. I could read about lavish hunting parties all day long, and I was fascinated by Perényi’s sympathetic portrayal of the local Jewish population. (Already in the 30s when Hungary introduced a looser version of the Nuremberg Laws, Eleanor and Zsiga helped a neighbouring Jewish landowner keep his property; later in the war Zsiga hid Jews on the estate and smuggled seed grain to help feed others in a nearby ghetto; some quick internet research tells me that it’s only about 40 miles from the estate to Sighet, the town from which a young Elie Wiesel was deported to Auschwitz.)

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But what I really love about this book, what sticks with me most, is Perényi herself. You can see again, in that passage of leavetaking, her matter of factness, her unwillingness to sentimentalize even this moment of great loss. And that’s only fitting because however much she loved Szöllös she loved Zsiga more, and—spoiler alert!—she loses him too, even though he survived the war. When he finally writes to her in the summer of 1945 she hasn’t heard from him in three and a half years. In that time of silence she worries less over whether he’s alive than what he might have been up to during the war. “He had always had a pessimism born of privation and failure,” she writes. Would he have supported the fascism he so detested because he felt the need to fight for Hungary? Would he have joined the Communist resistance even though his father detested Communism? She concludes, rather remarkably, I think:

I didn’t altogether trust him. I said to myself that he would never willingly have collaborated with the Germans, but on the other hand he might simply have failed to take any stand at all. Yes, I decided that that was probably what he had done. And I said too that I didn’t blame him for it, because the choice he faced was almost an impossible one to make…. But my motives were not all so high-minded, fair, or explainable. It was also true that by assuming he had chosen the safer curse, or no course at all, I spared myself the pan of worrying about him.

We already saw in the passage about fairy stories that Perényi is never as artless as we might expect her to be. I have to stop myself from calling this book “charming.” It’s almost charming—it’s almost a fairy story—but the sentiments in this passage aren’t charming. They’re heart-rending, not least because they’re a little cold, much harder on Perényi herself than on her husband or anyone else.

In the introduction to this reissue we learn what we don’t in the book itself: a year after its publication in 1946, Zsiga came to New York and lived with Perényi and their child for several months. But it didn’t work out. They couldn’t overcome the past, the differences in their lives. He didn’t want to live in the US and she didn’t want to go back to Europe. He died in 1965, shortly after his second wife. Heartbreakingly, it is said he always kept his copy of the book with him. Perényi herself never talked about what happened between them. She kept his name, though. But maybe that’s just what people did then. Amazingly, everyone in the book survives the war. But they don’t live happily ever after, at least not the way they thought they would.

More Was Lost is another example of what New York Review Books does best: bring you books you didn’t know how much you needed. How lovely that More Was Lost is lost no more.