Hungarian food is closely tied in with the country’s literature, and perhaps no other writer captures the romance of the early-20th-century Budapest café society and the magic of Hungarian food better than Gyula Krúdy. He was born in 1878 in the eastern Hungarian city of Nyíregyháza and started writing for his local newspaper at the age of 13. Krúdy moved to Budapest in 1896 to become a poet, but instead spent the rest of his life writing short stories, novels, and newspaper articles. His move to Budapest coincided with Budapest’s fastest growing period, and the beginning of the golden age of the coffee houses. Krúdy’s Budapest was a cosmopolitan, modern city, and many of its landmark buildings and cafés were being built around this time. Other 19th- and 20th-century writers like Zsigmond Móricz, Sándor Bródy, Mór Jókai, Kálmán Mikszáth, and Ferenc Molnár wrote too about food and café life, but none as memorably and famously as Krúdy. He was a prolific writer (with more than 50 novels, 3,000 short stories, 1,000 articles, and seven plays published), but he was chronically short of money.
“He wrote because he had to. He never cared for his reputation. Some of his companions and admirers were writers, but he would never—absolutely never—talk literature with them. The topics that interested him were the preparation of certain standard Magyar dishes, the odd habits of attractive men and women, stories of the turf, and the fascinating legerdemain of certain people able to lay their hands on money whenever they had to,” wrote Hungarian-American historian John Lukacs in a profile of Krúdy originally published in the New Yorker. “He would tuck his sixteen pages into his pockets, hail a carriage or walk to an editorial office, and request his honorarium. Then came a long midday dinner, well after the noon hour, in a half-empty restaurant, where he would be surrounded by the silent, respectful service of the owner and the waiters. Then the turf, the gaming table, and the night life. By midnight, he would have little or no money left.”
Krúdy lived on credit, advances, and the help of his regular waiters. He suffered through an unhappy first marriage (and later married again), and spent all of his non-writing time at cafés and restaurants, as well as traveling throughout the country for inspiration. “He was a nocturnal animal,” noted Lukacs. He was also a well-dressed, handsome, charming man who loved good food, massive quantities of wine, and women (who were said to also easily fall in love with him). “His headquarters…were in Kéhli’s ancient tavern…whose yellow flat-country wine he liked,” wrote Lukacs. “…No one would dare to touch the carafe—always a carafe, never a vintage bottle—of the country wine that Krúdy drank (it was said that no one could lift a wine glass with comparable dignity).”
In the beginning Krúdy wrote about the Hungarian countryside, and only much later turned his pen towards Budapest. His Sindbad (Szindbád) stories, published individually in magazines between 1911 and 1917, were his most famous. They were surrealistic tales that wove fantasy with reality and death with life. “By 1919 Sindbad’s Hungary was dead,” wrote poet and translator George Szirtes in an introduction to a Sindbad collection. World War One, followed by the Treaty of Trianon (which lead to the chopping up of the country), forever changed Hungary. “The country through which Sinbad had roamed was now relegated to works of fiction,” continued Szirtes.
“Krúdy is a deeply Hungarian writer,” emphasized Lukacs. But the country he wrote about was the Hungary of the past even in Krúdy’s time. It was the Hungary of better times. “His words flew with longing for the provincial Magyar Biedermeier of the previous century.” Krúdy’s grandfather was a hero of the failed Hungarian revolution of 1848-1849 and one of his ancestors was an Italian chef who came to Hungary to cook for King Mátyás and his Italian wife (so a love of food may have been in his genes). Despite his important contribution to Hungarian literature, which wasn’t fully realized until years after his death, Krúdy died in debt and threatened with eviction. “On the last day of his life, he coursed through the city unhappily, stopping in governmental and editorial offices with indifferent results,” wrote Lukacs. “He sat for a few hours in Kéhli’s, with his long white hand around the small wineglass.”
A few of Krúdy’s books have been translated into English, but most haven’t, and may never be since he is a notoriously difficult writer to translate. “His prose is poetic, and profoundly national, soaked with history, with images, with associations, including not only words, but rhythms recognizable only to Hungarians,” wrote Lukacs, who also referred to him as “a Magyar-writing Homer” and “the magician of the Magyar language.” But you don’t have to be Hungarian to enjoy Krúdy’s writing, especially his long, detailed descriptions of food, wine, and the Hungarian ways of doing things. He captures so much of the romance that I associate with the Hungary of the past.