It was the halcyon spring of 1946. (Increase your word-power! Look up “halcyon” in the dictionary then, while you’re at it, look up “avatar” because, if you are a well-paid journalist, you have been misusing both words for years.) In wintry March of ’46 I was released from the army. O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh opened on Broadway and the Pulitzer Prize for biography was awarded to—yes! The Son of Wilderness by Linnie Marsh Wolfe—even so, America’s postwar golden age was suddenly upon us and lasted all of five years, ending with our undeclared war to bring freedom and democracy to Korea, a nation hitherto unknown to most Americans but whose loss to freedom would have put in question our Credibility and so, incredibly, we have been at war ever since unless sly Wolf Blitzer is telling us fibs on CNN.
That spring my first novel was published as was the memoir, More Was Lost, of a handsome emerald-eyed young woman called Eleanor Perenyi. Paradoxically, glossy fashion magazines like Harper’s Bazaar, where she worked, published only “quality-lit” fiction, as Terry Southern would say, as well as poets like Auden whom The New York Times refused to take on as a columnist in its Sunday book section on the ground that he was sexually degenerate. To be absolutely honest, our golden age was somewhat less than 24-carat.
On a workday, Eleanor wore white gloves and a chic hat, the uniform of the high-fashion magazine ladies when they lunched at the Colony restaurant, now gone along with hat, gloves. But there was nothing uniform about her personality. She was—is—a wit, a learned bluestocking who would eventually write the classic Green Thoughts on gardens as well as a study of Liszt: The Artist as Romantic Hero, the Hungarian artist as Romantic, a Perenyi theme.
Actually, it was Eleanor’s “Mamma” (or Mother, when Eleanor was in full voice) that I first knew about and came to know. Grace Zaring Stone was a successful writer of best sellers that were often made into movies, starting with The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Frank Capra’s one interesting movie (1933).
Eleanor’s naval officer father was military attaché to the American embassy at Paris when Hitler arrived in 1940, the year that Grace’s latest novel became the movie Escape that so awed one schoolboy by its worldly look at Mitteleuropa with its unreal castles and very real Nazis, all topped by that Byzantine crown of Saint Stephen and its bent cross. In 1937, the very young Eleanor Stone had married a Hungarian nobleman and they lived in a castle that kept moving back and forth between Czechoslovakia and Hungary, two of Hitler’s possessions whose boundaries he liked to redraw. Because Grace felt that her prematurely anti-Nazi book might put Eleanor at risk, she used the pseudonym Ethel Vance.
Eventually, Grace established herself in an old house in Stonington, Connecticut; she also had something of a salon in a Manhattan flat that attracted such Kindly Ones as Mary McCarthy. Ever the polite hostess, Grace once asked a lady writer what she was working on. When the lady writer answered, “Actually, I’m writing about…Evil,” Grace was radiant: “Oh, how I wish,” she said without so much as a caesura of a pause, “I had thought of that!” I think it was the same woman writer with whom Grace went to Moscow in postwar Stalinist times. Grace was a direct descendant of Robert Dale Owen, the Scots-born American socialist who founded New Harmony as an experiment in communal living: plainly, he had not taken to heart The Blithedale Romance. Grace was much feted by the Communists in Moscow despite her tendency to draw attention to this or that shortcoming in the socialist paradise. The lady writer said later that the only Russian words she had learned on the trip were “I do not know this woman.”
Over the years, when both mother and daughter were widows, their exchanges were repeated around Dawn Powell’s “magic island” as so much breaking news from the Delphi oracle (which Eleanor and I once visited when the Pythoness was on her lunch break). “Mother, you are senile!”
“And you, my dear, are fat.” The bleak one-liner was their lingua franca. Each created her own world in which she made the weather. Jointly, they were a double sun casting their rays over Stonington and their good friend James Merrill, a distinguished poet as well as, disturbingly, a multimillionaire, whom Grace often felt compelled to chide for his meanness. Finally, he brought her a present. From Turkey. “Something very special,” he said with his shyest, wealthiest smile. Grace tore at the package. At last! After so many years, the one perfect pearl. Wrapping removed to reveal a string bag. Eleanor was delighted. “As you always say, Mother, it is the thought that matters. And to think he brought it all the way from the market in Istanbul.”
More Was Lost is an ambitious title. At one level what was lost is clear enough: a happy married life that began in 1937 and ended in 1940 when the fall of France was the end of a world and the pregnant Eleanor was persuaded by her husband to go home to America to have her child even though home had become Hungary and life the contented running of an estate with her husband—no gloves, hat.
Zsiga Perenyi had studied with G.D.H. Cole at Oxford. He was what used to be called a liberal or, as Eleanor puts it, “He was the only Hungarian aristocrat I ever met who had learned anything from the revolution they had in 1919. He was toughly realistic, and perhaps the only really unhappy thing about him was that he didn’t believe in anything. I think possibly he has gotten over that.” So she writes as of 1946. Since he was to live until the Sixties nonbelief might have explained his continuing sanity. Eleanor begins as an early Henry James heroine. She is practical, optimistic, American. He is old-world, courtly, cynical. Maggie Verver, without a fortune, marries Prince Massimo, with rundown castle.
Perenyi belongs to the Swiss Family Robinson school of memoirists. She “fixes up” the Perenyi family castle, Szöllös, “at the exact geographical end of the Danubian plain and at the beginning of the Carpathians.” What began as a Hungarian property became Czech; then Ruthenian; it is now a Ukrainian ruin. The Perenyis owned seven hundred acres of farmland, a forest, and a vineyard. Details of growing and preserving food, repairing furniture, discovering frescoes, always fascinate not to mention details of a way of life that, as of 1940, had not much changed since the fifteenth century. There is hardly any money to spend but the place seems to sustain itself. “A young couple,” she writes, “is supposed to be lucky if they can build their own house.” (Recall that 1946 was the zenith of Levittown and the invention of the postwar ranch house.) “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.”
I suspect that for many of us brought up in the “civilized” pre-war years the whole world had an ad hoc quality, a spaciousness through which one serenely drove until, one day, or so we’ve been assured, history ended because of a Hegelian flat tire. The new Baroness Perenyi was also fortunate in her mother- and father-in-law. The older couple seemed to lead separate lives yet they were often at the castle together or in a Budapest flat. Mother-in-law taught Perenyi Hungarian.
In Swiss Family Robinson stories we only need to pay attention to the family and their ingenuity in creating a home on the island where they were shipwrecked: the story is entirely their story. But the Perenyi story has an oppressive context centered upon Hitler and his almost successful conquest of Europe not to mention attempts at genocide. Even so, looking back from 1946, Eleanor says that she saw few signs of anti-Semitism. “It makes me think I must have been very mistaken.” She did see “that the Jews were looked down on, but only because they engaged in all the things which in other countries are the province of the middle class. 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 of the nobility had to go to work. They were fantastically inefficient…. 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.”
Of the gentry that Eleanor meets, the men are amiable, athletic, and altogether too rustic for a lady who, assigned to a different century and place, might have been competition to Madame du Deffand. But, in memory at least, she never complains. She had taken on a world for life, little suspecting that she would have to give it all up after the now-proverbial thousand days. It is said—and often written—that the summer of 1914 was uncommonly brilliant. Perenyi’s bright summer of 1939 was peaceful—she gardened and “thought of nothing at all, just being happy….” Of course, “the little drum of fate didn’t stop beating at all. We just stopped hearing it temporarily.” In August, Perenyi left for Paris to join her parents who had settled in the Place du Palais Bourbon. As Zsiga puts her on the Orient Express, “his last words were—’I hope the war doesn’t keep you there, darling.’ ‘I’ll come back,’ I said, ‘war or no war.'”
In Paris, she enjoyed one good week; then her father started coming “home from the Embassy a little later each day.” There was a general mobilization of the French army. “Then it was Saturday, the second of September”: one day after Auden’s famous “September 1, 1939,” later to be renounced by its creator—the poem not the date. Germany had invaded Poland. From the window of their flat, Eleanor and Grace watched the deputies arrive at their chamber where they would, presently, declare war on Germany. At about the same time that day I was standing in front of 10 Downing Street where I watched the pale, somewhat wild-eyed prime minister, Chamberlain, be driven off to Westminster where he would tell Parliament that war had finally come.
Eleanor made her way from Paris back to Zsiga. Poland had surrendered. Polish troops fled through their village. They took some in. For those of us who knew nothing of war but stories of the First World War’s endless slow-motion fighting in the mud and barbed wire, the speed with which whole nations were gobbled up by something called a blitzkrieg was too dizzying to absorb—Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, France all in a matter of months. Eventually, Zsiga was called up by the Hungarian army. “We had no atmosphere for this new war yet,” Perenyi writes. “In Central Europe we were really using the old one for all the natural effects, the stage management. I felt we were just acting out a historical pageant…. With the invasion of Belgium, we felt a restored perspective, the perspective of the familiar.” Home on leave, Zsiga insisted that the pregnant Eleanor go back to America.
“When you leave a place you are never going to see again, you are supposed to have some sort of premonition. I have often 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 Luci 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…and never looked back.”
Thus, Mrs. Robinson goes to her Swiss home alone and, as it turns out, for good.
Husband and wife parted in Budapest. “We had only a few bad moments, the last twelve hours we were together, and I don’t remember how we got through them…. So it is that one passes insensibly from one part of life to another, from the past into the future. It isn’t usually as complete as that, that is the only difference…. For a long time the memory of the past sustains you, and when it no longer does, you are already a different person.” Six weeks after Germany’s surrender, Zsiga writes her. Zsiga is stoically putting up with the Russian occupiers. The castle has been made into a museum.
In 1947 Zsiga, who had survived the Nazis and was now coping with the Russians, spent six months in New York. But as Perenyi writes, “The next five years do not belong to this book…. I went back to America and found another life for myself. It was not altogether easy. I had put down roots in Hungary, and for a long time I dragged them around with me. I grieved, as they say.”
I never met Baron Perenyi. During his time in New York, they arranged for a divorce: he chose to go back and live as best he could in a Communist Hungary while she worked in New York and raised their son, and sparred cheerfully with “Mother.”
At the end of More Was Lost, she sums up a marriage as if she knows that an account—accounting?—will be rendered. “I remembered his liberalism. I remembered his hatred of bigotry and cruelty and prejudice. But I remembered also his hopeless cynicism, his doubts, not of man’s capacity but of his desire to resist evil. He had always had a pessimism born of privation and failure. He had lost a little, living with me, but I had left him.”
So an Ethel Vance story becomes Henry James. At the end each knows. Each escapes—accepts—forgets even though nothing will ever be the same again.
Now let us listen to the great voice of Mitteleuropa in the twentieth century, the Viennese Karl Kraus. In his The Last Days of Mankind (1926), Optimist faces Faultfinder.
Optimist: But all wars have ended with peace.
Faultfinder: Not this one. This one has not taken place on the surface of life…. No, it has raged inside life itself. The front has been extended to the whole country. And there it will stay. And this changed life, if there still is life, will be accompanied by the old spiritual condition. The world is perishing and won’t know it. Everything was yesterday and will be forgotten; no one will see today or be afraid of tomorrow. They will forget that the war was lost, forget they began it, forget they fought it. That is why the war won’t end.
And so here we are. Amnesiacs in time. At war. With more lost.
February 28, 2002