More Was Lost: A Memoir
By Eleanor Perenyi
NYRB Classics, £10.99 paperback
Imagine yourself at nineteen, falling into a fairy tale. The year is 1937. While travelling in Europe with your parents you meet a dazzling Hungarian Baron called Zsigmond Perenyi. He’s 37, a tall, handsome, Oxford-educated polyglot, and heir to a castle nestled between the Danube and the Carpathians. You fall in love, and though it disappoints two families who’d hoped their children would marry money, you tie the knot and he whisks you off to become chatelaine of his estate.
This is no fairy tale, but the true story recounted in More Was Lost, written in 1946, after the war that would take this idyllic picture and scratch it so badly that the canvas could never be repaired.
Perenyi’s style is straightforward and of its day — not all of her views would pass muster in our enlightened times, but she is good company, nevertheless, more winning than ideologically worrying. She takes great delight in rolling up her sleeves and coming to grips with life on what is essentially a feudal estate.
Getting adjusted to married life and the otherness of your partner is revelatory at any age. As a newlywed, Perenyi writes, “I got rather a start hearing Zsiga speak Hungarian. . . I had heard him use his language before, of course, but the fact that he was now my husband seemed to take away forever any idea I might have had that it was just an accomplishment of his. For the first time I realised he even thought in it.”
Zsiga also has adjustments to make. “He preferred to think of me as the granddaughter of a Welsh peasant, who made a fortune and was a Socialist, than as a member of the intellectual middle-class, which I always assured him I was.”
Eleanor gets a quick lesson in geography, for the area containing the estate is, by the time they arrive, no longer in Hungary but Czechoslovakia. Zsiga and his family are looked on with mistrust — his father isn’t allowed to visit his estate for more than a few days every year. But Zsiga is a pragmatist and natural diplomat, going out of his way to make nice with the powers that be, politically and socially. Eleanor learns to hold her tongue — easy enough given the language differences — and to observe. Her readers are all the better for it. More Was Lost is filled with delightful vignettes and sketches. Perenyi is a great fan of larger-than-life characters, writing about them with genuine affection. I suspect she was one herself.
Until the war, at least, More Was Lost sparkles with humour. To quote a few examples:
“One day [Fried — the household’s fixer] said to me, ‘Do you know that God chose the Jews to be His people?’ ‘That seems to me very natural,’ I said, ‘since after all they invented Him.’ He looked offended, though I had meant to flatter him.”
“Of course there were ghosts. There was a monk who carried his head in one hand. Why do ghosts always do this?”
“We had had tea and sandwiches at midnight to revive our spirits. We had only had an enormous tea at five, an even larger dinner at eight, and so were presumably hungry.”
The idyll was doomed. Eleanor and Zsiga wind up in a surreal bind regarding the estate. “During this time we tried not to think of the sorry pass we had come to, when we had to count on the dissolution of Czechoslovakia by Hitler to save us personally.” The borders did change, and — albeit briefly — the estate was again on Hungarian land.
None of this was to last. Zsiga is called up for military service. Eleanor sees the writing on the wall. “I thought about the war getting closer and closer. . . I knew that [when it got to us] it would be even more disastrous than elsewhere. France can be conquered and taken back again, and still be France. If anything happens in the Balkans, things are never the same again.” She is persuaded to go back to the USA, where she gives birth to their son, Peter, and where she will live for the remainder of her long life.
Essentially the war ends the Perenyi’s marriage, and this is undoubtedly the “more” referred to in the title. The sadness of this eventuality is undercut to some degree by the lack of detail she offers about their marriage. We learn that Zsiga is energetic, fun, and wise, and much more comfortable mucking in than she, a lover of creature comforts, will ever be. But the dynamics of their love affair never properly come into focus. I’d have liked a bit less discretion.
More Was Lost offers fascinating insights about a lost world, capturing its romantic as well as its brutal sides. With the republication of this book, Eleanor Perenyi joins the list of amazing women that I wish I’d been lucky enough to meet while they were alive.