More was Lost by Eleanor Perenyi

Even though the 1938 Club reading is finished, I still seem to find myself reading books from that period; a case in point being a new volume from NYRB. Eleanor Perenyi’s poignant memoir “More Was Lost” is issued by the publisher today, and it’s firmly set in late 1930s Europe.

Perenyi was the daughter of an American naval officer and his author wife, and at the age of 19 was holidaying with her parents in Hungary. She crosses paths with the dashing Baron Zsigmond Perenyi, known as Zsiga, and it’s love at first sight for both of them. After a rapid courtship, and a separation to make sure they really know what they’re doing, the pair are married and head off to Zsiga’s crumbling country estate on the border of the Danube and the Carpathians. Here they set up home, renovating the building and farming the land. However, there are several flies in the ointment and their life will not go as they planned.

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To start with, there’s the geographical issue. Hungarians had a rotten time of it in the early 20th century, with border shifts, treaties giving their land to other countries and fluid nationalities. Zsiga, for example, is Hungarian but his property is now in a territory owned by Czechoslovakia, which causes endless issues. And the region is home to all number of different races and creeds, co-existing uncomfortably at times.

But the icing on the cake is that the pair were married in 1937; and we all know how unstable things were in Europe at the time. So the first part of the book is something of an idyll, while the happy couple settle in; they modernise the house where they need to, befriend the locals, busy themselves on the estate and enjoy their married life. But reality starts to seep in; laws against the Jews are introduced and the German influence becomes stronger. The couple have a front-row view of what’s happening in Europe and it’s startling to see how their realistic perspective varies from the blinkered outlook of those they encounter in Paris.

At first we assumed that the Czechs would fight. Obviously England and France would have to back them up. I had been to Germany the winter before, in 1937. It was quite clear to me what the Germans were going to try to do to the world. I found it unbelievable that everyone else, especially those whose business it was to know these things even better than I did, would not know it too. And that meant, simply, that we would have a war.

Perenyi is probably best known for her later work “Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden”, and certainly her love of her adopted land and the whole estate shines through here. This is a feudal landscape; barter, privilege and ancient customs prevail, and it’s fascinating watching a modern, American girl fit in to a totally new kind of world. But that world is under threat, and as Hitler starts to press forward into other territories, the world of the Perenyis begins to shatter. Zsiga is called up for the army; Eleanor visits him at his barracks; they make the rather reckless decision to have a child; and then events make it impossible for Eleanor to stay safely on the estate or with her husband. She makes the decision to move back to the USA with her parents, to have their son in safety, and that’s the end of her dream and of her marriage.

The book was published in 1946, just after the war, and finishes with Eleanor and Zsiga finally making contact again after years of her not knowing whether he was dead or alive. The informative and sensitive introduction by J.D. McClatchy (who knew Eleanor), possibly best read after finishing the book, fills in some of the gaps for the curious (which I was!) wanting to know what happened to the Perenyis after the war. It’s a poignant tale, and you find yourself wondering how their lives would have turned out if war had not intervened.

“More Was Lost” was a wonderful, evocative memoir; illustrated with snaps of the house, relatives, plus Eleanor and Zsiga themselves, it brings alive the land and the people, the way of life which had existed for hundreds of year and how it felt to be in Europe on the brink of a crisis. Highly recommended, not only for those who love memoirs, but also for the insights into the way it felt to be in the midst of an oncoming storm, and for the way it shows the effects on ordinary people. Yet another winner from NYRB!

(Review copy kindly provided by NYRB, for which many thanks!)

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