Thursday, May 11, 2023

Eyes Like the Sea by Mór Jókai

Portrait of a lady in revolutionary Hungary
Hungarian author Mór Jókai (1825–1904) is a giant in the history of his nation’s literature and played a prominent role in Hungary’s political landscape during his lifetime. His novel Eyes Like the Sea was originally published in 1860 under the Hungarian title of A tengerszemű hölgy. This is an autobiographical work narrated by Jókai himself, in which he tells of his childhood playmate and first love, Elizabeth—also called Bessie—a beautiful woman with “eyes like the sea.” In adolescence, Bessie spurns Jókai’s affections, and each eventually marries someone else. Jókai grows up to be a practicing lawyer, but his real vocation lies in the arts. Though he has some talent as a painter, he achieves fame as a man of letters. The two childhood friends continue to connect over the years, and the book is mainly a chronicle of Bessie’s life through Jókai’s eyes. The author relates details of his literary and political careers, but much of the book is told through Bessie’s voice in a series of flashbacks and anecdotes.

If this book is strictly autobiographical, then one has to feel sorry for Jókai’s wife, who is only mentioned occasionally as “my wife,” while he gushes over Bessie, with whom he is clearly infatuated. Some poetic license seems apparent in the narrative, however, as Bessie’s adventures often read more like fairy tale than fact. Much of the story takes place during the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1848 and its immediate aftermath. Jókai was an outspoken advocate for the rebels, for which he was subsequently persecuted by the Austrian Empire. The war episodes in the book, however, feel overly romanticized, sanitized, and replete with rich people’s problems (Jókai and Bessie being aristocrats). One can imagine people starving and slaughtered in the streets of Budapest, but Jókai chooses to tell us about the troubles Bessie has transferring her funds from one bank to another. As a war novel of two lifelong loves, Eyes Like the Sea bears some resemblance to a Hungarian version of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, with Jókai and Bessie the counterparts of Zhivago and Lara. Jókai’s novel is not anywhere near as well-written as Pasternak’s Russian epic, however. You don’t feel the impact of the war, and you don’t feel much for the (platonic) lovers either.

Over the course of the book, Bessie works her way through several husbands and lovers. I suppose one could see her as a strong woman navigating her way out of necessity through a nineteenth century world restrictive of women’s rights. Mostly, however, she just comes across as flighty and fickle, latching on to any man within reach, often for all the wrong reasons. In his telling of her love life, Jókai puts his heroine into some pretty strange situations, including bizarre episodes of wife-swapping. I would imagine some of these relationships might have been risqué by Victorian Era standards, but to today’s reader they often just seem goofy and unrealistically melodramatic.

I enjoy reading literature of various nations in order to get a sense of different histories and cultures. In this case, however, I felt like I was in over my head. I suspect few English-language readers know much about Hungarian history, and that lack of knowledge will prove a problem here. The reader is expected to have detailed knowledge of the historical events discussed, and even the literary references and the sense of humor are distinctly Hungarian and will be opaque to most outsiders. The English translation by R. Nisbet Bain doesn’t help much. One can overlook such cultural disorientation when the characters are compelling and sympathetic, but unfortunately Jókai doesn’t really accomplish that here.
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