Helped by Recollection
March 11, 2016 | by Sadie Stein
The other day, lacking something to read, I picked up a book at the Paris Review offices: Eleanor Perenyi’s More Was Lost, published in 1946 and recently reissued by New York Review Classics. Perenyi is probably best known today for her 1981 gardening memoir Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden. It’s considered a classic of its genre, but, having never had any particular interest in gardening, I’d never read her.
In the late 1930s, Eleanor Stone traveled to Europe and met a Hungarian baron named Zsigmond Perenyi. Soon afterward, they married and she began life as the mistress of a small castle and its surrounding lands. The family was already in straitened circumstances and had lost most of its holdings by this point, but to the modern eye—indeed, to the 1946 eye—it’s still a lost way of life. In More Was Lost, Perenyi describes a feudal world largely dictated by traditional customs and reverence for nobility, and the tasks that rule her days—managing gardens and servants, taking inventory of linens, making calls on local gentry—feel unimaginably remote.
More Was Lost was written a long time ago, and there are certainly plenty of things in the book that speak to that: Perenyi and her husband were both politically progressive, but her sweeping generalizations about nationalities—Jews and gypsies, for instance—do not age well. And although she’s eager not to romanticize that lost life (as socialists, she and her husband are both highly ambivalent about their positions) to a degree it’s unavoidable.
But the pictures she draws are vivid: her descriptions of the castle, the rituals that dot the calendar, and the dynamics of the small town where they live are genuinely fascinating. Perenyi, after all, was transported from a relatively modern New York to a life in another century. Her outsider’s eye makes for a compelling way in. There are also passages so lovely, so striking in their brisk stoicism, that I’ve found myself returning to them again and again.
In the end, though, the thing I liked best about the book is its portrait of a former love. By the time the author wrote this book, the couple had been separated for years, their relationship strained by war and hardship and the loss of their home. “We receded,” she says, “into different dimensions.” But Perenyi, who died in 2009 at ninety-one, writes without rancor, with a great deal of unsentimental affection, and with no unkindness to her younger self. As she explains,
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. You are never given so much as a glimpse of what you will become, and perhaps it is just as well. It is not nearly as bad as being born, because you are helped by recollection. For a long time, the memory of the past sustains you, and when it no longer does, you are already a different person. There is no reason for suicide or death except when you know everything, the past and the future—and fortunately this is a rare experience for anyone.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.