More Was Lost
New York Review Books, 2016 edition of 1946 original
The book is technically a memoir, but the setting and situation drive it from a basic memoir of a minor author, currently generally unknown, into a more general tragedy. We meet the author as a 19 year old in a hotel room in Budapest thinking about not attending a dinner she was invited to. In the first paragraph, we get a good feeling that this isn’t a typical situation we will be dealing with – “I was nineteen, and I had not decided what to do with my life. I had no thoughts of working for my living. I was an idle young lady, being taken around Europe by my mother, and at any moment something might happen.” From there the picture quickly develops into a world of coincidence and connections far outside the scope or experience of most readers, and were it not for the foreshadow of trouble on the horizon I would have found it very tempting to drop the book at that point.
Had I done so I would have missed one of the keenest observations of a passing way of life which I have yet come across. The author, admittedly operating in a rarified sphere of privilege far above her peers, is the American daughter of a well-connected naval officer and a novelist. In the mid 1930’s, when most of the world’s population was struggling to put food on the table on a regular basis, she and her mother regularly travelled to Europe while her father was at sea, and doubtless due to some connections they find themselves dropping in and out of embassies and being invited to distinguished dinners and other engagements. On this particular night in 1937 she happens to catch the eye of a Hungarian Baron nearly twice her age and after a few days they become engaged. After a bit more touring around they eventually get married in Italy, and she accompanies him to his family seat just across the Czech border from Hungary.
Over the next couple of years, despite the rising threat of war, she settles into the life of a rural baroness in a small manor house well away from the city. Her husband supervises most of the estate while she tends to the household garden, the orchard (and apiary), and the social duties incumbent on her position in the community. She learns Hungarian, becomes adept at the culture, and they visit with the other local nobility, many of whom are related. Her father becomes the Navel Attaché’ in Paris, and every so often she visits with her parents either in Paris or at her manor. Ironically, all of this would have likely passed unnoticed to the rest of us had the Second World War not begun. After her husband is called up for military duty, and, as seemed to happen in multiple places at about the same time, they conceived a child. She desired to stay at the estate, but he and her mother convince her to retreat with her mother to the United States for the child to be born and raised, at least until the war passes over in Europe. After a journey to Italy just after Italy declares war on England and France, they board one of the last American ships to leave and pull away as Europe spirals into flames.
That is essentially the end of the book. A few details provide a tantalizing hint of her life after that, of trying to find out what is happening to the house and people she loves behind enemy lines. Separated by the war, they all grow apart. She never returns to the house she had loved, and though her husband does indeed resurface in the brief window between the end of the war and the raising of the Iron Curtain, they only succeed in getting divorced.
This is the story of Cinderella extended from a night to a couple of years, but then nearly all traces disappear. Fortunately she had a good memory and wrote it down before the details faded out.