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Books: The Unattainable

4 minute read

THE MERMAIDS (216 pp.)—Eva Boros —Farrar, Straus & Cudahy ($3.50).

This first novel is the year’s most beautifully written love story. Set in Budapest in the lost era between the two world wars, it begins with a casual pickup on the Danube Corso and ends in heartbreak as poignant as the last act of Camille. The book, like the play, is about a girl with tuberculosis, but Author Boros’ Dame aux Camélias is no languishing tragedienne drowning in a sea of self-sacrifice. Instead, young Lalla is self-sufficient, cheeky, preoccupied not with “how to live but how to stay alive.”

Aladar, the man in the story, comes as reluctantly to love as the girl. Nearing 40, insulated in the creature comforts of habit, he has reached that safe harbor where the winds of memory can no longer wound. He can think without wincing of his failure as a painter, of his wife’s deserting him for another man. Now Aladar is a successful businessman who does not seek adventures. On meeting Lalla, he methodically notes that she is a peroxide blonde, pretty, somewhat common, a compulsive liar, but all the same, rather appealing.

Hothouse Flush. He takes to visiting her at the sanatorium, generously pays for her treatment and embarks on projects to prepare her for the outside world she must face when she is cured. He teaches her French because her only knack seems to be a gift for languages, brings her albums of great paintings, tries to broaden her knowledge of the world. But Aladar is the pupil, not Lalla. He meets two of her fellow patients—strangely charming Franciska, gently maternal Kati. He dotes on the three girls like a fond parent, becomes absorbed in the hothouse flush of the sanatorium where almost everyone seems young and beautiful because so few live long enough to grow old and ugly. He loves the rhythms of their life, the fevered excitements followed by exhausted pauses; he loves their talk with its curious mix ture of simple fun and cruel cynicism.

He is like a civilized man on the brink of going native. Instead of preparing Lalla for the reality of his life, he is becoming enamored of the unreality of hers. He can congratulate himself that “she had picked him blindfold, out of a hundred: rejected husband, melancholy salesman of flour and pigmeal, he was changed into a prince every Saturday afternoon.”

It cannot last. Kati dies; Franciska goes away. Aladar throws the whole weight of his personality on Lalla, heaps her with presents and promises. In the end she blurts out a tortured “Leave me alone,” and escapes to Germany and the real world. Aladar grimly sees that he had “adored her, bossed her and sentimentalized her, until she could bear it no longer.”

International Society. Hungarian-born Author Boros, fortyish, who during 20 years of life in Britain has admirably mastered the English language, herself spent years in TB sanatoriums. Says she: “Those sanatoriums just don’t exist any longer. With all the antibiotics, the illness has lost its peculiar quality. TBs used to be a kind of international society. It was that world of their own that I wanted to write about.” The result is no Magic Mountain, but it is brilliant in its way. There has seldom been so sensual a novel written with so little eroticism or with so much effect. Lalla emerges as that strange girl who lies buried somewhere in most men’s lives, the girl who was never attainable although all circumstances seemed just right for attainment. The supple dialogue is loaded with surprise and revelation; everything that is said has shape and texture and reverberates with hidden meaning. There are self-contained moments of extraordinary power: Aladar’s Christmas holiday with his family is a devastating snapshot of what life was for him without Lalla. Most memorable of all, perhaps, is the scene when a cured girl leaves the sanatorium while those left behind crowd the windows to cry over and over: “Don’t go away, don’t go!”

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