There’s so much being published on the First World War this year that I know I won’t get to even a fraction of it. Still, I’m very grateful that I ran across Béla Zombory-Moldován’s The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914 (NYRB Classics, 2014) at my local library. The memoir of a Hungarian realist painter, written during his post–Second World War retirement, the book captures both the practical and the intellectual chaos of the first months of the war.
Moldován comes from an upper-middle class background, has his own studio, teaches at the Budapest School of Applied Arts, and despises (convivially) the modernist avant-garde artists of his generation. The outbreak of war finds him having a solitary swim in the Adriatic at Novi Vinodolski in Croatia. Like many educated bourgeois men, Moldován had served his military service as a one-year (unpaid) volunteer and been commissioned, rather than two years in the ranks. The war, and with it his recall to service, throws him into command over a platoon drawn from Austria-Hungary’s many ethnic communities, and then into a disastrous battle against the Russians. Wounded, he is invalided home, spends time in hospital. As the volume draws to a close (the translator, Béla’s grandson Peter Zombory-Moldovan, has presented only an excerpt of a larger, unfinished, work), he finds himself on leave in 1915 Hungary, wandering the streets and traveling the countryside.
Moldovan’s depictions of the absurdity of military life and the horrors of battle, where his unit is shelled to destruction without ever really seeing the enemy, are well-drawn. But the book really shines in its ability to capture the anxieties of the Hapsburg Empire on the brink of war, the emotional distance of the home front, and the anomie of seeing the regulated world of nineteenth-century life dissappearing before his eyes. (Less pleasant is the casual and pervasive antisemitism that the editor, to his credit, has made no attempt to expunge.)
Reading The Burning of the World brings into focus just how much we assume the First World War experience is a British and Commonwealth one (at least if one lives in the Anglosphere), while pointing out just how much of it – both on the home front and the battlefield – was a universal experience.