At the beginning of Zoltán Huszárik’s film, Szindbád, a dying man is bundled into a driverless horse and buggy. The horse sets off at a trot to wander through a deepening twilight. Voices on the soundtrack make it clear the man is Szindbád himself, an ageing Lothario abandoned to his fate and to his memories.
Huszárik’s 1971 film is a beautiful — sumptuous, even — adaptation of Gyula Krúdy’s stories about a man addicted to romance and nostalgia, dapper and urbane in his wanderings around a Budapest transitioning out of its 19th Century, Imperial heyday, into a much less certain dawning of the 20th Century, troubled by a deepening melancholy and returning, more and more, to memories of past loves, past times. If Krúdy’s stories — poignant, sometimes witty, oft-times wistful — are steeped in the ever-presence of memory, Huszárik’s Szindbád deals more directly with the process of memory, especially the long memory of a life that’s been full of incident and regret.
We follow Szindbád on trysts and assignations, on visits to old loves, on attempts to make peace and sense of this life he has lived out of step with society, both in terms of his pursuit of the sensual and the sensory but also in his desire to keep hold of a past age now itself little more than a memory. Throughout, Szindbád is in late-middle-age, just as we first meet him. Only one past love shows the same passage of the years — and, perhaps significantly, she is the one person who knew him best, for all that she allowed herself to be taken in by his charms. For the rest, they remain youthful, as young and as beguiling as when Szindbád first saw them — even when decades separate the encounters we witness in the film from the time they originally spent together. His past loves are forever young. It is Szindbád who is old.
Huszárik is showing us the past from Szindbád’s perspective, wandering old haunts, reminiscing, an old man who sees his lovers as they were. They are present in him, in mind and thought. They cannot age. Time can only touch Szindbád himself, the repository of those precious memories.
It’s a convention in writing, one that’s often mimicked in cinema’s hazy, sepia-tinted flashbacks, that the past should be in past tense. It’s gone. It’s behind us. In contrast, the present, this moment, is often presented in present tense: She is remembering the past and the past was so much more than now…
Is this how things are, though?
At the recent launch for his collection, In the Coming of Winter, the poet Frank Dullaghan argued that memory is a thing not of the past but the present. It lives alongside us. We curate it and tend to it during the course of our days. We reach to it. We keep it close. As Szindbád’s memories are changeless and yet all around him, so are our memories. Memory, Frank maintains, is something that is now, in this moment, alive and interacting with us as we interact with it. The literary convention is upside down: when we think of a memory it plays out in the present tense, immediate and incarnate within us. This is the world that Huszárik’s Szindbád strolls through. This is the world that we find ourselves in, going about our daily lives to be transported, in a moment, to a different present by an association or a thought that connects us to memory. In contrast, the present is very often unfixed in time. It gets missed because we’re distracted. It’s conjured into being when we think ahead to something that’s yet to happen. It gets recreated in retrospect as we replay what was has just happened, the gaps in recollection filled in by supposition or fantasy. The present, unlike memories of the past, isn’t chronologically fixed. If anything we live in past tense, retailing events in the seconds after they have gone by.
This is the position of us in respect to memory and time that Proust explores, of course. It’s also the position of the traditional folk tale and the fairy story, where the story teller announces, ‘Once upon a time’, and then switches to present tense — the story sits beside us, it runs around us, it lives in the moment, not the past.
There’s a broader point to this, as we negotiate the fast-moving and treacherous media landscapes of the 21st Century, itself a time of nostalgia and reminiscence, an age where there’s as overwhelming sense of possible futures missed, of a present that we might want to avoid or escape altogether. At one point, Szindbád announces, ‘Death has no light, no shade. But it has a slight scent of rosemary.’ It’s in the sensory that we anchor ourselves, in the body, not in spite of the body nor in the hazy present of rolling news and the imperatives of advertising.
In one of the most celebrated scenes in the film we watch Szindbád eating a meal, taking delight in each savour and taste, each detail of each course. The camera lingers over the dishes. It moves in for close-ups that are as vibrant and vivid in their colours as we can imagine the flavours of the food on display to be. It’s not gluttony. It’s a celebration of being.
In many ways, it’s loosing touch with this connection to the now of the senses that leads to Szindbád’s lonely final journey in that buggy. The horse is still trotting at the end of the film but we know by then Szindbád is no more. The present of memory has given way to the past of a hazy, transitory present in which the mind, as alone as Szindbád on that final buggy ride, wanders through a twilight that grows murkier with each passing moment.