As the World Burned


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What we learned about Europe after World War I — the war to end all wars that didn’t — is that everything was stable until everything fell apart. War caught Europeans by surprise, ripped its roots from the soil. Power in Europe had been balanced by a complicated and tangled system of alliances that worked nicely when it wasn’t looked at too closely. Of course, there was always a battle going on someplace — it was Europe, after all — but daily life for most people had a continuity, experienced at a pace that had been more or less the same for a century. The Great War came and severed the 19th century from the 20th, created a Europe that was driven by speed, information, technology and nationalism. Walter Benjamin’s observations in The Storyteller have become a continent’s epitaph: “A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of forces of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human life.” From Benjamin’s words, a 21st-century person can picture the days before the summer of 1914 as tranquil and complete, peaceful and wealthy. All the nations of Europe splashing together in the sea wearing a long bathing costume under the cozy rays of Empire — and then, destruction.    

The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914 by Béla Zombory-Moldován. NYRB Classics. Available August 5, 2014.

The picture Walter Benjamin paints of the war, though, is not of the war itself. It is less a picture of what the Great War was than what it took away. It is a picture of its aftermath. In a way, everything is still there: the horse, the streetcar, the countryside, the clouds. But the subjects don’t quite fit together. They are abstracted from their landscape, lost in a field of forces. It is nearly impossible to see them. World War I obliterated a whole generation’s capacity to see in anything other than splinters.

And there, in the midst of the chaos, the fragile human life. What was it like to be that tiny human, left behind to paint a new reality from the shards?

The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914 is a document of one man’s attempt to repaint his broken landscape. It is remarkable how quickly his world was lost. In hindsight, we think of the First World War as a four-year affair. We forget, though, that Austria-Hungary lost half of its men within the first two weeks of the war — 400,000 men, including 100,000 who were taken prisoner by the Russians. At the war’s start, the grand Austro-Hungarian soldier, with his long ridiculous sword, was often killed or maimed within days of reaching the battlefield. The injured and insane were sent home to wander their cities like ghosts, to parade before the horrified eyes of their neighbors. And the war kept going on.

The Burning of the World covers only the first eight months of the war, but carries a lifetime of experience. When the book opens, Hungarian painter Béla Zombory-Moldován is enjoying a summer holiday with friends at resort on the Adriatic. By the second page, war has started and Zombory-Moldován must report for duty. Before he sees any action, Zombory-Moldován finds himself in the abandoned, burned-out town of Rava Ruska, musing on its ruined state. By the middle of his memoir, Zombory-Moldován has been sent to the Galician front, been severely injured, and then been sent back to Budapest to recover. The remainder of the book follows his attempt to come to terms with life as a veteran, even though the war goes on, even though it has just started. Within weeks, his Budapest — his Hungary — is already a thing of the past. Béla Zombory-Moldován inhabits the city in a state of limbo. He passes by his favorite cafés but can’t bring himself to go in. The young ladies who once admired him now stare at his bloodied head, appalled. When the book ends, Zombory-Moldován reports once again for duty. It is March 1915. World War I still has three years and eight months to go.

Béla Zombory-Moldován was born in 1880 and died in 1967. No one knows why he started writing his memoirs, or when, or for whom. Zombory-Moldován wrote in secret at his house on Lake Balaton in western Hungary, hiding the book even from his wife. She found the loose stacks of paper in a locked strong-box after Zombory-Moldován’s death, and kept the manuscript in hiding until just before her own death, when it was passed to Uncle Pali. Uncle Pali then showed it to his brother, who showed it to Zombory-Moldován’s grandson, Peter, in 2012. Peter translated the memoir and called it The Burning of the World.

In his introduction, Peter Zombory-Moldován remembers his grandfather as a quiet, dapper man in a Prince of Wales suit who sported a neat mustache and spoke with care. “He had the air,” wrote Peter, “of a man used to being respected.” Zombory-Moldován was the model of the Old World gentleman, an artist and cosmopolitan nevertheless suspicious of all things “avant-garde.” “Who’d be doing my laundry?” he wondered in the days before reporting for duty. “What does a spoiled young habitué of Pest’s coffee-houses, bars and parties need when he’s going off to war? Who would know? Whom should I ask?”

At the beginning of the memoir, after his last youthful holiday has been cut short, Zombory-Moldován writes about sitting on the ship that started his journey to war. “The antiquated black steamer was crammed,” he wrote, “even the mast and cranes were festooned with drafted men, half of them drunk … I squirmed myself into a tiny space on the landward side, from where, propped on my suitcase, I watched the hazy shore … I had broken with the past and now occupied myself with the future. I had to consider even the smallest detail.”

Béla Zombory-Moldován was a painter. To be crammed into a tiny space, watching the hazy shore, considering the smallest detail — this is the painter’s mission. And it is, ultimately, the mission of The Burning of the World a useless, dangerous anachronism.

Because it is written in retrospect, The Burning of the World is self-aware. Zombory-Moldován knew, by then, the big story of World War I that everyone knew: How the Old World became the New. Zombory-Moldován falls into all the usual clichés.

“Once it’s over, what happens then?”

“We might pay a price for the blithe and vacuous existence we had led here.”

“It’s goodbye to the good old days.”

Near the book’s end, during a polite dinner with the Mauser family, father Mauser announces that Italy is leaving the Triple Alliance. Zombory-Moldován suddenly loses control. A “terrible, animal fear” bursts upon him. “The lid on the cast iron stove clattered rhythmically, the pictures danced on the walls…from outside came a thundering sound as if some huge set of steel shutters had been yanked down,” he writes. “I felt dreadfully ashamed at having lost my self-control … I spread wet towels over my heart and lay like that, fully dressed, on top of the bed… Thus did I live through my first and, I hope, last earthquake.”

“How calmly I had observed the spectacle of Messina in ruins from the earthquake!” Zombory-Moldován writes, referring to the natural disaster that had killed 120,000 people in 1908. “It’s one thing to see, or read, or hear about something. It’s another to live through it.” This is not a sentiment written from Zombory-Moldován to the world. He is reminding himself. It’s as if Zombory-Moldován wanted to remove himself from his experience sometimes, to be relieved of the burden of living it. Look at the Old World gentleman, he seems to be saying, trying to fit into the New World. But when Zombory-Moldován steps away from the earthquake of history and back into his own, he remembers the gentleman is himself.

By his own account and that of his grandson, Zombory-Moldován was a conventional artist. His work was realistic and technically proficient. In the years between the wars, Zombory-Moldován enjoyed relative success as a painter. He received awards and, for a time, was principal of the Budapest School of Applied Arts. At the height of Modernism, Zombory-Moldován painted landscapes and portraits, and continued to do so until his dying day. In his memoir, Zombory-Moldován wrote that he had broken with the past to occupy himself with the future. But this is not apparent in his art. If anything, Zombory-Moldován seems to have continued living in the past, hanging on to the threads of the good old days.

When Zombory-Moldován had recovered enough from his wounds to leave the hospital, he figured it was time to paint again. He would go to the studio, look at his old work, then leave and wander around the streets. Zombory-Moldován couldn’t finish work he’d started before the war, and he couldn’t start anything new. “I hadn’t counted on the fact,” he wrote, “that my entire emotional and mental world had taken a different path … for the time being, I could make no progress.” Zombory-Moldován’s mind “teemed with images of war” but he didn’t know how to paint them. He tried to make some sketches, but the subjects came out confused. “I tried to distinguish them by leaving behind the bloody horrors, the limbless headless corpses that are the real face of war. Not that: enough blood had been painted.” Zombory-Moldován wanted to paint the subjects of the war without painting the war itself.

Alienated from Budapest life and unable to work, Zombory-Moldován decided to take a holiday in Lovrana. His parents were disappointed—they couldn’t understand his restlessness. “How to put into words,” he wrote, “the rupture that had taken place within me? … until I found the point at which I could reconnect, I would have no peace.” Just before he left for Lovrana, Zombory-Moldován considered that everything he was, or knew, or could imagine, was irrelevant. “Perhaps I should let the past tear itself free from me, and allow myself to be carried by the tumultuous flood-tide of the times.”

On his first evening in Lovrana, Zombory-Moldován slept peacefully for the first time in months, in a room that opened to the sea. He was lulled by the sound of waves; at dawn he was startled by thunder. All of a sudden, after six desperate months, Zombory-Moldován knew what to paint. When daylight came, Zombory-Moldován decided, he was going to paint a wave.

The next day, Zombory-Moldován headed off to the water. He sat on a rocky spur and watched wave after wave crashing over the pebbles. He didn’t paint that day, but kept watching the waves “until the physical principles that governed them, their form and the colors that appeared in them became ingrained in me. From all these similar, but never identical, waves I hoped to be able to abstract the wave.” At night, rows of waves raced in Zombory-Moldován’s head “like old friends.” The following day, Zombory-Moldován returned to the same spot, sketching until he lost track of time. “I had done it,” he wrote, “surely, the best wave I had ever drawn. I was filled with happiness. The war had ceased to exist.”

As an artist, Zombory-Moldován never jumped into the flood-tide of the times. He painted waves. For the rest of his life, Zombory-Moldován resisted the flood. He rescued people and places from the temporary madness of war, painting them as they existed outside time. After the Communist regime in Hungary dismissed Zombory-Moldován from his post at the School of Applied Arts, he retired to the house on Lake Balaton. There, he continued to paint and draw, spending long periods alone. And in the late evenings — or maybe the mornings — while his wife was working or sleeping, Zombory-Moldován wrote about his small experience inside the big story of World War I. On the surface, Zombory-Moldován’s art had stayed the same. But it wasn’t the same, because it served a different purpose. “However paradoxical it seemed,” wrote Zombory-Moldován, “war created something. It brought about extraordinary qualities of spirit which could only be read about, in the cynical world of home, in the work of enthusiastic writers. It is these high feelings which make men human; they are what raises mankind, with all its wickedness, above the beasts.”

The destruction of war, ironically, had brought Zombory-Moldován closer to the high-spirited world of Nature, where “everything moved forward in accordance with unchanging laws … with its slow, organic, gradual, hidden evolutionary laws.” Nature was indifferent to the suffering of the fragile human life, could never sympathize with man’s desire to be extraordinary, and rise above the wickedness of beasts. When Béla Zombory-Moldován died at his home on the lake, it was summertime. During the last evening, he could be heard crying out in his sleep, “Get down! Get down! They’re shooting from over there as well!”

“Nature slumbered … flowed on its course,” wrote Zombory-Moldován, “impervious to the absurd behavior of men … The whole world was manifestly indifferent in the face of the life-and-death struggles of men: it neither took their side nor opposed them, but simply paid no attention. Let them get on with it. Let them reap what they sow.” • 25 July 2014


Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany's selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at