Fever at Dawn is based on letters sent between Péter Gárdos’ parents shortly after the end of the Second World War. When I saw it described as “whimsical, poignant and completely charming” in a review posted on Twitter, I knew it sounded like my kind of read. I didn’t know much more about Fever at Dawn except that its author is Hungarian and, having a few Hungarian friends, I’d been looking to include some Hungarian writers in my reading. Add to that its Swedish setting and I was thrilled when the publisher offered me an early proof copy to read.
In an over-crowded hospital ward in the summer of July 1945, Miklos is propped up against a pillow. He is writing a letter of hope. It doesn’t matter that Miklos is bruised and battered, that his skin shares the same colour as a greying pile of ash, or that the doctor told him “You have six months to live”. Because, now, for the first time since the war, he feels truly alive.
Miklos is thinking of things far more important than his health.
He is thinking that he would like to find a wife…
It would be easy to imagine that Fever at Dawn is a simple romance: a post-war romance between two young people, Miklos who’s twenty-five, and eighteen-year-old Lili. After all, despite Miklos’, shall we say, pessimistic prognosis, the reader has to believe there’s a happy ending, if its a story based on an exchange of letters between the author’s parents. But Fever at Dawn is also so much more than this.
For a start, Miklos doesn’t just write one letter of hope. He writes 117 of them. And that’s the moment when I realised that Miklos was going to be quite a character. He might be a poet and a romantic dreamer, choosing to ignore what his doctor (backed up by some X-rays and years of medical training) is telling him but he’s also pragmatic and looking to stack the odds of finding a wife in his favour. For some, this might seem calculating and yes, I would question why he continues some correspondence even after he’s made his choice of bride but he’s not wholly exempt from having to deal with the consequences of doing so. Besides, I found myself willing to forgive him because he manages to find a reason to live and you can’t help but feel the pure joy and escape he finds in all his scheming and letter-writing.
Where Miklos is bold, a real live-wire of a character, unwilling to give up or give in, regularly coming up with schemes and getting into scrapes with his cohort of friends, Lili is reserved and quiet. There’s a passage in the novel where Lili’s doctor is talking to Miklos about her and it affected me so much that I had to stop reading until I’d finished crying. It’s only then that the full extent of what Lili has been through hit me and I understood that her will to survive is every bit as strong as that of Miklos.
It wouldn’t be a proper love story without obstacles and Miklos and Lili have more than their share of these: theirs is a long-distance relationship where no previous relationship existed between them, for a start. They’re each receiving medical attention and/or convalescing in remote parts of Sweden. Their living conditions are far from easy, and they’re incredibly restricted in what they’re allowed to do and where they’re able to go. Something which is hard to read about, let alone square away given the characters’ histories and the fact that this is post-liberation. And I don’t mean that as a criticism of either the Red Cross or the Swedish hosts. I imagine everyone was trying to cope and do the best they could at the time.
Lili and Miklos are remarkable characters; they must have been remarkable people in real life. Fever at Dawn is only the beginning of their story: it’s an unusual love story but one which deserves to be told and for which the author clearly has a great affection and fondness. Fever at Dawn is a biographical novel of whimsy, when it’s full of his father’s schemes and antics, and moments of real poignancy, such as his mother’s shy steps towards their future, helped along (and sometimes hindered) by her friends. Fever at Dawn is a charming papery Csárdás, where the courting couple dance with each other through their letters. There is a real sense of the strength of the human spirit when characters find moments of beauty and release in music, and Miklos’ poetry. Péter Gárdos doesn’t gloss over the horrors or the struggle Lili and Miklos face, they are in here, but he chooses instead to focus on hope, life, survival and love, just as his mother and father once did.
Fever at Dawn is the first novel by Péter Gárdos, a Hungarian film director with more than 20 international awards at major film festivals. It is published by Doubleday in the UK and is out today as an ebook and in hardback. Péter Gárdos has made the film of Fever at Dawn, which I believe is due out later this year.
A huge thank you to the publisher for sending me a copy of this wonderful novel.