When Hungarian filmmaker Péter Gárdos’ father died in 1998, his mother gave him a collection of letters written when the two Jewish Holocaust survivors were courting while recovering in Sweden. Gárdos made the film Fever At Dawn about their remarkable love story, but also used the script as the basis for his first novel.
The audacious plot is hatched by Miklos, who—despite being told he has only six months to live due to complications from tuberculosis—decides to write letters to 117 young female Hungarian survivors in hopes that one of them will become his wife. That someone is Lili, who responds to his letter due to the combined forces of boredom and encouragement from some friends. The narrative follows the happenings in each characters’ lives tied together through their correspondences, which include both mundane reports on the state of the hospitals where they are living and increasingly fervent declarations of their growing feelings for each other.
Unsurprisingly given the book’s genesis as a film script, Fever At Dawn constantly moves from scene to scene driven by action rather than internal monologue. Gárdos provides plenty of visually rich anecdotes like a performance by Lili and other Hungarians that moves the Swedish soldiers despite the language barrier and an ill-conceived attempt by Miklos to get a second opinion on his medical condition by breaking into his doctor’s office. The story is also filled with quirky supporting characters like Harry’s friend, who’s desperate to cure his impotence, and a meddling rabbi obsessed with pickled herring.
The biggest problem with the story is that its characters are so uneven. Miklos essentially has all the agency, including his letter writing campaign, a ruse to pose as Lili’s cousin to arrange a cross-country trip to her hospital, and trying to impress her by doing everything from buying her cloth for a winter coat to placing an ad in a Hungarian newspaper to try to reunite her with her mother. He also faces more compelling struggles both dramatic—as he’s forced to recognize his own mortality—and comedic—like when one of the other women he’s written to shows up at his hospital to profess her love and Miklos convinces her he’s been acting as a sort of Cyrano De Bergerac for a more handsome friend.
Lili is a pale character in comparison. Her own illness, which led her to replying to Miklos in the first place, is never really explained. Lili’s most interesting side plot is her decision to convert to Catholicism, but the culmination of that arc is driven by Miklos rather than her own struggles with how to reconcile her faith and her suffering. Lili’s chapters are also brought down by the supporting characters around her: the generic good friend Sarah and frenemy Judit. The latter started with potential as she interfered with Miklos’ plans based on a desire to protect Judit, but she eventually devolves into a plotting, jealous, and physically ugly caricature of a jilted woman.
Gárdos has managed the impressive feat of finding a new way to talk about the Holocaust. While Fever At Dawn uses comedy to address tragedy, putting the events solidly in the past make it more similar to Natasha Solomons’ Mr. Rosenblum Dreams In English than Life Is Beautiful. Lili and Miklos push their harrowing experiences to the background to get on with the business of living, though their memories periodically exert narrative weight, as in one especially poignant scene when Miklos struggles with how to tell a friend celebrating his wife’s survival that the woman actually died in a concentration camp. In time the letters themselves would feel too close to the tragedy for Gárdos’ parents, remaining carefully preserved but never reread. While Gárdos’ father was a journalist and poet, he never penned the book about his experiences. Gárdos’ intimate connection to the story tempered by time allowed it to finally be told well.