01. 02. 2006. 02:42

A literary approach towards aristocratism

Péter Esterházy: Celestial Harmonies

It is a pleasure to see how one of the most prominent writers of post-communist Hungary juggles with the re-owned cultural historical mass – the legend of the long-distance-running Esterházy family.

Péter Esterházy, the contemporary Hungarian prose-writer with a historical name, claims himself a descendant of a ‘long-distance runner’ family in which long-distance running is a model to be followed by each succeeding generation. The latest example of this model is Esterházy’s Celestial Harmonies, a novel from which we can learn – like from the 20th century itself – that ‘there is no social class more corrupt than an aristocracy that forgets about its historical mission’. Esterházy’s novel is a literary approach towards aristocratism, organizing itself between the two poles – the ideal and the real – of the once shining but now somewhat worn-out aristocratic ideal. 

Esterházy’s verbal elegance is a real pleasure for the reader, even on the level of sentences, especially the disconnected sentences of the first part of the novel, Numbered Sentences From the Lives of the Esterházy Family, which get a moderate epic impulse in the second part, Confessions of an Esterházy Family. Of course, both books consist of sentences – authentic Esterházy sentences, even if it is somewhat hard to talk of authentic Esterházy sentences, when any of them can turn out to have been actually borrowed from Albert Camus or Danilo Kiš. Esterházy has been extremely polite towards his (possible, imagined, desired, etc.) readers. He has written a novel that pleases, on the one hand, those who like to fiddle with sentences, savour idioms, get lost in metaphors, and, on the other hand, those who prefer meandering stories with characters rushing through long chapters.  

The scheme, however, is not that simple, not so one-sidedly two-folded. One cannot say the first book pleases the first type of readers, while the second one pleases the second type of them. For it is the rhetorically structured ‘numbered sentences’ that make it possible for Esterházy’s chain of texts to swell into an epical series of ‘confessions’. Short-distance sentence forming has its own depth in remembrance (God, nation, family); whereas long-distance storytelling gains its moderate narrative force from actual sentences. Celestial Harmonies is a cultural historical cornucopia, an imaginary museum or genealogical picture-gallery, and its catalogue, covering hundreds of years in time, contains both historical-cultic and aesthetic-profane items. Both the ‘numbered sentences’ with their self-inducing rhetoric and the ‘confessions’ with their self-obstructing narration are thick with history. It is a pleasure to see how one of the most prominent writers of post-communist Hungary juggles with the re-owned cultural historical mass – the legend of the long-distance-running Esterházy family. 

The protagonist of the novel is the father – the same father who becomes an involuntary secret agent of the communist regime in Revised Edition (Javított kiadás), a novel that can be read as an appendix to Celestial Harmonies. The figure of the father, however, has become blurred, fragmented and multiplied already in the earlier work: ‘My father is a matter of detail.’ Celestial Harmonies is a literary confession about a father, and guarantees nothing but itself, the fictional circularity of the boy’s ‘numbered sentences’ and ‘confessions’. 

The stories of the second book, as well as the sentences of the first one, repeat themselves like variations on a theme, forming a family chronicle, which is, at the same time, nothing but a series of personality tests. The 1919 Hungarian Soviet Republic is the time when the grandfather is forced to suspend his way of life, and when the father is born. The Second World War and the 1950s are the years of the dictatorships destroying the father and also the maturing years of the son. The following sentences are relevant both for the longer and the shorter transitional periods: ‘There is no past, no history, no country, no tradition. The present, the brutal here and now belongs to the communists.’ It is always the past that is glorious and always the present that is inglorious. The family and, also, the confession-maker’s sentences try to inhabit the narrow space between past and present. The narrative aesthetics of the boy’s sentences are (still) fuelled by the ethics of endurance represented by the father, or in other words, historical and ancestral tradition. Esterházy’s literary ‘form’ is a spectacular experiment to reoccupy the ancient ‘form’ of family tradition, a playfully fragmented way of continuing to tell the story interrupted again and again by our blind history. ‘If everything is lost, there is nothing to lose, and this can be called freedom, or, at least, can appear as freedom.’ What the family and the social class have been deprived of in the recent past, is now regained in terms of ethical and aesthetical growth. Because when something is lost, or when everything is lost, there is still something that remains, and this is authenticity. And even if everything is lost, words still remain; and they are the only things that remain. And if there are only words, and there is nothing words could talk about, it is not nothingness they tell about; they rather tell about themselves, about literature. (Esterházy’s novel published in 1986 bears the title Introduction to Literature.) 

In the book playfully divided into two parts, a transitional textual space opens up that is neither one of sentences nor of traditional epic. This tension and fragmentation, however, is essential for a real work of art. The transitional balance of sentences and stories lies in this artistic void, referring, ironically, to the ultimate balance, to the indissoluble harmonia cælestis. As well as evoking the author's ancestor's, Pál Esterházy’s piece of music from 1711, the title of the book refers to the insuperable but not impenetrable distance between relative and absolute harmony. It refers to the author’s awareness of the unavoidable partial failure, and this awareness is the greatest achievement one can wish for – and, as it seems, the basic requirement for any modern work of art. 
Péter Esterházy: Celestial Harmonies
Translated by Judith Sollosy

London: Flamingo, 2004; New York: Ecco, 2005

Sándor Bazsányi

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