08. 26. 2011. 10:27

An everyday tram ride

Dezső Kosztolányi: Kornél Esti

After Skylark and Anna Édes, republished recently to great critical acclaim, Kornél Esti is now available to English readers for the first time.

“Esti’s a gloomy nightfall, a purple sunset, a happy hour, Esti is the falling light, Esti is a light breeze and a quiet chat, a friendly glass of wine and a solitary prayer, Esti is a name which, though it is already spoken for, teasingly asserts of itself that it is waiting to be filled in, that it is still (yes, still) indeterminate, may you be infinite, it says. Call me Kornél Esti.” (Trans. Judy Sollosy)

This quotation is taken from Péter Esterházy’s Esti (2010), a recent tribute to Dezső Kosztolányi’s 1933 novel, or string of short stories, Kornél Esti. Esterházy certainly speaks for several generations of Hungarian readers for whom Kosztolányi’s Esti has been a constant source of pleasure. After two Kosztolányi novels, Skylark and Anna Édes, republished recently to great critical acclaim in English, Kornél Esti is now available to English readers for the first time.

The short stories whose protagonist is called Kornél Esti were written between 1925 and 1933, and published in 1933 in book form. The book can be read as a novel, although it is made up of disparate episodes linked by the person of the central character. Esti, however, is by no means a consistent entity. We learn that he is penniless; then we learn that he is well-off and gives a lot to charity. In the beginning, the narrator claims that Esti is a shadowy side to the well-established bourgeois, but later on we learn that he is a well-established writer.

Yet these are by no means mistakes on the author’s part. The book is masterfully constructed: the first and the last (eighteenth) chapters provide it with an extremely emphatic frame. The first chapter—which starts with the Dantean sentence “I had passed the midpoint of my life, when one windy day in spring, I remembered Kornél Esti”—describes how the narrator offers Esti to write something together, because “one man isn’t enough to write and live at the same time. Those who’ve tried it have all broken down sooner or later. Only Goethe could do it…” Esti accepts the offer, on condition that the work will remain a fragment, and not “glue[d] together with an idiotic story”. Finally they agree on a compromise between Esti’s romantic and the narrator’s classic impulse: Esti will tell stories about his life, and the narrator will note them down and edit them, erasing half of the images and epithets. It is also in the first chapter that the narrator outlines the contrast between his character and that of Esti. The narrator, a thoroughly civilized person, admires and at the same time fears Esti, who is in a sense an embodiment of the Freudian id, a person with no inhibitions who acts out all his base impulses. Yet he is by no means a mere ‘Mr. Hyde’—the fact that he has no inhibitions enables him to remain sincere, creative and spontaneous: a true artist.

And indeed, some of the stories in the book are variations on the theme of freedom and sincerity vs. society  and civilization. In Chapter XIII, for example, as the subtitle tells us, Esti “appears as a benefactor. He takes the part of an afflicted widow, but is finally obliged to strike her because he is so sorry for her that he can do nothing else”. Some of the stories are studies on one particular virtue: selflessness, heroism or honesty. Never pronouncing judgment, Kosztolányi shows the reverse side of these virtues, by presenting cases in which either this virtue is shown to be an illusion kindled by vanity or bad logic, like in the above-mentioned case of the afflicted widow, or it is taken ad absurdum, like in the chapter about the honest city where cafés entice customers with “unaffordable prices, rude waiters” and books are advertised as “unreadable rubbish… latest work of an old writer who has gone senile, not a single copy sold up to now” (Chapter IV); or that of the perfect hotel which is so perfect that it would amount to tactlessness to offer the proprietors money for staying there (Chapter XI).

Many of the stories delve deeply, but nonetheless playfully, into the problem of communication, like Chapter IX in which Esti, who speaks five or six words in Bulgarian, “chats” in Bulgarian with a Bulgarian train guard. Or Chapter XV, which provides a counterpoint to the conversation with the Bulgarian train guard: Esti talks to a friend who is anxious about his son’s operation, whereas all Esti can think about is the poem that he is in the middle of writing. In Chapter XVII, Ürögi, a friend of Esti’s, drops in for a chat. Afraid that he is disturbing Esti, he spends hours imploring his host to give his word of honour that he is not disturbing him, and when he has finally made Esti absolutely furious and shout at him, he relaxes and happily explains what he had come for and stays for another three hours. All these stories express a fundamental skepticism about the possibility of communication. Every conversation is in a sense a ‘dialogue of the deaf’, Kosztolányi seems to suggest.

The last chapter, a lyrical description of “an everyday tram ride”, is a heartrending account of human life, condensed into four and a half pages. 

When the book was originally published, both religious and Marxist critics condemned it for obvious reasons: the distance from which Kosztolányi views humankind came across as nihilism for partisans of any kind of ‘engaged literature’. Yet the fragmentary nature of the book itself and of its hero, as well as the anxiety behind their view of human life and character were based on an acute assessment of the situation of the world, and especially of Hungary at the time, ravaged by the First World War, torn into pieces by the Treaty of Trianon that took two thirds of the country, then having experienced Communist terror in 1919 and rightist retaliation in its wake.

What continues to make the book a constant source of pleasure for generations of readers is precisely that slight distance, and the resulting mixture of the playful and the tragic which is Kosztolányi’s trademark. He plays a game with perspective, holding the magnifying glass now the right, now the wrong way, to show how things that are unimportant from one point of view can have a major importance from another. He talks about the terror and loneliness that a child feels after his mother leaves him at school for the first time (Chapter II) as if he was describing a situation of extreme danger; whereas in Chapter XVI, the ending of which verges on the absurd, he mentions lightly the fact that Esti pushes Ellinger, who had previously saved his life but had gradually become a pest for him, into the Danube. Young readers will love the book for its irreverence and playfulness, whereas adults will appreciate the satiric and tragic overtones, Kosztolányi’s deep knowledge of human character and, in spite of the ever-presence of death, his celebration of life.

Dezső Kosztolányi: Kornél Esti
New York: New Directions, 2011
Translated by Bernard Adams

Ágnes Orzóy

Tags: Dezső Kosztolányi