04. 14. 2010. 14:48

Esterházy's many returns

Uninvited guests?

Celebrated postmodern author Péter Esterházy is currently making Hungarian literary headlines in more contexts than one. Beside the timely billowing of birthday laudations as Esterházy turns 60 this Wednesday, his infamously liberal use of borrowed "guest texts" has also been getting a considerable share of public lambasting recently. Whether or not a fair share is a matter of renewed debate.

The German translation of Esterházy's Celestial Harmonies had been in circulation for almost a decade, but Sigfrid Gauch brought forth his case when a young author's debut work, 17-year-old Helena Hegemann's blockbusting novel was charged with plagiarism the night before the Leipzig Book Fair. The German Authors' Association made no mention of Esterházy or Celestial Harmonies as they protested against Hegemann's plagiarism during the book fair. Rather, they made a point especially of criticizing Hegemann's publishers' conduct.
Late March through early April, Hungarian press picked up on the accusations originally published by German writer Sigfrid Gauch on his homepage on February 11th, 2010. The author alleges that Esterházy had lifted an entire chapter of the 1979 Gauch novel Vaterspuren (Traces of My Father) and installed it in Hungarian as an unsourced "guest text" in his Celestial Harmonies (2000). According to Gauch, "Terézia Mora [German translator of Celestial Harmonies] hadn't even bothered to re-translate the text into German, instead reaching back to my book and grafting the text all but word for word."
Esterházy responded in a German talk show, pointing out that the borrowed texts are placed in a new, individual context. This view is echoed by German author and translator Terézia Mora in her response to the allegations of plagiarism in early April. Mora emphasized in her own statement that for the last thirty years of his career, it has been well known how "part of Esterházy's work is applying so-called borrowed texts. ... this is part of his working method, including the exact indication of the texts in question." Pertaining to her own translation work, she pointed out that she was "obliged" to adapt the German text in its original form rather than make her own translation. In fact, Terézia Mora had already finished her own translation of the text when Esterházy called her attention to the necessity of adopting the original text. "For him it's very important to indicate the adaptation recognizably in the text, as opposed to pretending there is no appropriation taking place." On releasing Celestial Harmonies, publisher Berlin Verlag issued an accompanying booklet listing the adapted texts and their respective authors. This list includes Gauch's text, Terézia Mora remonstrates.
Controversy has long surrounded Esterházy's text-borrowing modus operandi, and one of the most articulate critiques from Hungarian literary peers is that of Zsuzsa Bruria Forgács, most notably voiced in her article "The Art of Returning" (A visszaadás muvészete, 2007). A powerful starting image of battered and abused authors shying away in uncertainty of whether or not to confront the perpetrator, their beloved fellow writer, well illustrates the confrontative and collective tone of this critique. Forgács asserts that Esterházy has introduced and institutionalized a form of postmodernist citation in contemporary Hungarian literature that is in complete disregard to the work, creativity, authorship and emotions of others.
Forgács challenges the validity of the "guest text” argument, on the grounds that a real guest should be properly invited, and not deprived of personality. Also presuming that in a postmodern approach authors don't matter, only the text, Forgács suggests that such postmodernist guest-text-riddled works would do well to be published without credit to any individual author. She also calls upon observing the dialogue aspect of postmodernist intertextuality, where it is essential that the multitude of authors engaged in the dialogue should be identifiable. She also objects to the fact that only the English-language edition of Celestial Harmonies includes a list of citations at all, while Hungarian sources are discriminatively and completely unaccounted for.
These issues of authorship and postmodernism continue to make waves in the Hungarian literary community. While some authors may rightly feel wronged and robbed of their due credit, it would seem that the texts themselves are, even reluctantly, quite well entertained as Péter Esterházy's guests.
Dániel Dányi

Tags: Péter Esterházy