06. 19. 2006. 14:06

Esterházy scores

Péter Esterházy: Travel to the Depth of the Penalty Area

Here the aristocratic family name, instead of appearing in the list of honours of governing bodies and salons, does so on the pages of sports papers. What is more, it appears on the gigantic score screens of huge stadiums – thanks to the gifted brother, sometimes even scoring a goal.

It is most likely that Péter Esterházy found himself in an awkward position (or was it rather a very comfortable position?) when he accepted the invitation by the Süddeutsche Zeitung to write a book with the working title Me and Football, to be published for the football world championship in Germany. Indeed, it seems that he has already said almost everything on this subject, which appears to have enticed him to draw upon older writings on the topic. He cites some of them absolutely literally (such citations make up nearly one third of the book) and borrows from elsewhere some essential sentences or sentence clusters, sometimes even motifs, stiffened to a point that approaches genuine cliché. Still, it should surprise nobody that this short little book is nonetheless elegant, clever, witty and, of course, that it invites reflection. Within the oeuvre, it deserves a place on the shelf just below that of the great novels.
Strangely enough, this success can partly be ascribed to the repetitions. “By the way, I come from an ancient family of football players,” Esterházy writes on the first page of the book (not for the first time, either), signalling he is once again taking up the task of writing about, colouring, and thus creating family history. It seems more and more that the whole of Esterházy’s prose serves the large-scale purpose of attempting to understand this history, starting with Fancsikó and Pinta, a text widely playing with the theme of football. The novelty only resides in the fact that here the aristocratic family name, instead of appearing in the list of honours of governing bodies and salons, does so on the pages of sports papers. What is more, it appears on the gigantic score screens of huge stadiums – thanks to the gifted brother, sometimes even scoring a goal. “When our name is called out by the loudspeaker, when our name appears on the score screen of the stadium – well, the feeling is unsurpassable.”
Yet, the text is also haunted by the ending of An Introduction to Literature, by now an aphorism: “Once I shall write all this even more accurately.” The sentences of the new book can be considered the more accurate, more nuanced, more carefully formulated and more sensitively thought through versions of the sentences written – in this case on the topic of football – by Esterházy in the past decades. Considered from this point of view, Esterházy is then repeating (citing!) himself in an even greater measure than usual, because he is looking for new, more thrilling significations for his numerous good old sentences in this new context, in order to link more closely to his oeuvre this text, which otherwise bears all the signs of commission writing.
The basic stories, anecdotal and simply shaped, range from Puskás and the 1954 world championship finals played in Bern against the Germans, to the years spent in a fourth-grade team and the career of the brother who achieved membership in the Hungarian national eleven and achieved international fame. Beside this, the book plays with the linguistic and so-called sociological particularities of the suburban, lower-class, football-centred world, with the usual self-irony, humour and lucidity. Esterházy, with the sensitivity of somebody who is himself involved, speaks of the universe gravitating around the football ground, the conflict between the generations, the compulsory pub sessions after the matches, the power position of the trainer and the means of making a team a community. The sniffed-at figure of the ageing or veteran football player, in whom he perceives some kind of evident experience of mortality, is particularly important for him. The sportsman is among the few who know with merciless exactitude that the decline of the body starts after reaching the age of thirty – that from that point on, youth is gone forever. The melancholy tone of the book is partly due to the frequent reference to this experience, an event worth mentioning from the perspective of the author’s oeuvre. For Esterházy was, especially before the publication of Celestial Harmonies, often called exaggeratedly light in tone. This present book, however, is an excellent example showing that Esterházy is in fact interested in tragedy above all, even in the superficial conversation topic of football. It is clear that, once more, ironic humour is here the essential form of interpretation and relationship to creation, but the implications and the unfolding relations are not at all funny. In fact, they are rather depressing. The light tone and the irony turn into bitterness almost within one sentence, and by the end of the book, this bitterness also invades the reader.
The same is true when the author winks at the cultivated reader over footballese and the commonplaces used in it, underscoring with relish all the embarrassing, unreflective elements that betray symptoms of a subculture. He is not only interested in the most colourful range of rooters’ exclamations, but also in the unspeakable platitudes of TV commentators and members of the specialised press. When he reads his brother’s statement in a paper, he exclaims painfully, “Yet we have been taught Hungarian by the same mother!” He now writes about the reporters struggling against repetition calling the ball toy or even spotted object, who call the Portuguese Lusitans and the French Azuri while clinging to pompous clichés. The aristocratism of this kind of superior linguist’s remarks is once more saved by self-irony; for, if playing with a ball or with language is the same in essence, then how could the fourth-class ageing football-player (who is, in this case, a first-class writer) judge the professional football players for being amateurs in their use of language? That is, “my spiritual horizon reaches from Beckham to Balzac.”
In fact, the editor asked Esterházy to travel in Germany and write down his reflections on his experiences, impressions and thoughts during the journey. Still, Esterházy did something different. By reviving his memories and his earlier writings, he travelled to the bottom of the penalty area, most probably remembering an old sentence of his, “You see, my friend, everything within the penalty area is also outside of it.” (Production Novel) So are we going to watch the matches of the mundial in a different way after reading this book? Yes. Most definitely yes.

Esterházy Péter: Utazás a tizenhatos mélyére

Budapest: Magveto, 2006

László Bedecs

Translated by: Kinga Dornacher

Tags: Péter Esterházy