05. 16. 2011. 10:52

The fragment and the whole

Péter Esterházy: Esti

Dezső Kosztolányi's 1933 collection of short stories, Kornél Esti, recently published in English, is the starting-point for Péter Esterházy’s 2010 novel entitled Esti. Whatever the topic that Péter Esterházy takes up, it is always subjected to self-irony and self-reflection.

Dezső Kosztolányi's 1933 collection of short stories, Kornél Esti, recently published in English, is the starting-point for Péter Esterházy’s 2010 novel entitled Esti. Whatever the topic that Péter Esterházy takes up, it is always subjected to self-irony and self-reflection. Although he tells a great number and variety of stories and fragments of stories in this book, their ‘hero’ is almost always himself, or more precisely, a character called Kornél Esti. Who is sometimes the narrator himself, at other times some other character – a beautiful young girl or a dog. In Esterházy’s book, Kosztolányi’s legendary character, beloved to the point of being a cult figure, becomes a kind of thousand-faced alter ego for the author, in whose skin and following whose adventures he can say many things about the world. The field of reference of the name ‘Kornél Esti’ is as vast as the name of the ‘father’ in Celestial Harmonies – it is expanded and becomes almost infinite, and it is filled with a variety of epic contents and versions of characters. The act of identification, demarcation, naming and situating are themselves subjects of representation, and a constant source of fun and humour: “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)

It would be hard to pinpoint what the main thread of the novel is, since Esterházy coordinates rather than subordinates the various threads, and it is often the fragmentary parts that bear the whole. In this novel, the central part (entitled ‘Kornél Esti’) consists of twelve short stories, loosely related to each other. The pieces in the first (‘Seventy-seven Stories’) and the third part (‘The Adventures of Kornél Esti’), varying in length – very short stories, fragments, drafts, motto collections, feuilletons, meditations on the craft of the writer – surround, deepen and interpret the world of the stories of the central part.

What is conspicuous here, as in all Esterházy novels is the saturation of the text and the sensual richness of the systems of relationships represented in the novel. The text, as we have got used to it by now, keeps reflecting on the birth of the text, the birth of literature itself, thereby alienating itself from traditional epic narrative structures and the type of reception when the reader is completely absorbed in the text. While playing this sophisticated game, Esterházy conducts a philosophical examination of the mode of existence of language, of words; or, in a metaphorical sense, ‘the structure of things’. As this book amply proves, an Esterházy sentence is a living organism which encapsulates literary language, spoken language, the language of various social classes, layers and subcultures as well as archaisms, all this complete with a continual change of the narrative perspective.

By placing the character of Kornél Esti in the centre of representation Esterházy creates a loose, diverse, yet coherent structure, which builds up from episode to episode, and adds up to the description of a character who is perfectly capable of interpreting various contexts and filtering the world through his own optic. The identity of the protagonist was not at all clear in Kosztolányi’s book either – in one chapter he was an anarchist, in another a prestigious and well-to-do writer. However (as literary historian Mihály Szegedy-Maszák has remarked), Esterházy goes much further in this respect: in his novel, the personality is fragmented to an extent as to become absolutely unidentifiable, which is obviously a warning to readers that what they are dealing with is an imagined world. This ‘imagined world’ is extremely colourful, and is represented with unbelievable plasticity, linguistic flexibility, sense of humour and frivolous elegance.

As compared to previous volumes by Esterházy, there is a new topic that is conspicuously present in this novel: that of old age and the awareness of death. One of the strongest stories in the book records the unexpected, tragic death of a close friend and meditates on time, annihilation, faith and the possible tasks of a writer. When the suffocating Esti returns home after the funeral, he stops at a gas station where he sees an animal carcass full of maggots and stares at it like the hero of Baudelaire’s 'The Carcass'. It seems that the dogs of death have started biting away at the hem of Esti’s velvet gown. Dark visions of physical annihilation and devastation have started to come up in several of Esterházy’s writings, in the form of murders, philosophical meditations or laconic maxims: “Kornél Esti lived, then he died. This (is, was, will be) Kornél Esti’s life.”

Esti belongs to Esterházy’s more significant books, like A Novel of Production (1979) or Introduction to Literature (1986). Just like it is with Ulysses, one cannot read Esti once and for all, only reread it, over and again, and lose oneself in the sparkling details and the arabesques of fragments.

Read an excerpt from Esti at Words Without Borders


Esterházy Péter: Esti
Budapest: Magvető, 2010

Dezső Kovács

Tags: Kornél Esti, Péter Esterházy