An Interview with Péter Esterházy

Péter Esterházy is one of Hungary's foremost contemporary novelists, having won literary distinctions both at home and abroad. A number of his works, including Helping Verbs of the Heart, The Book of Hrabal, She Loves Me, and A Little Hungarian Pornography have all been translated into English.

In this interview, we speak about some of the predominant themes in Esterházy's literature, particularly family and language. Esterházy hails from a long line of Austro-Hungarian nobility, perhaps most famous for their connection to the eighteenth-century composer Joseph Haydn, who operated as their court musician. Throughout his extremely unconventional family saga, Celestial Harmonies, the author explores the nature of his father, and all the other fathers that inhabit his lineage, subsequently blurring the lines of identity that are the touchstones of genres like memoir and historical fiction.

We also speak about Esterházy's most recent novel, Revised Edition, which was written as a sort of postscript to Celestial Harmonies after the author discovered that his own father had led a double life as an informer for the secret police in communist Hungary.

Kellan Cummings: I'd like to ask you first about the process of composing your books. Although a book like Celestial Harmonies is expansive in its scope, it is built on anecdotes, apologues, and borrowed fragments, pulled often wholesale or with minimal alteration. In your view, how do these fragments interact with one another? How do these fragments form a whole, a novel?

Péter Esterházy: The various fragments of text, of different status, do not quite form a novel, but they do form some sort of unified text, while mostly keeping their "odd" character. At least, that's how I like to talk about it, that there's a discernible tremor in the text. Or dents. Or shifts. Of course, these are just metaphors. Also, due to their identifiability, the so-called identifiable bits contribute—how shall I put it—a certain cultural plus. Or they might.

KC: Why and when does borrowing seem important to you? Does the interpolation of a newspaper clipping serve a different purpose from the interpolation of a quote from, let's say, Barthelme, or a fragment of Greek mythology? Or does their recontextualization give them all a leveling affect? How do they relate to your play with anachronism?

PE: There's no such clear-cut situation. The situation is always the same—the mad chase after sentences. As Flaubert's mother said, Son, your heart has grown bitter in the mad chase after sentences. This has more to do with playing a game with reality than with anachronism. Or maybe my view of humanity? What does it say about humanity when I contend that an "old" text may well be describing our most intimate thoughts and actions? Or does this say something about literature instead? Is the "image" of Barthelme's dead father the image of every dead father?

KC: Your novel Celestial Harmonies seems to revolve around a multi-dimensional axis: Family, Language, Location. At times they all seem to be the same thing. Where do these planes intersect in the novel?

PE: Oh, dear. I feel like a schoolboy who keeps repeating in a cold sweat, but teacher, please, I prepared, I really did! It's the language that seems to mark out the other dimensions—language, and the use of language. I would also prefer to talk about planes rather than location. In fact, it might sound like I'm bluffing, but even space-time. Or time-space. (For instance, it would be hard to pinpoint when the pieces of the first part take place, even though it says, for instance, that it's in 1622.) A family is both location and language.

KC: Although I've heard you mention that you prefer not to reread your books once they've been completed, do you have a particular model/expectation for how your books should be read—i.e. start to finish, hopping back and forth between sections, or like Watt, touching down when appropriate? Is this the writer's responsibility or the readers?

PE: The writer can say or intend whatever he wants, but the reader is in charge. For instance, I know that some people began by reading the second part of the book because it is supposed to be easier to read, since it has a story that is basically linear, and they kept leapfrogging from there to the clip-like, mostly brief fragments of part one. This doesn't bother me. But what is more important, I don't think it bothers the book either. Part one has a precise order to it, but this order is not inviolable. Nothing "bad" will happen if it's not read in the original order. On the other hand, there's a reason why the original order is the way it is. It wouldn't be fortunate, it would mean the book's defeat, if someone were to read part two only, because it's the first part that expands the horizon of the work as a whole.

KC: You've made reference to the mathematical theorem that parallel lines only meet at infinity. Of course, there are also parallel lives à la Plutarch. Where is this infinity in which you see parallel lives meeting? For instance, where do the Fathers in CH meet each other? If one person has two lives, like the father of Revised Edition, where do those lives meet?

PE: Though I know it's the highly annoying nitpicking of a former student of mathematics, still, let me comment that parallel lines have no intention of meeting anywhere in infinity. That's just poetic imagery. As a result, infinity can also be given a number of metaphorical meanings. For instance, that they meet in heaven, or in our dreams, or that, in the final analysis, they don't even differ from each other.

PE: Or that all this has nothing to do with the lives themselves, but rather with the description of these lives; in short, that we can't find the shared points in these lives. Or that looking for such shared points involves a bias to begin with, our, wanting to give shape to our need for order, whereas—let's put it this way—these straight lines exist in a wild disarray. And so on.

As for the two lives of the father of Revised Edition, these two lives should be seen as one, not that I have been entirely successful in doing this either.

KC: A contemporary of yours, Péter Nádas, has also explored parallelism in his novel A Book of Memories. Is there something about the condition of post-communist Hungary, or the Hungarian language, that makes this a ripe theme for your national literature?

PE: I haven't given this any thought, though come to think of it, the elaboration of non-Euclidean geometry is linked to the name of a Hungarian mathematician, János Bolyai. I mention this only as a joke, though it does seem to be the case that in a dictatorship one must live several lives simultaneously. One must assume the existence of parallel worlds. In a dictatorship, one must, or can, live in this poetic manner.

KC: While reading CH, I was reminded of the father of Bruno Schulz's collection Street of Crocodiles. In one story, the father's fear of cockroaches causes him to resemble a cockroach himself. What does the father of CH begin to resemble in the end?

PE: I think that the father of CH is infinite. Both cockroach and angel. His infinity is the infinity of man, though that's a lack of modesty on my part, since this would inevitably also mean that my novel is good.  [just confirming that PE used this emoticon]

KC: At your recent discussion with Wayne Kostenbaum at PEN World Voices, you talked about the idea of emptying out the name Esterházy. There seem to be several techniques you use to achieve this aim: the obvious one that comes to mind is repetition. What does it take to empty out a name, and is a name ever truly emptied? If you empty something out, must you go back and fill it, or allow something else to inhabit it? If so, what inhabits Esterházy, or father, when there is nothing else? What does this condition of namelessness mean to you personally, do you think it is more difficult, or even possible, to empty out a name as loaded with historical implications as yours? What does this effort, and the (im)possibility of its success, speak to politically?

PE: In my case, emptying out the name is identical with accepting the literary tasks that derive from the possibilities inherent in the name. I sometimes call this a garden, i.e., that with CH I have occupied the garden, and have nothing more to do with it. To let go of a name or, in other words, emptying it out, this involves new opportunities, a new or a renewed freedom. Only strong words and names make us want to empty them out, such as the word Esterházy, loaded with a European historical context, or the word father. Of course, this attempt can't be entirely successful, nor would it be a good thing. We're talking about proportions, ratios. Or, again, a game. Fantasy: What would happen if…?

I don't see the political significance. From today's point of view, it's an empty name to begin with. There is no Hungarian aristocracy today, and I don't have a problem with that. This whole thing is aesthetic in nature with small, natural republican reflexes.

KC: Describe what it means to you, personally, to preserve something: a culture, a language, an ideology. How do you think lists and inventories relate to this idea of preservation? What do you think the difference is between preserving something and simply taking account of it? What kind of role does the comma play in your writing?

PE: It was a natural reflex of our dictatorship, as if they were safekeeping culture for "better times." But there are no better times. The encyclopedia is a very contemporary or timely something (cf. Danilo Kis). The initial step is the inventory. The listing. We often don't even proceed further, because we're not familiar with the structure, the order. That's why the comma is important. But for me, the semicolon is even more important, because it points to the possibility (at least the theoretical possibility) of refining the thinking process. If I find semicolons in a text, I automatically think highly of its author.

KC: What great books have you read recently, if any? What books do you come back to most often?

PE: The usual: a bit of Sterne, Jane Austen, Stendhal, Gogol, Melville, Joyce, Calvino. I've lately discovered the short stories of Alice Munro and also Jean Philip Toussaint. But in half an hour I would say very different names—Rabelais, Dezső Kosztolányi, Musil, and just recently I have discovered (at which point the M.S. is suddenly curtailed).