Dezsö Kosztolányi’s “Kornel Esti: A Novel”

Reviewed by Jean Harris

Image of Dezsö Kosztolányi’s “Kornel Esti: A Novel”

Kornél Esti: A Novel is Hungarian writer Dezsö Kosztolányi’s last work of fiction. Since its publication in 1936, it’s been hailed as a classic, and a wildly popular one at that, so there’s possibly no better way to showcase its many virtues than to plunge headlong into Bernard Adams’s able translation, just out from New Directions. If we are to treat the description by Kosztolányi’s narrator as representative of its flesh-and-blood author’s stance toward his text (text and life offer substantial reasons for doing so), then this book was born of a splendid, poetic, and mad revolution.

That was a mad day. Not the first of April but not far off.  a mad, excited day. In the morning there was a frost, with mirrors of ice crackling on the iron gratings round the trees and the sky a bright blue. Then thaw set in . . . .Mist spread over the hills . . . the earth steamed like an overdriven sweating horse . . . Houses groaned, attics creaked, beams sighed, wanting to put out buds, because they too had been trees. In that starting,that revolution, in came spring.

Here the narrator alludes, figuratively, to a revolution in his own desires. In the novel’s first lines, he tells us that for a while he had washed his hands off his old friend Kornél Esti, whom he has not seen for ten years. “His determined eccentricity wore me out,” he tells us, speaking of Esti. “He was forever getting mixed up in escapades . . .” The self-confessed, impeccably bourgeois narrator has wanted no part of these escapades. But at a certain moment the narrator’s attitude undergoes a “revolution.” Listening to the whistling spring wind, he feels “an irresistible desire to see [Esti] as soon as I could.”

The narrator suddenly longs to be involved in a freer way of being. And this may well apply not just to the narrator but to his author as well. In Esti Kosztolányi is perhaps trying to cast off traces of linear narration, typical of his two previous novels (Anna Edes and Skylark), in favor of discontinuous narration, more in line stylistically with his lyric poetry.

Born on the same day and resembling each other in perfect detail, the narrator and Esti are old "friends." They rediscover each other when the narrator finds Esti on “that mad April day” in a cheap hotel, where he is sitting, tellingly, in front of a mirror. Esti is the narrator's daemon, his frère and semblable. "It would be difficult to give a full account of who and what he had been to me,” the narrator explains. “He had been close to me ever since I had been aware of myself. Always in front of me or behind, always with me or against me. I had worshipped him or loathed him." Esti is not a classic, Gothic doppelganger, not Jekyll to the narrator's Hyde, but more of a magician who can seem to lift a house by playing a magic flute; he embodies the prankish, aggressive and libidinal urges the narrator denies. "He smuggled mockery into my feeling, rebelliousness into my despair, and . . . wanted me to believe the wicked lie . . . that there was no God . . . He had been my teacher and now I owed him my life, as does one that has sold his soul to the devil." While he calls Esti "my brother,” he also refers to him as “my opposite," and indeed for all their similarities there are significant differences:

"I’ve gathered, you’ve thrown away, I’ve got married, you’ve stayed a bachelor, I worship my people, my language, I can only live and breathe here in Hungary, but you travel the world, fly above nations, in freedom, shrieking everlasting revolt. I need you. I’m empty and bored without you. Help me, otherwise I’ll die."

“I could do with somebody as well,” he said, “a pillar, a handrail, because look, I’m going to pieces,” and he gestured at the room.   

The two strike a deal of sorts: Esti will recount his life gradually, in discontinuous fragments, while his friend—our narrator—will write them down. Their pact begins in a Dantean way, with Esti as Virgil. The series of fragments that follow are visions that the "novel" brings to light. As Esti says, "I’ll only be able to talk about myself. About what’s happened to me. And what has happened . . . Hardly anything happens to most people. But I’ve imagined a lot. That’s part of our lives too . . . A dream is also reality." Two of the most moving visions in the "dream" collection begin at something like the realistic surface and dive below in evocations of madness. In one, with vaguely gothic overtones, the young Esti receives a horrifying kiss from a young girl soon to be put away in a mental institution. In another, a journalist suddenly goes mad in a coffee house and is ultimately tricked into incarceration by a group of friends. In neither do pity and terror lead to catharsis, but are absorbed into the mystery of their telling. To paraphrase Kosztolányi himself, in these stories everything is lovely and ugly, visible and invisible, which is to say that the writing has magic and the translation reads as if written originally in English.

Blurring genres, this novel, which some have read as a book of short stories (united by their having a common protagonist), is alternately moving, charming, irrational and parodic. Kornél Esti renders a demented universe where the “most excellent hotel in the world” is staffed by Edison, Chopin, Shakespeare, Marie Antoinette, and Annie Besant look-alikes (among others). Actually there are fleets of Chopins, Shakespeares and others of similar stature, all serving Kornél Esti in a dreamlike and delirious tribute to and send-up of his artistic vanity. In a caustic chapter that takes aim at the self-importance of the uncounted “isms” of Kosztolányi’s day and by implication all political dogmas and intellectual schools, the president of numerous learned societies registers his (non-)interest in the societies’ doings by sleeping through an entire chapter of learned meetings. At one point Esti and the narrator make a journey to a city known for its honesty and which is described with such clearly Swiftian exaggeration, that they ultimately reject it on the ground that such a thing is if not impossible then at least sanctimonious and dull (“at least in Budapest people sometimes tell each other imaginative, amusing lies”). This is, too, a pessimistic book where no good deed goes unpunished. All in all, Kornél Esti is a bittersweet romp through a sometimes nostalgic, often dreamlike, and always off-kilter universe.

For all its charms and idiosyncrasies, though, there’s no getting around the fact that Kornél Esti is a book marked above all by a certain division in its author’s sensibility. In some chapters we enter a world as real as the world of Joyce’s Dubliners. In others, the sensibility is Swiftian, and even Kafkaesque. In all likelihood, the First World War contributed to the rift. Hungary lost 71 percent of its territory (including Kosztolányi’s birthplace) and 66 percent of its population as a result of the Treaty of Trianon in 1920 when Kosztolányi (b. 1885 - d. 1936) and his daemon Esti were both 35 years old. This may help account for the fact that chapters evoking Hungary’s stable Dual Monarchy period—which ended definitively with the Treaty of Trianon—take place in naturalistic, historically grounded settings while the wilder, more surrealistic stories take place in a Kosztolányian neverland.

By the time Kosztolányi wrote Kornél Esti, he had already written naturalistically about that trauma. Anna Edes (New Directions 1993) is the tale of a stoic peasant housemaid in Budapest shortly after the First World War. Anna is closely embedded in “reality as we know it.” Béla Kun’s brief Soviet Republic has fallen to Romanian troops who occupy Budapest. Emblematic of Hungary’s bourgeoisie, unable to keep pace with bewildering social changes, Anna’s employers manipulate their servant, who murders them in the end. That is all remote to Kornél Esti, where there is not a whiff of Frank Norris or Theodore Dreiser—not to mention the pantheon of French novelists with whom Kosztolányi was familiar. The text simply brushes away chunks of history, politics, and current events. This book has nothing—directly—to say about the First World War (as a subject in itself), the collapse of the Dual Monarchy, the widespread poverty of the period, Balkan ethnic conflicts, the Béla Kun government, the Hungarian-Romanian war, the rise of Fascism, or the creation of the individual as a result of his socioeconomic position. These are telling omissions since Kornél Esti is purportedly the auto-fictional autobiography of one Kornél Esti, born “29 March 1885, Palm Sunday at six in the morning.”

Three stories deal specifically with the period before World War I, when the Kingdom of Hungary was one half of the Dual Monarchy—“when Franz Josef was still on the throne”—and one could travel, as Esti does in an early chapter, from Szabadka (Kosztolányi’s birthplace, now Subotica in Serbia) to Fiume (now Fiume Venito in Italy), all without leaving the Austro-Hungarian zone. A first day at school, a high-school graduation trip (the one with the kiss) that functions as a coming-of-age story, and a portrait of a September day in 1909 are more-or-less straightforward accounts of events in the stable period of Kosztolányi’s youth before his country passed into a chaotic political era with it’s physical space dismembered. The dream sequences and visionary blurs along with that indefinable roving quality of Esti’s more fantastic tales, conjure, in a sense, the disjointedness and disarray likely felt by Koztolányi himself. In 1936, he was living in a shattered empire, no longer a monolithic power but rather a fragmented zone open to powerful ethnic conflicts.

So is this a coherent novel? As people perceived it back then, reality existed before the war. After that came madness. Causal links between political events seemed to break down, as they do between chapters in the novel. And this is what makes Kornél Esti a faithful portrait of a mind that lived “before” and survived “after.”

In this sense, Kornél Esti gains by being read now, so many years after its first publication. Nowadays, totalitarianism plays a role in most contemporary literature we read in translation from Central and Eastern Europe. Without going beyond the Hungarian shelf, the Leviathan state stains the writing of Peter Esterházy (Celestial Harmonies and Revised Edition), László Krasznahorkai (The Melancholy of Resistance), Péter Nádas (The End of a Family Story) and Attila Bartis (Tranquility), and the list goes on. Kosztolányi couldn’t have known that one of the many “isms” on which he showers contempt in Kornél Esti would become so familiar to us as readers. But he was morbidly aware of the perils of fascism and communism; he’d lived through a brief communist spell and he died during the powerful run up to fascism. The way of life he’d been born into had come to the end of the line.

It may well be then that the last words in Kornél Esti signal this sense of an ending. Chapter XVIII gives “an appalling description of an everyday tram journey” on a frigid night. Esti struggles heroically to find a seat and eventually gets his turn to sit down. Just as he begins to congratulate himself “with the mellow experience of a philosopher”—“Rewards are not lightly bestowed on this earth but we receive them in the end”—the conductor calls out “Terminus.” Esti smiles slowly, and gets off. And that’s how Kornél Esti ends, not with a bang but with a quiet, sudden cease.