|Los Angeles Review of Books|
Adam Z. Levy on Kornél Esti by Dezsó Kosztolányi
Hungarian Masked Ball
August 16th, 2011
DEZSO KOSZTOLANYI DOESN'T ROLL off the Anglophonic tongue as smoothly as the names of other early twentieth-century masters like Kafka, Musil, or Mann, but perhaps it should. Kosztolányi is considered one of the greatest Hungarian writers, a virtuoso of style and control who first gained renown as a poet, journalist, and translator, and only later, in the 1920s, as a novelist. Call it the fate of so-called small languages that his books have been slow to take root in canons much beyond Hungary's borders. Kosztolányi's highly acclaimed Anna Édes finally appeared in English in 1993, Darker Muses: The Poet Nero in 1990, and Skylark in 2010. Deborah Eisenberg called Skylark "a short, perfect novel," noting that "its setting and characters are unremarkable" and "its tone is blithe," but "its effect is shattering."
You've recently been favoring calm, simplicity, classical images. Not much decoration, not many words. My style, on the other hand, is still restless, untidy, congested, ornate, racy. I'm an incurable romantic. Lots of epithets, lots of images. I won't let you cut that out.
And so they settle on the terms: half Estian exuberance, half the narrator's control. "But one thing I insist on," says Esti. "Don't glue it all together with an idiotic story."
The man who was sitting there with the Italian book in his hand was really him and not him, could be anyone he wished, because with the constant change of place, he was entering an infinite variation of possible situations, a kind of spiritual masked ball.
Esti is hidden by masks and refracted through prisms of perspective and style. But whether he is presenting himself in drawn-out monologue or being watched by the narrator from afar, it is hard not to feel drawn to him, even when the story veers toward the absurd. In one hilarious chapter, Esti whisks the narrator off to an "honest town" in which booksellers call their books "unreadable rubbish" and bank advertisements read, "We steal, we swindle, we rob!" Through Esti the absurdities of our own world are perfectly and painfully distilled. Take the scene, for instance, in which Esti, fluent in only the Bulgarian words for yes and no engages a Bulgarian guard, no less, in a lengthy conversation on an overnight train.
The guard talked and talked... I let it deviate, wander off the point, and like a stream, burble twist and turn, and divide itself into the eroded, comfortable bed of narrative... He winked at me craftily, as at an accomplice, and laughed. And I laughed with him. But not every time. I was often not quite of the same opinion. I didn't want to overindulge him. I displayed only moderate appreciation of the truly heartfelt, tasteful, delightful humor with which he embellished his performance.
Soon into the exchange, however, after what may or may not have been a misunderstanding, the guard is brought to tears. Esti cannot figure out why and wonders:
I was completely taken aback by the profound, insoluble chaos of life. What was all this? How were all those words connected to laughter and weeping? Was it madness, or precisely the opposite, the healthy human bursting-out of human feeling? And had the whole business had any meaning, in Bulgarian or anything else? Despair was all around me.
The pathos hinges on the humor of the scene. On and on, with such beautiful Babel-like moments, Kosztolányi whirls us from the train to the smoky realm of Budapest's literary cafés, to "the most excellent hotel in the world," to the fable-like story of a kleptomaniac translator who lifts slippers and words, to the middle of the Danube, in which Esti nearly drowns.