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.”
This year, Kosztolányi’s Kornél Esti appears in a sharp and lively translation by Bernard Adams. It is perhaps his most stunning, humorous, and heartfelt book, more a collection of stories than a novel. Originally published in 1933, only three years before his death at 51, Kornél Esti represents a marked departure from Kosztolányi’s earlier work in that it blurs the line between the real and the fantastic, the everyday and the absurd: it is at once an imagined travelogue and self-styled biography of the wonderfully eccentric Kornél Esti, neatly packaged in episodic fragments.
The story begins when Esti and an unnamed narrator — a fictionalized version of Kosztolányi himself — meet up on a “mad, excited day” in spring after ten years of silence to revive their former friendship and co-write, not surprisingly, the book in your hands.
“But our styles are poles apart,” Esti says to the narrator:
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.”
Esti is the unnamed narrator’s — and thus Kosztolányi’s — doppelganger: a dandyish, travel-smitten writer “born in the same year, on the same day, and at the very same hour and minute: March 29, 1885, Palm Sunday at six in the morning.” At first glance, Esti could be mistaken for a spirited strain of the narrator’s unfettered ego, the one who remained a bachelor, racked up debts, and traveled the world. But Esti is not an easy figure to pin down. He is a sly, chameleonic storyteller who demands the spotlight and, when taking the reins from the narrator, occasionally entreats us to imagine and re-imagine him the way he has serially stylized himself.
Thus the performance begins: the myth of Esti as told by Esti himself. Here he is 18 years old, on a train traveling to Rome:
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.
Bernard Adams deserves a good deal of credit for his revival of this seminal work. Hungarian is, after all, not an easy language to render into English. It is so jauntily cadenced, so redolent with harmonies, that to capture its fluidity in a translation is no small task. Though Adams is the third translator to take a stab at Kosztolányi (Anna Édes and Darker Muses: The Poet Nero were translated by George Szirtes, and Skylark by Richard Aczél), he does so with deftness. He maintains the clipped, sonorous rhythms of Kosztalányi’s prose while matching its comic wit stride for stride: “She unbosomed her complaints, brought them out one by one as if from an open drawer.” Of course, there are occasional instances where his faithfulness leads to stiffness as, unfortunately, in the first line, “I had passed the midpoint of my life, when one windy day in spring, I remembered Kornél Esti,” which is far less dead-legged in the original. Oddly absent from the book is a translator’s note or preface. But even without a guide (there are a handful of pesky footnotes instead) the translation reads cleanly and smoothly.
The book closes with Esti on a tram, struggling to find a seat: all of life poignantly condensed to a single ride. He is jostled and elbowed, nearly flung off at one point, but still aiming for a coveted window seat. He holds on, nudging his way past people who greet him with “coarse and despicable remarks.” Finally, when Esti reaches the window, just when he begins to stretch out his legs, thinking to himself, “Who can achieve more on a tram than a comfortable window seat?” the conductor appears and calls, “Terminus.”
Esti smiles and steps off.