Kornél Esti
by Dezsö Kosztolányi (1933)
translated from the Hungarian by Bernard Adams (2011)
New Directions (2011)
233 pp

Last year, Dezsö Kosztolányi’s wonderful Skylark (my review here) — a tale about an unfortunately ugly girl’s relationship with her parents, a relationship that changes dramatically when she goes away for a couple of weeks — just missed being in my year end “best of” list. If I were writing the list today, in fact, it just might be there, just as it may have been on the list had I written it on, say, a Tuesday rather than a Friday. I was thrilled to see that New Directions was publishing a new translation of his somewhat-autobiographical Kornél Esti, a book written near the end of his life (1885 – 1935).

Kornél Esti begins with one of the most fascinating opening chapters I’ve read in a long time. The first-person narrator, a writer, is around forty years old. Ten years earlier he severed his relationship with one of his closest and most constant companions, Kornél Esti. But, in a line echoing the opening to The Inferno, the narrator thinks enough time has passed.

I had passed the midpoint of my life, when one windy day in spring, I remembered Kornél Esti. I decided to call on him and to revive our former friendship.

Before we meet Kornél Esti, who is also around forty — in fact, he is the exact same age as the narrator — the narrator takes us briefly to his childhood with Kornél Esti. One wonders why he would ever want to revive this friendship. The narrator was a well-raised boy, calm and controlled; but not his friend: “There were no two people on the planet more different than Kornél and myself.” This only led to trouble for our narrator:

Once Uncle Loizi was coming toward us, an old friend of my father’s, whom I had always liked and respected, a three-hundred-pound magistrate. Kornél shouted at me:

“Stick your tongue out.” And he stuck out his own till it reached the point of his chin.

He was a cheeky boy, but interesting, never dull.

He put a lighted candle in my hand.

“Set fire to the curtains!” he urged me. “Set fire to the house. Set the world on fire.”

He put a knife in my hand too.

“Stick it in your heart!” he exclaimed. “Blood’s red. Blood’s warm. Blood’s pretty.”

I didn’t dare follow his suggestions, but I was pleased that he dared to put into words what I thought. I said nothing, gave a chilly smile. I was afraid of him and attracted to him.

Yes, their friendship could have led to many bad endings. It was still pretty bad. For one thing, the narrator and Kornél Esti were uncommonly alike in appearance. Even if the narrator didn’t follow Kornél Esti’s urgings, he was often maligned, sometimes just by association and sometimes due to mistaken identity. It almost cost the narrator all he had.

I paid. Paid a lot. Not only money. I paid with my reputation too. People everywhere looked at me askance. They didn’t know where they were with me, whether I was right or left of center, whether I was a patriotic citizen or a dangerous rabble-rouser, a respectable family man or a depraved voluptuary, and altogether whether I was a real person or just a dream figure — a drunken, double-dealing, lunatic scarecrow who still flapped his ragged, cast-off gentleman’s coat whichever way the wind blew. I paid dearly for our friendship.

All that, however, I instantly forgot and forgave on that windy spring day when I decided to call on him.

The author seeks Kornél Esti at a hotel at which he’s rumored to be staying. At first, he cannot find his old friend, but soon Kornél Esti appears, standing in front of the mirror. Though it is never explicit, the reader has known for some time that Kornél Esti is a clear double to the author (and to Kosztolányi), but if anything this makes all we’ve read more interesting, particularly the near suicidal urges. It’s a great opening to the book and a fine introduction to Kosztolányi’s keen observations, which he packs into lively prose.

At the end of the first chapter the author and Kornél Esti decide, “Let’s write something, together.” Kornél Esti will come up with the stories, exaggerated vignettes from his own past, and the author will put them down in writing. Together they will edit for style. And, in a final bit of play, Kornél Esti suggests:

“You put your name to it. And my name can be the title. The title’s in bigger letters.”

I was in. Unfortunately, this virtuosic opening didn’t lead to the type of novel I was expecting (and I’d like to read this again without the expectations). With the play between the author and alter-ego I was expecting some great ancestor to Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock (review to come) or The Counterlife (my review here). Rather than continue to examine the relationship between the author and Kornél Esti, the book goes into those vignettes from Kornél Esti’s life, any one of which has little to do with another. I was, sadly, disappointed that an interesting concept led to a series of disconnected episodes, and that affected my overall view of this book (I’d rate Skylark above it). Still, I have to wonder if I’d read it with a different frame of mind whether I would have ended up loving this one. Most of the vignettes, after all, are striking.

For example, I loved the first one. Kornél Esti is six years old; it is his first day at school and he’s terrified. One of my favorite scenes in all of literature is when Stephen Dedalus goes to boarding school in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man, which came on the page as if it were my own memories (though I never went to boarding school). I have to say that here Kosztolányi nearly matches it, particularly when Kornél Esti’s mother leaves him alone at the classroom door. His terror and his desire to be back with her, to not be left alone, are viscerally felt, as is the profound transformation of his fear:

He could see children, more children than he’d ever before seen in one place. It was a crowd, a crowd of completely unknown little people like himself.

So he wasn’t alone. But if it had previously plunged him into despair that he was so alone in the world, now an even more alarming despair seized him, that he was so very much not alone in the world, that all those other people were alive as well.

In another vignette, in which we may see some of the inspiration for Skylark, Kornél Esti is a nineteen year old, leaving his home town for the first town, travelling by train. In the car with him is a mother and her young daughter. Kornél Esti is fascinated by the mother. Then, suddenly, he takes in the daughter, an unfortunately ugly girl: “his soul wandered around those two souls, glancing now at the mother, now at the girl. What sufferings, what passions must tear at them. Poor things, he thought.”

In another we also find Kornél Esti on a train. This time, he’s travelling through Bulgaria. He knows not a word of Bulgarian, but he’s challenged himself to have a full conversation with the Bulgarian conductor without ever letting on that he cannot communicate.

Though that vignette is perhaps not believable, others are obviously fictitious, such as the one where Kornél Esti travels to a town that is completely honest. The advertisements are self-deprecating, explaining that in their food products they use substandard ingredients and you’re probably better off buying from someone else. The mayor himself admits he doesn’t have the citizens’ interests at heart. As it turns out, everyone is happy, and even the businesses disclosing the worst are thriving. No one expects much, so things turn out to be great.

A few other vignettes aren’t even about Kornél Esti, like the one involving a young love affair (“If a girl jumps into the well, she loves somebody.”) that ends in marriage and tragedy. One thing all of the stories have in common: a strangeness mixed into the normal tones of a conventional narration.

Kornél Esti has its longueurs, and, as I said, it doesn’t necessarily live up to the promising first chapter, but it is a lively book, a delightful read, and the work of a master I hope to get to know better.

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