“His frivolity was offensive. I became tired of his old-fashioned wing collars, his narrow yellow ties, and especially his atrocious puns. His determined eccentricity wore me out.” Still, as this book opens, both narrator and reader are about to embark on a 230 page-long quest to, in the case of the former, revive a former fictitious friendship and, in the latter’s case, to get acquainted with one of Hungarian literature’s most celebrated and best-known heroes.
A novel out of many stories
Dezső Kosztolányi (pictured, right) was born in 1885. So, it seems, was Kornél Esti, Kosztolányi’s imagined alter ego, though Esti only really started coming to life after 1925, when Kosztolányi – by then well known as a contributor to the periodical Nyugat (West) and about to add a fourth and final novel to his name – first embarked on a short-story creative adventure that took him through over 40 stories, right up to 1935, one year before his death. Of these stories, connected but separate, 18 make up the present volume while the remaining ones (including the 17 stories of Kornél Esti’s Adventures, not available in English) sometimes crop up in collected works.
Life’s many journeys
Kornél Esti’s stories are arranged in rough chronological order, each giving a snapshot of the hero’s life and career, from the first encounter of a “skinny, anemic little boy, with transparent ears” with school and the unpleasantness of social hierarchies in the second chapter, to his symbolic arrival at a tram line’s “Terminus” at the end of a determined fight to ensure himself a good place in the carriage in the last.
In between, momentous train journeys see the traveller engage in a lengthy and profound conversation with a Bulgarian train guard whose language he knows he does not understand. The New York coffeehouse in all its early-century splendour feeds hard-up, caffeine-fuelled young poets on the premise that they will sell today’s production to some newspaper or other, while in another story Esti recounts the difficulties of getting rid of vast amounts of money without being caught at it.
Beyond Esti, a whole other cast of larger and smaller eccentric characters makes for lively reading. An ancient German professor thrives on falling asleep, “refinedly, choicely, in gentlemanly fashion so to speak, aristocratically and chivalrously” as soon as he has delivered his opening address to lectures at the many political, literary and scientific associations over which he presides.
Back in Budapest, an erudite but seriously offending kleptomaniac is finally lost to the world after he is found to have stolen from the very books he has been entrusted to translate.
Stylistic quest for an elusive character
Behind the quirky and often outright humorous stories, well served by Bernard Adams’ sensitive translation, it is also possible to enjoy the book as an exercise in writing style: “All novels begin: ‘A young man was going along a dark street, with his collar turned up.’ Then it turns out that the man with the turned-up collar’s the hero of the novel. Working up interest. Dreadful,” Esti quips early on.
Not so here, as the first story recounts how Esti strikes a deal with, one presumes, Kosztolányi, to join efforts in writing about themselves in a mix of travelogue, biography and novel. From the beginning, we are warned, “our styles are poles apart”, calm, simplicity, classical images for one and “lots of epithets, lots of images” for the other.
Indeed, some stories are fairly straightforward, especially those set in the character’s early years in what was then the Austro-Hungarian empire, while others are more satirical and surreal.
In the end, Esti remains perhaps just as elusive as he seemed to be at the beginning of this joint narrative venture. Does this matter? No, because all the charm of this book resides in allowing oneself to be drawn in to this quest, at times irreverentious but always reflective and thought-provoking.
By Dezső Kosztolányi
Translated by Bernard Adams
New Directions, 2011
Paperback, 240 pages