Dezso Kosztolányi is apparently one of Hungary’s foremost early-20th-century novelists. (I say “apparently” because early 20th century Hungarian fiction writing lies just slightly outside my field of expertise.) When Kornél Esti crossed my desk, it arrived accompanied with gushing blurbs referencing its place in “a Hungarian golden age”, calling it a “whirly, wonderful book” and declaring that the novel’s first line is “the most wondrous first sentence ever written in the Hungarian language.” (For the record, that sentence is this: “I had passed the midpoint of my life, when one windy day in spring, I remembered Kornél Esti.” Maybe it sounds more wondrous in Hungarian.) The novel, published in 1933, was the author’s last, and is widely regarded as his masterpiece.
All of which is rather surprising, since the book veers between mildly amusing and wrenchingly tedious, with occasional instances of engagement but very few genuinely compelling moments. The story concerns the third-person narrator’s friend, or possibly doppelganger, the titular Kornél Esti. Esti is a perfect double of the narrator, to the point that friends confuse one for the other, but because Esti is a scoundrel, cheat, poet, liar and larger-than-life libertine in every way, this confusion rarely works to the narrator’s advantage.
As a conceit it’s entertaining enough, the kind of mild implausibility that could fuel any number of engaging episodes and—who knows—a few thoughtful insights. The lighthearted tone is reflected in the subtitles of the many chapters: “In which the writer introduces and unveils Kornél Esti, the sole hero of this book,” “In which he makes an excursion to an ‘honest town’ with his old friend,” “In which Zsuzsiska, daughter of a wealthy Bácska peasant, jumps into the well and gets married,” and so forth. In this way the structure, fractured and episodic, resembles a collection of loosely connected stories rather than a traditional novel. This is fine as far as it goes, but some of those episodes stretch on for more than thirty pages and outlast their cleverness by a lot.
The narrator is something of a poet, as is Esti, and spends much of his time lounging in cafes, drinking strong coffee and making glib comments. He and his pals pass the time filching money off of friends, playing tricks on other friends, wandering the city boulevards, getting into scrapes and then getting out of them. There is little sense of overarching story, which one feels must be deliberate. Again, as a clever reflection of the restless, episodic nature of life itself, this works well enough; as a way of engaging the reader and telling a compelling story, it fails rather dramatically.
A more fruitful way of approaching this story is not as a novel but as a series of short stories. The trouble with this is that the episodes-as stories are scarcely more satisfying, in a dramatic sense, than the episodes-as-novel.
Then there is the prose itself. Kosztolányi’s narrator affects a tone of droll irony throughout much of the proceedings, and he is capable of a piquant observation when it suits him. Aboard a train, “an African temperature prevailed.” The narrator describes his loyalty to his old friend thusly: “I’m so loyal, Kornel, that because of my old dog I won’t even pet other dogs, or play with them, or even look at them.” Driving to another town, “we swung around with such whirling rapidity that golden eagles became giddy alongside us and swallows felt blood rushing to their heads.”
Elsewhere, though, the prose turns leaden, in service to a tedious non-story that never goes anywhere. “At six o’clock an army doctor came on board [the train]—or as Esti later boasted to his brother, ‘a high-ranking regimental doctor.’ He came without baggage, fresh, having slept. The gold stars sparkled cheerfully on his velvet collar. He lived in the region and was making for Fiume to bathe.” You will be forgiven for thinking that this lengthy introduction portends a character of some importance, but you would be wrong. The doctor is never mentioned again.
Could the trouble lie in the translation? Bernard Adams’ prose is clear enough but, as evidenced above, it doesn’t exactly grip the reader. Did the original? It’s impossible for any non-Hungarian speaker to say, but that blurb alluded to in my opening paragraph—praising the first line as the best ever written in the language—singles out a sentence that certainly seems like nothing special. Perhaps there is a poetry to the language, a rhythmic flow of syllables and beats, that has gotten lost.
It’s tough to see Kornel Esti as holding much interest for anyone who does not already have a passion for Eastern European literature, or the interwar period. The publisher, New Directions, is to be commended for making available translations of little-known authors (little-known to American audiences, at least). Let’s hope that further volumes in the series are at least a bit more accessible, and a bit less willfully opaque.