"Kornél Esti" by Dezsö Kosztolányi [25 Days of the BTBA]
As with years past, we’re going to spend the next three weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.
Click here for all past and future posts in this series.
Kornél Esti by Dezsö Kosztolányi, translated by Bernard Adams
Publisher: New Directions
Why This Book Should Win: Despite being one of Hungary’s greatest writers, Kosztolányi hasn’t gotten near the attend he deserves in this country. Winning the BTBA could help change that . . .
Today’s post is by Amy Henry. You should visit her website, The Black Sheep Dances.
An “honest town,” where people never lie, makes for some awkward truth-in-advertising:
“Unreadable rubbish . . . latest work of an old writer who has gone senile, not a single copy sold up to now . . . [his] most nauseating, most pretentious verse,” advertises a bookshop window. At the restaurant, “Inedible food, undrinkable drinks. Worse than at home.” This unique city is thriving, because as Kornél Esti informs the narrator, “at home you always have to subtract something from what people tell you, in fact a great deal, while here you always have to add something to it, a little.”
Kornél Esti and the unnamed narrator have formed an unlikely writing partnership, based on an unusual childhood friendship. As children, Esti was wild and impulsive, leading the narrator into constant trouble, especially in that the two of them were nearly indistinguishable in appearance and activities. Having lost touch in later years, they eventually reunite when both men are forty, deciding that Esti’s adventures in Hungary and Italy needed to be recorded. As the one man writes, he implores Esti, “all you need to do is talk.”
Initially, Esti talks about early travels away from home, seeing places he’d only imagined about. He’s so young in his experience that he imagines that the sea is playing hide and seek with him as his train proceeds. Every window, street, and person he meets appears to be created solely for his curious inspection. As the stories continue, Esti’s vision becomes more restrained but never cynical. Whereas at home, the more proper narrator lives a quieter and more placid existence, and the contrast between living by the rules and living outside of them becomes clear.
Herein lay the twist of the novel, written in 1933. How are the two men connected? Could they actually be alternate personalities of the same man? At first, I was convinced of it, as Esti seemed to constantly be in the background, urging his friend to disobey. Their likeness, right down to the same birth day and time, led me to think that Kosztolányi was trying to show the wildly disparate ways one man could behave. Yet deeper into the book, the nature of Esti becomes complete. He is not as wild as initially described, in many places he’s the more pragmatic of his friends. His adventures, while entertaining, are not outrageous.
One story, improbably entitled, “In which he comes into a huge inheritance and learns that it’s hard to get rid of money when a person wants to do only that,” Esti relates the difficulty of giving money away after a sudden windfall. In itself, it’s amusing, but it’s Esti’s reaction to the potential of the story that tells the most, as it seems to reflect on his life as a whole as well as the event:
“So it’s not dull? Interesting enough? Absurd, improbable, incredible enough? Will it be annoying enough to people who look for psychological motivation, understanding, even moral lessons in literature?”
Another story has Esti’s life saved by a stranger, who rescues him from almost certain death in the Danube. The humor of this incident is that Esti feels obligated to the oafish man, who knows how to push the obligation to particular ends, becoming a pest and burden to Esti. This leaves Esti with the only reasonable option: pushing that same man into the Danube on a dark night and running for his own life. That Esti did so at the precise moment his benefactor had recited a long and hideous poem is the irony that Kosztolányi uses to wrap it all up deliciously. Poetry, publishing, and writing factor in as frequent motifs during the novel, and given that the author was all of these as well as a translator, one could assume he based much of the humor and sarcasm on personal experience.
Additionally, Bernard Adams translation of this novel won the PEN Translation Fund Award.