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.
As with years past, we’re going to spend the next five weeks highlighting all 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.
Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski, translated by Bill Johnston
Why This Book Should Win: I taught this in my class last year, and all of the students loved it. Do you even understand how rare that is? That’s some serious power.
This piece is written by Amy Henry, who runs the website The Black Sheep Dances.
Words bring everything out onto the surface. Words take everything that hurts and whines and they drag it all out from the deepest depths. Words let blood, and you feel better right away . . . Because words are a great grace. When it comes down to it, what are you given other than words?
Szymek Pietruszka talks endlessly, conducting an inner monologue that never takes a break. An all-around badass who is beloved by all, he’s played many roles: resistance fighter, fireman, policeman, civil servant, and farmer, all while remaining an insatiable ladies man with a penchant for vodka, dancing, and fighting (usually in that order). He has stories to tell—some deadly serious and some not—but all told in a restrained voice that doesn’t ask for pity.
As Stone Upon Stone begins, he’s working on a tomb, obsessing about the details of construction but not explaining who it is for. The tomb and its obvious ties to earth and death form a theme that is lighter than one would imagine. As he studies the other memorials in the cemetery, he makes note of their flaws, as some are too showy, too cheap, or in once case, too tall:
When you stand underneath it it’s like standing at a gallows, and you have to tip your head way back like you were looking at a hung man. What does it have to be so high for? You can’t look at death high up like that for long. Your neck goes stiff. Looking up is something you can only do to check the weather . . . Death draws you downward. With your head craned up it’s hard to cry even.
Myśliwski writes in a style reminiscent of Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil, wherein earth and family and history are intermingled; yet as a protagonist, Szymek is witty and naughty and far chattier than Hamsun’s Isak. One scene shows Szymek as a policeman, searching the countryside after the war for contraband weapons:
“We’ve had enough gunfire to last us a lifetime . . . Our Lady up there in that picture, they can be our witness—we don’t have any guns.”
But you only needed to reach behind the Our Lady or the Lord Jesus and pull out a pistol. You’d look in the stove, and inside there’d be a rifle. Have them open the chest, and there under a pile of headscarves, rounds and grenades.
[. . .] Not many people got fined, because what were you going to fine them for. It was the war that brought folks all those guns, the war was the one that should have been punished.
As he relates the story, he tells what the guns (pulled from dead soldiers) end up doing in the villages, as from that point, it appears no dispute is too small not to be handled with gunfire. Szymek’s wickedly wry, and the humor takes an edge off what is deeply painful. Similarly, he describes the pride of his hard-won officer’s boots that the villagers admire. Yet without self-pity, he describes loaning those to his younger brother to wear to school, because his search among the dead bodies around the countryside failed to turn up another pair. He notes that no matter how isolated the corpse, the paths to it were wide from the human scavengers. Horrific, but told matter-of-fact.
Foreshadowing is never used; instead, a sort of reverse takes place. When he suffers a deeply personal loss, he looks backward, making a connection with his family’s traditional sacrifice of bread to the land to ensure future crops. As a child, he mocked it, thinking that the bread should be eaten instead. Of course, he did sneak some of it to eat. Now, given his adult experience, that bread becomes all the more symbolic.
Aside from what he’s thinking, he relays conversations from everyone from his father (who compulsively overreacts to everything) to the village’s Sure Thing, a batty woman who undresses and seduces while complaining about inventory shortfalls (she’s kind of adorable). One memorable conversation is with his hated childhood priest, one who named him in sermons “when he needed a bad example that wasn’t from the Bible.” Now nearing death, the priest wants to talk about forgiveness:
“Of course, it’s said that whoever you absolve, their sins will be absolved, whoever you deny, they’ll be denied. But can I really be certain who deserves forgiveness and who doesn’t? What I’d most like to do is to absolve everyone, because I feel sorry for everyone. But do I have the right to use God’s mercy as my own mercy, even when I feel great pity towards someone? Does God feel that pity? It’s true his mercy is without limit. But I have no idea how what I’m allowed to do relates to that boundlessness?”
Without affectation, Mysliwski ties in the religious faith of the people, the irrationality of war, the endless needs of the land, and the stubborn, often foolish, nature of the villagers that keep charging ahead when the past might suggest they delay a bit. Many of the most important details are not laid out in a narrative form, but hinted at in a sidelong view, with some points being mentioned only in a passing conversation, leaving the reader to put together exactly what has happened with his parents and three brothers and their farm.
They say that when a person’s born, the earth is their cradle. And all death does is lay you back down in it. And it rocks you and rocks you till you’re unborn, unconceived, once again.
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