English Translation of Hungarian Classic Retains Modernist Whimsy of Original

Aaron Botwick, Staff Writer

Deszö Kosztolányi’s Kornél Esti is an odd, wonderful little book. Published in 1933 at the end of Kosztolányi’s career, the novel, which just received its first English translation, nonetheless has the whimsy and imagination of a young writer emerging at the peak of the Modernist movement.

Esti opens with a narrator meeting up with his old alter ego, Kornél, a troublemaker who introduced him to “all sorts of bad habits” but whose influence he has never been able to shake. The two decide, after years of separation, to write a novel together. Unfortunately, their styles seem irreconcilable: Kosztolányi favors “calm, simplicity, [and] classical images,” while Esti is partial to “restless, untidy, congested, ornate, racy” prose. Nonetheless, they proceed with their writing, deciding to name the novel after Esti and grant the authorship to Kosztolányi.

What follows is a series of brilliant vignettes that occur in and around Hungary. There is the story of the father who visits a poet to tell him of his son’s imminent death, but the two are unable to speak to each other in any meaningful way, as “the father was thinking whether his son would survive, the poet whether his poem would.” Or there is the tragedy of the translator and chronic thief who cannot help but steal even from fictional characters. In his work as in his life, the translator is an irredeemable kleptomaniac.

Perhaps most hysterical is the anecdote in which Kornél experiences “the sweet dismay of the linguistic chaos of Babel.” With only a handful of phrases at his disposal, Esti manages to carry out an hour-and-a-half conversation with a guard in Bulgarian, achieving this through a series of nods, shoulder squeezes and meaningful silences: “Whenever I’m not paying attention to the conversation or don’t understand something, I always say ‘Yes.’ This has never yet brought me any trouble. Not even when I’ve appeared to be approving something that I should have deplored. On occasion I can make people think I’m speaking ironically. A Yes is very frequently a No.” By the end of their discussion — virtually none of which Esti has understood — he and the guard have bonded, argued and finally made amends.

After reading Kornél Esti, we feel as if we have inherited a lifetime of wisdom. Kosztolányi has argued that “words are always more powerful than deeds,” that in fiction we can become anybody and anything through a kind of “spiritual masked ball” and that the author, ultimately, is “everybody and nobody.” The tone is unrelentingly satirical, and Kosztolányi is never too far away from poking fun at selfish novelists, bathetic academics and anyone who sincerely believes in language as a means of communication. And yet, in his mastery, he ultimately proves the opposite: While we can accept the ultimate failure of language, the literary life for Kosztolányi is nonetheless a long and fruitful one. It is a beautiful failure.