‘Kornel Esti’ an Ingenious, Wild Romp Through Hungary

'Kornel Esti' by Deszö Kosztolányi (New Directions)

Rachel A. Burns

'Kornel Esti' by Deszö Kosztolányi releases on Thursday, Feb. 22.

“There’s something I must tell you all.” Thus opens one of the stories in Dezsö Kosztolányi’s “Kornel Esti.” “It’s marvelous fun going around in a foreign country if voices are merely sounds which leave us cold and we stare blankly at everyone that speaks to us.” The narrator goes on to tell a splendidly simple yet playful story about a lengthy conversation with a Bulgarian train guard, his side of which consists of a masterful manipulation of the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and the question “Do you smoke?”, the only Bulgarian phrases he knows.

More than 75 years after its original publication, “Kornel Esti” has finally been translated into English from the Hungarian by Bernard Adams. Although the book is ostensibly a collection of linked short stories, Kornel Esti, the titular protagonist, describes it differently. For him, it is partially a hypothetical travelogue, “say[ing] where [he] would have liked to go,” and partially a fanciful biography, in which he promises to “give details of how often the hero died in [his] dream.” Hovering over the entire narrative is the nearly invisible narrator, who opens the book by recalling, “I had passed the mid-point of my life when, one windy day in spring, I remembered Kornel Esti.” He continues to bring Kornel back into his life, and writes the rest of the stories as retellings of the tales Kornel relates to him. By the end of the book, the narrator has quoted him so extensively that ‘I’ begins to refer to Kornel himself.

In this way, “Kornel Esti” seems to unfold like Edgar Allan Poe’s classic tale of the double, “William Wilson.” Throughout the narrator’s childhood, Kornel was his constant friend and complete opposite. Kornel would urge him to do things he would never dream of doing, from sticking his tongue out at adults to killing birds. Their similarities and differences are laid out so neatly as to verge on the ridiculous: “We stumbled on the fact that both of us had been born in the same year, on the same day and at the same hour and minute: 29 March 1885, Palm Sunday, at six in the morning. This mysterious revelation affected us deeply.” When they are young adults, “nightmare figures” whom the narrator has never met appear at his door. They recognize him as Kornel and make disreputable demands; the development invites an interpretation that Kornel and the narrator are contradictory aspects of the same person.

But that is precisely where Kosztolányi surprises. The book does not turn out to be a Jekyll-and-Hyde struggle between two halves of a personality for dominance over the whole. Instead, Kornel Esti and the narrator come together into a symbiotic relationship from which the prose and storytelling draws its power. “Make me whole again, like you used to,” the narrator tells Kornel. “One man isn’t enough to write and live at the same time.” Kornel, who can no longer write because he is too scattered, begins to meet with the narrator once or twice a month to tell his stories, and the narrator in turn edits out the superfluities and transforms them into prose.

Throughout Kornel’s stories and the narrator’s recollections, the beautiful is juxtaposed with irritation, boredom, and violence; Kosztolányi favors sweeping statements with fanciful specifics. On another train—it seems that much of the book takes place in transit—Kornel describes the “family-like traveling-companionship, that fortuitously forged train-fellowship, recruited of necessity from total strangers,” before adding that the same familial pool of total strangers will “greet another total stranger, arriving late and unexpectedly, not much more warmly than they would a masked robber equipped with chloroform.” Similarly, myriad sparks “[soaring] in great arcs” from a train engine “like swiftly fading falling stars” must include “one smut, however, [to fall] into his eye.” Along the same lines, the narrator grandly declares that “the greatest writers in Germany become the least overnight and new poets suddenly go out of fashion,” but then stops to wonder how exactly it happens: “in just a few minutes, while they were shaving at home, not suspecting a thing.”

These juxtapositions of elegance with the quotidian contain a hint of morbidity. In the story of the conversation with the Bulgarian train guards, Kornel explains to the reader the meanings a shake of the head can take. According to Kornel, a shake of the head can mean anything from “typical” to “never heard the like” to “such is life.” “That,” he says, “can be used for anything. No situation has yet occurred in life for which ‘such is life’ isn’t appropriate. If somebody dies, even then we just say ‘such is life.’”

Kosztolányi, in addition to being a poet, critic, translator, and short story writer, was also a journalist. In all of these roles, he was witness to the great changes that the 20th century brought to Hungary, especially after the First World War. But though he notes wryly that some people are able to move on with their daily lives and forget war, revolution, and the Spanish influenza—to say nothing of the complete ruin of kings, world banks, and countries—he writes that “Kornel Esti was not such an ingrate. He remembered everything that was really important.” He admits from the beginning that “Kornel Esti” is half dreams and fantasy, and explains that “hardly anything happens to most people. But I’ve imagined a lot.” Yet, within his stories, Kosztolányi takes care to remember everything that is really important. He manages to find the playful, the surprising, and the beautiful in life, and he weaves the fragments together into a story that addresses the great concerns of his time without sacrificing any stylistic flair.

—Staff writer Rebecca A. Schuetz can be reached at schuetz@fas.harvard.edu.

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