Written in 1933, but only recently translated into English, Kornel Esti is Dezso Kosztolanyi's last book, a unique combination of wild romp, thoughtful contemplation of life's mysteries, and dark commentary on life's ironic twists. Dezso Kosztolanyi (1885 - 1936), a poet, fiction writer, and journalist, creates a narrator who is also a writer, telling us from the outset that the narrator, now forty, has suddenly decided to reconnect with his oldest friend from childhood. The two friends are complete opposites--the narrator, timid and repressed, is utterly lacking in confidence, while Esti is outrageous, afraid of nothing, and iconoclastic.
Author Dezso Kosztolanyi, his narrator, and Kornel Esti were all born on the same date, March 29, 1885. Esti looks just like the narrator and is clearly his alterego and maybe the author's, too. When they first reconnect, the narrator tries to rekindle the friendship, but Esti accuses him of being "sentimental, as always." The narrator continues to appeal to him, however: "You have changed, [Kornel]. When we were children, you were the grown-up, you were the leader, you opened my eyes. Now you're the child." Each has followed his own philosophy and pattern of life as far as he can, and neither one is happy. The narrator is too staid; Kornel Esti is out of control.
Since they are both writers, the narrator suggests that they make a deal to write something together. "Make me whole again," the narrator begs, "like you used to...Let's be joint authors." They agree that Kornel Esti will simply talk about what's happened to him in his life, a "biography in the form of a novel," and the narrator will record his observations in shorthand. It makes no difference whether the episodes are true or not--"A dream is also reality. If I dream that I've been to Egypt, I can write an account of the journey."
What follows is a series of eighteen metafictional episodes, ranging from Kornel Esti's first day of school, in 1891, through a symbolic tram ride at the end of the novel, a brief chapter in which the author's entire philosophy is summed up through Esti's late-in-life experiences on an overcrowded tram. In between are moments of high comedy, poignant drama, and shocking cruelty, all reflecting aspects of Esti's life, either real or imagined, and all contributing to the broad panorama of human existence. Eventually, he waxes philosophical--on sleep vs. insomnia, on paranoia vs. schizophrenia, on gentleness as "roughness in disguise," on the obligations of family, on one's need to feign interest and sympathy toward the misfortunes of others, and on boredom, even with those to whom one once felt extremely close.
These commentaries are all incorporated neatly within episodes which entertain on the level of story, though the reader has no idea which episodes and their conclusions are real and which are fictional. And that, perhaps may be part of what this novel of episodes may be all about. By blurring the line between reality and fiction, the author raises the question of whether it makes any difference whether events actually happened. Ultimately, I found myself re-imagining events and episodes and seeing them in new ways, and I could not get this book out of my head. For a book that is almost eighty years old, but feels absolutely new and unique, that is an amazing achievement. Mary Whipple