Adventures Of Kornel Esti,The Paperback – Jan 25 2011
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“Kosztolányi was a ringleader in the 20th-century flowering of Hungarian literature, a poet who reformed the language, and a fiction writer of world class.” — The Guardian
“Each of these stories displays a mastery of texture, nuance, and pacing that is absolutely first rate.” — Christopher Byrd (The Daily Beast)
“One of the most important and glittering writers of a Hungarian golden age, Kosztolányi is multicolored and ineffable, like a rainbow. At the end of his life, the virtuoso Kornél Esti appears.” — Peter Esterházy
“If anyone ever truly wanted to write the history of the Hungarian people, the author would certainly take that Dantean first sentence of Kosztolányi’s as the work’s epigraph: in a word, the most wondrous first sentence ever written in the Hungarian language.” — László Krasznahorkai
“A tender comedy tinged with the absurdity of life, the thrill of sociability, and the imminence of death, which I guess is exactly the kind of book I like.” — Chad Harbach
About the Author
Bernard Adams won a PEN Translation Fund Award for his translation of The Adventures of Kornél Esti.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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
Most of the stories partake of fantasy or farce. There also are generous doses of social criticism and satire, directed at Hungarians from the provinces and from Budapest, at Germans, and at such pre-WWI phenomena as Central European luxury hotels. Throughout, Kosztolányi displays the sort of gently ironic, mocking humor that, in my experience, is characteristic of Hungarian writers. The overall insouciance, however, does not completely mask an underlying dark, even evil, streak.
Here is a typical excerpt, which is a description of the eponymous hero: "He didn't understand life. He had no conception of why he had been born into the world. As he saw it, anyone to whose lot fell this adventure, the purpose of which was unknown but the end of which was annihilation, that person was absolved from all responsibility and had the right to do as he pleased--for example, to lie full length in the street and begin to moan without any reason--without deserving the slightest censure."
In reading KORNÉL ESTI I was reminded very much of another noted Hungarian author of the first part of the twentieth century, Gyula Krúdy. Certain aspects of the book also brought to mind Kafka, whose span of life (1883-1924) basically paralleled that of Kosztolányi (1885-1936).
The concluding story is excellent. Many of the earlier stories are charming, one about a kleptomaniac translator is devilishly clever, but a few are, frankly, boring (perhaps they simply haven't aged well). KORNÉL ESTI was published in 1933, and it was the last of Kosztolányi's books. It is thought by some to be his best work, but I prefer "Skylark" (the only other of his books I have read).
I picked this book up after seeing it was praised by Krasznahorkai, another wonderful author, but that is not the point. The book is short, but full of wit and humor. With only the wonderful eponymous poet to tie together the fragments, this book reads better as a short story collection than a novel, but the insight into different ideas is staggering, humorous, and at times a bit awe-inspiring. I don't want to go into any specific stories here wishing to give no spoilers to you, the future reader.
TLDR: I don't often give book reviews, as I can't just rate the book, but definitely pick this up. One of the most pleasurable and thought-inducing reads I have had this year.