The Heart of the Matter

<i> Thomas McGonigle is the author of "The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov" and "Going to Patchogue."</i>

As a boy growing up in the little village of Patchogue on Long Island, I was introduced to the world by collecting stamps--Tanganyika, Ghana, Fiji, Ascension Island, Tibet--and now as an adult the world comes to me by way of translations. Certain countries, certain civilizations only exist because of translations.

Sadly now in America only three publishing companies can be said to reliably, season after season, produce significant translations: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, the University of Nebraska Press and, most extravagantly, Northwestern University Press, which almost single-handedly are keeping alive the idea that the many countries in Eastern Europe are replete with marvelous writers worthy of our attention here in the West. One such writer is the altogether extraordinary Peter Esterhazy, the Italo Calvino of Hungarian literature. First, some facts:

Esterhazy was born in 1950 in Hungary and is the author of . . . but, to be honest, I don’t know how many books he has published in Hungarian. Unlike the French or the Irish, who are proud to itemize their writers as part of the country’s exports, the Hungarians are not very good at promoting their writers. One blurb says Esterhazy has published 17 books, and in another the line is that he is simply a “prolific” author of many novels, collections of stories and essays. We’ll just say that Esterhazy has a lot of books, and six of them have arrived here in the backwoods of America in a rather haphazard fashion. The most recent of these are “She Loves Me” and “The Glance of Countess Hahn-Hahn (Down the Danube).” And although both books can be read on their own, they come out of an already wonderful complex literary career, some of which is available in English.

Esterhazy was never part of the Communist regime in Hungary or one of its lackeys, both because of temperament and by bearing. His name is a reminder that he comes from the oldest noble family in Hungary (who were patrons of, among others, Franz Josef Haydn), a fact that is alluded to in his various novels together with mentions of the humiliation that members of his immediate family suffered under Communism through unjust confiscations, imprisonments and deportations to rural, inhospitable villages.


Esterhazy’s first novel was “A Novel of Production,” published in 1979 when the author was 29. It was described by the Hungarian critic Ferenc Takacs, and presciently so, as being “full of linguistic exuberance” and revealing “his wonderful sense of parody and pastiche, his weird talent for combining ready-made myths and pieties of the Hungarian mind into shockingly subversive and very funnily evocative collages, of debunking standard fictional procedures by exhilaratingly carnivalesque dislocations.” Still untranslated, the book forms the first part (or “aspect,” as the author calls it) of an exploration into the process and problems of writing, which is the focus of a 700-page collection of Esterhazy’s early work titled “An Introduction to Literature.”

Three short novels from this large collection have been translated. The most accessible yet most disturbing is “Helping Verbs of the Heart,” which is both a haunting meditation on the death of the author’s mother and an examination of all the cliches that surround such topics. Starting from the viewpoint of the grief-stricken son, the book suddenly throws us into the situation of seeing it from the view of the recently dead mother. And it ends with the tantalizing final page: one line at the top, “The End,” and at the bottom of the page, “Some day I’ll write about all this in more detail.”

Another feature of Esterhazy’s “introduction” is the presence of Zsofi, a very young female narrator, in “The Transporters” (featured in “A Hungarian Quartet”) to tell an intensely subjective story of her and her sister’s ravishment by drivers who deliver food to sustain them in their exile out in the country. However, Esterhazy subverts the emotional truth of the story by acknowledging many buried quotations in the novel from, among others, Kierkegaard, Pascal and Teilhard de Chardin, whose work was normally banned by the Communist authorities.

For instance, as little Zsofi runs down a hallway to elude the men, she (or maybe it is Pascal) thinks: “Which of the two fooled us? Our senses or our education? Man is by his nature credulous and faithless, fearful and bold. . . .The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with trepidation. . . . There is only one kind of loneliness . . . My dear, I am afraid. I am afraid. My sisters seemed to cry . . . I was running, I flung the first door in the corridor open--beds pushed up to each other, a wide and ravished field, bodies with strangely contorted limbs--O my God, what is this?--My face icy cold--what is going on?”


This technique of using buried or hidden quotations from many disparate writers allows Esterhazy to provide the reader with the necessary distancing so as to both highlight the real horror he is writing about (which he does very well) and at the same time underline the artificiality and therein the possible lie in all literary work.

Another aspect of literature is revealed in “A Little Hungarian Pornography,” which has little of what is commonly taken for pornography but is rather a meditation on the essence of pornography: the lie and lying about performance. Esterhazy prefaces his book with a description of the conditions that inspired him to write it: “It was written in 1982-3, in the overripe period of the Kadar era, under small, Hungarian, pornographic circumstances where pornography should be understood as meaning lies, the lies of the body, the lies of the soul, our lies. Let us imagine, if we can, a country where everything is a lie, where the lack of democracy is called socialist democracy, economic chaos socialist economy, revolution anti-revolution, and so on. The dictatorship of the time was a real dictatorship, though it was neither bloody nor crude. For all practical purposes, it meant the potential threat of dictatorship, a ubiquitous and unavoidable threat that tainted every moment of our lives. If, you thought to yourself, if it should happen. And you felt helpless. But usually there was no if. It did not happen.”

The novel takes place possibly on June 16 because Esterhazy notes, “Since Joyce’s ‘Ulysses,’ every novel takes place on this day.” He breaks the book into four arbitrary sections and then deliciously fragments it further with myriad narrators, each in possession of an anecdote of life under Communism. These are told with a poetic intensity and with the injunction: “To remember is a formidable obligation. Once I am gone in wake of the others what I have forgotten or neglected to write down will disappear without a trace. . . .You might call this a memoir. A medley of memories. A flotsam and jetsam medley of memoir fragments. And then, by definition, my flaunt-some-get-some medley of memoir fragments. In which case, of course, I should begin accordingly, the way Witold Gombrowicz begins his notes: I. I. I. I.--But never mind. Let us look instead at the blood-splattered facts of life that around these parts are so much in evidence, having become our daily bread, our common fare.”

By going back to the sources of the novel in Rabelais and Sterne, which emphasized parody, mockery, intellectual rigour and wide and exotic learning, Esterhazy is better able to describe the actual life of Hungary during the years of Communism when "[l]ooking for the truth is always an adventure, more exhilarating than Casanova’s, more exalted than Parsifal’s--even better than Timur and his band of Young Pioneers in the perennial Soviet favourite. What’s gotta be worked on here is being together with people, living with them, if you know what I mean, here in Hungary. . . .”

At this moment in “A Little Hungarian Pornography,” Esterhazy supplies a footnote--"Teacher at a parent-teacher meeting: ‘This year’s objective has been the moral education of our children. This objective has been successfully implemented.’ ”

Further on there is a comment about a man watching and laughing about a marching band from the AVO (the secret police). “ ‘What’s so funny old man,’ I asked, taken aback. ‘Nothing much, son,’ he said pointing to the enthusiastic ruddy-cheeked musicians, ‘except I was thinking when the time comes, how will these upright lads prove that all along they did nothing but play?’ The old man chuckled for some time yet. I had no idea that in him the purifying storm of the future was already brewing.”

Unlike many Eastern European and Russian writers who are now silent because they’re incapable of describing the changing realities of their post-Communist worlds, Esterhazy as a writer did survive Communism’s breakup because his own true home was always within literature and not--to use Lawrence Durrell’s phrase--in the final phase of decomposition called journalism, which is writing dependent merely on “reality.”

“The Book of Hrabal,” published in Hungarian in 1990, revolves around an imaginary triangle of a writer trying to write a novel about the Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal, and the writer’s wife, Anna, who imagines herself in love with Hrabal and is trying to decide whether to have an abortion upon discovering that she is pregnant for the fourth time. Anna is watched over by two secret police agents who are actually angels sent by God to urge her to keep the baby, and I give nothing away by saying we will not have to read another abortion story.


Anna is a delightful provocative creation; one of the newly memorable creatures to populate the imaginary landscape of Eastern Europe where everything is both true and made up: “From the garden came Anna’s whistling; she kept jabbing at one of Ray C. Sartorius’s lesser-known numbers, which, in the late twenties, and I’m not exaggerating, drove New Orleans wild. (Ray C. is known as the ‘Younger Sartorius’; his relationship with his older brother, for reputedly artistic reasons, was none too good, the brothers were not only jealous of each other, but hated each other’s tone, the older ran with Bessie Smith, Queen of the Blues--see ‘Empty Bed Blues.’ As if was not in his vocabulary,’ wrote the critics, perhaps partly in reference to his relationship.) ‘That Ancient Celtic Sorrow on Your Face And Those Fabulous Tits’ was the full title of a number Anna was whistling; it had emerged (possibly because of the lyrics?) expressly as an anthem of sorts, a kind of emancipation blues for housewives; the women took to the streets, they say, and danced and laughed, and twirled their bras like slings.”

And if such scintillating prose was not sufficient, Esterhazy has God himself appear later in the novel. “Carefully the Lord picked up Charlie Parker’s axe. Fingers in line, support, guts, circulation, embouchement, he kept repeating, what he’d learned. He had butterflies in his stomach. (He had no ear formusic, the most irrefutable proof of which is Bach. The Lord created Johann Sebastian Bach to perfect himself.) Silence reigned.”

“She Loves Me” is composed of 97 short chapters, each of which usually opens with the declarative sentence, “There’s this woman,” sometimes to be followed by “She loves me” or “She hates me.” Sometimes there are variations in the second sentence, “She loves me, I love her” or “Oh, how I love her!” or “She loves me (or hates me).” And then there follows a teasing out of these male-female entanglements, a filling out of these sentences that, while one sees that they are ostensibly about many different women, one always has the inkling that it is the same woman who is being described just as in Calvino’s “Invisible Cities” we are led to believe that all the invisible cities being described are actually only aspects of one city, Venice. And I am sure, just as in Calvino’s luminous book, a system will be discovered for the ordering of Esterhazy’s chapters but we are still at the moment of wonder at his cleverness in the very best sense of that word. Such is the playfulness of Esterhazy’s writing that these questions never interfere with our enjoyment of “She Loves Me” which could be said to be an attempt to examine the line itself which separates the proverbial closeness of love and hate; a verbal stripping of the petals of the flower of your choice to the sing-song of “she loves me, she loves me not.”

It is hard to convey the charm of “She Loves Me” because quickly we are in the territory of what physically happens between two people--but let it be said that Esterhazy is never pornographic, simply erotically graphic. Two chapters in their entirety provide a sample of his sure touch: “There is this woman. She loves. She never gasps for breath. Why not? It’s good for her, except she doesn’t gasp for breath. Right now this bothers me more than anything in the world, this silence, this lack of sound in which I am heard, the yelping of my passion reaching for the sky.” Or: “There is this woman. She feels about me the way I feel about her. She loves me. She hates me. When she hates me, I love her. When she loves me, I hate her. All others are inconceivable.”

“The Glance of the Countess Hahn-Hahn (Down the Danube)” is a travel book, but such a simple sentence is seriously misleading and we should allow Esterhazy to define what he is up to: “I was at last forced to concede that the Danube exists. No great discovery. . . .What does it mean to say that the form of the book is the Danube? Is this a form in the same sense that a sonnet is a form? . . .Each individual novel provides its own answer to that question these days, which means that all the definitions turn back in upon themselves, from the source to the gutter and vice versa; they are simultaneous, they neither have been, nor will be: they simply are. To be--it is a bit late for that. Is the novel identical with its own death? I don’t claim that the novel is dead if, and only if God is dead. Nor do I claim that if the novel is dead, God must be dead too. But to the question of whether the novel is or isn’t dead etc., I have a very resolute and concrete answer: I DON’T KNOW. I wrote this in my notebook at the point where the two little rivers converge, and whereafter the thing is referred to as the Danube.”

“The Glance of the Countess Hahn-Hahn (Down the Danube)” is one of the finest explorations of going on a journey and of the idea of what it means to go anywhere. The Danube is traced from its origins in Germany all the way to the final dispersal into the Black Sea. Attention is paid to all the requirements of such travel writing: there are delays, minor problems, the stock characters of “The Contractor” and “The Traveller” are created to provide for the sending of telegrams back and forth commenting on the progress of the journey. There are plenty of items of local color from a conversation with Heidegger in which the philosopher says nothing, to the passing by of the castle at Sigmaringen where the government of Vichy France ended up, attended by the good Dr. Celine. A listing of specialist literature is provided but not consulted and places not seen are mentioned, such as “visiting the wise fathers of the Beuron Monastery who deciphered the secrets of ancient parchments, of writing that had long since been scratched or washed away (which is also, if you like, the glance of Countess Hahn-Hahn’s blind eye).”

There are two jarring moments that indicate the texture and depth that make Esterhazy such a special writer: “I knew that this river would give me everything: orography, hydrography, history, ethnography, tourist information, complete with anecdotes, hopes and corpses, everything, past, present, and future, flood and drought, maelstrom and fish soup, and people too. . . .There was only one thing it would not provide, the one thing I needed most of all, for I simply couldn’t see how on earth, it could possibly give me sentences. ‘And with true tears, Oh Lord, I pray. . . .’ ”

For Esterhazy, God (and not only God) is in the details: “The Traveller had a leaning toward Pascal, that is toward some kind of empirical metaphysics which, contrary to widespread belief, is not the same as the nice idea that God dwells in details. Because Satan dwells there too, as do Truth and Love. One can read all about this. So the four of them dwell in the Details, a bit like living in a crowded co-op in Moscow, God, Satan, Truth and Love, sharing one television set that is on all day long. Love wants to watch a debate on channel one (he’s a Yeltsin supporter) and Satan wants to watch the ice hockey on channel two. One hell of a fight ensues. Justice goes through the motions of administering justice, while, ignoring the futile entreaties of all three the Lord simply turns his nose up at the satellite dish. Just to get to the next tree, declared the Traveller, no longer even knowing after whom.”


I suppose some readers might ask the question: Why bother with these translated novels, don’t we have enough writers in this country? The answer: We have many fine writers in America, but we do not have even a single one of the stature and exemplary ambition of Peter Esterhazy.