Kornél Esti – à la Esterházy

Esterházy Péter: Esti

It would be definitely difficult to read the works of Péter Esterházy without knowing the Péter Esterházy phenomena. In his latest work our author attempts to rewrite, i.e. to continue the Kornél Esti short stories of Kosztolányi. But once being more or less acquainted with the style of Esterházy, could the reader possibly read the work without knowing the Kosztolányi phenomena? Of course we can turn over the pages of the rewritten Kornél Esti without considering Kosztolányi. However, the most essential question is whether Esterházy has presented something new since publishing Harmonia Caelestis, or No Art.

“This is me, in quotation marks, I am my travelogue (in which I also report on how many times the hero died in his sleep), and I remain a fragment. A garland. Nobody writes about what he really is but about what he wants to become.” When we talk about Esterházy, we primarily talk about form, and, in the first part of the work, the author has already revealed us the keyword: fragment. It is not easy to define the genre of Esti; the subtitle “Seventy Stories” implies that here we have a short story cycle, or, if you like, a garland of stories; still I read the work as the latest novel of Esterházy. And the very reason for this is that the work is built upon one central, dominant character, namely around Esti, and we get acquainted with the events of his life.



Although we discover several story threads, a great many of the stories are merged into the textual world of the work. The book suggests a thorough editorial work and can be divided into three major parts. The main pillar of the book is the middle part (Kornél Esti), which determines the structure of the book and links twelve related short stories. While, the first part (Seventy Stories) and the third part (The Adventures of Kornél Esti) include rather longer or shorter pieces of various genres and styles, which practically embrace the central, dominant part of the book. As I have already mentioned, the central character is Esti, who “did not excel others in any way, was neither dumb nor clever, and was neither foul nor fair. Just an example: on his neck an anthrax kept on reappearing and no one would willingly touch it, but his face in spite of his adolescence was shining bright like a – for instance – tarn.” He is the character who determines and keeps all the mosaics of the story in motion; perhaps he is Péter Esterházy himself, or the narrator, or even the reader since through the fragmentary narratives we may also identify ourselves with the character of Esti. In Esterházy’s Esti, just like in Kosztolányi’s, the whole work is determined by the protagonist: he is the eternal, enigmatic figure who always shows a new and different face to the world, and behind whom the author or even the reader can hide and who “indeed – how rare! – enjoyed his life.”

In order to analyse the genre of the book properly, I consider it important to note that in connection with the fragment or fragmentariness mentioned above, we should not only think about postmodernity but also about romanticism. In fact, the fragments of Schlegel meant absolute entirety: entirety is present in the fragment. One of the characteristics of postmodern novel is the unfinished state of the story in certain cases, which evokes the impression that the author might continue it any time. At the same time, Esti, in spite of its formal incoherence, is complete, an entirety in itself, because there is a definite sense of totality in it: it is from the fragmentary, seemingly insignificant episodes that all the meanings of life evolve. It is so because the prose of Esterházy is characterised by a diary-like nature, and the description of everyday events will unintentionally evoke the impression that the author drew them from his own life. Therefore, from this point of view, I seem to accept the idea that if Harmonia Caelestis can be read as a saga then this latest work can be read as the autobiography of Esterházy.



What I also consider important to highlight in connection with the textual world of the novel is that Esterházy’s use of the language is as virtuoso as ever, leaving an open playground for the various figures of speech and puns. He cannot, however, surprise the reader; moreover we might say that he presents us something “that is already typical of Esterházy.” Yet intertextuality is again a permanent prerequisite for he inserts a whole “collection of mottos” in between the tiny fragments of the stories: there are quotations from the classic (Standhal) to contemporary writers (Endre Kukorelly) as well.

Therefore I find it a plausible possibility that Esterházy may have dressed his own autobiography into Kornél Esti’s clothes. The supposition that the author is identical with the protagonist of the book is fairly possible as he was called “Esti” by his friends at university. But still there is something missing, because the book did not have the effect of Harmonia Caelestis on me. It might be so because I have had higher expectations concerning a new Esterházy work. However, if an author is considered a juggler of words by his critics, then our expectations to be able see as spectacular “attractions” in his latest work as we have seen in his previous novels are justified. Even so, I consider it an exciting reading, maybe just because it has the ability to evoke the picture of Esti in every former readers of Kosztolányi.


Péter Esterházy, Esti, Magvető, Budapest, 2010.

Translated by Zita Kassai