Portrait – 14th April, 2004

Péter Esterházy


Portrait–14th April, 2004


"And it is much more reassuring if a writer thinks in terms of subject and verb rather than in terms of nation and kin."

"For me, everything is family history"
(The Glance of Countess Hahn-Hahn)

Péter Esterházy, whose family played an important part in Central European political and cultural history, was born in 1950.

Hungarian literary historians regard him as one of the main creators of a still effective canon in critical discourse. It is due to his works that prose - and especially the novel - has become a genre more forcefully present than verse in Hungarian literature. At the same time, he has succeeded in creating a language original in its tone and playfulness that he also uses effectively in reviews about Hungarian and world literature as well as in articles, brief and brilliant writings on diverse political and social questions.

"And it is much more reassuring if a writer thinks in terms of subject and verb rather than in terms of nation and kin." Bevezetés a szépirodalomba - Introduction to Literature)

In the second half of the nineteen-seventies, Hungarian writers started to question the omnipotence of language: language as transmitter of stories becomes interesting and is thereby problematised, and gradually more and more attention is invested in the modes of constitution of the text. Péter Esterházy's œuvre, occupying a central place in contemporary Hungarian literature, is a fine example of this "textual literature".

His first volume of short stories, entitled Fancsikó és Pinta (Fancsikó and Pinta), was published in 1976 and was awarded best first volume of prose in the year of its publication. In the short stories of his second book, Pápai vizeken ne kalózkodj! (1977), he operates with the playful and ironical reinterpretation of the affirmative attitude of the writer. His third volume, his first novel Termelési regény (Production Novel, 1979), "an encyclopaedia of Hungarian life", which also signals the passage from one period to the next in Hungarian literary history, builds on these antecedents. He is a representative of the new, post-modern movement that started to develop after the slow disappearance of the tradition of the writers and poets who gathered around the prestigious Nyugat magazine, a tradition stretching from the beginning of the twentieth century to the nineteen-sixties and seventies, and in the wake of the realistic movements established in the constrained field of play dominated by Socialist ideology, which completely ignored language as means of transmission and creation.

The "book-picker"

His technique of citation does not confine itself to using, hinting at, alluding to elements - signalled or not - taken from other people's work; the transposition or integration of his own motives, excerpts, passages, sentences or, in certain cases, whole volumes into another work of his actually create a strong cohesion within his œuvre: in his book entitled Bevezetés a szépirodalomba (An Introduction to Literature, 1986), he for instance incorporated works he published independently between 1981 and 1984 (Függo, 1981; Fuharosok, 1983, in English: The Transporters, 1991; Kis magyar pornográfia, 1984, in English: A Little Hungarian Pornography, 1995; Daisy, 1984; A szív segédigéi, 1985, in English: Helping Verbs of the Heart, 1990). It is typical of this novel's strive for totality that it comprises, listed in continuous typing on pages 719 to 724, the names of all authors whose works - a sentence, a line, a page or more - have been used in the making of the book.

"I, Lili Csokonai..." Lili Csokonai: Tizenhét hattyúk (Seventeen Swans, 1987)

In his book entitled Psziché, the poet Sándor Weöres invented a poetess, with a whole œuvre, biography and network, and gives her as lover an author who really existed, in order to blur the boundaries between reality and fiction. Péter Esterházy's novel published in 1987 (Lili Csokonai: Tizenhét hattyúk) is based on a similar idea: he published this work - in which the female narrator writes of her unhappy love and sexual adventures in a Hungarian spoken four hundred years before - under the name of Lili Csokonai, and for a long time did not reveal the real identity of its author.

Gestures of homage by which he emphasises or even incorporates in his own work the work of another witer who is important in his eyes are typical of Péter Esterházy: in a much debated post-modern gesture he copied word by word and word on word the Hungarian novel Iskola a határon (in English: School at the Frontier, 1966) on one single sheet of drawing-paper. Through this gesture he on the one hand expressed his respect for its author, Géza Ottlik, while on the other he has made the book unreadable through the act of copying. He devoted a whole book to Bohumil Hrabal (Hrabal könyve, 1990, in English: The Book of Hrabal, 1993).

Élet és irodalom (Life and Literature)

"For me, sentences and reality are in an unusual, inverted relationship. (...) I don't pay attention to whether the sentence describes reality adequately, but whether reality has an element that my sentence describes, that is, whether my sentence is real. Consequently, if there is no sentence, there is no reality, or at least I don't know what to do with it."

In this volume, a peculiar relationship links Imre Kertész' Jegyzokönyv to Péter Esterházy's short story. Kertész' text, written on the occasion of a customs control he went through on the train during a trip abroad, tackles the theme of post-dictatorial elements discernible in official procedures. Esterházy's text cites the sentences of Kertész's text, while the author tells a story of his own in which he includes Kertész's story as well as other texts. Esterházy's sensibility to logical posers and peculiarities can be seen in his book Egy no, 1993 (in English: She Loves Me, 1997), in which he lists in logical order all possible observations related to the body and the possible situations that occur in human relationships.

"and because now I have moral considerations while writing - not only, as is usually the case, aesthetic considerations - I become stylistically uncertain." (Javított kiadás - Revised Edition)

In 2000, a great novel about the author's father and fatherhood as such, bearing the title Harmonia Caelestis (Celestial Harmonies) was published, after ten years of writing. The novel amalgamates the portrait of Mátyás Esterházy with the whole of the family's history, with, as usual, numerous internal and external, marked or unmarked citations and paraphrases. Two years after its publication, the volume entitled Javított kiadás (Revised Edition), as its subtitle says, an appendix to Harmonia Caelestis, came out as a surprise. In it, the author explicitly asks the reader to read this "appendix" only after having finished Harmonia Caelestis.

On Januar 28, 2000, after having finished Harmonia Caelestis, the author learned that during the Communist regime his father was an "agent III/III", that is, an agent employed by the State Security Office who for years wrote reports to the authorities about virtually all of their friends and acquaintances in order that he and his family be left to live undisturbed. This appendix is the compilation of the notes the author took while reading the four files, with additional remarks written during the revision of the notes, then again during their re-writing a year later, and finally all the notes that were written in the process; a system of diverse parentheses indicates when each part of the text was written, and also identifies the parts cited from the reports written by the father, and the parts cited from Harmonia Caelestis are typed in brown.

As a number of readers and critics have noted, the text is somewhat overloaded - this is probably caused by the fact that the narrator cannot escape here: the author cannot leave the narrator's position ambiguous, as this book is clearly autobiographical, and not fictional, being the documentation of the processing of an unexpected event.

Gabriella Györe
Translated by Kinga Dornacher

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