Living classics face no greater danger than their own status as classics. The real stake and the true challenge in their later career is whether they can rejuvenate compared to their earlier selves. Hungarian examples from the recent years have included Kertész, who seems to have failed, and Nádas who, some claim, blew himself to bits or, as others say, rebuilt himself from nought. Compared to the latter, Esterházy works in smaller steps but nevertheless in his new book he manages to jump over his own shadow, and splendidly at that.
It was high time, one must admit. Even the most faithful of Esterházy readers were justly disappointed when, after the monumental Celestial Harmonies and Revised Edition, the oeuvre ran into the hundred and fifty page piece of journalism known under the title Travel to the Depth of the Penalty Area. Luckily, apart from everything else, Not Art puts Travel... into perspective as a prologue or collection of sketches for the former. A whole line of themes and motifs which appeared there as mere unsolicited disclosures of personal quirks now gain an artistically valid form and function (for instance football as a surrogate world view, a brief history of Eastern-European football, female figures who are football crazy ranging from an aunt in Lichtenstein who understands the offside rule through an editor who guided the author through Germany all the way to the memorable figure of Mari, the pitch master’s wife).
Far more important than this is the connection between Not Art and another, far earlier work by Esterházy, Helping Verbs of the Heart (1985), a literary record of grief work inspired by the death of the author’s mother. Now, 23 years after the publication of this book, Esterházy is doing the inverse of the job he did in Revised Edition after Celestial Harmonies. There he had been trapped by realistic biographic fact (of his own and his father’s life) and was trying to ‘correct’ or to write back into reality the fictional father figure whom he had raised into mythical heights in his grand novel. It seemed as if regardless of postmodernism and the death of the author these two (Mátyás Esterházy and ‘my father’ of Harmonies) nevertheless had something in common and as if the author’s very honour and integrity depended on getting this relationship quite clear. This sense of ‘as if after all’ is given up and corrected with incredible magnanimity and elegance in the writing about his mother who had died and been buried in the genuine pain of biographic tragedy and is now being written back to life through fiction. Esterházy invents and executes an alternative family history in which, for instance, the family is never evacuated, the father dies early and, most importantly, the mother lives to be ninety and happens to be football crazy (and what a line of stories!). It is pretended all along that the narrator of the story, told with amazing convincing power, is still none other than Péter Esterházy. His identity is substantiated by incessant self-reflection, allusions to and commentary on earlier works (including the description of how the family reacted when he supposedly wrote a novel of the mother’s ‘invented’ death which became a success etc.).
To be sure, he could not do this without having recourse to the Esterházy figure built up over the last 30 years as a result of the tendency to turn himself into mythology that had been at work since the beginning of the oeuvre, and positioned the author’s figure somewhere halfway between life and fiction. Nevertheless this figure in Not Art is shown in a totally different light. He seems to speak more freely; when he uses his notorious borrowings he marks the reference, he discloses creative secrets (who the earlier characters were modelled upon etc.), while other borrowings are cloaked in utter silence (e.g. an unmarked quote from Szilárd Borbély or a paraphrase of Thomas Mann). This silence makes it quite clear that Esterházy’s typical self-reflections play a very different role here than before. They serve to anchor the novel’s fictitious narrator, whose mother is supposed to be still alive, in the biographic figure whom we know to have lost his mother ‘for real’ in 1980. Thus in this work, by redesigning the function of his own mannerisms, Esterházy manoeuvres himself into a new, unfamiliar perspective. Up till now it had seemed that although his previous works gave plenty of room for confabulation, ‘touching up’ the stories was still in the service of a genuine autobiographic intent, that of giving us as vivid a picture of the Esterházy family as possible. Now, however, the situation is reversed – in the case of Not Art the autobiographic character (now primarily meaning the biography and oeuvre of Péter Esterházy qua author) stands in the service of the fiction about the mother. As though the author, beyond the revolutionary-poetic struggle for his own grammatical space that had characterised the first half of his oeuvre, and having ticked off the job, imposed by an inner sense of duty, of writing some joyous and some not so joyous stories about his family history, had now suddenly found his way back to the elevating and relieving liberty of fiction. He seems, in other words, to have hit upon the insight that freedom could extend to himself and his own life, and that in this infinitely free space even the scandalous fact that mothers die can be reversed. Provided that the book is well-written.
As it so happens, the characters in the complex stories of Not Art are very well written, lovable figures with astounding lives even for readers unacquainted with the earlier oeuvre. It is proved once again that Esterházy’s talent goes way beyond postmodernist textual plays and is indeed capable of shedding light into the unknown nooks and corners of the human soul, the dwelling-place of trivial yet mysterious things like the relationship of mother and son, the metaphysics of rooting or the freedom of fiction against the tyranny of facts.
Péter Esterházy: Not Art
Translated by Judith Sollosy
New York: Ecco, 2010
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