Anna Edes by Dezso Kosztolanyi immediately immerses us in the politics of post-war Hungary (that is post World War One – the novel was written in 1926). Having entered the war as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, defeat led to disintegration, and turmoil within the various nation-states which resulted. Hungary experienced first a socialist revolution (it had, of course, been a monarchy) and then a Communist revolution. Anna Edes begins as that period ends thanks to the intervention of the Romanian army; in its first line, Communist leader Bela Kun is pictured “fleeing the country in an aeroplane.” This scene is portrayed rather comically:
“His pockets were stuffed with sweet pastry. He carried jewels, relics of the church and precious stones that had once belonged to well-disposed and generous aristocratic women… Great gold chains hung from his arms.”
Despite living through these uncertain times, Kosztolanyi presents a detached, sardonic view of the political ups and downs, viewed initially from the Vizy household, a middle-aged couple who have suffered under the rule of the proletariat. There’s an element of farce about the way in which their caretaker, Ficsor, his short stint of superiority over, is eager to impress upon the Vizys his willingness to resume his former deference. What better way to re-establish class relationships than to offer Mrs Vizy a maid?
“The woman was positively excited. She had long dreamed of finding a maid privately, but a peasant girl! No one had come up with anything as good as this.”
Mrs Vizy is, after all, a woman obsessed with the problem of finding decent servants, unhappy as she is with her present maid, Katica:
“’All they do is gobble,’ she lamented. ‘Enough for two. And fool around with the soldiers.’”
When Anna finally appears, almost fifty pages into the novel, Kosztolanyi is at pains to stress her innocence (“She wore a neat checked gingham frock under which her small childish breasts swelled out”) and vulnerability (“If she did raise her eyes at all it was no more than enough to allow her to see Mrs Vizy’s shoes and stockings”). She has no expectations beyond a life of labour: when asked if she would like the job she shrugs:
“She had simply meant she didn’t mind. Wherever she went she had to work.”
Anna turns out to be an excellent servant:
“The maid had already aired and mopped the rooms. How could she? It was impossible. She would have had to get up at four and work so quietly that no-one heard her.”
This doesn’t, of course, elicit praise from Mrs Vizy – praise, after all, spoils a servant – but instead simply makes her fear that she will lose Anna. (Later, when Anna is offered the opportunity to marry, Mrs Vizy ‘falls ill’ and tells her “don’t waste your youth.”) Perhaps the best example of Anna’s treatment by the Vizys is when she receives as a Christmas present a gift the previous servant had disdained to take with her when dismissed.
Mrs Vizy’s attitude towards Anna is echoed in a more physical form by her son, Jancsi, when he returns home. Cleverly, Kosztolanyi does not immediately place him in the cad category, with some evidence that the feelings he develops for Anna are not entirely faked. Translator Georges Szitres has some trouble replicating the formal / informal versions of ‘you’ which are an important facet of their relationship:
“She was reflecting on the immense distance this one little word could bridge.”
Of course, as the novel has already demonstrated, it is a distance that cannot be bridged – there are already warning signs when Jancsi tells his friend that the woman he is seeing is an actress called Marianne, and is then surprised when he doesn’t recognise Anna from his description.
Kosztolanyi’s sympathies lie entirely with Anna, yet he neither romanticises her nor treats her as a ventriloquist’s dummy. In fact, she remains almost as unknowable to the reader as she does to the Vizys, making her later actions all the more shocking. The mocking tone used elsewhere never alights on her, creating a powerful political statement in a novel which seems so dismissive of politics. Anna’s exploitation shows that the real issue is how we treat each other, which is probably why the novel feels just as relevant today as ever.