Archive for the ‘Deszo Kosztolanyi’ Category

Anna Edes

June 19, 2016

anna edes

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.


May 11, 2014

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Deszo Kosztolanyi is another in the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s seemingly endless supply of astonishing writers. I must admit that I had never heard of him until I picked up a copy of Skylark (second-hand) largely on the recommendation of it having been published by the New York Review of Books, and introduced by Peter Esterhazy. As Esterhazy says: “Everything came together rather nicely at the turn of the century, before the world collapsed.”

In summary, Skylark is a simple book. It begins as the Vajkays prepare to say farewell to their daughter, an unmarried woman in her thirties whom they have affectionately nicknamed Skylark. Although she will only be spending the next week with relatives, the separation is clearly upsetting for both parties, particularly the parents:

“They stared dumbly into space like the speechless victims of some sudden loss, their eyes still hankering after the spot where they had last seen her.”

When, after Skylark boards the train the narrative seems to follow her as she finds a cabin and observes her fellow travellers, we assume this will be her story, but the novel is, in fact, largely the tale of the two parents. Without Skylark, their life is completely disrupted, their routines abandoned. Actions they would not have countenanced before, like eating in the local restaurant, the King of Hungary, they decide they will tolerate temporarily:

“Somehow they had to overcome the disgust they had artificially cultivated beyond all proportion. On the way to the restaurant they comforted each other, braving themselves for the dubious event.”

Yet after only one meal, Akos, Skylark’s father, is spends the night regretting not having sampled the menu more widely:

“Goulash, that’s what it was. Delicious to be sure…How I adored that in my younger days…God only knows when I had them last.”

The visit to the restaurant leads to numerous re-acquaintances and an invitation to the theatre. Before long Akos has re-joined the Panthers, a gentlemen’s club which spends Thursday nights in drunken abandon. Skylark isn’t completely neglected by Kosztolanyi as we learn a little of her holiday, but the novel is about the freedom the parents find without their child rather than the more traditional reverse.

All of this is recounted in a delightfully measure comic style. Here, for example, is Kosztolanyi’s description of an ageing actress:

“Her face was as soft as the pulpy flesh of an overripe banana, her breasts like two tiny bunches of grapes… She breathed the air as if it burned her palate, baking her small, hot, whorish mouth.”

Beneath all this, Kosztolanyi is making a darker, more profound point. The Vajkays’ sudden liberty betrays the stifling nature of their life. This, they believe, is a sacrifice they make for their daughter; but she has own hidden misery, accepting at the end that she will never marry. It is this that lies at the centre of the novel, and while today the state of spinsterhood may not be most parent’s greatest fear, the novel is portrays a very modern anxiety of parenthood.