When I first encountered the work of Péter Esterházy, at the 2008 PEN World Voices festival, all I knew of him was his name. But what a name! The House of Esterházy, like an Eastern European amalgam of the Medicis and the Kennedys, was prominent in Austro-Hungarian culture and politics for centuries, until the upheavals of the 20th Century cost the family almost everything. It’s a cost Esterházy assesses in his magnum opus, Harmonia Caelestis (2000), from which he read that night, in his native tongue. “I don’t speak English,” he said. “You don’t speak Hungarian. This is the problem.” Nonetheless, he sent his audience rushing to the merch tables, where his books promptly sold out.
Esterházy has long loomed large in Europe, having annealed its literary-historical legacy in the crucible of his own idiosyncratic, comic, and humane voice. Among his major novels are Helping Verbs of the Heart and A Little Hungarian Pornography, both available in English, and Production Novel and the enormous Introduction to Literature, both not. This body of work earned Esterházy the distinguished Peace Prize of the German Book Fair in 2004 – the year Harmonia Caelestis appeared in English, as Celestial Harmonies. “A writer whose voice is heard far and wide,” ran the citation. “The youngest of the ‘Joyceans’ didn’t just place his homeland in the center of Europe, he also placed Europe in the middle of literature.”
I finally laid hands on Celestial Harmonies last year and finished it this winter – just in time for Esterházy’s appearance at the 92nd Street Y, in support of the just-released Not Art. Through the good graces of 92Y and Ecco Press, Esterházy agreed to a wide-ranging interview via email, with his stalwart translator Judith Sollosy acting as our intermediary. For those just discovering Esterházy, Ecco has furnished an excerpt of Not Art you can read here.
The Millions: Your acrobatic sentences may remind contemporary American readers of Donald Barthelme, or even of Diane Williams, but I’m guessing that when you turned to novel-writing during the Kádár era, such linguistic self-consciousness was sui generis. Can you tell us a bit about how your style developed, and how it fit into the social, political, and aesthetic climate of Budapest in the ’70s?
Péter Esterházy: My admittedly conscious use of language, I think, was not conscious. It was my hand or my stomach that knew. In short, I didn’t approach writing from the vantage point of theory, but from the side of practice – much like a stonemason. A stonemason is brick-centered, too. At the time this was considered marginal, but at the time marginality seemed the natural state of being. The center is suspect. Everything that is official is suspect. Except, in essence, it’s basically the official that exists. This is what we call a dictatorship.
TM: Did you feel yourself to be part of a broader movement of younger writers or artists, or did you have a sense of doing something quite radical? And how did your academic training as a mathematician inform your approach to fiction?
PE: I think that as far as my reflexes are concerned I would have liked to have been a so-called l’art pour l’art writer. But in a dictatorship everything takes on political coloring, and though a writer may declare, or rather practice, that a text is a text is a text (and a rose), still all this ends up in a pronounced moral sphere, it takes on social function; in fact, whether the writer intends it or not, that’s the role it plays. But that’s all right. It is what happened to my books as well.
At first I noticed similar aspirations among contemporary poets (Dezső Tandori, Imre Oravecz). Clearly, the same thing comes off as a sort of radicalism in prose. But my temperament is less radical than it is consistent. I may have brought this with me from mathematics. You can’t divide by zero if you’d like to win over lots of readers, or if it would seem beneficial for the nation. It is language that is radical, and I accommodated myself to it instinctively. I could tell that it was creating me [and not the other way around]. Whereas at the time I hadn’t read Wittgenstein. But no, I take that back. I read him for my Logic in Mathematics class.
TM: And yet, even as you interrogate language in a decidedly postmodern manner, you’re deeply engaged with the earlier tradition of the bourgeois novel – as if you were, like Nurse Emma in Not Art, “the land of avid readers all rolled into one.” I’m curious about your habits and history as a reader: how you came to these works, what they meant for you, and how your reading practice and your writing practice interact.
PE: For a long time I didn’t read contemporary authors, but I did read a lot of classical literature, all the Hungarians – Kosztolányi, Móricz, Mikszáth – the great French, the great Russians, the great English writers. When I read something, I didn’t think of it as a chore. I always read for my own amusement, my own pleasure. The way I drink wine. And whiskey. And grappa… The way I eat.
When I was thirtysomethingish there came a time when I realized that I was reading almost exclusively as work. I immediately made it a rule to read fifteen minutes of poetry every morning. I go to my room in the morning and read poetry.
TM: The first part of Celestial Harmonies, in particular, is like a conversation with Joyce, Nabokov, Thomas Mann, and Lampedusa, among others.
PE: I read Joyce the way I read Balzac. But Joyce was important because – though it sounds like the arrogance of a young man – I saw that I wasn’t alone. That’s why the Austrian avant-garde was also important [to me] at the time. For example, Handke. Or the modern classical authors, mostly the Austrians rather than the Germans, Musil rather than Thomas Mann, Broch rather than Hesse. Still, I had great, orgiastic experiences reading Mann into the wee hours of the morning. That goes without saying. I didn’t know what I was doing, where I was headed (I still don’t, nor do I mind), and I needed some affirmation. I later happened upon a good anthology of American postmodern writers. (Naturally, the title was Entropy.) Pynchon, Barthelme, Sukenick, Barth. The Eastern European postmodern is always more charged with history. When I use June 16th as a motif, it is Bloomsday and also June 16, 1958, the day that Imre Nagy, the leader of the Hungarian revolution, was hanged.
TM: I was intrigued, in light of these references, to learn from the end matter of Celestial Harmonies that you also leaned on Frank McCourt. Are you a fan? What in Angela’s Ashes appealed to you?
PE: I’m not a great fan. But then, I come to someone’s writing not out of admiration but out of necessity. McCourt knows so much about poverty, and the face of Irish poverty is a little different from Hungarian poverty. When I rewrote some passages, it was this richness and strangeness that was important for me. If I had a streak of envy in me (which I don’t, I’d say modestly), I’d say that I envy those for whom the act of writing is so obviously not a problem.
TM: In the second half of Celestial Harmonies, the allusive symphony of the first part gives way to something more nakedly personal. American reviewers seemed to prefer the latter, but in my mind the two constitute a unity, like the stool and wheel that comprise Duchamp’s “Bicycle Wheel.”
PE: I also hope that the two together make up a unit. At least, it would be good if this were true. I think that if the Good Lord or Goethe had written this novel, it certainly wouldn’t be in two parts.
TM: How did you arrive at this conception for the novel’s structure? Why is each part necessary to the other?
PE: Let me try [to say it] briefly: As I got more and more immersed in my family’s history, I realized that there were a great many stories, practically infinite, which also meant that the family was wealthy, very wealthy. But I couldn’t find a natural linear way of presenting this, not to mention the fact that it was not the relating of the family history as faithfully as possible that motivated me but the other way around; I wanted to say something universal through the family history. In short, there was this heap of stories. Then I attempted to sort them thematically, daytime stories, nighttime stories, where someone is kissed, where it’s raining. But then what am I to do with the story where someone is kissed in the rain who immediately died as a result? In short, I couldn’t come up with a viable choreography, I couldn’t put the stories in order, because this order didn’t exist inside me. So I was left with the numbering.
TM: Is there some specific effect you imagined the two halves having together?
PE: With the numbered stories I managed some sort of historical perspective. By making “my father” the main character of these stories, meaning that I turned everyone into my father, I basically destroyed the taboo of fatherhood. And so it seemed apt that once we’d come to accept this fatherless world, I should relate a Twentieth Century father-story which is very much like my own father’s story.
The relationship of the two parts to reality is different (just as Revised Edition is different, too). Anyway, it’s something like this. Heine was supposed to have said that bad writers write whatever they hear, we good writers write whatever we can, and Herr Goethe writes whatever he wants.
TM: You’ve mentioned Revised Edition – a kind of third part of Celestial Harmonies that appeared 2004. The climax of the earlier novel, in certain ways, is your late father’s arrest – or maybe I should say the character Mátyás Esterházy’s arrest – amid the crackdown of 1956. In Celestial Harmonies, as in “reality,” your father is released and settles into the quiet life of a translator. However, as you learned after the novel’s publication, he also became an informer for the secret police. It’s this discovery you recount in Revised Edition, which (unconscionably) has not been published in English…
PE: Its non-appearance in English I regret, just like you.
TM: For an American, it’s tempting to read this discovery in black-and-white terms – the hero turns bad guy – but most of us have little conception of how the police state works. Or anyway, I don’t. What understanding of your father’s actions did you arrive at while writing Revised Edition? Do you still see him, as he was in Celestial Harmonies, as representative of his time and place? And what kind of information did he provide to the authorities? Have you made your peace with that?
PE: I even grumble when they say that in Celestial Harmonies I erected a memorial or whatnot to my father. But there’s no doubt that I’m to blame for this popular misconception. Also, if we look at the novels and plays in world literature where there is a father, the father in my novel resembles my real father the most. To me, this complicated answer is important, and judging by your first question, I know that you know this. I use my life as raw material for my novels. If I didn’t have a father, I couldn’t have written Celestial Harmonies this way.
I know, of course, that this is not what your question is about, and I don’t wish to digress. My father’s life is an example of how Eastern European history can crush people, their lives and fate, like a steamroller. In a dictatorship, weakness brings its own immediate reprisal. I think that an American can have little idea about dictatorship. (I know that this may sound rather conceited, as if we know something here, or know it better. I do not think this.) A totalitarian dictatorship – and at the time this is what it was – essentially puts an end to society, and the individual is completely at the mercy of the powers that be. This is an entirely different dimension than America in the fifties, the McCarthy era, let’s say.
Paradoxically, for others my father, while he lived, embodied the independence and generosity of spirit that we discover in the hero of Celestial Harmonies. But when he looked in the mirror in the morning, he saw only an informer. And the day began, and he went about his duties as the father of four children, he went to work, seemed cheerful, etc., without any moral backing – there wasn’t any, because he’d destroyed it himself. In the book I could achieve, sentence after sentence, a balance between the personal memories and love and the recently learned facts, but I can’t do it any more. Now I see only my father’s great loneliness (he died eleven years ago), and all the things for which I am grateful to him. In short, my memories are at work, not my knowledge. (Which also means that I could never reconcile the two properly, because I didn’t understand the whole thing, not really.) But I have no wish to play down what happened to him and because of him. If someone who finds himself in my father’s position swears that he never harmed anyone, he is either mistaken or is telling a lie. It is not possible not to cause harm. That’s the problem.
I read through the reports – the ones they gave me, anyway – from 1958 to 1980, and you can see him slipping into the bottomless pit, the filth, the way he initially puts up a fight, sabotaging, then he tries keeping only to form, at which he often succeeds, though not always. If I didn’t mind the risk of being misunderstood, I’d say that I’ve read lots of reports, I saw German Stasi reports, and my father’s is that of an amateur, meaning that he was not spiteful just to be spiteful. But it makes almost no difference. It would be a mistake to use it as an excuse. Not that I want to make excuses. I know many wonderful things and many ugly things about my father….
My father now appears to me like the world: it’s a pretty bad place, but it is very good, it is magical to be alive.
TM: Your most recently translated book, Not Art, concerns “my mother,” who was not an incidental figure in your previous work. Are the challenges of writing about a mother distinct from those of writing about a father, or are they more or less the same?
PE: To me, everything is merely (“merely!”) a linguistic problem. I can mobilize lots of emotion with the words “father” and “mother.” But my approach is not psychological in nature, and so I see no difference. Or else I deny it, even to myself!
TM: Broadly, it seems, your writing has traced a trajectory from romantic love to filial love…
PE: Not so much with Revised Edition as with Celestial Harmonies, something came to an end, I finished writing something to the end, I walked all through the garden. I must now put the camera someplace else…. For instance, if I write about the family, I will not be looking and writing from the inside, because I’ve already provided the inside view. For me, Not Art already indicates a slight shift, there’s a father and a mother, but their fictional nature has gained weight. It’s my autobiography that I consider fiction. On the other hand, all this is just intellectual sleight-of-hand; practice paves the way. (The way that does not exist, and which comes into being because I walk towards it.)
TM: Finally (just for the hell of it): as a committed and enthusiastic appropriator of texts, do you have any thoughts about the case of Helene Hegemann, the Leipzig Book Fair prize nominee who’s been painted in some quarters as a plagiarist?
PE: I haven’t read her book, and whether what she’s done is all right or not can only be answered in concrete terms. These are not easy questions, and the Internet has changed the situation. Friends teaching at the university tell me how prevalent cut and paste jobs have become, the control-c, control-v “culture”. I wouldn’t dream of supporting this lack of culture. But it wouldn’t be a good idea to leave the regulation of such matters to the law either. It would limit freedom needlessly. At the same time, other people’s work should be honored, including the authors of blogs. We need to find a way of balancing these two, to find a solution. A friendly solution.
[Translated by Judith Sollosy; Esterházy photo copyright Nancy Crampton]
Sometime Millions contributor Elif Batuman sees her debut effort The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them hit shelves today. Also new today is Not Art by Peter Esterhazy who wowed Garth at PEN/World Voices in 2008.