A few months ago, I finished the marvellous novel Skylark by Dezso Kosztolányi, and so flush with that successful reading experience, I sought out a copy of Anna Edes. My version is published by New Directions and translated by George Szirtes. Szirtes also writes an introduction–much appreciated by this reader. I’d much rather read an intro by the translator than a celebrity ‘guest’ writer as the translators often seem to have a much better knowledge of the subject matter. Anna Edes was Kosztolányi’s last novel, published in 1926.
When the novel begins, it’s a crucial time in Hungarian history. It’s 1919 and the government has changed hands numerous times since the conclusion of WWI. First the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy after the Aster or Chrysanthemum Revolution of 1918 led by Count Károlyi. By March 1919, Károlyi resigned and communist/Bolshevik Béla Kun subsequently ran the Hungarian Soviet Republic until its collapse in August 1919. This is where Anna Edes begins with the sentence “Béla Kun was fleeing the country in an aeroplane,” and there’s the added delicious detail that he fled with his pockets “stuffed with sweet pastry.”
Anna Edes is a portrayal of bourgeois life seen mainly through the pitiful treatment of a wretched servant by Mr and Mrs Vizy. When the novel begins Hungary’s social order is shaken to its foundations. It’s the end of the Bolshevik rule and while some people rue this, others anticipate the return of the old social order. The headline in the communist newspaper warns: “The Proletariat in Danger!” But to the Vizys–an unpleasant couple entrenched in the emptiness of their own pathetic social status, the collapse of Béla Kun’s government is a cause of celebration. Vizy, a minor political official who tried to keep his head low during the purges of the Béla Kun government, gloats at the departure of the Bolsheviks. The last few months have been difficult. At one point, Mrs Vizy was arrested:
She had been shaking out a tablecloth at the window and they charged her with secretly signalling to counter-revolutionary forces. They had dragged her off to parliament and only allowed her home at midnight, by which time she had been broken body and spirit. The next morning, a young functionary called, who produced a cane from his leather leggings, and proceeded, while insolently strutting about, to requisition two of their rooms, the dining room in which they presently sat and the adjoining drawing room. It was lucky that the system had collapsed before any lodgers had been foisted on them.
Vizy “ruined by the war,” diminished by the communist government, a witness of its bloody excesses, and fearful of the Lenin Lads is euphoric at the defeat of the Bolsheviks, yet still trembles and fumbles for his trade-union card when there’s a knock at the door:
He went quite pale. He stared at the air before him, as if searching for the word he had just uttered, so he might wipe away all trace of it. He waved his hand vaguely, trying to clear some imperceptible fug of smoke.
“I’ll answer it.” He strode with sudden decision into the hall, steeled for the worst. They might be looking for hostages, it might be a house search or state of emergency! He mentally prepared his defence: twenty years in public service, a social conscience, a general sympathy with Marxism though he deplored its excesses.
For the purposes of the novel, the bourgeois representatives of society are the Vizys, their friends and acquaintances–other couples who live in a three-storey house in Budapest. The Vizys live in four rooms on the first floor, and the floor above is divided into two flats, occupied by the Drumas (a solicitor and his wife) and Dr and Mrs Moviszter. The building’s caretaker, who lives in the basement flat, is Ficsor (who considers himself “Red aristocracy“), a man who neglected his work during the Bolshevik period, but who shuffles back to his duties when Béla Kun’s government fails.
In one of the funniest scenes of the book, Ficsor and Vizy confront one another unsure just how the other should be addressed. Should Ficsor be addressed as “Comrade”? Should Vizy be addressed as “your excellency”? These salutary fetishes, which are emblematic of the shifting social order, are crucial. Not only does everyone have to be addressed correctly, but using the proper salutation indicates compliance and submission to the shifting social order–whatever that may be.
The Vizys, the Drumas, and the Moviszters are not rich by any stretch of the imagination, but they all have a servant. During the brief Bolshevik period, the servants grew ‘uppity’ and difficult to manage. As Hungary kisses the Bolshies goodbye, the novel implies that the traditional roles of master-servant are reverting back to what they once were. During the rule of Béla Kun, Mrs Vizy’s current servant, Katica, grew particularly difficult. The Vizy apartment is untidy, and Katica, who has assignations with a sailor lover, disappears for long periods of time.
Katica was still with them but only just. She did more or less as she pleased now and they didn’t even ask her to tidy the flat. Mrs Vizy took a perverse joy in watching the dust and dirt gather.
Unhappy with the excesses and laziness of Katica, the Vizys acquire a new maid, Anne Edes, the niece of Ficsor. Anna is a treasure, but the Vizys never acknowledge that. They take pride in giving her even less wages than Katica, and once wooed away from another employer, she’s treated quite badly. She works from four in the morning until late at night, and she sleeps on a makeshift bed in the kitchen. In return for her room and board, the Vizys have a veritable slave. In their eyes she is reduced to a machine–a machine that works harder and requires less maintenance than their previous servants.
The bourgeois women in the novel are obsessed with their servants. During social evenings, the wives compare the excesses and merits of their servants–rather as one might compare other social markers or fetish objects (I’m reminded of a conversation I recently heard in which people compared ‘water features’). Over time it becomes apparent that Mrs Vizy will never be content with any servant, and “it was always the present incumbent she hated most, whose presence it was which most increased the sum of her misery.” In this inherently unhealthy situation, Mrs Vizy finds meaning in her unhappy existence through the productivity of her servant. Kosztolanyi’s tale seems to say that the labour of another perverts the nature of the one who oversees it.
Mrs Vizy views her troubled history with servants as a matter of “luck,” and yet underneath that word lurks an underlying sense of personal failure. She sees Anna’s work ethic as a reflection on her ability to control and influence another–therefore ‘good’ hard-working servants are, to Mrs Vizy, a reflection of the character of their employers. This idea is apparent in social evenings with the bourgeoise women discussing the merits of their respective servants, and the fact that servants are some sort of sub-human species. Mrs Vizy concludes to her friends that Anna has the perfect life:
“Certainly she works hard enough. But what does she want?’ she asked with some annoyance. “She gets food, she gets lodgings. She even gets clothes. She can bank her earnings. What else could she desire in these difficult times? What problems has she? She doesn’t have to maintain this large flat, she doesn’t have to bother her head with what to cook, or how to find the money, she can live without a thought, without a care in the world. I often think that nowadays it is only servants who can live really well.”
The women sighed as though they had all chosen the wrong career, and now regretted that harsh circumstances prevented them from becoming servants.
Skylark possessed a certain joyousness. Perhaps that was mainly due to the bitter-sweet freedom of all the excesses of restaurant meals enjoyed by its characters. While Anna Edes is powerful it’s also a much bleaker tale. This is an exploration of the exploitation of a fairly uninteresting servant girl, pimped out to a form of slavery by her uncle who needs to curry favour with the gentry. Anna’s flat, lifeless qualities (seen from her employers’ perspective) and her willingness to absorb all the demands of her unreasonable employers made for a less interesting tale. Anna has a spark for a while, but to delve into that too much would spoil the tale. I much preferred Skylark, so it’s probably a good thing that I read it first. Anna Edes illustrates the inherently unhealthy aspect of the master-slave relationship, and its chilling aspects recall the true story of the Papin sisters. After all, a beaten dog will often turn on its so-called master.