Category Archives: Kosztolányi Dezso

Anna Edes by Dezso Kosztolányi

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.

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Skylark by Dezso Kosztolanyi

I’m going to admit that I haven’t been the staunchest fan of Hungarian literature. Not that I’ve read that much, but I haven’t been thrilled by what I read. Skylark is the most enjoyable Hungarian novel I’ve read to date. It’s another release from NYRB and I bought my copy because a) it sounded like my sort of thing and b) it’s from NYRB, and I decided to read more of their titles.

The plot is simple enough. Skylark is the improbable nickname given to the only daughter of Akos and Antonia Vajkay. Skylark is middle-aged, dumpy and unattractive, but she is extremely precious to her parents. They all live together in a little home stuffed full of “the ghastly icons of provincial life” in the boring small town of Sarszeg.  Skylark and her mother do the cooking together and generally enjoy each other’s company. Akos is fifty-nine but looks sixty-five, and he’s on early retirement from his job in county administration. Their days are ordered, modest and utterly predictable, and Akos finds that the “last years of his life he spent increasingly preparing for death.” Life has slowly shrunk for Akos:

“He had not moved in society for years. He neither drank nor smoked. Not only his family doctor, Dr Gal, but also the professor he had consulted in Pest had warned against arteriosclerosis and forbidden him from taking alcohol and – more distressingly – from smoking his beloved cigars.

The only passion remaining to him from the past was to sit in his cramped and perpetually damp study, leafing through a volume of Ivan Nagy’s great tome on Hungarian noble families.”

When the book begins, Skylark is going away on holiday for a week to visit an aunt and uncle in the country, and her parents are devastated at the thought of her week-long absence. They simply cannot imagine the days without her, and when she leaves, many tears are shed at the railway station. For the first day the parents imagine Skylark’s journey, anticipating each stage of her adventure. They dread the week ahead asking each other “how will we bear it?” And Akos even hints optimistically “someone might … turn up” for Skylark, now an acknowledged, unattractive old maid.

For the first day, the time drags for Akos and Antonia, and then they reluctantly venture out into town:

“Already some weeks earlier it had been agreed that, for these few days – it was only a week, after all – they wouldn’t cook at home. Skylark, who presided in all culinary matters, recommended the King of Hungary, Sarszeg’s largest restaurant, as the one place where the cuisine was still tolerable.

The three of them detested restaurants  And although they had hardly visited this one, they could talk about it for hours with sneering condescension. The dishwater soups, the tough and gristly meat, the carelessly concocted desserts they served up to the poor unsuspecting bachelors, who had never tasted good home cooking.”

Eating at a restaurant, initially endured as a necessity becomes the event that springboards Akos and his wife back into the vital strains of Sarszeg’s society. Soon all bad habits are resumed. They are courted by some of the town’s most notable flamboyant personalities and find themselves riveted by the town’s intrigue, gossip and scandalous dramas.

Skylark is a bitter-sweet tale–at once it’s joyous and yet also very sad in its examination of the narrowness of our lives and the decisions we make. All families have a unique dynamic, and it often takes being connected to a family unit to understand its pathology.  As Tolstoy notes in Anna Karenina:

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  

This quote even fits this seemingly boring little family fraught with its own secret little disappointments. The story begins with the parents known as just mother and father, but as the tale develops they become well-rounded human beings that exist beyond any parental function–indeed with their daughter gone they seem to come to life. But at the same time the story is also sympathetic to Skylark. She’s long past what is considered the marriageable age, and when she’s put in the company of her younger flirtatious cousins she’s in the way. Skylark’s great failed, legendary romance with Geza Cifra  (a man whose “summer pimples bloomed brightly like ripe cherries” ) is examined in all its humourous and yet poignant details.

Not a great deal happens here, and yet at the same time the very smallness of the tale of a crucial week is delivered with a delectably natural precision. The tale dissects the Vajkay family dynamic and peels apart the layers revealing  the refuge and also the crutch the family can provide to its less successful members. In contrast to the Vajkay family is Miklos Ijas, would-be poet and assistant editor of the Sarszeg Gazette. He’s a lonely soul whose family has been decimated by scandal. Tainted by the past, he remains outside of mainstream society, yet he is one of the few people to understand the protective relationship the Vajkays have with their daughter. And he seems to envy the ties between this close-knit family. There’s a sense that we are witnessing a world that will soon disappear. Indeed the novel is set in 1899 and already we can hear the rumblings of the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

 The introduction by Peter Esterhazy offers biographical information on the book’s author, Dezso Kosztolanyi. This was welcome as I had never heard of this author before. So thanks once more to NYRB. I enjoy Skylark immensely and found that this good-natured tale grew on me as it continued. Here’s one last quote showing Kosztolanyi’s lively use of language:

“The market seethed in the sweltering heat, humming with noise and ablaze with every imaginable colour. Red peppers shone as brightly as the florid scarlet paint in the paint-shop window across the square. Cabbages displayed their pale-green, silken frills, violet grapes glistened, marrows whitened in the sun, and yellowing melons, already past their best, gave off a sickly choleroid stench.”

 This edition is translated by Richard Aczel

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