The Hungarian literary scene: Péter Esterházy’s view

I assume most of my readers are familiar with the name Esterházy. Not necessarily Péter, the contemporary Hungarian writer, but his ancestors, most notably Prince Miklós József Esterházy (1714-1790), the fabulously rich Hungarian aristocrat in whose Hungarian "country estate" Joseph Haydn lived and worked. The country estate was modelled on Versailles and naturally had a concert hall, still in use. (For anyone planning a Hungarian vacation, a side trip to Fertőd would be rewarding.)Fertod But one doesn't have to go back that far in Péter Esterházy's family tree. His grandfather, Count Móric Esterházy (1881-1960), was prime minister of Hungary for a short stint. Grandfather Móric was no friend of the Germans and, after the Arrow Cross takeover of Hungary, the Gestapo arrested him. He was detained in Hungary for a while and then in February 1945 was taken by the Germans to Mauthausen. He returned to Hungary in September 1945. As a Hungarian aristocrat after the war he had more than his share of troubles. He was rendered penniless and his family was exiled from Budapest. After 1956 he obviously had had enough and moved to Vienna where he died four years later. But his son Mátyás (1919-1980) remained in Hungary and his children were born there–Péter, the oldest, in 1950. Péter attended the famous Jesuit High School in Budapest and entered the University of Budapest (1969-1974) as a mathematics major.

So were there any skeletons in the aristocractic family closet?  Aren't there always?Esterházy  As was later revealed, Mátyás Esterházy was approached by the Hungarian secret police and asked to report on his friends. Apparently the father agreed to cooperate with the authorities in the hope that his son would be able to enter university. Péter had no clue about this Faustian bargain. He wrote a monumental novel about his ancestors, Celestial Harmonies: A Novel (Harmonia Caelestis, 2000, 2004) in which he painted a glowing portrait of his father. That was before he discovered his father's cooperation with the communist dictatorship. He wrote a sequel entitled Revised Edition (Javított kiadás); as far as I know this book has not been translated into English, which is a pity.

Péter Esterházy is especially popular in Germany. But along with Péter Nádas, György Konrád, and Imre Kertész, he is also familiar to English readers. Several of Esterházy's books were translated into English: Helping Verbs of the Heart (1985), The Transporters (1983), The Glance of Countess Hahn-Hahn (Down the Danube) (1991), She Loves Me (1993), A Little Hungarian Pornography (1985), and the above mentioned Celestial Harmonies: A Novel. All told, his works have been translated into more than twenty languages. John Updike wrote about him in The New Yorker: "Esterhazy's prose is jumpy, allusive, and slangy. . . . there is vividness, an electric crackle. The sentences are active and concrete. Physical details leap from the murk of emotional ambivalence."

So when Péter Esterházy speaks not as a novelist but as a social commentator people listen. And he did so only a few days ago in Élet és Irodalom (April 17, 2009). The title of the piece is "Hungarian or Szilárd Rubin's foreign success." Apparently the highlight of this year's book festival is a novel written in 1964 that remained pretty well forgotten. Szilárd Rubin (1927-) wrote a couple of not too good novels in the 1960s but his Csirkejáték (Playing Chicken) was outside the mold. A Hungarian publisher decided that it was time to reissue the book, and suddenly everybody discovered that it was in fact a modern classic. Once the novel was translated into German, critics compared Rubin to Alain-Fournier and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

So why does Esterházy speak about "Hungarian success" as opposed to Szilárd Rubin's success? Because right-wing writers and critics in publications such as Magyar Nemzet and Heti Válasz divide contemporary Hungarian literature into two camps. There are the good guys–those who write literature that helps readers discover their national identity and who "think in terms of nation and  community." By contrast, the bad guys think of literature as exportable, modern. These writers avoid local idiosyncracies and focus on Europe as a whole. They want to have a presence in the centers of world culture. They think in terms of their own careers, and Hungary's problems leave them cold.

Esterházy promoted Rubin's book, despite the fact that the author is ideologically to the right and is embraced by right-wing critics. He did so because he thought the novel was good. By contrast, Esterházy is under relentless attack by right-wing critics. He is viewed as one of the bad guys. Not unnaturally, he blames politics and politicians for this state of affair. Good writers espouse a range of political and cultural views. For instance, I doubt that Ferenc Herczeg, the conservative writer between the two world wars, and Attila József who claimed that he "has no God and no fatherland" were exactly happy bedfellows. But Viktor Orbán and "the national side" (nemzeti oldal) repeatedly assert that only those people belong to the "nation" who are on the "national" side. On their side. If one doesn't agree with them, that person simply doesn't belong to the nation. Thus, the above mentioned internationally acclaimed Hungarian writers are not really Hungarians. What Esterházy wants to know is what the situation is now that Szilárd Rubin is the talk of Leipzig? After all, he is on the national side. Is it his success or a Hungarian success? Or perhaps both?

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