Celestial Harmonies by Peter Esterhazy trans Judith Sollosy

Dancing into history
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

If the name "Esterhazy" means anything to people in this country, it usually brings to mind Haydn, because of the patronage the composer received from the Esterhazy family. But in Hungary it has a far greater and more complicated resonance, thanks to the family's centuries-long eminence and wealth, followed by drastic demotion under communism.

Peter Esterhazy was a child in the 1950s, when his name designated a born enemy of the people. This translation of the novel he published in Hungarian in 2001 puts before us a vast, interwoven web, a motet written for innumerable voices, a postmodernist thicket... oh well, a big book about Hungarian history, all centred around that one name: Esterhazy.

If that sounds grandly obsessional, the tone of the writing is all lightness, acrobatics, shrugs of the shoulder. As the first-person narrator of book two, who may or not be the author, says, "The fact that my name is an omen, a sign, a portentous sign, didn't worry me for a long time." The translator says that book two "approximates a biography of sorts", while Esterhazy prefaces it with a disclaimer, framed by inverted commas, to the effect that it is fiction.

Book one is subtitled "Numbered Sentences from the Lives of the Esterhazy Family". The first "sentence" contains one sentence. The final (371st) "sentence" contains four sentences. In between, "sentences" may run to a few pages, but there is no settling down to one subject or span of time. We skip about among the past 10 centuries and among dozens of fathers, all claimed as "my father" by the narrator.

There is also some skipping about among writers, since Esterhazy says he entertains "the romantic notion that novels stand in a congenial relationship to one another and help one another out". That is, he likes borrowing, and supplies a formidable list of writers who have "helped me out". One name not there is that of Miklos Banffy, whose Transylvanian Trilogy, covering some of the same ground of the Hungarian aristocracy on the brink, was recently translated into English. Perhaps the fact that it was written in the 1930s, in traditional and somewhat idealising style, puts it outside Esterhazy's range.

Anyway, as in dog shows, this novel is an agility class. But it doesn't seem to matter if the reader is not very agile. All one needs to enjoy it is enough time and a certain willingness to step along with a very dancing sort of writer.

In book one, "my father", whether jumping on his horse to see off or be seen off by the Turks, or a giant sitting outside his giant hut, thinking about security, is an aristocrat fooling around with servant girls or marrying beneath him; or he is a tight-fisted bishop; or he seduces his own son, or fails to die on his deathbed. "My father" is always larger than life. As well as being whatever he is being, he is often thinking, philosophising about it along the way. A fair number of "my mothers" are around, too, to put up spirited opposition, and grandparents, aunts and uncles. But although there are centuries of interaction between the generations, the point of view of the narrator is always that of the child: the boy.

Book two, while written without any appeal for sympathy, is a touching evocation of the extraordinary reverse in fortune lived through by Esterhazy's own father, from wealthy aristocrat to impoverished, spied-on labourer. Getting toward the last page, I wondered how it would end. Would the father die? But no, it ends with the father summing up: it was "a fuck-up. You understand fuck-up, don't you, son?".