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Doppelgangers And Half-Truths Permeate 'Kornel Esti'

Kornel Esti by Dezso Kosztolanyi
Kornel Esti
By Dezso Kosztolanyi
Paperback, 288 pages
New Directions
List Price: $16.95
Read An Excerpt

The doppelganger is an unsettling figure in literature. This person has your face, your eyes, the way you part your hair, the cut of your jib — and he has used those same components to build an entirely different life. Where you demurred, he seduced. When you stayed home, he ventured forth. What you repressed, he expressed, making him less an evil twin and more a Jungian shadow.

Kornel Esti — the titular character in the late Hungarian writer Dezso Kosztolanyi's third novel to be translated into English — may as well be his mirror image, but he is everything that the nameless narrator isn't. He is the bold, reckless counterpart to the narrator, the one who exhorted him as a child to skip school, play with matches, bite his nursemaid. Now, in middle age, Esti is full of stories of wild adventures across Europe, but he lacks the discipline to write them down. The narrator, who has spent his life sensibly, building a career and a simple writing style, has found himself with nothing to say. "One man isn't enough to write and live at the same time. Those who've tried it have all broken down sooner or later," the narrator explains. So they make a deal: Esti's life in the narrator's words.

What a life, and, oh, what words. Together they tell the stories from scenes of a life fully lived, such as a long night on a train through Bulgaria, the hours spent in deep conversation with the conductor despite neither speaking the other's language. His journeys sometimes tip into fantasy, like the trip to a town where instead of businesses exaggerating the value of their wares, their advertisements tell the brutal truth: "Crippling shoes," reads a store's sign. "Corns and abscesses guaranteed. Several customers' feet amputated." In turn hilarious, touching and exasperating, each chapter takes the reader on a completely unexpected journey through a Central Europe as yet unravaged by World War II and the suffering to follow. The prose soars and lifts, but the narrator always provides the necessary ballast to the whirligig storyteller.

Dezso Kosztolanyi was born in Austria-Hungary in 1885 and began publishing his novels, short stories and poetry at the age of 23. He also translated poetry from Chinese, Japanese and other languages into Hungarian.

Dezso Kosztolanyi was born in Austria-Hungary in 1885 and began publishing his novels, short stories and poetry at the age of 23. He also translated poetry from Chinese, Japanese and other languages into Hungarian.   hide caption

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Despite being originally published in 1933, Kornel Esti's form resembles the rather modern novel-in-stories template. Or perhaps a better marker is James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, as both catch the formative moments in the development of a person's character, leaving out the connective tissue. That half the formative moments in Kosztolanyi's book appear to be lies and fancy doesn't matter. It's like the man at the bar who you know is telling tall tales but who is so engrossing in doing so that you don't care to sift lie from truth — you just want him to keep talking. Whether Kornel Esti the character is psychological allegory, an imaginary friend who overstayed his welcome or a coincidence of facial features, Kornel Esti the novel is a rediscovered Hungarian modernist masterpiece about the relationship between experience and art, what we give up to pursue a dream, and how two men can start from the same position and end up in wholly different worlds.

Excerpt: 'Kornel Esti'

Kornel Esti by Dezso Kosztolanyi
Kornel Esti
By Dezso Kosztolanyi
Paperback, 288 pages
New Directions
List Price: $16.95
Read An Excerpt

I had passed the mid-point of my life when, one windy day in spring, I remembered Kornél Esti. I decided to call on him and to renew our erstwhile friendship.

By then we'd had no contact for ten years. What had come between us? I don't know. We hadn't fallen out. At least, not like other people do.

Once I'd passed the age of thirty, however, he began to irritate me. His frivolity was offensive. I became tired of his old-fashioned wing collars, his narrow yellow ties, and especially his atrocious puns. His determined eccentricity wore me out. He was forever getting mixed up in escapades of one sort or another.

For instance, one day as we were walking along the esplanade together, he, without a word of explanation, took from the inside pocket of his coat a kitchen knife, and to the amazement of the passers-by started to sharpen it on the stones that lined the path. On one occasion, when I was expecting some very distinguished guests for dinner, men on whom my fate and career depended, editors-in-chief, politicians—gentlemen of rank and graciousness—and Esti was also a guest in my home, he craftily made my servants heat the bathroom, took my guests aside as they arrived, and informed them that there was in my house an ancient, mysterious, family tradition or superstition—unfortunately, no details could be given—that required all guests without exception to take a bath before dinner, and he carried off this ridiculous prank with such devilish tact, cunning and honeyed words that the credulous victims, who favoured us with their presence for the first and last time, without my knowledge all took baths, as did their wives, and then, without batting an eyelid at the awful practical joke, sat down to table as if nothing had happened.

That kind of practical joke had amused me in the past, but now, at the beginning of my adult life, it rather annoyed me. I was afraid that that sort of thing might easily jeopardize my good name. I didn't say a word to him. Nevertheless—I confess—he embarrassed me more than once.

I would suddenly get letters from people I didn't know, asking me to return the small amount that they had placed at my disposal in Kassa, Vienna or Kolozsvár, at the station, before the train left, because I'd told them that I'd lost my purse and given my word of honour to pay them back within twenty-four hours. Impolite telephone calls accused me of writing anonymous letters. My closest friends saw me with their own eyes wandering about for hours on end in pouring winter rain in curving alleyways and disreputable streets or lying snoring and blind drunk on the red tablecloth of a bar in some run-down area. The head waiter of the Vitriol—a low dive—presented me with a bill, to avoid paying which I'd allegedly run out through a side door. Seconds in duels with jaunty monocles called on me, porters came with my visiting-card, girls with the flower of their innocence broken unfolded before me my vows and offers of marriage. A stout, middle-aged lady from the provinces too arrived, called me te, and then threatened me in her local dialect with a paternity suit.

Flabbergasted, I stared at these nightmare figures, who had certainly, either in my imagination or in real life, at one time lived, breathed and perspired, but now were black, dead and cold, like glowing embers after they've cooled, died down and crumbled to ash. I didn't know them. They, however, knew me and recognised me. Some I told to go and see Kornél. At that they smiled. Asked for a personal description of him. At that they derisively pointed at me. They asked for his address. There I couldn't really help them. My friend was most of the time travelling abroad, sleeping on aircraft, stopping here and there for a day or two, and to the best of my knowledge had never yet reported to the police. Kornél Esti certainly existed, but was not a legal entity. So however innocent I knew myself to be of these terrible crimes the case against me didn't look good. I wasn't going to expose myself to the unpleasantness of confrontation just because of Kornél. I had to take upon myself all his debts, his tricks, his dishonesty, as if I were responsible for them all.

I paid for him. Paid a lot. Not only money. I paid with my reputation too. People everywhere looked at me askance.

All that, however, I instantly forgot and forgave on that windy spring day when I decided to call on him.

That was a mad day. Not the first of April, but not far off. A mad, excited day. I listened to the whistling of the wind and Kornél came to mind. I felt an irresistible desire to see him as soon as I could.

I telephoned here and there, to coffee houses, nightclubs. By late evening all that I had been able to discover was that he was in Hungary. I tracked him on foot and in the car. At two in the morning I learnt that he was living in the Denevér Hotel. The porter directed me to room 7 on the fourth floor. I climbed a narrow spiral staircase, as there was no lift. The door of room 7 was ajar. Inside the light was on. I went in.

I saw an empty bed, the bedclothes thrown back in a heap, and a feeble electric light on the night table. I thought that he'd popped out somewhere. I sat down on the sofa to wait for him.

Then I noticed that he was there, opposite me, sitting in front of the mirror. I jumped up. He did too.

"Hello," I said.

"Hello," said he immediately, as if he wanted to continue from where we had left off.

Excerpted from Kornel Esti by Dezso Kosztolanyi. Published by New Directions. All Rights Reserved.

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