15 April 2013

Monday Book Review: Hasonmás

"Már túljártam életem felén, amikor egy szeles, tavaszi napon eszembe jutott Esti Kornél."  Lászlo Krasznahorkai says that it is the most beautiful sentence in Hungarian and written by Dezső Kosztolányi in Kornél Esti.  In English it reads, "I had passed the midpoint of my life, when one windy day in spring, I remembered Kornél Esti."  Thus begins the tale of two doppelgangers, or as they would say in Hungarian hasonmás, reconciling after decades apart.

The novel has a very post-modern bent to it, since the beginning prefaces the entire rest of the story: the writer introduces the one and only Kornél Esti, who is his lifelong hasonmás and writes a novel with him.  The hasonmások (plural form) are mirror opposites, for the writer has lived an honest, respectable life while Esti has gallivanted around the globe and joked upon anyone in his path.  As children, Esti was the impulsive, dark, and scheming child while the writer, who is never named, tries to be a good boy.  They had a falling out since the writer could no longer stand being mistaken for the disreputable Esti, unable to assert his real identity, and paying all of his debts.  Esti then wandered the globe, but ends up back in Budapest, destitute but undeterred.  The writer tracks him down and they reconcile.

Their reconciliation is the novel.  The writer realizes his life was too respectable and boring to be worth writing about, though he has the discipline and stamina, while Esti is too impulsive and undisciplined to write, though he has a storehouse of material.  The writer strikes up a deal: they will write the novel together about Esti, but he will write half.  Esti replies, "What about the style? ...[O]ur styles are poles apart. You've recently been favoring calm, simplicity, classical images.  Not much decoration, not many words.  My style, on the other hand, is still restless, untidy, congested, ornate, racy. I'm an incurable romantic.  Lots of epithets, lots of images.  I won't let you cut that out."  The writer assures him that he will only erase only about half of it.  They decide his name should be the book's title.  The title is in bigger letters, after all.

The style of the story, as described in the first chapter while hashing out the details of the following novel, is fragments, "like a poem," as Esti says.  The chapters oscillate between Esti's romanticism and the writer's stoic, Hemingway-esque use of words.  In perfect honesty, the writer's chapters are the funniest and the least exhausting to read.  Knowing that supposedly half of all images and epithets have been removed from Esti's prose, his chapters still read as overindulgent and almost navel-gazing.  The third chapter recollects the disastrous circumstances around Esti's first kiss and it is the most difficult to read through, since the reader is taken on a detailed tour through Esti's mind.  This is not to say it is boring or insufferable, but in comparison, it is heavy, ornate and perhaps rococo in its words.  Loquacious, let's say.  My favorite chapter is the one following, in which Esti visits an "honest town" in which people are so honest and overly modest, shops have signs that say, "Inedible food, undrinkable drinks. Worse than at home", or my favorite that makes me laugh every time I read it: "Expensive poor-quality clothes.  Kindly bargain, because we will swindle you."  The writer's chapters tend to be a play on common sense and relies chiefly on its brevity and the strength of the material for accolades.  Chapters like the man who receives a windfall inheritance and after extracting what he needs to support himself for the rest of his days, seeks to clandestinely give away the rest, the kleptomaniac, or the wealthy Bácska peasant.  However, Esti's account of the finest hotel in the world is delicately funny and the details play well into the material.

You cannot really review the novel without acknowledging that Esti is merely the figment of 
Kosztolányi's imagination, though the use of hasonmások for a story gives room for play both in narrative and style.  It's a fourth-wall breaking novel and one that tingles the intellectual tastebuds as you switch between the two "authors".  It also presents a fascinating metaphor in the story itself: the struggle between restraint and impulsiveness in the profession of writing and even one's sense of self.  I, myself, have an alter ego named Tanya, who emerges (and rants with utmost grumpiness) once I have reached a state of such enervation that I can hardly be civil.  This is all true.  If I were to write the novel Tanya in the style of Kornél Esti, it would be half the rant of a near lunatic and half measured emotional reactions.  It gives a wonderful format for the direct contrasting of personalities, which blossoms when prose hits the page.  Much like his other work, Édes Anna, it is a read worth picking up and delving into.  It offers heft, levity, and a cheeky sense of humor, all while testing the boundaries outside the fourth wall and understanding the psyche of a writer.