Monday Musing: Péter Esterházy

The following is an introduction to Péter Esterházy I delivered at the New York Public Library two weeks ago for the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature.

If you want to talk about Péter Esterházy you have to dredge up the past a little. That isn’t always a fun thing to do, especially if you hail from anywhere in the between lands, Mitteleuropa. Still… somebody, as they say, has to do it and for whatever reason Esterházy is up to the task. Why does he do it? I think it is a simple as a line from his novel Helping Verbs of the Heart. “I’m terrified,” writes Esterházy, “yet I feel better now.”

The current situation in Mitteleuropa has to be traced back to the Hapsburgs, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the stupidest of several empires that kicked Mitteleuropa around for most of the last century. Still, if you’re going to have an empire, make it a ramshackle one, make sure it barely functions. It’s better that way. The dysfunctional aspects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were its most endearing. We know this from no less a doomed genius than Joseph Roth. True, most Joseph Roth characters drink themselves to death while gazing wistfully at portraits of Franz Josef, but on the positive side of the ledger there are lots of nooks and crannies to inhabit. There are lots of places the empire forgot to look and it is in those places where you could find the actual business of living and dying. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was lousy but it was human being lousy. For all the other evils, absolute evils, of the Empire of the Third Reich or the Empire of the Soviets, their chief crime against the varieties of everyday existence was in the obliteration of nooks and crannies. These were empires that didn’t want to leave a place where life could exist on its own terms anywhere, if they could help it. Steamroller empires. Empires of death for death’s sake.

You could say, then, that Esterházy has been producing a literature of the nooks and crannies. This is not a small thing. It is a giant thing. It means, simply, (and I hope you take this in its full ethical implication) producing a literature that is on the side of life.

There have, of course, always been nook and cranny writers. Catullus was one, lingering around the back alleys of Rome with a hard on and a smile. There is Cervantes and Rabelais. There is Lawrence Sterne. You catch the drift. Esterházy, I think, has a more specific lineage and that has to do, once again, with that sad and loveable place, Mitteleuropa (but do we call it a place really? More like a feeling, a way). Anyway, there it is. No place is as screwed up as Mitteleuropa and no people are more screwed up than Mitteleuropeans. (I say that with a fondness, by the way.) You either make that situation work for you or you’ve got nothing at all.

Esterházy is trying to make it work. It is a literary approach that comes down directly from that incorrigible drunk, Jaroslav Hasek, the author of The Good Soldier Svejk. Svejk is a rube all the way through and sometimes a scoundrel, but he always chooses life over death. It is there even in his way of talking, a style that Hasek gives his favorite literary creation which is both straightforward and evasive at the same time. It’s a kind of irony, middle European irony, that is neither Socratic nor the blasé irony of Western intellectual boredom. Actually I think it is much better than both of those things. Always it is a language, a style or a manner of comporting oneself that finds a way to skirt through the cracks. Again, life. Here’s Svejk on being locked up in an insane asylum, “I really don’t know why those loonies get so angry when they’re kept there. You can crawl naked on the floor, howl like a jackal, rage and bite… There’s a freedom there which not even Socialists have dreamed of.”

As the Austro-Hungarian Empire trailed off and more terrible events came to pass, the mantle of the literature of life was passed from Hasek to another great Czech writer, Bohumil Hrabal. In Hrabal the language of Svejk becomes more contorted, more obviously damaged. It takes on a childlike flavor that allows it to hide even further, to seek what’s left of the rapidly disappearing nooks and crannies. It is a run-on language, driven by fear, driven by the knowledge that to stop for a moment is possibly to stop forever. It’s incredible, really, that Hrabal manages to be so damn funny.

Finally, tragically, the language begins to dry up altogether. If life plus the Hapsburg Empire equals tragicomedy and the disastrous if hilarious adventures of Svejk, life plus the Soviet Empire equals silence. You simply had to shut up or you’d be forced to say something despicable, to betray yourself, to betray somebody, anybody. Czeslaw Milosz mentions somewhere that a whole generation of writers took to writing for their desk drawer. That was the only safe audience. And then they waited. It must have been a terrible waiting for Hrabal, the man who was born to spew. But he couldn’t find a nook or a cranny to spew in. Finally he penned a terrible document praising the regime so that he might get to spewing again. That’s what it had come to, trapped between untenable choices the little human figure gives way. One’s strength gives out.

Esterházy is still strong, though a little cracked up from the whole affair. But all of Mitteleuropa is cracked up, like one of Neo Rauch’s displaced canvasses bubbling up with memory and trauma and a few jokes. The greatness of Esterházy is in taking up that thread of life, thin is hell much of the time, that got passed from Hasek to Hrabal and now resides in Budapest. He is trying to turn on the spigots of language again, to open up the linguistic floodgates of which Hrabal was once the keeper and Hasek before him. There’s a passage in Esterházy’s novel, The Glance of Countess Hahn-Hahn where the traveler compares himself to the Danube. “But seeing,” Esterházy writes, “or at least supposing, that there was something which connected Ulm with Vienna, and Vienna with Belgrade, and not wanting to call this something the Danube, that metaphysical, imaginary, hotch-potch of a river, he would arrive at the conclusion that it was he himself who connected Ulm with Belgrade, he the traveler. …But the boat was carried by the Danube, and the Danube by the weight of lived-out lives, that unbearable weight we carry with us, we travelers. That is why the Danube comes before he does. And that is why he sits on the bottom step of the quayside, watching the melon rind float away downstream—if that means anything to anyone.”

Well, it sure as hell means something to me, and I’m not even a cracked up Mitteleuropan staggering around under all kinds of unbearable weights. But that’s it right there, the joy and the incredible burden, to be a Danube man trying to put history and logic and language and memory back together again. Talking your way through it as best you’re able so that something painful becomes something funny, and also the reverse. That’s also why, I think, Wittgenstein keeps creeping into Esterházy’s work when you least expect it. Wittgenstein’s journey is merely the philosophical version of Esterházy’s narrative fable. The point is to get to life without losing the thing that makes it lived. In many ways, Wittgenstein’s journey from the Tractatus to the Investigations is a trip to find where language really is. In the beginning he thinks it might be below us or above us, locked away in the secret relationships between words and things. Then he gets older and he realizes it is just right there. And that is what Esterházy is looking for most of the time, a language that is constantly running away from him but that he finds in scraps and fragments like sediment at the bottom of the Danube. Finally, Esterházy and Wittgenstein come to a similar insight: Language is just us being us. It was all so stupid and so great. The trick is in simply remembering how to be. Mitteleuropa took a long scary detour away from the land of us just being us, it is heartening to know that there were a few crazy bastards in their skiffs on the Danube paddling wildly away in the other direction.

Then again, we shouldn’t let ourselves get too drunk and puffed up on all this weighty stuff. Here’s Esterházy again… “From so much Danube and so much talk of Central Europe I didn’t so much get sick—which is the wrong word—as get angry. All that stuff about Danubian thought, Danubian ethos, Danubian past, Danubian history, Danubian suffering, Danubian tragedy, Danubian dignity, Danubian present. Danubian future! What does it all mean? All that flowing became suspicious. Danubian nothingness, Danubian hatred, Danubian stench, Danubian anarchy, Danubian provincialism, Danubian Danube. Poor Gertude Stein, were she alive to hear this! The Danube is the Danube is the Danube…
According to a rather weak joke, the answer to the question of what holds a football team together is partly alcohol and partly a shared hatred of the coach. And that’s all. That’s all Central Europe ever was.”

Point taken. Eventually you have to move on or you sink into it like a bottomless pit. Esterházy is writing himself out of that pit daily. And that, in short, is writing in the service of life. It is something that Péter Esterházy has done for himself and also for all of us. And I hope that you’ll all take a moment later on in your homes or in your favorite pubs of worship to say, as I will, L’Chaim, To Péter Esterházy, to life!