Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Douglas Messerli | "When Language Doesn't Mean | (on Welty's The Ponder Heart)

when language doesn’t mean
by Douglas Messerli
Eudora Welty The Ponder Heart (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1954)

The first person narratior of Welty’s novella The Ponder Heart, Edna Earle Ponder, like many of the author’s first person narrator’s—in particular the voice of “Why I Live in the P.O.” and Katie Rainey in The Golden Apples—is a dialect speaker who is also somewhat mentally troubled or at least a bossy gossip, ready to sit down with a stranger and map out the whole town and everyone in it, while being careful to put herself in the best possible position. All three of these characters are humorous, their stories revealing more about their own natures than they perceive. In short, Edna Earle, is an ironic speaker, saying one thing while to the reader/listener revealing something other. Just as a satirist such as Jonathan Swift, Eudora Welty has her characters to say outrageous things without truly meaning it, and it is the ability to understand the difference between saying and meaning that is crucial to the satire.

     Many years back, when I taught my last freshman English course at Temple University, I perceived that irony no longer existed as a concept, as nearly all of my students expressed their outrage that Swift would advocate the eating of Irish children.

     Somewhat taken aback, I drew in a deep breath and attempted to explain to them that in just such statements lay the author’s humor, that he not intended that statement and others like it to be understood literally, but had meant it ironically. I even attempted to read through the passages with them, identifying the tonal shifts of the language which revealed the author’s exaggeration of events. My students stared back with intensely skeptical frowns upon their faces. “Why did he say that then?” one boldly asked.

     What struck me this time rereading Welty’s comic work is just how difficult it now might be to teach it today. Critics responding the original publication found it joyously rich, arguing as did New York Times reviewer V. S. Pritchett, for the author’s “technical skill” in creating “a sardonic comic brio.” While the work may have had its dark moments, accordingly, it was, as he put it, “one of Welty’s lighter works.” Perhaps young students have now regained their sense of humor and rediscovered the meaning of irony, but I somehow doubt it. And, I suggest that the garrulous scold that Edna Earle represents, including the possibility that she is about as “dotty” as the slightly mentally-retarded, but well-meaning and society-loving Uncle Daniel, might present problems for the more literally minded world in which we now exist.

     For Edna Earle, despite all of her seeming self-surety about the world around her, often speaks in a language which does mean what it says. In general, for example, the long tale she tells of her Uncle, on the surface seems a scolding story concerning her somewhat begrudging greediness, hinting that she is disturbed by the man’s tendency to give away everything he owns—a considerable fortune—to others. Yet it is clear despite her statements that she not only dearly loves her well-dressed Uncle—
                      You’d know it was Uncle Daniel the minute you saw him. He’s
                      unmistakable. He’s big and well known. He has the Ponder head—
                      large, of course, and well set, with short white hair over it thick
                      and curly, growing down his forehead like a little bib. He has
                      Grandpa’s complexion. And big, forget-me-not blues eyes like
                      mine, and puts on a sweet red bow tie every morning, and carries
                      a large-size Stetson in his hand—always just swept it off to
                     somebody. He dresses fit to kill, you know, in a snow-white suit.

—but, as we perceive throughout this work, she is utterly proud of him. And despite her put-down throughout of Uncle Daniel’s seventeen-year-old wife, Bonnie Dee and the entire Peacock family, we believe her when, late in the book, after Bonnie Dee’s accidental death,  she explains “I didn’t want any harm done to Bonnie Dee now!” Even if she once did wish her harm, Welty suggests, Edna Earle is not vengeful and has no intention of ruining the decedent’s reputation.

     Structurally, accordingly, Edna Earle’s general conversation seems to run in one direction—which V. S. Prtichett summarized as bossy, but also might be described as mean-spirited and selfish—while the actual meaning behind her words is contradicted, which saves the narrator from the audience’s wrath. Edna Earle may be “bossy” and a “scold,” but she is fun to listen to; presumably the visitor to her big Beulah Hotel, just as I would, joyfully waiting out her discombobulated story.

    However, there are numerous other occasions in which the narrator and other figures of Welty’s tale speak violent and racist sentiments that seem to require a kind of different response. Within the first few pages of tale, she seemingly threatens the hotel visitor with a sentence of some outrageousness: “And listen: if you read, you’ll put your eyes out. Let’s just talk.” Presumably, she means that the light is not bright enough for reading, but the way she suddenly shifts to the emphatic command from her story-telling, it is almost as she were declaring that she would out put his eyes if he dared to prefer reading over listening. And a few moments later, she again interrupts herself to tell him: “I like to size people up: I’m sizing you up now,” surely putting her listener once again in an uncomfortable position.

      Of her own father, who has evidently left his wife and daughter early on, Edna Earle makes clear the danger of even asking: “nobody ever makes the mistake of asking about him.” And Edna Earle continues to threaten her listener by placing him in the category of other hotel guests: “And it’s true that often the people that come in off the road and demand a room right this minute, or ask you ahead what you have for dinner, are not the people you’d care to spend the rest of your life with.”

      Soon after, her tale turns even darker, with an almost cannibalistic metaphor; speaking of Uncle Daniel she tells the traveler: “The sight of a stranger was always meat and drink to him,” continuing with a statement that unintentionally compares herself to the constant speaker: “The stranger don’t have to open his mouth. Uncle Daniel is ready to do all the talking.” Nearly as ghoulish is her remembrance of Miss Teacake Magee—the widow to whom she and her grandfather want Daniel to marry—and her former husband: “A passenger train hit him. That shows you how long ago his time was.” The gruesome death, followed immediately with a phrase beginning “That shows you,” seems to presume a relational cause and effect where clearly there is none. And an vampirish image is brought up in her description of the county fair where Uncle Daniel becomes enamored of the motorcycle racer, Intrepid Elsie Fleming: “So the only thing to be thankful for is he [Uncle Daniel] didn’t try to treat Intrepid Elsie Fleming—she might have bitten him.” As she responds upon first sighting Uncle Daniel’s wife, Bonnie Dee: “I could tell by her little coon eyes, she was shallow as they come.”

      The user of these somewhat dangerous challenges does not comprehend language as a method of inquiry (she allows no one else to speak) perceiving as she does nearly everything as a series of “directions.” As she puts it, she likes to read “directions,” how to do things, perceiving language as a series of commands rather than—despite her family name—of “ponderings” or questioning. As the events of Daniel’s unpredictable behavior grow out of hand, accordingly, so too does Edna Earle’s language grow darker and more frightening. Responding to her Black servant Narciss—who is invited to the farm where Uncle Daniel and Bonnie Dee plan to live—the narrator lashes out against Blacks in general “You can’t trust a one of them: A Negro we’d had her whole life long, older by far than I was, Grandma raised her from a child and brought her in and out of the field to the kitchen and taught her everything she knew.” Later, the gentle Welty even allows her character to use the word “nigger.” Yet, once more, it is not quite all there is to Edna Earle, who later, after the trial, rehires Narciss back at the Beulah, and who explains the woman’s fear of thunderstorms to the listener.

     She does not even totally blame Bonnie Dee leaving her uncle, the young girl having been, as she explains, “come up from up from the country—and before she knew it, she was right back in the country.” But a few sentences later, she hints at violence: “I don’t blame Bonnie Dee, don’t blame her for a minute. I could just beat her on the head, that’s all.”

     In a book in which dozens of these contradictory sentences are expressed, perhaps the most startling of her comments, and the one reveals that for Edna Earle what is said is not what is meant, is her completely placid testifying that before Bonnie Dee’s death, Uncle Daniel had uttered the sentence to his wife:  “I am going to kill you, if you don’t take me back.” The courtroom conversation is worth repeating:

                      “Have there been instances in your presence when Mr. Daniel
                      Ponder said those very words to Miss Bonnie Dee?”
                         “Plenty,” I says. “And with no results whatever. Or when
                      she said it to him either.’
                         “But whatever and whenever the occasion for that remark,
                      it was a perfectly innocent remark? says De Yancey.
                         “I should hope so.”
                         “So that when Mr. Daniel Ponder sent word to Miss Bonnie
                      Dee that he was going to kill her if she didn’t take him back,
                      in your estimation it meant nothing like a real threat?”
                          “Meant he got it straight from Grandma,” I says. “That’s
                      what it means. She said ‘I’m going to kill you’ every other
                      breath to him—she raised him. Gentlest woman on the face
                      of the earth. ‘I’ll beat your brains out’—Mercy! How that
                      does bring Grandma back.’”

     This scene is at the heart of Edna Earle’s strange pattern of saying outrageous, violent, and racist comments. For she lives in just such a society, the 1950s Mississippi back country where behavior is not always reflected in the frightful language in which the small-town folk express themselves, a world unaware of its own hateful behavior because it cannot comprehend that language determines reality or, at least, that language has everything to do with acts. What Grandpa Ponder admits about his son, “When the brains were being handed around, my son Daniel was standing behind the door,” might be also said of Edna Earle. At the center of the Ponder world the heart, unthinking action, controls any possible thoughts. Language and meaning seldom meet, but that very misconnect is precisely what makes this tale so wonderfully humorous, even if, underlying our laughter, we perceive it as so very sad. The Ponder Heart is about murderers who destroy through their words rather than with their hands.

Los Angeles, April 22, 2013

Friday, April 5, 2013

Douglas Messerli | Horse Sense (on Jaimy Gordon's Lord of Misrule)

horse sense

Jaimy Gordon Lord of Misrule (Kingston, New York: McPherson & Company, 2010)

The dark horse winner of the 2010 National Book Awards, Jaimy Gordon's sixth book of fiction, is, like most of her others, a brilliant piece of writing. One can only wonder how Gordon, a professor at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, has come up with so much information about the dirty world of cheap horse racing—where horses on their last legs are not just raced but may be claimed by others for a small price—that we totally believe in her credibility and her having captured these small-time gamblers' and mobsters' voices.
      The very list of characters, Medicine Ed, Kidstuff, lady "gyp" Deucey Gifford, Suitcase Smithers, Two-Tie, and Joe Dale Bigg, sounds right out of Damon Runyon. Yet, while Runyon's figures, all obvious stereotypes of street-smart hipsters, seem bigger than life, Gordon's characters seem relatively "real," and, in that respect, involve us emotionally. I felt real caring for the aging Medicine Ed, and was almost shocked at Two-Tie's murder, where he dies gently stroking his dog Elizabeth's fur. In part, it is Gordon's ability to capture the rhythms and patterns of their speech. Consider, for example, a paragraph from one of the numerous chapters written from the voice of Medicine Ed:

                       The way Medicine Ed hear it, Joe Dale Bigg run the horse off
                       and so he was Deucey's but he wasn't Deucey's, wasn't nobody's
                       horse right now. A Speculation grandson and looking for a home!
                       Jesus put me wise. Now, what was the name of this boy? Medicine
                       Ed couldn't recall. For all his fancy blood he had an ankle almost as
                       big as he was, but that wasn't what cause him to lose his home. It
                       was Bigg, Joe Dale Bigg's boy, one day when Biggy was helping
                       Fletcher the dentist in the back of the horse's stall and the horse
                       pinned and about killed him. Biggy what you can simple, a gorilla-size
                       child-for-life, and now he was back from the industrial school from
                       Pruntytown. Joe Dale Big thought he better be shed of the animal
                       before something go down.

     It's all there in the Gertrude Stein-like reversals of logic ("he was Deucey's but he wasn't Deucey's"), the localisms ("Jesus put me wise"), the exaggerated metaphors ("he had an ankle almost as big as he was"), and the colloquialisms ("before something go down"): real horse sense. Medicine Ed speaks like a true human being might in an original language (although I do keep hearing Walter Brennan behind my back) that Gordon has perfectly rendered.
     Into this dark underside of the gambling world come two relatively bright young figures, Tommy Hansel, an ex-car salesman, and his new girl, Maggie Koderer, who previously wrote on food for a small city newspaper. Neither seems to have much experience with horses, but Hansel, who has somehow gotten his hands on several horses, intends to enter them each in races, win quickly and get out before anyone has dreamed of claiming them. On the surface the animals look worn out and not worth much, but Hansel, in a slow descent into horse-racing madness, truly believes in luck. He is convincing enough that Maggie has gone along for the ride, intensely caring for the horses, mucking out their stalls, brushing, feeding, taping, and sleeping with them as if she has done it all her life. She's also a quick learner, and easily picks up methods from Medicine Ed and others on how to better care for them.
     The Lord of Misrule is organized around four races, each named after one of the central horses: Mr. Boll Weevil, Little Spinoza, Pelter, and Lord of Misrule. Some win, some lose, some even tragically die, but the real heart of the fiction concerns how Maggie becomes increasingly woven into the lives of everyone around her. A frank and openly sexual woman, Maggie—the sister of Ursie, the central character in Gordon's previous work, Bogeywoman—discovers, both comically and somewhat tragically, that the individuals with whom she now shares her life embody simple humanity, comic stupidity, hate, madness, and finally, murderous passions that stir up a tornado of emotions while proving to the reader that Maggie has more courage and pluck than anyone else.
     Although, by book's end, Maggie returns to her absurd job of writing Menus by Margaret for the Winchester Mail, she remains in nearly everyone's memory; certainly she will never leave mine. Medicine Ed, perhaps Gordon's most memorable male figure in this fiction, again quietly sums it up:

                           Now that she was gone and out of his bidness, he had to give
                           this much to the frizzly hair girl, she must had did something
                           right with all that modern science she use to make it up as she
                           go along. Damn if Medicine Ed be caught petting and nursering
                           an animal like that, but he had taken sometimes to rubbing Pelter
                           up with cloths after he worked, like a young horse. Couldn't hurt,
                           and they had the time. The horse gone good for fifteen hundred,
                           and sometimes when they walking the shedrow like now eye-balling
                           each other like now, he was careful to remember into the horse that
                           the Mound has claimers at 1250 too. It's still another place left
                           for them two to go, even if it is down.

Los Angeles, March 3, 2011
Reprinted from Rain Taxi, Vol 20, no. 2 (Summer 2011).

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Douglas Messerli | "Eating Oneself to Death" (on Verissimo's The Club of Angels)

by Douglas Messerli

Luis Fernando Verissimo Clube dos anjos, 1998, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa as The Club of Angels (New York: New Directions, 2002)

For years several friends, all rather well-to-do, have been gathering once a month for a food club, The Beef Stew Club, at each other’s apartments. Recently—particularly with the death of club founder Ramos and the introduction of wives at these events—the group has been floundering, and several members seem disinterested in continuing their participation. These facts and others the narrator of Luis Fernando Verissimo’s novel The Club of Angels reveals to a man he accidently encounters at a wine shop. Before the meeting is over the overweight, compulsively talking Daniel invites his new friend, Lucído—who has studied cooking in Paris—to join the group, an offer the quiet Lucído refuses; he does agree, however, to cook the meal of the next occasion which is to be held at Daniel’s place.

The only thing Daniel discovers about his new friend—other than he can cook—is that he belongs to a highly secret group who dine annually in Japan on Fugu fish which, if not prepared by an expert chef who can properly remove the poisonous portions, quickly kills the diners. As the younger members learn how to properly cut the fish, volunteers selectively chosen from the members, dine on their experiments, many of them dying in the process. Lucído has survived ten such meetings and has been awarded a fish scale for his survival.

So does Verissimo introduce the major theme of the story: the extraordinary pleasure of any experience when it involves an issue of life and death. And soon after, we see that theme played out by Lucído’s exquisite meals, wherein, one by one, he cooks each of the members' favorite foods, after which that member dies. The first death, obviously, could have been an accident, but when the second fêted member dies, it is clear to the remaining Beef Stew Club members that Lucído is killing them—perhaps alphabetically—one by one. What is surprising is that, rather that ceasing their activities, the members seem even more excited about continuing their meetings, justifying it with the notion that it would be unfair to those who have gone before them. Despite the outraged protests of wives and lovers, they proceed with their dinners while trying to unlock the secret of the unassuming Lucído’s murderous acts.

Gradually, Daniel and another surviving members discover that Lucído resides in the same apartment where Ramos once lived, that, in fact, he is connected with Ramos, the only gay member of their group, a man who died of AIDS. Ultimately, they realize that Lucído and another group member, Samuel, were the young “wanton boys” of Ramos’s life, one living in Brazil, the other in Paris, and that Lucído’s acts have had little to do with them—they have been only “flies” to be squashed on the way to revenge Ramos’ death, whom Samuel has killed to save him from further suffering.

In the end only Daniel and the murderer remain, Daniel convinced that he has been allowed to live so that he can narrate the events. But when Daniel is approached by a strange man, Mr. Specter, who claims he represents a group of individuals seeking euthanasia, and—presuming the murders in The Beef Stew Club are related to such activities—wonders might his friends join. Lucído is interested in the proposition, particularly since he has yet to cook Daniel’s favorite, gigot d’agneau. And so we are left at fiction’s end with the possibility of another death or several others in the newly formed Club of Angels.

Verissimo’s short novel is at times hilariously funny and, in its recounting of the failures of the club members—once young men who had every expectation to become successes of their generation, but who all, in one way or another, failed in their aspirations—a sad story of the fragility of life, of dreams, delusions and missed opportunities for joy and love. But it is that very fragility of the tale that undermines the many directions in which Verissimo might wish to take his fiction. At once an almost metaphysical study of the relationship of pleasure and death, a darkly homosexual murder mystery, a revenge murder between the “wanton boys,” an unconventional detective story, a tale of a mysterious of union of men determined to self-destruct, a satire about euthanasia, a kind of post-modern Menippean satire centered on literature (particularly Shakespeare’s Lear) and love of food, Verissimo’s fiction simply cannot support all of its conceits. Yet one has no choice but to tip one’s hat to that grander encyclopedic work he has attempted to achieve.

Los Angeles, December 22, 2002
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (February 2008).

Douglas Messerli | Prophets of the Ordinary (on Jane Bowles' Two Serious Ladies) by Douglas Messerli

prophets of the ordinary

Jane Bowles Two Serious Ladies in My Sister's Hand in Mine: An Expanded Edition of the Collected Works of Jane Bowles (New York: The Ecco Press, 1978)

The two serious ladies of Jane Bowles' title, are, in many ways, as different as they could be; and, although they know one another slightly, they are not good friends. Bowles presents us with a brief history of Christina Goering, daughter of a wealthy American industrialist. Even as a child Christina was not appealing, most children refusing to play with her because of in the puritanical religious games she demanded along with a bizarre series of punishments, in one case involving being packed in mud before swimming in a small stream.

    Yet, as with almost all Bowles' women, she is strong-minded, opinionated, and feels no regret for speaking forthrightly. She is, in some senses, an absolute monster. Yet, throughout her life, she attracts people to her, or at least they are attracted to her because of her money. Lucy Gamelon, despite having any real connection to Miss Goering, visits her one day, only to move in with her the next day. At a party, Miss Goering meets a sweating, overweight man, Arnold, who soon also moves in with her and Miss Gamelon.

     But hardly has this tale begun, with its completely unexpected results, before Bowles interrupts it to tell another story, about Mrs. Copperfield. The two meet momentarily at the party, but other than that, there seems to be little connection, and one can only wonder at the structural logic of Bowles' fiction.
    For all that, we do, however, sense a link between the two other than the authorial declaration of them both being "serious" ladies. Mrs. Copperfield is far more hesitant in doing new things than is Miss Goering, yet it is she who actually travels, with her husband, to Panama. And once she is ensconced into the run-down hotel in the middle of town to which he has taken her—determined to forgo the expense of the more popular tourist hotel—she appears far more adventuresome than anyone else in the fiction.
     Certainly her first foray into Colón street life is characterized as a Kafka-like nightmare:

           They were walking through the streets arm in arm. Mrs. Copperfield's
           forehead was burning hot and her hands were cold. She felt something
           trembling in the pit of her stomach. When she looked ahead of her the             
           very end of the street seemed to bend and then straighten out again...
           Above their heads the children were jumping up and down on the wooden
           porches and making the houses shake. Someone bumped against Mrs.
           Copperfield's shoulder and she was almost knocked over. At the same
           time she was aware of the strong and fragrant odor of rose perfume. The
           person who had collided with her was a Negress in a pink silk evening dress.
               ..."Listen," said the Negress, "go down the next street and you'll like it
           better. I've got to meet my beau over at that bar." She pointed it out to them.
               "That's a beautiful barroom. Everyone goes in there," she said. She 
           moved up closer and addressed herself solely to Mrs. Copperfield. 
               "You come along with me, darling, and you'' have the happiest time 
           you've ever had before. I'll be your type. Come on."
              ....The Negress caressed Mrs. Copperfield's face with the palm of her 
           hand. "Is that what you want to do darling, or do you want to come along 
           with me."
              ....:Wasn't that the strangest thing you've ever seen?" said Mrs. Copperfield

It is precisely scenes like this, or even more normal-seeming meetings wherein the characters say totally unpredictable things that entice us into Bowles' story and help us to comprehend Mrs. Copperfield's actions. For no sooner has she encountered this strange world than she is truly sucked up into it, joining, ultimately, the prostitute Pacifica, who encourages her to move into the Hotel de las Palmas where she lives.

      Giving up her husband's hotel, and, finally, even her husband himself, the timid and frightened Mrs. Copperfield discovers the friendship and love of the local prostitutes and shares time with them drinking in bars. By the end of her story, we recognize that she, like Miss Goering, is a woman on a mission to challenge herself, to alter her life, and survive in conditions she might never have imagined. Similar to Miss Goering, this serious woman is rushing into the unknown as a kind of punishment and test for her own fears. As Mr. Copperfield writes, in his goodbye letter to his wife:

                   Like most people, you are not able to face more than one fear during your
                   lifetime. You also spend your life fleeing from your first fear towards
                   your first hope. Be careful that you do not, through your own wiliness,
                   end up in the same position in which you began.

In short, as we are about to discover, Mrs. Copperfield—although a much more charming and, at times, disarmingly sensual woman, is of the same breed as Miss Goering, both of them being strong strictly-raised women of great eccentricity testing themselves over and over again to challenge the patterns of their lives.

      When we return to the story of Miss Goering, accordingly, we read her increasingly bizarre shifts in reality with the knowledge that, as in the case of Mrs. Copperfield, it can result in significant sensual changes.

      Yet, as we have been told, Miss Goering's seriousness is more of the religious type than Mrs. Copperfield's inconsistencies. She is determined to challenge almost all her fears. She sells her lovely house, despite the outcry of the parasitic Miss Gamelon and challenges of the t dependent Arnold, moving to an industrial island near Staten Island into a house with little charm and hardly any heat.

      When a third man, Arnold's father, determines to join their strange little community, Christina begins traveling to the larger island, visiting a local derelict bar and accepting the offers of its male customers to join them in bed.

       After her first adventure, she reports that she intends to return, admitting that she may not come immediately come back. One by one, the remaining trio who have lived with and off of her fortune, abandon the house, Arnold having discovered a new love, Miss Gamelon having moved into another house, and Arnold's father returning to his wife. In the end Miss Goering, who has gone off with a ugly man who believes she is a prostitute, must face a future even more undetermined than Mrs. Copperfield, who has returned to New York with Pacifica in tow—although it does appear that Pacifica may now soon bolt.

      Even Miss Goering, although believing that the challenges she has set before her, has made her "nearer to becoming a saint," wonders if she hasn't been piling "sin upon sin as fast as Mrs. Copperfield." For these strong women have both become dependent upon the flesh.

The marvel of Bowels' strange tale is its complete originality. Although, the events she tells are often strange, even a bit surreal, they are played out in a seemingly logical way that they seem the more incredible for their occurring. Most important, the central figures speak in the linguistic pattern, mixing a kind of nineteenth century rhetoric with a language which might be at home on the street. In a very odd way, Bowles' language is as outlandish as is Damon Runyon's—except that although these characters, like Runyon's, are not particularly educated, their talking is a process of thought instead of simple communication. And in that sense, they are always participating in a dialogue—socially or interiorized—with everyone around them, with the entire world.

     At times, in fact, it seems that the whole world might potentially be pulled into Bowles' tale as the two serious ladies travel about, gathering up friends and lovers as they go. Both are heavy drinkers, who prefer to sit at the bar and seem able to attract anyone to them with whom they speak. Critics have mentioned the pattern of twos and threes that accumulate around Mrs. Copperfield and Miss Goering, but I would argue that while the two do tend to alternate between duos and trios, like magnets they might equally attract dozens of willing partners, men and women. And, in that sense, these highly wrought women are a bit like latter-day prophets, missionaries who in preaching to the natives, willingly take on the attributes and behavior of those whom they might seek to save, transforming themselves, in the end, into absolutely ordinary human beings. Yet both, strangely, have become something larger simply through their abilities to change their lives.

Los Angeles, November 29, 2011
Reprinted from EXPLORINGfictions (December 2011).

Douglas Messerli | The Writer's Other Self (on Dezső Kosztolányi's Kornél Esti)

the writer's other self

Dezső Kosztolányi Kornél Esti, translated from the Hungarian by Bernard Adams (New York: New Directions, 2011)

This 1933 classic Hungarian fiction begins with the author's comments about a supposed friend, Kornél Esti, a boy from his childhood, who, in opposition to the author's decorous and often unadventurous behavior, relentlessly challenged his friend to take chances, racked up debts for which the author was often charged—the two are often confused and apparently even look alike— and behaved generally in a way that caused the narrator to break off their relationship. Yet years later the two encounter one another again and strike up a new friendship in which together they write a book based on Esti's fabulous adventures, the very book the reader holds in his hands. Of course, the reader quickly recognizes this relationship as a convenient "dopplegänger," which permits the author to tell stories about himself that he might not dare otherwise reveal.
      Strangely, however, once the tales get underway, Esti, we perceive, is not all the scandalously misbehaving creature that he has been depicted to be  in the first chapter, and basically the author, Dezső Kosztolányi, disappears into authorial objectivity as Esti's life is gradually revealed in the first or third person throughout. While the publisher and others quoted on the back cover refer to this book as a novel, it might be more accurately described as a series of loosely connected stories, a kind of relaxed picaresque that in portraying Esti's travels and adventures portrays Hungarian culture from a humorous perspective.
     If Esti seems all-knowing and a bit of a cad in Kosztolányi's first chapter, he is soon revealed as an utter innocent, a proper and almost prudish young man. In an early tale he is forced to endure a railroad trip in a car with a mother and daughter, the latter of whom, a plain and simple looking child, pretends to sleep so Esti that himself will doze as well, at which point she mischievously plants a kiss upon his lips. Throughout she makes lewd gestures, while the mother politely looks on. She is, we discover, insane, and will eventually have to be institutionalized. What is hilarious about this story, is that Esti, far from being the man-of-the-world as he been portrayed, is both a prude and, we soon discover, a sentimentalist who becomes highly affected by the young girl's behavior. In Venice he don's a bathing suit and gradually wades into the water:

                             Then in flung his body, arms outstretched, into the pearly
                             blueness, at last to be united with it. He no longer feared
                             anything. He knew that after this no great harm could come
                             to him. That kiss and that journey had consecrated him for

      The contradictory nature of this story matches the pattern of most of the works in the fiction. In the very next story, the author moves closer to a kind satiric philosophical tale as Esti and a friend visit a town where everyone is painfully honest, going out of their way to tell the truth. The citizens of this town do not speak to one another unless they truly want to, a beggar carries a card saying: I am not blind. I only wear dark glasses in summer. A shoe store announces Crippling shoes. Corns and abscesses guaranteed. Several customer's feet amputated. In trying to comprehend this seemingly self-destructive behavior the friend discovers that by going out of their way to suggest the worst, the citizens discover that things are never as bad as they suspect, and, accordingly, find everything far more pleasant than they might in a city where proclaims that everything is perfect, which, of course, is all lies.
     In another tale, Esti comes into to a rather large inheritance, but as an aspiring writer he dare not reveal his good fortune, fearing that it would end his career and he might lose his struggling friends. Consequently, while putting away just enough to survive a meager life for a few years, he attempts to give it away to strangers, slipping money into books, coats, and even—in a kind of reverse of pickpocketing—into the pockets and billfolds of people on buses and trams. Ironically, he is arrested when a recipient is convinced that he has stolen something from him. 
      It is this kind irony that permeates the book and perhaps best characterizes the author's style. In another story, Esti attempts, while traveling through Bulgaria—speaking a language in which he knows only one or two words—to carry on a long conversation with a train conductor without the other ever suspecting that he does comprehend the conversation. Through the use of "yes" and "no," tonal differences, head and hand movements and patient listening, he succeeds in befriending and, later, offending the conductor, bringing him even to tears. Another "yes" restores their close friendship.
    While swimming in a river, Esti is nearly drowned, surviving only because a young man rushes in to pull him out. Beholden to his savior he offers to become a life-time friend. But when the boring young man moves in with him, revealing a greater interest in theater magazines and the women they portray than in serious ideas, Esti becomes disgusted with his savior and fearful that he will never be able rid himself of the pest. One night, as they pass not far from the spot from where he has been saved, the elder pushes the young man into the river.
      Sought out for of a contribution, Esti becomes a benefactor to a woman and her suffering family. He helps the woman get a newspaper kiosk, and places her tubercular daughter in a hospital. The more he does for the family, however, the worse off their lives become. Finally, her son dies, the daughter grows more ill, and the mother, attempting to care for them, gives up her kiosk. As the old woman tells her sad story, Esti runs away from her, begging her to stop!
     Perhaps the funniest satire in the volume concerns Esti's studies in Germany, where he discovers a university president who falls peaceably asleep whenever one of the professors begins a speech, waking up precisely at each speech's conclusion. Kosztolányi takes his humor even further when, during summer break, the president becomes an insomniac, nearly dying for lack of rest. 
     The last tale, in which Esti can hardly cling on to an overstuffed subway, might be said to be an allegory of his life. Gradually, through pushes and pulls, he makes his way further and further into the car, finally finding a small slot in which can sit. Disgusted by most of the humanity around him, he finds joy in the face of a poor working woman, and ultimately feels some comfort in the trip only to have the conductor call out: "Terminus."
      Despite the publisher's enthusiasms, I cannot describe this work as a "masterpiece," but it is, nonetheless, an enjoyable series of ironic musings that nicely alternate between the comic and the tragic, the everyday and the bizarre.

Los Angeles, September 28, 2011
Reprinted from EXPLORINGfictions (September 2011).