Happiness

Dezső Kosztolányi

Photograph by Sherman Ong

Now — said Kornél Esti and I was all ears — we all dream of being happy some day. What do we have in mind when we say this? Probably something permanent, substantial, enduring. For instance, a palatial villa by the sea, with a peaceful garden, a wife, children, a family; perhaps money, or glory. This is idle nonsense. These are images from our childhood. True, they come equally to mind now if we try to picture happiness, because in our daydreams we remain forever children. But this is just a fairytale, a timeless, insubstantial fantasy. This villa, like the palaces in fairytales, has no floor-plan, no mortgage, and no local taxes are paid on it. The wife we picture to ourselves has neither body nor soul and we have no real relationship with her. The children of our imagination never catch measles or come home with bad reports from school. As for glory: we aspiring writers daren't admit it amounts largely to haggling with publishers, which gets us so agitated we can't eat afterwards. These images, then, have no substance and that is what makes them so appealing.

There is certainly such a thing as happiness. But it is quite, quite different. Even I can recall some moments when I was happy. When, you ask, was I happiest? Well, I can tell you, if you wish.

A couple of years ago — it was the end of October — I had to go on a long journey. I packed the night before and went to bed. The train was due to leave in the morning. I couldn't sleep, even though I'd had several sleepless nights. I tossed and turned. Suddenly I felt a stab of pain in the small of my back. I took my temperature: it was high. I would have given a great deal not to have had to travel the next day, but there was no putting it off. As day dawned I was filled with a sense of dread that I would never come home. It was a soggy, dark autumn. The hapless train was waiting for me, with its sodden, miserable carriages. Its corridors rang hollow and even inside its carriages there shivered only the odd, pallid passenger, as if the entire train were under some evil spell. Alone in my carriage I looked out on the mist rising above the fields. The air was black, the highways yellow. We stopped at a station and a peasant lad ran the length of the train, barefoot in the pouring rain, with a jug and cup, shouting "Fresh water! Fresh water!" The world-weary guard barely glanced at my ticket. Instead of a greeting, he gave me a sigh. The nightmare continued over the border. Deserted stations trundled up and rolled by. A red-nosed Austrian youth with glasses, in a smuggler's capacious coat, stared at me long and hard and I stared back. A cat stole into a stationmaster's hut, as if not wanting even to see me. A thin woman stood by a sumach tree, her skirts billowing in the wind. In Germany little boys were on their way to, or from, school, laden with books, drawing pads and rulers. As I'd not had anything to eat, I lost all sense of time. I didn't know if it was the morning or afternoon. Usually I found travel amusing. You saw life, framed as a picture or a play, bereft of its content, simplified. But now life, with its empty frames, made me despair. Everything and everyone seemed pointless and desolate — the Austrian youth, the cat, the thin woman in the wind, even the German schoolboys, but above all myself. Thoughts of all my failures and sins took over my mind. Self-reproach gnawed my insides. At night in the wide sleeper I was the only one to make up a bed. A hatchet-faced conductor, like some out-of-work actor, snarled 'Good night', as if he had already decided to slit my throat the moment I fell asleep. Just in case, I took a double dose of sleeping pills. I lay half-awake for hours listening to the clanking of the train before managing to drift off. I woke up with a scream. I reached out in the dark. I had no idea where I was. My throat was parched. The radiators belched a tropical heat. I snatched on some clothes and staggered out into the corridor.

This was the moment that it began, the happiness I've mentioned, a happiness more complete and pure than ever. The train was snaking its way through romantic, pine-crested mountains. Snow was falling. Imagine! Snow, in early autumn, like some surprise or gift from heaven, and the sun was shining. It was a glorious, glittering morning. In the valley a small German town came into view. I took my suitcase and got off. I took a cab into town. Laughing children on their way to school were pelting each other with snowballs. The roofs of the houses were white. Lamps shone from the upper floors. Trams jingled their way along the streets, making a quite unusual noise, like Christmas angels. My heart pounded with joy. I took a room at the finest inn. They welcomed me with the utmost courtesy and deference, offering a room with a balcony at a very decent rate. A white-haired, tufted maid came in. She spoke in hushed tones. She brought two jugs of hot water. I went over to the window, which looked out onto the square, and stared open-mouthed for I don't know how long at the joyous fall of childhood's snow. Never before had I been so happy to be alive on this earth. Life again had meaning. I had breakfast in the languid restaurant downstairs. The table lamps with their colorful little hats made the white of the tablecloth gleam with light. A grandfather clock ticked on the wall. Butter and honey were brought to the table. I even had a soft-boiled egg, something I normally hate. Everything was wonderful, everything was marvelous, everything was desirable, inexplicably and inexpressibly beautiful.

That was the time in my life when I was happiest. Why, you ask? It's a puzzle I leave to you analysts of the psyche. I have little time for notions of repression and sublimation, for symbols of the unconscious or the subconscious. I have no wish to be autopsied while I am still alive. Let what I am remain private, whole, and mysterious. Let it continue to yield sufferings and joys uncomprehended. And when I die may it all be destroyed, like an unopened letter. Believe me, that's worth more than any amount of knowledge. What I am trying to say is that happiness is like this and nothing else. Always it blossoms in the shadow of extraordinary suffering, and it is just as extraordinary as suffering that's suddenly over. But it doesn't last long, because we grow used to it. It is a passage, an interlude. Perhaps it is no more than suffering's absence.

translated from the Hungarian by Peter Sherwood



Read translator’s note

Dezső Kosztolányi (Szabadka/Subotica, now Serbia, 1885 – Budapest, 1936) was Hungary's most original and most stylish interwar writer. Kosztolányi studied at the University of Budapest but left without graduating to go into journalism in 1906. In 1908 he was among the first contributors to the legendary literary journal Nyugat (West) and immediately made his mark as a poet. Turning to fiction from the 1920s, he wrote four novels, three of which are available in English, as well as hundreds of pieces of short prose. The first series of his renowned Kornél Esti (Cornelius Nightly) stories appeared in English earlier this year.

Peter Sherwood is the first László Birinyi, Sr., Distinguished Professor of Hungarian Language and Culture in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has been translating from Hungarian since the late 1960s. His recent translations include essays by the Hungarian philosopher Béla Hamvas (Trees, Editio M, 2006) and a novel by Miklós Vámos (The Book of Fathers, Other Press, 2009).


Both genetically and typologically alien to those around it, the Hungarian language, with its origins in the Ural Mountains, has now spent more than 1100 years in the heart of Europe. This has created a dynamic tension that continues to endure and fascinate, and not just linguistically. Unlike analytical and "right-branching" English, Hungarian is agglutinating and „left-branching", so that for example "should we get it photocopied?" is rendered „lefénymásoltassuk?" [down-light-copy-VERBFORMATIVE-CAUSATIVE-IMPERATIVE-we.it], and "the boy sitting beside me" turns into "the beside me sitting boy".

It is thus a language built up in a sequence often opposite to that of English, and as the essential grammatical relations are realized on the ends of the main lexical categories, an array of delicate alternative highlightings and rhythms become available through change in the order of words, or rather: the various parts of the sentence. And, particularly in the hands of a master, there are far-reaching consequences for the units of syntax, as phrases, sentences and even paragraphs slip, slide and slither into each other, clear—indeed, translucent—in the original but eluding capture into English, like trying to lift a fistful of water and ending up just with your hand wet.

Some of the great interwar Hungarian stylists, such as Sándor Márai and Antal Szerb, are now becoming available in English, but, as the writer Péter Esterházy, a lifelong admirer, has repeatedly pointed out, no one has surpassed Kosztolányi in his delicate mastery of Hungarian prose and he remains one of the most elusive to translate, since—as he almost said—Le style c'est l'écriture même.


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