Excerpts from the Novel

Péter Esterházy

Photograph by Sherman Ong

Esti: An Introduction: The Sole Hero of This Book 

"His collar turned up, a young man was walking down a dark street." That's me, between quotation marks. I am my own travelogue, my romantic travelogue (in which I even reveal how many times the hero died in his dreams). I remain a fragment. A festoon. Nobody writes what he is, but what he'd like to be. Still, it would be nice, living a while longer.

Slip of the Pen

We're not about to make an exception of Pisti (slip of the pen: Esti), Kornél Esti insisted, we're not about to make an exception, and with a flourish, began conducting with his pen as if it were a conductor's baton, some pleasant waltz by Strauss. Would he have really preferred a world (slip of the pen: a life) in which Bartók can and hopes to compose feather-light waltzes? Or was that just his more superficial self? Oh, sacred clown-vacuity, etcetera.

The Sound of the Heart  

Kornél Esti and Haydn had one thing in common: he did not rail against his fate, he had the requisite sense of self-respect, but wasn't caught up with the question: Is the world fair? His Count was fair enough, insofar as such a thing can be posited of a count in the first place. Especially if we now add to all this the seventeenth century, and we're adding it. Esti's self-respect – and in this he differed from Haydn – did not feed on those gifts of his that elicit respect but, one might say, the other way around, Esti did not excel in anything, he was not dull and he was not clever, he was not especially good looking, but he was not homely either. Just one example: a carbuncle kept growing on his neck, one wouldn't have liked to touch it; on the other hand, despite his adolescent years, his face was as bright and shiny as – let me see now – a mountain lake.

Talent was not among the gifts bestowed on him by the Lord. But – a rare thing! – he could feel his life. He began his days with the confidence that comes from trusting in an easy existence – his humble chores in the downstairs kitchen. This existence had its own brightness for him, and honor; greatness, majesty not really, but fairness, definitely. Which means that the cheerful serenity, an offshoot of self-respect, was simply rooted in the circumstance that Kornél Esti was: Kornél Esti.

That he's alive. And that he's a human being.

Down in the kitchen he was not forced to do the most menial work, but almost; the path to becoming a chef's helper seemed, at this point, far off indeed. He was just sweeping up onionskins when cook Katus from the upstairs kitchen rushed in, breathlessly asking for her Károly (names changed by the editor). The Italian head chef, the sous-chefs, the meat chef, the salad chef, the pasta chef, all manner of kitchen help put her mind at rest in a chorus, as it were, not to worry, there was no danger either from the Turk nor from malaria, besides, the Lord's saving grace is always to be counted on; they spoke with the best of intentions even if with a lack of sincerity, from time to time casting sideway glances at one another, have they said enough?

Esti keeps quiet for a while, he's done with the onionskins, he's leaned the broom against the wall, and slowly, just like on stage, he approaches the cook. Beat. He takes a whiff – not of the air so much as of the cook: the sweat excites him only as much as his age, his seventeen years, warrant, but that much, definitely. Nothing personal, no conciliatory gesture, just disimpassioned words: Your Károly lies dead in the northern January snows, between his lips a red, red rose. The even deeper silence is broken at intervals by the plaintive sobs issuing from the cook's breast. I knew that bastard was cheating on me!

Esti walks up to the stove, Sir, he says to the head chef, whom he had no opportunity to address until now, Maestro, prego, and tastes the scampi ragout, prego, Maestro, a pinch of cayenne pepper, it'll work wonders. The Italian tastes the ragout, closes his eyes, opens them, looks at Esti, nods, geniale.

So much for his serene future.

From that moment on he was never more than two meters distant from the pots and pans. His pots and pans. Many years later, as he listened to the bubbling of the pots, as was his custom, he also listened in on his heart. Whether... whether its sounds were still the old. He didn't complain, he wasn't morose, hurry it up!, knights with discerning palates were due at the Count's for dinner. This was already another count, but he had the same name as his predecessor, it makes it easier to remember, just like a dog, Cleo, always, generation after generation.

Motto (Compilation)

The end of the world is the beginning of the world. I thought you should know. (Kosztolányi)

This story is not my story, but I can talk about it only in the first person singular. (Zsuzsa Takács)

No one writes about what he is, but what he'd like to be. (Kosztolányi)

As for our expressions, be this ever so untypical of us Hungarians, we force them into a smile. (Pál Závada).

There is nothing in this country except misunderstanding. (Sándor Márai)

Everything that's here is ours, from Miklós Bethlen to the spritzer, from Péter Bornemisza to the bats dwelling in the stairwells, from Saint Stephen to our muddled, circumlocutory, rotten lies. (P.E., The Stuffed Swan)

Oh, mercy! Why do his ears look like that? (Tolstoy, quoted by Endre Kukorelly)

Whether life makes sense or not is a fundamental question. I do not have the answer. I would gladly give you one, if I could, but all I can do is laugh. (Péter Nádas)

Gott ist schön. (Various authors)

"Comes life, beats you over head." (István Domonkos)

Still, it would be nice, living a while longer. (Kosztolányi)

A warm castle against the cold. (István Géher)

Whatever you do, it should be original, gentle, and loving. (Salinger quoted by Joyce Maynard)

I do have one condition, though. Don't you go knead it together into some silly story. Let everything remain as befits a poet: a fragment. (Kosztolányi)

To have touched the feet of Christ is no excuse for mistakes in punctuation. (Pessoa quoted by Tamás Halmai)

"What an ugly profession this is."
"Don't gripe, write."(Kosztolányi, Danilo Kiš)

The more I think, the more I think. (Paul Valéry)

What good is love without love? (István Bálint, The Confessions of an Irresponsible Male)

We're not making an exception of anyone, and so we may note that Mme de Rênal, who had exquisite skin, had her gowns made so that much of her arms and bosom should remain uncovered. (Stendhal)

Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read. (Groucho Marx quoted by Zsófia Iványi)

What problems did I have in the age of Alexander the Great? (...) I had none. (Kosztolányi)

In a sense, I am Jacob Horner. (John Barth)

Nothing caused me as much pain as when I saw it in writing. (Mátyás Varga)

Esti: Introduction 

Esti is the shimmering twilight, the purple sunset, a happy hour, the fading light, he is a gentle breeze, a quiet chat, an amicable glass of wine, a silent prayer. Esti is a name that, though spoken for, teasingly asserts that it is waiting to be filled with content, that it is still (always this still!) indeterminate; be infinite! it says. Why don't you call me Kornél Esti?

But when Esti emerged from the intimacy of the Hungarian language that was powerless to protect him and introduced himself with a quick nod of the head that was humble yet self-assured, darf ich mich vorstellen, Kornél Esti, or at times clowning: Cornelius Esti, it meant nothing, there was nothing in Esti's place, not so much as a black hole. All told, this was not even Kornél Esti's gratifying life, the emptiness that contains the promise of the infinite, the infinite that frightens us with this emptiness.

The Structure of the Change

I had passed the midpoint of my life when one windy day in spring I remembered Kornél Esti, Kornél Esti remembered (I wrote one windy day in spring).

Youthful Self-Portraits 


Kornél Esti sat perched on his father's knee. His father's knee was cold and his neck was warm, this was the bad and good side to the old man. I bet your most ardent wish is that I speak to you about the nature of the world, is that not so, son? His father had meant it as joke, but this didn't improve the situation any, the situation being that Esti had just announced that he had no intention of doing his homework, that he wanted to discover the world instead. I see, son. So then: the thing is that right at the beginning we were thrown out on our ears, son, i.e., we were expelled from Paradise, and that's how this "with the sweat of your brow" project sprang up. In short, there's no two ways about it, you gotta work. To wit – but by then Esti wasn't paying attention, he was waiting for a chance to hide inside the good, his father's neck. I don't give a damn about mankind's chewed-over knowledge, he once – later – announced, confronting his father. (He wasn't sitting on any knee by then.) I see, son, his father said, but so quietly, there could be no doubt about his being in the right.

Would not speak

Esti would not speak to his father for five years. This was his most profound father-experience, and he nurtured it all his life. – I'm so sick of not being in the right, sighed Esti with the full, incontrovertible, and sad knowledge of his being in the right.


Even as a little boy he could cry up a river, in earnest, without tears, like a man, and in the depths of his artless dismay, in the easy flow of his stormy tears, like a little girl. No one dared make fun of him, no cry-babying or fuss-potting; rather, they looked at him in alarm or drew away in disgust, as if to say, one shouldn't dirty the nest of one's own life. Or: don't go thinking only your life is special, we had dreams, too, but that's life, life is the poetry of the real, not the fantastical. Which is how they drew away in disgust or blinked in distress.

Esti was oblivious to all this. He embraced his father, his father's knee, because that was on a level with him. What's the matter, son? his father asked as affectionately as a father could. It's hard, it's so hard, daddy, Esti breathed into the knee. Now what am I supposed to say to that, his father thought, but so quietly that no one, not even himself, should hear. Can't you understand, I don't want anything, Esti sobbed, I don't want anything from life, except to climb a tree. And as soon as he said it, he'd aged.


I'm not interested in books, only in things, Kornél Esti, kindergarten senior, announced stamping his foot willfully when they tried, yet again, to force Dandilion the Dandy Lion down his throat.


His father bawled him out. Feelings hurt, he ran to his room. There sat Esti in the murky gloom with all his – his what? eleven years. If anything – mostly with confusion – in short, the resignation and humiliation and dejection of an old man, and... and nothing. Then his father came in and without a word stroked his head as he (Esti) was sitting on the floor, all right, he mumbled, good dog. He barely just moved his index finger. In tune with their well-rehearsed game, Esti instantly snapped at the finger with his teeth, good dog, he's eating, his father whispered, his voice full of concern. Gently, Esti bit into the big, burly fatherly finger from the side, and joyful, yelping, began chewing it.


The bad example. He was whatever age he was, not that it matters, the point is, Esti started drinking. I'm sick of self-discipline. For years I've been keeping myself together by gritting my teeth. Lack of restraint. I want some lack of restraint. This is the stuff he said to his worried father, who worried. You have no idea about the strength, the brutality, the perfidious and seductive power of alcohol. Upon hearing the word seductive, Esti felt an irresistible urge to throw back a shot of brandy. He felt sorry for his father – just a bit. Worry not, oh, father of mine, I am master of my fate, I am captain of my soul! Besides, I hardly ever throw up, once a week, if that. Also (oh, father of mine), let us not forget, this is my life. This is my life now.

Notwithstanding, if he got home late at night, he went to his room on tiptoes, like in a film, so as not to wake his father (and his mother, needless to say, except she's not in the film now). His father was sleeping as serene as a baby. His serene breathing enveloped Esti. What's to be done with a father who is always – almost always – happy?, Esti grumbled in frustration. That week he hadn't thrown up yet.

From within

Little Esti couldn't be dragged away from the organ of the village church. He played Bach, mostly. Kornélka! Kornélka! Esti continued to play. Kindly come along, Kornélka, and make it snappy. Your goodly father has breathed his last! Esti continued playing. But ever since, the notes ring different in his ear, and he never stopped playing, until he died. (Actually, he hasn't died yet. Only his sister-in-law, eight years his junior, has left us last week, rotting from within, which is how they put it.)

Appendix: the "Don Giovanni" prelude with the slow Furtwängler is ideal for wrapping things and stirring soup. But for the more ticklish business of chopping onions, only Bach's "Das Wohltemperierte Klavier."


During the Boer wars, though it could just as easily have transpired at some other time, Esti made up his mind that from there on in he'd see his father (his son) regularly, not for a so-called father-son chat, and not in order to lighten the old gentleman's increasingly bitter solitude (not to infuse, drop by drop, the father's wisdom – self-serving at best – into the son), but for its own sake, in order to be physically closer. Strolling. Watching him from behind lowered lids. Touching his shoulder. His neck. Hugging him. Heading home. Weeping.


It was around this time that Esti invented double crying. When he realized what he'd done, he was so elated that he couldn't cry for weeks, even though the new method stood at the ready. The essence of which was that he lays his head on the pillow sideways, in which case it makes sense to speak of an upper and a lower eye, and basically, the invention relied – well, it basically relied on gravitation, i.e., that the tears flow from the upper eye into the lower. The concrete realization calls for a certain amount of dexterity, because it won't do to lay your head down, you must gently let it hang forward, so the teardrop can roll over the bridge of the nose. After his son's death, this was Esti's life.

From Kornél Esti's Songs 


During the Boer wars
or whatever
he decided
he decided that from there on in
from next week on
he'd make a point of seeing
his father his son
for its own sake
to be physically closer
sometimes to his father, sometimes his son
touching his shoulder
his neck
hugging him
heading home

Kornél Esti's Life Described

Brief description

Esti is praying.

The medical aspect of the description

Say what you will, Kornél Esti had a veritable passion for reflecting the world. When he saw his blood test, his physician just shook his head. Too much swilling again, Mr. Kornél, yes? Esti was proud of his grip on reality. The question is, how much, Mr. Kornél how much?! Not how much, my dear Doctor, but nonstop!

As far as Esti was concerned, things and the words meant to describe them coincide and yet are also separable. In short, that he studies something, turns it into words, and that now that something also exists through the words.

Double vision, concluded the doctor briefly. If you see white mice as well be sure to ring me right away, Mr. Kornél, won't you?

Overture (Collection)


Kornél Esti, these will be the first two words, thought Kornél Esti and wrote: Kornél Esti.

A bit

On February 9, 2004, I wrote down self-importantly: 16:06. Call me Kornél Esti. – Whereby, what we gain on the one hand we lose on the other, but at least we've got a name which, though already spoken for, self-predicates that it's empty, that it can be filled in, that it is (as yet!) indeterminate – and so invites you to fill it in, define it, tell me who I am. You're always a bit at fault, Camus asserts, a man is always just a bit fictitious, Kornél Esti asserts throwing the full weight of his being behind the assertion.

Marc brandy

Kornél Esti gave the hero of his new book the name Kornél Esti, hoping to avoid any suspicion of autobiography thereby. At which we later had a good laugh. If my memory serves me right, we drank marc brandy back then, marc brandy was all the rage. It ain't over till it's over, Esti asserted with the full weight of his assertion, its ironic dignity (its gravity), then joined in the laughter as well as the brandy.

In a sense

In a sense, I am Kornél Esti.

translated from the Hungarian by Judith Sollosy