Flabbergasted, I stared at these nightmare figures, who had certainly–either in my imagination or in real life–at one time lived and breathed, and were now black and dead and cold, like glowing embers after they’ve cooled, died down, and crumbled to ash. I didn’t know them. They, however, knew me and recognized me. Some I told them to go and see Kornel. At that they smiled. Asked for a personal description of him. And at that they derisively pointed at me. They asked for his address. There I couldn’t really help them. My friend was most of the time traveling abroad, sleeping on aircraft, stopping here and there for a day or two, and to the best of my knowledge had never yet registered with the police. Kornel Esti certainly existed, but he was no legal entity. So however innocent I know myself to be of all these terrible crimes, the case against me didn’t look good. For Kornel’s sake I didn’t expose myself to the unpleasantness of confrontation. I had taken upon myself all his debts, his tricks, his dishonesty, as if I were responsible for them all.
Although Dezso Kosztolanyi’s triumph, Kornel Esti, was written in 1933, it feels contemporary and fresh with a perfect balance of style and imagination as anything you might read in McSweeney’s or the New Yorker. Kornel Esti is a collection of vignettes, touching, comical and surreal, based on the idea that we all have two lives – the one we live and the one we want to live. And if you’re artist, do you experience life as art or do you sacrifice that in order to be an artist?
Throughout the fragments of the narrator’s life, which is stolid and quiet, he invents his alter ego, Kornel Esti, who he allows to do all the things he can’t. When he is young, Kornel encourages and seduces him to do things that he is not supposed to do. With the aplomb of a true imp, “he encouraged me to say dirty words, one after another, to watch girls getting changed through cracks in cubicles in the summer, and to pester them during class with my improper desires; he made me smoke my first cigarette and drink my first glass of palinka; he gave me a taste for the pleasures of the flesh, gluttony and fornication…” And as he goes through life, the warring factions of his consciousness, good vs. not-so-good, flesh out into a truly unique character. When he is an adult and confronted with a weeping widow who knows of his written works, he tells her:
“I am not a good man,” Esti protested inwardly. “I am a bad man. Well, not a bad man. Just like anybody else. The fact that I retain my old, pure feelings–only and exclusively for purposed of expression–is a trick of the trade, a piece of technical wizardry, like that of the anatomist who can keep a heart or a section of brain tissue that hasn’t had a feeling or thought for ages in formaldehyde for years and years. Life had left me numb, like it does everybody who reaches a certain age.”
Despite this confession, he helps her. Even after he helps her repeatedly, she remains unhappy and he is driven to shake her with frustration, realizing that he continued to help her out of some need of his own just as much as she wanted to to remain unhappy.
In another vignette, he happens upon the greatest hotel in the world. A hotel where everything is free, he is serenaded to sleep by a chorus of male staff and awoken by a chorus of female staff, and the hotel help resemble famous personalities like Schopenhauer and Edison. In the end, he forgets to pay his hotel bill and comes to the conclusion that to pay such a wonderful hotel for its services would be “gross tactlessness.”
These are the imaginings and rationalizations captured in these stories of a life never lived. Or fully lived, depending on how you look at it. Within the stories of Kornel’s life, there is an ephemeral albeit honest tinge of loss and the improbable. At times I couldn’t help but think that Robert Coover must have a picture of Kosztolanyi hanging above his desk for inspiration. Kosztolanyi’s style is so erudite and so real the reader immediately knows that they are in the hands of a rare and gifted storyteller.
Because he was also a poet, the prose is precise and beautiful. Like an expensive piece of clothing that we want but know we can’t afford, Kosztolanyi offers us the dreams and realities that we can walk through but never experience. And he makes us wonder what our lives would be like if we all had a Kornel Esti. The line between art and life has never been clear, but sometimes it’s better when it’s not.