Tuesday 28 February 2017


Péter Esterházy, the author of one of the most fascinating works of literature I've ever read, would probably approve of me starting back-to-front with a footnote. I was curious to read in Celestial Harmonies, a masterpiece which reads as an experimental novel but isn't (novel, that is; it's certainly experimental), of his ancestor Count Ferenc (Franz) Esterházy (1715-85). Could two works be more different than Mozart's astonishing Masonic Funeral Music, written for Ferenc, and Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, whose Octavian is avowedly modelled on the Count, taking his pet name of Quinquin? I wanted to know more about the man for one of my Rosenkavalier classes at the Frontline, but what did a Google search bring up first? The above, a sparkling Rosé from the Esterházy estates. Here's the only portrait of 'Quinquin' Esterházy I could find, clearly past his dapper, bed-hopping prime.

 The palace at Eisenstadt, by the way, is a rather ugly affair on the outside, so much so that the only angle I could find remotely attractive when we visited some years ago was from Liszt's statue opposite.

But I realise I'm postponing the inevitable, when I have to try and get to grips with Celestial Harmonies. I came to read it after being fascinated by Esterházy's text for Péter Eötvös's Halleluja: Oratorium Balbulum, which I had the good fortune to hear at its first Budapest performance. The playful, absurd hopping-about in time when dealing with a serious subject was something I'd never encountered before. Below, Eötvös (left) and Esterházy pictured together by Szilvia Csibi for Müpa Budapest not long before the writer's death last July.

The usual hyperbole about an author being born to write a certain book may even be true in this case: Peter Esterházy had to write Celestial Harmonies at some point in his amazing literary career. His singular fate was to be born dispossessed into a significant family shorn of significance, a weird combination, as he points out in a terse but typically teasing Q&A, of the Kennedys, Rockefellers and Rothschilds placed at a different point in history. As he writes in the book, 'My father, as I have often heard and read in the family records (for it was a recurrent motif of epic proportions), was the first Esterházy in centuries to have come into the world without rank and means.'

His father's history is complicated: he and his beautiful wife kept the family going through the worst times, and were able to turn their hands to manual labour when kicked out of Budapest in the forced resettlements; but he turns out to have been a spy for the regime, reporting on folk - when Esterházy junior discovered the fact (apparently after writing Celestial Harmonies), he wrote an 'appendix' entitled 'Revised Edition' - a revision of his attitude - called III/III, the internal security department of the Ministry of the Interior (please could Judith Sollosy, the seemingly excellent translator of Harmonia Caelestis, the original title which might have been retained, give us an English version of III/III too, please?). Nevertheless the fact remained that he was a good father, and the complex portrait is a complicated one.

Complicated hugely, in fact, by the book's first part, where 'my father' turns out to be multiple Esterházys through history, subject to the 'leapfrogging through time' which is Esterházy the writer's preferred, non linear mode. He tells us he had to restrain himself from doing more of it in Part Two, which is essentially the narrative of his father's and grandfather's lives, and his childhood experiences (he still can't help himself occasionally, and I wish he had, for the most part, even if older anecdotes are recalled by his own remembered scenes).

In order to try and get a grip on all the riches I'd half-digested - and it really was the most extraordinary feeling to get to the end of the book - as well as to try and ingest Esterházy's elusive style, I wrote into a notebook most of the passages I'd underlined and marked up. Further whittling, here are some of the half-ironical apercus and some of the perceptions of past Esterházy behaviour that make up Part One (bearing in mind that the author is often speaking as the voice of earlier Esterházy sons, and sometimes as the fathers).

What makes a family a family is that they can and dare say: we.

History belongs to the victors, legends to the people, fantasy to literature. Only death is certain.

We do not value other people's truth when it stands in opposition to our own falsehood.

The past belongs to us not because it is glorious, but because it is ours, We are rich, and this sort of wealth is an aid to freedom.

The common folk are so prejudiced in favour of great lords, in favour of my father, in favour of his facial expression, tone of voice and conduct in general, that indeed it would amount to idolatry if only once, just once, it ever entered my father's head to be a good man,

More importantly - or, if there's such a thing as tragedy, then more tragically - I have lost my solidarity with Hungarian society. Who is there to sympathise with? The dishonest bourgeoisie? The greedy and brutally selfish peasantry? The uneducated working class? As for my own class, there's no class any more, just a couple of individuals as far as I'm concerned.

In the 18th century my father did away with religion, in the 19th century he did away with God, in the 20th century he did away with man.

Society does not insist on principles as long as its style is not meddled with, as long as the 'delinquent' is able to come up with the right packaging.

(On large palatial rooms; pictured above: the Haydnsaal at Eisenstadt) Space is drama. It is rich and desolate. Empty. And melancholy, too. But always participatory, creative (active, constructive). It is always in motion.

When they were close enough to the big fish to swallow them up if it felt like it, but didn't, they swam back to the others and resumed their daily activities with (relative) equanimity (love, life, culture, God, homeland, family, or when he (my father) was young, soccer, followed by defence of the homeland). 

Something tells me, my father said, after wracking his brain long and fruitlessly, that the most sacred thing of all is the thing we do not recall.

Though the author dealt with real life, he thinks it ought to be read as a novel; in other words, without asking either more or less of it than a novel can give (everything)...This is in part that book; but only in part, because the memory is finite and unreliable, and because books drawn from real life are often no more than feeble glimpses and fragments of the things we have seen and heard.

The wisdoms and paradoxes are no less rich in Part Two, but here it's the scenes and transfigured memories of family life that make the 'memoir' seem more novelistic. And the structure becomes more apparent - especially towards the end, where having seen his parents' turning to labour and resourcefulness in poverty, Esterházy gives us a long last scene in which his father takes the family to dine in a posh Budapest restaurant and impersonates Austro-German nobility (drawing from his family's history when all traces seem to have been obliterated by the communists).

The introduction is typical:

It was around this time that Budapest ceased to be. The city had stopped remembering itself. It disappeared. It was lost to sight, you couldn't see where it was, where it came from or where it was headed. Some restaurants, however, lagged behind the city and the people. 

We follow the family's enchantment with the father's act, and share their gradual realisation that his dazzling 'fairy light' is due to an increasingly drunken mind. So the final pages decrescendo via the threat of bad behaviour to the low-key walk home from a spoiled afternoon. A superlative way to end, and it left me reeling. Moving on to the next book, Orhan Pamuk's Norton lectures gathered together as The Naive and Sentimental Novelist, I found so much concordance between Pamuk's almost mystical sense of the "hidden centre" of a novel and Esterházy's genius working in ways. Maybe there's room for more on the Pamuk front here, but in the meantime the dust needs to settle a little.


Susan said...

This reminds me so much of Don Fabrizio in The Leopard: "More importantly - or, if there's such a thing as tragedy, then more tragically - I have lost my solidarity with Hungarian society. Who is there to sympathise with? The dishonest bourgeoisie? The greedy and brutally selfish peasantry? The uneducated working class? As for my own class, there's no class any more, just a couple of individuals as far as I'm concerned." Your post is enticing not least because you'd mentioned it earlier, so I ordered and have just received it from interlibrary loan (a couple days ago). Now the trick is to set all else aside and settle down to it.

David said...

You've hit the nail on the head there, Sue (and by the way, Celestial Harmonies goes into my top 10 alongside The Leopard). In a short Q&A at the back of the book, PE is asked about his favourite literary family sagas. He replies: 'The basis for all family books is [Thomas Mann's] Buddenbrooks. Still, my favourite is Lampedusa's The Leopard. In general, I wanted to make use of the energies of the family novel that -as far as I'm concerned - is still alive and well. There are no outdated genres'.

David Damant said...

I think that you are very unfair to Quinquin Estehazy in saying that in the picture he had passed his dapper bed hopping prime......well, dapperness may well have been left behind, but look at the expression in his eyes. Any woman in the room would know what he was thinking. Also the name Esterhazy would have been an attraction.

The Esterhazy family were fortunate in that Eisenstadt was in Austria. They lost Esterhazy itself when the communists took over Hungary, but many in the family found such a remote palace inconvenient. And the last I heard was that the Palais Esterhazy in Vienna was a casino.

David said...

Well, as internet dating tells us, there is always a market for plump, deracine gentlemen...something for everyone. There is, or was, a London choir called the Esterhazy Singers. With typical choral wit (not), one of their members always called them the 'extra hazy singers'. Quinquin looks a bit like that in the portrait.

Eisenstadt is interesting, but the palace is surprisingly ugly (IMO). We didn't have long enough there for a tour of the interior (or rather we could have done, but opted for white asparagus at an excellent lunch across the square).

David Damant said...

It should be kept in mind that the Hauptsitzen of some of these vast estates not only look like government offices but WERE government offices, as the family and great teams of executives and servants looked after the properties which were enormous and larger than many countries. The Potocki Palace in Poland is another example. Often the people living in these territories would say that they were people of the great family, rather than people of Poland or Hungary etc.

David said...

Good point. Looks more like a barracks than an administrative HQ in my opinion. I wish we'd had more time to explore the environs. Much admired the recreation of the 'Liszt Room' in the excellent regional museum, though. Not much to see in Haydn's house, but they had made an effort with a good exhibition, which is the most one can expect of most such house-museums.