A 21st-century Ulysses.

Reading between the lines.
June 29 2004 1:01 PM

A Cheeky Work of Postmodernist Genius

Forget Ulysses. Read Celestial Harmonies.

Book cover

There is a tradition of the novel as total literature, grounded in the belief that there is knowledge accessible only through writing and that a novel should want to cover everything. The incontestable model for the total novel is, of course, Joyce's Ulysses, still infamous for its recondite stubbornness in claiming everything as its field of play. The longest possible shot away from proud membership in Oprah's Book Club (even her new, revamped "classics" version), Ulysses unabashedly demands a lifetime of exegesis to be fully understood—it is an impossible ambition, and all the more valiant for that.

The Hungarian writer Péter Esterházy was born to write a total novel, if for no other reason than having descended from one of the most powerful and distinguished aristocratic dynasties in European history. The Esterházys have been everywhere, done everything: They advised Austro-Hungarian emperors for as long as the empire lasted; commissioned music from Haydn and Mozart; financed and fought wars; served as prime ministers; and accumulated incredible riches, until the vagaries of the 20th century wiped it all out. Péter Esterházy's father, having been born into immense wealth, ended up, under the Communist regime, as a parquet-floor layer and a badly paid translator. The fascinating Esterházy family history—rife with princesses, handsome noblemen, and courtly intrigues, plus the from-riches-to-rags narrative possibilities—might attract those happy readers who are still pining for the vapid life of Princess Di. But such readers should steer clear of Celestial Harmonies, the last Esterházy's latest book, as it is about a lot more than the rise and fall of the Esterházys. Celestial Harmonies is about everything, as refracted through his family.

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Péter Esterházy is placed smack in the center of European and Hungarian history, at the source of various catastrophic events that defined modern literature. He is in position to write about everything, and so he must. "Though the author dealt with real life," Esterházy writes, anticipating "autobiographical" readings of Celestial Harmonies, "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)."

The novel has two parts. Book One is titled "Numbered Sentences From the Lives of the Esterházy Family"; Book Two, "Confessions of an Esterházy Family." At the center of both is the figure of Father. Book One features "my father"—the generic phrase that he applies to every male Esterházy of the past few centuries. One can find sentences like this: "In the eighteenth century my father did away with religion; in the nineteenth century he did away with God; in the twentieth century he did away with man."  "My father" thus becomes pseudotranscendental, exploiting and pointing at the absurdity of calling Fathers the men who lived and died centuries ago. Substituting the historical identities of the Esterházy men with the semianonymous "my father," the writer performs a standard postmodern move—he levels the past into simultaneity, because from the point of view of the endless present, all of the past happened at the same time, and all of it is equally inaccessible. Moreover, in a referential frenzy that plays up the simultaneity, Esterházy invokes Oedipus, Mapplethorpe, Jesus, Aristotle, Haydn, Mozart, Princess Diana, Robert Bly, Bishop Ratzinger, Wagner, Oprah, Sex and the City, Sainte-Beuve, Raymond Chandler, Bela Kun, Stalin, Hegel, etc. One way to deal with everything—and the Esterházys are involved in everything—is to level it.

Esterházy's approach could have easily ended in unreadable cleverness, and the depthlessness of "my father" occasionally makes the reader wish for a traditional character, a "real" person, rather than a concept. The saving grace of Book One, however, is the inherent poignancy of the writer's position, of the fact that the leveling is a consequence of a vast personal loss, as the writer's forefathers have become impossibly irrelevant to his personal and historical situation. The determinedly postmodernist strategy is therefore not a whimsy—what might seem like an indulgence is but a necessity in Eastern Europe, where history has repeatedly leveled everything.

The other thing that redeems the postmodern cheekiness of Book One is, well, Book Two, a beautifully written personal history of his own immediate family ("an Esterházy family"). At its center is the writer's father Matyas, born into incredible wealth and influence in 1919, all of which disintegrated with the ascendance of communism. He died in relative poverty and anonymity a few years ago, having lived through the most traumatic events of Hungarian and European history. In Book Two, Esterházy drops all the postmodern gimmickry and goes for the heart.

Or so it seems.

While the model for Book One was Donald Barthelme's The Dead Father, a seminal book for American literary postmodernism, the model for the confessional tone of Book Two is Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes. Esterházy is not shy about this: He incorporates verbatim sentences from TheDead Father in five instances in Book One and uses McCourt's words in six different passages of Book Two. While liberal citing makes perfect sense in the happily postmodern Book One, using McCourt's words as his own (for example: "She's very quiet, and she's a wee bit cold" in the scene where Esterházy's little sister dies) throws off the whole autobiographical confession game.

For Esterházy, it is as if personal experiences are comprehensible only within the framework of literature (here is another symptom of a total novel), and he gladly informs the reader not only about his debt to Barthelme and McCourt but to many others. In the "Comments" appended to Book One and Book Two, he lists the places where he uses the words of Becket, Bellow, Witold Gombrowicz, Danilo Kiš, Nabokov, Joseph Roth, Updike, etc. He also provides a list of about a hundred names he is glad to acknowledge as influences. This sort of referentialism is one of the favorite postmodern pastimes, a leveling move in itself, framing everything in the simultaneity of literature. Esterházy believes that "literature is a commentary on our shared experience"—indeed the only place where that experience can truly be shared. He admits to "the romantic notion that novels stand in congenial relationship to one another and help one another out."

Here is, then, how everything falls into place: The totality of history, tragically embodied by the Esterházy family, can be contained only in the novel, which can convey the experience only within the larger network of literature. The only way for a novel to honor the totality of historical experience is to extend itself into other novels, to make itself total by being an open book, by deliberately violating its own borders. Esterházy's sole authorship is questioned, as is the limit of his own self. The writer's relation to other writers exactly replicates his personal relation to his forefathers—the only way to claim his individual sovereignty is to recognize its impossibility. Hence the book ends with the image of Father typing: "... and the words come pouring out, going pit-a-pat on the white sheet, one in wake of the other, words that are not his own, nor were they ever, nor will they ever be." Both Father and his son, the writer, have the impossible task of contending with everything in the level field of language, creating a total novel. It is an enormous job, demanding stubborn devotion. Celestial Harmonies is armed with the stubbornness of a masterpiece—but it is willing to teach its readers.

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