Wednesday, January 13, 2010

314. Celestial Harmonies – Peter Esterhazy

History: This book was published in 2000. Peter Esterházy, the scion of an aristocratic family that traces its roots to the 12th century. The Esterházys, one of Europe's most prominent aristocratic families, are closely linked to the rise and fall of the Hapsburg Empire.
Much of Book One is based directly upon Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father, a fact acknowledged by Esterházy in his afterword. (Although it is instructive that Barthelme recognized the merit of brevity in his works.) James Joyce is another inspiration; and in her introduction, the translator Judith Sollosy asserts that resemblances between Celestial Harmonies and Finnegans Wake may not be coincidental. Brushing aside the coy phrasing of this claim, we do find some similarities. The father – or fathers, as Esterházy sometimes stipulates – are “human, erring and condonable,” like Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. Time, larded with an indigestible amount of history and other matter, is slippery. Literary allusions are plentiful. However, while Esterházy and Joyce are both witty, if obscure, guides to their respective jungles, Esterházy lacks the verbal felicities that make Finnegans Wake so enjoyable. The best reading strategy is to read each section for its own sake, letting connections arise as they may, and allowing the contradictions to fight it out on their own.
Plot: Esterházy divides Celestial Harmonies into two parts. Book One is subtitled “Numbered Sentences from the Lives of the Esterházy Family.” Related in a fragmentary style that avoids sequential narration, it is composed of 371 numbered sections. Some sections are several pages long, and some consist of a single sentence. The differences in length contribute variety to what would otherwise be indistinguishable chaos. The outlines are vague. The time of any given incident can be the present or the past. The narrator is the only fixed point; but except for his role as a son, Esterházy does not permit us the security of knowing whose son or which son he is. Over several hundred years and many generations, there is only the son and the father.
Book Two, or “Confessions of an Esterházy Family,” has a narrower focus and a more conventional structure than the previous part. Still, the relief that the reader might expect from part two is not complete. Although Esterházy now presents specific characters engaged with definite events, the narrative wanders as it wishes, taking some time to settle down into a chronological sequence. If Book One suggested Finnegans Wake, the opening of Book Two suggests Tristram Shandy. At least Esterházy is merciful enough to divide the text into chapters.
The occupation of Hungary by communists provides the background to what is largely an autobiographical story. The first Hungarian encounter with communism took place after the First World War, with the short-lived regime of Bela Kun. This context permits delineation of the older generation of the Esterházy family, including Peter’s father, Matyas Esterházy. But it is the second encounter with communism, after World War II, that provides the bulk of this part. Although the characters are presented in a gestural manner, we can see clearly the development of the leading character – the author – and his family. The vicissitudes of their life under tyranny are a vivid parable of contemporary life and of the shadow that we all to some degree experience.
The use of the previous part in this latter half is interesting, and much of Book One resurfaces in the form of quotations or echoes. The effect is startling – like a successfully executed piece of magic. And the more specific narration draws heavily on the exoticism of middle Europe. This section of the world, near us (or near Western Europe, at any rate) possesses its own rhythms and postures. A message filtered through the bizarre world of Hungary thus reaches us with enhanced impact.
Review: I really liked Book Two, which to me was a portrayal of a family who has been stripped of all the glitter and fame of royalty, but is still retaining a sense of unity and history. We see the strain of this loss as it is reflected on his father’s alcoholism, his parents marriage, the loss of the infant, and his dying grandparents all told through a child's perspective. I also enjoyed learning a bit of history, family stories that you never hear in history classes, very well written with a sense of comedy. However, I did not read Book One past page 30, it was nonsensical to me, meaningless, and I wonder what Esterhazy was doing when he wrote that part.
Opening Line: “It is deucedly difficult to tell a lie when you don’t know the truth.”
Closing Line: “You understand fuck-up, don’t you son?”
Quotes: “But what was this thing that went beyond fatigue and exhaustion, what this crushing defeat of the body, the feeling that there is nothing but the body, and that you’re one with your body, your pain, your despair, what is this?
“It’s called work” Aunt Rozi said to the kitchen stove.”
“Oh the intricate web of relationships that confronts you already at the moment of your birth! Being a father, a mother, a child, how complex it all is, what a baffling structure a family is, cosseting and nakedness, security and vulnerability, its ebb and flow, give and take, stroke and slap.”
Rating: Book One – Bad. Book Two – Excellent.

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