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Biography

1885 born in Szabadka (now Subotica, Serbia)
1901 first poem published in Budapesti Napló
1904 attends University of Vienna
1906 studies humanities at the University of Budapest, but does not graduate, becoming an editor for Budapesti Napló
1908 published in Nyugat
1930 president of Hungarian PEN Club
1936 dies in Budapest

Skylark
1924

A novel about an elderly couple and their still-unmarried daughter, it is an balanced yet moving account of their untenable situation. The story takes place in a small provincial town named Sárszeg, a name that recalls the muddy villages in the poorest part of Hungary, in the autumn of 1899. Pacsirta, the only daughter of the Vajkays , is preparing for a weeklong trip to relatives. This is the first time she has ever left her parents. She is plain to the point of being unattractive, lacking in humour and joy, but considers loving and protecting her parents her most important task. The whole existence of her parents revolves around her, and they are devastated by her approaching absence. The father, Ákos Vajkay, is a broken old man of fifty-nine, who had made his living from genealogy, and his only hobby is heraldry pursued in the dust of archives. The mother is a colourless creature but devoted to her husband and daughter. Long years have passed since they participated in any social event: Skylark has held them back, for she has tired of people staring at her. Her parents know that she will never marry and that therefore their life will go on in depressing dullness until they die.. Now, however, as the dark presence of their daughter lifts, the old couple slowly begin to rediscover the pleasures of small-town society. They go out and eat at a restaurant and savour long-forgotten spices. They meet the colourful characters in the fin-de-siecle town, and are invited to a theatre performance which they enjoy enormously. The old man is enchanted by the town s coquettish prima donna, and feels revived by the gently erotic atmosphere of the show. They are introduced to a young man, Miklós Ijas, a reporter on the local paper, whose life is darkened by a family tragedy. He is the only man in town who can understand the old couple s sorrow, for he is more than a local gentleman: he is a promising poet who has decided to make a career in Budapest. Meanwhile, they get a letter from Skylark, a childish account of her holiday, full of trite phrases. Kosztolányi s irony is evident in presenting her letter in full, but this is a tragic irony, full of a compassionate sorrow. On the sixth day of their daughter s absence Ákos Vajkay meets up with the lads in the casino. He smokes, plays cards, sings along with the gypsy music, and gets very drunk. In his drunken state he is at last able to blurt out the truth to his wife: their daughter is a burden who has deprived them of all the pleasures of life. After this cathartic night comes the seventh day and Skylark arrives on the evening train. Their life goes on exactly as before. But each member of the small family is weeps and prays at night, when no one hears but God and Christ on the cross who guards their shabby room. "Patience. Patience. There are many who suffer so much more." They can be redeemed only by the keenly observant eyes of Miklós, the poet, who is in some respects the alter ego of the writer himself. "He was no lover in a worldly sense; the only love he knew was that of divine understanding, of taking a whole life into his arms, stripping it of flesh and bone, and feeling its depths as if they were his own. From this, the greatest pain, the greatest joy is born: the hope that we too will one day be understood, strangers will accept our words, our lives, as if they were their own." Thomas Mann wrote to the author: "I mean that [your book] bears the impress of an intense individual originality, that it has its origin in an unflinching isolation, that it has the power to move us with a humanity so true as actually to cause pain. Therein lies the essence of the poetic. Everything else is academic, no matter how revolutionary its external appearance may be." PRESS: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/apr/08/quiet-shattering-perfect/ http://www.nybooks.com/books/imprints/classics/skylark/

The Golden Kite
1925

Dezső Kosztolányi: The Golden Kite (1925) One of Kosztolányi’s most beautiful and many-sided novels, set in the first third of the 20th century in a suffocating small town suggestively called Mud-End, The Golden Kite portrays the tragedy of a humanist. Antal Novák is a free-thinking and self-consistent teacher of Mathematics and Physics, who seeks contact with his students without forcing it on them. Among his colleagues, who either rule like drill sergeants or fail to keep discipline, Novák stands for a middle way. The boys tend to like him rather than fear him, and his figure (“funny” or “ridiculous”) is the constant object of their attention. In his private life Novák is less self-assured: at the age of 44 he has been widowed for six years, raising his highly rhapsodic 17-year-old daughter, Hilda, alone, and the girl, as he very well knows, shows the marks of lacking a mother. Although he forbids her, Hilda is meeting her lover, a graduating student, and in fact becomes pregnant, without telling her father. At home peace alternates with trouble, and Novák senses that he cannot overcome the difficulties of raising his daughter. At the same time, Novak’s classes are preparing for the final exam, held in the springtime (Kosztolányi presents this with humorous and emphatic scenes). One day, students in Novak’s last Maths and Physics class begin to answer questions aloud; Vili, an accomplished athlete but one of the worst of the students, has long concluded that Novak picks on him, and so does not utter a word. When finally he is forced to speak, he reveals his complete ignorance and lack of preparation. Novák, who can suffer cheekiness better than darkness, looses his patience and becomes sarcastic, which the boy strongly resents. The two storylines become tangled. After her lover’s matriculation, Hilda flees from home, leaving a short note for her father, while Vili fails his exams (in both of Novák’s subjects and in a further two), and in his wish for revenge, he searches for common criminals (former failed students themselves) to assault Novak; Novak is beaten, in darkness, by surprise, overpowered. He tries to avoid scandal. He seeks no medical attention, but meanwhile collapses psychologically. The belated investigation fails to prove anything, as Novák, who could implicate his student, chooses to blame an unknown offender. In his dreams, he comes to terms with Vili—he dreams of forgiveness, remorse and redress. But none of these emerge in reality. Before he can relax, thinking that, after all, no-one has learned about what actually transpired, the gutter-press of the town publishes an entire issue dealing with his case, denouncing him with messy slander. Novák commits suicide. The moral of the story is cruel: instead of avenging the press, the editor gets paid to prevent him from publishing further stories about Novák’s death. All the teachers explain the events differently, according to their own mentality and limitations, and in fact no-one learns the truth. Kosztolányi constructed the plot carefully, and arrives not only at a satisfying portrait of the tortured central character, but of all the characters and their various mindsets (teachers and students, a doctor, a lawyer, a coward). He evokes the school’s atmosphere (with its characteristic odours, the students’ tricks, their fear or optimism at exam time), the mood of spring and youth—the symbol of which is the golden kite of the title, flown high at the beginning of the novel. However, by the time someone recalls it almost ten years later, the kite is ruined, “one summer, another, and that’s it. It soon is in tatters.” László Ranódy and Imre Gyöngyössy adapted the novel to film in 1966, starring László Mensáros, and in 1994 it was adapted for a second time by the Hungarian-born director Nicholas Kiteshvara, in Los Angeles.

Kornel Esti
1933

Kornél Esti (1933) This collection of short stories, in which controlled thought co-exists with capriciously playful ideas, personal moral standards with the denial of social pseudo-morality, and reality with the imagination, stands out in Kosztolányi’s oeuvre, excellent as he was in all genres, as a poet, a novelist or short story writer. These stories are very popular among young and mature readers alike: the young love them for their frivolous sense of humour, while older readers enjoy the amused wisdom behind the humour. Even with repeated reading, Kosztolányi’s style and the structure of his sentences and paragraphs are fresh and interesting. The stories were written between the mid-1920s and 1933, at least giving the feeling of years of peace, full of happiness, youth, the promise of perfection and freedom—here is what these easily digressing stories, open-ended and atmospheric, stand for. The plot itself often begins in the middle of the story; before that, Kosztolányi takes his time writing a social satire about the perverted German taste of 1933 (“The Chairman”); or describes the younger generation of unemployed writers (“We wanted to die five or six times a day. They would prefer to live, if it was possible” – “Twenty Questions”); or shatters some misconception about literature and the writers, and only then does he enter the actual, and sometimes quite surprising, story. Kornél Esti, for instance, helps the family of a widow out of sheer personal decency. Yet when trouble will not cease, and in fact, multiplies, he beats up the woman (“Esti Cannot Help Doing Good”). Another time he is rescued from the Danube by a young man, and out of gratitude, buys him supper, gives him money and accommodation. But when Elinger asks for Esti’s time and attention, Esti pushes him into the river (“Esti and Elinger”). “Who is Kornél Esti? As the reader knows, he is different in each and every story: a cosmopolitan, travelling by train or by plane; a little boy, lonely, shy and haughty; a true native of the region Bácska, drinking and telling tragic stories about his own kindred; a writer, rich, successful and famous; or a famished unkempt young poet. He is the same in each story: Kosztolányi's alter-ego. A rebellious outsider.” -Judit Márványi

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