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Reinventing the novel in a family history

Celestial Harmonies: A Novel; Peter Esterhazy; Translated from the Hungarian by Judith Sollosy; Ecco Press: 864 pp., $29.95

March 14, 2004|Thomas McGonigle | Thomas McGonigle is the author of "The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov" and "Going to Patchogue."

For some readers, the history of the novel begins with Petronius' "Satyricon," skips to Rabelais' "Gargantua and Pantagruel," hops over to "Tristram Shandy" by Laurence Sterne and then to James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake," "Life: A User's Manual" by Georges Perec, "Evening Edged With Gold" by Arno Schmidt and, more recently, "Larva" by Julian Rios. What all these books have in common is that they change the way we read -- they remain as innovative as the day they were written.

And that brings us to Peter Esterhazy's "Celestial Harmonies." The appearance of this major, massive, revelatory book -- to call it a novel seems a little limiting -- does not come as a surprise. Six of Esterhazy's books have been translated into English: "She Loves Me," "The Glance of the Countess Hahn Hahn (Down the Danube)," "Helping Verbs of the Heart," "The Transporters," "A Little Hungarian Pornography" and "The Book of Hrabal." Each is an exhilarating exercise in renovating the dusty attic of the conventional novel by avoiding cliche, embracing a rigorous scrupulosity in refusing to repeat what has already been done.

Yet, among the books there are certain continuities: an affirmation of individual integrity in a world given over to the debilitating corruptions of political ideology, a defense of the benign yet harsh tenderness of love and a final trust in the literary word alone as our solitary hope amid a time of constant, enervating change.

There is no equivalent for the Esterhazy family in American history. (We have been spared a hereditary nobility.) But to even try to approximate what the Esterhazy family means in Hungary and in the Hapsburg Empire, one would have to combine the Adams family with the Rockefellers, the Fords, the Kennedys and, still, the gap would lurk. This singular family owned hundreds of castles and hunting lodges and thousands upon thousands of acres. Its members include heroes and cowards who intimately shaped the history of Europe, from dubious involvement in the Dreyfus affair to, more memorably, serving as the patrons of Haydn (who lived with the family for many years). Another family member put together a book of hymns titled "Celestial Harmonies," which Esterhazy appropriated.

Esterhazy divides his new book, with its vast sweep of historical fact, anecdote, story and imagined situation, into two parts. The first part is the whole history of the Esterhazy family, ranging across hundreds of years and written in what he refers to as "numbered sentences from the lives of the Esterhazy family." These sentences can range in length from one line to more than 20 pages.

"It is deucedly difficult to tell a lie when you don't know the truth," he begins, plunging the reader into the gelatin (to borrow the painter Alberto Savinio's phrase) of his family's history. We are introduced to Esterhazy's father, "this ferocious-looking baroque grand seigneur who was in a position, nay under obligation, to raise his eyes to Emperor Leopold, raised his eyes to Emperor Leopold...."

What is so startling about what follows, during the course of 371 such "sentences" and about 400 pages, is that all the fathers in his family seem equally present in the one sole father who is mentioned. The 600 years of one family's history exists in a moment of simultaneity. "It seems to me, my father said wracking his brain long and in vain," Esterhazy writes, "that nothing is as sacred as that which we do not remember." Esterhazy's method seems so obvious and revolutionary, yet so effortless in duplicating how we hold in our memories the entire history that comes down to us. The artificiality of conventional historical narrative is wonderfully exposed. Esterhazy shows how an individual holds in mind yesterday, last year and a hundred years ago.

"Celestial Harmonies" is rooted in a fully human appreciation of a constant skepticism: "Why must my father be a noun? Why not a verb the most active and dynamic of all? Hasn't the naming of my father as a noun been an act of annihilating that dynamic? And isn't the verb a hundred (a hundred and ten) times more rainbowlike and personal than a mere static noun?"

The second half of the book focuses on the life, known and imagined, of the author's actual father and how this life was shaped by the Communist regime imposed in Hungary after World War II. The Esterhazy family, as a result, was deprived of all of its property and possessions. The father and his family were exiled to the countryside and reduced to a life of backbreaking labor.

Refusing to leave Hungary (because they had nowhere to go), Esterhazy's father was confident that the family would survive. Never for a moment mitigating the devastation of the communist regime in Hungary, Esterhazy is able to show how the necessary shards of real human life survived all the best attempts of the communists to destroy them.

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