Kornél Esti Book Cover, Emily M. Keeler, Bookside Table

Dezsö Kosztolányi wrote Kornél Esti in 1933, very near the end of his life. I can’t help but imagine that there is some special significance in this fact, that a novel that begins with the words “I had passed the midpoint of my life…” and that implies in its opening chapter that its unknown and unknowable narrator is none other than Dezsö Kosztolányi himself, would speak to the chasm between the now and then, would bring some golden kernel of insight into the function of memory, of nostalgia, of experience, of life recollected, of life itself.

And it does, even when it doesn’t. At first, I was comfortably wrapped up in the premise, in the promise of plot, and in the lyrical and philosophical writing. In the first chapter, an unnamed writer rekindles a warm friendship with a friend from his childhood, Kornél Esti. As boys, the men were just as different from each other as they were the same, with identical birthdays, down to the hour, and similar physical features. To each the other offered a mirror, every cruel whim and longing of Esti’s matched by the purity and contemplation of the narrator. After a decade spent apart, they come together again and decide to write a book together, presumably the one that the reader so fortunately holds in her hands. The next chapter describes Esti’s first day at school, a young boy without his mother and confident of his own unsurpassable excellence. The one after that recounts two rites of passage, his first time traveling alone and his first kiss.

And then, without much warning or announcement, the book changes shape like a country cloud, becoming a series of short stories, anecdotal explorations of surprising scenarios. One in particular, which takes place in a city where self deprecation and even loathing are the standards of advertising and even the means by which the citizenry expresses its spirit, reads like a refined Vonnegut. Others bring to mind Camus, Borges, Poe, and Beckett. The stories are ostensibly the remembered experiences of the title character, but the real link between them has more to do with a longing for connection, and for meaning.

Many of the chapters involve translation and there are many peripheral characters that are linguists or poets or translators themselves. Language here is a game of hide and seek, or a stage designed for gifted actors, a tool equally suited to the tasks of clarification and obfuscation. Here again I can only imagine the potential of the personally significant: I wonder how Bernard Adams, who skilfully translated Kornél Esti from Hungarian, how he must have felt as he handled each word of each chapter, felt its weight even as the shape of the work as a whole pokes gently at the idea that it is ever possible to understand anything through language.

And perhaps it is, and perhaps it isn’t. In the end, it’s an unthinkable question, a paradox that is best used as a prompt for play rather than puzzlement. I know this, though: I liked this book too much to put it down, and I am looking forward to taking Kosztolányi up on the invitation to play forever with this paradox, to edge myself bit by bit, to the feeling of having, at least for a moment, understood.