A biographical novel in the grand European literary tradition that spans multiple generations and three centuries of tumultuous Central European history, as witnessed by the Esterhazys, a leading Hungarian family. The Esterhazys, one of Europe's most prominent aristocratic families, are indelibly inscribed in the history of the Hapsburg Empire. Having gone through epic conquest, tragedy, triumph and near destruction, the Esterhazy family lore is rich, poignant, entertaining and awe-inspiring. Celestial Harmonies is a national epic in the form of fiction, which Esterhazy writes by reinventing the traditional form of the dynastic saga. Beginning with short sections narrated in the first person, Celestial Harmonies recounts legends, inventions and episodes that form a mosaic in which chronology is abandoned and only one prominent figure exists: 'My Father'. The character of 'My Father' is a Don Juan, a profligate, a tycoon and a scholar, a bishop, an architect, a madman and a tyrant, an envoy and a premier, a student of Helmholtz and the cat in Schrodinger's experiment. He stands for each and every family member, functioning as a mount for simply everything, a man as unlimited and inexhaustible as the power born by the book's fictional family. Celestial Harmonies is a rich, dazzlingly original exploration of the emotional ties that bind men to their fathers, bonds that stand outside time, place and history. Old world glamour meets harsh post-war reality in a novel that touches on all aspects of life and philosophy relevant to us today -- the nature of dictatorship, love, hate and family relationships, to meditations on betrayal, God and Christianity.
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Peter Esterhazy, a member of one of Europe's most prominent families, was born in Budapest in 1950. He is one of Hungary's most innovative contemporary writers. His works, published mostly in Europe, are considered to be significant contributions to post-war literature.From The Washington Post:
"If I want to enjoy a good opera," said Empress Maria Teresa, "I go to Esterhaza." Reputed to have been outshone only by Versailles, Esterhaza was one of many palaces owned by the Esterhazy clan, which lorded it over Hungary for 400-odd years and is best known for patronizing Franz Josef Haydn. At Esterhaza and other family estates, the family underwrote the bulk of Haydn's career, not leaving out an orchestra to play his compositions. It may have been the most fruitful relationship in the history of artistic patronage. But the wherewithal that allowed the family to support a resident genius-cum-orchestra is long since gone, dissipated by world wars and confiscated by communists.
Born in 1950, Peter Esterhazy is old enough to remember the after-effects of dispossession, interested enough to have become a repository of family lore. As one who regards literature as "a commentary on our shared human experience," he quotes and borrows liberally from other authors: James Joyce, Witold Gombrowicz, Donald Barthelme, John Updike and many more. These influences pervade Celestial Harmonies, a mammoth, allusive novel that evokes a great family's profligate connectedness and the toughness that remains after its vast root system has been pulled up.
Book One encapsulates the Esterhazys' glorious history in a series of statements and stories about fathers, but without identifying them by name. Whenever the text develops in such a way that "Esterhazy" is called for, the narrator substitutes a form of the phrase "here my father's name followed." This device frees him from having to stick to verifiable facts, although plenty of these seem to be in evidence, including a comprehensive list of the family's palaces and an inventory of one father's chattels at his death: "In a black velvet box a handsome necklace with a large pendant adorned with two large diamonds, 18 minikin diamonds, 7 large table-cut rubies, and also 8 minikin rubies. In this necklace also there be 18 big gold rosettes in the lap of which there be one large and four small diamonds each; item: four minikin rubies each; also 4 rosettes with rubies, in the middle of each one ruby encircled by 4 smaller rubies; item: four small diamonds each; 9 more rosettes with five big pearls and four minikin rubies in each, though one pearl bead be missing thereof" -- and so on for a total of 12 studded pages.
As the author piles up episodes and reflections that fill almost half the book, "my father" becomes a kind of "Everydad" -- sometimes a hero, sometimes a pedant, sometimes even a perpetrator of incest or a molester of children. The point seems to be that the here-their-name-follows have been in the thick of European affairs so long that they have spawned every conceivable form of paragon and villain, including the reprobate who let Capt. Alfred Dreyfus take the espionage rap for him in the notorious 1890s outbreak of French anti-Semitism. (The family's reaction was not just to disown the churl amongst them but also to strip him legally of "their" name).
As might be expected, the family annals are well stocked with anecdotes about lifestyles of the rich and courtly. "My father began his brilliant career at the embassy in Paris," one story commences, "where he initiated a highly expensive affair with a duchess from Nassau, an affair that the husband did not mind in the least, but when my father, giving ample proof of his greed, turned his (sensual) attention to the duke's mistress into the bargain, the doubly cuckolded husband cried for blood, which, via a duel, he got, not much, just enough to wash his honor clean." Book One is also rife with playful citations, variations on modernist themes, even a reference to a familial Web site. Schrödinger's cat makes an appearance, along with a conundrum that seems to have escaped from an Italo Calvino story: Told to fire upon the rabble in a town square, a here-name-follows soldier issues a warning that all "good decent citizens" should leave so he can be sure to shoot only bona fide rabble. Whereupon everyone heads for another square. Now what?
For all its brilliance and hearty, often scatological humor, after a certain point Book One becomes more admirable than enjoyable. Book Two, which restores that well-known surname and relates the narrator's father's life in roughly chronological order, satisfies one's pent-up need to spend some time with "real" Esterhazys in a discrete era.
In this second book, the narrator maps out a psychology of dispossession. During one of Hungary's many political upheavals, a delegation is sent to inventory the artistic treasures in a family palace. The author's grandfather suffers through it all stoically, until the assessors reach "the shirt, sword and medals of my son Alajos," who died in battle. " 'We're not putting these in the inventory, Comrade' one of them announces. 'It's of no value or interest to anyone.' " The grandfather is crushed. "That dismissive wave of the hand at Alajos's objects of reverence was horrifying beyond all things. . . . We're not putting him in the inventory. Ergo, he does not exist. There is no past, no history, no nation, no tradition. The Communists are the present, the brutal now."
With no properties to manage and few heirlooms to cherish, the family must somehow hold on to its past while coping with that "brutal now." Though bred to lead other men, the author's father gets by as a manual laborer, then a translator. "No, son, we're not poor," he explains, "we're just living in poverty." And when an opportunity arises in the 1950s to take an active role in resisting the communist regime, he begs off -- his participation would risk tainting the opposition with Esterhaziness (they're ba-a-a-a-ck!). Meanwhile, his son, the author of this novel, is seen alternately trying to live down his posh origins (in a communist society, your family can't be too plebeian) and swelling with pride when they pop up unexpectedly. In the end, he seems to harbor as much bemusement toward all the vanished splendor as he does regret.
The reader would do well to brush up on Hungarian history, especially the 20th-century portion, before tackling this novel. And to show a little patience. Although on the whole translator Judith Sollosy's English is both erudite and salty, occasionally she doesn't squarely hit the idiom for which she's aiming, as when in her introduction she remarks, "The thousand-year history of Hungary is anything if not lively." In a recent interview, Peter Esterhazy joked that the number of palaces he owns "can be most accurately approximated by the number 0." Not true. Celestial Harmonies is a multi-winged palace of a book, inhabited by Esterhazys but open to all.
Reviewed by Dennis Drabelle
Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.
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