One by one the lights were going on in the worn chandeliers of middle-class life.

Anna Édes, by Dezső Kosztolányi and translated by George Szirtes

In his excellent introduction to Anna Édes, translator George Szirtes says of Kosztolányi that in “a generation of elegant stylists, Kosztolányi was the most elegant.” It’s a line so good it’s quoted on the back of the book. Like much of the introduction, it cuts cleanly to the point. Kosztolányi is a consumate stylist, unflashy and effective. 

Anna Édes is the story of a provincial middle-class couple in 1919, the Vizy’s, and of their relationship with their new servant, Anna Édes. The Hungarian Soviet Republic has just collapsed, after less than six months in power, and the novel opens with its leader fleeing the county in a self-piloted plane with gold chains hanging from his wrists and sweet pastries filling his pockets.

Before the Soviets gained power Mr Vizy was a senior civil servant, well regarded, well paid, and no more than normally corrupt.

Vizy was an outstanding bureaucrat, hard working and conscientious. This was a fact recognized both by his inferiors and superiors. Nor did he lack a social conscience: if someone in trouble turned to him he would immediately write the necessary memo to the relevant organisation.

Mrs Vizy is a society wife, bored and purposeless. Her days are empty, occupied with nothing but her endless search for the perfect maid: one who does not steal; is not lazy; does not break things; is not in Mrs Vizy’s view a whore.  

With the communists in power the Vizys had to lie low. They lived in fear of fear every soldier and official, any of whom could do as they wished with such perfect examples of the old order. Their building caretaker, Ficsor, had more status under the communists than they did and could if he wished have denounced them.

With the communists gone the old order is back, and that means the Vizys are back too. Now they can denounce Ficsor. Mr Vizy might get his job at the ministry back. Anything is possible. Here, immediately after the fall of the communists, Ficsor calls on the Vizys:

‘Good day, your excellency,’ [Ficsor] bellowed, loud enough for the whole house to hear. ‘May I have a word with your excellency?’

‘Oh, it’s you Comrade,’ responded Vizy.

‘Your humble servant, your excellency.’

‘Do come in, Comrade Ficsor.’

It’s a lovely little comedy of manners. Nobody is quite sure how they stand, Vizy survived the communists by being cautious, but if Ficsor wants to survive in future he needs to be seen to be servile.

In order to get the Vizys on his side Ficsor offers Mrs Vizy what she most wants in the world. A new maid, and not just any new maid but a peasant girl whose only interest is work. A girl who’s diligent, doesn’t need much by way of comfort or money, and who won’t run around with men. What Mrs Vizy really wants isn’t in fact a human being at all, but a robot. But this is 1919 and robots don’t of course exist. That’s ok though, because if you can’t find a machine to work for you, you can always find a person and treat them like a machine.

What follows is a middle-class dream. Anna’s work isn’t perfect at first, but she really does have no real interests beyond work and she doesn’t complain at sleeping on a makeshift bed in the kitchen or at the mistress withholding her wages to keep them safe for her. She’s almost a slave, but in part a slave of her own volition – it’s clear that she could if she were more motivated leave the Vizys and find better employers.

With the old order restored the Vizys are soon successful again, sought after. They hold dinner parties in which the wives discuss their servants and coo over how marvellous Anna is. Anna is a consumer good, a person become status-indicator for her mistress. An aging doctor argues for compassion, for the essential equality of the servant classes, but even he sees that equality as more a matter for heaven and noble aspiration than as something to be practically implemented.

This isn’t a simple diatribe against the bourgoisie. Mr Vizy is a self-serving hypocrite who seems to genuinely believe himself virtuous but who really only advances his own interests, Mrs Vizy is a dissatisfied neurotic who takes out her own frustrations on each maid in turn each of whom is the one person she has power over in the world, their friends are self-satisfied and smug, but none of them are actually particularly bad people for all their failings and the working classes are no better.

Ficsor helps prise Anna out of a good job that she loves so that he can effectively sell her to the Vizys in return for their patronage. Anna does nothing to help herself. The other servants of the other families in the Vizys’ mansion block are snobs or gluttons. In their different ways, everyone is demeaned by their master and servant relationships.

Kosztolányi doesn’t hammer the reader with any of these points. Rather he relies on simply leaving the reader to see for themselves how people behave, and on wonderfully witty and acerbic asides like this:

Things were getting better. True, there were still problems. There was runaway inflation. People eyed each other nervously in the oppressive atmosphere. They denounced their neighbours in anonymous letters. Those who once refused to recognize their friends as ‘good Communists’ now hastened to offer this long-denied recognition and readily handed them over to the authorities.

This is a novel about, in part, people reduced to property. As Kosztolányi observes at one point, “Maids fulfil much the same function for their mistresses as whores do for their husbands. When they’re not needed they can be sent away.”

Years ago in one of my first jobs, the man I worked for got changed in front of me. He didn’t ask if I minded, he didn’t attempt to conceal himself. He just took off one set of clothes and put on another. I was there, working, but to him I was no different to a chair or office computer. I was one of the pieces of equipment in his office, and why would you be embarassed to get changed in front of a chair?

Decades change, countries change, people sadly don’t.

 I want to avoid spoilers in this review, which means that unfortunately I can’t discuss the most interesting parts of the book (and if you want to discover them for yourself I’d read that excellent introduction after, instead of before, the novel). All I will say is that Anna Édes gets into complex issues of motivation, and over its length becomes more than social commentary. As he did in Skylark, Kosztolányi shows the tragedy in the quotidian. He shows no villains or heroes, but flawed humanity with an eye which is compassionate, but unsparing.

I’m going to end on a quote that actually doesn’t fit this review at all, but which I liked too much to leave out. If I were reviewing for a newspaper I couldn’t include this, but what’s the point of blogging if one can’t be unprofessional? This is one of the Vizys’ neighbours, the aging doctor who is the nearest the novel has to a conscience, reflecting on mortality and meaning:

‘… I have a patient who is seventy-six years old and who has just started to learn English. By the time she has learned it she will probably be dying. But let us suppose that she doesn’t die just yet, that she survives until she is a hundred – she will die having learned English. Will that have been worth it? Is it worth it for us to start on anything even at the age of twenty? Of course it is: one has to fill in the time somehow.’

Guy Savage has also reviewed Anna Édes, here.

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10 Comments

Filed under Hungarian Literature, Kosztolányi, Dezső, Szirtes, George (translator)

10 responses to “One by one the lights were going on in the worn chandeliers of middle-class life.

  1. termitespeaker

    That last quotation struck a certain nerve. I’m 72 and only started to self-publish my books a year ago. Why? Well, I have to fill my remaining time somehow, don’t I?

  2. acommonreaderuk

    I am very pleased to read about a book by George Szirtes having just read a book he translated, The Summer My Father Died, and also a poem that Parrish posted to my blog.

    This looks a very interesting novel to me and I will try to get hold of it.

  3. I’m happy to see that you’re launched on your Hungarian odyssey. This sounds like a winner, and as I loved Skylark I’m sure I’ll pick it up. Unprofessional or not, I very much like your inclusion of that last quotation, as well as termitespeaker’s reaction to it. I have a close friend who just turned 87 and published her first novel last year. She already has another manuscript in press and a third well under way, and I’m enjoying passing the time reading her work as much as she is in writing it.

  4. Max: Reading your review reminded me just how much I enjoyed this novel–not quite as much as Skylark, but then the standard was set high. Looking forward to your Hungarian month. Are you joining in with the German Lit month in November?

  5. Hi Max,
    I’m sorry I couldn’t read it along with you as I wanted to. Not enough free time and I didn’t want to ruin this book for me by reading it at a bad time. I have it at home and I’m looking forward to reading it.

    “Mrs Vizy is a society wife, bored and purposeless. Her days are empty, occupied with nothing but her endless search for the perfect maid: one who does not steal; is not lazy; does not break things; is not in Mrs Vizy’s view a whore. ”
    This reminded me of a quote by Beaumarchais “Aux vertus qu’on exige dans un domestique, Votre Excellence connaît-elle beaucoup de maîtres qui fussent dignes d’être valets ?”, which means “From the virtues one expects from a servant, does You Excellency know a master worth being a footman?”

    To readers of this blog who can read in French : Try Le cerf-volant d’or, it’s excellent and unfortunately not available in English.

  6. Sorry for the slow replies all.

    Termitespeaker, quite, and it’s as true at 22 as at 72 when one thinks about it.

    Tom, did you write up The Summer My Father Died? I don’t know that one. Szirtes is I think quite a well regarded poet, but I’ve yet to read his poetry. I shall though in due course.

    Scott, well and truly launched, even if almost all the reviews are going to appear in October. With the exception of The Door,and hopefully people will tell me where I went wrong with that in the comments once I write about it, it’s been a very good selection of books so far. Skylark is the stronger novel I think, but that’s relative and this is still extremely good.

    On octogenerian novelists, I’ve got a review here of a book which was a first novel by an author in their 80s. If you go into my categories dropdown menu it’s the one by K Arnold Price.

    Guy, exactly, hugely enjoyable, not quite Skylark but that;s an incredibly high standard. I wasn’t aware of German lit month. I’m going to be careful doing too much of that, but if you point me to something discussing it I’ll try to fit in a German novel in November.

    Emma, no worries, we all have our lives after all. That quote couldn’t be more apposite. It’s precisely on point. Thanks.

  7. I ve got skylark on my shelves to read at somepoint if I like that I ll try this one ,thank stu

  8. Pingback: Emerence had never studied Heraclitus, but she knew more about these things than I did. | Pechorin’s Journal

  9. Pingback: Book Club: new selection | Book Around The Corner

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