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.