Esterhazy, Peter 1950-

views updated

ESTERHAZY, Peter 1950-

PERSONAL: Born April 1, 1950, in Budapest, Hungary; son of Matyas E. (a translator) and Lili (Manyoky) Esterhazy; married Gitti Reen (an artist), January 8, 1973; children: Dora, Marcell, Zsofia, Miklos. Education: University of Budapest, B.S. Religion: Roman Catholic.

ADDRESSES: Home—Emod 20, H-1031 Budapest, Hungary.

CAREER: Writer, 1978. Ministry of Metallurgy and Machine Industry, consultant, 1974-78; freelance writer, 1978—.

AWARDS, HONORS: Frankfurt Book Fair Peace Prize, 2004.



Kis Magyar pornográfia, Magveto (Budapest, Hungary), 1984, translation by Judith Sollosy published as A Little Hungarian Pornography, Hydra Books (Evanston, IL), 1995.

A sziv segédigéi, Magveto (Budapest, Hungary), 1985, translation by Michael Henry Heim published as Helping Verbs of the Heart, Grove Weidenfeld (London, England), 1991.

Hrabel könyve, Magveto (Budapest, Hungary), 1990, translation by Judith Sollosy published as The Book of Hrabal, Northwestern University Press (Evanston, IL), 1994.

Hahn-Hahn grófno pillantása, Magveto (Budapest, Hungary), 1991, translation by Richard Aczel published as The Glance of Countess Hahn-Hahn: Down the Danube, Weidenfeld & Nicholson (London, England), 1994.

(With Ferenc Banga) Egy no, Magveto (Budapest, Hungary), 1993, (without Banga's drawings) 1995, translation by Judith Sollosy published as She Loves Me, Northwestern University Press (Evanston, IL), 1997.

Harmonia Cælestis, Magveto (Budapest, Hungary), 2000, translation by Judith Sollosy published as Celestial Harmonies, Ecco (New York, NY), 2003.

Also author of Hungarian-language untranslated novels, stories, and screenplays.

SIDELIGHTS: Peter Esterhazy, one of Hungary's best-known contemporary writers, is the descendant of Esterhazys that go back to the early seventeenth century. There have been Esterhazys famous for their public service, and others who have ignited rebellion and dissent. Esterhazy's father was a count who was regarded as dangerous by the Communists. When his son was born, the family was relocated to a rural village where they worked in the fields until they were later allowed to return to Budapest. Esterhazy graduated from college to work in a government ministry, a job that lasted four years before he quit to become a full-time writer.

A number of Esterhazy's books have been translated into English, including A Little Hungarian Pornography, in which the author says that "pornography should be understood as meaning lies, the lies of the body, the lies of the soul." The novel reads more like a series of journal entries, political commentaries, and recollections. "But," noted a Publishers Weekly contributor, "the fragments are linked by the use of pornography as a metaphor for yielding disgracefully to—and becoming complicit in—oppression." "Portions of the book are titillatingly sexy and funny, others almost tragic," wrote Clara Gyorgyey in World Literature Today. "The texts interrelate but never cohere. Hungary's literary prodigy has done it again: with his imagination running wild, he has produced an audacious treatment of every taboo subject—and got away with it."

Helping Verbs of the Heart is perhaps Esterhazy's most popular translated work, an account of the illness and death of his mother in which each page is framed with a black border, like a death notice. Esterhazy writes of the process and difficulty of writing about life, and death.

The Book of Hrabal is the story of an unnamed writer, his wife, Anna, who talks to Hrabal, their unborn child, their live children, and two angels disguised as policeman who have been sent by God (who takes saxophone lessons from Charlie Parker) to save the unborn child. A Publishers Weekly reviewer felt that "though this discursive yarn will not strike all readers' fancies, those with a fondness for mittel-european whimsy may well be charmed." Booklist's Aaron Cohen wrote that "its plot is not always comprehensible, yet The Book of Hrabal is filled with enough stunning imagery to reward patient readers."

The Glance of Countess Hahn-Hahn: Down the Danube is a satire, a postmodern history of Central Europe, and a travelogue contained in a series of telegrams. Esterhazy makes references to individuals unfamiliar to most American readers, as well as to Hegel and Wittgenstein, and bemoans the effects of communism and the degradation of the human spirit. A Publishers Weekly critic who described the writing as "wry, obscure," concluded by saying that "this ultimately chilling work will stay with the brave reader for days."

She Loves Me is a book of nearly 100 chapters, each of which begins with "There's this woman. She loves me," or "There's this woman. She hates me," or some variation thereof, "but nothing necessarily follows from this fact," noted Adam Phillips in the New York Times Book Review. "Each time, the simple, not-so-innocent phrase is the prelude to an always bizarre and often erotic love story. In that twilight zone between existential parable and political and domestic realism that has been the great territory of the eastern European writers—and Esterhazy, a Hungarian, is clearly in the tradition of Kafka, Hrabal, and Kundera—each of these tales is exemplary, but each is lacking a moral. . . . There are just stories about the wayward things couples do together in the name of love." Library Journal's M. Anna Falbo noted that although some of Esterhazy's work is challenging, this book "is delightfully accessible, commendably translated, and graced with an earthy humor."

A Kirkus Reviews contributor called Celestial Harmonies "daunting at first, then richly rewarding. A major achievement." Esterhazy writes of his family history and all of his notable ancestors in the first part of the book then turns to his father, whose story he tells in great detail, from his life as a count who owned castles and great riches, to the laborer he became when the Communists came to power after World War II. He writes of their frugal life, but how, in many respects, it was also a happy life. He is clear on their suffering, how his father was arrested and beaten in 1956, and how Esterhazy himself was the target of his cruel Communist teacher. A Publishers Weekly writer called Celestial Harmonies a "masterpiece."



Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 232: Twentieth Century Eastern European Writers, Third Series, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 2001, pp. 89-98.


Booklist, October 15, 1994, Aaron Cohen, review of The Book of Hrabal, p. 400.

Chicago Review, summer, 2001, Gabor Tamas Molnar, review of The Glance of Countess Hahn-Hahn: Down the Danube, p. 79.

Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 2003, review of Celestial Ceremonies, p. 1412.

Library Journal, October 15, 1997, M. Anna Falbo, review of She Loves Me, p. 91; March 15, 2004, Barbara Hoffert, review of Celestial Harmonies, p. 104.

New Statesman and Society, August 11, 1995, Peter Whittaker, review of A Little Hungarian Pornography, p. 37.

New Yorker, May 25, 1998, John Updike, review of She Loves Me, p. 120.

New York Times Book Review, November 13, 1994, Susan Miron, review of The Book of Hrabal, p. 59; November 19, 1995, James Polk, review of A Little Hungarian Pornography, p. 26; December 21, 1997, Adam Phillips, review of She Loves Me, p. 8.

Publishers Weekly, September 12, 1994, review of TheBook of Hrabal, p. 81; September 11, 1995, review of A Little Hungarian Pornography, p. 76; September 15, 1997, review of She Loves Me, p. 52; February 2, 2004, review of Celestial Harmonies, p. 58.

Review of Contemporary Fiction, summer, 1996, Brooke Horvath, review of A Little Hungarian Pornography, p. 156.

Spectator, May 8, 2004, Adam Zamoyski, review of Celestial Harmonies, p. 45.

Times Literary Supplement, December 31, 1993, George Szirtes, review of The Book of Hrabal, p. 17; April 15, 1994, Philip Marsden, review of The Glance of Countess Hahn-Hahn, p. 24; July 18, 1997, Peter Sherwood, review of She Loves Me, p 23.

World Literature Today, spring, 1996, Clara Gyorgyey, review of A Little Hungarian Pornography, p. 438; summer, 2000, Marianna D. Birnbaum, review of Celestial Harmonies, p. 611.*