In ninety-seven short chapters Péter Esterházy contemplates love and hate and sex and desire from the point of a view of a narrator who considers himself a great lover, a man who may (or may not) be in love with all the women in the world.
|Publisher:||Northwestern University Press|
|Edition description:||New Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
Péter Esterházy (born 14 April 1950 in Budapest) is one of the most widely known contemporary Hungarian writers. His books are considered to be significant contributions to postwar literature. He studied mathematics at ELTE university in Budapest from 1969 to 1974; his first writings were published in literary journals in 1974. He worked as a mathematician from 1974 to 1978, and he became a freelance writer in 1978.
Read an Excerpt
she loves me ... 1
There's this woman. She loves me.
she loves me ... 2
There's this woman. She hates me. Shadow. She calls me Shadow. For instance: so you're here again, Shadow? she'll ask, hanging about? At other times: it's stuffed cabbage for lunch, Shadow, you mind? Or playfully I'm casting my Shadow before me, by which she means me, it's a reference to me, and it's supposed to mean that I'm asking for big trouble. However, this playful abandon does not necessarily mean she's in high spirits, though when she is in high spirits, she sometimes hoots merrily: Shadow world! which, like it or not, is yet another reference to yours truly. On the other hand, when her spirits are low, when her older sister calls from Lubeck, for instance, or when she takes it into her head she's gained too much weight, though I swear to high heaven that I could just die for every ounce of her living flesh, she'll declare that I am the tree that keeps her from seeing the forest.
I won't leave her side, no matter what. When she opens her mouth, gaping ah-ah-ah-ah! I open my mouth, too. When she sits down, I curl up by her side like a puppy. When she passes out, breathless, I go and ask someone to fetch the smelling salts. She lowers her lashes and an almost imperceptible tremor runs through me. When she lifts her arm, it's like I am exercising, too. If a convenient bit of wall space presents itself, she makes a bunny rabbit, dog or eagle for the kids. At such times I, too, am a bunny rabbit, dog or eagle. I want her, but my progress is fraught with difficulty, to say the least. It advances by fits and starts. Sometimes I'm that close, at others we're light-years apart. Not that it makes a difference, for I must dance to her tune -- around, in front of, under and behind her. There's a certain ebb and flow to our affairs. What the hell is that supposed to mean, Shadow? she explodes, because if she so much as suspects I want her, if she gets wind of my desire, it's like oil on troubled waters. Instead of fanning her flame, my wanting her makes her settle into a comfortable sense of ownership.
Sometimes she cannot talk to me openly. (The reasons vary from the political to her situation at work, from the logistics of public transportation to domestic affairs. Her father hates my guts and refers to my work as shadow play, or shadow-boxing. He also says that I'm my own darker, shadowy side, not to mention the fact that I cast a shadow over his daughter's life, and the like. A narrow-minded old goose is what I'd like to say, if only he weren't such a lovable old chap notwithstanding, substantial and attractive. A handsome, grey-haired male.) At such times she puts an edge to her voice in order not to give herself away, and talks to me with such grating indifference, my heart skips a beat. I am scared to death I might lose her and would do anything she asked, anything at all. Is that so? Would you even bring me flowers? Of course, that wouldn't be you, Shadow, you'd never bring me flowers. You'd rather break your wrist. And she nods knowingly. After a bit of reflection I say she's right, you're right, honeybunch, but afterwards, with my hand in a cast, I'd bang you those flowers all the same. I'd carry them pressed to my stomach, and big flowers only. Big hulky flowers so they won't slip out between the cast and my stomach, such as gladioli, yes, mostly gladioli. I'd go for gladioli in a big way. Just think what it would do for the gladioli business. Mmm. Gladioli. Yes, my one and only. Gladioli.
The gladioli make her tremble in the balance, and she wants me. She stands in front of the wall like a condemned man, taking advantage of the backlighting; she approaches me slowly, standing firm in her decision; she stops, I stop; there is no turning back now; she rubs it, she is covered in plaster, insulating plaster (perlite), white, like the face of a clown. She trembles, she pants. I hardly dare stir. What do you expect me to say now? That the members of the firing squad, men and women both, stand ready, their guns cocked? Or that their faces are white, too, perlite-white, like the face of a down?
she loves me ... 3
There's this woman. She hates me. She wants me. She calls all the time. And leaves messages. She's even bought an Ansaphone so she can leave me messages. She's a busy lady who never calls from the same place twice. I'm not at liberty to talk now, she whispers into the phone. Then next time she calls, she explains why not. (The reasons vary.) Then when we meet, she explains her calls. The bathroom throbs with excitement, AT&T and long distance, she giggles furtively, she's in sneaking good humour.
she loves me ... 4
There's this woman. She loves me. She calls and says my name. Month after month, she repeats my name like some magic formula. I wonder when she sleeps. My party line must be up the wall, except they won't complain to the phone company because sometimes they can listen in on our `conversation'. Meanwhile, the snows of yesteryear have melted, the muddy puddles have dried up, the trees are in bloom, you can buy green peppers not grown in hothouses, though individually only, to be sure; fungus appears in the moist parts and cavities of the body, Parliament has just ratified the second Jewish laws (it being 3 May 1939), and Ludwig von Baden, Jr., has also ousted the Turks from the country. In the space of ten seconds she manages to say my name a dozen times, though in the long run this figure is not wholly accurate, for periodically she takes a sip of water. I have so far refrained from talking into the phone. I am afraid she might go into shock. Or, who knows, maybe she's got the wrong number.
she loves me ... 5
There's this woman. She loves me. She's got this thing about the past, though, especially the individual's and the community's, her own and the nation's. She can't resign herself. For instance, she won't accept Hungary's surrender at Vilagos. If only that General Dembinsky had had a wee bit more brains stuck inside his head. Or why couldn't Kossuth love Gorgey? Have you any idea, Mister, what an ass I had? No, of course not. How could you?! And don't go thinking of an ass like a mare's, mind you, a classical baroque swirl, not that sort of admittedly pleasing triviality. You, Mister, see only what is. On 18 February 1853, the tailor's apprentice Janos Libenyi attempted to assassinate the Emperor. But all you see is that it's sagging, that my ass is on its way down.
She likes kissing (re: Kossuth-Gorgey), she gushes with good cheer, she laughs, she giggles, she whinnies -- these being types of kisses. What fun! she chuckles inside my mouth, more, come on, hey, just a little more; her tongue stiffens, it practically knocks against the roof of my mouth, warbling in the depths, in the darkness that is mine. You, Madame, are the Paganini of the kiss, I say, awed. Shut up! I'm busy! Kisses crawl all over her, over the suntanned curve of the neck, the cheeks, the nose, the sockets of the eyes; there are kisses in her glance, too, the temples, the top of the head; the thighs stir, more like a quiver, touch and part, and the ribs and the bones ...
The surrender at Majteny, she whispers.
she loves me ... 6
There's this woman. She hates me. She's got bad breath. A variety of odours issue from her mouth. These can be classified into two main groups: to wit, when she has eaten, and when she has not. The identification of the former is a fun-filled, though admittedly inconsequential, undertaking -- cauliflower soup, cabbage with pork, not to mention those saftig gourmet touches, onion and garlic. On the other hand, scallions in her salad call for a certain forbearance. And we're talking about a hygienic woman here, all this being disguised by the brushing of teeth, not infrequently accompanied by mouthwash.
It's when she hasn't eaten that matters take a more serious turn. At such times there is no yesterday and there is no sunset when a certain someone had eaten, no, this does not exist, and there is no time, and no cause and effect, there is no logic, no history, no remembrance of things past (and consequently, no morals), and there is no society either -- not to mention the country, the homeland and the nation. There is just one person from whom (I know her, that's why I say what I say) the impersonal issues forth in the shape of a lukewarm, putrid stink.
But no, its not a stink, it's less, which makes it all the more disturbing, a light nothing of a smell, exceedingly and excessively insufficient. If only I didn't love kissing her more than anything. I'd never even notice. If only a nagging, incessant need for her didn't compel me to seek out her lips, I wouldn't even know about this blemish, this sore at the heart of creation, this open outrage. The whole woman -- it's like a light breeze blowing from the glue factory. But the gentleness is the hardest to bear, when I cover her face with a series of little short kisses, or pecks, when I kiss her eyes, her lids, her eyeballs, nose, ears, cheeks, temples, and -- by definition -- her lips and her mouth too, alas! This is so repulsive, and I attain such wild peaks of disgust, that it makes my head reel. On the other hand, the more frenzied, insentient and brutal I am, in short, when -- let's not mince words -- I fall on her like an animal, practically biting her lips out of her as if we were wolfing each other down, chins snapping, tongues flapping, and there's taste of blood, the less I have to think of the glue factory -- which, by the way, has just been privatized for peanuts.
This is why, when I spot her in a place fit for kissing -- and there is hardly any place left these days that private or social consensus, virtue or sobriety, has put under interdiction -- I up and run at her, Speedy Gonzales, that's me! and wham!, I slam into her, we slam into each ocher with no time to spare, because I know only too well that otherwise this foul emptiness, this putrid absence of absence will overwhelm me, this fetid nothingness, this pestiferous air which, and this has been known to happen, makes me retch -- snot and saliva running together -- though this, too, is a form of intercourse, I guess.
And she knows this. That's why she hates me. It's reassuring, I swear. Of course she misconstrues the situation, thinking I'm doing it out of the goodness of my heart. That's why she hates me. Whereas that's not why, it's because I'm crazy for her. When I close my eyes I see only her, and when I open them, there is nothing I wouldn't do to see her. Once she realizes this, she's going to love me, too. Not that I really care. What I care about is that I shouldn't lose sight of her.
she loves me ... 7
There's this woman. She loves me. If she's not Finnish, I'll eat my hat. At first, we even said, isn't it hunky-dory? We're related. `Are you Finno-Ugrian, too, if you don't mind my asking?' We try to discover national traits in each other. Unfortunately, I'm not conversant, I'm not the least bit conversant with Finnish history (it's major mineral resources: chrome, titanium, cobalt, vanadium, copper, zinc and nickel) and have only the vaguest `northern' images to go by, and so I hold on to these banalities like so many straws -- my points of reference. I try to place her in some sort of context, stuff her inside some national cliche, but it's no good, because her real context is my body. Her homeland is not her homeland, my body is. When I look at her, trying to figure her out, it's not the image of the tablelands of Finland that I see, the abundant, cascading rivers as they surge forward between its lakes, but myself; I always see myself, too, my thighs, which we can safely call muscular, and at times the twitching muscles of my backside, the cheeks of my backside, or my moist lips, my finger.
For years and years she positively denied feeling the same way about me. But then, in the heat of an all-out knockdown fight, she finally came clean. `I look at you she screeched, `and all I see is my cunt! I see you in the shadow of my cunt!' I don't like her talking like that. I don't like her calling the parts of our bodies by their names without due reflection. For her part, she hates my silence. `Now ... now you're silent about your prick!' she says revealingly. `And the cleft between my ass! What's the big deal?!' To me it is a big deal. But I say nothing. What could I say? The fact that she feels about the body, my body and her body, the same way I do is all the more surprising given the ease with which she knows her way around Hungarian affairs. She's got pronounced views on the battle of Vezekeny (`it was neither as inconsequential nor as fruitless as it might first appear'); she uses the expression `the Dragffy method', in reference to the brave warrior who, discarding his spurs, galloped to his death with the national flag at the ill-fated battle of Mohacs; she's familiar with the anecdotes about Deak and Imre Nagy's 1953 reforms; she knows who were sentenced during the so-called minor-league, and who during the so-called major-league literary trials. She can even tell one Democratic Forum tendency from the other.
Our increasingly frequent and -- to be perfectly frank and above-board -- furious fights, which from time to time end in mutual assault, with me shaking her, sometimes by the neck, which in all fairness could be construed as strangling, with her showing a marked preference for throwing things, and not only books and plastic ashtrays but pictures, too, pulled off the wall or, more traditionally, vases, or, in a certain sense surprisingly, cast-iron meat grinders, though she has been known to opt for the silverware laid out on the table which, seeing as we were about to have Wiener schnitzel included knives and could thus be regarded as assault with a deadly weapon -- in short, our fights, I think, had nothing to do with our shared Finno-Ugrian roots. Or did they? Could it have been the nightmare of time spent together? The wandering, the hunting, the tending of the herd, the adoration of the self-same gods? Or the nightmare of recognition? After all, she's even familiar with my silences! Who knows, perhaps she even dreams about me ... or I about her ... What's the use of this sort of pitiful proximity? This sort of mirroring?
`I know what you're thinking!' she lashed out at me shrilly, `that it would be better, better for us, if I were God. That's what you're thinking. But don't you think you're better. You're no better. No, sir! Because I think the same thing about you, that it would be better, better for us, if you were...'
This marshalling of the troops happened after the fucking battle of Vezekeny. Words were of no avail, silence was of no avail we just went round and round in circles. At times it is not worth it, trying to distinguish between love and hate, I have read somewhere. I find such sentences repugnant. And yet there was something to be said for it, some feeling had taken a hold on us, and there was no knowing where it would lead. Or trying to influence it. Or holding out hope. Our lovemaking, too, was different at the time, more frequent, desperate.
Once I told my father about this. What I mean is, I asked him what northern women were like. He shrugged and made a face. `How should I know?' Still, he asked me to his room, where I hadn't been in a long time, and pointed to a painting which I had seen many times as a child, in another apartment, in another dark, dimly lit room, a ponderous, dromedary oil painting in an ornate, self-assertive, nineteenth-century frame. It depicted Norwegian fishmongers at the market by the sea. The wind was up and a mysterious light was pouring forth, and it was neither dark, nor light, nor nightfall. Dark and light and grey and bright, a bright darkness, a shimmering glow, eternal twilight. I had my eye glued to the painting, my father had his eye glued to me.
Standing in their wooden clogs, looking merry and intent, the fishmongers were throwing their fish about. To me they looked just like this Finnish woman. And their hips swayed with an indescribable strength and ease, with a substantial liveliness. Girls and women at the same time, pack-mules and Northern fairies, that's what they were, though their hips were good civilian hips, hard-working, of the body. I said goodbye to my father, and henceforth made this frame the Finnish woman's lodgings. I localized her there, this became her home. These many massive, monumental women. And now when I look at her I needn't see myself any more, not my thighs and not the twitching muscles of my backside, the cheeks of my backside, nor my wet lips, nor my finger, and I don't even have to think that it might be better, better for us, if she were ... However, I won't even say it. Instead, teasing like two relatives, we go on asking each other, `Are you Finno-Ugrian, too, if you don't mind my asking?'
What People are Saying About This
With Esterhazy's novel Hungarian literature has gained a masterpieceand has come of age at last.