Anna Édes [Édes Anna]

KOSZTOLÁNYI Dezső



The nal days of the short lived Hungarian Bolshevik revolution of 1919, the leader of the Bolsheviks, Béla Kun is eeing by aeroplane and nobody quite knows where the political balance lies. The war has been an unmitigated disaster for the country which is about to be savagely punished by the treaties of Trianon and Versailles (which handed over a large part of the country to neighbouring lands), though the protagonists of the book do not know that yet and continue to speculate, somewhat optimistically, about the future.

A cold-blooded bourgeois couple, the Vizys, have been living in siege conditions under the revolutionary regime. The apartment block they inhabit was under the thumb of Ficsor the janitor, who is now terried of reprisals. This leads to a brief comedy of manners in which Vizy and he attempt to kow-tow to each other, in case the political issue has not been quite settled. Mrs Vizy, a nervous but somewhat reptilian creature, requires a maid as the last one has just left in a huff. In order to curry favour with her, Ficsor offers her a distant relation, a simple country girl from the Balaton region, called Anna Édes, ‘édes’ being a common enough name meaning ‘sweet’, as a candidate for the vacant post. Anna duly arrives and is taken into service, where she is treated like a machine by the Vizys who gradually recover their previous social status. Meanwhile history rushes past them, bringing an invasion by the primitive Romanian army and the restoration of dictatorial right wing power in a much diminished country.

Vizy reassumes his snobbish ways and Mrs Vizy grows ever more glacial and selsh. Anna meanwhile adapts herself to whatever is required of her, becoming the perfect maid. She is extraordinarily good natured but naïve. One of the triumphs of the book is her convincingly unpatronising portrayal. Kosztolányi being a poet we expect brilliant descriptions but he also displays a remarkable psychological acuity, verging on, but never crossing over into caricature. The cruelty of the Vizys towards Anna is all the more painful because it is unconscious.

The tragedy occurs when Anna is pressurised to turn down an offer of marriage by a decent workman and is instead seduced by the Vizy’s dissolute nephew, Jancsi. She discovers she is pregnant, undergoes a crude abortion, then has to cater for a party at which Jancsi is present and ignores her. It is too much for her That night she murders the Vizys with a kitchen knife. The only person to speak in her defence is the old doctor, Moviszter. She is given a life sentence.

It is possible to read the book simply as a political allegory but that is to reduce it. In his last proto-postmodernist chapter, Kosztolányi has a pair of men passing his own front gate, discussing the case of Anna. They can’t quite decide what political brush Kosztolányi should be

Sample


tarred with. The prose is clear, rich in imagery but fully harnessed to its dramatic function and the whole is a masterpiece of social psychology at a point of historical crisis. GS This is Anna, spring cleaning;

There came the day of the great washing. Mountains of grey sheets and blankets, shirts and underwear rose before her, the dirty deathly sweat of the revolution still clinging to them. The steam made her pleasantly light-headed.

She boiled the water in the pan. Her sleeves rolled up, she knelt beside the tub, beetling away at the cloth. Her ngers played and puddled sensuously in the warm soapy scum. She lugged great baskets of washing about from place to place, shook the cloth, pleated it, wound it through the mangle. Her tablecloths were soft as lawn, her collars shone like glass.