April Fool [Selected Stories]


Kosztolányi was a prolic writer inuenced by psychoanalysis (which had many Hungarian exponents). Like other agile and witty writers he was a short story genius and in this attractive little book the talented Eszter Molnár has both selected and translated nineteen of her favourites. Many of the stories attack reality from inside a child’s viewpoint or are about children; they produce a sensation of an uncomfortable clarity — children are often ‘innocent’ of consideration, empathy or socially-inspired illusions, so theirs can be rather a raw world. Above all though it is the intensity of these brief stories that catches; whether in the vision of four-year-old Piroska describing the grand tea ceremonies of another era, or the complex servility/aggression of the young protagonist in ‘Checkmate’, who is obliged to let his sick (and socially superior) playmate win every game of chess against all natural instincts of competitiveness, or the glorious description of the enjoyable, expansive physicality of growing up in summertime in ‘Feri’.

Away from the children who dominate many of these stories we meet rather childish, intense, fantasy-prone but likeable adults. Is the ‘romantic Hungarian character’ being summoned here? The Hungarians appear at least to be a nationality trapped inside some unfortunate and repetitive historical nightmare, but also seem to remain life-afrming in the face of their vicissitudes. Kosztolányi produces a national miniature in the marvellous story ‘The Liars’, about the classic aristocratic family in reduced circumstances who, consistently and in grandiose team efforts, lie themselves a better and more glorious life. Inevitably reality catches up in the shape of unpaid debts but it was glorious while it lasted. Life was, is lived with élan — and what could be better than that?

Really adult folk, lacking Hungarian élan, on the other hand, can seem obsessive and unstable in Kosztolányi’s vision as in the anal-retentives of ‘Order’ or the village schoolteacher in ‘Plaster Angel’ who comes to a sticky end. In any case this book is an unmissable English-language window onto one of the greatest writers of his time and place. RK


By the time they arrived the lamps were being lit. It was a cold afternoon, night was falling early. Piroska itted up the stairs and opened the great glass door. At grandmother’s absolutely everything was made of glass. Her eyes took in at a glance the corridor which, stacked with the furniture carried out of the drawing room, awakened a festive excitement, and stared for a long time at the mayonnaise sh, the crab paste, the cakes and the cheeses beneath their strange glass domes, and the squat, dull red rum bottle with the blue sugar-bowl beside it, which at other times stood on the sideboard beside the candlesticks. The change disquieted her a little, but this was so every year on December 2nd, Aurelia’s day, for this was her grandmother’s name-day. On this day yellow sponge-cakes made with almonds and nuts stood on the white porcelain cake-stands, and slices of pale pink or ruby-red quince jelly, gleaming like glass, and marzipan and fruit-cake. Within doors, the stale and stuffy air was sweetened with rose incense which the servant carried round all the rooms in an incense-burner. In the heat the canary tweeted faintly and languidly in its little cage, and the fur of the stuffed squirrel up on its stand almost caught re. 7 ‘Afternoon Tea’