Celestial Harmonies

By Péter Esterházy
Translated by Judith Sollosy

Ecco, 2004, ISBN 0-06-050104-9; 846 Pages, Hardcover $29.95. [Browse/Purchase]

Review by Bob Williams

Péter Esterházy is the best known of contemporary Hungarian novelists. This novel explores two levels of Esterházy’s experience – as a citizen of Hungary, and as a member of a distinguished family with a long and interesting history. (A history that includes both fighting the Turks in Middle Europe and acting as patrons of Haydn.)
Esterházy divides Celestial Harmonies into two parts. Book One is subtitled “Numbered Sentences from the Lives of the Esterházy Family.” Related in a fragmentary style that avoids sequential narration, it is composed of 371 numbered sections. Some sections are several pages long, and some consist of a single sentence. The differences in length contribute variety to what would otherwise be indistinguishable chaos. The outlines are vague. The time of any given incident can be the present or the past. The narrator is the only fixed point; but except for his role as a son, Esterházy does not permit us the security of knowing whose son or which son he is. Over several hundred years and many generations, there is only the son and the father.
Much of Book One is based directly upon Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father, a fact acknowledged by Esterházy in his afterword. (Although it is instructive that Barthelme recognized the merit of brevity in his works.) James Joyce is another inspiration; and in her introduction, the translator Judith Sollosy asserts that resemblances between Celestial Harmonies and Finnegans Wake may not be coincidental. Brushing aside the coy phrasing of this claim, we do find some similarities. The father – or fathers, as Esterházy sometimes stipulates – are “human, erring and condonable,” like Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. Time, larded with an indigestible amount of history and other matter, is slippery. Literary allusions are plentiful. However, while Esterházy and Joyce are both witty, if obscure, guides to their respective jungles, Esterházy lacks the verbal felicities that make Finnegans Wake so enjoyable. The best reading strategy is to read each section for its own sake, letting connections arise as they may, and allowing the contradictions to fight it out on their own.
Book Two, or “Confessions of an Esterházy Family,” has a narrower focus and a more conventional structure than the previous part. Still, the relief that the reader might expect from part two is not complete. Although Esterházy now presents specific characters engaged with definite events, the narrative wanders as it wishes, taking some time to settle down into a chronological sequence. If Book One suggested Finnegans Wake, the opening of Book Two suggests Tristram Shandy. At least Esterházy is merciful enough to divide the text into chapters.
The occupation of Hungary by communists provides the background to what is largely an autobiographical story. The first Hungarian encounter with communism took place after the First World War, with the short-lived regime of Bela Kun. This context permits delineation of the older generation of the Esterházy family, including Peter’s father, Matyas Esterházy. But it is the second encounter with communism, after World War II, that provides the bulk of this part. Although the characters are presented in a gestural manner, we can see clearly the development of the leading character – the author – and his family. The vicissitudes of their life under tyranny are a vivid parable of contemporary life and of the shadow that we all to some degree experience.
The use of the previous part in this latter half is interesting, and much of Book One resurfaces in the form of quotations or echoes. The effect is startling – like a successfully executed piece of magic. And the more specific narration draws heavily on the exoticism of middle Europe. This section of the world, near us (or near Western Europe, at any rate) possesses its own rhythms and postures. A message filtered through the bizarre world of Hungary thus reaches us with enhanced impact.
Celestial Harmonies is not an easy book. Its length represents a serious commitment of time. Its deliberate refusal to provide the expected – elaborate characterizations and normal narrative strategies – is both a blessing and a source of difficulties. Some of the language is damp with clichés. (Is this the author, his translator, or both? The translator does not seem entirely comfortable with English.) Esterházy’s book has its rewards for those willing to accept its burdens, but it is difficult to predict a widespread readership.

Bob Williams
2 April 2004

Additional Information

Ecco’s Celestial Harmonies Page – The publisher’s page contains notes on the book, its author, and an excerpt from Chapter One.

Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.