Anna Edes

Dezso Kosztolanyi

translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes
New Directions 1991 [1926]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2015
Anna Edes (Édes Anna, 1926) begins with the flight of Bela Kun in 1919 and the collapse of the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic, largely takes place during the Romanian occupation of Budapest, and ends in 1922 with Hungary's acceptance of the Treaty of Trianon. But though political concerns play a significant role throughout — in its early scenes the building caretaker suddenly resumes being deferential to the bourgeois Vizy family; Kornel Vizy schemes to regain his status and climb the public service ladder to ministerial under-secretary — it is ultimately a domestic tragedy.

Mrs Vizy obsesses over how to replace the unsatisfactory maid and puts pressure on the caretaker to compel a relative to leave her current position. Enter Anna, the perfect servant, hard-working, reliable, honest, docile and submissive. The Vizys and their playboy nephew Jancsi exploit her mercilessly, using her for their own ends, showing her off to friends and acquaintances like a prize animal, and pressuring her to give up her one chance at happiness through marriage. And they display a complete lack of sympathy or empathy or kindness or pity. It is not surprising — though never really explained, as Anna herself remains something of an enigma — that eventually she snaps, producing a violent climax and tragic end.

Despite the tragedy at its core, the mood of Anna Edes is mostly quite bright, dominated by its comic skewering of bourgeois morals. Kosztolanyi somehow manages to avoid incongruity here, juxtaposing Anna and her beaten-down life and terrible fate with biting sketches of the Vizys and their peers. Perhaps this is a message about the underlying problem being bigger than the individuals involved, though Dr Moviszter upstairs, the only voice of compassion in Anna Edes, seems quite Tolstoyan. And the self-referential epilogue, in which Kosztolanyi himself appears, makes fun of the uncertainty about his politics.

George Szirtes' decision not to translate place names, "on the principle that we tend not not to translate such terms from German, French or Italian", leaves the reader startled every so often by references such as "Attila utca" (street) and "Krisztina tér" (square). Otherwise the translation flows nicely, perhaps giving us some feel for why Kosztolanyi was recognised as a poet and a prose stylist.

January 2015

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%T Anna Edes
%A Kosztolanyi, Dezso
%M Hungarian
%F Szirtes, George
%I New Directions
%D 1991 [1926]
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9780811212557
%P 230pp