In his abbreviated life - he died in 1936 at the age of 51 - Dezso Kosztolányi epitomised the urbane Mittel-European writer. Like colleagues in Vienna and Berlin, he cultivated a persona of cosmopolitan sophistication, immersing himself in the cafe culture of Budapest and marrying an actress. He wrote everything: short stories, poetry (his 1910 collection, The Complaints of a Poor Little Child, caused a stir), novels, and journalism; he also translated works by Goethe, Shakespeare, Rilke and other masters. He was part of the so-called "first generation" of writers for Nyugat, a legendary literary journal through whose doors most of the major Hungarian writers from the first half of the 20th century would pass.
In a time of great political upheaval, Kosztolányi largely eschewed politics. In On Myself, a prose piece published in 1933, he proclaimed himself - nodding to the philosopher Jules de Gaultier - Homo aestheticus rather than Homo moralis - that is, someone who valued beauty over judgements of good versus evil. He found people who called themselves humanitarians to be sanctimonious, narrow minded, and hypocritical. Kosztolányi's aesthetics-based system was a more reliable lens through which to interpret the world, "for taste can be depended on to be the more compassionate of guides". Homo aestheticus was a philosophy born of individualism, one that would encourage each person to make decisions "based on the issue at hand". Violence was anathema simply because it was tasteless.
Kosztolányi was weary with the fanaticism of the time, with the rising tides of nationalism, fascism and communism, and the social pressure to stake one's name to a cause. He wrote that a poet serving a cause becomes a servant and that "a servant in the employment of a big enterprise is no less a lackey than a servant in the employment of a small enterprise". In an aphoristic turn of phrase reminiscent of Oscar Wilde, whose work Kosztolányi also translated, he remarked: "The ivory tower remains a cleaner, more human place than a party headquarters."
One's sympathy for suffering should be taken as a given, he thought, and should remain "a strictly private affair". There was something mawkish and self-serving in proclaiming oneself a sensitive soul. Art for art's sake was not a dilettantish alternative to socially conscious work; rather, it was the aesthete who understood that to play with words, to take language seriously, was to "play with life itself" and that words were "lions that have torn giants to pieces".
Kosztolányi lived this philosophy from an early age. Despite the fact that his father was its headmaster, one school expelled the young poet because of, in Péter Esterházy's words, "an argument about rhyme in the school literary debating society, where he refused to accept the authority of his teachers".
This is a potentially lonely position from which to operate, and Kosztolányi admitted that he sought no recruits for the side of Homo aestheticus. It would be against his principles to impose his standards on others. What is more, he prided himself on his "spinelessness", which reflected something "noble and glorious", an assurance of his ultimate independence and freedom from outside influence.
Inherent in Kosztolányi's philosophy is the idea that we operate under a great cosmic irony: all our passions and bloviating and warring amount to nothing when, in the end, we all turn to dust. (In his diary Kosztolányi wrote: "I have always really been interested in just one thing: death. Nothing else.") Our logical choice, then, is to approach the world in search of wonderment and beauty, and to respect its finitude. This is both a terribly serious and an ultimately comic endeavour, and so it follows that much of Kosztolányi's work is a sinuous blend of these two divergent modes.
The culmination of this aesthetic may be Kornél Esti, a novel republished in the US and UK by New Directions. The book is a series of episodes - some high-concept vignettes, some fully drawn stories - about the titular character, a doppelganger for the author. While the writer stays at home, Esti gallivants around the world piling up debts, seducing women and generally making a mess of things - but not without having a good time. Eventually, at the age of 40, having rejected Esti years earlier (the two were, in a fashion, childhood friends), the author returns to his double and begs forgiveness. He asks Esti to collaborate on a book that would draw on the doppelganger's outrageous life experiences. Esti agrees, but only on the condition that the book is a series of "fragments" - he's tired of traditional novels with their obvious heroes.
And so the book proceeds, but Esti doesn't get his wish. The first chapter is an account of the author's relationship with Esti, and their eventual reconciliation - just the sort of contrived set-up that Esti hates. A chapter heading even calls Esti "the sole hero of this book". But Kornél Esti is a delightful bundle of paradoxes - a series of fictions crafted by a tripartite "author" persona (comprising Kosztolányi himself, his fictional stand-in, and Esti). It encompasses both arch-Romantic homilies about the fleeting splendour of youth and a chapter about the president of a cultural association who sleeps through every lecture that he presides over; the more he sleeps, the more he's admired.
This is, after all, Kosztolányi's underlying philosophy at work: to go through life like a questing knight, while also retaining a satirist's shrewd eye. Esti is the embodiment of this credo. Several of the chapters depict him as a twenty-something poet on the make, mixing with other writers and journalists in Budapest's raucous coffee shops and taverns. But he's always somehow separate, always gathering material. "All he wanted was to see and feel," but only in the service of art.
In one chapter, a journalist named Pál begins to lose his mind in one of these crowded cafes. The coterie of writers summons Esti to help. Though they are only acquaintances, Pál is elated to see Esti: "I need you tonight," he says, "I was waiting for you." Esti is surprised and flattered; he had always admired Pál, particularly his ability to listen, to go "weeks without speaking to anybody". But as Esti and several others shepherd Pál along to more coffee shops, pubs, and a police station - Pál is a crime reporter - the journalist continues his breakdown, demanding cigarettes, concocting moneymaking schemes, pouring toothpicks into his soup, marvelling over ordinary words. Still, Esti can't help but be charmed: "He felt richer for having been selflessly loved by mistake for a couple of hours." Eventually, on the pretext of writing a story about patient abuse, the gang takes Pál to an asylum and abandons him there. Pál seems to understand that something is wrong - and that it may be his own mind - but the chapters ends with a hauntingly ambiguous scene in which Pál, having landed in a cell, sits and weeps. It may be a lucid catharsis, or it may be another step in his incipient madness.
Or it may be both. In Kosztolányi's work, seemingly opposed notions often coexist, amplifying one another. Here's the author-character describing one childhood encounter with Esti: "He once consoled me when I was choking in tears at a funeral by tickling my side, at which I suddenly burst out laughing at the stupid incomprehensibility of death ... he smuggled mockery into my feeling, rebelliousness into my despair." The same dualist paradigm can be seen in another recently republished Kosztolányi novel, Skylark. It is a more resolutely tragic work, but it still contains poignant eruptions of satire and mordant humour, even in the most grave of scenes.
However unintentional, there is something quite moral about Kosztolányi's work. At the very least, he displays a concern with how one might, in individual moments, do what is just. It is these "small things", in the words of Esti, that are "the greatest things on this earth". But life is measured by its vicissitudes, not our intentions. Those we try to help might not appreciate us, or in the case of a widow whom Esti aids, their circumstances may be too severe: despite Esti's efforts, the widow's child dies and her own health problems force her to give up the job that Esti, after much effort, obtained for her. When Esti tries to reward a young man named Elinger who saved him from drowning, Elinger becomes such a burden (he repeatedly asks for money and even moves in with Esti) that Esti finally shoves him into the Danube and runs away. It's an absurd ending, but it may be deserved. It also feels too good to resist.
Jacob Silverman is a contributing online editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The New Republic.