Masters and servants

Anna Edes by Dezső Kosztolányi 1926 French title: Anna la douce

Kosztolanyi_Anna_DouceFor July our book club read Anna Edes by Dezső Kosztolányi and Passage à L’Est decided to re-read it along with us. You can find her billet here. (spoilers) This is my third novel Dezső Kosztolányi, after Skylark and Le cerf-volant d’or.

We’re in Budapest in 1919. The novel opens with the flight by plane of the communist leader Béla Kun. He governed Hungary from March to July 1919 and he leaves the country with a lot of jewels in his pockets. The end of this short communist period in Budapest is the start of another part of Kornél Vizy’s life as a civil servant. The city is coming out of a miserable time and Vizy’s house, as a bourgeois house, has been occupied by the new power. The caretaker of his house, Ficsor, supported the Bolsheviks and is now in a delicate position towards the inhabitants of the house and needs to make himself useful to the soon-to-be powerful Vizy.

Mrs Vizy is a housewife, still grieving the untimely death of her only daughter. She has nothing better to do than take care of the house and pick at her servant. The current one, Katitza crystallises all the faults a servant could have in Mrs Vizy’s eyes: she eats too much, she’s insolent, she likes to go out with men and she doesn’t respect curfew. Mrs Vizy complains, and complains and complains.

Ficsor must redeem himself for being a communist and decides to provide Mrs Vizy with a new servant, his young acquaintance Anna Édes, or the sweet Anna, since Édes means sweet in Hungarian. She’s currently rather happy with her employment at a widower’s house because she watches two small children. She’s reluctant to leave but Ficsor brings her back to Mrs Vizy. And Anna is the perfect servant. She doesn’t go out, doesn’t steal, doesn’t eat much and works, works, works. A curious relationship grows between Anna and Mrs Vizy but no warm feelings are exchanged. Anna is tamed but doesn’t say much. Nobody really knows what she thinks and according to appearances, she’s the best servant ever. What will become of that?

In Anna Édes, Kosztolányi pursues two aims. He pictures the condition of servants in the Hungarian bourgeoisie at the time. And what he pictures is exactly what Sándor Márai describes in Confession d’un bourgeois. Servants slept in the kitchen, they had dirty bedclothes, they were poorly paid and were supposed to be happy to get bed and board. They were treated like animals or machines and there was no affection. The mistresses always suspected them to steal and complains about servants were common topic of discussion among bourgeois housewives. Márai says they were not better treated in aristocratic houses but at least aristocrats wouldn’t let go an elderly servant and considered them as part of the family.

What Kosztolányi describes is close to slavery for the living conditions but what amplifies everything is the pettiness of the mistresses. Mrs Vizy and her neighbours have nothing else to discuss but their servants. Talk about narrow-mindedness. While the men had a life outside the house, they live shut out indoors and as they don’t have the education a Lady could have, they have nothing to do. They are in a bad place: they’re too high class to work themselves and be occupied by household duties and they’re not high class enough to have had a solid education. They don’t read, don’t follow politics, don’t go to the theatre, barely play an instrument and don’t write letters to relatives. It’s terrible. They have nothing better to do than watch what their servants do. What a waste of life.

Anna Édes concentrates on the story of Anna in the Vizy household but Kosztolányi also relates the professional raise of Mr Vizy. He’s described as a fair and honest civil servant. He works seriously, doesn’t encourage corruption and is willing to improve the services brought to the population. Mr and Mrs Vizy don’t have a happy marriage, he’s utterly bored with his wife and her one and only topic of conversation. Anna’s qualities are a relief to him not so much because the work is better done than because he escapes the endless whining of an irritated wife.

The political context of the years 1919-1920 is also an important part of the book. I didn’t know about that short episode of Bolshevik power in Budapest in 1919. Actually, I didn’t know that communists came to power anywhere else than Russia before WWII. What happened in 1945 seems like a simple repetition of what had already happened in 1919. Same methods. They used intimidation, purged the opposition and anything bourgeois was suspect. It’s the classic consequences of a change of power, similar to the French revolution, the Empire, the Restauration. Don’t tell me they didn’t know what would happen when they shared the world at the Yalta conference.

During our book club meeting, we debated about the best comparison to Kosztolányi. Is Anna Édes more a Zola or a Balzac? Although Kosztolányi’s luminous and precise style is far from Zola’s luxuriant prose, it is true that both show the living condition of poor people and their lack of opportunities in life. However, I think Kosztolányi is closer to Balzac because more than picturing the poverty of these servants, he pictures the nastiness of the bourgeois, their selfishness and lack of humanity. They are grotesque and Kosztolányi shows them as heartless as the daughters in Le Père Goriot. Zola has a political and social agenda. Balzac and Kosztolányi dissect human nature and expose its cruelty. The changing political context also brings back to Balzac whose novels are often set during the Restauration and after the fall of Napoleon. He pictures the shifts in the society and how everyone tries to reposition in the new game. The same atmosphere applies to Anna Édes and I can’t help thinking it’s also a political novel for Kosztolányi, especially when you see how he winks at us in the last chapter.

I’ve read Anna Édes in French, in a translation by Eva Vingiano de Piňa Martins. It was retranslated in 1992 and improved as the first 1944 translation had some passages changed and was bowdlerised (everything related to sex was cut off) Kosztolányi’s style is glorious, at least in this French translation but I don’t see why it doesn’t reflect the original. I’m happy it’s been retranslated and I highly recommend this book. Skylark was deeper in the psychological exploration of the characters, Le cerf-volant d’or depicted well the microcosm of small town life and Anna Édes is the most political of the three. I still prefer Skylark out of the three but all are a pure pleasure to read.

Other reviews: Guy’s here and Max’s here

PS: Don’t ask me why there’s cheese on the cover of that book.

  1. August 1, 2014 at 9:54 am

    I like your take on this. Never having read the Confessions d’un bourgeois I didn’t know that Marai wrote about such lowly things as servants (though he does have a servant feature prominently in Portraits of a marriage). One more reason to read that book!
    On the topic of literary references, it’s interesting that you compared it with Zola and Balzac. It would never have occurred to me, partly because I don’t know them all that well, partly because I see Zola especially as being rather grimmer than Kosztolányi’s luminous (good word!) and often light-hearted prose, and finally also because I see Zola and Balzac as wanting to carry out through all their books a project to depict society as a whole, while Anna Édes is, in my opinion, a bit more of a one-off and also not so total in its aim. Have you ever read Aragon? That’s the comparison that comes to me, for style more than content.
    You’re right to caution that my take on it has spoilers in it. I wondered about revealing that part, but decided to go ahead with it because I thought creating suspense wasn’t the book’s aim and also because anyone who’s read the blurb on the French edition will know what it’s all about anyway!
    You read a lot more into the Vizys’ psychology and social status than I do! I’m not sure I would say Mrs’ narrow-mindedness is rather a class thing or a personal thing. The loss of the child makes me think it’s a bit more personal, also because, for example, the neighbour Mrs Moviszter has the same social background but a much more artistic life. Still, Mrs Vizy’s situation entirely enviable, that’s for certain.
    Not sure about the cover’s picture either. I like Viviane Hamy books, but not usually for their choice of covers!

    • August 1, 2014 at 6:21 pm

      Confession of a bourgeois is autobiographic. He describes the environment he grew up in. The chapter about the servants describes exactly the same thing as Kosztolányi, so I suppose it was really like this at the time and that Anna’s story is not just hers but representative of her class.
      Zola had a purpose with the Rougon-Macquart but I’m not so sure about Balzac. He sort of put things together afterwards, no? I think Kosztolányi had a purpose here too, he’s just less obvious about it and of course, it’s just one novel and not a series. He wanted to depict the effect of the change of regime after the war and how it brought the worse of people.

      I’ve never read Aragon, except a few poems here and there.
      I don’t read blurbs on books because they have spoilers. I can’t believe they tell the end of the story in the blurb, I just checked, you’re right. That’s almost criminal.

      You’re right, part of Mrs Vizy’s fixation on her servants is a consequence of the death of her daughter. She wouldn’t be so occupied with them if she had children to look after. Her life is so sad: her husband cheats on her, she’s stuck at home, her only child is dead. But still, she doesn’t take interest in anything. She only goes out for her spiritism sessions. She can afford books, tickets to the theatre or she could work for charities. But she stays idly at home, and that is a lack of character and intelligence.

  2. August 1, 2014 at 4:12 pm

    Speaking of servants who were almost slaves, I read an Australian book in which the maid worked from dawn until 10 at night. I think Ana Edes makes it clear that the maid was easily replaceable, in theory, but once her employers got a good one, their aim was to squeeze as much work as possible from her while complaining about her performance.

    I thought about the Zola/Balzac comment–something that didn’t occur to me when I read the book, I’ll admit, but I think you’re right Balzac–not in style but attitude. At the same time though, I couldn’t help but think of Pot-Bouille which goes into the treatment of the servants by the petty bourgeois. Have you read that one? One of my favourites. The maids scrub and clean all day, & are bitched at by their female employers while the male employers sneak up to the attic for sex at night.

    • August 1, 2014 at 10:18 pm

      I agree with you, the employers complain but are too happy to have a good one not to hold on to her. Anna is momentarily a star in her neighbourhood. It’s hard to know what goes in her head and how she feels.

      K’s style is a lot different from Balzac or Zola. It’s more Balzac in the criticism of the bourgeoisie. I haven’t read Pot Bouille, I should.

      • August 3, 2014 at 1:40 am

        When you read Pot-Bouille, I think you’ll se the connections.

        • August 3, 2014 at 3:17 am

          Now I’m totally curious. It could move up on the TBR.

  3. August 1, 2014 at 8:06 pm

    I really like the way you’ve analysed the themes in this book, Emma, especially your comments on human nature and behaviour. I have a copy of Anna Édes on my shelves; it has been sitting there since I read Skylark a couple of years ago, but I ought to look it out and get to it soon.

    I see you’re reading ‘Tomorrow in the Battle..’ at the moment. I’m a fairly recent convert to Marias, but I loved ‘A Heart So White’ and ‘The Infatuations’, and I’ll be interested to read your review of Battle.

    • August 1, 2014 at 9:30 pm

      Thanks Jacqui.
      I suppose you enjoyed Skylark if you bought another novel by him.

      This is my second Marias. I’ve read Todas las almas (Le roman d’Oxford, in French) but I wasn’t thrilled by it and didn’t try anything else. That was pre-blog but I’ve read a lot of good reviews about his novels since. This one looks good, so far but it’s not a “beach & public transport” book, meaning it requires a bit of concentration.

      • August 1, 2014 at 10:27 pm

        I did, Emma; I thought Skylark excellent.

        I agree Marias demands concentration – all those long looping sentences. I do like the meditative, reflective style of his prose, though. I have blogged The Infatuations (if it’s of any interest), but A Heart So White is even better.

        • August 3, 2014 at 3:13 am

          “looping sentences” that’s a good description. I’ll have a look at your review.

  4. August 2, 2014 at 3:19 pm

    I like the sound of your book club, Emma – this book sounds so interesting. Although the cover does make me want to eat cheese rather than read the book.

    • August 3, 2014 at 3:17 am

      I’m in a great book club, our 2014-2015 list is fantastic. (click on the image Book Club on the right to find out)
      This cover is really weird. I don’t remember anything about cheese in that book. That said the Editions Viviane Hamy usually publish excellent books.

  5. August 4, 2014 at 5:21 pm

    Sounds great. I really need to read him. But since I’ve got Skylark already, that will be my first.
    I’m surprised you found him closer to Balzac than Zola. I wouldn’t have thought so, reading the review.

    • August 4, 2014 at 11:34 pm

      The three I’ve read are wonderful. You’d like Le cerf-volant d’or too. I’ve got a collection of his poetry too and the poems there are great. It’s called Ivresse de l’aube, I wonder if it’s a reference to La promesse de l’aube to attract French readers. (the poems have been put together by the publisher, not by the writer)

      I think the Vizys have the petiness of Balzacian characters. In Zola, characters are more driven by uncontrolable passions than by petiness. In the ones I’ve read, at least.

  6. August 5, 2014 at 4:52 pm

    Skylark remains my favourite too. It’s odd, John Self of theasylum didn’t consider it sufficiently interesting to actually write a review of at all, but for me it’s a masterpiece.

    I don’t think this is at that level, but the style and analysis are spot on and I think it’s a really good book. I don’t have much to add to your analysis because I think you’ve captured the essence of it, I’m glad you liked it.

    • August 9, 2014 at 4:47 am

      Skylark is a masterpiece, more intimate. This one is more political so it moved me differently. I felt angry for Anna’s living conditions and the way Mrs Vizy treated her. I felt sad for Skylark and it reached something else in me than rebellion against unfair treatment.
      I think that Skylark is more universal because it touches human feelings and loneliness. Anna Edes is more rooted in its time.

  1. August 1, 2014 at 9:20 am

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: