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The Golden Kite by Dezsö Kosztolanyi

August 12, 2011 21 comments

Aranysárkány aka The Golden Kite by Dezsö Kosztolányi 1925. 363 pages.

 Foreword:This novel takes place in a Hungarian small town named Sàrszeg around 1900. It’s the same imaginary town as in Skylark, by the same writer. It is about a teacher, Antal Novak and his students, which means it talks a lot about school and the Hungarian school system. I read this novel in French and the translator converted the Hungarian realities with words corresponding to the French school system. Now, I’m writing a review and I don’t know which English words I should use. I could use the American school system, well-known to everyone thanks to their dominating role in the cinema industry. But I can’t. Talking about “high school”, “senior year” and “finals” also brings along images of prom nights and cheerleaders. It doesn’t suit at all the atmosphere of The Golden Kite. Plus, I don’t know if the school system was already like that in the US in 1900. What is described here is very close to the French school system and I don’t think it’s only the work of the translator. There are similarities in the exams, in the solemnity of high school and of old tradition. Therefore, I’ve decided to use the French words chosen by the translator. “Baccalauréat” or its shorthand “bac” is the final exam for “gymnase” (high school, French Swiss word). Like in the Hungarian system of The Golden Kite, this exam is a rite of passage and it’s composed of a written and an oral part. The “terminales” are the students in their last year of lycée, the ones who will take the bac at the end of the school year.

 Now, the review:

The Golden Kite was written in 1925 and although the title is mentioned on the English page of Wikipedia, I couldn’t find any book cover on Amazon or Book Depository. It doesn’t seem to be available in English as a stand-alone but it may be included in anthologies. If it hasn’t been translated into English or is out of print, than I feel so sorry for English speaking readers as they are going to miss a tremendous book. For francophone readers who would buy the French edition, don’t read the blurb as it gives away events that take place around page 200 in a book of 368 pages. (A very irritating habit, in my opinion)

The opening scene of The Golden Kite is a sprint race. Vili Liszner, a terminale, is an athletics lover.

Le coup de feu claqua.

Posté derrière le coureur au bout d’une ligne tracée à la chaux, un lycéen tenait dressé le canon du pistolet et fixait les petits nuages de fumée qui tardaient à se disperser dans le ciel matinal.

Dès l’apparition de la flamme, un deuxième garçon avait mis en route le chronomètre. Il n’avait pu toutefois s’empêcher de crier :

– Vas-y !

Vili courait déjà.

Le départ avait été impeccable. D’un bond de panthère, net et sans à-coups, il s’était levé au dessus du sol, et quelques secondes plus tard, il était déjà lancé à toute vitesse vers la ligne d’arrivée.

Dans ses yeux, les prés défilaient au galop. Ses souliers cloutés griffaient la piste. Sa tête, battue par des cheveux à la tzigane, était rejetée en arrière et son visage se tordait dans un effort grinçant. Le sol palpitait.

The gun went off.

Posted behind the racer at the end of a line traced with chalk, a lycéen hold up the barrel of the gun and stared at the little clouds of smoke that longed to vanish in the morning sky.

As soon as the flame showed up, a second boy had started the stopwatch. However he couldn’t help shouting:

– Go!

Vili was already running.

The start had been perfect. With a panther leap, clean and without a jolt, he had risen above the ground and within seconds, he had launched himself toward the arrival line.

In his eyes, the fields flashed at a gallop. His studded shoes were scratching the track. His head, blown by his tsigane hair, was thrown back and his face contorted in a wincing effort. The ground was quivering.

The scene is vivid; we can see it right before our eyes, like in a film. From this scene we can deduct that Vili is more an athlete than a student, that his parents are rather wealthy since he can afford a gun for departure and studded shoes. Vili’s nightmare is school and especially math and physics classes. He doubts he can pass his bac. It’s the first of May, a public holiday.

Antal Novàk is the math and physics master. He’s a widower and has a sixteen year old daughter, Hilda. Novàk loves his job. Teaching is a calling and he’s a humanist. He’s devoted to his school, spending hours in his lab to prepare classes, willing to help his students become men. He’s against corporal punishment, preferring discussion. He’s the kind of teacher who throws teas for his pupils and promotes modern teaching methods. He’s respected among his peers and admired by the bourgeois of Sàrszeg. But he’s not loved, he’s even ridiculed by his students and perhaps envied by his peers. His daughter Hilda is rather wild and unbalanced. She’s been dating Tibor Csajkàs for two years now, first openly and then, after her father’s interdiction, secretly. From the start we guess that dramatic events will take place, shattering Novàk’s orderly life and breaking his peace of mind.

I loved this book, it is as good as Skylark. and I have dozens of wonderful quotes. I tried to share some, the translations are mine, unfortunately. Kosztolányi managed to mix philosophical thoughts (What is it to be a good teacher? Isn’t life an absurd sum of misunderstandings? How do you become a man? Aren’t childhood and adolescence the best parts of life?) with the chronicle of everyday life in an Hungarian town of that time.

I was amazed by how contemporary it is. I thought about Sexy by Joyce Carol Oates and I, Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe. Vili reminded me of American athlete students, good in sport but with low grades. And Novàk was like their teachers who’d do anything to avoid giving them bad grades because of the fame they bring on their town or school. The class of terminales was like any class of that age nowadays. Here they are, gathering to study before the exam:

Ils parlaient de plus en plus des matières scolaires. La parole était monopolisée par Dezsö Ebeczky, le premier de la classe, qu’ils détestaient tous cordialement. Non pas parce qu’il travaillait bien. Après tout, on a le droit de bien travailler. Mais travailler aussi bien que lui, c’était quand même écœurant.

They spoke more and more about school classes. Dezsö Ebeczky, the best student in class was speaking all the time. They all heartily detested him, not because he was a good student. After all, one has the right to be the best student. But being as good as that was really disgusting.

Kosztolányi also unravels the unique relationship between student and teacher. I liked the passage where Kosztolányi explains that Novàk isn’t really human for his pupils. They can’t imagine he can get sick, has been a child or he has a home life. Even his clothes seem of different fabric as they are teacher clothes. And it’s true that teachers have a special aura, that they are stuck in their role and are hard to imagine as mothers, sons of anyone and spouse. The descriptions of the exams were accurate, the fear before the D-day, the parents’ expectations, the frantic cramming until the last minute. They organize cheating during the exams:

Fóris, qui surveillait, les mis sévèrement en garde à plusieurs reprises sur le sérieux danger que constituait la fraude, dite « pompage ». Ledit « pompage » n’en fut pas moins organisé. Gyuszi Olàh avait prévu de copier la réponse aux questions à l’aide d’un code ad hoc, en vingt-trois exemplaires d’un coup, pour que le savoir, comme il se doit en une époque démocratique telle que la nôtre, devînt le bien commun.

Fóris, who was invigilating warned them strongly against the serious danger that cheating represented. It was called « pompage ». The so-called « pompage » was nonetheless organized. Gyuszi Olàh had decided to copy the answers to the questions with an ad hoc code in twenty-three copies in a row, so that knowledge becomes a common good, as it is suitable in a democratic era such as ours.

The journalists write articles about the bac, to question its utility

Il fustigeait surtout “l’institution désuète et inhumaine” du bac, qui « avait déjà fait parmi les jeunes d’innombrables victimes »

He castigated the “old-fashioned and inhuman institution” of the bac that “had already innumerable casualties among the youth”

I don’t know how it is abroad, but in France, the bac is an institution. This exam was created under Napoleon and if its substance has changed, the form remains. The written part takes place the same day in the whole country and it starts with philosophy. Every year, journalist talk about it in headlines and wish good luck to the candidates. Every year, we hear the same kind of debate: “Is the bac still up-to-date?”, “Is it useful?”, “Shouldn’t it be done differently?”, “Is it still a rite of passage?”

There’s a beautiful chapter about what it meant to pass the bac at this time. Of course, we must not forget that only the upper classes went to lycée at that time. (And in France, also poor but brilliant students. Teachers considered it was their mission to detect brilliant minds and push them as far as possible.) The students become men: at the diploma ceremony, they receive their first cane, they are allowed to drink alcohol, smoke in public. They are treated as equals by the adults. It’s an important rite of passage.

As an aside, Kosztolányi has a real gift to describe nature and its soothing impact on the human soul.

Dans une ombre irritante, des peupliers trembles se dressaient, semblables aux colonnes d’une cathédrale, et leurs couronnes de feuillage bruissaient dans la brise telles les orgues d’une église. Des peupliers blancs cherchaient le ciel de leur branches en balais. Les chênes, sérieux, hochaient la tête, imitant le grondement ininterrompu des chutes d’eau. Ici les grands lycéens avaient presque l’air de petits enfants.

In an irritating shadow, some aspens rose like the columns of a cathedral and their crown of foliage rustled in the breeze like the organ of a church. White poplars looked for the sky with their broom-like branches. The oaks nodded seriously, mimicking the continuous rumbling of waterfalls. Here, the great lycéens almost looked like small children.

Or

Un silence de sieste s’étalait sur la ville muette.

A silence of afternoon nap was stretching over the mute city.

A last one for the end, one that made me think of Thomas Hardy:

La vie n’est faite que de méprises empilées les unes sur les autres.

Life is only made of piled up misunderstandings.

In conclusion: a must-read among my best reads of this year.

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