The Wonderful Life of Words (selected essays)
The volume Sõnade imelisest elust. Kolm loengut keelest ja kirjandusest will consist of three lectures by Péter Esterházy. The main “work” shall be Esterházy's lecture on The Wonderful Life of Words, and I have chosen two other lectures on literary-linguistic themes: “The Little Fish” from the book A halacska csodálatos élete [The Wonderful Life of a Little Fish] and “Bermuda Triangle” from A szabadság nehéz mámora [The Heavy Ecstasy of Liberty].
“From the Wonderful Life of Words” (2003) is one of the best-known Esterházy performances and has been quoted excessively in Hungary. This is not a bad thing, of course, and does reflect the nature of the lecture at Mindentudás Egyeteme [the University of All Knowledge]: it has a lot to say about language and literature in a quotably popular, concise, and witty way. And in that respect, it is a text that fits in with the series Loomingu Raamatukogu, which also published the first Estonian translation of Esterházy, The Book of Hrabal. Loomingu Raamatukogu is the largest Estonian book series by average circulation, publishing carefully selected works from all over the world, translated by the best Estonian translators since 1957 – some 18-20 books a year at low prices for a wide readership.
I have planned the translation of The Wonderful Life of Words for a long time, because there is simply no book in Estonia that can encompass such a wide range of issues about language and literature in such concise and humorous words without any compromise. The lecture is both a picture of the situation at the beginning of the century and increasingly relevant in the “language battles” taken place here.
For reasons of length – Loomingu Raamatukogu books are published in a single volume – I have included two more of his lectures in the book, for which I read Esterházy’s entire oeuvre of journalism.
Esterházy gave his lecture “The Little Fish” in Spain in the spring of 1988, and it appears to be a good starting point for the book. Here he deals with general questions – what is Hungarian literature, what is the role of the writer and the place of literature in society, etc. – and, of course, he describes the situation back then, but I both consider it important for understanding The Wonderful Life of Words, and find it a splendid summary of the situation in Central Europe at the time.
“The Bermuda Triangle” is a lecture given in Germany in 2002, specifically requested from Esterházy on the language of the 21st century. Although it preceded The Wonderful Life of Words, it deals with the issues discussed there in the section “The List of Omitted Phrases” (also to be included in the volume), and so it may be read like a sequel to The Words.
Péter Esterházy was born in Budapest on April 14, 1950. He studied in the Piarist High School in Budapest and achieved his degree in a filed of mathematics from the Faculty of Science of Eötvös Loránd University. He was also significant as a writer and playwright. His works have been translated into many languages, his plays have been performed on stage, and several of his writings have been made into films. He was a member of the Széchenyi Academy of Literature and Art and the Berlin Academy of Arts.
During his career, he received several national and international awards: in 1983 he received the Füst Milán Award, in 1984 the Tibor Déry Award, in 1986 the József Attila Award, and in 1996 the Kossuth Award. He was later awarded the Sándor Márai Prize, the Hungarian Literature Prize and the Herder Prize. He received the German Book Dealers' Peace Prize in 2004, the Prima Primissima Prize in 2006, and the Manes Sperber Literature Prize of the Austrian Ministry of Culture in 2014. Péter Esterházy, one of the most significant composers of contemporary Hungarian literature, passed away on July 14, 2016.