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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Not Art

Esterházy Péter

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To purchase Not Art

Title: Not Art
Author: Esterházy Péter
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 225 pages
Original in: Hungarian
Availability: Not Art - US
Not Art - UK
Not Art - Canada
Not Art - India
Keine Kunst - Deutschland
  • Hungarian title: Semmi művészet
  • Translated by Judith Sollosy

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Our Assessment:

B+ : remarkable story-telling acrobatics (that can overwhelm at times)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 9/5/2009 Hans-Ulrich Gumbrecht
The LA Times A 11/4/2010 Martin Rubin
NZZ . 9/4/2009 Ilma Rakusa
The NY Times Book Rev. . 16/5/2010 Alison McCulloch
The New Yorker . 12/4/2010 .
Die Welt . 7/7/2009 Ulrich Weinzierl
Die Zeit . 2/7/2009 Andreas Isenschmid

  Review Consensus:

  Generally impressed -- and overwhelmed

  From the Reviews:
  • "So geht es, lebhaft springend und manchmal sogar elektrisierend, dahin in Péter Esterházys Prosa, ganz nach John Updikes Versprechen, Seite für Seite, und es wird zu einer bloßen Frage des subjektiv bevorzugten Leserhythmus, wann man sich nach Konfigurationen eines komplexeren Inhalts sehnt." - Hans-Ulrich Gumbrecht, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Not Art expresses itself through an extended football metaphor, but it sweeps wide through national and continental culture and burrows deep into the author's psyche (and, of course, his mother's). (...) What is absolutely apparent is his linguistic gusto, his exuberance, his sheer joy in using language to achieve his purpose. (...) There is never a leaden moment in this novel, which resembles quicksilver in its mercurial liquidity as it flows on, lighting up his distinctive universe." - Martin Rubin, The Los Angeles Times

  • "In kleinerem Massstab ist auch dieses Buch eine Familiensaga (.....) Auf zutiefst anrührende und komische Weise zaubert Esterházy aus dieser Beziehung eine zärtliche Fiktion, die dem Tod hartnäckig Paroli bietet. (...) So ist die Lektüre von Keine Kunst ein Kunstgenuss erster Güte." - Ilma Rakusa, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Esterhazy’s words tumble out and leap around as if uttered by someone with no time to draw breath. Packed with references to his previous works and to Hungarian cultural history, politics and sporting greats, as well as wildly diverse musings (on the size of "gun-howitzers" or why Hungary’s mafia is Albanian), Not Art is tough to navigate" - Alison McCulloch, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Esterházy can be searing (.....) And he has a gift for slapstick (.....) But passages larded with intertextual allusions are challenging for an Anglophone reader, despite the translator’s meticulous footnotes." - The New Yorker

  • "Keine Kunst ist glänzend geschrieben -- voll Trauer und voll Witz, das Zeugnis seltener intellektueller Beweglichkeit, ein Höhepunkt der Sprachkunst." - Ulrich Weinzierl, Die Welt

  • "Hartgesottene Americanorealisten halten derlei Bienengesumms natürlich für eine Marotte. Aber solche Americanorealisten können auch noch nicht einmal träumen von den emotionalen Valeurs, die Esterházy mit seinem Erzählverfahren erreicht. Sein Buch ist über weiteste Strecken im Innersten der Intimität und der Scham angesiedelt, doch es wird dabei nie peinlich, nie voyeuristisch, nie gratis-schockant. (...) Wer derart, allen Reichtum der Dinge benennend, vom Hundertsten ins Tausendste kommt, kann leicht ins Ungefähre geraten – nicht so Esterházy. In seinem Witz ist allezeit das hellste Licht." - Andreas Isenschmid, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Not Art is yet another 'novel' by Esterházy Péter anchored -- very much so -- in fact and personal experience. There's a great deal of personal history worked through here, mainly about Esterházy and his parents, and especially about his mother. He notes it's territory fraught with danger:

Families that get caught up in literature don't have an easy time of it; for one thing, they resent being caught up to begin with, then they resent if what's on the page accords with the facts, what they consider the facts, and also, if they don't accord with the facts.
       Esterházy's account is certainly ... forthright; it is also, in the best sense, reflectively personal. Naturally, it's subjective (and it's noteworthy how often opinions are mentioned: soccer (football) is central to the book, for example, and opinions on offer run the gamut from: "My mother didn't like my football book; as a matter of fact, she generally disliked books about football to begin with", to the fact that, as far as his father was concerned, "tennis was the only legitimate ball game"). Esterházy allows -- in a typical passage -- that:
But ever since I can remember, there is someone watching inside me, I'm not saying an Other, an Other that's me, of course -- From Sartre to Imre Kertész the literature is replete with such things. My watchful self -- a joke: nomen est omen ! -- kept watching and watching and saw and accepted of the world only and exclusively what it had seen. In short, it wanted to re-create the world.
       Not Art is such a work of re-creation, memories and anecdotes revisited and interpreted. It's hardly a traditional account or even fiction, but rather a loose yet interconnected collection, heavy on the 1950s, with Hungary's glorious football team of those times, and it's rather more inglorious political situation. There are twelve chapters, each further divided into short sections, and the narrative meanders along, back and forth and around.
       Soccer (football), and his mother's relationship to it, is a starting point of sorts -- though:
     When I made up my mind to write my mother's story, her amazing but certainly highly unconventional relationship to soccer, I had no idea that I would have a story of my own that would merge into this (that like a babbling brook to a mountain stream I would hasten to my mother's bosom -- but let's not exaggerate).
       One detects -- here and throughout -- Esterházy's winks to the reader: surely that his own story would be (e)merging here, too, was obvious to him from the start (as, indeed, his own story finds a prominent place throughout all his works).
       The soccer parts -- especially the Puskás-veneration (though it is Bozsik that was mom's favorite) -- are good fun (though some familiarity with the great team probably helps), right down to the name-changing details (since the district comrade complained: "we got a bunch of Swabs, the entire defense in fact is Swab to the last man" -- problematic since the Swabian names were distinctly German rather than 'Hungarian'). And Esterházy is a true and knowledgeable fan (and, in a book filled with literary allusions and mentions, gives a nod to Toussaint's Zidane-book(let), among so many others).
       The family portraits, too, are well-done, from the broken father to the more extensive portrayal of the mother -- though it is Esterházy, trying to place and find himself in these contexts, that remains the dominant figure in this first-person account.
       The writing often seems unchecked -- right down to such odd flights of fancy as:
How big is a gun-howitzer ? The size of a cow, I bet. Though it probably gives less milk. Besides, how could I haul it up here ? If cows could fly, it would clearly be a cinch.
       Much of the appeal of the book comes in this dizzying word- and thought-play, but the translation has a hard time keeping up: it's a valiant effort, and, for the most part, the result is satisfying enough, but some of the thickets are too tangled. The many footnotes, however, are very useful -- and make clear how much Esterházy builds on what he's read, as opposed to merely what he's experienced and remembers. To take only the most blatant examples: as one note mentions, Esterházy "once copied out the manuscript of [Géza] Ottlik's classical novel School at the Frontier by hand", and Esterházy himself gives a nod to the "lots of Handke quotes" that (controversially) found their way into an earlier book of his dealing with his mother's death.
       'Not Art', the title would have it, but Not Art is, in fact, all art, pushing the fictional envelope (while also fully embracing and leaning on the traditions of fiction). Writing with tremendous facility, Esterházy does not present a straightforward text, but Not Art offers many of the usual -- and some surprising and unusual -- rewards of fiction. It can be hard to keep a grasp on it, much less not lose the overview -- but Esterházy's deceptively welcoming (often comic, always fluent and clever) writing makes the reading experience a pleasure almost despite itself.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 June 2010

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Not Art: Reviews: Esterházy Péter: Other books by Esterházy Péter under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Hungarian author Esterházy Péter was born in 1950.

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© 2010-2011 the complete review

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