by György Spiró
I have Péter Hajnóczy, the talented writer who died of alcohol-induced liver failure in his thirty-eighth year, in 1981, to thank for Imre Kertész.
Hajnóczy was a clever, cultivated fellow, only bothering to hide that from the uninformed. In the spring of 1975 he turned up one day at the editorial office in the Corvina Press (he was in the habit of looking me up once a week to chat with me, for hours on end, in my room there), and on this occasion, having worked off his systematic trashing of my first novel, Cloisters (entirely justified, I may say), he added agitatedly, “Now, Imre Kertész. Shit! He’s the real McCoy! Fatelessness. Shit! That’s the real stuff! Unbelievable. That you just have to read!”
No sooner had Hajnóczy left than I slipped out into Váci Street, which in those days was full of bookshops, and in the first one bought the rather slim, seemingly insignificant volume. I studied the picture of the author on the jacket: a hard-set face with the rugged features, what looked like a balding, retired pugilist in a roll-necked sweater, capable of anything, looked out at me, not head on but somewhere off to the right, the head slightly tucked in, as if in readiness to trade punches.
By the end of that very same day I had read the whole book. I was bowled over, and in the ensuing days I alerted every one of my friends that this was a book they too had to read.
I waited for the critics’ responses to appear. One very nice, laudatory review made it into print, along with two other well-disposed little pats on the back, but nothing else.
In February 1976 I was granted a three-week period of residence at the state-run writer’s retreat in Szigliget. In the late 1940s, the leaders of Hungary’s literary life had taken a leaf from the Soviet pattern book in converting one of the Esterházy family’s former mansions, on the southern tip of Lake Balaton, into a place where writers could be herded together, the more readily to keep tabs on them, in return for which the writers were superbly cosseted at next to no expense and given the facilities to work as they pleased. The retreat still operates to this day, though it could no longer be said to be cheap.
During supper on the first day, my attention was caught by a vaguely familiar, sturdy figure in a roll-necked pullover pecking at his food at one of the tables on the row over by the dining-room windows. By the end of the meal I realized that he could be none other than Imre Kertész. I noticed how he interacted with his dinner companions, worthy Hungarian writers all, and could only say that his way of conducting himself was conspicuous. Beaming very politely at them and nodding profusely, every now and then he would let escape some declaration of wonderment. I sensed that he held them in the profoundest contempt.
As he was making his way out, I got to my feet and accosted him: “You’re Imre Kertész, aren’t you?” He was obliged to come to a halt. A polite grin appeared on his face—exactly the same as the one he had bestowed on his dinner companions. I introduced myself and said I had been hugely impressed by Fatelessness.
“Oh, really?” he asked. He bowed politely, and, if it were even possible, grinned even more politely at me, an impersonal face in that crowd so worthy of contempt, and then swept on out of the dining room.
At supper the following evening I again planted myself in his path. I could see this was irksome for him and that if were it up to him, he would rather flee to the far end of the Earth. I had never tried to curry favor with anybody, writers least of all, and I didn’t take up friendships offered to me even by well-known, established figures (with the sole exception of Kardos G. György); writers are to be read, not befriended. All the same, Kertész’s polite, obsequious guardedness irritated me. So I said to him, “You know there’s a thing or two in Fatelessness that doesn’t work.”
That was the first time he looked me straight in the eye. He was surprised.
“What was that?” he asked.
We went out into the corridor and stood there talking non-stop for around two hours.
Over the remainder of the three weeks we did very little else but talk. Our third companion on the walks we took, liberally punctuated by huge gusts of laughter, was István Bart, then an editor with the Europa Press. I suppose we did also do other things—Kertész happened to be working on A nyomkeresœ (Searching for Clues), and I on Az ikszek (The X-es)—but the main thing about those three weeks was the chance to talk with Kertész. He treated everyone else as if they were stupid, according their every utterance with unqualified endorsement, nodding gravely in agreement, and every now and then letting out an astounded “Fancy that!” or “Really?” Bart and I, standing slightly to one side, would be well aware that at times like this Kertész was either in slumber mode with his eyes open or else laughing uproariously to himself.
At the end of the three weeks, I regretfully set off back home. Kertész stayed on, as his subvention lasted until the end of March. He was able to stay two or even three months at the retreat because he had no job and his income was zero, and in those days the authorities were still prepared to make exceptions for such individuals, extending them loans that were deducted in monthly installments from their subsequent earnings. We parted with an agreement that I would call him when he got back to Budapest.
At home, I told Mari, who was later to become my wife, that I had made the acquaintance of Imre Kertész. Mari’s eyes lit up, as of course she too considered Fatelessness a masterpiece.
“What kind of man is he?” she asked.
“Hard as nails,” I replied.
I called him at the beginning of April. I was a bit nervous that he would not remember me, but he did remember, and, what is more, it was he who made the suggestion we meet somewhere. I ventured that I was thinking of bringing along my sweetheart as well, to which he said he would bring his wife. He proposed we meet at a bench in the park at the Buda end of Margaret Bridge. Baffled and somewhat surprised though I was, that was the arrangement we settled on.
On the appointed day, Mari and I were seated on the bench when, all of sudden, Imre materialized in an impeccable lightweight suit, as stylishly turned out as a gigolo from the 1930s, and by his side, in a beribboned dress that had seen better days and was more suited to a teenage girl, was his wife, who, we could not help observing, seemed older than Kertész. Imre greeted us rather uneasily, and we perched ourselves on the bench, one beside the other, like sparrows on a telephone wire, with Kertész and Mari at the two ends. Albina, Imre’s wife, started talking. Her manner of speaking was astonishing, an inimitable mishmash of the parlances of draymen and of the primmest of ladies, of the demotic and of a literary salon’s wit. By the time she was into her fourth sentence, Mari and I were howling with laughter, while Imre nervously monitored the impact. Having ascertained that we had fallen madly in love with Albina in two minutes flat, he suggested we go up to their flat, a stone’s throw away in Török utca.
That was our first visit to the studio apartment Kertész describes with such deadly accuracy in A kudarc (The Washout), and from that day on, for long, long years thereafter, a week would hardly pass without us basking at least once in the glory of his wit and Albina’s patter. They in turn were frequent guests at our place, once our own apartment was finally completed, with Imre often using it to do his work and serving as our nominal cat-sitter whenever we went away. Albina, then working as a waitress and the sole wage-earner, had been born in Subotica, the main town of what is now the Serbian province of Voivodina; the daughter of a genteel family, she had been imprisoned for a time during the Rákosi era, later drove trucks, and could get by in all the major Western languages and even converse in Serbian. While she conjured up culinary marvels in the tiny recess that they called their kitchen (the dishes had to be done in the bath), Kertész, in his most elegant (and only) tracksuit, would be ensconced on a rickety chipboard armchair under a standard lamp, where he philosophized. What wonderful conversations those were; they were all that made the ‘70s and ‘80s intellectually tolerable for me. With his lucid, skeptical mind, Kertész shone light on many crannies of the human past, present, and future that I was not yet mature enough to see for myself. Little did I suspect at the time that one day, much later on, I would incorporate some of his stories and certain details of Albina’s life (naturally, only after first having asked for and received Imre’s permission) into one of my plays.
There was nothing particularly literary about our friendship, even if we often analyzed the works of great writers, or rather their basic stances. My wife and I were paying calls on a great man who had a rather tiring but fantastic spouse who gave herself unstintingly in the service of her husband’s art. Over time the author of Fatelessness and subsequent works became separate, for Mari and me, from Imre the person. We concurred that he is at least as great a person as he is a writer. How marvelous it was too when we also got the chance, whether at the Kertészes’ or at Szigliget, to meet up with Pista Kállai, the popular sketch-writer and childhood friend who has faithfully followed Imre in his passage through life, just as Imre has Pista. It is humanly impossible to laugh more than we did when Imre and Pista launched into their spiel. You would be wrong to imagine that a great writer’s life is continually wrapped up in the intricacies of Wesen and Dasein; it is more than enough to write about them. It is my firm belief that Imre Kertész was freest in perfect isolation, in the total absence of recognition and positive critical reception. And if we are asked to imagine his main protagonist as being happy in Auschwitz, as he asserts at the end of Fatelessness, then he himself was at least as happy under Hungary’s dictatorial regime, intellectually free of everything that shackles the mind. He adjusted his strategy in life to a catacomb existence; if that is what a man was reduced to, then he should account for it as well as he could. A positive program, this, and radical. It was from him that I heard something that very much stuck in my mind: “In art only the radical exists.” I still strive to hold myself to that standard.
It used to infuriate me, however, that virtually no one else was aware of this great writer living and creating in Budapest. Hungary still had a number of great writers at that time, and they were already recognized. But not Imre Kertész.
Still living then was János Pilinszky, the great poet, with whom Kertész built up a close relationship at Szigliget. Still living was Sándor Weöres, one of the twentieth century’s greatest poets and dramatists, though he never showed up at Szigliget, nor indeed in any other society by then. Living then, as he does to this day, was Ferenc Juhász, who might have had an equally deserved Nobel Prize bestowed upon him for the epic poems he published during the ‘60s. Still living was Gyula Illyés, who was then writing the fine poems of his old age. And living then was Kardos G. György, who might likewise have become a Nobel laureate for any of his three novels set in post-war Palestine, and, furthermore, had even been acquainted with Kertész in Budapest’s nocturnal underworld in the early ‘50s, which no one else knew quite so intimately as they did. As a matter of fact, the period through the ‘60s and up to 1972, during which Kertész was writing Fatelessness, were a great period—that is to say, intellectually great, because life then was still unpleasant and uncomfortable in our part of the world. But there were issues for conscious people to reflect on at that time, and they were still able to find the time to do so. The several centuries of continuity in Hungarian thinking about art had not yet been ruptured, but Hungarian writers and poets had already tasted the successive brief periods of Stalinist oppression, the 1956 revolution, the reprisals, and the Communist consolidation that proved the most sapping of all. It was peacetime, yet virtually everyone led a wretched existence. People were not dying of starvation, but there was no chance for a talented person to garner much material success either. Those are times when it is truly possible to think. And people did read; there was just the one TV channel, and it was a pack of lies.
Imre Kertész’s decision to shed the trappings of a highly remunerated writer of musical comedy scripts and become a true writer is singular only in hindsight. The change came at a time when, after the lifting of Stalinist era censorship, world literature all at once began to flood into Hungarian culture. From the early ‘60s, in the columns of the monthly journal Nagyvilág (Wide World) and through the good offices of the Europa publishing house, a string of thitherto banned Western and Soviet works appeared in print, with Kafka and Camus foremost among those that had a strong influence on Kertész. Then there were the essays of Thomas Mann and Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche (Kertész was later to translate the latter’s The Birth of Tragedy). As Kertész pushed back in time, he revealed to himself the presence of the twentieth century already in the nineteenth. It was also a time when Kertész, a passionate music-lover, was able to encounter at Budapest’s Music Academy and Opera House the works of the great classical and modern composers, Wagner and Bartók, Britten and Stravinsky, that had rarely, if ever, been performed before.
Such a release of dammed-up waters can be highly inspirational for a person preoccupied by concerns about form. Kertész made a very deliberate decision that he was going to become a true writer, fully aware of what that would entail. It was then, with no job or paid work (his wife, Albina, supported both of them with her waitressing) that he began teaching himself Italian, English, and German. He systematically read up everything that had been written anywhere about World War II and the Holocaust, diligently delving, for instance, through the diaries and notebooks of Nazi war criminals sentenced to life imprisonment. Few people in the world are greater experts on fascism and Nazism than Kertész. By chance, I happened to be present at Szigliget as he debated, night after night, with the distinguished historian Mária Ormos, the best of Mussolini’s biographers and the most thorough, unprejudiced scholar of twentieth-century Hungarian history. Their insights were penetrating and, for me, surprising enough for several distinguished scholarly careers to have been built up on them.
It was from Kertész that I first heard about Primo Levi and Jean Amery. Like us, he had a very high regard for the volume of short stories by Tadeusz Borowski that was put out in Hungarian, in 1972, under the title Kœvilág (The World of Stone*); indeed, there is one detail in Fatelessness—that there really was a football pitch at Auschwitz—for which he found corroboration in one of Borowski’s stories, because, although he had a distinct recollection of this, he had not seen it mentioned anywhere else and had started to believe he must have been mistaken. We were unanimous too in dismissing Jorge Semprun’s The Long Voyage** as sentimental, ideologically tainted rubbish.
I try to think back to what it was that Mari and I really thought back then about Fatelessness. It was certainly not the subject itself, the fact that someone had written a readable novel in Hungarian about the camps. Unlike the bulk of Hungarian intellectuals, we both spoke Russian and had read all the banned authors: Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov, Akhmatova, Evgeniya Ginzburg, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Andrei Platonov, Bulgakov, Chukovski... in short, all the giants who had produced such shattering accounts of totalitarianism and the Gulag world. But the seemingly ingenuous yet deeply ironic tone, the strange and unique amalgam of viewpoints of the protagonist as both a fifteen-year-old boy and the later adult, that Kertész perfected for himself over ten years of labor, straining for exactly the right inflection for every single sentence—that was something we had encountered in nobody else’s works. One of the premises of Kertész’s novel, which is that the peacetime and wartime world are structurally identical, and thus that Auschwitz, far from being a tragic twentieth-century slip-up on the part of “normal” society, was its logical consequence, is also to be found in Borowski’s short stories. However, Kertész was able to delineate his hero’s trajectory from a false peacetime into the camp, and back again from there to an equally false peacetime, within the large-scale form of a novel, and this further differentiates him from Borowski, the Polish genius, and his tightly organized cycle of short stories.
Of the major writers carried off to the Nazi concentration camps, Primo Levi, Jean Amery, and, earliest of all, Tadeusz Borowski, at the age of twenty-nine, were all to take their own lives during the ensuing post-war peace. They were unable to come to terms with the fact that people had manifestly learned nothing from Auschwitz; humanity continued to rush arrogantly, uncomprehendingly, and obliviously into the next atrocity, without any regard for the many millions of innocent victims. The great writer, Varlam Shalamov—whose Kolyma Tales, that magical volume of short stories, condenses the experiences that he had accumulated during several decades spent in the Gulag—likewise effectively took his own life, Russian-style, by cracking up completely and dying as a chronic alcoholic in a Moscow old people’s home. The only authors who were able to get over their horrendous experiences were those who opted for the easiest and cheapest solution, which was to find refuge in some kind of faith, whether Judaism or Communism, like Elie Wiesel or Semprun.
Kertész is the great exception. He did not take refuge in any religion or ideology, nor did he take his own life. Morality and aesthetics are indivisible, and thus he too had to think through the perspective of the loss of one’s sense of identity, which he indeed did in the works that followed Fatelessness—the novels The Washout and Kaddish for an Unborn Child, also, for the most part, narrated in the first person singular—yet he was not tempted by thoughts of suicide. One may conjecture that his temperament was his salvation; I have met few other writers who took as much transparent pleasure in the delights that life offers, whether women, food, drink, pretty scenery, good books, or good music, as Imre Kertész, a hedonist at heart, despite all the decades spent in near hermit-like privation, seclusion, and deliberate solitude.
One of the few truly bright ideas in my life came in the early ‘80s, when, having briefly achieved the status of a fashionable writer, I took a deep breath, wrote an essay about Fatelessness, and offered it to the weekly literary and political journal Élet és Irodalom (Life and Literature), the only platform of its kind at that time, and the one that, for want of other options, was compulsory reading for every Hungarian intellectual. The deputy-editor, God rest his soul, was reluctant to print it. The novel was not new and had been reviewed at the time of its publication, seven or eight years previously. Besides, it was a mediocre work, and the subject had been done to death. What was the point now? Still, because I was the flavor-of-the-month and very determined, they grudgingly, with pained expressions all the way, published the essay. A couple of years earlier, or even a year later, they would not have bothered. Such is life.
The fact remains, though, that I have Péter Hajnóczy to thank for Imre Kertész, and Hajnóczy was accordingly the prime mover in the slow but ever surer spread of his reputation abroad. Hajnóczy made an effort to get closer to Kertész, turning up at his flat every now and then with a bottle of wine or two tucked under his arm. What he could not have known, poor fellow, is that this was not the way to do it. He would have been better able to gain Kertész’s attention by launching into some footling conversation about Fatelessness that only the illest of wills could have gainsaid. But he, good writer that he was himself, hugely admired the great writer and was shaken off, dying not many years later.
The ever-dwindling ranks of Hungary’s intelligentsia, ever less widely read as time goes by, have actually been slow to latch on to Fatelessness and Kertész’s other works. As Magvetœ, his current Hungarian publisher, recently disclosed, until now, they have only been able to put out each of his books to date in a print run of three to four thousand copies. That is a hard fact. At the time Kertész was working on Fatelessness, the works of the better writers (provided they were not at odds with the régime) came out in editions of as many as eighty thousand; in other words, by the time he became recognized, in the ‘90s, the print runs had declined to one-twentieth their former size. And only a tiny fraction of the intelligentsia still reads literature elsewhere in eastern Europe, for that Hungarian print run of three or four thousand would count as a major success in Poland, with a population four times larger than Hungary’s, and indeed as a signal success even in New York.
The camp of many tens of thousands of Kertész readers that built up in Germany during the ‘90s was no freak; German intellectuals still read and are perhaps the last such bastion in Europe and even, one may hazard a guess, the world. Though persistent German guilt has unquestionably contributed to the success of Kertész’s books in that country, it does not entirely explain it. The Germans contritely publish more or less any anti-German book that is written, but there is not a trace of anti-German sentiment in Kertész’s books. Nor is there anything anti-Hungarian, for that matter. He is no philo-Semite, but he is not anti-Semitic either, notwithstanding the fact that a Jewish-born, Communist director of the Magvetœ publishing house cited the latter as grounds for refusing to publish Fatelessness in the early ‘70s. Kertész has gone on record as asserting, quite rightly, that Fatelessness cannot be bent to serve any political or ideological ends.
For all that, Kertész’s career is anomalous. He introduced himself to the public, in 1975, with a masterpiece as his very first work. Once he had begun to slowly establish his reputation, he began publishing, bit by bit, the various notes—some subsequently refashioned and expanded into essay form—that had occurred to him during the ‘60s while he had been struggling to get Fatelessness into shape. Those non-literary notes, which predated the intellectual peak of the masterpiece, have since seen the light of day in several volumes, most notably in Gályanapló (Galley Boat-Log), and during the ‘90s he put together a couple of volumes of edited lectures and statements that were directed primarily at German readers. These include some magnificent essays, yet one has the impression that this is someone who has climbed Everest and is now putting out snapshots that were taken, not at the summit, but on the way up, at various intermediate camps.
Strange as it may seem, Fatelessness is Kertész’s least “Jewish” work. Nevertheless, he has been obliged—not least in light of the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Hungary during recent years—to arrive at some kind of response to questions regarding his identity: whether he is Hungarian or Jewish, or possibly a Hungarian Jew, not to say a Jewish Hungarian, or rather a European who happens to write in Hungarian and is either just a little bit or very Jewish indeed. These are ideological and political issues that serve only to distract him from the cultivation of serious literature. Some Hungarian admirers of Kertész’s art are somewhat dismayed with this process, seeing it as a prime example of the general retreat into which serious literature has been driven across the world these days. Whenever I get into that mood, I am in the habit of reassuring myself that Isaac Bashevis Singer was already a Nobel laureate when he sat down to write his best work, his autobiography.
Non habent sua fata libelli, books do not have their own fate. That was the sardonic inversion of the much-quoted fragment of Terentius Maurus’ poetry that I used as the motto for my essay about Fatelessness nineteen years ago. Now I could not write that; Fatelessness has, after all, had its own fate. Though some extraordinary strokes of luck undoubtedly played their part, that is nevertheless the outcome, first of all, of a concerted effort by Imre Kertész’s numerous fans, above all in the West. But a big part has also been played by the indefatigable energy, supreme diplomatic tact, and unceasing solicitude of Imre’s second wife, Magdi (and I am proud to have been asked to act as one of the witnesses at their wedding). It also needed the selfless support that Imre was given in launching his career in the West by his Hungarian writer friends, Péter Nádas and Péter Esterházy; it needed the efforts of his translators, editors, and publishers, a string of foundations, and Sweden’s Hungarian community; it needed the spreading of the word that was done by those two eminent emigré musicians, György Ligeti and András Schiff; and, perhaps above all else over the last decade, it needed Germany’s big literary business, which still attracts the services of sterling people. After all, sterling people can be found in all places and at all times, even in peacetime, not just in the death camps, as Imre Kertész has so appositely remarked.
In 2002, then, the world’s supreme literary distinction was conferred on somebody for a masterpiece. That may be a rarity, but it does happen. The world will not become a better place than the one that Kertész portrays in his works—let us not delude ourselves on that point. But when a fitting opportunity presents to celebrate, we should not pass it up.
* In the English-speaking world the equivalent volume was This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (USA, 1969; UK, 1976).
** More recently republished under the title The Cattle Truck.