Péter Nádas is Hungary’s leading contemporary writer. A scholar not only of literature, but of culture, horticulture, and above all the human body and its communications, Nádas presents a picture of temperament and elegance in the great tradition of the European intellectual. He has often been compared, perhaps syntactically, to the high realists Robert Musil and Marcel Proust. Susan Sontag, one of Nádas’s earliest and most vocal champions, compares his plays to the “encounter-dramas of Pina Bausch” and the “declamatory plays of Thomas Bernhard.” I myself see him, in many ways, as the Thomas Mann of our times.
Born into a fascinating literary culture, isolated from but enveloped by the vast history of Christian Europe, in a denuded country just rebuilding from World War II, the worst catastrophe in its tumultuous thousand-year history, Nádas chronicles the peaceful prison that was (and is) Hungary in a passionate, playful, and eloquent voice. His perspicacity is disconcertingly palpable—in his measured body language, his eyes, and his laugh. When we met in Hungary in 2000, he seemed to look right through me; I felt as though I had lost a chess match on the first move. As one of the protagonists of A Book of Memories, his huge experimental novel, muses at a banquet: “I had to offer my face and eyes for the first time for close inspection, which is always a very critical moment.”
Perhaps the pre-eminent chronicle of life in Soviet Europe (Sontag called it “the greatest novel written in our time, and one of the great books of the century”), A Book of Memories is Nádas’s observation of the cosmopolitan experience behind the Iron Curtain. He began the book in the early ’70s and worked on it for more than ten years, under very dangerous circumstances, even though he imagined that it would never be published under the Communist regime in Hungary. It did finally come out in 1986, and 11 years later it was published in the US by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. One of the most appealing strategies Nádas employed in putting together the novel, so that he could see it as a continuum during those many years of creation, was to mount a dress rehearsal of the last chapter. By adapting it as a play, Nádas managed to elude the censors and satisfy himself as to its strength.
In addition to A Book of Memories, Nádas’s works in English currently in print include The End of a Family Story (FSG, 1998), an autobiographical tale that explores the depths of family tragedy in early Communist Hungary, and the ability to find catharsis around it; Own Death (Steidl, 2006), also a somewhat autobiographical chronicle, of a man who suffers a mortal attack and slips into and out of the earthly world—a tale juxtaposed with photos taken of a wild pear tree near Nádas’s rural home near the medieval city of Pécs; and the forthcoming collection of his stories and essays, Fire and Knowledge (FSG, August 2007), which illuminates Hungary’s evolution since the fall of Soviet Europe, and which gives us a deeper appreciation of Nádas’s reach. His most recent novel, the colossal Parallel Stories—a complex of tales that converge into one narrative—runs to some 1,500 pages and took him 12 years to write. It has been heralded by some as the most important new novel of the century. It appeared in Hungary in 2005 (Jelenkor), and is not yet available in English.
This interview, which began in person in 2000 when I was in Budapest on a Fulbright scholarship and culminated in email exchanges in 2007 between Montreal and the Hungarian countryside, was realized with the help of György Kalmár of the University of Debrecen and Janos Salamon, the translator into English of Own Death and our deft interpreter/mediator.
Davis Kovacs Did you have a strategy for maintaining the narrative balance in A Book of Memories? There is so much grace in the harmonic rhythm of the sentences, paragraphs, and chapters: an almost sublime stylistic monotony, a hypnotic music, consistent and powerful, that washes over the reader in the same way that waterfalls wash over moss. The modulations and counterpoint are intricate yet seem to belie the principles of nature itself. And though you use several narrators, all seem to maintain the same corporeal-focused, intense temperament, which captures for me the midcentury Hungarian disposition in the work of photographer André Kertész and the filmmaker and writer Béla Balázs. I guess what I am getting at is the following: Is your narrative balance a specific function of your characterization of the protagonists, or do you have some other alchemy at work?
Péter Nádas This was all part of a methodology, and what made it very hard to maintain that methodology was the fact that this book took 12 years to write. And for this reason I terrorized my immediate environment because my instinct was to keep everything just as it was. I didn’t want anything to happen; I wanted to make sure that I could sit at my desk the next morning in the same condition as before, because I was afraid that I just couldn’t continue if anything had changed. I am accused of being a sensualist, but I was really a monk. In the fourth or fifth year, I knew what the last sentence would be, so that was seven years before I finished . . . . I was so aware of what the last chapter would be about that I became immune to the effect. That is why I had to put it on stage, to distance myself from it, to take a fresh look at it. Writers probably possess different kinds of knowledge as they get into their work. My type is the type that sees structures. And at certain central points of the structures, I see scenes. So it’s a dilemma because I can see those scenes at crucial points of the structure, but I am not certain whether these disparate scenes can be built together into a whole story. It might just be that when I get to the scene that I had envisioned, the structural grounds that I had built up to that point might compel me to go in a different direction.
There is this constant play between the structure and the scenes. It is like a scientific hypothesis that will either be verified by a certain experience or falsified. In that sense the part of the novel that is already finished up to that point where I have to make the decision about the scene, is like a series of experiments that will tell me either to keep that scene or to drop it, or to reform it. But just like in a scientific experiment there is a strict methodology, a research plan, because it makes a difference where you start these experiments. The hypothesis can collapse not just because it is a faulty experiment, but also if you started the experiment in the wrong place, and then you just have to start from a different point. If I myself find it interesting at the end of the day and I am not bored by the scene that I am writing, if I don’t want to get up and make a fire, or if I can still repair it by resorting to formal tricks, that is fine. But I can’t trick myself. If I am bored, then I know it is no good. So either I can detect the place in the scene where I was self-deceiving or superficial, and then I can do something, or I can’t and I just drop it.
DK What do you think about Gertrude Stein’s statement from How to Write: “A sentence is not emotional, a paragraph is”?
PN I would like to say that it is possible to have great emotional movements within a paragraph, and I think that it should always be so. It is not really a question of mechanical division, but how one can tolerate monotony, or what one’s relationship is to monotony. And what one’s relationship is to symmetry and asymmetry, which is a sub-problem of monotony. The question is whether monotony should be broken up by symmetry or asymmetry. There is another subdivision of this problem: It might be the case that it would be good to break this monotony for the continuity of the character. This character has a long presence; this dilemma has to be solved. In that sense the content sometimes overrules the strategy that you meant to follow, and this is a case where the omnipotent writer is making a decision keeping in mind the reader’s point of view, which would dictate a more formal structure, to break the monotony and to prevent boredom, but at the same time he is following his own strategy, which he designed for the character, and that would dictate the free play of philosophical or emotional aspects of the story or the character, which has a different inner structure.
DK I am trying to get a picture of this methodology—
PN It is like I am going up a flight of stairs, the top of which I cannot myself see. So I am moving up and down the stairs and there are no marks. That is why I am bored by mystery novels: those markings are always there. Agatha Christie, for example, is a predictable writer: She made a decision at some point that it doesn’t matter who gets killed and when; someone always get killed, and someone always uncovers it.
DK It seems from your work that there is a notion of the sanctity of art. The theater world that forms the backdrop to the love story in A Book of Memories functions as a sort of sanctuary from reality.
PN I don’t think of art so much in terms of sanctity—but there is a very strong moral command that I think about executing when I write, and perhaps this is what comes across in the work. This moral command is related to the theme that I choose as well as the methodology. My friend reproached me—he said, “To you, writing is more important than anything else,” which I had never thought of, because it was self-evident. If it were my little family that counted most, I would have chosen another profession. I would have gone into the butcher profession instead. To be a writer is really not the most radical thing I could do because I do have some people around me. If I were a dancer, everything would be excluded, because a dancer has nothing to do with anybody except his or her own little muscles. But in my next life that is what I am planning to do. To be a dancer.
DK Given this sense of moral command, do you believe that it is an imperative to write politically? How might this mesh with the idea of the sanctity of art?
PN Moral decisions have aesthetic and political content just as much as decisions running counter to generally accepted moral commands. If this weren’t the case, then Shakespeare’s plays wouldn’t have the power to thrill us. We simply couldn’t get what goes on between Lady Anna and Richard III standing over the corpse of the murdered king. We would fail to perceive the erotic in injustice. The correct ethical decision is not necessarily beautiful or neat; sometimes it involves bloody mayhem. Think of Churchill’s dreadful decision to let the bombing of Coventry take place. When an author is forced to make moral decisions in his text, certain aesthetic consequences may be unavoidable. The text may become hopelessly ugly as a result. There is just no help for it; the author has to resign himself to the fact.
DK You began your career writing plays for money, and you spent many years at this. How has your background in the theater helped you as a novelist?
PN I wrote plays only because several theaters asked me to write for them, and also I was working on this novel for 12 years, which seemed endless, like a staircase without end, and it was a good feeling to write something that I could actually finish in a month. Writing plays, I regained my self-confidence that I could finish something after all.
I wrote a play called Encounters, which I finished about five years before I finished A Book of Memories. In that play I rehearsed the scene that is the last chapter of A Book of Memories, and that is what that play is about. I wanted to see how the chapter would work, so I put it on stage, of course using theatrical methods; the characters are different, but it’s the same idea. There is an old woman visited by a young man asking about his father. What I wanted to see was whether two people can confront each other and resolve a historical matter without losing their flesh and blood and the erotic human body.
DK And this confrontation about who the father really was did delve into this question with an acute force. I hadn’t realized that you had written it as a play for experimentation.
Your educational background is in chemistry. What led to your becoming a writer?
PN I flunked chemistry. (laughter) I was going to be a technician, which is one step down from engineer, but I would have had to study a lot of chemistry. I flunked several subjects in chemistry, but I passed the summer exam. When I went to take my second exam there were two doors, the door to the classroom and the door to the exit, and I chose the exit. That was the end of that.
Between the ages of 12 and 15 I lived in a state of euphoria, mostly on account of the Russian classics. Even the not so greats like Turgenev and Grossman—then Tolstoy, Thomas Mann, Proust, Musil, Molière, Shakespeare, the Bible. Rabelais. He could write about people pissing in the Middle Ages and it was so natural. If somebody could do this in the Middle Ages, then the world was a great place! Thomas Mann was a decisive figure in my parents’ life, in the ’30s, ’40s, after the war. By the time I came of age it was American Literature. But I was bored of that.
PN Why? At the time, I couldn’t answer this question. I had no idea. It was only about ten years later that I came to understand the meaning of my initial reaction. At that time I read a study about the impact that Hollywood screenwriters had on the expectations of New York publishers in the ’30s, and how these expectations shaped the American novel. American literature simply split off from the European tradition. Then it took me another ten years to realize the new quality that had emerged as a result of this, by no means final split. But to answer your original question, the reason I decided to and continue to write is that I like the big themes: love, war, science. Writing allows for the deepest exploration of these.
DK What do you think of Faulkner? That loquacious writing style; those long, airy sentences. Your relationship to monotony and symmetry and your syntax seem to share something with his.
PN What do I really think? I think that he is the greatest half-finished writer of the 20th century, but he left himself unfinished. He finished all his books somewhere at some point, in the same way that he started them. But you get the feeling that he finished them without satisfying himself, and then turned to something completely different. Therefore you have as many Faulkners as books he wrote. As if he had been dissatisfied with each of his writings, as if the process itself did not please him. There is something rigid about him. But he knows a lot. He knows everything about human beings and everything he knows is new, it’s not stereotypes; but there is something about himself that he either didn’t want to know or didn’t know and that always acted as a suppressor. Maybe he was too handsome a man? That usually doesn’t help a writer, though as in everything there may be one or two exceptions.
DK Your novels show a tremendous knowledge of botany and anatomy. For example, in A Book of Memories, your description of the left side of the face as describing the window into the true emotion of a person. When did you cultivate this knowledge?
PN I am continuously cultivating it. I have a lot of reference books on the subjects, and also, in terms of botany, living in the countryside helps. All the doctors whom I deal with here, though, are terrified by the questions I pose. They are questions that they themselves never asked. All sets of connections between disparate things. From time to time I revolutionize science and medicine, because these doctors are unaware of certain events that take place, so I am supplying them with new ideas about the function of the human being. There is a local doctor whom I subjected to a barrage of questions concerning the physiological aspects of erotic behavior, questions that are not discussed in books of anatomy or physiology. After a while, even though he is a father of two sons—he should know a lot of things—he refused to answer and got red in the face. But I have a friend in Paris who is a doctor, and he supplies me with a lot of answers. I also use a lot of reference books.
DK Was nature part of the formalist element in A Book of Memories? It seemed that you were relying very much on the whole of the natural human experience and in some cases the human interpretation of other species’ experience. A chapter titled “Girls” begins with a long and rich explication of ivy; in this same chapter your description of the pig birth is highly evocative.
PN Nature is what that chapter is about. A child is a natural phenomenon. That is what the pig birth is in that chapter, and the blossoming of an adolescent and the blossoming of nature, or birth, had to be described in a parallel fashion.
DK In Parallel Stories, parallelism is patent, and in Own Death the wild pear tree plays a central role—it appears in photos in various stages of dormancy, flower, etc. throughout the book, opposite the text (in parallel form). Does parallelism represent a philosophy for you, and how might it fit into your development of the themes of science and nature?
PN Literature, and the arts in general, are sometimes more alert, quicker, see farther and deeper than the sciences. And then there are times when one finds instances of almost inexplicable concurrences and synchronisms among the objects of scientific and artistic understanding or between the respective methods of approach. We might as well call this parallelism, or the synchronism of differences. In talking about such concurrences or synchronisms, Hjalmar Söderberg’s novel Doktor Glas and Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams come to mind as excellent examples. These two authors didn’t know each other—the distance between Stockholm and Vienna was much greater in those days—yet the two works share a common subject and method of approach. As if Söderberg’s 1905 novel knew Freud’s study published in 1900. But it didn’t. However, the connection between the two is undeniable. And this raises further questions about possible hidden structures sheltering other hidden, non-causal connections between the two persons and the two works. I was interested in just these questions at the time of writing Parallel Stories. Literature traditionally proceeds along causal connections in describing man. I wanted to depart from this tradition. The question is not what connects people who know each other, but rather, what is the nature of the connections between those people who don’t? This is the central question for brain researchers studying neurological phenomena, and also for philosophers following these studies. If not God, then who directs neurological processes or human decisions? Who or what, and through what structure? Or in plain English: Is our will free? If in reaching for my cup of coffee I’m not motivated by my desire to drink coffee, but it is more correct to say that my brain has made a reach-out-for-cup neurological decision, then the long-established notions regarding the freedom of the will collapse together with the traditional concept of person and all the related political conceptions. Then it no longer makes sense to distinguish between virtue and vice, between reward and punishment; then all the characteristics formerly attributed to individuals fall away as mere poetic exaggerations, or empty appearances; then societies can no longer be expected to be governed by the rules of common sense.
In 2002/2003 I was a fellow at the Berlin Wissenschaftskolleg, working on Parallel Stories. Due to my incompetence, I couldn’t actively participate in the ongoing scientific debates but looked on with great interest as biologists, etiologists, and brain researchers almost came to blows over these questions with historians, linguists, sociologists, and philosophers. There was a whole week in winter when it was doubtful whether this wonderful institution of interdisciplinary studies was large enough to accommodate the opposing views of these great professors of natural sciences on the one hand, and social sciences on the other.
Brain researchers have known for a long time that the left brain and the right brain have quite different things to say about the same object and that we register images at our brain stem, from which it follows that one individual possesses more than one dimension of memory, at least three in fact, and in making his decisions he doesn’t necessarily have to coordinate these. But these days, neurologists know even more. They now make a distinction not only between short-term and long-term memory, but also among memory types identifiable according to their respective subjects, types that are interconnected at special sites in the brain. These researchers talk about separate, self-sufficient subsystems operating within the brain and mutually affecting each other. It is probably these effects that we refer to as independent decisions or free will. So while neurologists have been preoccupied with these ideas and experiments, I based Parallel Stories on the same hypothetical structure.
My story Own Death has a similar theoretical background. The perception of texts and images takes place in different parts of the brain: something very different happens to me when I’m looking at a picture than when I’m reading a text. We have here two completely different but parallel chronologies. This led me to juxtapose in the book the pictures arranged in my own chronological order with the story of my own clinical death. For a whole year, every day I took photographs, from the same camera angle, of the same wild pear tree. The story of the tree and the story of my clinical death are not in synchrony, nor can they be synchronized. But while the reader, following his own inclinations and free decisions, keeps moving back and forth between the visual and the intellectual perception, he moves through an empty space. There is an empty space and an empty time. In planning the book, I wanted this empty space and empty time to stand for everything one doesn’t know about oneself and about the world, to stand for my own ignorance of these things. The elements of the overall structure should comprise not only that which I know, but also that which I don’t.
DK With Fire and Knowledge, the grand theme that you are trying to most develop seems to be the loss of common sense in a society. Why have you chosen this theme at this particular juncture in history?
PN It could have been some other juncture. You don’t even need a dictatorship for this. It’s enough if people live in permanent political repression under the shadow of a war or religious orthodoxy. In this case people will be talking not about things in themselves but about things as they relate to the war or the repression. A paralanguage emerges to serve as a navigation tool under conditions of political repression. Parallel with this, normal language survives for a while, for speakers are mutually aware of the difference that politics forces them to insert between what they say and what they mean. They keep winking at each other, as it were, from behind the cover of this paralanguage, but then the moment arrives when chaos takes over, and speakers get lost in the wilderness of deceptions they created for each other. At this moment, the rule of common sense comes to an end on a collective level. At the time I was writing my novel, dictatorship was softening and loosening up, but it was also at this time, and precisely in the everyday practice of the mother tongue, that the immense spiritual and intellectual damage created by long decades of dictatorship became clearly visible. Words had lost their agreed-upon meaning. I couldn’t leave it at that for moral reasons, if for nothing else.
DK Who do you think your readers are now in Hungary?
PN I have a general idea. Intellectuals, definitely. People with a higher education, unlike myself—college graduates. I have a much better idea of my audience in Germany. They are mostly middle-aged, highly educated. More women than men, and they are willing to go into incredible depths analyzing my work. It’s probably true in America, too, that mostly women read novels. Men are busy making money, watching football. Though the president of Deutsche Bank is also a great reader as well as a financial genius.
DK How does the shock of World War II materialize in present-day Hungary? How does the modern Hungarian make sense of the 20th century?
PN Some shocks can have a positive effect. The Vietnam War was a shock that woke up America in many ways. The only nation that gained from the Holocaust and the Second World War were the Germans. They are the moral victors of the war because they were able to perform a self-reflection after the war. All the other nations involved in that war remained in the state that history put them in without self-reflection. This includes the Hungarians, who rationalized what happened in this country in the Second World War as a result of German aggression—which is ridiculous. Hungary joined the Axis Powers on November 20, 1940, with Slovakia and Romania; the next year, Hungary declared war—independently from Germany—on the United States; and later Hungary sent troops, of its own volition, to the Eastern Front, even though all they had were bicycle units and leftover guns from the First World War. It is inconceivable that the Germans would ask the Hungarians to declare war on the US, nor did the Germans ask the Hungarians to go to the Russian front, yet Hungary wants to blame the Germans for the fact that two hundred thousand men died there. There is of course some German responsibility, but it is nothing like the Hungarians would like to claim.
The Hungarian understanding of the ’56 fiasco [the failed Hungarian uprising against the Soviets] is more complicated than that, for two things became obvious at that time. One is that Hungarians will be defeated even if they are fighting for a good cause, and two that the Western powers, including the United States, will deceive them. So the radio station financed by the Americans urged people to take to the streets even while they were making a pact with the Russians that they wouldn’t interfere. The same thing happened in ’68 in Prague, with the US State Department-sponsored Radio Free Europe. In ’56 there were these amateur radio stations all across the country asking for help, but the world only sent chocolate and butter. That was a devastating experience, and it’s unlikely that the Hungarians can recover from an experience like this. It has resulted in a general, deep-seated suspicion that they relate to foreigners, and it has created a solipsistic closed character. This is a lasting effect.
DK Some people say that the capital of Hungary is Munich.
PN Unfortunately, it is not the case. Unfortunately it is Budapest. It would be nice. Though if I had the choice it wouldn’t be Munich. Stuttgart is richer. Berlin would also be a better option, or Hamburg. Germany is the only country in Europe that for historical reasons, and also historically, is interested in this country. No other powers in Europe have any special energy for or interest in Hungary. It is a historical, traditional connection that both parties have to take into consideration and that can have good and bad effects. But viewed from Paris or London, Hungary simply doesn’t exist. Not even on a level of politeness.
DK There is a character in A Book of Memories who is Jewish and who keeps this fact private. What does it mean to be Jewish in Hungary, and what aftereffects are there in Hungary from the Holocaust?
PN I can’t answer that, because I am not Jewish. It is the same with sexuality—there are no homosexuals, no heterosexuals, and there are no Jews; but of course there is racism, and the Holocaust aggravated that. Hungarian society has no self-reflection regarding the 600,000 Jews who were killed, and they would be willing to kill another 400,000 if they had the chance. I don’t have to be Jewish to have contempt for this and hate it and do everything I can to change it. And I protest this and do everything in my power to counteract this as a human being, not as a Jew.
DK Is there a democratic future for Hungary?
PN Given enough time, yes. If nationalism doesn’t get the upper hand, then yes. The ground is prepared for nationalism in all of the surrounding countries, even Germany, and it can be mobilized at any time. Even though they were the moral victors of the Second World War, according to recent reports there are at least 12 million people in Germany who hate all foreigners. I hate this racism and speak out against it at every opportunity.
In Fall 2007, the Hungarian Cultural Center hosted Péter Nádas on his first visit to New York in over a decade, co-sponsored by BOMB. Nádas was a guest at several events to present his work, including a discussion of Fire and Knowledge at the New York Public Library on November 9. Details of his visit appeared in the Fall 2007 issue of BOMB.