14 April 2016

Writing Life and Death.
Writing: Life and Death.
Writing Life, and Death.

Punctuation is never quite innocent. These three variations on a possible title together draw a portrait of Imre Kertész, the first and so far only Hungarian literary Nobel Prize winner, who died on 31st March after a long battle against Parkinson’s disease. These three faces of a fatal love triangle between writing, life, and death speak of an author who lived for, through, and in writing, who wrote (about) life and death, and who lived a writing life for nearly seventy years. He spent those years writing about the beloved burden and unbearable lightness of living after having seen death in an unforgettable, indigestible close-up. He has now lost that burden and is rid of that lightness.

Writing Life and Death

He never liked the label of ‘Holocaust writer’ but he couldn’t get away from it. His first and best known novel, Fatelessness (1975), which brought him international fame and recognition – even though with quite some delay – is about a young Jewish boy who experiences the camps, is saved in the last minute by the Americans, and returns to Budapest, where he must admit a feeling of strange nostalgia for the camp where ‘in a sense life was purer and simpler’*. The protagonist, Gyuri Köves, could have been Kertész himself. He had been through that experience, but he denied that the novel’s protagonist is or even just resembles him. ‘My proper place is not in the story but at the writing desk’, he wrote in Dossier K.: A Memoir (2006, trans. Tim Wilkinson). Nevertheless, Fatelessness is today generally read as part of a tetralogy that includes Kertész’s later autobiographical novels, Fiasco (1988), Kaddish for an Unborn Child (1990), and Liquidation (2003). It was also adapted to cinema by Lajos Koltai, with Ennio Morricone’s music, in 2005.

But writing about Auschwitz and Buchenwald, why not be a Holocaust writer then? First, because in Kertész’s opinion, the term ‘Holocaust’ is used abusively for the experience of concentration camps and distracts from the main problem. It places the emphasis on those killed – the term comes from the Greek hólos, ‘whole’, and kastós, ‘burnt’ – rather than on the nonsense of systematic mass murder and its very possibility. Second, because the object of his novel and its criticism is not the isolated phenomenon of WWII genocide, but dictatorship in general, which deprives people of their freedom, thought, subjectivity, and humanity. Physical death is one thing; the reasons and circumstances of the extermination of human subjects and the loss of humanity and humaneness that lead to it are another. And these are not unique to the Shoah but the common basis of all totalitarian systems. Kertész spent 13 years writing his rather slim first novel, from 1960 to 1973, during which Hungary had the fame of being ‘the happiest barrack’ in the Eastern bloc. However, artists and intellectuals aspiring for freedom of thought experienced it as plain communist dictatorship – all the more dangerous for keeping most of its subjects quite happy in their ignorance, lulled by the artificially maintained illusion of being safe and well looked after.

Writing: Life and Death

The particularity of Fatelessness is a neutral tone that is reminiscent of Camus’s Outsider, combined with the perspective of a 14-year-old boy who had learnt detachment due to his parents’ divorce and disputes. ‘Gyuri Köves is not a main character, but rather a moving, changing perspective’, writes Péter Szirák in 2003 in the first monograph on Kertész’s work. Only László Nemes managed to push this singular objectivity further by showing the camps through the eyes of a dehumanized subject in his Oscar-winning film Son of Saul (2015).

For Kertész, only writing allows one to take a distance from the events and come closer to an understanding, precisely by stepping back and finding a language. Writing represents the coming to life of reality, one that makes no sense but can, perhaps, be redeemed through the crafting of words and sentences. Even when reality is about death – or especially then. Writing is the only way to approach the ungraspable, the unsayable. It is also the only possible way, if there is one, of reconciling with death. ‘The text itself is not a description, but an event; not an explanation, but time and presence – an essential function always and everywhere, never “external” or “writerly”, in other words, never empty,’ he writes in his notes published under the title Galley Diary (1992). Writing is, in this sense, a question of life and death. ‘It is not some sort of talent that makes one become a writer,’ he also notes, ‘but their refusal of a ready-made language and concepts. In the beginning, one is, I think, simply ignorant, more than anyone else, those who understand everything immediately. Then he begins to write, like someone trying to recover from a serious illness, to overcome a mental disorder – at least as long as they are writing.’

Writing Life, and Death

After a life that revolved around writing and creating and recreating life through writing, came death. In a television interview in 2014, the already ill and weak Kertész speaks about his book published that year, The Final Tavern, as most probably the last one. ‘Death is unpredictable,’ he says, ‘but I’ve finished my work.’ The writing is done, life is done, death can come. And it did – yet another book of collected notes later (The Spectator, 2016).

Remains an oeuvre and the figure of an author who was far from being uncontroversial. His relationship with critics, especially the Hungarian ones, was tense. Kertész moved to Berlin in 2001 and remained critical of his homeland. He continued to write in his mother tongue, but in a 2009 interview he refused to be labelled a Hungarian author, identifying rather as a product of European culture and – due to the history that made him become one by rejecting him as one – as a Jew. His rejection of his Hungarian roots, or what was understood as such, was not much appreciated. He nevertheless returned to Budapest in 2012 in the hope of getting better treatment for his illness, and two years later accepted the Order of Saint Stephen, the highest decoration of the Hungarian State, from Viktor Orbán’s conservative government. Which suddenly stopped being so critical of him, and which he suddenly refused to criticise, despite their increasingly obvious measures limiting the freedom of the press and going against the European spirit Kertész previously identified with.

Plenty to perplex his readers and make one wonder about the relationship between the writer’s work, the ethics that transpires from it, and the author’s actions and words beyond his books. Between the writer’s ethics and the author’s vanity. There is no easy answer, but he didn’t claim to be infallible either: ‘everything I did was by mistake; all in all, I lived in complete error’, he notes in Dossier K. about his post-war years. He was full of contradictions, and the question of identity lingers over his entire oeuvre. The portrait of the man holding the pen is a complex one, and the triangle of writing, life, and death that frames it has multiple mirrors on each side. We can keep looking at it from different sides without trying to simplify it.  

*Unless otherwise indicated, all translations from Hungarian are mine. E.F.