Saturday, October 23, 2010

Péter Nádas

To begin, I will hardly mention that The Book of Memories, by Péter Nádas, is technically perfect, because, as rare as technical perfection (and, of course, I am being slightly excessive) is, in prose, or anything else for that matter, this book, which is overpowering, impressed me in many ways, and I want to start by mentioning those ways that are the most personal, and, in my mind, the least obvious and, probably, the least important. I will begin with the author's note:
It is my pleasant duty to state that what I have written is not my own memoirs. I have written a novel, the recollection of several people separated by time, somewhat in the manner of Plutarch's Parallel Lives. The memoirists might be conceivably all be me, though none of them is. So the locations, names, events, and the situations in the story aren't real but, rather, products of a novelist's imagination. Should anyone recognize someone, or - God forbid! - should any event, name, or situation match actual ones, that can only be a fatal coincidence, and in this respect, if in no other, I am compelled to disclaim responsibility.
The author's note, of The Book of Memories, I read before anything else: before the blurb; before the first page; before the glorious Susan Sontag quote – The greatest novel written in our time […] – on the front cover of the recent Picador reprinting; and, before reading even a page of the novel, picked at random, from somewhere inside the enormous book, which is a long-standing and unselfconscious practice of mine that I almost always adhere to when I am contemplating a new book purchase. I'm not sure exactly what I knew of Péter Nádas – I knew his name at least, that is certain – before the day I bought his book, although I suspect that when I saw the title on the shelf, spine-out, something registered with me: perhaps the memory of an article I once read, or a friend’s remark from long ago? To be clear, it was not a book I had planned to read. And, yet, for whatever reason, recently, in a crowded (!) and fashionable (!!) bookstore, I pulled The Book of Memories from the shelf, and turned to the author's note, which, I think, was a good and proper introduction to Nádas, and I am very glad it happened. 

In his author’s note, Nádas establishes, with typically delicate precision, as he sidesteps the possibility of his book being confused with fact, his refusal to take for granted anything at all, which is characteristic of The Book of Memories. Turns of phrase that might seem to protrude, or to be excessive, are irreplaceable to Nádas, whose subject is consciousness, and whose setting is Communist Eastern Europe. History is at its most severe and hard-nosed, and is experienced with rare sensitivity and sensuality; the kind of drawn-out, aesthetic, and prosaic reflection that is characteristic (normally, or, more precisely, in Proust) of the bourgeois drawing rooms of twentieth century, modernist literature.

This vision is delivered by a narrator, in fact, by multiple narrators, for whom there is no limit to the number of times a human experience – sexual desire, mistrust, jealousy, disgust – can be broken down into smaller and smaller units, considered and reconsidered until the moment itself, which just seemed under thorough investigation, about to give up answers and offer meaning, has become impossibly distant, and vertiginously far below. Nádas rises to heights that few authors, which I have ever read, can reach.
Come to think of it, he never set foot in the house on Stargarderstrasse either; we were forever hiding or, more precisely, we were trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, which was something I was quite adept at, it came easily to me, a sort of behaviour that alluded, unpleasantly, to my past: once, on a Sunday afternoon in front of the building, when Stargarderstrasse was all but deserted, though anyone could have concealed himself behind drawn curtains, on a dull-gray November afternoon when everyone was sitting at home watching TV, drinking coffee, and we both felt we could not say goodbye, we didn’t really have to, we could have stayed with each other, except that we’d been together for three days and our protective shell which kept everything and everyone out was getting thicker and thicker and we had to break out of it, we had to part, spend at least one night alone – I wanted to take a bath, and Melchior’s flat had no bathroom, you had to use a washbowl or the kitchen sink, I felt dirty, wanted to be alone for the afternoon and evening at least, catch my breath, and then, before midnight, run downstairs and call him from a public phone, hear his voice while leaning against the cold glass of the booth, and perhaps go back to his place – and we agreed that he would walk me to the corner of Dimitroffstrasse, and then he’d buy cigarettes at the tobacco shop under the elevated that stayed open on Sunday, but we couldn’t tear ourselves away from each other; first he said he’d walk me only one more block, then I asked him to walk another; we couldn’t just shake hands, it would have been ridiculous, awkward, and cowardly, but we had to do something; we avoided looking at each other, and then he held out his hand, if only because we wanted to touch some part of each other, and so we kept holding hands; there was no one on the street, but this was not enough, it was his mouth that I wanted, there, in front of the house, that Sunday afternoon.

So, I might say that it feels appropriate that I started my relationship with The Book of Memories, in which the question of authorship poses itself, almost by force, with a reading the author’s note. Nádas’s central narrator is an author; he is the author of the memoir at the centre of the novel, which could almost be said to constitute the novel, and he is also the author of a partial novel, set in the previous century, that is within, or alongside, and which interacts with, explains, and compliments, the story of his own life. Time is a permeable membrane, through which the two narrators, one the product of the other’s imagination, move. Nádas allows the present to glide decades into past, mimicking the natural behaviour of memory. And then appears a third voices that announces itself with a shock, intruding into the narrative in such a way that the novel changes, not in shape or in form, but as if appearing to shed its skin.

I will bring to a close this attempt to convey admiration and explain something that I found very difficult to understand myself: The Book of Memories is great, in every sense of the word, and grand, and beautiful, and my sentences cannot describe its own, which, as I mentioned at the start, I found, in some ways, perfect.


And, although I am not sure if I should try anymore to communicate the essence of this book, there are others who have written articles on Péter Nádas, and reviews of his work:

Eva Hofmann, in her review of The Book of Memories, “The Soul of Proust Under Socialism” [link], in which a good summary of the plot can be found (I didn’t have the heart or the ability to attempt one myself), wrote: 
The many parallels between the two writers -- they are both prone to incestuous longings and schizophrenic splitting, both become involved in bisexual triangles -- suggest a reiteration of archetypal urges, situations and scenarios, in history as well as in individual lives. Recurrence is inscribed in the novel's form, which mimics the movements of memory and glides effortlessly from the present into successive strata of the past. For the contemporary narrator, his adult affairs revive recollections of growing up in postwar Budapest, and the impetuous, multivalent infatuations of his adolescence, especially with a compellingly beautiful boy named Krisztian. The youthful narrator -- detached, precocious, aware of every stirring of his own impulses -- feels both magnetically attracted to and painfully excluded by his schoolmates, whose bondings and hostilities he observes with an almost preternatural sensitivity. At the same time, he is electrically alert to currents of affection and conflict within his own family. His charismatic, intimidating father is the state prosecutor in the Stalinist regime, and may have heinously informed on a friend who is also his wife's lover. The narrator himself engages in slyly sadistic games with his retarded sister and in vengeful rummagings through his father's secret papers. His most poignant feelings are reserved for his terminally ill but charming mother, with whom he shares nearly forbidden tenderness.
There is a also a notable review of Fire and Knowledge by Deborah Eisenberg [link], and a profile of Nádas on the New York Times website [link].

And what of his other books? Susan Sontag, the great champion of Nádas in English, in a short article on his plays [link], had the following remark to make:
Péter Nádas has written in a variety of forms since his first book, a collection of stories published in 1965; anglophone readers had to wait until 1997 to discover him, when A Book of Memories (1986), his maximal masterpiece, finally appeared in English. To start one’s reading of a major writer with that writer’s most ambitious, most accomplished, bulkiest book is bound to foster misreadings. There are sizable peaks surrounding this Everest. But it will take time to take their measure.


  1. I reviewed A BOOK OF MEMORIES when it first came out... am waiting for his huge novel many thousand pages long...
    There is an interesting photobook based on Nadas's heart attack... but off to the side one should always know that possibly Krasznahorkai is a larger and finer writer since Nadas reveals himself in his political writings to be still contaminated with earlier leftist authoritarian politics unlike Krasznahirkai or the earlier writer Sandor Marai only now really being re-discovered.

  2. Is there somewhere I can read your review?

    I haven't read Krasznahorkai, or anything else by Nadas, but I plan too...

    Can you confirm that Parallel Stories is being translated? I read about it here and there on the Internet, after finishing A Book of Memories, but I didn't get the impression there was a translation on the way.

    Thanks for your comment.

  3. About Krasznahorkai, which title of his is the better to start from? "The Melancholy of Resistence"?

    WHH, you really got me interested on "A book of memories".

  4. I'm glad to hear that Inaki. I found the book fascinating, although it is not without its trying moments.

    I would also be interested to know which of Krasznahorkai's novels, of those that have been translated into Engish, is a better introduction to his writing. Although, maybe it doesn't matter...

  5. First copy of Parallel Stories arrived to be pub november