11. 15. 2011. 11:51

Péter Nádas's Parallel Stories in English

First critical reactions

Péter Nádas’s monumental novel, Parallel Stories, has come out in English translation. Hailed by the publisher as a “once-in-a-generation literary event”, this 1200-page-long novel is a narrative with a multitude of stories and characters, ranging from Nazi Germany to Communist Hungary.

Published three weeks ago, the novel has already received mixed reviews, some of them raving, others completely baffled or even outraged.

What is this novel about? Though the publisher's page has a short plot summary, most critics feel that they must resort to enumeration rather than a linear outline: "Nádas travels widely... from the upper echelons of Nazi eugenicist experimentation to the failed Hungarian revolution against the USSR in 1956 to underground societies of Nazi enthusiasts (pre- and postwar) to the concentration camps and the fall of communism. Historically, the book is capacious, including everything from the board game inventor Milton Bradley (who was a noted enthusiast of eugenics) to the famous Grand Hotel on Margit Island in Budapest to the Eichmann papers." (Barnes and Noble Review , Scott Esposito), or: "an ungodly book—about capitalism and the Church, about communism and no Church; Hungarian nationalists and Jewish lumber merchants; gay intelligence officers in Budapest bathhouse bacchanals and Gypsy Gastarbeiters. All of Magyardom seems to be in it, along with wide demographic swaths of Italy, France, Austria, and, especially, Germany. There are digressions on Nazi eugenics, architecture, opera, and painting—as well as—underwear-purchasing habits in reunified Berlin (‘polyurethane’ is preferred)—alongside tangential musings on how mandated communal apartments under Hungary’s Kádár dictatorship served as inducements to casual sex." (New York Magazine , Joshua Cohen)

The reader has a similar problem with finding out who the major characters are. Critics point out the novel’s unusual approach to character plotting that Tod Wodicka at The National  calls "almost Facebook-like... You surf the novel as if it were a high-modernist social network… everything hyperlinked to everything else."

The proliferation of plot and character and the fact that "none of [the] primary plots ever resolves or reaches even a temporary denouement" (J. Cohen) are, of course, precisely the point: Cohen quotes Nádas as saying that his "narrative mode and rhythm are not organized by closure but determined by an open form. It would be nice to believe that life begins with birth and ends with death. If that were the case, I’d probably tell well-shaped, rounded little stories. Instead, I’m interested in how these stories are interconnected, or how they remain ignorant of one another, unaffected by one another, lying side by side." As Hungarian critic Gábor Csordás pointed out in an essay published in English in 2006, the greatest innovation of the novel "is its staggering multiplicity of essentially independent stories, which no realist construction would be able to embrace within a single narrative."

Nádas’s treatment of the body and sexuality has generated mixed responses in critics. Some are baffled or even outraged by the depiction of gay cruising and masochism or the detailed description of sexual organs and the substances they emit. This "would have been a better book if Nádas had curtailed his sexual surfeit", Scott Esposito thinks, although he admits that "Nádas's sex scenes do much more than just take a microscope to the mechanics of intercourse – for him, one's character is never so truthfully revealed as during the very visceral pinings of desire. Moreover, Nádas makes of sexual conflict a pure distillation of the power struggles that typify friendships and romances; in his favor, it should be said that he has a precise eye for the ways sexual pleasure isolates individuals from one another, and his sex scenes are nothing if not galleries that display how aggressors make sex into a mode of narcissism and self-interest, leaving their mates to wallow in self-doubt and supplication." Tod Wodicka goes even further: "Parallel Stories charts out a new kind of humanism, one that boldly explores every last breath and belly rumble of the body's consciousness…This can be both repellent and exasperating… When was the last time a novel made you painfully more aware of your physical body? For too long in fiction the subconscious has been a vassal of the mind; here, the body itself steps up to demand its own consciousness, its own place in the fractured tableau of memory and history."

Imre Goldstein, who has translated six of Nádas's books into English to date, worked five years on the translation of Parallel Stories. His work is praised at Three Percent by Tim Nassau as elegant, unencumbered and "operating in English."

See also our review (2006) and our interview (parts one and two) with Péter Nádas on Parallel Stories.

Péter Nádas: Parallel Stories
Translated by Imre Goldstein
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011

Tags: Péter Nádas