03. 19. 2011. 06:50

We can never express precisely what we mean

An interview with Agota Kristof

One of the most acclaimed representatives of francophone literature, Agota Kristof was awarded the most prestigious Hungarian state prize. When she visited Hungary last year, she thought she would never come back again, but now she came to take the award. We talked to Agota Kristof in Budapest.

Agota Kristof lives in Switzerland and writes in French. She left Hungary in 1956 with her husband and daughter, and settled in Neuchâtel. Initially she worked in a watch factory where she learnt the language of her chosen country. Her first novel Le grand cahier (The Notebook) was published in 1987 and became an instant success. It was followed by Le Preuve (The Proof, 1988), Le Troisième mensonge (The Third Lie, 1991) and Hier (Yesterday, 1995). She received the Alberto Moravia Prize (1988), the Gottfried Keller Prize (2001) and the Schiller Prize (2005). Her Trilogy (The Notebook, The Proof, The Third Lie) has been translated into forty languages and played in many theatres in Hungary and elsewhere. Her 2004 book entitled L’Analphabète is a collection of autobiographical texts. The pieces in the volume are symbolic stories: from the stability of everyone speaking a language that is understandable, the writer is expelled into a state where she is an illiterate and must appropriate a new language in order to be able to exist in the world.

What did you feel when you heard that you were going to receive the Kossuth Prize?

It made me very happy because it is a Hungarian prize. Otherwise, I am not very much interested in prizes. I have received enough of them already. It was great honour for me when my works were translated into Hungarian, but I did not expect people here to pay attention to my work especially. Years ago I had been promised twice to get the prize, but it did not happen the first time, and neither the second time, so when my brother called me to say I was going to get it, I asked immediately: “Again?”

Last year you were honorary guest at an international literary conference at the Petőfi  Museum of Literature in Budapest and poet András Petőcz asked from you what it felt like to change your language. You answered that you had recognized quite early on that if you wanted to write and to be read, you had to write in French.

Well, of course, that is why I started to write in French. I had no business writing in Hungarian in Switzerland. But I continued to write in Hungarian as well for quite a long time, for five years at least.

In your novel entitled Yesterday the protagonist who works in a watch factory says that he usually writes in his head, because it is easier; when one starts to write, the thoughts become distorted and finally everything comes out false, because of words. When you wrote the first sentences in French, were you in fact translating from Hungarian? Were your words more to the point because they went through the sieve of translation?

Well, I think this is a problem for every writer. We can never express exactly what we mean. While I was writing, I was constantly deleting as well. I deleted a lot, especially adjectives and things that are not real, that have their origin in feelings. For example, once I wrote: “her sparkling eyes”. And then I said to myself: do they really sparkle? And then I deleted the adjective.

Yet there are many things in Yesterday that are not real. Dream and reality constantly merge in this book.

But that is different. These dreams are there only in Yesterday. I worked many of my old poems written in Hungarian into the descriptions of dreams.

How did you do that? Did you search through your old poems?

I did not search through them, they are there in my head.

How much unwritten material is there in your head?

I don’t write any more, I am very ill. This was not a conscious decision, it just happened. I simply don’t feel like it any more and have no energy for it. And it makes no sense. However, there are still some topics I am interested in, I started to write about one of them two years ago. I have the whole thing in my head, I basically have it written. It is very easy to write it down when it is already there in my head. Then I wrote a few pages, but I kept repeating what I had already written. I started again, then I wrote the end, several times, but then I left it off.

There are writers who say that they write the same story over and over again.

Well, yes, in a certain sense it is true, because when I wrote my first novel, The Notebook, I did not think I was going to continue, that it could ever be continued. Then I simply couldn't stop, I couldn't leave the twins alone, although I tried to write something else, but no thoughts came, only the twins again. And so I had to write the second book (The Proof). Then I thought it was enough, but finally wrote a third one (The Third Lie), because I could not write anything else.

You write in L'Analphabète that you had literally learnt language with your body; that the women in the watch factory taught you the names of body parts and objects in body language. When did you realize that French has become your own language?

It took a long time, twelve years I think, for me to start to write in French. First I tried to see how my Hungarian poems sounded like in French. Then I assembled sentences, small texts, to see how they looked like in French, but it all went very slowly. First I wrote plays, because it is much easier, you just have to indicate the name of the speaker. It was not literary language, I wrote down popular conversations, everyday things. I finished some of these and somebody said I should send them to the radio. They immediately started to work on them, and five of my plays were broadcast on radio. I continued to do that for a long time. I learnt how to write for the radio. I can’t recall how I turned to writing novels. The idea just came. I wanted to write about how we experienced the war in Kőszeg, me and my brother Jenő. Initially me and my brother were the narrators, but it sounded so awkward in French, me and him, so then I added us up and it became we, which is nous in French, so I did not have to announce who was speaking. That’s how this style was born.

The book is not completely autobiographical, but there is quite a lot of truth in it. For example, the expulsion of the Jews from Kőszeg. I saw that. There was a Jewish camp in Kőszeg, we saw them marching in file in front of our house. Our maid handed over some bread to them, but then took it back. These were the kinds of things I noticed, I was ten years old then. There are many things in this book that were not experienced by me, but by a friend of mine. When the Russians came sometimes we went out to the hills. My friend’s mother held a baby in her arms, the woman fell on the baby, and my friend saw that. There are things like that I included in the novel, I did not make sure it was completely autobiographical. There are many things about Kőszeg in it.

Do you visit Kőszeg sometimes?

Yes, and my impressions vary depending on the time of my visit. Sometimes I see it as completely new, everything is whitewashed and renovated. And then I come back after a few years and everything is in ruins, the houses look like in the old times. But I do not go to Kőszeg any more, I have no energy.

You spoke Hungarian with your first child, your daughter, but no longer with the two others. Why?

I did not talk to her in Hungarian for long either. Now it is my son who speaks Hungarian, because he has a Hungarian girlfriend, so we often say things to each other in Hungarian, but he is thirty-eight and prefers to speak in English with his girlfriend. We did not decide not to teach Hungarian to the children, it just happened like that. Because of the environment. My second husband also spoke French, so one could say that I did not want to confuse them. Yet perhaps I should have. I regret it a bit. But now my daughter wants me to speak Hungarian to my smallest grandchild who is two years old. I am afraid that he will not understand, that he will be estranged from me. He knows igen and nem and I bought him a teddy bear which is always waiting for him at my place, and he knows it is called mackó in Hungarian. But I always feel that he finds it strange when I talk to him in Hungarian.

Esterházy writes about you: “Someone is watching from afar what we are watching from here.”

Yes, I remember this article, he was the first to write about my book. We met once. This sentence may have some truth in it, but I did not want to write a historical novel, this was not my aim, I simply wanted to talk about my childhood.

Do you read your books in Hungarian translation? What does it feel like to see the Hungarian text? You said that the French sentences were hard to patch together, so what do they sound like in Hungarian?

Yes, I always receive the translations, and I do take a look at them, but they annoy me. I don’t like seeing them. There are so many translations of my works that I cannot follow the anymore, sometimes I cannot even read my name on the book, like in the case of Japanese, Chinese or Korean translations, I don’t even know what's written in these books. I don’t know how much of what I write reaches the readers, but my books are surely successful. Even in Japan and Russia. I have been invited to St Petersburg several times, but I don’t think I will be able to go. The Chinese have translated everything, but did not pay a penny. (She laughs) They said it was impossible to convert their money or something like that, but I don’t care. What I do care about is that my old Hungarian poems will be published soon in a bilingual volume. I am very happy about that. I have just made an agreement with a publisher in Geneva. A Hungarian translator is going to translate my poems into French.

And director János Szász is planning to make a film of The Notebook. What do you think about that?

This is the greatest joy I have experienced lately! János Szász sends me bits of the script from time to time. I like him a lot, his films are strong and I am sure that he is not going to spoil The Notebook like that Italian director who made a film of Yesterday. [Brucio nel vento / Burning in the Wind, directed by Silvio Soldini] That was completely botched. They changed the end.

But why did they? The most beautiful thing about this story is that it does not have a happy ending.

Well, in the film it did. Me and the director had talked a lot and I told him that it should not be like that, but he said that people were going to leave the movie, because they want to rejoice, they want to be happy. Szász’s film is not going to be like that.

Dóra Szekeres

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