05. 29. 2017. 11:22

Bright details - a memoir by Péter Nádas

On 5 April Péter Nádas released his two-volume memoir entitled Világló részletek (‘Bright details’). The memoir does not promise to merely be an autobiography of a writer’s personal life, but an excavation of one city’s buried stories. – We had a look at the buzz around the book.

On 5 April Péter Nádas released his two-volume memoir entitled Világló részletek (‘Bright details’) care of Jelenkor Publishers. It’s been a year since Nádas’s last publication, Az élet sója (‘The salt of life’). Excerpts of the book could already be read in Hungarian in issues of Holmi, Jelenkor and Élet és Irodalom.

Nádas is well-known among English readers for several titles including ’A Book of Memories’ finally allowed to be published after years of censorship in 1986, and published in English 11 years later (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and reprinted by Picador, 2008) in a translation by Ivan Sanders and Imre Goldstein. Susan Sontag famously named it “the greatest novel written in our time, and one of the great books of our time,” others gave comparison to Proust and Mann. At 1500 pages the titanic and labyrinthine ‘Parallel Stories’ (FSG, 2011) written over 12 years and translated by Imre Goldstein caused a splash in English as it completely divided critics, this time drawing comparison to Tolstoy. [Ivan Sanders at World Literature Today described the plotlines as meandering, their movement like creeping vines, “it inches forward, changes direction, branches out, seeks new paths,” and while other critics berate the convoluted structure as “unfulfilled and unfulfilling”, Sanders assures that those readers who actually persevere to the end will come across hidden connections, correspondences and analogies.] Other titles English readers may recognise are ‘The End of a Family Story’ (FSG, 1998), ‘Fire and Knowledge’ (FSG, 2007) and ‘Love’ (FSG, 2004); all in translation by Imre Goldstein. In 2016 at Ladbrokes betting agency Nádas stood at 10 to 1 to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.


Photo: Gábor Valuska

The newly released memoir by the writer reaches beyond his own life further back in time to that of his family’s as far as the 19th century, it gives accounts of his life after his birth in Budapest, 1942 and ends with 1956, at which point Nádas explains his childhood came to an end. The memoir however doesn't explore too far beyond the writer's childhood, since, as he explained in a monumental interview with Litera, he would have had to write about people still alive today. He also stresses that this is not an autobiography but rather a study of a period, that the memoir, although narrated by himself in the first person, is not concerned primarily with his own history, but this period in history, and to do so he was compelled to use living characters, who he resolved might as well be himself and those he knew. Likewise, he stresses he could have chosen any family, but his own family history happens to be at his disposal.

I’m showing interest towards [my own] person because there is no period without the people. It’s not there’s a period and there’s the people, but the two cannot exist separately. And this anthropological fundamental interests me. How they can’t exist separately. The closest, most obvious raw material in this case is myself. Not my fictitious characters, I’ve occupied myself with them for forty or fifty years, no, myself.

From first appearances the memoir fits themes from previous works of how personal lives are relate to greater, collective experiences and historical events; in essence the autobiographical novel comes across as a local anthropological study.

I’m interested in the connections between the period and the people. Most of the time it’s not the object or the topic but the connections that interest me. Take for instance the legality, for example, if in one scene my parents and relatives accuse me of doing something I know nothing about, I’ve no idea what they mean; an accusation of this sort is deeply rooted in that period of history. If your family launch a show trial against you, it’s a huge shock. But in your childhood you can’t know that it’s a show trial. But you do know, because you’re in the shadow of a show trial, there’s not a soul on earth will believe a thing you say. I don’t know the subject of the charge, I’m completely unaware. That’s what the Rajk trial was. From the first day the people on trial hadn’t the foggiest what was expected of them.

Photos: Gábor Valuska   /   Jelenkor kiadó:  Dániel Németh

Photos: Gábor Valuska   /   Jelenkor kiadó:  Dániel Németh

The two volumes therefore are a local study of this turbulent period in history based on existing characters from Nádas’s world. To mark the release journalists were invited in to his world physically with a sightseeing tour of some of the book’s local landmarks around Budapest with Nádas as the guide on the microphone. The tour began on Marx square, known as Berlin square to the writer’s father, and meandered through the streets of Pest and Buda, similarly to the book, slowly revealing the personal and collective layers of history to the streets, the squares and the houses. The group of journalists were led from a typical Budapest apartment building on Péterfy Sándor utca 27, where the writer was born, to Dózsa György út where his mother had towed a young Nádas along with one hand and proudly hailed Mátyás Rákosi with the other. The tour-bus continued on through the local neighbourhoods of Pest, “there’s no other town, whose political eras can be quite so well mapped out by so much awful public sculpture fated to be hidden away,” commented the writer. Throughout the day the bus herded the reporters from one neighbourhood to the next, peeling off the crusts of history from houses and monuments; past yellow star houses, Teréz körút, Russian record stores (long since burnt to the ground), basements that served as refuge to Jews and illegal communists – where the odd apple was handed through a replaceable glass brick – where there were barrels of paraffin in which you could hide a body, lest somebody didn’t make it, two doors down lived the Arrow Cross.

Photos: Gábor Valuska   /   Jelenkor kiadó:  Dániel Németh

Like the tour, the memoirs don’t promise to merely be an autobiography of a writer’s personal life, but an excavation of one city’s buried stories, a local investigation of a period in history, told through the home lives of living people.

Tags: Budapest, Péter Nádas