12. 18. 2009. 11:40

Dilemmas of a 21st-century Lot

An interview with Imre Kertész

"Lot has long been a hero of mine. A morally charged hero, which is why he has such a difficult fate—a true person." – Imre Kertész talks to János Kőbányai about Hungarian literature and his forthcoming book.

János Kőbányai: The chance to publish a passage from your novel prompted me to devote a whole issue of Múlt és Jövő to the writings of Imre Kertész and Dezso Szomory. That is why I would be grateful if we could tip our discussion very distinctly towards Szomory—all the more so as you have written and said very little about Hungarian literature. In the official address that you made when you received the Nobel Prize the only Hungarian writer you mentioned was Gyula Krúdy. This morning as I was waiting for your call, I read again what you wrote about him in Galley Boat Log. [See excerpt at the end of  the interview.] Nearly a page, and spot-on, I’m sad to say. Yet I have you to thank for my gaining acquaintance with the works of Dezső Szomory. It was a single sentence in The K File which set me on to him.
IK: Glad to hear that! My own first encounter with Szomory was quite by chance. He was someone whose name was mentioned when I was young, but only as someone very distant, long dead, not a writer whose memory was treasured by Hungarian literature. I did not seek Szomory out, but it so happened that one day my mother’s flat was undergoing a spring-clean when one of the books that came off the bookcase was a volume in the series run by the weekly journal Az Érdekes Újság under the title "100 Short Stories by Hungarian Writers". It was a marvellous book: a luxury edition, beautifully printed with tasteful hard-bindings, each volume containing a portrait photograph of the writer, covered with tissue-paper. Quite at random, I opened one and saw an interesting face. Only after that did I notice the title of the story: "Ünnep a Dühöngőn" [Feast on the Furious]. The very first sentence enthralled me: the stylishness, magnificent, supple, graphic, and holding out the promise of a Wagnerian opera—I was completely won over. I read the story and instantly developed a great fondness for Szomory’s writing.
That would have been in the Sixties. I had started working on Fatelessness by then. Given that I was writing a novel at the time, I would not ordinarily have exposed myself to outside influences. I try to keep them at arm’s length, but in spite of that I do pick up something or other from time to time: one can’t cut oneself off completely from the world—at least not from its beauties. That would be a mistake. I did not come across any more of Szomory’s work for a long time, until one day I chanced upon Horeb tanár úr [Mr. Horeb, the Teacher, first published in 1934; new edition by Múlt és Jövő Könyvek in 2007]. This has two outstanding figures as the main protagonists: Horeb, the sacked university don, and his younger, conformist colleague, both Jewish. They are both such outstanding figures, with two hopelessly different and incompatible standpoints. Horeb is a true teacher: wise, profound and timeless, whereas Varjassy is very much attuned to the eternal Jewish consensus—the eternal Jewish readiness to surrender, the eternal Jewish careerism. An intellectual in the Horthy era, as that is when the story is set, after all. A person was obliged to make a career in that climate; that was the world in which one somehow had to gain acceptance, and that always entailed a measure of self-sacrifice. The existence of a Hungarian Jew after the first world war was constructed in such a way that he could only achieve a sense of comfort at the cost of making huge compromises. It has been like that ever since—right up to the present day.
In 1867, when Hungary reached the so-called Ausgleichung or Compromise with the Habsburgs, resulting in the formation of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy, many barriers were dismantled, and a lot of promises were made in respect of the Jewish population. One product of those promises is Budapest as we know it today. As a native of the city, I am well aware that almost half Budapest bears the marks of a Jewish presence—if not directly in the stylistic traits of Jewish architecture (that is the name by which Art Nouveau, or Secessionist style, was known), then through Jewish workmanship and financing. It is not only in the city centre that it is evident: the factories and installations that went up around them are also definitive. The Hungarian aristocracy missed out, not on anything that the landed middle nobility did, but on what the urban gentry did. When the English landed aristocracy saw that big money was not going to be made from land, they switched to industry and founded factories. The Hungarian middle nobles did not do that but allowed the land to go to rack and ruin, and meanwhile they either sobbed about the injustice of it all or else left it up to the Jews. One such Jew in the Hungarian "Southlands" provinces, now in Serbia, was writer Sándor Hunyady (1890-1942, son of writer Sándor Bródy and actress Margit Hunyady). He was taken on by a big wheel, and Hunyady used to run his business, file his papers, and generally tend to the administrative side of things, which was tied up with land and trade. He made a good living from it, and just incidentally that was also the time when he made a name in his own right as a writer of short stories and novels. He is known nowadays for his highly enjoyable, Somerset Maugham-style novellas.
Szomory is a tougher nut. The only book by him which registered with the public to some extent was A párizsi regény [The Paris Novel, 1929; 4th edition Magvető, 1997], and that is simply because it comprises a series of endearing, melancholy and scintillating portraits.
I have read pretty much everything that Szomory published as prose fiction, or even if I have not read it right through, at least I have dipped into it. He has a huge range, with some of the short stories, for instance, being set in village localities and following the way a rural person would think. Those too are brilliant, in my opinion. But what I consider Szomory’s most authentic aspect is the way his life ended—the elderly and worn-out Szomory. Many were the times when he didn’t have enough money to get himself an invitation to dinner, but then again it was no easy matter to invite him, because if the impression was ever given that he was being invited for dinner in order for him to be able to eat, then he would remorselessly turn the invitation down. One had to dream up amusing pretexts and twists in order to entice Szomory to the dinner table and for him not to notice that he was being dined but left to think he was a guest of a very fussy set of people.
If there really is any demonstrable similarity between the writings of Szomory and myself, as you maintain, then that must be due to the virtually identical social class and background. That is how the Jews of Budapest were; a very particular type. I take it as a great compliment that Szomory’s novel Gyuri [1932; new edition by Múlt és Jövő Könyvek, 2008] could have been a forebear of my own Gyuri Köves in Fatelessness. Hungarian Jews, the petty bourgeoisie, had their own vernacular, their own context, they had their own pretensions and their own little fibs; everyone had to make compromises in their life, if only to kid themselves that they were not in danger.
JK: In The K File there is just one sentence on Szomory: “‘Not everyone who is born is in the world,’ writes Dezső Szomory in that marvellous 1934 novel of his [Mr Horeb, the Teacher].” At first, I only intended to reissue that book, but in the meantime I have come to the decision to publish his entire oeuvre.
IK: Szomory is not really part of the Hungarian canon, and the reason for that is that he hit on a language that is incontestably alien to Hungarian literature, both in his way of expressing himself and, in some cases, in his syntactical innovations. One should also add that it is opulent, sumptuous, viscerally gripping and, at the same time, deeply searching pictorial and musical soaring. His prose is full of touching and astonishing turns of phrase; I prize his pliancy inordinately. A writer needs to have at least two kinds of skills, plasticity and a talent for composition, and Szomory had both.
Plasticity is not something you can acquire through study; it is what is referred to as an innate talent. A true writer can describe an entity in three words, and that is enough for a reader to see that figure before their own eyes. Another may analyse the entity at great length, and meanwhile you see ever less of it, so that by the end of the book you have totally lost sight of it. Szomory had an immensely pliable way with words; whatever language he might light on, that pliancy was certainly to the fore and came through. Over and above that, though, he also hit upon a marvellous language. Let’s be frank, though, he is tough reading so to say. Why tough? Because we don’t give it enough time and breathing space. The daily round means that ordinary life flashes by so fast that when we finally find the time to pick up a book by Szomory one’s eyes are already glazed over from exhaustion. What is needed is alertness—for a person to sit down, switch on a standard lamp, open the book, and permit themselves to be carried away into the world that the writer creates for them.
Both Krúdy and Szomory, great writers that they are, are also great stylists; the two of them both cooked up a new sort of language. Then again, I can quite understand anyone who says that they love Krúdy’s writings, but not Szomory’s. Krúdy is just as fallible and decadent, but he has a quite different nostalgia from Szomory; you do not find as much social commitment in Szomory, let us put it like that. Krúdy knew Budapest inside out, and he also knew its history. If you read what he wrote about poet and critic Pál Szemere, it becomes clear that Krúdy was also familiar with the banking system, he knew how bank correspondence was phrased, had sufficient grasp to evaluate what sorts of financial activities that strange creature called Szemere was involved with. There is no way of finding out how he came to know all that when seemingly throughout his life he ate nothing more sophisticated than goulash and drink copious draughts of wine in various small hostelries. Krúdy was endlessly interested in things that were of much less concern to Szomory.
One can get dizzy with that plasticity: just a sentence and you are “there”. Mentioning “Feast on the Furious,” as I did at the outset reminds me of a scene in it where the archduke slaps a kiss on the cheek of the bearded admiral and all but “pukes” from the pomaded thicket of bristles. In another place Szomory writes that the “gold-braids” ate their fill, and you can visualise the whole gang of them on the ship’s deck. One word is all it takes to evoke them.
On the other hand, I am not a fan of Dezső Kosztolányi the prose writer. Recently I was looking at Néró, a véres költo [1921 in Hungarian; published in the UK in 1928 from a German translation under the title of Nero]. He wrote in short sentences. Antal Szerb was quite right in declaring that Kosztolányi wrote short and simple sentences—at times so simple they might have been written by a nine-year-old girl. Those short sentences bore me as a reader; his sentences are not in the least exciting. Look at a sentence by Szomory by comparison—not one of the very longest, just one of moderate length. I consider Kosztolányi to be one of the very great Hungarian poets; there is no other poem in any language which has moved me as deeply as "Daybreak Drunkenness", but I do not like him as a writer of prose.
Zsigmond Móricz (1870-1942) is a great writer. I read him a lot when I was young; I was hugely impressed with Misi Nyilas, the boy hero of the novel Be Faithful Unto Death (1921). I also read the whole of the Transylvania trilogy, but the naturalistic way in which he portrayed the torture of the rebellious Transylvanian peasants so disgusted me as a child that I never again wanted to read another word about either Móricz or Transylvania. That was my early experience, but of course my views have changed since then. Today I regard Móricz as a tremendous author: he rips through language like a threshing machine, tremendous power.
One thing I find is that Hungarian prose, regrettably, lacks true modernists; there are no modernist novels in Hungarian. Here I am not thinking so much of Proust as James Joyce. That springs largely from economic factors. Just take Franz Kafka in Prague, a lawyer for an insurance company. When he died his former colleagues and bosses were grilled about him. Everyone was still hugely impressed with him—the lawsuits he had won, etc.—but as to his having been a writer, they had not the slightest idea of that. What I mean is that Kafka was economically totally independent of his existence as a writer, which was not the case with Hungarian authors, who had to keep churning out the stuff in order to support their family. That, sadly, is the reason why major talents were unable to achieve an unblossoming of their real inherent gifts. I’ve mentioned Kafka, so let me cite the case of Frigyes Karinthy (1887-1938), who was similarly absurdist in his thinking, and also an extraordinary humorist. He was hugely talented, but he was obliged to write short, popular sketches in order to make a living, and he is not the only case I could instance.
In my own development as a writer I was unable to concentrate on literature, though in my case it was because, aside from the undoubted attractions in Hungarian prose, there was nothing one could call modernist. I don’t mean postmodern either; in fact, a modernist sensibility is not the same as avant-garde. Modernism for me is embodied by Béla Bartók. His music likewise has a tough job finding a home in Hungarian ears. Bartók was a European composer of absolutely the front rank, and almost from the very start he hit on a modernist manner of expression. Not long ago I conceived a huge enthusiasm for his Piano Concerto No.1, and I keep listening to it over and over again. That is the modernist sensibility I find missing in Hungarian prose.
In verse, though, Endre Ady most certainly possessed it. The first stanza of his poem "Kocsi-út az éjszakában" [Carriageway in the Night-time] goes: “Milyen csonka ma a Hold, / Az éj milyen sivatag, néma, / Milyen szomorú vagyok én ma, / Milyen csonka ma a Hold.” [How crippled tonight the Moon, / How much a desert waste the night, mute, / How desolated I am tonight, / How crippled tonight the Moon.] It carries on in second verse—it’s a short poem of only three quatrains—with “Minden Egész eltörött.” [Ev’ry Whole has shattered]. Ady may have been the first Hungarian to announce that the world was shattered, and it was no longer possible to rely on forms; that everything had become so precarious, an artist no longer had solid ground beneath his feet… I adore Ady—so rustic, such a great poet that the only one I can compare him to is Baudelaire.
Szomory is another—absolutely! He may seem to be playing on Romantic instruments, but the sounds they make are completely modern, scraping and squeaking on each other—every whole has shattered with Szomory as well, that is incontrovertible. His Harry Russel-Dorsan harctéri levelei [Harry Russel-Dorsan’s Front-line Dispatches, 1914-18] is stunning—images of war that are not encountered anywhere else. That too is a stupendous book.
It is a sad truth that Szomory has a hard time making it in the wider world. A foreign publisher, specifically one looking for a Hungarian novel, is looking for something that will sell. In Germany they are just starting to discover Hungarian writers of the Thirties—Sándor Márai first and foremost—but no one is in a position to translate Szomory.
JK: But there are people who translate your books, and your language is not exactly easy…
IK: I have a wonderful lady editor in Germany, who came across my writings and first published something in 1990. She takes good care that translators do a good job and every word is in the right place. You must not forget that the historical backdrop to my novels continues to be a matter of debate: the Holocaust, with an international currency and relevance. But something like "Feast on the Furious", for example, is a linguistic nightmare. What incentive does a translator have if he only gets twenty euros per page?
I have to say that my own books also do not sell in large amounts in Hungary. Here in Berlin, by contrast, I was recently sent a booklet that a textbook publisher sent by way of a courtesy. The booklet deals with the topic of how Fatelessness should be handled when teaching it in school. What approach to use, what should be on reading lists with regard to the historical background, what scenes in Koltai’s film should be watched… That gave me a good feeling, even though I am well aware that even if Fatelessness is taught as a set book in schools it will not bring in sales of tens of thousands of copies, but it does mean that the title will be a stock item on the shelves of bookshops and is constantly in print.

As for my new book, I am not in a position to say much about it. It concerns death; after all, I am eighty years old now, one’s thinking inevitably turns to death.
JK: Ágnes Heller maintains this is your only subject.
IK: Then I would say that it is a dialectical matter. To be concerned with death has to mean that I am alive, and I am concerned with life, not death.
Lot has long been a hero of mine. In all truth he would have been my first literary figure if I had not written something else. I was constantly caught up with something else so he has been left until now. All I will say is that actually the book is a confrontation with death. As far as the style goes, I would add that one painter has had a major influence: J.M.W. Turner. When he was young Turner set entirely light contours and sketches onto canvas, but by the time he reached old age he was painting only blobs. The miraculous thing is that he is almost a transition, just a step away from impressionism. That was not an option, but he had an existential need for it: he had already painted everything in light colours, crisply, so by old age all that was left were patches of colour, which are extraordinarily  expressive. I am striving for the same effect in this book.
I began occupying myself with the figure of Lot back around 1948, but then I went and joined the newspaper and forgot all about my literary aspirations. I was a journalist and wrote reports from city hall; I didn’t concern myself with literature for years. I am now trying to make up for that missing start to my career.
Lot is an intriguing figure. You’ll see that I play around with that and try to find a way of fitting him in somewhere. A morally charged hero, which is why he has such a difficult fate—a true person.
An abbreviated version of an interview that appeared in Múlt és Jövő, Vol. 20, No. 3.

Excerpt from Galley Boat Log: Entry for May 1982: The tall, slim, prepossessing woman in the lounge. The sudden change when her incognito was revealed. I was able to learn a thing or two from her about Gyula Krúdy. He racked up a daily quota of 64 pages, or 15,000 words. (Even when hard at work on a translation of an undemanding text, like right now, I cannot manage more than 14 pages at best.) I grilled her about whether Krúdy left behind a diary or other personal records. Just a few slips of paper with encouragements for himself like ‘Don't give up,’ and so on. He usually returned home at three o'clock in the morning, immediately sat down to work and wrote right up to noon the next (or rather, the same) day; by then the messenger boys from the editor's offices were already sitting around in the kitchen, waiting to take away his copy. A writer who worked non-stop, who never had enough time to write. The Work? Patched together from one day to the next. I suppose the reason which had originally impelled him to write was long forgotten; he always had to be on the look-out for saleable stories. For all that, his uncommonly great artistic talent triumphed. Did he attain true insight? With his Sinbad stories he refuted Kierkegaard by proving that sensual genius can also assume form as prose; his Sinbad cycle constitutes the world's most momentous Don Juan novel. - By the age of 54 he had burnt himself out and died. “Everybody was already calling him ‘Uncle Gyula’ by the time he was just fifty.” A dire fate; the workings of the genius loci to which he too fell victim. The intense social bitterness which, for some reason, can never attain truly epic form in Hungarian literature (with Krúdy it sometimes manifested itself dressed up as nostalgia), primarily because writers go astray without ever truly recognising that they were lost from the outset. A single dark-blue suit; patent-leather shoes with grey antelope-skin uppers: “Nobody knew that that was the only suit and only pair of shoes he had.” Yes indeed, the insistence on everything that destroys a person; the insistence on the meaningless formalities that transfigure a man to an ethos; this is where genius recovers its original, vital sense. It seems genius is one way of riding out wretched, murderous circumstances, and that one ought to see spiritualised energies, as it were, in artistic immortality.

János Kőbányai is a writer and editor of the Jewish intellectual quarterly Múlt és Jövő.

János Kőbányai

Translated by: Tim Wilkinson

Tags: Imre Kertész