12. 30. 2007. 09:56

Failing better: the short prose of Imre Kertész

Tim Wilkinson

The “Holocaust” experience marks a very important strand in the thematic material of Kertész's published works, yet it is far from being his only theme, as will become clear from the English translations of two stories, scheduled to be released by the small American publishing house Melville House.

On the whole, translators are best advised just to do their job properly and otherwise shut up; after all, they already say the most important thing that is to be said by the very nature of what they do. But then Thomas Bernhard has pointed out in his typically robust way:

Translators are ghastly: poor devils who get nothing for a translation, only the lowliest fee—shamefully low, as they are wont to say—and they accomplish a ghastly job. In other words, the balance is restored. If a person does something that is worth nothing, then he should get nothing for it. Why does anyone translate? Why doesn't he write his own stuff instead?

I don’t know the exact provenance of that statement (it comes via the jacket blurb on the Hungarian translation of one of Bernhard’s memoirs about his childhood); however, judging by a brief comment that he noted down in 1989, Imre Kertész has been a bit more elliptical about the joys of interpretation as opposed to composition, perhaps because he is himself a distinguished translator from the German:

While translating I think of Gustav Mahler: what gave him the strength for a whole year of opera and concert work.

Still, readers may appreciate a little help in getting to grips with a writer whose works, despite his being the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002, are still mostly inaccessible in the English-speaking world, and those that have been translated are not particularly widely known.

The list of works by Kertész is, by most standards, fairly short for a writer who will shortly (in 2009) be broaching his 80th year. The literary output, however, is all the more potent for its concentration. Kertész’s first published piece of fiction, the novel Fatelessness for which he is probably best known, appeared in 1975, when he was 45. This traces the path taken by 14-year-old György Köves, a boy from a family of laxly Jewish descent, when he is picked out on his way to work one day and shipped off by the German SS (and their Hungarian helpers), first to the Auschwitz death camp, then onwards, a few days later, to Buchenwald concentration camp and finally a satellite labour camp. That “Holocaust” experience closely matches Kertész’s own, and it certainly marks a very important strand in the thematic material of his published works.
Importantly, though, it is far from being his only theme, as will become clear from the English translations of two stories, The Pathseeker: Searching for Traces and The Union Jack, or The British Standard, that are scheduled to be released by the small American publishing house Melville House.

Two years after Fatelessness came a volume containing two novellas: Detective Story and The Pathseeker. A second “full-length” novel, The Failure, did not appear until 1988, when the Communist regime in Hungary, led by János Kádár since late 1956, was on its last legs (as was Kádár himself). Hungary’s emergence into a quasi-democratic pluralism triggered the publication of a flurry of works, including the novel Kaddish for an Unborn Child (1990), the novella The Union Jack (1991), and the longish short story Sworn Statement, which appeared in 1993 along with a companion piece, Life and Literature, by Péter Esterházy, who, together with Kertész, Péter Nádas and György Konrád, is unarguably one of the best-known contemporary Hungarian writers. Importantly, for present purposes, Kertész also put out his Galley-Boat Log (1992), a sort of commonplace book that he had kept from the time in 1961 when he decided to become a fulltime writer until the summer of 1991, just after the death of his mother, which provides insight into the wide reading and thinking that were channelled into his own writing. This was followed by Someone Else (1997), a series of acid-sharp sketches which graphically document Kertész’s travels (and travails) during the mid-Nineties, when he was beginning to make a name for himself in the German-speaking world. His fourth novel, Liquidation (2003), is very closely paired with Kaddish in both its characters and subject-matter. Over the last dozen years or so there have also been several volumes of essays, lectures and interviews (or monologues and dialogues): The Holocaust as Culture (1993), The Pause for Thought While the Firing Squad Reloads (1994), The Exiled Language (2001), The Stockholm Address (2002) and, most recently, The Filer on K. (2006), in which the author sums up his life and works in the form of an extended interview. As he notes in Galley-Boat Log around the middle of 1987:

Reading my diaries for want of better to do. A curious novel, my life. An indisputable coherence. I can depend on my character like a faithful domestic pet. It has to be fed, amused, cared for and made to work.

Let me first give a glimpse at The Failure, not just because it is now the only full-dress novel by Kertész that, at the time of writing, has not been published in English translation, but more because it may help to underline the continuity that Kertész sees between his various books, even if, on the evidence of an entry in Galley-Boat Log for the second half of 1977, he is rather sceptical about their stylistic aspects:

All the things that for the public are an author's welcome signatures, his turns of phrase, the twists of his trains of thought, his typical adjectives, his recognisable imaginative power, the unmistakable music of his texts—in short, what one calls 'style'—is a troublesome impediment for the author, a fetter from which he constantly seeks to liberate himself as it weighs him ever closer to the ground.

The Failure, then, is the story of an “Old Boy” (plainly an alter ego of Kertész) who is living with his wife in a cramped bedsitter in Budapest, probably in the mid- to late Seventies (it is explicitly made clear that he has already published a book, which is not specified but may be assumed to be Fatelessness). The opening line of The Failure is in fact:

The Old Boy was standing before the filing cabinet. He was thinking. It was morning. (Relatively—getting on for ten). Around this time the Old Boy was always in the habit of having a think.

He had plenty of troubles and woes, so he had things to think about….

More specifically, the “Old Boy” is casting around his “bottom drawer” for inspiration for a follow-up to his last book:

He had already written several books as well, most notably his first one: he had worked on that book (since writing books was, at the time, not yet his occupation and he had written that book for no obvious reason, on an arbitrary whim, so to say) for a good ten years, but had subsequently seen it into print only after a fair amount of vicissitudes—and the passage of a further two years; for his second book just four years had proved adequate; and with his other books (since by then book writing was his occupation, or rather, to be more precise, things had so turned out that this had become his occupation) (seeing as he had no other occupation) he merely devoted the time that was absolutely necessary to get them written, which was essentially a function of their thickness, because (since things had so turned out that this had become his occupation) he had to aim to write books that were as thick as possible, out of carefully considered self-interest, since the fee for thicker books was fatter than that for slimmer books, for which—since they were slimmer—the fee was correspondingly slim (proportionate to their slimness) (regardless of their content) (in accordance with MoE Decree No.1/20.3.1970 concerning terms and conditions for publishing contracts and author’s royalties, as issued by the Ministry of Education with the assent of the Treasury, the Ministry of Labour, the president of the National Board of Supply and Price Control, and the National Trades Union Council).

In the meantime, he (the “Old Boy”, that is) has been making a living—supported by his wife’s work as a waitress—out of translating German-language pieces, but while he leafs through his “bottom drawer” he comes across the kernel of a story called “The Failure”, which takes up the rest of the book. This story-within-the-story is about György Köves, by now an adult (in fact a journalist at the start of the story), which plays out in a setting that is nominally an aircraft-journey away from Hungary, yet is uncannily reminiscent of Budapest under the grip of hardline Stalinism, in the late Forties or early Fifties. In the end, this loops elegantly back to the very beginning:

The rest of it? A happy end is in store: by the time he gets to the bottom of the slough he will learn that they have decided to publish his book, after all. He will then be pierced by a painful longing, and with the sorrow of nostalgia he will insatiably taste the sweet memory of his failure, the time when he lived a living life, he was consumed by passion and nourished by a secret hope that a future Old Boy, standing before a filing cabinet and thinking, would no longer be able to share. His unique adventure, his heroic age, would have come to an end once and for all…

György Köves, in other words, is no less than an alter ego for the “Old Boy”, which in turn may clarify the relation of these figures to Imre Kertész (who, incidentally, sometimes plays on the chance identity of that initial K. with the K. of Kafka’s The Trial and The Castle).

The point of mentioning all this is to show that the reader should see this as very obviously the same as the world depicted in The Union Jack, which in turn slightly predates the events in The Pathseeker, even though the respective publication dates, as indicated above, are the other way round.

The two shorter pieces being considered here have much more important similarities than that, however. Let’s start by trying to resolve the question of the genre. To me there is no question that both pieces are novellas, and one at least is an absolute gem of writing, whatever we term it. I would go along with a definition of a novella that Goethe is quoted as summarising as follows:

What else is a Novelle about but an event which is unheard of but has taken place? The general characteristic of the genre were its epic quality and its restriction to a single event, situation or conflict. It concentrated on the single event and showed it as a kind of chance. The event ought to have an unexpected turning point… so that the conclusion surprises even while it is a logical outcome. Many nouvelles contain a concrete symbol which is the steady point at the heart of the narrative. The length has varied a great deal, from perhaps a few pages to two or three hundred.

The length criterion no doubt covers a multitude of sins, but there is little doubt that both stories here fall very much in the middle ground: The Union Jack is almost 15,000 words, The Pathseeker a shade under (and Detective Story a shade over) 25,000 words. To mention an example cited by the author of the above definition, Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger is about 22,000 (Death in Venice is nearer 28,000), while Blood of the Walsungs (highly relevant) is around 11,000 words. Hermann Melville’s Bartleby, for the sake of a perhaps more familiar yardstick (not a bad one, I think) comes in at a bit under 15,000 words. These terminological matters are tricky, of course. Let me just point out that Samuel Beckett himself categorised the following trio of pieces as ‘novels’: Company (1980), Ill Seen Ill Said (1981) and Worstward Ho (1983), which come in at, respectively, about 10,000, 4,000 and 5,000-plus words. Furthermore, the above-mentioned Péter Esterházy wrote an iconic ‘novel’ entitled—for reasons that I won’t elaborate on here but do impinge on said Stalinism—Fraighaoters (1986), which is a mere 6,500 words in length. To round off these comparisons, Esterházy’s Life and Literature is just under and Kertész’s Sworn Statement just over 8,000 words (longish short stories in my book).

The two works that Melville House are due to publish show some obvious differences in subject-matter and style. For instance, The Pathseeker is written in an impersonal third-person voice throughout, even though it obviously relates to its main protagonist’s personal experiences and impressions, whereas The Union Jack is told from an unashamedly, gloriously first-person singular stance. (And here one should perhaps note a remark that Kertész makes in his Galley-Boat Log around mid-1986: “A good style makes everything demonstrable, a great style makes everything great; in short, it is all just a matter of style; in other words, it is all lies.”) The two works nevertheless have some common traits other than being both categorisable as novellas. In particular, both stories seem strenuously to avoid making specific reference to either time or place, which puts the onus on the reader to figure out exactly what they are “about”. If you are not Hungarian (or “central European”) by birth, that may be a big ask, but it is not impossible. Still, it seems right to offer readers a few handholds.

Both stories in their English guises here have been provided with subtitles (which they do not have in the Hungarian) simply to add a dimension that may otherwise be missed. Let’s start with The Pathseeker: Searching for Traces. There is no way of guessing this, but the novella’s Hungarian title simply adopts the title given by its Hungarian translator to The Pathfinder (1840), one of James Fenimore Cooper’s quartet of Leather-Stocking stories. Only the Hungarian title more literally back-translates as “The Track Seeker”, or maybe ‘Sleuth’ if one wants to be more colloquial. The Union Jack: the British Standard is likewise a way of alluding back to the Hungarian title, which would translate literally as “The English Flag” or, a bit more fancily, as the English pennant or duster, but as it happens the exquisite irony of “the British standard” is perhaps particularly apposite when its brief appearance at nearly the end of the story is immediately followed by a telling quotation (“Johnny rejoiced wholeheartedly in the prospect of the fight… Complacently, and with a rather sardonic objectivity, he weighed the chances of victory for each... He gave me my first impression of the peculiar superiority, so typical of the English character, which later on I came so greatly to admire”). And let me underline that this translator is himself British, and he finds Kertész’s rapier wit utterly devastating. This story stands alongside The Failure as prime evidence that his writings are much more than “Holocaust” literature. Anyway, the fact is that the English flag (as any Brit will tell you) is a simple upright red cross of St George on a white background, and it makes up only one third of the official flag of the United Kingdom, which also includes elements of St Andrew’s cross (Scotland) and St Patrick’s cross (Northern Ireland). That is the only flag a British official would use in the circumstances described in Kertész’s story.

In The Pathseeker the reader is faced with trying to decide not just when and where the two days of action that it describes take place, but what the enquiry (or path-seeking) that is described is, and even in what capacity the main protagonist, the mysterious unnamed “commissioner”, is acting. We are not told, of course, for what reason(s) or on whose bidding the commissioner is speaking with Hermann (a German, one may safely guess) on the first evening, when the story opens. Or the specific location, passed by the car the next morning, of the trees from which “the poet, so often damned and anathematised,… had picked fresh, juicy plums…, as he remarked in his essay about the Romantic school.” The place in which “from over there people had given speeches, they had governed from there…” Indeed, where there is a “famous hotel that had gained its name from the rhinoceros or hippopotamus (the commissioner could clearly not have been paying sufficient attention at this point)—at any rate a pachyderm of some sort…” All very heavy hints, if you happen to know what the author is getting at.

A shortish bus journey away from that town is a hillside on a crest of which is a fancy wrought-iron gate, and imbedded in its centre were what looked to be mere curlicues. “‘J… j–e…,’ [his wife] tried to spell it out. ‘Jedem das Seine. To each his own,’ the commissioner helped her out.” On the next day, the commissioner has to take two trains to reach “a small town by the name of Z. Was that a town or a village? he was not more fully enlightened by anyone…” There is certainly a big factory in or near it, which leaves traces, both auditory (“all at once, sounds caught his ears. The colossus had spoken, no doubt about it. Its voice had arrived from deep down, from the maw, so to say: three or four heavy gasps, like the panting of hellhounds”) and olfactory (“this singular blend of the smells of tar and raw timber planking betokened cooling towers”). Moreover, leading away from the factory’s perimeter “a yellow strip, some sort of dividing ridge, arose at its foot: Ah yes! The sandy path. A bit narrow; it really ought to be broader, a good deal broader, but still that was it,” which in turn ought to lead to “a square piece of land—hacked out of the ploughed fields, perhaps still enclosed to the present day, who could know? “

If the when, why and what for is not forthcoming in the novella, a clue is to be found in Galley-Boat Log, where the following entry can be found early on, in the summer of 1964:

I visited B. and the factory at Z. I recognised the sandy path. A young lad in worker’s overalls was cycling along it; he carefully mustered me. I must have struck him as foreign. It was narrower than I had remembered (the path, I mean). The factory sounded a greeting as well: the big cooling towers wheezed. I had quite forgotten that sound but recognised it immediately, and what memories it evoked! I believe (am almost certain) I also found the site of the Z. camp. A state farm and a huge cattle barn are now standing on the spot. I did not experience great moments of recall. Time, good old time, and as its master, Proust, says: ‘The reality that I had known no longer existed.’ And: ‘...houses, roads, avenues are as fleeting, alas, as the years.’

I have deliberately anonymised the localities, but this passage has clearly been incorporated into the novella. Interestingly, another jotting (November 1980) shows that the subject was still actively in Kertész’s mind several years after publication of The Pathseeker:

… I recall the visit to B… during my trip to Germany a few months ago: I did not so much as mention it in the diary that I kept there. The mediocrity and shamefulness of it all. Inez’s question: Did I want to see Goethe’s house first, or rather B.? B., I answered. The bus stop was in quite a different place from the last time (a good fifteen years ago). The road, the landscape even less familiar than then. Heavy rain clouds gathered overhead. Inez and I went through the gate.

Later in the same lengthy entry comes this comment:

That is how historical false-consciousness operates and is manipulated: falsification, sickness, neurosis, an imposed guilty conscience, the end-result of which is angry aggression—against others as long as that is possible, and when not, then against oneself. That is the inevitable consequence when people are not permitted materially, spiritually or intellectually to rise above their situation, to progress at all...

The early Sixties is known to have been the time when Kertész began to sketch out his ideas for Fatelessness, which suggests that both the novel and the novella are linked in time and possibly other respects; even that The Pathseeker may be a “shaving” that had to be discarded and worked up separately. There are examples of this elsewhere among Kertész’s writings (for instance, The Failure contains a story-within-the-story-within-the-story entitled ‘I, the Executioner’ which shows certain obvious analogies with the novella DetectiveStory). In The Pathseeker it is unclear to the end who exactly has commissioned the mysterious “commissioner” and for precisely what purpose, though at one point it is suggested:

…this time it was not a matter of him having to expose the sight, but of him having to expose himself to the sight; not of collecting evidence but of becoming the proof, a contrite yet implacable witness to the victory that would pulse up as proof.

A bit later on, in an encounter with a strange woman who wears a black veil:

The commissioner all at once found the words he wanted, as if he could see them written down: ”So that I should bear witness to everything I have seen.”’ Then he added, slightly plaintively, as if he were only thinking aloud, “I would not have credited that my work here would be made so much more difficult.”

And one could hardly ask for a more “unexpected turning point” than the fate of this woman, revealed on the last page, followed by a jarring lurch back to reality (“The stranger lowered the newspaper. He stole a glance down the length of the platform, then snapped confusedly to his senses—but how? Surely he couldn’t be looking for his accusers?… He stood up, then sat back down on the bench. His hand rummaged in a pocket. He produced a notebook and ballpoint pen… immersed himself in a rough computation of expenditures on the sea voyage that would be starting the next day.”) End.

The Union Jack also underlines the aim of giving witness in almost the closing sentence:

I reminded them of the formulations cited in the story, the story of the Union Jack: “For this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth,” and “I was Erno Szép”. There is no more ultimate lesson, no more complete experience, than those. As to what this is all for, what precisely this is for, what experience is for—that’s another question, I reflected later.

The incubation of this story seems to have been brisk by the standards of Fatelessness and The Pathseeker, even allowing for its shorter length. Thus, in a Galley-Boat Log entry dated November 16th, 1990 one can read:

Every day on which the world does not collapse counts as a bonus, at least as far as my own work is concerned (The Union Jack). - - - The faces of the birds as they feed on the window ledge, those comical, basically friendly and sympathetic faces. I have only to observe their greediness to feel brotherhood with them, to recognise what is at work in them, what is common to all beings.

Less than 6 months later (April 3rd, 1991) the Log states:

Yesterday, in the morning, took the corrections for The Union Jack back to the publisher. Thrilling sunlight, radiant sky, fresh wind. At the publisher's affable faces, courtesy, etc. all round. At the bus stop opposite the Gellért Hotel, a girl whose black scarf had been blown away by the wind without her noticing; her smile when I returned it to her. Midday at the hospital. My mother like a 'Muselmann' in Auschwitz. The bellowed conversation of the old women.

I don’t think I can pick away at The Union Jack more without tipping my hand, and I wouldn’t wish to spoil the reader’s pleasure of working it out. Still, it seems to me that at least two reassurances ought to be provided. The Erno Szép referred to in the story was indeed a very popular writer in Hungary during the Twenties and Thirties, until his Jewish background—which of course he shared with Kertész and over half a million compatriots—not only made this an untenable existence but rendered him liable for forced labour service (like Köves’s father in Fatelessness). That experience was recorded in a very moving memoir with the title The Smell of Humans, which fortunately has been translated into English. 

A few other passing references are worth the detour, as they say, most obviously: “I cited that great philosopher of history, Wilhelm Dilthey…: 'Understanding presupposes living, and an event only becomes a life experience if understanding guides living out of its narrow and subjective being into the realm of the whole and the general.' Now, the Wikipedia entry sums up why Dilthey (1833–1911) might not be a name that trips off people’s tongues in the English-speaking world: "Dilthey could be considered an empiricist, in contrast to the idealism prevalent in Germany at the time, but his account of what constitutes the empirical and experiential differs from British empiricism and positivism in its central epistemological and ontological assumptions, which are drawn from German literary and philosophical traditions."

One of the works from the end of Dilthey’s life is, in fact, cited by Kertész in Galley-Boat Log for 1974:

Dilthey. His magnificent renunciation of the dream of all historical constructions… “Hegel builds metaphysical constructs; we analyse actuality. And modern analysis of human existence fills us all with a sense of frailty, the power of dark instincts, of suffering from obscurities and illusions, of finitude in everything that is life, even where the highest-level manifestations of communal life are born from it. Thus we are unable to understand objective Spirit through reason but must go back to the structural coherence of living entities which has its continuation in the community”.

There is in fact a typically witty reference to a key concept (‘Verborgenheit’ in his original terminology) of another, even more prominent German philosopher: “the senior editor-in-chief himself, though, as far as his authority went, one who was held in a fair degree of hiddenness, if I may be allowed the Heideggerian paraphrase…” It is at least tenable that this is the philosopher referred to in Kaddish for an Unborn Child as “H., grand-scale visionary, philosopher, court jester…” and later “philosopher and head butler to all Leaders and chancellors,” though Hegel might, with equal plausibility, be inferred. Lest there be any misunderstanding, however, Kertész’s view of the world is not entirely Germanocentric as many little touches show. Since I earlier mentioned Melville’s Bartleby, may I offer a reminder that Liquidation, for example, remarks: ”What he wanted to say was: He floated like a phantom albatross of unspotted whiteness on the ice grey ocean… He had been reading Moby-Dick the previous evening...“ Twenty years before that, in 1986, there is the following note under 1986:

Hawthorne: that if he were to follow his own taste it is not at all certain that he would read his own books – that sentence encapsulates all our struggles and the futility of all our struggles. Only a great author can write such a sentence.

On a different tack, the “English flag” is far from the only reference to that people, as this author pointed out a few years ago, in advance of Kertész’s first visit to London in his “authorial capacity.” To mention just one other example, Kaddish again provides the following acidulous comment (here ‘English horn’ would do just as well as cor anglais):

… I suppose that is not quite right either, it too carries a false note that I perpetually pick out, just like an orchestral conductor who immediately detects from the tutti if, let us say, the cor anglais tootles a note a semitone sharp on account, let us say, of a misprint that has crept into the score. And I perpetually pick out this sour note, not just within me but also around me, within my more immediate and my broader, what I might call cosmic surrounds, like here, in the lap of shifty Nature, within the surrounds of the sickly oaks (or beeches), the stinking brook and the mucky-hued canopy glimmering through the consumptive foliage...

 Which perhaps brings us to Sam Beckett.

It was not by pure chance that in choosing a title for this little piece I alluded to that famous injunction from the opening page of the 1983 novel Worstward Ho: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” As it happens, Beckett himself was of course awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1969)—before Kertész even started on his literary life. One may also suggest another link through the mere fact of when they were born and where they lived. Beckett, born on Good Friday 13 April 1906, was living in France when the Germans invaded in 1940, and he played an active role in the French resistance; Kertész, born on 9 November 1929, was a boy of 14 when the German army occupied Hungary in March 1944 and began the deportation of Jews to their extermination camps (mainly Auschwitz/Birkenau) but sometimes (as in Kertész’s case) to forced labour camps. In his second novel, The Failure (also to be found in Galley-Boat Log under a long entry for May 20th, 1980, written during a visit to Berlin—the East sector, naturally), Kertész wittily subverts the famous opening to Goethe’s Dichtung und Wahrheit (or “Life and Literature,” one might say):

I take a book down from the shelf. The volume exudes a musty smell—the sole trace that a finished work and a completed life can leave behind in the air: the smell of books. ”It was on the 28th of August, 1749, at the stroke of twelve noon, that I came into the world in Frankfurt on the Main," I read. "The constellation was auspicious: the Sun was in Virgo and at its culmination for the day. Jupiter and Venus looked amicably upon it and Mercury was not hostile. Saturn and Mars maintained indifference. Only the Moon...”
‘A poet,’ he pronounces later, ‘should have an origin, he must know whence he springs.’
I suppose he is right: that truly is the most important thing.
Well then, at the time I came into the world the Sun was standing in the greatest economic crisis the world had ever known; from the Empire State Building to the Turul-hawk statues on the former Franz Josef Bridge in Budapest, people were diving headlong from every prominence on the face of the earth into water, chasm, onto paving stone—wherever they could; a party leader by the name of Adolf Hitler looked exceedingly inimically upon me from amidst the pages of his book
Mein Kampf; the first of Hungary's Jewish laws, the so-called Numerus Clausus, stood at its culmination before its place was taken by the remainder. Every earthly sign (I have no idea about the heavenly ones) attested to the superfluousness—indeed, the irrationality—of my birth.

To stray back to the point, though, Galley-Boat Log indicates that Kertész was aware of Beckett’s work (despite official disapproval of it on the part of the Soviet bloc’s cultural tsars). Malone Dies evidently made a profound impression, because one can find several references to this in 1987. In mid-year he quotes: “I began again, to try and live... But little by little with a different aim, no longer in order to succeed, but in order to fail”; then, at the very end of that year, “I was born grave as others syphilitic," and ”...he who has waited long enough will wait for ever. And there comes the hour when nothing more can happen and nobody more can come and all is ended but the waiting that knows itself in vain. Perhaps he had come to that." There is another explicit reference to Malone Dies in Kaddish for an Unborn Child (“I began again, to try and live... But little by little with a different aim, no longer in order to succeed, but in order to fail”), and possibly also to Molloy (“It was a larch tree. It is the only tree I can identify with certainty…”), but maybe the most  poignant is: “We have got rid of our rights” (Waiting for Godot). There are other references, such as the epigraph to Liquidation, which is again from Molloy: “Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.”

It seems appropriate, finally, to point out that the text immediately after the previously cited quotation from Worstward Ho goes on: “First the body. No. First the place. No. First both. Now either. Now the other…” And not much further on: “All of old. Nothing else ever. But never so failed. Worse failed. With care never worse failed.” Readers may wish to take this background into consideration in interpreting Kertész’s shorter fictions. Needless to say, the stories are self-standing and no previous knowledge of Kertész’s published output is absolutely necessary. Still, it may help a bit.
Works by Kertész in English (translated by Tim Wilkinson)
Fatelessness. New York: Vintage Books, 2004 and London: Harvill Press, 2005.
Kaddish for an Unborn Child. New York: Vintage Books, 2004.
Galley Boat-Log (Excerpts),” in: Imre Kertész and Holocaust Literature, eds. Louise O. Vasvári & Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek. Purdue Books in Comparative Cultural Studies No.8, West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 2005, pp. 97-110.
“Someone Else: A Chronicle of the Change,” in: Common Knowledge (Duke University Press) vol. 10, no.2, Spring 2004, pp. 314-346. (a selection amounting to almost half the text)
Liquidation. New York: Knopf, 2004 and Vintage Books, 2005; also London: Harvill Secker, 2006 (hardback).

Other works mentioned in the text (translated by Tim Wilkinson, unless otherwise indicated)
Péter Esterházy: Fraighaoters; in: Leopard V. An Island of Sound: Hungarian Poetry and Fiction before and beyond the Iron Curtain, eds. George Szirtes & Miklós Vajda. London: Harvill Press, 2004, pp. 293-306.
Erno Szép: The Smell of Humans: a Memoir of the Holocaust in Hungary. Translated by John Bátki. Budapest: Central European University Press, 1994.
Detective Story. New York: Knopf and London: Harvill Press, January 2008.

Tags: Tim Wilkinson