Kertész at the Jewish Book Week in London
A slightly fraught journey to the Kertész conversation at Jewish Book Week near Russell Square, and we only just make it. Last week we heard our friend LG in conversation about her own new book – this time she is to be in the audience with us. The queue is long, and there are familiar faces here and there. The poet and translator from Russian EF, the translator and literary organiser VMI, novelist CS, poet LK and, of course, a mass of publishers. Clarissa is meeting her friend A, an Estonian-born art historian, and we almost get lost in the crowd. The big hall is very full indeed, and eventually Kertész appears with his interpreter and the interviewer. The amplification system is not as good as it should be, and the crowd, among whom are many Hungarians, is not slow to point it out. The interview begins straightforwardly enough with Fatelessness, then passes on to the Holocaust, the Hungarian Jewry and Hungarian identity, to the rather overextended subject of childlessness vis-à-vis Kaddish to an Unborn Child, and other general matters.
Kertész is polite and thoughtful, though few of the questions are directed at the books, but every so often a touch of kindly but sharp irony enters into the answers. At times I think he is losing patience, but he is far too polite for that. Eventually though he grows tired, and decides he has had enough questions of the broadly political or moral sort. The event comes to an end with applause. The author, it is announced, is willing to sign books but not to inscribe personal messages or enter into further conversation. He is distinctly tired and who can blame him?
C, LG and I retire for a glass of wine in the foyer. People come and go around us, some look vaguely familiar, others just look as though they might be familiar. An Israeli writer talks to us and offers an informal invitation to a poetry conference in Jerusalem. Something may come of this. LG suggests the nets of the ‘Zionist Entity’ are closing round me. Would I go? Of course I would, precisely because it is referred to by some as the Zionist Entity. Is that a case of what LG discusses – or rather encourages others to discuss – in her new book under the heading of davka?
How very strange it is to find myself in this precise literary and political space. I would never have imagined it ten years ago. It’s not home, but it must be some kind of ancestral domain. Tea with the ancestors. The descendants of the ancestors.
When I was twenty-one I was baptised, along with C, by full immersion in a West London Baptist Church. It was an act of romantic commitment. My mother was in the congregation. Later, she was to write to a friend in Hungary that C and I emerged out of the water like drowned rats. At that time I thought I could be another George Herbert writing sacred songs. I still love Herbert, in fact I can still imagine writing some sort of secular sacred song.
Then it is over to the Hungarian Embassy for drinks and a buffet supper. More acquaintances here: scholar PS, journalist MS, the Hungarian Cultural Centre. And LG says, Michael Howard, the ex-leader of the Tories is here, but I never catch sight of him. We have a brief talk with Kertész who is sweet and warm. I say to him that I hope maybe to see him in Berlin or Budapest some time.
Then out into the night and the search for a taxi. Night at daughter H and boyfriend R’s flat in Shoreditch. Tomorrow to the London Book Fair and a discussion on translation.
George Szirtes's website