10. 18. 2007. 11:42

Historical and erotic structures

An interview with Péter Nádas

Péter Nádas was interviewed about his life and work over the last five years, his short-lived career as a dramatist, as well as his collection of essays and short stories recently published in English.

Your works published in Hungarian over the last five years include A Death of One's Own, illustrated with your own photos – over a hundred colour photographs of a pear tree –; a volume of interviews; the three bulky volumes of Parallel Stories, perhaps your most significant enterprise ever (see our review); as well as a volume of essays. The fact that you are interested above all in language, and especially the precise linguistic representation of the body, of eroticism, becomes clear if one reads Parallel Stories. You are looking for a viable, usable language to express rarely detailed occurrences, actions and feelings. But what I understood only after the book was published is that the fate of people who lived at a certain point in history as well as their responses to the events in the outside world interest you just as much as the borders of language.

I don't think that I transcend the borders of language or expression in any sense, but my interest in historical structures is undoubtedly at least as strong as my interest in erotic structures. Or, to put it more precisely, I am intrigued by the interrelation of the two; by the question of how it is that we who live at the same time and under the same circumstances experience our fate differently. It is probably impossible to tell whether it is character or socialization, private life or social life that take precedence. Should we organize our private lives according to the priorities of social organization, or should we organize our society according to the prevailing elemental conditions of life? I have always been intrigued by this interrelation in its dynamism – the insane simultaneity of differences and the dazzling parallelism of various eras. How someone sees something as different while in fact it is the same, and how different eras have a repetition compulsion for the same things.
The last chapter of Parallel Stories is entitled ”The Breath of Freedom”. Well, the breath of freedom hardly seems sweet – neither in your book nor in reality.
Freedom, both personal and social, is a hard nut. If you want to be free, you have to define yourself for yourself. This is far from being a theoretical question – everyone defines themselves every day, either by stepping in front of the public or by withdrawing into their snail shell; with their words and acts, or with their absence. This is in a sense harder than living in a dictatorship, where the authorities tell you what you are and what you should be, with no regard for reality. In that case, you are in principle invisible, you always remain camouflaged by pretexts, excuses and lies of varying degrees. In a democracy this is not advisable, but it is also not possible.
However, political freedom can only be experienced if individuals learn how to use their freedom of choice, but not at the cost of the freedom of others. And if they take into account the fact that whether they reflect on their own acts or not, others will inevitably reflect on them, and will do so publicly. These are the strict conditions and limits of freedom, and that is why democracy means endless struggle, endless movement, need for definition, reflection, continual realignment and reevaluation.
After the change of regime in Hungary it has become part of public opinion that artists and writers are not there to solve the problems of the society. Yet from time to time you voice your opinion about important social and political affairs.
Stepping in front of the public and voicing your opinion does entail a risk. I think this problem emerged in the 1950s. Jean-Paul Sartre realized that he was speaking to no avail: nobody heeded his words, or rather the only people who did were those who thought as he did. Sartre was puzzled by this. Earlier writers might have had the impression that, since they were standing on top of the pyramid of written culture, many people listened to what they said. Yet I think this was a self-delusion even then. The opinion of writers is always important – but only in hindsight.
I have a civil consciousness, so when I am asked my opinion I voice it. Not always, but sometimes. When I speak, it is not the writer, but the civil person speaking who feels that it is part and parcel of his mental health and democratic self-consciousness to say what he thinks is right.
Let me ask you about your short-lived career as a dramatist. You wrote three plays at the end of the 70s and beginning of the 80s. These plays promised a new approach to stage-acting. Their performances had a musical, operatic structure built on movement and snapshots. Yet you did not continue writing dramas. Why?
There are many reasons for this, I cannot list them all. On the one hand, there was the issue of censorship. They were performed in cellars and attics, or if they were presented in a theatre, the performance started at 11 pm. No review or interview was allowed to be published about the performances, except in professional magazines. As a practicing steeplechase runner, I could have disregarded these conditions. But due to the lack of criticism there was no way to know if the interest was due to the forbidden fruit or to their dramatic quality.
The performances themselves also posed a problem, and not only in Hungary, but later abroad as well. The rehearsals showed the same symptoms everywhere. The director loved the play, the actors first found it strange, but then fell in love with it. But then the audience entered in the week before the dress rehearsal – colleagues, aunts etc. –, and everything that the directors had built with the actors suddenly collapsed in the artistic sense. There were scandalous scenes – someone broke a glass table with his bare fist, someone else got a stroke. These scenes were always more interesting than the performances themselves.
And then there was the prudishness of the actors. Ariane Mnouchkine says that European actors are taught how not to show themselves with their voice and their body. This is their art, and for me this is boring and pitiful. They present patterns that belong to written figures. I have no time for this – if I see such a play I immediately look for the exit. That is precisely why I wrote these plays how I wrote them – to show how one might open up these dried-up patterns and put them in jars. When the play is over and the audience goes back home to their husbands and wives they can pull them out again. This was what I proposed, but the actors and the directors did not accept my proposal or accepted it only partly. I did not succeed in Paris, Avignon or Rome either.
Yet perhaps you started in the right direction.
I am not at all sure. [The eminent theatre critic] Péter Molnár Gál once asked how it was that, if these plays were so good, they were so bad? The question is fair enough and I do not have an answer. But I was fed up. I returned to the genre I had been used to. I can do much better at home, alone and in prose.
The genre that you unconditionally believe in and that you gladly write in is the essay, which is personal and precise at the same time, and has a wide field of play. A collection of your essays has recently been published in the United States.
I wrote several essays for American magazines and there is an American university magazine that published my essays regularly. The book that now came out under the title Fire and Knowledge is an interesting volume made up of short stories and essays. This was not my idea, but the publisher's – it is quite an astounding idea, but not wholly without logic. They said that my short stories were essay-like, whereas my essays had a lot of narrative elements to them. So they went ahead and joined the pieces of the volume by their common element.
Are you going to travel to the States for the book launch?
Yes, I am going to New York in November.
Magda Bán
Previously on HLO
An interview with Nádas after the publication of Parallel Stories – Part one and two

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