An interview with Agota Kristof
Agota Kristof (70) paid a brief visit to Budapest for the first time after four years. This time, she was participating in the 'Exile' programme focussing on emigrant authors from Eastern Europe. Agota Kristof arrived in Neuchâtel as a refugee in 1956 with her husband and young baby, and she has lived there ever since.
Over the years that elapsed, however, she has evolved from a factory hand in a watch-making works to a world-renowned authoress. She writes powerful stories composed of simple, hard sentences. Her books are extremely well received in Hungary, too. The novel that made her internationally famous, The Notebook was translated into 35 languages. Successful and well appreciated, she still speaks in a dry and sometimes bitter tone, like someone who still defines herself quintessentially as an exile.
“Exile” was a string of events hosting emigrant authors in Budapest. Emigration was a turning point in your life, too. We are just now coming up to the 50th anniversary of the 1956 revolution. What is the meaning of this anniversary from a foreign perspective? Do you notice any attention given to Hungary’s 1956 in other parts of Europe?
Yes, there is a lot of notice being taken, the anniversary is very much in the air, but this is usually to do with the activities of Hungarians living abroad. In Switzerland, it is celebrated not by the Swiss, but by Hungarians living in that country.
Is it still no more than a Hungarian affair?
At least, in Switzerland. Although it is true that Swiss politicians also take part in the celebrations. I think 1956 was a turning point for Europe, too, but I am not sure they are aware of this everywhere.
Could you say in just a few words what it means to you personally? The fact of emigration and all that followed?
It was all a very long time ago, and I was very young. Of course, I can still remember what happened. We had a four-month-old baby, and the three of us crossed the border at Koszeg. I would not have left Hungary if my ex-husband had not wanted to defect.
How much did you understand of the wider world at the age of twenty, living in a secluded country? Did you know where you were heading exactly?
I did not have a clue. I knew nothing about Switzerland. I did not speak any foreign languages. But my husband took charge of everything; he determined which country we were going to, what language we were going to speak. He took charge of everything, I looked after the baby.
Had you had your heart’s choice, would you have preferred to stay?
Yes. I regret that I ever left.
Is that for financial reasons or because of emotional attachments?
From every aspect possible. As the years passed, I felt more and more drawn back to this country.
Perhaps if you had stayed you would have never started writing.
I had started writing well before we left. I was fourteen when I began. I was writing poetry at that time. All that I wrote in Hungary was lost. When we moved to Switzerland, I went on writing in Hungarian. That was still poetry. Out there, my works were first published in the emigrant periodical Magyar Irodalmi Újság (Hungarial Literary Review) which was printed in Paris. My last book, Illiterate, is about the very condition of being homeless.
Emigration has defined your relationship to language. The kind of dry, stark, minimalist language, devoid of all that is superfluous, results in very powerful texts when you read it in Hungarian. Do you know how your texts read in Hungarian?
I do own them in translation, but I have never read them. I was too afraid that they might sound bad. I have been translated into 35 languages and I am not in a position to check any of them except the Hungarian, but I have not had the courage to do that.
Well, let me take this opportunity to reassure you. Your writing reads very well in Hungarian.
Yes, I guess. There are lots of people who contact me in Switzerland. I get lots of feedback. My younger brother lives in Hungary, and he and his family send me everything that is published about me here.
Is that important to you? I mean success in general and, within that, recognition in Hungary.
Yes, very important.
That surprises me. You come over as someone whose evaluation of writing is internal rather than external. These texts seem to sound within rather than without. Perhaps I’ve had the wrong impression…
There is some truth to what you say. I am very reserved. But it still gives me great pleasure to know that my books are read in all sorts of countries. And that I can make a living by them. If I had not been a writer, I wouldn’t have been able to make a living in Switzerland.
What sort of place is Switzerland from an immigrant’s point of view?
The various places and cities are very different. They speak three different languages. I speak Swiss French and my writing is in French, too. That is the part we emigrated to; that is where I started learning the language. It was very slow. I worked in a watch factory. You could not chat there, because the machines were noisy. I could only exchange a few words with people if I went out to have a cigarette. I worked there five years, but learnt the language very poorly. I could not read well enough, either. It took me twelve years before I started writing in French. I tried to translate my Hungarian poems into French. It wasn’t really a success, but I managed to use a number of elements from them in my prose texts.
Looking at life from a watch factory, what sort of perspectives did you seem to have, and what were your opportunities for writing?
At first, there was no hope at all that I could become a writer and stop working in a factory. If I had continued to write in Hungarian I would never have had any chance at all. The reason I changed to French was to try to make sure there was some point in doing it. At first, everything there was really hard and unpleasant. In the city where we lived, four Hungarian emigrants killed themselves. There seemed to be no hope for anything.
Did they feel they were in a vacuum? Had they come up against a society too closed for them to integrate into?
They did not have much of a choice. The kind of work they were given… was not very nice. Everybody was made into a factory hand. There was no way you could return home, either. Many people moved on to a third country, because there were no prospects in Switzerland.
How far does the Swiss literary public consider you a Swiss writer today? And is that what you see yourself as?
I write in French, but I am still Hungarian. I have a Hungarian passport, too: I got one again. They recognise me and respect me highly in Switzerland. They have accepted me, I have received a number of prizes. They invite me to lots of places.
Do you keep track of what happens in Swiss literature?
No. I think of myself as an outsider. Anyway, it is hard to talk of “Swiss literature”, because their writing is either tied up with French or German affiliations. German Switzerland is more closely in touch with Germany, while Swiss French writers find it more difficult to get published in France.
So, you have been rather fortunate in terms of your career. You have found your way to a special and distinguished position.
What made the difference was that I managed to get my works published in Paris. From that point, I got translated into 35 languages. Swiss writers simply do not get translated into that many. Before the books I also wrote lots of stage plays and radio plays as well; they started putting on the plays everywhere, even in Japan. But the truth is that I had not expected to become so successful. It started in 1986, in other words quite late. I was also late starting to write novels. I didn’t speak the language well enough before.
This kind of minimalist language is rather popular. There are a number of examples of authors using it, even among emigrant writers. The recipe seems to work…
That was not why I changed to this style. It was because I got fed up with my poems. They were too lush and too emotional. I wanted to write in a way that was drier and more objective. My son was 12 at the time, and I made use of his homework to create the sentence structures that are almost childish in their simplicity. You know, in my first book, The Notebook, the speakers are children. This is more or less how my son used to write. This book is used for teaching language at a number of places, they give it to schoolchildren to practice reading. After The Notebook the style changed a little bit, but it remained simple and dry.
Besides using a reduced language, you also leave a lot to the imagination in terms of narration. Sometimes we cannot even determine where we are, when it is taking place, or who is talking.
I used to write like that even in the stage plays. I do not state where it is happening or to whom. I did not want to name anything.
How much do you work, and how do you work?
At the time I started writing, I had three children, and I could only work while they were at school. I wrote longhand, I did not own a typewriter. When I am involved in a novel, my head is completely full of it, even while I do the housework. I think it all out, so when I actually sit down to write, the sentences are all there. How and when I work at the moment I cannot tell you, because I am not writing at all.
Why is that?
I don’t know. Somehow I’ve gone off literature. The interesting thing is that when I had so much work to do - working in a factory or as a saleswoman behind the counter, bringing up three children -, it seemed easier to find the time to write. Now that I don’t need to work any more and even have a cleaner, I just cannot get down to it.
What do your children do?
I have three children. The first one was born in Hungary; her name is Zsuzsa. She is a cultural manager in one of the Swiss cantons. She has two children. My second daughter, Karin was born in Switzerland, she is an actress in Paris. The third one is a boy, he used to work with books, he was a book trader, now he is a musician. All three of them have stronger ties to Switzerland. Still, they are very proud to be partially Hungarian. Even my grandchildren are.
This interview was originally published in Hungarian on hvg.hu.
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