04. 06. 2004. 16:52

"I was worried I might have to turn serious"

An interview with Péter Esterházy

"I think you have to be good at forgetting - it is part of normal life. Writers, on the other hand, have a different job description, if any. A writer cannot really afford to forget in the way which is necessary for other people for a healthy life. This makes life slightly more difficult, but it is our own fault - nobody asked us to be writers. "

Arriving at Esterházy's place I am received with a broad smile and mighty drumming. I am grateful for the smile - Esterházy has given hardly any interviews since the publication of his novel Revised Edition. The drumming comes from Miklós, the fourth child, practicing. 'I can bear it for as long as sixteen minutes. The trouble is that he never plays for less than twenty.'

Were all these notebooks written for Harmonia Caelestis?

Yes, I am in the phase of tidying up my room. Some of the notebooks were produced before I wrote Harmonia, but most of them came during the writing process. I also made some notes for the translator. These next to me are the notes for Revised Edition - I have to collect some existing translations of Nádas quotes for the translator.

How is the translation of Revised Edition progressing?

One third has been translated, it is coming out with Berliner Verlag in the spring.

Not translated by Terezia Mora this time?

No, she is busy doing some of her own stuff. But the book is in safe hands with Hans Skirecki.

How many copies has Harmonia sold in Germany?

I don't know exactly, but it is over forty thousand.

And what was the German  publisher's first reaction to Revised Edition?

Well, they have been captured right since the beginning. Even when I told them what this was going to be, they were evidently shaken. Their interest goes beyond the literary viewpoint, too. Even though their country chose a different method of processing the past, and they were in a different position as well, there is still a lot they are missing. They feel that this book would make the picture more complete for them.

In Harmonia you say 'The most sacred things are still those that we cannot remember.' What are the things you cannot remember?

Obviously the things I am going to write about now. People talk a lot about the importance of remembrance these days or about how we are failing to remember. But I think you also have to be good at forgetting - it is part of normal life. Writers, on the other hand, have a different job description, if any. A writer cannot really afford to forget in the way which is necessary for other people for a healthy life. This makes life slightly more difficult, but it is our own fault - nobody asked us to be writers.

Has your relationship to natural forgetfulness changed at all since Revised Edition?

No, no. I could see that if I don't write all this down, I shall soon forget the whole affair. Within a week.

When you had finished writing, did you feel any sort of relief just to be over it? Did it help you 'work through it' and forget it?

I did not need help. I did not feel there was anything I had to survive, except the dramatic sense at the beginning. What I felt was that in a case like this it is lucky that I can move my hand and my hand is holding a pen, because this was a form of action, so it helped me do something. If I had been an iron foundry worker, I don't know  exactly what I would have been able to do.

So, this is not a bad profession, after all.

It is good in retrospect, but in this case I had several points of view to consider - my own point of view and that of my brothers and there was also my father's point of view. By this I mean that he should not be just left there stamped with an indelible stamp, because that would be humiliating and unfair. And our point of view was, with some hubris, that we did not want to live in fear. This is, to put it euphemistically, what was demonstrated by the opportunity of the hand holding the pen. So the opportunity was there not to leave my father in this stamped position.

Harmonia, with itsintegrative and summary character, signified a borderline which Revised Edition only confirmed.Something has very clearly ended here and is uncontinuable.At this point a number of basic questions of authorship seem to surface. How do you see this?

I think the situation is more or less as you described it. And it is precise to say that these questions arose after Harmonia - Revised Edition did not add anything to them, except that if I had been tempted to evade the questions, Revised Edition would have brought me up against them with a sharp bang, so it made them even more urgent. In theory it is always the case after finishing a book that you are in 'neutral' and you have to think certain things over. And you think you will make a totally fresh start and then later if you look back you see that it wasn't totally different at all. From a distance one can see how one thing unfolds from another. One can see how this whole thing about fiction and non-fiction, about the narratorial I, the authorial and the personal I and the play of the masques has been carried all the way along, the same as the game with the names. The real question is what you do with your skills and your talent, how much you can use them or not use them. This is a  situation when I am not allowed to use certain things. My recurring image for it is as though I had a garden, I am standing in this garden and there is a great part of the garden which has been already described and I am banned from all of that part.

Tibor Keresztury and Judit Székely

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