07. 04. 2013. 13:01

Imre Kertész: "I didn’t want to commit suicide, but then I didn’t want to become a writer either"

Liquidation was his last novel, and his interview given to Luisa Zielinski in The Paris Review was the last one he would give, Imre Kertész announced.

"I am somebody who survived all of it, somebody who saw the Gorgon’s head and still retained enough strength to finish a work that reaches out to people in a language that is humane", said Kertész, the only Hungarian writer who has ever won a Nobel Prize. "I created a work representing the Holocaust as such, but without this being an ugly literature of horrors. Perhaps I’m being impertinent, but I feel that my work has a rare quality—I tried to depict the human face of this history, I wanted to write a book that people would actually want to read", he said.

In the introduction to her 14-page interview, recorded in two parts, Luisa Zielinski thanked the writer, who is now in the final stage of Parkinson’s disease ("I am about to die of a very bourgeois Parkinson’s", Kertész commented) and can no longer write by hand or by computer, and his wife, for receiving her in their home in spite of the hard circumstances.

Although he was merely 24 when he already knew that he was a writer, Kertész told the interviewer, it took him a long time to learn the basics of writing. Initially, he didn’t know what to do with his experiences at Auschwitz. He had to invent a language, a form and a theme to describe the unique experience of living in a totalitarian regime. He chose to show this experience through the eyes of a young boy because in a dictatorship everyone is kept in a state of ignorance and helplessness.

In the 13 years of writing Fatelessness, the oppressive atmosphere of Communism meant that he couldn’t reveal what he was doing. For Kertész, as for many others, living in Communist Hungary was like living in a foreign land—and this was even more so in National Socialism.

There were three literary phases for him, Kertész said. The first was the era preceding the Holocaust; the second, described by writers like Primo Levi, "takes place in medias res, as though voiced from the inside, with all the astonishment and dismay of witnessing such events. These writers described what happened as something that would drive any man to madness—at least any man who continued to cling to old values... They tried to resist it as much as they could, but it left a mark on the rest of their lives."

Literary works of the third phase came into existence after National Socialism, and examine the loss of old values. For Jean Améry or Tadeusz Borowski, "what was at stake was the creation of new values from such immense suffering, but most of those writers perished in the attempt. However, what they did bequeath to us is a radical tradition in literature." Kertész considers himself as part of this tradition.

Asked whether writing was a means of survival for him, Kertész said: "I was able to use my own life to study how somebody can survive this particularly cruel brand of totalitarianism. I rejected that idea [of writing] for a long time, but then I realized that I would have to write, write about the astonishment and the dismay of the witness—Is that what you are going to do to us? How could we survive something like this, and understand it, too?"

Tags: Imre Kertész