04. 12. 2011. 14:50

Imre Kertész's Fiasco in English

Fiasco, a companion piece to Fatelessness, tells about the genesis of Kertész's Nobel Prize winning book. Much more than just a mere "werk-novel", it gives an insight into the problems of writing in a totalitarian dictatorship, as well as the possibility of overcoming 'fatelessness' and 'fiasco' in the act of writing.

When Kertész published Fiasco in 1988, he was still a long way from the Nobel Prize (2002) and world fame, but some critics as well as a small but devoted reading public in Hungary already ranked Fatelessness among the most important post-war Hungarian novels, and regarded its writer as someone who represented an extremely high ethical standard in an era which was seriously lacking such values.

The protagonist of Fiasco is a writer – referred to as the ‘old boy’ – who had once written a book about the most dramatic months of his life. In the first part of the book we learn that initially, all the publishers turned him down, but finally the novel was published, and he became a professional writer who now works freelance and lives on his writing. The first third of the novel is about the daily struggle of the writer, who is alone with his notes and his thoughts, communicates only with his wife and his mother, and has to live with the knowledge that he had already written his masterpiece, and whatever will follow will never even come close to it.

The first part of the novel, up to page 120, is in a way a prelude to the second part, the protagonist of which is Georg Köves from Fatelessness, who was fourteen years old when he was taken to the concentration camp and is now an adult who arrives in the Communist Hungary of the 50s from somewhere abroad in order to start a new life. The stifling and unsettling atmosphere of the 50s is described from the point of view of an outsider who hardly understands anything, similarly to young Köves, who was looking wide-eyed at the concentration camp upon arrival. And just like the young hero of Fatelessness, the adult Köves neither questions this world nor revolts against it, but acquiesces to it as if in a dream. He starts a new life, first working in a factory, then getting elevated to a high rank. Towards the end of the second part Köves suddenly comes to the realization that his task is to write a novel about his experiences. And just as Köves – the character in the novel within the novel – realizes this, the narrator of the first part – the ‘old boy’ – also realizes that instead of writing a novel that is sellable, he must write about the preliminaries of Fatelessness. In the end, it becomes clear that Köves and the ‘old boy’ are both alter egos of the writer of Fatelessness. As a very early critique of the novel points out: just like the childhood of the author/protagonist of Fatelessness was elevated to the rank of an individual fate in the act of writing, so the adult age of the author/protagonist of Fiasco becomes a triumph in this process of self-reflection (Ádám Tábor, Élet és Irodalom,  1 December 1989).

While the style of Fatelessness is awkward and naïve, Fiasco is written in an often laborious and meticulous style, as if the writer was always checking and having second thoughts about every sentence – a style of someone who lives in a dictatorship and is used to constant control.

More than a mere rehash of the subject of Fatelessness, Fiasco embodies the author’s programme of ‘living and writing the same novel’ – writer, narrator, character, novel and life merge and become part of the same reality in this second novel by Imre Kertész. With this fine translation by Tim Wilkinson, all the novels by Kertész are now available to English-speaking readers.

Reviews on Fiasco:
'Tried and True' by Adam Kirsch, Tablet (also published as 'The Boulders' in The New Republic)
The Complete Review's review


An excerpt from the novel

...Yes, if I had been consistent I might never have finished my novel. But now I had finished it none the less, it was inconsistent of me to be surprised that it stood ready. But that was how it was. I’m not suggesting I was unaware that, if I were to write a novel, then sooner or later a novel would come out of that, since over long years I had striven for nothing else than that. So as far as being aware is concerned, it’s not a question of my being unaware; it’s just that I forgot to prepare myself for it. I was too preoccupied with writing the novel to reckon on the consequences. So there it lay before me, more than two hundred and fifty pages, and this pile, this object, was now demanding certain actions on my part. I had no idea how to get a novel published; I was totally unfamiliar with the business, I knew nobody; as yet no prose work of mine, as it is customary to call it, had been published. First of all, I had to get it typed, then I stuffed it into the one and only press-stud file I possessed, which I had acquired by not altogether innocent means during a visit to my mother at the head office of the export company where the old lady supplemented her pension by doing shorthand and typewriting for four hours a day. Then, with the file under my arm, I called on a publisher I knew was in the business of publishing novels by, as it was phrased, contemporary Hungarian authors, among others. I knocked on a door marked Secretariat and enquired from one of the ladies working there, who emanated that mysterious, so hard-to-define aura of being in charge, whether I might leave a novel with her. On her giving a positive response, I handed the file over to her and watched her place it among a stack of other files on a table at the back of the room. After that I made my way straight to the open-air swimming pool..
    “My God!” exclaimed the old boy.
...straight to the open-air swimming pool, as I hoped—and was not disappointed—that the weather, being sunny but cool and windy, would deter the crowds from flocking to the pools that day, and I swam a twenty lengths with long, leisurely strokes in the cold water.”
    “My God!” exclaimed the old boy.
    “Subsequently, a good two months later, I was sitting with a chap who was something or other at the publisher’s. I had already paid a visit on him a week previously since, according to the lady in the secretariat, “he will answer any enquires about your novel.” As it turned out, he had heard neither about me nor about my novel.
    “When did you submit it?,” he asked.
    “Two months ago.”
    “Two months is not so long,” he assured me. The chap was grey-faced, with a gaunt, harassed, neurotic look about him, and silvered sunglasses. On his desk there were piles of paper, books, an appointment diary, a typewriter, a manuscript bundle covered with scribbled corrections— manifestly a novel. I fled. For preference I would have gone straight to the open-air swimming pool...”
    “My God!” exclaimed the old boy.
...but now that it was the height of the heat wave I had no hope of being able to have a swim.
    On the next occasion he showed himself to be more talkative. By now he had heard both about me and about my novel, though he personally had still not read it. He offered me a seat. Fascism, he turned towards me away from his typewriter, in which I could see he had inserted a sheet of the firm’s headed letter paper, was a huge and ghastly subject about which there had already...
    “Aha!” the old boy exclaimed aloud as he started to rummage agitatedly in the file until he spotted a sheet of headed letter paper among his papers
    It was an ordinary, neat business letter, with fields for date (27/JUL/1973), correspondent (unfilled), subject (unspecified), reference number (482/73), and no greeting:
    “Your manuscript has been assessed by our firm’s readers,” the old boy started to read,
“On the basis of their unanimous opinion... We consider that your way of giving artistic expression to the material of your experiences does not come off, while the subject itself is horrific and shocking. The fact that it nevertheless fails to become... the main protagonist’s, to put it mildly, odd reactions... While we find it understandable that the adolescent main protagonist does not immediately grasp what is happening around him (the call-up for forced labour, compulsory wearing of the yellow star, etc.), we think it inexplicable why, on arrival at the concentration camp, he sees... More passages in bad taste follow... It is also incredible that the spectacle of the crematoria evokes in him feelings of... “a kind of student jape”, as he knows he is in an extermination camp, and his being Jewish is sufficient reason for him to be killed. His behaviour, his gauche comments... annoyed... the novel’s ending, since the behaviour the main protagonist has displayed hitherto... gives him no ground to dispense moral judgements...’“
    “Aha!” the old boy commented aloud.
    The old boy was now sitting in front of the filing cabinet and thinking.
    “I ought to read the book again,” he was thinking.
    “But then again,” he continued his thought, “why would I do that? I am not in the mood for reading about concentration camps.”
    “It was dumb of me,” he mused, “to get out my papers,” he added (mentally).
    Upon which the old boy sat in front of the filing cabinet and resumed reading:
    “...was a huge and ghastly subject... a sheet of the firm’s headed letter paper... he turned towards me away from his typewriter, in which I could see he had inserted a sheet of the firm’s headed letter paper, was a huge and ghastly subject about which there had already been much written by many authors. Yet, he added, as it were reassuringly, he was by no means suggesting that the subject had been completely exhausted. He then informed me that it was the publisher’s normal practice to have three readers assess a manuscript “before a decision is made about its fate”.
He was a little coy: they were not in the habit of initiating authors into the publisher’s affairs but he did not exclude the possibility that he might be the third reader for my novel. He fell silent.
    “Isn’t it a trifle bitter?” he suddenly asked.
    “What?”
    “Your novel.”
    “Oh, indeed,” I replied.
    My response manifestly threw him into confusion.
    “Don’t take what I said for granted; it’s not an opinion, as I haven’t even read your novel yet,” he explained.
    It was now my turn to be confused: the indications were that, to the extent he might feel my novel was bitter, it would probably not be to his taste. This would obviously be a black mark and might set its publication back. Only then did I see that I was sitting opposite a professional humanist, and professional humanists would like to believe that Auschwitz had happened only to those to whom it had happened to happen at that time and place; that nothing had happened to the majority, to mankind—Mankind!—in general. In other words, the publishing man wanted to read into my novel that notwithstanding—indeed, precisely notwithstanding—everything that had happened to happen to me too at that time and place, Auschwitz had still not sullied me. Yet it had sullied me. I was sullied in other ways than those who had transported me there, it’s true, but I had been sullied none the less; and in my view this is a basic issue. I have to recognise, however—how could it be otherwise?—that anyone who takes my novel in his hand in good faith and innocently starts to read it will thereby, it is to be feared, also be dragged a little bit into the mire.
    I can therefore readily understand why my novel might irritate a professional humanist. But then professional humanists irritate me because they seek to annihilate me with their cravings: they want to invalidate my experiences. Yet something had happened to those experiences through which, I was taken aback to perceive, they had suddenly turned to my disadvantage, for in the meantime—somehow or other—they had transformed within me into an irrevocable aesthetic standpoint. The difference of views with this man plainly arose from differences in personal convictions between one another; but the fact that my novel lay between us, at least symbolically, spoilt everything. I felt that my personal opinions, which my novel exposed utterly, were starting to look inauspicious from the viewpoint of my concerns. On top of which, those concerns, which happened to be embodied in the objective form of the novel, were attached to other factors, less prominent certainly but not negligible for all that—among were my financial prospects...
    “Aha,” the old boy brightened up.
    ...the question of my future, my social status, if I may put it way.
    “Ha-ha-ha,” the old boy chuckled.
I suddenly found myself in the fairly strange and—through my lack of foresight—surprising situation of having become a hostage to that two-hundred-and-fifty-page bundle of paper that I myself had produced.
    “To be sure,” the old boy said aloud.

Imre Kertész: Fiasco
Translated by Tim Wilkinson
New York: Melville House, 2011
ISBN 978-1935554295

Translated by: Tim Wilkinson

Tags: Imre Kertész, Imre Kertész: Fiasco