11. 02. 2010. 07:38

Locked in a scriptorium

Imre Kertész and Paul Auster

Having finished all immediate consignments, and with one of my most recent book translations (Imre Kertész’s Detective Story) officially published in both the US and the UK, I obtained several books to catch up on some bits of reading for sheer pleasure.

Not that the books I translate don’t give me pleasure, they do (immense pleasure), it’s just that I am under no obligation to do anything more than read, which has been, bar a few early years, a truly life-long obsession. I had just ordered and acquired a couple of Paul Auster’s latest novels.
Innocently picking up Travels in the Scriptorium, Auster’s tenth novel (I count New York Trilogy as a volume of three interlinked novellas rather than a novel as such), published in 2006, I began reading:
The old man sits on the edge of the narrow bed, palms spread out on his knees, head down, staring at the floor. He has no idea that a camera is planted in the ceiling directly above him. The shutter clicks silently once every second, producing eighty-six thousand four hundred still photos with each revolution of the earth. Even if he knew he was being watched, it wouldn’t make any difference. His mind is elsewhere, stranded among the figments in his head as he searches for an answer to the question that haunts him. Who is he? What is he doing here? When did he arrive and how long will he remain?…
That immediately tripped a faint ripple of recognition of another opening, familiar to me in Hungarian for a decade or more: Imre Kertész’s second “proper” novel, not counting a volume containing the two novellas (Detective Story and The Pathseeker). That novel, best referred to as The Failure, which first appeared in Hungarian in 1988, has not to date been published in English translation, but its opening words may be rendered along the following lines:
The Old Boy was standing before the filing cabinet. He was thinking. It was morning. (Relatively—getting on for ten.) Around this time the Old Boy was always in the habit of having a think.
He had plenty of troubles and woes, so he had plenty to think about….
The ripple of recognition soon died down again, however, more especially as two pages later the protagonist is named Mr. Blank (“We will therefore drop the epithet old man and henceforth refer to the person in the room as Mr. Blank. For the time being, no first name will be necessary”).
…Mr. Blank stands up from the bed at last, pauses briefly to steady his balance, and then shuffles over to the desk at the other end of the room…
…Looking at the pictures is too much for him, so he pushes them aside and turns his attention to the papers. There are four piles in all, each about six inches high. For no particular reason that he is aware of, he reaches for the top page on the pile furthest to the left. The handwritten words, printed out in block letters… read as follows:
   Viewed from the outermost reaches of space, the earth is no larger than a speck of dust. Remember that the next time you write the word humanity.
   From the look of disgust that comes over his face as he scans these sentences, we can be fairly confident that Mr. Blank has not lost the ability to read. But who the author of these sentences might be is still open to question.
   Mr Blank reaches out for the next page and discovers that it is a typed manuscript of some sort. The first paragraph reads:
   The moment I started to tell my story, they knocked me down and kicked me in the head… just as I was to begin the story for the third time, the Colonel threw me against the wall and I passed out. (p. 5)
Mr. Blank is soon interrupted for a short time, but although alarm bells are faintly ringing in my head I’ll return to the story where Auster returns to it:
—The Colonel says you’re allowed to write. You can take that in any way you choose…
—I assume he’s planning to read what I write.
—It would be logical to assume that, yes. (p. 30)
And then:
… I have no idea why the Colonel did what he did. I would like to think he’s begun to pity me, but I doubt it can be as simple as that… What it comes down to is a matter of caution, I think, a way of preparing for whatever may happen next. Too many people know I’m here for him to execute me without a trial. On the other hand, a trial is something that must be avoided at all costs—for once the case is taken to court, my story will become public knowledge. (pp. 31-32)
That does it. In his own account the protagonist of Imre Kertész’s Detective Story writes down the events that have led him to participate in the work of a secret police body known as the Corps, set up by a revolutionary junta somewhere in Latin America and headed by an individual known only as “the Colonel”. Antonio Mertens, the central character, describes how a three-man team consisting of his boss Diaz, a gorilla named Rodriguez, and himself, “the new boy”, led to the arrest and torture of a young would-be dissident by the name of Enrique Salinas for suspected involvement in a planned atrocity (“The Homeland’s moral subsistence rested on the Corps’ conscience. The Colonel placed great stress on that. He wanted to see a clean people and clean souls. This was among the exceptional pronouncements that he would utter, with exactly the same emphasis, in parliament as in the Corps’ premises”). Shortly afterwards, to save his son, the father confesses to having involved Enrique in an elaborate but completely innocent pretend plot, but Diaz doesn’t buy this and before long both Salinases are executed. As Federigo Salinas was a prominent businessman it was impossible to keep this secret:
The Colonel did indeed later have cause to regret that we made news of Salinas’s execution public; without a doubt it triggered a big moral backlash, far too big, and all quite unnecessarily. Still, if we had not issued a communiqué, then we would have been accused of seeking to mislead and violating the law. (p. 8)
The popular outrage leads to overthrow of the regime, but with Diaz and the Colonel having flown the coop, the low-level operatives Martens and Rodriguez are left to face the music.
     Mr Blank’s attention soon switches to another story, this one by a Sigmund Graf, starting on pp. 41-47. This is interrupted by a contretemps between Mr. Blank and an ex-Scotland Yard policeman by the name of James P. Flood, who is trying to get Mr. Blank to recall a detail of a report he wrote about a man named Fanshawe, and more specifically a detail from a book entitled Neverland that “you must have read yourself”, and he quotes from memory:“ (Montag’s house in chapter seven: Flood’s dream in chapter thirty).” To which Mr. Blank responds,”From the way you talk about it Neverland must be a novel… And Fanshawe used you as a character?” “Apparently so. There’s nothing strange about that. From what I understand authors do it all the time.” Mr. Blank then resumes reading Graf’s typescript (pp. 63-69), only to be interrupted by a Samuel Farr who claims to be the doctor in charge of Mr. Blank’s treatment asking him whether he has finished reading “the story about the Confederation”, to which Mr. Blank remarks, “I didn’t know it was a story. It sounds more like something that really happened” (p. 70), though he does then read what is left of the clearly unfinished account (pp. 72-75) before Dr. Farr appears in person to ask Mr. Blank to say how he thinks the story ends, which he proceeds to do for the next 40 pages or so.
     Having earlier requested to see his lawyer, a man calling himself that now drops in: “I’m Quinn, Mr. Blank…. Daniel Quinn. Your first operative.” He then proceeds to explain part of the what and when, ending “You retired me after that”… “When was that?” “Nineteen ninety-three.” “And what year is it now?” “Two thousand and five.” Quinn eventually goes, and once again Mr. Blank is left alone in the room:
For want of anything better to do just now, Mr. Blank decides to go on with his reading. Directly below Trause’s story about Sigmund Graf and the Confederation there is a longer manuscript of some one hundred and forty pages, which, unlike the previous work, comes with a cover page that announces the title of the piece and the author’s name:
Travels in the Scriptorium
N.R. Fanshawe
Then he turns to the first page and begins to read:
The old man sits on the edge of the narrow bed, palms spread out on his knees, head down, staring at the floor. He has no idea that a camera is planted in the ceiling directly above him. The shutter clicks silently once every second, producing eighty…
     That does it. Exactly the same device is invoked by Kertész at the end of the novel-in-the novel that is entitled “Fiasco”, concerning a chap named Köves (“Stony”) throughout (no first name), which is the same name as the boy-hero of Kertész’s first novel, the tale of how he was carted off to Auschwitz in the early summer of 1944, shipped on to Buchenwald (where he was tattooed with the number 64921 (“Vier-und-sechzig, neun, ein-und-zwanzig,” as he soon learns to say when ordered to identify himself), then again out to a forced-labour camp of Zeitz, but now a clearly grown-up Köves, a reporter who is supposed to be working as some sort of foreign correspondent for his Budapest and is supposed to be visiting a friend, living in a city that is supposed to be a long aircraft journey away but soon after arrival seems strangely familiar, not least being populated by people whose language he speaks like a native. After many vicissitudes, taking up a good deal more than one hundred and forty pages. Köves passes up an opportunity, offered by his friend Sziklai (“Cliff”) to leave this inhospitable place when a popular uprising against its authoritarian regime breaks out, saying: “I have to write a novel.”
“A novel?!” Sziklai was dumbstruck. “Now of all times?… You can write it later, somewhere else,” he went on. Köves continued smiling awkwardly:
“Yes, but this is the only language I know,” he worried.
“You learn another one,” Sziklai waved that aside, almost tapping his feet in impatience: it looked as though other urgent matters were calling him.
“By the time I learn one I’ll have forgotten my novel.”
“Then you’ll write another one,” Sziklai’s voice by now sounded almost irritated, and it was more for the record than in hope of being understood that Köves pointed out:
“I can only write the one novel that it is given me to write,” for which Sziklai could no longer come up with, and maybe did not even look for, a counter-argument.
There is a cut almost immediately afterwards to a very short closing section:
The rest of it? A happy end is in store: by the time he gets to the bottom of the slough he will learn that they have decided to publish his book after all. He will then be pierced by a painful longing and with the sorrow of nostalgia he will insatiably taste the sweet memory of his failure, the time when he lived a living life, he was consumed by passion and nourished by a secret hope that a future old boy, standing before a filing cabinet and thinking, will no longer be able to share. His unique adventure, his heroic age, will have come to an end once and for all.
Just in case the reader should you think such parallels are just a facile game, quick internet search offered as first choice an intriguing tie-up made by Aaron Riccio, at a website identified as “kül 2006” (thatsoundscool2.blogspot.com), which neatly summed things up in its first paragraph:
Imre Kertesz’s novel, Liquidation, reads like one of Paul Auster’s metafictional detective stories. However, Kertesz isn’t interested in exploring the elements of chance that influence our life: tragedy and suffering have already written our destinies, and luck has nothing to do with it. It does require a certain wit though, and so the author allows a Nabokovian narrative to lead the first third of the text: Kingbitter is obsessed with a play called “Liquidation.” The script, often cited in the book, also has a character named Kingbitter, and this character also analyzes a play called “Liquidation.” This contextual epaulette doesn’t come across as a trapping: it flows giddily across the page, giving breath to the parallel stories: Kingbitter is trying to cope with B.’s death, and B. is struggling to come to terms with the legacy of his birth (a life founded on death).
While nothing further is said on the subject, the article does make a useful reference to “the ouroboros of solipsism”, or in other words the self-reflexivity or cyclicity—the eternal return, the perception of something as a cycle that begins anew as soon as it ends—in the specific case of the structure of Liquidation (though other texts too, of course).
     Another trouvaille. Paul Auster’s ‘Ghosts’ from 1986, the second of the novellas in The New York Trilogy: “It is 3 February 1947. Little does Blue know, of course, that the case will go on for years. But the present is no less dark than the past, and its mystery is equal to anything the future might hold. Such is the way of the world: one step at a time, one word and then the next.” That final sentence, almost inevitably for me, carries haunting echoes of the closing pages of Kertész’s first, and still best-known novel, Fatelessness: "It’s about the steps.”
Everyone took steps as long as he was able to take a step; I too took my own steps, and not just in the queue at Birkenau, but even before that, here, at home. I took steps with my father, and I took steps with my mother, I took steps with Annamarie, and I took steps—perhaps the most difficult ones of all—with the elder sister. I would now be able to tell her what it means to be “Jewish”: nothing, nothing to me at least, at the beginning, until those steps start to be taken… (p. 258)
I might also cite Auster’s fondness for anagrams:
   Who wrote that piece of drivel, by the way? The bastard should be taken outside and shot.
   A man named John Trause. Ever hear of him?
   Trause… Hmmm.. Perhaps. He wrote novels, didn’t he? It’s all a bit fuzzy now, but I think I might have read some of them.
   You have. Rest assured that you have. (p. 79)
In Detective Story one finds (p. 100):
   “No. He’s innocent. He is, and so is Figueras, and so am I. I can prove it.”
   “As yet, that’s still a bit far away. What’s the meaning of ENAUSE?”
   “It’s an anagram of the word unease. I put the word in each envelope. I’ve used three envelopes…”
     Such parallels go only so far, however. The “Old Boy” who writes the frame-novel of “Fiasco” (as well as “Fiasco” itself) gives a truly exhaustive description of the second-floor micro-apartment (“a bed-sitting room with hallway, bathroom and kitchenette, 28 m2 [300 sq.ft.] in all”) in which he and his wife live, including documentation of the auditory intrusions wrought on his writing efforts by the upstairs neighbour (“Oglütz”—the “Unsilent Being”, neither female or male nor even beast, least of all human):
There exists a creature which is perfectly harmless; when it passes before your eyes you scarcely notice it and forget it again immediately. But as soon as it invisibly gets somehow into your ears, it develops there, hatches, as it were, and cases have been known where it has penetrated even into the brain and has thriven devastatingly in that organ, like those pneumococci in dogs that gain entrance through the nose. This creature is one's neighbour.
Kafkaesque, but the quotation is actually not from Franz K. (1883-1924) but from Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), another writer from the German-speaking minority in Prague who, near-contemporaries though they were, seem never to have met.
Tim Wilkinson

Tags: Imre Kertész and Paul Auster