An interview with Péter Nádas
I spent over a month reading Péter Nádas’s new novel, fired by enthusiasm and losing myself in the text as far as circumstances allowed. This is how I read War and Peace or The Man Without Qualities. No one would call Parallel Stories a light read, nor is it free of problems. Yet it is a stirring book of unique power which embraces the reader and will not let you get away. It will probably take years for the literary public to digest this three-volume work, but to me one thing is beyond doubt: that we have witnessed the birth of a grand and epoch-making work and need to draw a deep breath if we want to give it the attention it deserves.
Did you realise there would not be many people who would read the whole 1510 pages of Parallel Stories? Do you think of the reader at all while you are writing?
Of course I do, it is part of my job, as it were. But it is everybody’s own business what they read and how much they read of a thing, so I cannot reckon with that in advance. Some people like fat books, others don’t.
You have mentioned Plutarch’s Parallel Lives in the context of both your long novels (Parallel Histories and A Book of Memories). Isn’t this misleading? If someone approaches the book from this angle, they will expect the characters to fit into neat parallels, like Alexander and Julius Caesar: one is Greek, the other is Roman, and yet their lives run in perfect parallel.
Why should that be misleading? I have drawn parallels between different phenomena of different ages. It may be places, events, life histories, all taking place at different depths in time and at different levels of consciousness. Plutarch’s work is not free from fables and fiction, either. I am a fabulator from the outset, but I had done a lot of reading and some very thorough research, erecting boundaries to my imagination through documents. Where I look for parallels is not the same as where he does. In Plutarch, people’s life courses follow a very neat line. I was more interested in how they are positioned in space. If we think of his method as a formula, mine is a different formula from a different age, which yields a different structural pattern. His is harmonious, mine is disharmonious. If anyone is confused by these differences, they have only themselves to blame.
You wrote a piece called Structure and plot patterns in Parallel Stories, in which you try to formulate the creative problem at the crux of the present novel. In this text you say ’I could no longer escape from the thought that prose writing actually worked as the maid servant of causal thinking.’ Your aim was ’to write the stories of people who can’t ever have met, who have only a very superficial knowledge of each other, and yet interfere most profoundly with each other’s lives.’ I can see that the figures are intertwined more closely than you would like them to be, and still, the whole thing does not fall completely to pieces in a chaotic way. As if the plan had been more radical than its realisation. Because the reader will insist on deciphering on a causal basis, no matter what you do.
And they succeed, too. And I try to leave open the points which offer clues for this deciphering. Not in all cases, though. One constantly strives to control the effect of one’s own words or actions. The question is what sort of qualities this effect produces on other people. I have no guarantees concerning the perceptions of others. I tried to take all of this into account when I created the connections between the different people, plotlines or historical periods.
And then there are systems which are identical, others that are similar and yet others that are different. We can say that people act according to similar or even identical patterns because they had a similar upbringing or are constitutionally alike. And there are also differences according to these criteria.
When, for example, you do something or other not because that is the way you had been socialised, but because you go against your socialisation, following your instincts or acting upon your convictions. There are direct and strong interactions between people, there are cases of direct and also of indirect impact: when A has influenced B, but does not know C, who in turn was influenced by B, and so, although A does not know, he or she actually influenced C. A causal relationship always tries to stick to being unequivocal, but I tried not to loose sight of the multivalence of things. This naturally yielded structures which no longer fit into the structure of causal thinking. Naturally, causation is not absent, either, but falls into a totally different context or exists in a different space from the very outset.
After the first few chapters I was expecting to see the emergence of a similar structure as in A Book of Memories. But it is not the case. In that book we see a neat, round whole emerging, but here we do not.
The great question that faces all novelists is whether or not the world consists of symmetries. In that book I was using causatory chains. Here the parallels, which arrive from different directions through a non-causatory mechanism, form a web, a set of junctions, a structure which exists in space. It exists in the space of remembrance, if you like, since even reading itself relies on your memory, and this is the analogy I operated with. Novels from the classic tradition of that genre have a method for this: they link certain characters with certain plotlines and move along these from birth to death. The classic plot formula for novelistic literature is usually A-B. Which means that the world is arranged after a symmetrical pattern. 20th century novelistic literature is more fragmentary than this, the plot is arranged into episodes and several threads are tied in with each other through different means. In A Book of Memories my rhythmical plan was a symmetrical alternation of A-B-C, punctuated with surprise occurrences of D and E. At that time the answer I gave to the great question facing all novelists was that although the world offers no symmetries, we all aim at symmetries, our desire is to see the end of bad things and a repetition of good things, for these to unite in some sort of order and harmony. I was really civil with the unsuspecting reader because I said, rest assured, plotlines A, B and C will carry on repeating themselves, but still, I had to avoid lying or becoming immoderate. There was a point when repetition had to stop, because the symmetry could not be preserved any longer. The first person singular narrator died, and then there could be no narration any longer. This role was then assumed by another character who then re-narrated in his own way what we had already been told. This narrative revealed that there existed another world, with a different use of sentences, and in this use of sentences the rhythm of sentences and paragraphs (D) was determined by disharmony, even though this narrator was a far more harmonious personality than the one who had died. On top of this we also had a rough outline of a text left behind by the narrator who died (E) which jerked us even further out of the harmonious universe. Parallel Stories uses a more radical solution. It still tries to involve the reader in the text, even by the writing being much more simple and transparent than in the earlier texts. In terms of the internal structure of the novel, however, I did not go half way to the reader. Internally, the book is way more complicated than my earlier works. This is not because I wanted to frustrate anybody or make my own life more difficult, but because I had to explore a far greater number of more complex internal connections: covert and almost secret connections which we do not usually reckon with at all. In order to do this I practically had to trace along all the threads of the structural web. I wrote this novel according to a totally different set of criteria.
Your last novel mainly used first personal singular narrative, whereas the new book uses third person narration. Except for the chapters on Kristóf, in the second volume, where it switches into first person.
This is not a switch, it is a shift. At the beginning of Volume II, under very dramatic circumstances, we unnoticeably shift from third into first person narration and, from this point onwards, the various time layers and threads of plot change from chapter to chapter as does the point de vue. At the end of the third volume we shift back, under similarly dramatic circumstances. The difference between a switch and a shift is very important. The things said about a person sometimes diverge at the most crucial points from what that person thinks about himself or herself. It is a characteristic of European literature that the reality levels of first and third person narratives are aeons removed from each other, along this fault line. There is no transition, no traffic between those two extremist views, and what seems to disappear in this abyss is a nuanced sense of reality. This, however, is only one significant shift. Or warp, as Zsolt Bagi says in his book on A Book of Memories. It is a very good word. I needed this warp. The other crucial shift is that the person who is active is also pretty confused about the way in which their own actions should be judged. There are certain actions that are transparent to them and others that they cannot see through clearly because their interests lie elsewhere at that moment. In this case their self-awareness suffers cracks, and inconsistent words or actions crop up. And in the background to these constant shifts and warps we find our relationship to our own personality and our herd instinct – this is again a set of problems which no one has been able to resolve in a reassuring way, myself included. Is there such a thing as an individual at all? This is the question. Or are we simply variants, ready for adaptation? In this case, however, the question emerges what we are variants of and after what pattern. And when such an indecent question emerges at all, everybody just screams and runs headlong in the opposite direction, because this sort of question is just not acceptable in postmodernism. In the postmodernist era there are no epochs, there is no more history, no psychology, and language comes out of everybody’s rear end just the way they like. While I was writing A Book of Memories, I had lots of trouble, partly to do with narration and reflection, which I could not resolve and did not even want to resolve there and then. I could not or did not want to because that was a book I wrote under the circumstances of a dictatorship, and in a completely sclerotic period of that dictatorship, to make things worse.
Was it a relief or a source of further difficulty that now there are no more taboos in terms of political expressions, nor do you need to be cautious about words which may be seen as obscenities?
My problems lay elsewhere. The way this question emerged under the conditions of a dictatorship was whether or not a novel has ethical commitments. I had decided that it did. But in a democracy it does not any longer. Nobody could foresee the end of dictatorship, including me: but this is why I started a new novel at a mad pace which no longer accepts self-limitation even for ethical reasons. This way the stuff of this novel is closer to an anthropological or ethical description if you like – it is more dispassionate, more attuned, on and off, to answering the question “what sort of a being is man?” And in answering this it will treat other people’s opinions and beliefs as simple raw material, just as a doctor who gives a person an anaesthetic and does not take into account their sensitivities in other walks of life or worry about their nakedness. I could see that in the earlier novels the ethical was detrimental to the aesthetical, but at the same time it was a very interesting job to find the aesthetical components in the ethical gestures. In The End of a Family Story or in A Book of Memories I think I did this job properly. I did exactly the job that was incumbent upon me in a dictatorship.
I did not care much about taboos even then: neither the filthy little petty bourgeois taboos and beliefs that Kádárism confirmed, nor the political taboos, but I did try at certain points to adhere to the basic rules of the overall Eastern European fight for independence. I was particularly careful to take its optimism seriously, to look on man as fundamentally a promising phenomenon despite all of his/her misery, suffering, absurdity and wickedness. Compared to this my job was easier this time, but the perils were also more significant. Earlier I was tied in with a collective freedom fight. In this work, however, I could abandon ethical obligations. At times like this you are threatened by scepticism, early resignation or some rotten old cynicism.
In The End of a Family Story each chapter is one single paragraph. In A Book of Memories each sentence is a separate paragraph, except for the penultimate one. In your latest book I could not find any formal trick of this kind. Are there none or did I overlook them?
There are some, but of a totally different nature. I would not call it a formal trick, either in this case or in the earlier books. The reason why The End of a Family Story has no paragraphs is that we are in a world where things have no distinct shape: we are all wallowing in the mud of dictatorship. As none of us can see out of the mud, things become pretty homogeneous. Miklós Mészöly was the only author who had considered this earlier on. He is the first and only one whose sentence structures were capable of conveying a number of different things very clearly in the text. This equalising principle was very important and attractive even from a political point of view, because it subverted traditional orders of priority. On the other hand, it meant that a personality only existed by virtue of its eccentricities. That is not a viable path for me. I have not been able to give up characterisation or the contents of the collective consciousness. A Book of Memories worked against the equalising principle, Mészöly and I argued a lot about that. My hope was that love could salvage the individual even under a dictatorship, and also, a novel about love could at least talk about retaining the desire for freedom. But love cannot do this, I had to admit as I went along. Instead, we saw the working of the terrible banality that Illyés recorded in his beautiful poem A Sentence About Tyranny. Tyranny creeps into the marital beds, it is there in people’s copulation. And if terror is so ingrained in your loves, your most intimate situations, then human society goes very deep inside your personality. That means that the contents of the collective consciousness work not only as a cohesive force in culture, but also as a destructive and murderous force. The question emerges once more whether there is such a thing as an individual if there are such terrible collective forces at work in each single person. Where is the person inside me if I am a herd animal to such a vast extent? This was the question in Parallel Stories. But it was also concerned with the intimate connections between different groups of individuals, with often very different basic attitudes. For this it was important to examine these relations free from any social prejudice. This is one of the reasons why it was necessary to use a multiplicity of stories – to allow us to see all this from different angles. At the same time, the sentences need to be as simple and transparent as possible, you must simplify rather than complicate. In terms of the characteristics of the text we also need to talk about the fact that I always had the same desire as Flaubert: no style! But I failed at avoiding style both in The End of a Family Story and in A Book of Memories. In the latter the failure was so complete that by the end I was positively sick of my sophisticated tirades.
Actually we are talking of two major sets of stories here: the history of the Lippay family and the history of the Döhring family. Practically all of the further stories can be tied in with these through some transpositions.
No, I think this is a mistake, there are some stories that do not tie in anywhere. The real pattern of this structure is chaos, not in the present-day sense of this word, of course, but in the ancient Greek sense. This is what I would like to stick to. In this case, chaos is not a synonym of disorder, lawlessness or a brothel in Mexico. Each of the stories has an aspect that you cannot tie to anything else. The structure is chaotic because the order of the world is chaotic and I, the novelist, do not want to create an arbitrary semblance of order amid this chaos. I am not capable of it, I would be telling a lie if I said I was. At most I register the elements and principles that are structure-forming inside the chaos, and others which are not suitable for such a performance. This way you arrive at some organising principles which emerge involuntarily. These inevitably partake of order. But these are not the elements and principles that people imagine for themselves, either collectively or alone, as tools of creating some great order.
I find connections everywhere. It may be through four or five switches, but I can still connect even the most distant of figures to the main characters.
Yes, and in this case you experience your own all-pervasive drive to create order. This makes me happy: it is great, because it is not my arbitrary imposition but the reader’s own confabulations. Certain things are definitely in connection with each other, with others we suspect that they might be related and there are yet others which are certainly not connected. There are some things which might be related to each other but to us this remains invisible.
The last two chapters are really baffling. You start new stories with new characters. This closure is a strong signal, almost an act of provocation. Why did you put these two chapters at the end?
Because I am finding that the world does not have a symmetrical structure. Even in the most tragic and depressing situations, people go through experiences which are surprising and which may transfer the line of events onto a different plane. If the various webs of relationships really function on different levels and planes in the world, all interacting with each other, that means my friends have friends whom I cannot know. It is not a new story that starts in these two last chapters: we look back from the point of view of friends’ friends on what had happened to other people up till then. At a number of points we even find out what has happened to our friends since the last time we saw them. The connections are always different from what we expect. Grácia Kerényi [Hungarian poet and translator], who had survived Ravensbrück, kept repeating to me even on her death bed, “Peti, don’t forget: it is always something else that happens.” She did not say something else than what. Something else. It was very important for me to talk about the Second World War on a different plane and from a different perspective in the closure of Volume III than previously in this novel. I could not close it off creating the impression that I am completely clear about the meaning of things. Maybe there is no such thing. I am clear about the meaning of some things, and I am sorry, but I refuse to deny, out of pure modesty, that there are things I know a lot about. But in certain cases I may be completely in the dark about the meaning of some other things. I do not think there are complete philosophical systems that have decided for me whether the world is accessible to our understanding or not. Whether understanding is a process or a divine gift that we receive all ready made, and all we have to do for it is go to church every Sunday morning or every Friday evening. So the novel could not have a different ending than that special state which is neither sad, nor desperate, neither absurd, nor realistic, that state which is actually lovely in its own way, when you are not clear about the meaning of things and you are completely lost as to the ultimate meaning of things. This means that man is not a completed being. There are certain dangers that cats are not afraid of, because they are completed beings. Man is different. And this is more important to me than poetic style.
(to be continued)
This is a shortened version of an interview originally published in Hungarian in Élet és Irodalom (4 November, 2005).