An interview with Péter Nádas
You once said that the innermost circle of this novel will have to do with the holocaust. In fact, there is very little about this topic specifically in the novel. You also said you studied the literature of the holocaust thoroughly. But very little of that seems to have gone into the book. Why does this subject take up so little space in the book if it was important for you?
I think it takes up a lot of space. I once asked Imre Kertész – and this is a very difficult question to ask, so I instinctively put it in a situation where he did not have much of a chance to play a role – whether for someone who did not go through the massacre of Europe’s Jewish population, someone, I might say, who has not experienced the deicide, it was permissible to write about it. This is a very important question and I can see that you are also surprised to hear it. Anything that a novelist touches becomes fiction, it becomes romanticised, a thing of fancy. Something that lacks absolutely all romanticism, all fancy, must not be treated in a novel. There are things that artistic imagination has no business with. Fiction is a terribly serious thing; after all, we all fantasise at some stage, but I think there are some very serious things that must not be approached through fantasy. The holocaust is only one of them, death is another or murder. Your relationship with your children must not be subject to fantasies, either. So my question was whether it was permissible for me to approach this subject through my imagination, because it was impossible to leave it entirely out of the novel. I asked Imre this question at Frankfurt airport, we were getting out of the bus, the planes were thundering away on the runways, and I bellowed: “Imre, if someone has not gone through the holocaust, are they allowed to write about it?” He looked at me and with his well-known happy smile on his face bellowed back: “Yes, of course, why not?” Which spelt out to me clearly that they were not. The answer was all to do with his kindness and politeness, his philosophy of life. I neatly stored away this opinion, because in fact almost everything was ready for the book by this time, and I had only meant the question as a kind of final confirmation. And as this was what I had expected, the only things I included in the novel were positive facts and data that anyone could check up on – I did not allow my imagination to work. Perhaps at some points I reconstructed latent connections, doing the more abstract portion of the work on the material. I did not invent scenes, only perhaps conversations, dialogues, descriptions of locations.
There is an incident in the book where, at the end of the war, the prisoners are released from the labour camp near the small town of Pfeilen not far from the German Dutch border.
Yes, that is a true story, although it happened in a south German and not a north German town, and the deportees were released not from a camp but from a load of cattle wagons which the guards had simply abandoned at a station. When they got out, they were half crazy with thirst and hunger and the inhabitants of the little town beat them to death. This was my personal bit of field work, so to say, someone told me the most disgraceful secret of their place of birth, then I checked up on it, and in this sense it became my personal story.
It is an important and, to me, very attractive feature of your novel that the characters are always very present in the bodily sense. Their bodies are always signalling something, not only their sexual desires but everything else, too, just as it happens in life. But I know that many people find this irritating, asking why this has to be present in such detail.
I am sure it does not have to be, but with me it does. Full stop.
It is often said that Hungarian literature is prudish beyond all measure. All those texts are absent which could have been written, had the authors not repressed them. Attila József was one of the exceptions, Sándor Weöres another.
And László Lator’s latest poetry, Ádám Nádasdy’s poetry, many of Péter Esterházy’s books have also improved the situation.
A well as Ottó Orbán, Krisztina Tóth and András Pályi.
Or some of György Petri’s truly great poems. The recognition may be shocking, but the body actually continues from the head down, too. If for several centuries we all have to be jointly and uniformly silent about the body, the decay of the body, the working and functions of the body, this means that we need to be silent about a number of other ramifications, too. This means we expose ourselves to some truly dangerous things. Ignorance and a lack of self-awareness are genuinely dangerous. Reflection has never killed anybody, but violence has. Many people have died of the stupidity of doctors. Many people have died of rape and sexual aggression. On the other hand, just because a book talks about erotic love and digestion, it can still be kitsch. A book does not become a masterpiece simply by virtue of using the words dick and cunt. In terms of terminology, Bartók’s declaration is generally valid for all of us who come up against this question. He was a collector of folk songs and, of course, those are texts full of cunt. The problem is not to do with the word itself, but the filthiness of the quasi-Victorian bourgeois imagination. There has not been a single person alive yet who has not pronounced the word cunt, nor will there be. And if there does happen to be someone who has not said it, they have thought it. So where is the problem? Can someone tell me what to do about the word? Where am I to hide it? I could only be called pornographic if I sold these words bound in polythene so they don’t get soiled by masturbation, so that the petty bourgeois customer can use and re-use them in their well-deserved human solitude.
There is a scene in Flaubert’s Mme Bovary where Emma and Léon are in a cab all afternoon, but we find out nothing expressly about what goes on inside, except that from time to time Léon calls out, ‘drive on’. This is one extreme. The other extreme is if you devote a hundred pages to relating in detail what goes on inside the cab.
The scene in the cab is not an extreme because the reader is left to their imagination. We keep imagining each other in situations like this, and this way also exude erotic attraction toward each other. The other extreme does not really exist in European literature. More precisely, there are some grand attempts, people usually referred to in this context are Henry Miller or Harold Brodkey, where there is no pornography and no kitsch. What Miller is most interested in is what happens physically between two people, while Brodkey is intrigued by how you can perform a deeply religious and benign act by making love; how, if at all, you can give pleasure to a tremendously beautiful girl who turns out to be incapable of enjoyment. As the story was written by an American, of course you find out that you can. This is the heroic version. There are all sorts of other variants in French literature which are far less heroic. I started looking into this question in A Book of Memories, but I was not radical enough, because I was, so to say, preoccupied by the war of liberation and it diverted my attention. A great part of human imagination is taken up by erotic fantasies. People’s erotic activities also fill up a great part of their lives, and we know from the libertines just what a great interaction there exists between this activity and freedom fights against political oppression. It is a ridiculous expectation for all these details to be omitted from literature.
In an interview you gave to Swedish journalists in 1993 you mentioned the fact that the pages of Musil’s diaries were filled with potential characters whom he was all planning to incorporate into his novels, and this is why he never completed The Man Without Qualities. You said that this, as well as other great novels of the 20th century are novels of failure, because they cannot be completed. Did you not sense something similar yourself as you worked?
Yes I did. It was my utmost desire to write a novel which integrates incompletion as a basic structural feature. I cannot complete it. This is the only possible correlative of a non-symmetrical world. In a novel the point of departure and the closure are directly linked with the interpretation you give to the world and to the content that fills the frames of the book. My job is not to come up with compact theories for interpreting the world, but to retain the independence and spontaneity of the narrative alongside with the existing theories or in opposition of possible theories. The process should not break, even despite the fact that the world is not symmetrical and in theory the process should break.
You said you read a lot of background literature. What were the most important subject areas?
The holocaust, genetics, the two world wars, the social history of the cold war years, architecture, urban planning and criminal studies. The latter was of interest to me from an anthropological point of view, too, not only from the point of view of writing the investigation scenes. Then, I also read some good books on the history of fashion. People will go to incredible lengths just for the pleasure of wearing identical clothes, just to wear a uniform, to make sure that I can wear the same kind of jeans as you, except yours are red and mine are blue. I read three astonishing monographs on scents and perfumes. I read a lot of local history about German and Hungarian towns, particularly about Budapest.
Other scenes must have to do with your personal experiences. The experience of the Lukács bath or when you speculate that the Hungarian habit of home partying started on New Year’s night in 1956. According to the novel, in the early sixties prostitutes went to the Városliget Park, while Margit Island was the scene for gay night life. Where do you get that from?
None of these were where I say they were, at least as far as I know. I would warn motivated young people against dashing off to these places in search for something similar. However, if they happen to go there in great numbers, they can be sure to find each other before long. Places like this, however, did exist, do exist and shall exist in all major cities. By this I mean to say that there was no need for me to invent them with my filthy imagination. All large cities also have places where couples of different sexes look for each other’s proximity. But do not be unfair: the women here are not prostitutes and the men are not on the lookout for prostitutes. In fact they make a special point of it being all free and they make sure that copulation should take place between civilians only. There was a place like that in Budapest, too, in the sixties, but it was not the Városliget. That was just something I invented for Professor Lehr. The reason I chose the Városliget was that for years after World War II it used to be a dangerous place, a place where people played around not only with anonymous sexual pursuits but also with the mortal fear of being found out. They had to fear muggers and gangs of hooligans out to beat up gays, but they were also exposed to police harassment in the name of the moral world order which induces erotic tension in them. A great many things are factually correct in the novel, but there are things which are not. I am a novelist, after all.
The novel covers the history of Hungarian society roughly from the 1930’s up until the 1960’s, with World War II in the centre. What is it that you don’t know about this stretch of social history? I am asking because you seem to know all that is worth knowing about all strata, from the basic intellectual attitude of Professor Lippay-Lehr – to wit, that of licking the ass of any regime that happens to be in place –, through the life of Gyöngyvér Mózes who as a foster child is locked into the chicken pen for the night, all the way to the young gentry working for military intelligence and provincial Jewish wood merchants, from aristocratic ladies stuck inside Rákosi’s communist dictatorship through to proletarians turned personal secretary to the Prime Minister; from cabin attendants of the Gellért and Lukács baths to Gypsy road builders. I shall not ask about any more of them or we would never get to the end. All I ask is how would you advise contemporary fathers to bring up their children?
They must not lie to them. They should not pass on the heroic lies or the pious lies that they had inherited from their fathers ready to serve. They should separate their libido from the political wisdom of football fields and battle fields. It will make them happier, too. The world is going through such massive change anyway, indeed, on a global scale we are moving from a paternalistic toward a maternalistic society.
This is a shortened version of an interview originally published in Hungarian in Élet és Irodalom (4 November, 2005).