11. 15. 2007. 18:20

The book of coincidence

Péter Nádas: Own Death

The long list of the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for 2008 has been announced. Péter Nádas' Own Death, an account of the writer's heart attack, with a hundred and sixty photos of one single tree taken by the author, is among the 137 books nominated by libraries the world over. – Zsófia Bán's review.

There are several kinds of books that work with texts and images. The most common kind is in which the text is illustrated by the images, or, in other words, where the images evoke visually whatever is present in the text textually, as if to prove it. Another kind is the one in which the images are presented independently, in a separate section, either at the beginning of the book (a famous example is Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans) or at the end. Here the images do not merely illustrate the text: they tackle the same subject from an independent perspective and within an independent structure – sometimes with radically different methods ( as in the case of the previous type, here the pictures and the text usually have separate authors). Then there is the so called photo album, in which the leading role is obviously played by the images, complemented by a text at the beginning or at the end of the book, presenting, explaining or critically reflecting on the images, and usually not written by the photographer himself.
And finally, there is the type of book in which image and text exist parallelly, supporting, but not necessarily complementing – and definitely not illustrating – each other, each giving voice to a different kind of presence or absence. They hold on to each other, yet do not fit seamlessly, constituting a whole with all the gaps and hiatuses between them. In such books, the pictures and the text may happen to be authored by the same person: this is the case in Péter Nádas' Own Death.
The writer is a photographer, the photographer is a writer: here this concurrence is not just a matter of rare, lucky coincidence, a special gift for the readers (Some Light – published in 1999 – was just that), but an organic feature of the book. For Own Death narrates an event whose most essential feature – differentia specifica – is co-incidence, the story of the book being a dispassionate, exact account of Nádas' heart attack and his subsequent reanimation. The form and structure of Own Death reflects its content most adequately and precisely, with a perfect coincidence of writer and photographer, text and image, body and soul, life and death, fullness and emptiness. On the one hand, we have a stunningly powerful text that gains force from the quasi-clinical precision, the profoundly conscious rhetoric of non-transcendence which is the most singular feature of this text. The simultaneous delight and pain, joy and horror, exaltation and depression expressed in this text was called 'the sublime' by 17th-18th century European thinkers. Nádas' carefully stripped text puts a rule of great rhetoricians into practice, namely the one claiming that the sublime is sometimes best transmitted in extremely simple language, by virtue of opposing the audience's expectation for a more lofty tone. The best rhetorical trick is the one which is not even recognized.
Another way in which Nádas' method as a writer goes against the Romantic tradition of the sublime is by linking the inexpressible to a particular here and now rather than to another time and place, to an afterlife, another world, a past or future time – without giving up the claim to point at and bear witness to the inexpressible. Here let me express my reservations concerning the design of the book (by Hans Werner Holzwarth). I feel that whenever a single sentence appears on a separate page – taken out of the text, as if elevated on a stage –, this procedure goes against the emphatic simplicity, anti-Romanticism and anti-dramatic character of the text (which is absolutely justified by the subject). This enhancement of the page-setting – which is essentially a kind of visual italicization – produces a dramatic effect against which the text itself works with great determination and success. The book had the greatest effect on me when a continuous text was set on the page opposite the picture: then it is me reading the picture, reading the text, and reading the void between them.
Although the linearity of the text embodies temporality, the narrative here expresses and points to intemporality. By contrast, the imagespictures, which are traditionally interpreted as icons of intemporality, refer to the problem of temporality in this book. The photos taken by the author of a wild pear tree standing in his garden, every day for a whole year, show the momentary state of existence: their leitmotif is change. They are taken with two different techniques and in two different sizes, and accordingly reflect time differently. The quality of the smaller, polaroid pictures is probably supposed to suggest this momentariness or ordinariness. These pictures impress one as more frail and transitional. They are, in a sense, more like signs, whereas the larger pictures are like epiphanies. And because of their unexpected sense of fullness one feels some kind of lack when looking at the smaller pictures, a kind of melancholy. That we cannot see the details more clearly, that we cannot come closer. Which is the essence of this book: approaching and moving away.
(This is a shortened version of a review published in Hungarian in Testre szabott élet – Nádas Péter Saját halál és Párhuzamos történetek címu muveirol, Kijárat Kiadó, 2007, Budapest, ed. Péter Rácz I., pp. 36–39.)
Zsófia Bán
Péter Nádas: Own Death
Translated by János Salomon
Göttingen: Steidl, 2006

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