04. 02. 2004. 08:27

The coolness of freedom

An interview with Péter Nádas

"I have a more intense relationship with people than with the objects of nature or sentences or works of art. Life is always primary; everything else is feedback."

We were just driving and driving on from one small village to another in the South of Hungary, and gradually we started to have the feeling that we are driving off the map...  At a certain point we could not even laugh any longer: we felt that this village called Gombosszeg does not even exist. And it surely would not exist if it wasn't for Péter Nádas whom nobody among those sitting in the car hesitated to call one of the greatest European writers of our time.

Do your personal relationships come anywhere near the intimate, sensual relationship you have with language? Is it right to deduce from your books that it is your relationship with language that is stronger, more crucial?

No, it is not. It is always reality, the crude facts of life that come first. I have a more intense relationship with people than with the objects of nature or sentences or works of art. Life is always primary; everything else is feedback. If one did not have some physical, psychological handicap, or what feels like a handicap, if this overwhelming angst did not divert one from others, one would never get into such an isolating profession. It is not anxiety but a necessary isolation that defines artistic or literary activity. We all have anxiety; a human being is not conceivable without anxiety. Whoever lives without anxiety is scandalous. But after all, the object created in isolation is not made for somebody or something, nor even for money, but for all the things together that make up human society, people who might be important for me - or would be, if I had room for them. It is certain that life comes first. And yet, compared to the work of art, life as a whole is crap. History is crap; technology with all its developments is crap, compared to the work of art.

Living in this shelter of a garden that you never leave, as you say, for months on end sometimes, can you exclude the outside world?

There are things I must exclude because of my work. But I can't keep away from everything. You don't keep away from things simply because you live in a village, but the perspective is different. Thirty years ago, I used to work as a journalist, and I enjoyed it immensely to leave civilization behind in the morning for quite incredible places only 80 kilometres away, to talk with people who lived in completely different circumstances, and to come back and see an opera in the evening. I enjoyed these changes of perspective immensely. One is excited by chaos, the unpredictable whirl of life, where anything can happen, and what's more, you do expect anything to happen, for instance that someone would turn up and fall in love with you, or save you. But in this game (for it is a great game of youth), after a while one's limitations become obvious: my own limitations, and the limitations of others. And once I recognise them, the whole game is no longer so exciting.

In the nineties, the role of literature changed. How did this affect you? It seems as if it did not affect you that something about the weight and prestige of fiction has changed radically. 

It did. The transition was a real problem for me, even before the changes. I had to stop writing the novel I've been working on ever since, because I got tired of fiction. Reality became more interesting, with people shouting under my window, saying, this could not go on. I felt just the same. And this common sensation was more interesting.

Shouting? The forty-odd inhabitants?

There was shouting in front of the shop. Now there is silence. The change in history entered the world of literature. It took me unawares.

Unawares, in which of your roles?

As a thinker. The realm of the unreasonable and the meaningless had already been unbearable for the thinking mind, the fact that nothing functioned properly, that everything must be substituted with something else. It took up my whole lifetime, more or less. But I couldn't predict that the terror of the unreasonable would collapse, just like that. My thoughts, my life had been conditioned to take it all for granted. To consider the power of weapons greater than the power of reason. And at this critical point it turned out that the lack of reason rusted weapons so they could not be used against you. I could not foresee this, but I realized sooner than others what this meant, and saw how big a collapse we were facing.

Back to the original question: how did the decrease in the role of literature, and the end of censorship affect your existence as a writer?

Some writers were resolved to challenge and outwit the censors. But this was a political function, once again, to substitute a non-existent role in society with something else. My whole so-called activity as a writer was intended to avoid that trap. I did not want to substitute anything. My sentence was not to substitute any non-existent social function. The sentence was not to mean anything, for God's sake, anything but what was written on the paper. With the very words I picked out, as the hen picks out seeds.

Were you carried away by the euphoria that followed the change of the regime?

No. The collapse and whatever came after filled me with no euphoria. I'm not an enthusiastic person. It rather gave me a sense of freedom, but also a sense of the incredible coolness, weight and gravity of freedom. It gave me a sense of responsibility, the awareness that I was really acting in front of an audience, and so were others. That something greater was at stake in this game. And this is how the role of literature changed. Before then, the circumstances gave an excuse for failure. Now a bad sentence is just a bad sentence.

Does the level of everyday political discourse affect you in any personal way?

It does, but I don't feel inclined to shout back something even more shocking at someone shouting 'up yours'. Of course, I am obliged to acknowledge what this cursing means, as a symptom. Which is an intellectual operation: I have to abstract. In what sense is what he has said out of place, and then why did he say it? And if I am able to abstract, then I don't waste my time at that low level at which everybody is suffering anyway. This lack of abstraction is destructive. Someone who cannot abstract commits a crime.

Are they aware of the fact that they cannot abstract?

That is also an act of abstraction. But a crime committed unconsciously remains a crime all the same.

You have often stated that your work is based on self-observation.  

Self-observation cannot go deep enough to result in happiness. The less we use our reflective skills, the more we are at the mercy of our bad temper, and the more energy we need. We have to eat too much. And this makes our life complicated. It is not the same the other way round. The only complication is that one has to live among people who are incapable of self-reflection or, as a result of some erroneous economic calculation, do not want to use that skill.

How is it with writing? Isn't it just the opposite? In writing, you have to abstract the material resulting from the deepest possible self-observation, and the more minute details you gather, the more complicated it becomes to distil your experience into a formula that is both relevant to everybody and does not involve value judgements.

There are limits of course. My presence, my acts, the way I'm uttering these very words, all come before I can control them. But I have to control them, because of my fellow humans. I don't want you to go mad, or fall asleep out of boredom. So I have to stick to certain rules, to fulfil certain conditions. But alone, in writing, one often overwrites the text, out of self-ignorance. And then you need reflective skills to see what it is that has made your text overwritten. There is something you don't know, or don't want to know or admit, to accept either from yourself or from others. These are the dead ends of self-knowledge. These are the screwy texts. And there are over-edited texts.

Tibor Keresztury and Gabriella Györe

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