05. 25. 2006. 09:07

The escapologist

Imre Kertész: K dosszié (Dossier K)

"Either we meet death blind or we face it openly – it makes little practical difference. I prefer to face it, because this brings me a life which is more complete and, in the final balance, more joyful. You could say I am a hedonist, if you like."

Most eminent novelists sooner or later reach a point where, under external or internal pressure, they draw a balance of their lives, try to gauge how their true story had influenced their works and assess the role it had played. Whether all of this manifests itself in the form of a long dialogue, a diary, a memoir or an autobiography is a matter of personal constitution. To mention but two very divergent examples: authors either write their own version of Facts, like Philip Roth or their Confessions, like Aurelius Augustinus. Add to this the consideration, mentioned by the eminent Hungarian critic Péter Dérczy in his review of Kertész’s latest book, that Hungary has seen a growing interest in works of the autobiographical type over the past ten years. Add furthermore that Imre Kertész is the only Hungarian who has ever won a Nobel prize for literature, and it appears hardly surprising that we now have Dossier K, Imre Kertész’s new book, which fits into the line of autobiographical writings.
Or does it? Although we are talking about a book written in dialogue form in which the author reviews his life, there are two important characteristics affecting its status. On the one hand, the author denies the idea of teleological order inherent in autobiography. He is unable and unwilling to posit some sort of a meaningful endpoint toward which life is progressing. On the other hand, right at the beginning of the book he lands the reader in doubt as to its genre (an autobiography? a novel?) and its form (dialogue? monologue?). He relates how Zoltán Hafner, his friend and editor recorded several cassettes of material regarding his life and then sent him the edited material.

"After reading the first few sentences I pushed the pile of manuscripts to one side, and with an almost involuntary gesture opened my laptop… This is how this book came into existence… the only book I ever wrote under external pressure rather than driven from within. In this sense, it is a proper autobiography. If, however, we accept the proposal of Nietzsche, who derives the genre of the novel from Platonic dialogues, we can say that the reader is holding a novel in his hands."

There are numerous examples to show that this kind of vacillation between autobiography and novel, reality and fiction is no accident. Talking of Fatelessness, Kertész notes in the early pages of the present book: "Look, this is a fundamental question. Decades later, when I decided to write a novel, I had to put into words very clearly, for my own use, what was the difference between a novel and an autobiography, the genre of 'remembrance'."

Kertész protests against critics labelling Fatelessness an autobiographical novel, claiming there is no such genre. "While autobiography is the recollection of something that existed, fiction creates a new world." At a later point in the conversation, it is also revealed why he insists on this distinction with regard to Fatelessness. He describes the fact of Auschwitz as something that is inherent in human history and can be deduced from it, but is not actually a logical consequence, since
"where Auschwitz starts, logic ends. It is replaced by a different type of urge to think: something that is very similar to logic, because it guides you on, but not along the track of logic. This is in fact the thread that I am looking for, this track of inverted thinking which makes absurdity appear like the tightest logic, because in the trap of Auschwitz you have no other choice. […] I don’t know when the thought first came to my mind that there must be some horrific error, some diabolic irony at work in the world, which you experience as proper, normal life. This terrible error is culture itself, the system of ideas, the language and the concepts which shield you from recognising that you are already a well oiled cog in the machine constructed for your destruction. The secret of survival is collaboration, but by admitting this you come to face such a burden of shame which you prefer to reject rather than assume. Let’s not go into this now. On the other hand it is a fact that when I first understood this, my whole attitude changed. I became able to imagine the world, language and thoughts of a character like this [Gyuri Köves], but I could no longer merge with him. In other words, what I am trying to say is that while I created this character, I forgot myself…"

Thus, the separation of autobiography and fiction follows from gaining a radical understanding of how the killing of six million Jews is entirely meaningless for the solitary individual, and, in the case of Imre Kertész, for the survivor. Kertész is writing the same book even now, the book he started writing with Fatelessness, and it is within this one book that the reality of autobiography finds its place: as its foundation, much rather than its genuine meaning.

"I probably have a slightly different metabolic relationship to reality than other people. Something that would torment most people as an indigestible idea turns out for me to be raw material for a novel, and while it takes shape, I am gradually relieved of it."

The present volume is also the fruit of such an exchange between fiction and reality. The author reviews his life, alighting briefly on each family member, offering delightful miniatures of them as well as of the Hungary of the times. He revisits the Budapest of World War II, the coup of the gendarmerie, the deportations, life in the concentration camp, his relationship with his family, his return home, the essential readings of his youth, the noisy life he led after the liberation, his wives, his decision that he would enter a kind of internal emigration, exiting the state while staying in the country; the writing and completion of his first novel, Fatelessness, and the everyday life that followed its not-too-enthusiastic reception. In other words, we are offered insights into everything: what he likes to read and why, how he lived his everyday life, what he thinks about this or that. At the same time, he clearly uses the facts of his life, and moulds the train of the conversation to produce the shape that the book finally takes.

This volume is an autobiography for two voices: after the introduction, however, it remains uncertain throughout to what extent the other voice represents the interviewer, Zoltán Hafner, and to what extent it remains a mere force inspiring the dialogue which, in the latter case, is the sole product of Imre Kertész. If it is a dialogue, it is simultaneously an homage to the Platonic tradition and thus to the "horrific mistake", Greek philosophy, at the base of this culture. It also subverts this tradition by using its own language to waive the confidence in culture. He revives the definition of the novel used by Nietzsche who, as a classical philologist, is a sworn enemy of all European philosophy after the pre-Socratics, convinced as he is that this was the point from which European culture, based on Greek thought, failed to establish any genuine relationship with reality. (Relevantly, several of Nietzsche’s books were translated into Hungarian by Imre Kertész.)

This play with culture recurs at several points in the book, including its very title. Beyond Kertész’s own initial, the title also echoes the name of Joseph K, thus invoking Kafka’s world. Kertész quotes an important sentence from The Trial: "Judgement does not come all at once – it is the process that becomes the verdict." The world which he is given to live in is equally irrational as that which Joseph K lived in from the time the verdict was passed until it was carried out. At the same time, Kertész is able to shape it in accordance with his own understanding of truth and justice by striving for truth, his own truth as he exits, as he escapes its confines, instead of evading the real questions.

"Your way of thinking is often declared to be pessimistic.
I don’t really know what that means. I believe that evading the final questions is not optimism, but cowardice. I can understand that, too, but optimists must die one day the same as pessimists. Either we meet death blind or we face it openly – it makes little practical difference. I prefer to face it, because this brings me a life which is more complete and, in the final balance, more joyful. You could say I am a hedonist, if you like.
Rather than a moralist.
Certainly not a moralist… […] After Auschwitz there is no need to pass any further judgement on human nature. […]
And how about justice?
Justice is no longer universal. […] To stand up for ourselves: this is the most difficult thing: it always has been. Our age does not favour the preservation of individuality: it is easier to succumb to grand ideas of changing the world than to hold on to our own, single, unrepeatable existence. Instead of justice to our own truth. But let’s not go into that here."

The entire dialogue, just as the section quoted above, emphasises serenity, joy, the beauty of the chance to live in this world.

The questioner is trying to elicit answers regarding the author’s relationship to his father. He is fascinated by the unspoken question regarding something that inevitably influences behaviour: how far Kertész was affected by the fact that his father caused him to exist as a Jew in a world where this meant nothing better than an ugly stigma, and much that is worse. It is in this context that Kertész analyses the internal conflicts which Jewishness could cause even to significant thinkers such as Otto Weininger and Ludwig Wittgenstein. He says he never found the solution either, but he decided to choose the path of honesty regarding the entire problematic. He could only do this after going through and surviving all that he had done.

"On the final balance, I side with joy. […] Even if this material seems rather gloomy, it is altered and saved by the form it takes, and turns joyful. This is because writing can only come from the plenitude of energy, i.e. from joy. Writing, and this is not my insight, is an enhanced form of life."

It is this enhanced form of life that the reader finds in this book. Those interested in the anecdotal episodes of life will find them. Anyone in search of the corner points of intellectual growth will not be disappointed. If you are interested in the method and the backstage secrets of the novelistic art, the way in which the novelist frees himself of his own life story, it is there on the pages of this volume. The book sees life itself, as well as the totality of our culture, as a playing field, since it is unable to survive in any other way.  This radical gesture of liberation renders the "file" an authentic part of the oeuvre, fit to rank as a novel.

Kertész Imre: K dosszié
Budapest: Magvető, 2006

Gabriella Györe

Tags: Imre Kertész