Tuesday, January 29, 2013

What is literary genius? Remarks on Imre Kertész

It reads: "You get what you deserve" or "to each his due," words inscribed on the gate looking out from the administration building at Buchenwald.  It was to Buchenwald that Imre Kertész was taken as boy, after spending, by his own account, three days in Auschwitz.  He survived, and wrote a trilogy of novels that, for me, offer one definition of literary genius--Fateless, (or, Fatelessness*), Kaddish for an Unborn Child, and Fiasco.  I toured the grounds of Buchenwald; it is, as the young narrator of Fateless says, an oddly idyllic spot, and yet the feeling of the place is more akin to another gate, another greeting, the one above the City of Woes encountered by Dante in Canto III of Inferno.

"The Wehrmacht occupied Hungary on March 19, 1944. On the previous day [Admiral Miklos] Horthy had met Hitler at Klessheim.  Under the threat of unilateral military action, the Nazi leader compelled the regent to accept the German occupation and set up a pro-German government.  Hitler also demanded that some 100,000 Jews be delivered 'for labor' in Germany. Horthy submitted."**

In Fateless, the young narrator, György Köves, is taken from his home in Budapest to Auschwitz, and then on  to Buchenwald, and finally to a small camp at Zeitz.  He nearly dies, presumably of typhus, but survives his ordeal to return home "[A]t about the same time of year as I had left. At any rate, the forests all around Buchenwald were green, grass was already sprouting over the mass graves of buried corpses . . . "

As I made my way through this slender novel, whose bland, two-line plot summary, given above, makes it sound like one of  many novels about the Holocaust, it occurred to me that I was in the presence of something else entirely--I was reading a book that was a work of genius, and I wondered aloud at the effect Kertész's oddly understated style was having on me.  Halfway through Fateless, I told my colleague Peter Nash how moved I was by the book, and what genius Kertész possessed, but I was hard pressed to say what I meant.  What does the term "literary genius" mean?  Many writers nowadays appear to write "works of genius," but I confess to having encountered few such works, and am often disappointed to find this high praise attached to the most quotidian of books.

In Fiasco, the "old boy," Köves himself, lives in a tiny, precisely described apartment with his wife, is a writer, and reminiscences about the process of composing his first novel (which was Fateless, published in 1975): "My work--writing the novel--actually consisted of nothing else than a systematic atrophying of my experiences in the interest of an artificial--or if you prefer, artistic--formula that, on paper, and only on paper, I could judge as an equivalent of my experiences." And, "As soon as I started to write the novel, I stopped remembering." [74-5; my emphasis]

As counter-intuitive as these sentences sound, they are correct, and capture the genius of Fateless: Kertész doesn't reproduce his experiences, or capture them in language--he relives them, with the reader as witness, right on the page.  Fateless isn't a novel of the Holocaust told from the point of view of history, or narrated retrospectively--with the burden of history's cunning imposed by our memories--Kertész tells the story of his experience of the "Endlösung der Judenfrage" as the child he was, believing in the goodness of adults, trusting that his life would continue, that no one, certainly no German, could wish him ill.  The books is, as the author tells us, lived and not told. 

Young Köves, newly arrived in Auschwitz, reports his impressions--one wishes to say "naive" impressions, but could they have been other than what they were?  Who could believe what the camp was for, what the thick smoke, the odor portended? The lack of irony makes this passage wrenching: "...I saw no sign of confusion or fear in the German soldiers near us. I remembered the terrified reactions at home to air raids, and this superb calm, this invincibility, suddenly helped me to understand better the respect with which people at home in general spoke of Germans. Just then I noticed two lightning-bolt symbols on their collars. I realized that they must belong to the famous SS troops, of which I had already heard so much back home."  Köves's mind reaches backward, to "what he heard at home" and extends no further than the point where he stands--in the gravel, just off the train from Budapest, hungry and thirsty, but not terrified, not yet terrified.  Literary genius, it occurred to me, is this quality: not to mirror reality, or to comment on the world, or to report one's state of mind, but to unfold the world as it is experienced, purely and clearly, as if for the first time, through the words of someone who appears to know no more than the reader. 

Every student of Wittgenstein's Tractatus is familiar with the famous seventh aphorism, the tautology which states that "Those things of which we cannot speak, we must pass over in silence."  Of course.  But far more interesting is an earlier aphorism which says that "the meaning of the world lies outside of the world."  When Kertész writes in Fiasco: "I was taken to Auschwitz not by the train in the novel but by a real one," he is asserting the primacy of experience over both language and memory; in Fateless, Kertész comes as close to opening for the reader the terror of the Holocaust as one can come.  This, for me, is one way of thinking about literary genius: both extending the reach of expression and showing what lies beyond it, in the realm of the unspeakable.

*At the university library, I looked up Sorstalanság in a fat Hungarian-English dictionary; it means "fatelessness."  My copy, translated by Christopher C. and Katherine M. Wilson and published in 1992 in the wonderful Northwestern University Press series of European fiction (this was a full decade before  Kertész won the Nobel Prize), is called Fateless.  Tim Wilkinson, a noted translator of Hungarian fiction, has produced a version, titled Fatelessness, and published it with Vintage Books in 2004.  Wilkinson's Fiasco, published by another great press, Melville House, was a delight (I'm awaiting Kaddish in the mail).  I have no basis for comparing the translations and have quoted the earlier Wilson version here.

**From Saul Friedlander, Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945: The Years of Extermination.

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