Péter Nádas - Interview

Péter Nádas is Hungary’s leading contemporary writer. A scholar not only of literature, but of culture, horticulture, and above all the human body and its communications, Nádas presents a picture of temperament and elegance in the great tradition of the European intellectual. He has often been compared, perhaps syntactically, to the high realists Robert Musil and Marcel Proust. Susan Sontag, one of Nádas’s earliest and most vocal champions, compares his plays to the “encounter-dramas of Pina Bausch” and the “declamatory plays of Thomas Bernhard.” I myself see him, in many ways, as the Thomas Mann of our times.

Born into a fascinating literary culture, isolated from but enveloped by the vast history of Christian Europe, in a denuded country just rebuilding from World War II, the worst catastrophe in its tumultuous thousand-year history, Nádas chronicles the peaceful prison that was (and is) Hungary in a passionate, playful, and eloquent voice. His perspicacity is disconcertingly palpable—in his measured body language, his eyes, and his laugh. When we met in Hungary in 2000, he seemed to look right through me; I felt as though I had lost a chess match on the first move. As one of the protagonists of A Book of Memories, his huge experimental novel, muses at a banquet: “I had to offer my face and eyes for the first time for close inspection, which is always a very critical moment.”

Perhaps the pre-eminent chronicle of life in Soviet Europe (Sontag called it “the greatest novel written in our time, and one of the great books of the century”), A Book of Memories is Nádas’s observation of the cosmopolitan experience behind the Iron Curtain. He began the book in the early ’70s and worked on it for more than ten years, under very dangerous circumstances, even though he imagined that it would never be published under the Communist regime in Hungary. It did finally come out in 1986, and 11 years later it was published in the US by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. One of the most appealing strategies Nádas employed in putting together the novel, so that he could see it as a continuum during those many years of creation, was to mount a dress rehearsal of the last chapter. By adapting it as a play, Nádas managed to elude the censors and satisfy himself as to its strength.

In addition to A Book of Memories, Nádas’s works in English currently in print include The End of a Family Story (FSG, 1998), an autobiographical tale that explores the depths of family tragedy in early Communist Hungary, and the ability to find catharsis around it; Own Death (Steidl, 2006), also a somewhat autobiographical chronicle, of a man who suffers a mortal attack and slips into and out of the earthly world—a tale juxtaposed with photos taken of a wild pear tree near Nádas’s rural home near the medieval city of Pécs; and the forthcoming collection of his stories and essays, Fire and Knowledge (FSG, August 2007), which illuminates Hungary’s evolution since the fall of Soviet Europe, and which gives us a deeper appreciation of Nádas’s reach. His most recent novel, the colossal Parallel Stories —a complex of tales that converge into one narrative—runs to some 1,500 pages and took him 12 years to write. It has been heralded by some as the most important new novel of the century. It appeared in Hungary in 2005 (Jelenkor), and is not yet available in English.

This interview, which began in person in 2000 when I was in Budapest on a Fulbright scholarship and culminated in email exchanges in 2007 between Montreal and the Hungarian countryside, was realized with the help of György Kalmár of the University of Debrecen and Janos Salamon, the translator into English of Own Death and our deft interpreter/mediator.

Davis Kovacs Did you have a strategy for maintaining the narrative balance in A Book of Memories? There is so much grace in the harmonic rhythm of the sentences, paragraphs, and chapters: an almost sublime stylistic monotony, a hypnotic music, consistent and powerful, that washes over the reader in the same way that waterfalls wash over moss. The modulations and counterpoint are intricate yet seem to belie the principles of nature itself. And though you use several narrators, all seem to maintain the same corporeal-focused, intense temperament, which captures for me the midcentury Hungarian disposition in the work of photographer André Kertész and the filmmaker and writer Béla Balázs. I guess what I am getting at is the following: Is your narrative balance a specific function of your characterization of the protagonists, or do you have some other alchemy at work?

Péter Nádas This was all part of a methodology, and what made it very hard to maintain that methodology was the fact that this book took 12 years to write. And for this reason I terrorized my immediate environment because my instinct was to keep everything just as it was. I didn’t want anything to happen; I wanted to make sure that I could sit at my desk the next morning in the same condition as before, because I was afraid that I just couldn’t continue if anything had changed. I am accused of being a sensualist, but I was really a monk. In the fourth or fifth year, I knew what the last sentence would be, so that was seven years before I finished . . . . I was so aware of what the last chapter would be about that I became immune to the effect. That is why I had to put it on stage, to distance myself from it, to take a fresh look at it. Writers probably possess different kinds of knowledge as they get into their work. My type is the type that sees structures. And at certain central points of the structures, I see scenes. So it’s a dilemma because I can see those scenes at crucial points of the structure, but I am not certain whether these disparate scenes can be built together into a whole story. It might just be that when I get to the scene that I had envisioned, the structural grounds that I had built up to that point might compel me to go in a different direction.

There is this constant play between the structure and the scenes. It is like a scientific hypothesis that will either be verified by a certain experience or falsified. In that sense the part of the novel that is already finished up to that point where I have to make the decision about the scene, is like a series of experiments that will tell me either to keep that scene or to drop it, or to reform it. But just like in a scientific experiment there is a strict methodology, a research plan, because it makes a difference where you start these experiments. The hypothesis can collapse not just because it is a faulty experiment, but also if you started the experiment in the wrong place, and then you just have to start from a different point. If I myself find it interesting at the end of the day and I am not bored by the scene that I am writing, if I don’t want to get up and make a fire, or if I can still repair it by resorting to formal tricks, that is fine. But I can’t trick myself. If I am bored, then I know it is no good. So either I can detect the place in the scene where I was self-deceiving or superficial, and then I can do something, or I can’t and I just drop it.

DK What do you think about Gertrude Stein’s statement from How to Write: “A sentence is not emotional, a paragraph is”?

PN I would like to say that it is possible to have great emotional movements within a paragraph, and I think that it should always be so. It is not really a question of mechanical division, but how one can tolerate monotony, or what one’s relationship is to monotony. And what one’s relationship is to symmetry and asymmetry, which is a sub-problem of monotony. The question is whether monotony should be broken up by symmetry or asymmetry. There is another subdivision of this problem: It might be the case that it would be good to break this monotony for the continuity of the character. This character has a long presence; this dilemma has to be solved. In that sense the content sometimes overrules the strategy that you meant to follow, and this is a case where the omnipotent writer is making a decision keeping in mind the reader’s point of view, which would dictate a more formal structure, to break the monotony and to prevent boredom, but at the same time he is following his own strategy, which he designed for the character, and that would dictate the free play of philosophical or emotional aspects of the story or the character, which has a different inner structure.

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