How to Read a Novelist:
Imre Kertész

The following essay is included in John Freeman’s How to Read a Novelist and reproduced here, in its entirety, in honor of the late Imre Kertész, who died at his home in Budapest on March 31, 2016.

Imre Kertész was born in 1929 in Budapest and received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2002. As a teenager, he was deported with many other Hungarian Jews, first to the Auschwitz concentration camp and then to Buchenwald. His experience of surviving formed the basis for his first novel, Fatelessness (1975). Kertész’s career as a playwright and novelist has closely tracked the fallout of post-Nazi-era Hungary, and the dissolution of this memory and collapse of communism. I spoke to Kertész through an interpreter upon the publication of his 2004 novel, Liquidation, which imagines the end point of Holocaust memories in a society much like his own.

For a man who spent the better part of fifty years thinking about suicide, Imre Kertész wears an alarmingly broad smile. “Albert Camus once said that suicide is the only philosophical problem,” says the seventy- five year-old Hungarian writer, speaking through an interpreter at the offices of his American publisher. “I tend to agree.”

One part of Kertész is playing a coy game here. After all, his latest novel, Liquidation, concerns a Holocaust survivor named B., who writes a play in which he is a character. At the end of the play, which is also called Liquidation, the character B. commits suicide. As Kertész’s novel begins, the real B. commits suicide, leaving behind questions of his motivation.

This dizzying metaphysical paradox—the idea that survival in the conventional sense is conforming, and that true survival sometimes means taking matters into one’s own hands—has been at the root of all Kertész’s work. Kaddish for an Unborn Child, his fourth novel, examines this dilemma from the perspective of a Holocaust survivor who cannot bring a child into a world where mass murder occurs.

To live is to conform—so why live?"

Fatelessness, the novel that was singled out by the Nobel committee as his masterwork, mirrors Kertész’s own experience of being imprisoned in Buchenwald and Auschwitz as a teenager, of surviving and then realizing life in the world and life in the camps share the same philosophical problem: To live is to conform—so why live?

Kertész has been pondering this question ever since he was liberated from Buchenwald, but it took him almost thirty years to find the form to express it in a book. After being released he worked as a literary translator and from 1949 to 1951 as a journalist, but he was deemed unfit for the job.

“Whenever there was an article that we had to write about Mátyás Rákosi, who was basically Hungary’s Stalin, there were three adjectives that you had to use,” he says. “I remember actually dictating my last article to the typist, and I had these two adjectives that came to my mind, but I couldn’t remember the third. So there she was, her fingers hanging in limbo; we were going to print, and there was nothing that came to my mind as the third adjective. And I just had to admit for a fact that I was unsuitable.”

For the next three de cades, Kertész wrote musical comedies to finance his literary works. “These were absolutely written for the purpose of making a living,” Kertész says when I ask him if we will see these plays published anytime soon, “and I was actually very conscious of making sure they had absolutely no literary value.”

Back then Kertész told no one about his real writing. In Hungary at that time one had to distance oneself from the whole aura of success, because in that system success was a completely false path. Anyone who has experienced life under communism would write novels like Kaddish and Fatelessness.”

Eventually, after having shorn more than a thousand pages from his manuscript, Kertész completed Fatelessness at the age of forty-four. It was published in 1975 and the response in Hungary was modest.

The book had a much greater impact in Germany. “I got stacks of letters from German readers—young people also,” Kertész says without bitterness. He eventually moved to Berlin and has lived there for the last decade.

It has taken a long time for him to get letters from English-speaking readers. Fatelessness wasn’t published in an English version until 1992, and even then it languished at a small university press. In 2004, in the wake of the Nobel Prize, Vintage Books published the novel along with Kaddish for an Unborn Child in new translations by Tim Wilkinson, who has also translated some of Kertész’s essays.

In some way, Kertész seems to blame the book’s failure in the English language on its previous translation. “I should say, really, that it was unfavorable circumstances. The novel was published here, a rather mistranslated version. These new ones are the ones that I really would adopt,” he says.

Kertész will also have another shot at English readers when the fi lm version of Fatelessness is released. After funding problems, the movie is finally under way. Kertész has written the screenplay.

“A professional is incapable of following this very slow, linear line of events in the movie,” says Kertész, in one of his characteristically straightforward comments, “because they fear the movie will be boring if things don’t happen. Analytical prose is actually not something you can transpose onto the screen. So what I was really striving to do was to write, if you wish, a version of the novel that actually works well on the screen.”

In the meantime, Kertész’s relationship with Hungarian readers has been positive, but strains do show from time to time. For example, at a reading on the day of our interview, while he received a standing ovation from most of the audience, some hard-line conservative Hungarians among them whistled and jeered. This is not an uncommon experience for Kertész, wherever he reads. His interpreter explained to me that a small minority believe Kertész’s Nobel Prize is the result of “the Jewish lobby.”

It is an ugly reminder that Hungary has had conflicting feelings about the Holocaust. The country’s pro-Nazi government during World War II aided in the deportation and eventual death of six hundred thousand Hungarian Jews, and talk about Hungary’s role during that time still touches a nerve. Although he is not bitter about this, Kertész believes there is a link between this period of collaboration and the rise of communism. He has written about it in a novel called Fiasco.

Often labeled a Holocaust writer, Kertész says the influence of communism was equally powerful, and it was through this second survival of sorts that he became the writer he is today. “You constantly, constantly think about the idea of suicide— especially if you live under a dictatorship,” he says. “I believe I would have written very different novels had I lived in a democracy.”

When he talks of this period, Kertész gets a wistful, almost faraway look in his eye, as if the lack of friction in his world now has made him—or his work—obsolete. It’s a worry that B. struggles with in Liquidation as well.

“In retrospect, when I look back on these really dark ages between the sixties and the nineties, when it comes to suicides and the ‘suicide game’—and when I use this term I use it in the serious sense of Goethe—I do have a sense of longing for it,” says Kertész. “Back then it gave me very fertile ground for my thoughts to develop.”

Kertész explains that his novels form a quartet about the Holocaust, with Fatelessness describing the camps, Fiasco describing the aftermath in Hungary, Kaddish for an Unborn Child delving into a survivor’s metaphysical grief, and Liquidation approaching the dissolution of Holocaust memories with the deaths of actual survivors. Kertész says he wrote Liquidation, like all his other novels, out of a feeling of happiness. When I tell him that, once again, he seems to have formed a rather thorny paradox—novels about the Holocaust and suicide coming from a happy place—he laughs. “Well, I killed the character. I survived.”

December 2004

About the Author

John Freeman is the author of How to Read a Novelist and an award-winning writer and book critic who has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, and The Wall Street Journal. He won the 2007 James Patterson Pageturner Award for his work as the president of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in New York City.