Interviews

Imre Kertész, The Art of Fiction No. 220

Interviewed by Luisa Zielinski

At the beginning of our first session, Imre Kertész told me that he moved to Berlin “not for the architecture, but for the life”—the air of culture and freedom. This is a life in which Kertész can no longer take part, for he is in the last stages of a battle with Parkinson’s disease. Our interview was clearly taxing for him. Although he speaks fluent German, Kertész relied on his good friend Can Togay both to relay his answers to me and to translate my questions from German into Hungarian. At times, it was all Kertész could do to follow his own train of thought; our conversations were interspersed with pauses when he grew tired or needed help shifting position in his chair.

Kertész was born in 1929, in Budapest, into a Jewish family. He was deported to Auschwitz in 1944, and then to Buchenwald. The Holocaust and its aftermath are the central subjects of his best-known novels—Fatelessness (1975), Fiasco (1988), Kaddish for an Unborn Child (1990), and Liquidation (2003)—as well as his memoirs, such as Dossier K. (2006). When Kertész was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 2002, the committee lauded his writing for upholding the “fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history.” Yet for Kertész, the Holocaust is not the stuff of personal anecdotes. Instead, it represents a rupture in civilization, the implications of which he explores far beyond his own personal experience. “Auschwitz,” as he has said, “is everywhere.”

Despite the pain he was in, Kertész maintained a sly, courtly sense of humor throughout our two sessions, and he spoke with the clarity and conviction familiar to readers of his books. His wife, Magda, was an attentive hostess, plying the three of us with white wine and goose-liver sandwiches while we sat close around a dictaphone in a corner of the Kertészes’ elegant, high-ceilinged living room. I wish to express my gratitude to her and especially to Imre Kertész for welcoming me into their home under such difficult circumstances.

—Luisa Zielinski

 

INTERVIEWER

What was your introduction to literature? Did anyone in your family write?

KERTÉSZ

No one in my family wrote. And there was no real introduction. I suppose I somehow blundered into it when I was about six or seven years old. I was asked what present I would like, and, without knowing why, I responded that I would like a journal. It was a beautiful journal—so beautiful that I didn’t want to sully it. As time went by, I tried to write and ended up resenting everything I put on paper. And so I tried to improve what was already there. I think a man turns into a writer by editing his own texts. Then all of a sudden I realized that I had, in fact, become a writer.

INTERVIEWER

When was this?

KERTÉSZ

When I was twenty-four. I have written about that many times—the moment it struck me, right there on the street.

INTERVIEWER

Is that the moment at the heart of The Union Jack?

KERTÉSZ

Yes, and it also appears in Fiasco. But really, it didn’t make much sense for me to start writing. My financial circumstances weren’t such that I could afford to be a writer. I didn’t even have a pen.

INTERVIEWER

So in light of such adverse circumstances, what was it that drew you toward a life in letters?

KERTÉSZ

I could spend my entire life talking about this, and write countless books on the subject along the way. But we would lose ourselves in these stories. And really, we writers shouldn’t tell anyone. We should conduct our profession in private, in secret.

It’s because we writers feel a certain way . . . Writing changed my life. It has an existential dimension, and that’s the same for every writer. Every artist has a moment of awakening, of happening upon an idea that grabs hold of you, regardless of whether you are a painter or a writer. The change in my life wasn’t professional—it was a moment of profound awakening.

I was interned in Auschwitz for one year. I didn’t bring back anything, except for a few jokes, and that filled me with shame. Then again, I didn’t know what to do with this fresh experience. For this experience was no literary awakening, no occasion for professional or artistic introspection. I had no idea what it was exactly that I wanted, and figuring that out was a struggle. But even then, writing wasn’t my profession. It took a long time for me to learn even the basics of writing.

INTERVIEWER

You spent thirteen years working on your first novel, Fatelessness.

KERTÉSZ

That’s true, yes. But that doesn’t mean I spent every day laboring away at my novel . . . except, of course, I did! My life was very difficult in those days. The repressive atmosphere of the Communist years meant that I had to hide what I was up to. So it took a long time for the first sentences to take shape, for me to know what I wanted.

But I knew from the beginning that I wanted to write a novel. I knew I wanted to craft sentences. And what interested me more than anything were the totalitarian systems I lived in, whose reality is so difficult to convey in words.

INTERVIEWER

You wrote Fatelessness in the sixties and seventies, yet it deals with the Holocaust. Which historical episode exerted more of an influence on how the novel came to life?

KERTÉSZ

Well, I wrote the entire novel during the Communist period. I had no concept of what I was about to say, but my first challenge was to create a language, a form, and finally, a sujet.

I wanted to examine the particular existence, the experience of life within a totalitarian system. It was not at all clear to me how I could go about that stylistically. I had to forge a language from scratch, one sufficiently strong and precise. I didn’t just want to add to all the white noise around the topic. And anyway, I already felt that anyone who had lived through this era of totalitarianism would find it hard to become a successful, well-paid writer.

INTERVIEWER

What did you do to make a living during those years?

KERTÉSZ

A friend suggested that I write operettas, so that’s what I did. He was a very successful Broadway author—and I had absolutely no intention of following his example! This friend approached me one day, and for that you need to understand—I lived in a twenty-eight-square-meter flat with my wife. This friend saw what our lives were like and asked me whether I really wanted to starve to death. Of course I didn’t. So he suggested that I, too, write operettas. I knew nothing about writing operettas, but I did know how to write dialogue. So we agreed to come up with the plot together, after which I wrote the dialogue under his supervision, since I had no real concept of the work I was doing. I was lucky to be flexible stylistically, so I could simply execute the tasks I was given. He, on the other hand, was a slave to his passion.

INTERVIEWER

How did you combine this with working on Fatelessness?

KERTÉSZ

I would spend my evenings at this friend’s house, talk about operettas and all manner of things, but all of a sudden I would start thinking about my novel. A sentence would come to me. I wouldn’t talk about it and would just sit there—no one would’ve been able to tell. “I like the turnip better than the carrot,” that kind of sentence, declarative and unspectacular—I can’t reconstruct the sentence exactly, but at one point it dawned on me that this was going to be the method of my novel. Unremarkable as such a line may be, it illuminates the novel’s fundamental principle—my having to craft a new language. It’s quite funny that one sentence should bring this whole business to life.

There were three main considerations for me—language, form, and plot. This forced me to remain focused. I was aware that I was about to start writing a novel that might easily turn into a tearjerker, not least because the novel’s protagonist is a boy. But I invented the boy precisely because anyone in a dictatorship is kept in a childlike state of ignorance and helplessness. For that reason, I not only had to create a specific style and form, but I had to pay close attention to temporality.

As I was working on Fatelessness, Semprún’s The Long Voyage was published in Budapest. The book was much celebrated—yet Semprún had chosen the wrong technique, narrating only the most spectacular of events and mangling temporality in the process. It’s a spectacular method, but it’s just not true. Whereas if you tell the story of a child, you have to conceive of a temporality that is appropriate, for a child has no agency in his own life and is forced to endure all.

So as Semprún’s book was reaping so much praise, it became clear to me that if I were to be true to the story I had to tell, I would have to describe, from beginning to end, a situation—any situation—in which my protagonist finds himself, rather than opting merely for the spectacular moments. Take, for example, the famous twenty minutes it took to unload the trains at Auschwitz. That’s just how long it took, and a lot happened in these twenty minutes.

INTERVIEWER

In your Nobel Lecture you said, “The nausea and depression to which I awoke each morning led me at once into the world I intended to describe.” Did writing subdue this condition?

KERTÉSZ

I was suspended in a world that was forever foreign to me, one I had to reenter each day with no hope of relief. That was true of Stalinist Hungary, but even more so under National Socialism. The latter inspired that feeling even more intensely. In Stalinism, you simply had to keep going, if you could. The Nazi regime, on the other hand, was a mechanism that worked with such brutal speed that “going on” meant bare survival. The Nazi system swallowed everything. It was a machine working so efficiently that most people did not even have the chance to understand the events they lived through.

To me, there were three phases, in a literary sense. The first phase is the one just before the Holocaust. Times were tough, but you could get through somehow. The second phase, described by writers like Primo Levi, takes place in medias res, as though voiced from the inside, with all the astonishment and dismay of witnessing such events. These writers described what happened as something that would drive any man to madness—at least any man who continued to cling to old values. And what happened was beyond the witnesses’ capacity for coping. They tried to resist it as much as they could, but it left a mark on the rest of their lives. The third phase concerns literary works that came into existence after National Socialism and which examine the loss of old values. Writers such as Jean Améry or Tadeusz Borowski conceived their works for people who were already familiar with history and were aware that old values had lost their meaning. What was at stake was the creation of new values from such immense suffering, but most of those writers perished in the attempt. However, what they did bequeath to us is a radical tradition in literature.

INTERVIEWER

Do you consider your own works part of this radical tradition?

KERTÉSZ

Yes, I do, except I’m not sure whether it is my work or my illness that’s going to kill me now. Well, at least I tried to go on for as long as I could. So obviously I haven’t yet died in the attempt to come to terms with history, and indeed it looks as though I will be dying of a bourgeois disease instead—I am about to die of a very bourgeois Parkinson’s.

INTERVIEWER

Is writing a means of survival?

KERTÉSZ

I was able use my own life to study how somebody can survive this particularly cruel brand of totalitarianism. I didn’t want to commit suicide, but then I didn’t want to become a writer either—at least not initially. I rejected that idea for a long time, but then I realized that I would have to write, write about the astonishment and the dismay of the witness—Is that what you are going to do to us? How could we survive something like this, and understand it, too?

Look, I don’t want to deny that I was a prisoner at Auschwitz and that I now have a Nobel Prize. What should I make of that? And what should I make of the fact that I survived, and continue to survive? At least I feel that I experienced something extraordinary, because not only did I live through those horrors, but I also managed to describe them, in a way that is bearable, acceptable, and nonetheless part of this radical tradition. Those of us who were brave enough to stare down this abyss—Borowski, Shalamov, Améry—well, there aren’t too many of us. For these writers, writing was always a prelude to suicide. Jean Améry’s gun was always present, in both his articles and his life, always by his side.

I am somebody who survived all of it, somebody who saw the Gorgon’s head and still retained enough strength to finish a work that reaches out to people in a language that is humane. The purpose of literature is for people to become educated, to be entertained, so we can’t ask them to deal with such gruesome visions. I created a work representing the Holocaust as such, but without this being an ugly literature of horrors.

Perhaps I’m being impertinent, but I feel that my work has a rare quality—I tried to depict the human face of this history, I wanted to write a book that people would actually want to read.

INTERVIEWER

Is there perhaps a redemptive quality to writing itself?

KERTÉSZ

Not for everybody.

INTERVIEWER

But for you?

KERTÉSZ

I was very surprised when I realized, in 1954, that I had lived in a terrible world. A world you should not be able to survive. And yet nothing remained of it—some anecdotes, some interesting stories, all just jokes. I was crushed when it dawned on me that I had fantastic material on my hands that I felt I should really start working with. So I had to decide, Do I want to accept myself as somebody who received his moral education in totalitarianism and concentration camps, or do I block out these episodes of my life? If I hadn’t seized that moment to speak up, I would have forgotten these stories. I would have been reduced to saying, I grew up in a petty bourgeois family. I got unlucky and was deported to Auschwitz. Some people helped me, others didn’t. I would’ve been left with all those little snippets, all of them ripe for the wastebasket. But they weren’t waste, so I had to put my life on the line to write down these stories. I just didn’t expect to get away with it, too. My experience was the price I paid to enter into literature. I tried to wrangle out the truth somehow, to tell a story that cannot be told.

INTERVIEWER

Were you much of a reader in those days?

KERTÉSZ

I practically devoured all of world literature. Well, I should have read the classics at school, but obviously, in those days, it was difficult to get hold of those books. But later, the Hungarian government tried to gain legitimacy by publishing all of those works, churning them out en masse at three forints apiece. Unfortunately, that didn’t include modernist fiction, so it was up to me to make up my own Weltanschauung, my literary point of departure. I spent years working on individual chapters of my first novel, but you can’t tell. One should never be able to tell.

INTERVIEWER

It’s true, you can’t tell—it reads as though it could not have been written any other way.

KERTÉSZ

I’m glad. I remember when Fatelessness was published in Germany. I got letters, bags full of them. There were some remarkable compliments—that I captured the Holocaust in words, for example. One reader told me that I’d opened a window. I opened the eyes of readers whose mothers and fathers had remained silent. They refused to speak because they did not want to confront history. And that’s a difficult task, to be sure. But it has to be done.

INTERVIEWER

Sitting in your tiny room, what were the things that brought you joy, or at least distraction?

KERTÉSZ

Those are very private stories about which I don’t like to speak. I did nothing much. I wrote operettas.

INTERVIEWER

And that gave you pleasure?

KERTÉSZ

No.

INTERVIEWER

Was there anything that you did?

KERTÉSZ

Writing itself.

You know, that’s a good question—what gave me pleasure. And if my reply is “writing itself,” then, of course, that was not true when I was actually writing. Whenever I sat down to write, it felt like a tragic fate I had to endure. There is pleasure only in retrospect. I once did a reading in Stuttgart, after which I had dinner with a lady who said that she pitied me for all I had lived through. In that moment, in Stuttgart—thirty years after writing my first novel—I realized that, actually, I had been very happy in those days.

INTERVIEWER

Writing your novel?

KERTÉSZ

Absolutely. I managed to finish a work under terrible circumstances, and eventually some lady from Stuttgart is moved to profound pity. Her words were a badge of success for me. I realized that I had succeeded in creating a life’s work. This was the moment I understood, and it was a moment of tremendous happiness.

INTERVIEWER

Do you consider the Fatelessness, Fiasco, Kaddish for an Unborn Child, and Liquidation tetralogy your life’s work?

KERTÉSZ

No, it was some dumb Hungarian journalist who came up with this notion of a tetralogy. Back when I’d only published Fatelessness and Fiasco and Kaddish for an Unborn Child, he said I had conceived a trilogy. He really knew nothing of my work.

INTERVIEWER

You said in Dossier K. that your place is not in history, but at your desk.

KERTÉSZ

Rarely ever did I write at a desk! But let’s not talk about personal things.

INTERVIEWER

Well, it’s not a personal question per se.

KERTÉSZ

All right then, my desk was yellow.

INTERVIEWER

How do you write these days?

KERTÉSZ

It’s tricky, because I can no longer use a computer. Nor am I able to write by hand. But I’ve got all this material I’ve collected over the course of my life—my diaries, my reports, Liquidation. With all of that done, I no longer have to write anything new. I’ve finished my work.

INTERVIEWER

Then let’s talk about your last novel, Liquidation. What was the initial spark of inspiration?

KERTÉSZ

I had originally intended to write a play. I thought I was done writing novels. But I wanted to depict this moment during the regime change in 1990, a moment that I felt had dramatic value itself. Then it struck me that I was wrong—I’m not a playwright, nor am I particularly interested in the stage. The stage, for me, seemed an obstacle, an inbuilt disadvantage. And so I tore up the play’s manuscript, understanding that this was a topic for a great novel in a small format.

I was interested in examining how different people coped with the regime change. I had met so many people, read their biographies, and listened to their stories, most of which were full of lies. It was a society of informants. But combining that with the legacy of Auschwitz—that’s what drew me in. I tried to find a key figure. Someone who did not live through a concentration camp but whose life is cast in its shadow. That’s when I found the characters Judit and B., the editor whose career is a fiasco and the writer who commits suicide.

INTERVIEWER

Fukuyama’s “end of history” has become something of a cliché perhaps, but I wonder whether that was on your mind when you were writing Liquidation.

KERTÉSZ

I’ve never thought of it like that. What did you make of the novel?

INTERVIEWER

It seems to me that your novel is akin to something like this end of history. It’s written from the vantage point of the early 2000s, yet it captures the moment at the fall of Communism in 1990, a moment at which various currents merge and collide, forming a point of crystallization, and possibly liquidation, for twentieth-century history.

KERTÉSZ

Actually, you’re completely right. It’s exactly like that. We’ve got the man who was born in Auschwitz, and then Judit, the woman who experiences Auschwitz through him and who attempts to find a conclusion to her own history. But then she escapes that world and marries a man who is untouched by totalitarianism. She decides to have children, and thus commits herself to life. That was the secret, the gesture—bearing children is the gesture that creates the possibility of continued life. Faced with choosing between life and death, she opts for life.

All right, that’s enough. That was my last interview.

INTERVIEWER

For today?

KERTÉSZ

Forever. Now it’s done.