undefinedAt home in Budapest, in 1991.

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.