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|Imre Kertész (1929-2016)|
Hungarian novelist, essayist, and translator, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002. In his semiautobiographical novels Kertész analyzed the experience of the individual during barbaric times, especially exemplified in the Holocaust. Kertész early prose exhibit existentialist traits but his works are difficult to classify within any stylistic trend.
"Auschwitz must have been hanging in the air for a long, long time, centuries, perhaps like a dark fruit slowly ripening in the sparkling rays of innumerable ignominious deeds, waiting to finally drop on one's head." (in Kaddish for a Child not Born, 1990)
Imre Kertész was born in Budapest into a family of Jewish descent. According to a story, he received at the age of ten a diary as a birthday present, but its white pages scared him. In his youth Kertész experienced the horrors of the Nazi system. Germans occupied Hungary in 1944 and began exterminating Jews and Gypsies. Kertész was deported together with 7,000 Hungarian Jews from Budapest to Auschwitz. There he spent a few days and was then transferred to Buchenwald and Zeitz. "I am a nonbelieving Jew", Kertész once said in an interview. "Yet as a Jew I was taken to Auschwitz." In the factory of death Kertész suddenly realized that he could be killed anywhere at any time. This existentialist moment became crucial for him as a writer.
In 1945 Kertész was liberated by the Allied forces. After returning to Hungary, he was employed as a journalist by Világosság, a Budapest newspaper. When the newspaper adopted orthodox Communist ideology, Kertész was dismissed. For a while he worked in a factory. Between 1951 and 1953 Kertész served in the army, and then devoted himself entirely to writing.
During the Hungarian uprising of 1956, some 200,000 people fled to the West. Literary life did not return to normality until 1963. Like a number of dissident writers in European countries under Communist dictatorship, Kertész supported himself as a translator, focusing on such German-language writers as Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Elias Canetti, Joseph Roth, and Arthur Schnitzler, and such thinkers as Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. For the theatre he wrote musicals and other light pieces. Kertész did not have a typewriter. He first wrote with a pencil, then with a ballpoint pen.
Kertész never joined the official Writers' Association and did not have any privileges. With his wife he lived in a small one-room flat, writing in his voluntary "prison cell" without much possibilities getting his books published. At the Lukács bathing establishment, where he could discuss relatively freely about literature and politics, he swam daily for nearly 40 years. Among the modern novels which influenced him deeply was Albert Camus's The Stranger (1942), found from a second-hand shop.
Kertész's first book, Sorstalanság (1975, Fateless), was a detached account of a fifteen-year-old Jewish boy's experiences in concentration camps. Kertész do not regard this as an autobiographical work. He said, that he never wanted to tell about his own life. Sorstalanság was completed in 1965, but not published until 10 years later in a limited edition. The work was treated with silence, perhaps because of the subject, the deportation of Jews, a shameful episode in Hungary's modern history. However, it started a trilogy, which continued in A kudarc (1988, Fiasco), and Kaddis a meg nem születetett gyermekért (1990, Kaddish for a Child not Born), written in a stream of consciousness technique. The protagonist is a middle-aged survivor of the Holocaust, whose literary career has been unsuccessful. His marriage has failed and his ex-wife has a new family and children. The tremendous truth of Auschwitz is revealed to him in the figure of a father, and he tell to his friend that he does not want to become a parent in a world, which has given birth to the Holocaust.
The young witness of the Shoah in Sorstalanság is physically imprisoned in a concentration camp, but he argues that "It is true that our imagination remains free even in captivity. I could, for instance, achieve this freedom while my hands were busy with a shovel or a pickax – with a moderate exertion, limiting myself to the most essential movements only." The Holocaust survivor of A kudarc is Kertész's alter ego, György Köves, who lives in a totalitarian state. He has finished his first novel, a memoir about Auschwitz, which has been turned down by the publisher, and he works on his second book, which is funny in the way that Kafka and Hašek are funny. During a political crisis – the Hungarian uprising? – he is allowed to leave the country, but he decides to stay. "I want to flee but something holds me back", he thinks, trapped like Sisyphus.
Thinking he is too old to learn another language, Kertész decided to stay in Hungary. He thought, that infantile language is the only means of expression in dictatorship. In his search for the meaning of Auschwitz in a wider historical and political context, Kertész followed the example of many intellectuals in European Socialist countries, who disguised their writings about totalitarianism as portrayals of Nazism. But for Kertész there was nothing incomprehensible in concentration camps. Evil in the world is not a mistake or accident, but a result of rational acts of individuals. Good is not rational; it has no explanation.
In the early 1980s Kertész was still relatively unknown writer
in his own country. He was not mentioned in A History of Hungarian
literature, edited by Tibor Klaniczay (1983), and Lóránt Czigány
mentioned him only in passing in The Oxford History of Hungarian
Literature (1984). Since the "quiet revolution" of 1989, Kertész's
work began to gain international attention. His books were translated
into French, Swedish, German and English, but for example in the United
States he still remained less well known than his fellow
writers Péter Esterházy and Péter Nádas.
himself said, that "I know my books are not so popular here
because the Holocaust in not embedded in Hungarian
consciousness". Basically, he felt he was not accepted as a
Hungarian writer in Hungary but on the other hand he was not very eager
to be described as a "Hungarian" writer: "For certain reasons, I do not
belong here (I cannot belong here), largely, I do not write for those
whose language I speak (I cannot) . . . it is just that the "world"
that surrounds me in Hungary, and the real name of my "foreigness" in
Jewry". ('Imre Kertész and Hungary Today' by Magdalena
Marsovzsky, in Imre Kertész and
Holocaust Literature, edited by Louise Olga Vasvári and Steven
Tötösy de Zepetnek, 2005, pp. 153-154)
For a time Kertész was a member of the Hungarian
Writers' Association, but he then resingned in protest; the
organization was accused of Anti-Semitic statements. A leader of the
governmental party, the poet Sándor Csoóri, wrote in a right-wing
journal, "Liberal Hungarian Jewry intends to 'assimilate' the
Hungarians to their style and thinking."
In the 1990s Kertész published more works than in the previous
decades. "God is Auschwitz," he stated in Gályanapló
(1992), "but also He brought me out of there, who
obliged, even compelled me to give an account of all that there
happaned, because He wants to know and hear what he had done." A
Számuzött nyelv (2001), a collection of essays,
included his address at Berlin's Renaissance Theatre in November 2000.
Kertész ended it with the word "Love" – "Und wenn Sie jetzt
fragen, was mich heute noch hier auf Erden hält, was mich am Leben
hält, antworte ich, ohne zu zögern: die Liebe."
According to Kertész, we can speak today of the globalization of the Holocaust, or even its inflation. In another essay, published in Die Zeit, Kertész dismissed Stephen Spielberg's film Schildler's List as kitsch. The Holocaust is a trauma of the whole European civilization, not only a matter between the Jews and the Germans. After the Nobel Prize, Kertész finished the novel Felszámolás (2003, Liquidation), in which a publisher tries to find the lost work of a writer, a Holocaust survivor, who has committed suicide.
With his second wife Magda Kertész spent much time in Germany, writing and lecturing there. Magda Kertész had left Hungary already in 1956. She lived in Chicago for 33 years before returning to Europe. In November 2012 Kertész told the German weekly Der Spiegel that he does not wish to write any more. He suffered from Parkinson's desease, but the reason behind his retirement was that he considered his oeuvre, closely related to the Holocaust, as closed. During his last years, he rarely left his Budapest home. Kertész died aged 86 in his home on March 31, 2016.
A gondolatnyi csend, amíg a
kivégzoosztag újratölt (1998), a collection of writings, sums up
much of Kertész's thinking from a long period. Kertész's literature
awards before the Nobel prize include the
Brandenburg Literature Prize (1995), The Book Prize for European
Understanding (1997), the WELT-Literaturpreis in 2000, Ehrenpreis der
Robert-Bosch-Stiftung (2001), and Hans-Sahl-Preis (2002). In April 2002
a conference was held on his works.
Like György Konrád, Kertész was critical of liberals' open-arms attitude toward Muslim refugees and saw this as "childish and suicidal." In A végső kocsma (2014), a collection of fictional sketches and personal notes written before the outbreak of the Syrian war and mass refuge crisis, he concluded: "Politicians ascending from the depths of anger stirred up the general fear and hysteria rather try to turn the situation to serve their own power than to consider genuine solutions. . . . the possibility for new dictatorships, bringing peril first and foremost to their own people on the pretext of an emergency situation, has opened up." ('Hungary's Nobel Prize -Winning Writer Imre Kestész On Europe's "Suicidal Liberalism,'" Hungary Today 2015.09.07)
Although Kertész was no supporter of Viktor Orbán's regime, he accepted in 2014 the Order of St. Stephen, the highest state decoration, and was criticized for this by some opposition figures. Fateless was made into a film in 2005, directed by Lajos Koltai, and starring Marcell Nagy, Gyuri Koves and Daniel Craig. Koltai's adaptation was faithful to the book. Kertész himself wrote the screenplay. Speaking of Stephen Spielberg's Schildler's List, perhaps the most widely known Holocaust film, Kertész argued that it was kitsch, and falsified the experience of terror.
For further reading: Lange, dunkle Schatten: studien zum Werk von Imre Kertész, eds. Mihály Szegedy-Masák, Tamás Scheibner (2004); Imre Kertész and Holocaust Literature, eds. Louise O.Vasvári and Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek (2005); Kertész und die Seinigen: Lektüren zum Werk von Imre Kertész by Miklóss Györffy, Pál Kelemen (2009); Reconciling Community and Subjective Life: Trauma Testimony as Political Theorizing in the Work of Jean Améry and Imre Kértesz by Magdalena Zolkos (2010); 'Art of Healing: Imre Kertész's Fatelessness,' in Rage is the Subtext: Readings in Holocaust Literature and Film by Susan Derwin (2012); The Broken Voice: Reading Post-Holocaust Literature by Robert Eaglestone (2017); German Jewish Literature after 1990, edited by Katja Garloff and Agnes Mueller (2018); 'The Novel as Life Writing: Fiction and Testimony in Jorge Semprún and Imre Kertész' by Antonio Monegal, in Inscribed Identities: Life Writing as Self-realization, edited by Joan Ramon Resina (2019)