World Literature

Imre Kertesz

 

BORN: 1929, Budapest, Hungary

NATIONALITY: Hungarian

GENRE: Fiction

MAJOR WORKS:

Fateless (1975)

Failure (1988)

Kaddish for a Child Not Born (1990)

 

 

Imre Kertesz. Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images

 

Overview

Imre Kertesz, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2002, is a strong, independent voice in contemporary Hungarian literature. He is also a witness to the Holocaust, having survived the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. His novels and essays, written in dry and unsentimental prose, examine the Holocaust as an outgrowth of European cultural traditions. Kertesz views the Nazi terror not as an accident or an anomaly in European history but as a link in the chain of totalitarianism (a government that has total control over all aspects of its citizens’ lives), a chain that includes the Cold War communism of eastern Europe. His writing is charged with a relentless inquiry into human nature and the lessons of the twentieth century.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Sent to a Nazi Death Camp. Imre Kertesz was born on November 9, 1929, in Budapest, in an assimilated, middle-class Jewish family. His father was a timber merchant, and his mother worked as a clerk. His parents divorced around the time of his birth and sent him to a boarding school. World War II broke out as he approached his tenth birthday. A promising student, Kertesz enrolled in the newly formed ‘‘Jewish class’’ of the Madach Gymnasium in Budapest in 1940. In the summer of 1944, while he was working as a laborer, he was arrested by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp. Millions of detainees died in these camps, but Kertesz survived the camp, and upon his liberation in 1945, he had the option to start a new life in another country, but chose to return to Hungary.

A Career as a Writer. Back in Budapest, still in his teens, Kertesz became a journalist. He graduated from high school in 1948 and started to work for the social Democrat journal Vilagossag (Illumination), but after the communist party took power in Hungary, it turned the paper into a propaganda organ, and Kertesz was fired. He became a factory worker, then was drafted and served in the military until 1953. When discharged, he got married, and determined to live off his writing. The musical comedies on which he collaborated for Budapest theaters paid well enough to give him some financial independence. Later, he supported himself by translating literature into Hungarian, including philosophical works by Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Kertesz read much literature on the Holocaust and studied documents, maps, and photographs. He wanted to comprehend the circumstances that made such a catastrophe possible in European civilization. He resolved to write about his concentration camp experience, but not in the form of a memoir. His first novel, Fateless (1975), is a stark portrait of the totalitarian machinery and the methods by which it reduced the individual to a mere functioning unit.

Although Kertesz wrote Fateless in 1965, it went unpublished for ten years. In communist Hungary, the Holocaust was still a taboo subject. Hungarian publishers and book censors demanded that writers treat the Holocaust as a closed chapter of history, hermetically sealed from the present, and discuss it within the ideological confines of Socialist realism. A viewpoint that depicted the concentration camps as the epitome of the totalitarian system was not welcome in a Soviet-dominated state. Kertesz doubted he could find a forum to get his book out, but eventually a leading publishing house released it.

The novel was published without censorship. It received critical praise upon its release but was not a commercial success. Kertesz’s standing in the literary community was compromised by his refusal to join the official writers’ union of the Communist Party. Nevertheless, throughout the late 1970s he slowly established himself as a writer while supporting himself with translations. He published a volume of short stories, The Path Finder, in 1977. In the title story, a concentration camp survivor revisits the camps and encounters a mysterious veiled widow who later takes her own life. This book also includes a novella called Mystery Story. Its setting, in a repressive South American country, allows Kertesz another vantage point to explore the murderous machineries of totalitarian regimes, in which nobody escapes suspicion and surveillance.

Kertesz’s second novel, Failure (1988), vividly depicts the grimness of life in Budapest under totalitarian rule in the 1950s, just before the 1956 uprising. Its publication reflects the increasing freedom Hungary experienced in the late 1980s. A year after its release, Hungary’s ruling party abandoned communism, and the nation became a democratic republic.

Post-Communist Years. Kertesz’s first post-Communist novel, Kaddish for a Child Not Born (1990), tells the story ofits narrator’s marriage, which fails because the narrator (known only as ‘‘B’’), who had been in Auschwitz (a notorious Nazi concentration camp), is marked for life by that experience. His young wife wants to raise a family, but the narrator, despite his love for her, is too haunted by his past to participate in the future she desires. The title invokes the Jewish prayer for the dead, which the narrator says for the children he cannot bring himself to sire. Fateless, Failure, and Kaddish are considered a trilogy, especially in the German literary press; they are connected by the semi-autobiographical details, the description of Hungary in the 1950s, and the concentration camp experience.

Kertesz went on to publish fiction, along with diary excerpts and essays. Holocaust As Culture (1993) compiles lectures Kertesz delivered at international conferences on the Holocaust. In the title essay, he defines the Holocaust as an event in European civilization ranking with the crucifixion. The great European culture, he points out, was of no help to the camp inmates, nor did it inhibit the perpetrators and murderers. The short novel Liquidation (2003), originally intended as a drama, turns Kertesz’s trilogy into a tetralogy. It continues the story of ‘‘B’’ to his final years and suicide. Kertesz has said this will be his last work about the Holocaust.

Imre Kertesz became more widely recognized and appreciated in Hungary after the demise of socialism. His books were published, some of them in several editions, and translated into numerous languages. He was awarded numerous prizes, culminating with the Nobel Prize in 2002, which brought attention in Hungary not only to his work but to the legacy of the Holocaust. Kertesz continues to work and live in Budapest and Berlin.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Kertesz's famous contemporaries include:

Primo Levi (1919-1987): Italian writer, chemist, and Holocaust survivor.

Gunter Grass (1927-): German novelist and playwright; Nobel Prize winner (1999).

Elie Wiesel (1928-): Jewish-American writer and concentration camp survivor; Nobel Prize winner (1986).

Vaclav Havel (1936-): Czech playwright, essayist, and politician; last President of Czechoslovakia (1989-1992) and first President of the Czech Republic (1993-2003).

Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968): An American Civil Rights leader who led the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-1956) and the 1963 March on Washington, where he gave his famous ''I Have a Dream'' speech.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

The work of Imre Kertesz incisively skewers the psychological dimensions of totalitarianism, honing in on the human qualities that allow catastrophes like the Holocaust, and power structures like the communist regimes of Eastern Europe, to occur. This potent theme of twentieth-century literature is explored in fiction and nonfiction works, such as the following:

The Trial (1925), a novel by Franz Kafka. This novel of bureaucratic horror is a Kafka classic.

The Man Without Qualities (1943), a novel by Robert Musil. This masterpiece, a novel in three volumes, has a protagonist, Ulrich, who is characterized by indifference and passivity.

The Technological Society (1954), a nonfiction work by Jacques Ellul. This far-reaching social critique argues that a high-tech society stresses efficiency above all other values, including moral values.

Crowds and Power (1960), a nonfiction work by Elias Canetti. This work of mass psychology studies how crowds behave and why they follow leaders, including demagogues like Hitler.

Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), a nonfiction work by Hannah Arendt. This book introduces the phrase ''the banality of evil'' to argue that evil can result from mass conformity and passive obedience to authority.

 

Works in Literary Context

Imre Kertesz lived isolated from the literary community, teaching himself how to write a novel and discovering the writers who had a great impact on his thinking and writing. He singled out Albert Camus and Franz Kafka as profound influences. He admired Camus’s succinct, precise prose, particularly in The Stranger (1942). He read philosophers, such as Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhem Friedrich Hegel, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, and was much influenced by German writers, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Nietzsche, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Thomas Mann. Within the genre of Holocaust literature, he is especially fascinated by those writers who, having survived the catastrophe, later took their own lives: Paul Celan, Jean Amery, Tadeusz Borowski, and Primo Levi. Kertesz’s Fateless is often compared to Levi’s If This Is a Man because of the dry, precise quality of their observations.

Totalitarianism and the Individual. Kertesz broke a societal taboo in Hungary not only by writing about the Holocaust but also by writing from a perspective that sharply differed from convention. He regards the Holocaust as the failure of European culture rather than a particularly Jewish catastrophe. For Kertesz, the rationalist organization of state power, supported by generations of educated and erudite Europeans, reaches its logical conclusion in the ‘‘world experience,’’ of Auschwitz. The concentration camps represent the rule, not the exception, in European civilization.

Thus, Kertesz aims to delineate the precise methods by which the machinery of power transforms the individual into a mere functional entity. His Nobel Prize citation praises him for ‘‘writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history.’’ This theme is evident in the short work Sworn Statement (1993), which describes a humiliating experience the author had while detained at the Austrian border. His bitter description of the mindless, rigid bureaucratic obedience to rules, and the total disregard of the individual, recalls the spirit of the camps. A faceless, blind mechanism is at work, one that reduces personalities to cases, files, and, according to the logic of the system, inevitably, corpses.

Atonal Language. To express the disintegration of the human being in the totalitarian system, Kertesz had to find a language that could accurately convey the horror of what had happened. To this end, he invented a dispassionate language that captures the utterly indifferent universe of a totalitarian state. His prose completely avoids sentimental appeals or expressions of moral outrage; furthermore, it eschews action, character, and expressive language. Alluding to modernist musical composition, Kertesz has said his aim was to create an ‘‘atonal’’ literary style.

 

Works in Critical Context

At the time he received the Nobel Prize, Imre Kertesz was almost completely unknown in the United States. Very little of his work had been translated into English. Even in his home country, his works were not widely read. He has remained an outsider to the Hungarian cultural scene. Fateless received limited attention in literary circles at the time of its publication, although it was eventually recognized as an important novel, and won several overseas prizes. Kertesz gained a larger public profile after the fall of communism, and became recognized as one of the most important writers in his own country, if not one of the most popular. In 1998, he was awarded the Kossuth Dij, Hungary’s highest cultural prize. He has gained a loyal audience in Germany and Sweden; a German publisher released the complete edition of his body of work in 1999. Very little has been written about his work by scholars in the English-speaking world.

The news that Kertesz had been awarded the Nobel Prize elicited a mixed response in Hungary. There was official jubilation and pride, but also some expression of disappointment that the honor had gone to a relatively obscure writer, and a Jew—whom right-wing nationalists therefore did not accept as ‘‘truly’’ Hungarian. Kertesz himself believes that the Hungarian people have never come to terms with their own participation in the Holocaust and thus continue to shun any public discussion of its historical importance.

 

Responses to Literature

1. Research the history of Communism in Hungary. Choose a few salient features of Hungarian life in the writings of Kertesz that you have read and share them in a brief report to the class.

2. In an essay, compare Kertesz’s Fateless to other works depicting the camps, such as the writings of Primo Levi or Elie Wiesel. Use examples from the texts to support your ideas.

3. With a classmate, define the term ‘‘atonal.’’ Then, identify the qualities of ‘‘atonal’’ language in Fateless or other works by Kertesz that you have read.

4. Even though Kertesz is the first Hungarian writer to win the Nobel Prize, not all Hungarians consider him a national hero. Research Kertesz on the Internet or using your library and write a report about why you think he is a controversial figure in his home country.

5. Kertesz writes about the ways that Holocaust survivors are forever haunted by their experiences in the camps. Write an informal essay describing what new insights you have about living through trauma.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Braham, Randolph L., ed. The Treatment of the Holocaust in Hungary and Romania During the Post-Communist Era. New York: Rosenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies, 2004.

Vavari, Louise O. and Steven Totosy de Zepetnek, eds. Imre Kertesz and Holocaust Literature. West Lafayette, Ind: Purdue University Press, 2006.

Periodicals

Ban, Zoltan Andras. ‘‘A Trilogy of Fatelessness.’’ New Hungarian Quarterly 32 (Winter 1991): 36-41.

Foldenyi, Laszlo F. ‘‘A Large Truth.’’ Common Knowledge 7 (Spring 1998): 7-14.

Riding, Alan. ‘‘Hungarian Holocaust Survivor Is Awarded Nobel in Literature.” New York Times (October 11, 2002), p. A1.

Schlink, Bernhard. ‘‘Happiness as a Duty: Bernhard Schlink’s Eulogy of Imre Kertesz during Presentation of the Die Welt Literary Prize.’’ Die Welt (November 9, 2000), pp. 17-19.

Web Sites

Totosy de Zepetnek, Steven. ‘‘Imre Kertesz’s Nobel Prize, Public Discourse, and the Media.’’ CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 7 (2005). Accessed June 29, 2008, from http:// docs.lib.purdue.edu/clcweb/vol7/iss4/9.