When Imre Kertesz was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2002, few Americans had read the work of the Hungarian novelist, the first survivor of the concentration camps to be awarded the literary prize. Even in his own country, his works were not well known; his subject, largely the Holocaust, was not popular.
Since the prize, his works are more widely available in Hungary and this season new translations are available in English. To mark the publication of the new American editions, the Nobel laureate made his first visit to New York City since winning the prize, and he spent several days last month doing public presentations, interviews and being celebrated.
An eloquent man of charm, grace and modesty, Kertesz, who speaks English through a translator, seemed nonetheless to enjoy the attention. For members of the Hungarian Jewish community in New York — many of whom had indeed read all of his work — it was homecoming week. Many followed his crosstown schedule, from an evening at the 92nd Street Y to an afternoon at Columbia University to an evening reception at the Hungarian consulate, trying to get a photograph, autograph or just a few minutes of his time. When he spoke, they’d laugh or nod knowingly before the translator got the English lines out.
Interviewing Kertesz through his interpreter, Zoltan Saringer, is triangular, but quickly feels quite natural. Kertesz speaks, and Saringer smoothly jumps in where he infers commas, picking up the emotions of the novelist’s words. This visit is the first time Saringer and Kertesz have met, but it’s as though the interpreter is channeling Kertesz’s words.
In person, Kertesz is cheerful, outgoing and funny, in contrast to the darker persona of his novels — which he insists are works of fiction, not memoir, in spite of parallels with his life.
“A writer can only write out of pure joy,” he said. “The whole joy of creating. It gives one real hope. You really have to overcome suffering in order to establish real contact. It’s quite evident that being able to write is a huge liberty from life.”
Kertesz was born in Budapest in 1929. In his Nobel lecture, he described his family background: “My grandparents still lit the Sabbath candles every Friday night, but they changed their name to a Hungarian one, and it was natural for them to consider Judaism their religion and Hungary their homeland. My maternal grandparents perished in the Holocaust; my paternal grandparents’ lives were destroyed by Matyas Rakosi’s Communist rule, when Budapest’s Jewish old age home was relocated to the northern border region of the country. I think this brief family history encapsulates and symbolizes this country’s modern-day travails.”
In 1944, the 15-year-old Kertesz was deported to Auschwitz and then to Buchenwald, and was liberated by American troops in 1945. (He and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, who won the peace prize, do not know each other, but were on the same transports and in the camps at the same time.) He then returned to Budapest, and his first jobs were in journalism, but he was dismissed from his position in 1951, when the newspaper adopted the Communist party line. After that, he began writing and translating German authors into Hungarian.
Kertesz has survived not only Hitler, but also Stalin and the Hungarian Revolution and its aftermath. For 40 years, he had no passport and couldn’t leave Hungary, nor did he have access to the work of many major Western writers.
“It is a kind of a literary miracle that he’s here,” said novelist Thane Rosenbaum, who interviewed Kertesz on stage at the 92nd Street Y (with Saringer translating). “That he appears in America, having won the Novel prize — given the multitude of murderous enterprises that were determined to eradicate him and silence his voice.”
The program at the Y also featured pianist Andras Schiff, who was born in Budapest and began his music studies there. Schiff is the son of Holocaust survivors and a friend of Kertesz; the two embraced on the stage after the pianist’s performance.
Kertesz has an extraordinary facility with words; he explains that he doesn’t so much create characters, but he creates a language for them. At the Hungarian consulate, Andras Koerner, a Hungarian-born architect, author and fan of the Nobel Laureate, commented, “He’s a master of the quotation without the quotation marks. He uses words as in a collage, taking from one reality and placing it in another.”
Although he uses his own memories as raw material in his work, Kertesz explained that “fiction and reality become tangled. By the time a book is ready to go, I have completely different memories. You rid yourself of your memories when you write.”
He said that his Jewish identity is primarily one of solidarity. As a boy before the war, he attended weekly religious classes in school, but after the war he was not interested in religion.
“I considered and expressed myself as a Jew,” he said. “How strange it may sound, but my Jewish identity is based on my experiences of Auschwitz, on my experience of the Holocaust. I am not the only one in Europe like this. The Holocaust has managed to tie an abundance of people to Jewish identity. I think that in essence everyone is a Jew. Everyone who writes. Everyone who makes art is forced to become a Jew. There’s no other choice.”
He thinks of himself as “a writer who completely by chance has the Holocaust as his topic, his source. It doesn’t narrow my perspective — it definitely makes my perspective universal.”
In an article that appeared in Die Zeit after a trip to Israel a few years ago, he was critical of those intellectuals who criticize Israel in its dealings with the Palestinian uprising, noting that they’ve never bought bus tickets from Haifa to Jerusalem. When he read the lines of his prepared text at a conference — lines he has repeated before, suggesting that someone like him, who knows no Hebrew, barely knows the sources of Jewish culture and derives his primary Jewish identity from Auschwitz, should not be called a Jew — he felt somewhat ashamed.
Both his first novel, “Fatelessness” (the previous English translation was “Fateless) and “Kaddish for an Unborn Child” (previously “Kaddish for a Child Not Born”) — are newly available in Vintage paperback editions, in new translations. In addition, Knopf is publishing a hardcover edition of another Kertesz novel, “Liquidation.” Never before available in English, it is the story of a novelist who survives Auschwitz and Buchenwald and Hungary’s Communist regime, to kill himself a decade after the fall of communism. The death causes the man’s circle of friends to examine their own history and memories.
All three books are translated by Tim Wilkinson. Kertesz finds Wilkinson’s translations to be excellent. Looking back on his own experience as a literary translator, Kertesz said, “It’s not enough to translate verbatim. You have to be very knowledgeable of the mother tongue into which you are translating. You have to understand the tune and the tone. Those are the most important. Any other mistakes can be corrected. When you have a master pianist playing, he might make one mistake, but it doesn’t invalidate the final effect.”
The Hungarian writer who has also worked as a librettist to support his writing of novels, frequently makes musical references. (As an aside, he notes that he doesn’t see his librettos as having literary value — he would have worked as a lumberjack if he was “strong enough and had the audacity to do it.”) He looks at his novels as pieces of music, and it’s not only the musicality of the sentences that interests him, but the structure.
For Wilkinson, who has been translating from Hungarian to English for more than 30 years, what’s particularly distinctive about Kertesz’s writing is that “although it is an attribute shared with all truly good writers … Kertesz is able to conjure up what he wants to write about with just a few deftly chosen worlds.”
The London-based Wilkinson said that in translating Kertesz, there’s an advantage to having a familiarity with the totality of his writing, as there are many allusions to works by such other writers as Nietzsche, Rilke, Kafka, Camus, “that are not flagged at all but for which clues are to be found. Sorting these out is hard work but ultimately hugely rewarding because it gives a real sense of the tradition of great writing into which Kertesz fits.”
A reader encountering Kertesz for the first time would do well to begin with “Fatelessness,” first published in 1975. He worked on that novel for about 13 years, and then it took several years to find a publisher. The book is a narrative of a young man being sent to and surviving a concentration camp; the voice of the child is unforgettable, reporting with innocence and without judgment on what he sees.
The novel is now being made into a feature film by award-winning Hungarian cinematographer Lajos Koltai (“Sunshine” and other films). Kertesz laughs when he says that 30 years after working for so many years on the book, he spent eight weeks writing the screenplay.
“Kaddish for a Child Not Born,” published in Hungarian in 1990, is the meditation of a man who chooses not to bring a child into a world that could produce Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
When told that a friend of The Jewish Week in Budapest expressed her hope that Kertesz’s books would now be required reading in all Hungarian schools, the Nobel laureate smiles and said that he’d never want to be mandatory: “If anything, I’d want to be discovered as the book students are reading in secret during class, hidden under the table.”
Sandee Brawarsky is the book critic for The Jewish Week.