Fall Preview: Péter Nádas Discusses His New Novel

This fall FSG will publish Parallel Stories by acclaimed Hungarian author Péter Nádas. Editor Elisabeth Sifton writes, “After his last novel, A Book of Memories, appeared in English in 1997, many critics and readers agreed with Susan Sontag’s assessment that it was the greatest novel written in postwar Europe. But Nádas was already moving past that signal achievement. And now we can see how Parallel Stories—which took eighteen years to write, Nádas has said, and appeared in Budapest in 2005—extends and deepens the scope of his fiction, both in historical terms and in the most intimate, hidden terms of body and soul. The multilevel narrative reaches back to the 1930s, thickens in the crisis seasons of 1944–45, 1956, and 1961, and thrusts forward to 1989; and at every point we experience the intense and daring ways that the men and women he so memorably creates live through or transcend, create or deny the brutalities of their strife-torn times. This is a great novel about the twentieth century and, with its dazzling formal innovations and daring candor, a postmodern novel for the twenty-first.”

Csaba Károlyi interviewed Nádas for the novel’s Hungarian publication. She notes, “I spent more than a month reading Péter Nádas’s new novel, fired by enthusiasm and losing myself in the text as far as circumstances allowed. This is how I had read War and Peace or The Man Without Qualities. No one would call Parallel Stories a light read, nor is it free of problems. Yet it is a stirring book of unique power that embraces the reader and will not let you get away. It will probably take years for the literary public to digest this work, but to me one thing is beyond doubt: we have witnessed the birth of a grand, epoch-making novel and need to draw a deep breath if we want to give it the attention it deserves.”

Csaba Károlyi: Did you realize there might not be many people who would read all thousand-plus pages of Parallel Stories? Do you think of the reader at all while you are writing?

Péter Nádas: Of course I do, it is part of my job, as it were. But it is everybody’s own business what they read and how much they read of something, so I can’t reckon with that in advance. Some people like fat books, others don’t.

Károlyi: You have mentioned Plutarch’s Parallel Lives in the context of both your long novels (Parallel Stories and A Book of Memories). Isn’t this misleading? If someone approaches the book from this angle, they might expect the characters to fit into neat parallels, like Alexander and Julius Caesar: one is Greek, the other is Roman, yet their lives run in perfect parallel.

Nádas: Why should that be misleading? I have drawn parallels between different phenomena of different ages—places, perhaps, or events, or life histories taking place at different depths in time and at different levels of consciousness. Plutarch’s work is not free from fables and fiction, either. I am a fabulator from the outset, but I did a lot of reading and some very thorough research, erecting boundaries to my imagination through documents. But where I look for parallels is not where he does. In Plutarch, the course of people’s lives follows a very neat line; I was more interested in how they are positioned in space. If we think of his method as a formula, mine is a different formula from a different age, and it yields a different structural pattern. His is harmonious, mine is disharmonious. If anyone is confused by these differences, they have only themselves to blame!

Károlyi: You wrote an article called “Structure and Plot Patterns in Parallel Stories,” in which you formulated the creative problem at the crux of the novel. You wrote: “I could no longer escape the thought that prose writing actually works as the maid-servant of causal thinking.” Your aim was “to write the stories of people who can’t ever have met, who have only a very superficial knowledge of each other, and yet interfere most profoundly with each other’s lives.” I can see that your characters are intertwined even more closely than that, though, and still, the whole thing does not fall to pieces or become chaotic. As if the plan had been more radical than its realization. And in any case the reader will insist on deciphering on a causal basis, no matter what.

Nádas: And they will succeed, too. I try to leave open the points that offer clues for this deciphering. Not in all cases, though.

We constantly strive to control the effect of our words or actions. The question is what sort of qualities this effort produces in other people. I have no guarantees concerning the perceptions of others. I tried to take all of this into account when I created connections between the different people, plot lines, or historical periods.

And then some systems are identical, others are similar, and yet others are different. We can say that people act along similar or even identical lines because they had similar upbringings or are constitutionally alike. And there are also differences according to these criteria—when, for example, you do something or other not because that’s the way you were socialized, but because you’re going against your socialization, following your instincts, or acting upon your convictions. People can have direct and strong interactions; there are cases of both direct and indirect impact: when A has influenced B but does not know C, who was influenced by B, then, although A doesn’t know it, he or she actually influenced C. A causal relationship always tries to stick to being unequivocal, but I tried not to lose sight of the multivalence of things. This naturally yielded structures that no longer fit into the structure of causal thinking. Naturally, causation isn’t entirely absent but it falls into a totally different context or exists in a different space from the start.

The way this issue emerged under conditions of dictatorship was that one asked whether or not a novel had ethical commitments. I decided that it did. But in a democracy this is no longer the case.

Károlyi: Was it a relief or a source of further difficulty that now in Hungary there are no more taboos in political expression, nor need you be cautious about words that may be seen as obscenities?

Nádas: My problems lay elsewhere. The way this issue emerged under conditions of dictatorship was that one asked whether or not a novel had ethical commitments. I decided that it did. But in a democracy this is no longer the case. Nobody could have foreseen the end of the dictatorship, including me, but it was the reason why I started on a new novel—working at a mad pace—that no longer accepted self-limitations, even for ethical reasons. The stuff of this novel was closer to anthropological or ethical description, if you like—more dispassionate, more attuned, on and off, to answering the question “What sort of a being is man?” And in answering this it would treat other people’s opinions and beliefs as simple raw material, just as a doctor does when he gives a person an anesthetic and does not take into account their sensitivities in other circumstances or worry about their nakedness. I could see that in my earlier novels the ethical was detrimental to the aesthetic, but at the same time it had been a very interesting job to find the aesthetic components in ethical gestures. In The End of a Family Story or in A Book of Memories, I think I did this job properly. I did exactly the job incumbent upon me in a dictatorship.

I did not care much about taboos even then: neither the filthy little petty bourgeois taboos and beliefs that Kádárism confirmed nor the political taboos, but I did try at certain points to adhere to the basic rules of the overall Eastern European fight for independence. I was particularly careful to take its optimism seriously, to look on man as fundamentally a promising phenomenon, despite all the misery, suffering, absurdity, and wickedness. My job with Parallel Stories was easy compared to this, but the perils were also more significant. Earlier I was tied in with the collective struggle for freedom. In this work, however, I did not have those ethical obligations. At times like this you are threatened by skepticism, early resignation, or some rotten old cynicism.

Károlyi: In Parallel Stories there are two major sets of stories: the history of the Lippay family and the history of the Döhring family. Practically all the others can be tied in with these.

Nádas: No, I think that’s a mistake; there are some stories that do not tie in anywhere. The real pattern of the structure is chaos, not in the present-day sense of this word, of course, but in the ancient Greek sense. This is what I wanted to stick to—not chaos as a synonym of disorder, lawlessness, or a brothel in Mexico, but chaos in that each story has an aspect that you cannot tie to anything else. The structure is chaotic because the world is chaotic, and I, the novelist, do not want to create an arbitrary semblance of order in this chaos. I’m not capable of it; I would be telling a lie if I said I was. At most I register the elements and principles that are structure-forming within the chaos, and others that are not suitable for this. Thus you arrive at some organizing principles that emerge involuntarily. They inevitably partake of order. But they aren’t the elements and principles that people, either collectively or alone, imagine for themselves as tools for creating some great order.

Károlyi: I find connections everywhere. It may be through four or five switches, but I can still connect even the most distant figures to the main characters.

Nádas: Yes, and in this case you are experiencing your own all-pervasive drive to create order. This makes me happy: it’s great, because it is not my arbitrary imposition but the reader’s own confabulations. Certain things [in the novel] are definitely connected with others, or there are others we suspect might be related, and yet others that are certainly not connected. And then there are some things that might be related but their connection remains invisible.

Károlyi: The last two chapters are baffling. You start new stories with new characters. This closure is a strong signal, almost an act of provocation. Why did you put those two chapters at the end?

Nádas: Because I find that the world does not have a symmetrical structure. Even in the most tragic and depressing situations, people go through experiences that are surprising and that may transfer the line of events onto a different plane. Various webs of relationship function on different levels and planes in the world, all interacting with one another—my friends have friends whom I cannot know, for example. Those are not new stories in the two last chapters: we are looking back from the point of view of friends’ friends on what happened to certain characters up until then. At a number of points we even find out what happened to our friends since the last time we saw them. The connections are always different from what we expect. Grácia Kerényi [a Hungarian poet and translator], who survived [the concentration camp at] Ravensbrück, kept repeating to me, even on her deathbed, “Peti, don’t forget: it’s always something else that happens.” She did not say something else than what. Something else. It was very important for me to write about the Second World War on a different plane and from a different perspective at the end of Volume III than I had earlier in the novel. I could not close giving the impression that I was completely clear about the meaning of things. Maybe there is no such meaning. I am clear about the meaning of some things, and—I’m sorry, but I refuse to deny, in pure modesty—there are things I know a lot about. But in other cases I may be completely in the dark about the meaning. I don’t believe there are complete philosophical systems that have decided for me whether or not the world is accessible to our understanding—whether understanding is a process or a divine gift that we can receive ready-made, and all we have to do is go to church every Sunday morning or every Friday evening. So the novel could end only with that special state that is neither sad nor desperate, neither absurd nor realistic, the state you’re in—it’s actually lovely in its own way—when you’re not clear about the meaning of things and you’re completely lost as to the ultimate meaning of things. Which is to say, man is not a completed being.

Cats, because they are completed beings, do not fear certain dangers. Man is different. And this is more important to me than poetic style.

Károlyi: You once said that the innermost circle of this novel would have to do with the Holocaust. In fact, there is little specifically about this topic in Parallel Stories. You also said you studied the literature of the Holocaust thoroughly, but little of that seems to have gone into the book. Why does this subject take up little space in the book if it was important for you?

Nádas: I think it takes up a lot of space. I once asked Imre Kertész—and this was a very hard question to ask, so I instinctively put it to him in a situation where he didn’t have much chance to play a role—whether it was permissible for someone who hadn’t gone through the massacre of Europe’s Jewish population, someone, I might say, who hadn’t experienced the deicide to write about it. This is a very important question, and I can see that you are surprised to hear it.

Anything that a novelist touches becomes fiction, becomes romanticized, a thing of fancy. Something that absolutely lacks all romanticism, all fancy, must not be treated in a novel. There are things that artistic imagination has no business with. True, fiction is a very serious thing, and we all fantasize at some stage, but I think there are some very serious things that must not be approached through fantasy. The Holocaust is one of them, death is another, or murder. Your relationship with your children must not be subject to fantasies, either. So my question was whether it was permissible for me to approach this subject through my imagination, because it was impossible for me to leave it out of the novel entirely.

I asked Imre this question at the Frankfurt airport. We were getting off the bus, planes were thundering away on the runways, and I bellowed, “Imre, if one hasn’t gone through the Holocaust, is one allowed to write about it?” He looked at me and, with his well-known happy smile on his face, bellowed back, “Yes, of course, why not?” Which spelled out to me clearly that one was not—his answer had everything to do with his kindness and politeness, his philosophy of life.

I neatly stored away his opinion, because in fact almost everything in my novel was ready by then, and I had only meant the question as a kind of final confirmation. And since this was what I’d expected, the only things about the Holocaust that I’d included in the novel were positive facts and data that anyone could check on—I did not allow my imagination to work on this material. Perhaps at certain points I reconstructed latent connections, doing a more abstract kind of work on it. But I did not invent scenes, only perhaps conversations, dialogues, descriptions of locations.

Károlyi: In one incident in the book, at the end of the war, prisoners are released from a labor camp near the small town of Pfeilen, not far from the German-Dutch border.

Nádas: Yes, that is a true story, although the events happened in a south German, not a north German, town, and the deportees were released not from a camp but from a load of cattle wagons that the guards had simply abandoned at a railway station. When the prisoners got out, they were half crazed with thirst and hunger, and the inhabitants of the little town beat them to death. Finding out about this was a bit of personal fieldwork, so to speak: someone told me about this most disgraceful secret about the place of their birth, and then I checked it out, and in this sense it became my personal story.

Károlyi: It is an important and, to me, very attractive feature of your novel that the characters are always very present in the bodily sense. Their bodies are always signaling something, not only sexual desires but everything else, too, just as it happens in life. But many people find this irritating, asking why this has to be present in such detail.

Nádas: I am sure it does not have to be, but with me it does. Full stop.

Károlyi: It is often said that Hungarian literature is incomparably prudish. All those texts are absent that could have been written had the authors not repressed them. Attila József was one exception, Sándor Weöres another.

Nádas: And László Lator’s latest poetry, Ádám Nádasdy’s poetry, and many of Péter Esterházy’s books have also improved the situation.

Károlyi: As well as Ottó Orbán, Krisztina Tóth, and András Pályi.

Nádas: Or some of György Petri’s truly great poems. Recognition of this may be shocking, but the body actually continues from the head down. If for several centuries we all had to be jointly and uniformly silent about the body, the decay of the body, the working and functions of the body, it meant that we had to be silent about a number of other ramifications, too. Which means we exposed ourselves to some true dangers: ignorance and lack of self-awareness are genuinely dangerous. Reflection has never killed anybody, but violence has. Many people have died from the stupidities of doctors. Many people have died of rape and sexual aggression. On the other hand, a book that talks about erotic love and digestion can still be kitsch. A book does not become a masterpiece simply by virtue of using the words “dick” and “cunt.” In the matter of terminology, Bartók’s declaration is generally valid for all of us who come up against this issue. He was a collector of folk songs, and, of course, the lyrics are full of “cunt.” The problem had to do with not the word itself but the filthiness of the quasi-Victorian bourgeois imagination. There is not a single person alive who has not pronounced the word “cunt,” nor has there ever been anybody, nor will there be nobody, who never will. And if someone should come along who has not said it, they will have thought it. So where is the problem? Can someone tell me what to do about the word? Where am I to hide it? I could only be called pornographic if I sold these words bound in polyurethene so they don’t get soiled by masturbation, so that the petty bourgeois customer can use and reuse them in their well-deserved human solitude.

Károlyi: There is a scene in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary where Emma and Léon are in a cab all afternoon, but we find out nothing expressly about what is going on in the cab, except that from time to time Léon calls out, “Drive on.” This is one extreme. The other extreme is devoting a hundred pages to relating in detail what is going on in the cab.

Nádas: The scene in the cab in Madame Bovary is not an extreme because the reader is left to his imagination. We keep imagining ourselves in situations like this, and how we exude our erotic attraction to each other. And the other extreme does not really exist in European literature. More precisely, some writers have made grand attempts at it; the ones usually referred to in this context are Henry Miller or Harold Brodkey, where there is no pornography and no kitsch. What Miller is most interested in is what happens physically between two people, while Brodkey is intrigued by how you can transform making love into a deeply religious and benign act, how, if at all, you can give pleasure to a tremendously beautiful girl who happens to be incapable of enjoyment. As such a story was written by an American, of course he finds out that you can. This is the heroic version—all sorts of variants in French literature are far less heroic. I started looking into this question in A Book of Memories, but I wasn’t radical enough, because I was, so to speak, preoccupied by the war of liberation, which diverted my attention. A great part of human imagination is taken up by erotic fantasies. Erotic activity fills up a great part of people’s lives, and we know from the libertines just how great is the interaction between this activity and the struggle for freedom from political oppression. It is ridiculous to expect all these details to be omitted from literature.

It was my utmost desire to write a novel that integrated incompletion as a basic structural feature.

Károlyi: In an interview with Swedish journalists in 1993, you mentioned that the pages of Musil’s diaries were filled with potential characters whom he was planning to incorporate into his novels, and this is why he never completed The Man Without Qualities, which, you said, like other great novels of the twentieth century is a novel of failure, because it could not be completed. Did you sense something similar as you worked on Parallel Stories?

Nádas: Yes, I did. It was my utmost desire to write a novel that integrated incompletion as a basic structural feature. In a novel, the points of departure and closure are directly linked with the interpretation you have of the world and with the content that fills the book’s frames. My job as a novelist is not to come up with compact theories for interpreting the world, but to retain the narrative’s independence and spontaneity alongside existing theories or in opposition to them. The process should not break down, even though the world is not symmetrical and in theory the process should break down.

Károlyi: You said you read a lot of background literature. What were the most important subject areas?

Nádas: The Holocaust, genetics, the two World Wars, the social history of the cold war years, architecture, urban planning, and criminal studies. The latter was of interest to me from an anthropological point of view, too, not just because of the investigation scenes. I also read some good books on the history of fashion. People will go to incredible lengths just for the pleasure of wearing clothes identical to other people’s, just to wear a uniform, to make sure that I can wear the same kind of jeans as you do, except yours are red and mine are blue. I read three astonishing monographs on scents and perfumes. I read a lot of local history about German and Hungarian cities and towns, particularly about Budapest.

Károlyi: Other scenes must have to do with your personal experience—the experience of the Lukács Baths, or when you speculate that the Hungarian habit of having home parties started on New Year’s night in 1956. According to Parallel Stories, in the early 1960s prostitutes went to Városliget Park while Margit Island was the scene for gay nightlife. Where do you get that?

Nádas: None of these scenes took place where I said they did, at least as far as I know. I would warn motivated young people against dashing off to these places in search of something similar. However, if they happen to go there in great numbers, they can be sure to find one another before long. Places like this did exist, though; they do and will exist in all major cities. By which I mean to say that I had no need to invent them with my filthy imagination. All large cities have places where couples of different sexes look for each other’s proximity. But do not be unfair: the women here are not prostitutes, and the men are not on the lookout for prostitutes. In fact, they make a special point of its being all free, and they make sure that copulation takes place only between civilians. There was a place like that in Budapest in the 1960s, but it was not the Városliget. That was just something I invented for Professor Lehr. The reason I chose it was that for years after World War II the park was a dangerous place, a place where people played around not only with anonymous sexual pursuits but also with the mortal fear of being found out. They had to fear muggers and gangs of hooligans out to beat up gays, but they were also exposed to police harassment in the name of the moral world order, which created an erotic tension in them. A great many things are factually correct in the novel, but other things are not. I am a novelist, after all.

Károlyi: The novel covers the history of Hungarian society from the 1930s until the 1960s, with the Second World War in the center. What is it that you don’t know about this stretch of social history? You seem to know everything worth knowing about all strata—from Professor Lippay’s basic intellectual attitude—to wit, that of kissing the ass of any regime that happens to be in place, through the life of Gyöngyvér Mózes, who as a foster child is locked in a chicken coop at night, all the way to young gentry working for military intelligence and provincial Jewish wood merchants, from aristocratic ladies stuck in Rákosi’s communist dictatorship to a proletarian turned personal secretary to the Prime Minister, from cabin attendants at the Gellért and Lukács Baths to Gypsy road builders. I won’t go on or we’ll never get to the end.

All I ask is how would you advise contemporary fathers to bring up their children?

Nádas: They must not lie to them. They should not pass on the heroic or pious lies they inherited from their fathers, ready to serve. They should separate their libido from the political wisdom of football fields and battlefields. This will make them happier, too. The world is going through such massive change anyway; indeed, on a global scale we are moving from a paternalistic toward a maternalistic society.

This is a shortened version of an interview originally published in Hungarian in Élet és Irodalom (November 4, 2005) and translated by Orsolya Frank for Hungarian Literature Online.

See Also:

Péter Nádas Reads “The Great Christmas Killing” at the 2009 PEN World Voices Festival