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Fatelessness or Fateless by Imre Kertész

September 30, 2015 33 comments

Fateless or Fatelessness by Imre Kertész (1975) French title: Etre sans destin. (Translated from the Hungarian by Natalia Zaremba-Huszai and Charles Zaremba.)

Il y a dans notre personnalité un domaine, qui, comme je l’ai appris est notre propriété perpétuelle et inaliénable. As I discovered later, there is a place in our personality that forever and inalienably belongs to us.

Fateless or Fatelessness is a novel based upon Imre Kertész’s experience at Buchenwald. I’m not keen on reading books about concentration camps, as I find them hard to bear. Then Caroline picked it up for Literature and War Readalong and I decided it was time to give myself a kick and read it. (Her review is here)

KerteszIt starts like this… I didn’t go to school today. Or rather, I did go but only to ask my class teacher’s permission to take the day off. …and it propelled me to another novel that starts with Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I can’t be sure. (The Stranger by Albert Camus) A few short sentences that let you know the narrator’s world is about to change forever but that also set the tone of the narration. It’s not going to be warm; this person is aloof, hard to reach and blunt.

Köves György, the narrator of Fateless is a Jew from Budapest. He’s 15 when the bus he takes to go to work is hijacked and the passengers are sent to Auschwitz. He relates his journey from Budapest to Auschwitz, then to Buchenwald until he comes back to Budapest after the liberation of the camps.

I’ve read two other books by survivors of concentration camps, If This Is a Man by Primo Levi (Auschwitz) and Literature or Life by Jorge Semprún. (Buchenwald). Fateless is an autobiographical novel and the other two are non-fiction. If we set aside the fiction / non-fiction part, the main difference with Fateless is that Levi and Semprún were grown men when they were deported and they were Resistants. They knew they were taking risks, they knew about camps and they knew why the Nazis would go after them.

Here, we have a coming-of-age novel about an adolescent who became a man too fast and in terrible circumstances. The book begins with the deportation of the narrator’s father to labor camp. The narrator is a bit annoyed to be retrieved from school to help with the preparation of his father’s departure. He’s a “normal” adolescent: selfish, interested in girls, unwilling to spend time with his family and not really interested in the news. He’s 15 and everybody wonders who they are at this age but for him, the angst takes another dimension. He’s is an assimilated Jew, doesn’t go to the synagogue, doesn’t speak Yiddish or Hebrew and he doesn’t understand why he’s different from other Hungarian citizens. The Nazis’ intrinsic hatred for Jews puzzles him. He looks at himself and wonders “why?”, “What substance am I made of to be ostracized that way?”

Later, he feels a sense of security when he’s given papers to go out of town and work in a factory. Legit papers seemed a good protection. But the whole bus full of Jews is taken by the Hungarian authorities in the summer 1944 and he’s shipped to Auschwitz. He relates the time spent in Budapest, waiting for their destination, the trip on the train without water, the arrival in Auschwitz, all the procedures he went through. Then he’s sent to Zeitz and eventually to Buchenwald.

The most unsettling thing about the novel is the narrator’s ignorance. He’s just a Jewish boy who doesn’t know much about Jewish religion, about the world. He definitely doesn’t know anything about concentration camps. At first, he’s even a bit excited about his adventure, until he gets to Auschwitz and he is enlightened by other prisoners about the workings of the camp and the gas chambers.

He relates the process to sort out the prisoners, the meticulous, well-oiled process. He goes through the motions and tells candidly what he sees, what he does, how his body is rapidly disintegrating under the harshness of the living conditions. His naiveté is baffling for the reader who knows better and reads between the lines. It emphasizes the horror of the camp. György’s descriptions show how the camps were so perfectly ruled, like efficient death factories. Sometimes he gives a full description of the bucolic countryside around the camps and the reader’s feeling of horror moves up another notch. The rampant question is always the same: How? How could this happen at this scale with this thorough and cold blooded savagery?

His tone is detached, focused on material things (food, clothes, showers, sleep). He’s reverted to basic needs. His detachment and his focusing on surviving take all his strength and willpower. He goes by, one day after the other, one step after the other.

C’est seulement à Zeitz que j’ai compris que la captivité a aussi ses jours ordinaires, et même que la véritable captivité se compose en fait exclusivement de grisaille quotidienne. It is only in Zeitz that I understood that captivity also has its ordinary days, and even that real captivity is exclusively made of the greyness of the quotidian.

Everything seems absurd and he goes with the flow. He’s not very likeable because his dehumanization seeps through his narration. The whole novel bathes in absurdity. I’ve read it’s a bit like The Castle by Kafka. It certainly is for the sheer absurdity of bureaucracy, for the blind and incomprehensible hatred for Jews. The narrator tries to understand what’s happening around him but he doesn’t get it. The absurdity is so total that the most surreal things seem natural. The more the book progresses, the more he punctuates his sentences with naturally. As if the most horrific things were natural in camps, and if course, they were as they had become the new normality. The difference of understanding between the boy and the reader enforces this impression of absurdity. And absurdity brings me back to Camus.

A word about the title. In English, it’s been translated as Fateless or Fatelessness. In French, it is Etre sans destin, which means To be fateless and A being without a fate. And György is both. His fate is ripped away from him.

J’essayais de regarder vers l’avant, mais l’horizon se limitait au lendemain, et le lendemain était le même jour, c’est-à-dire encore un jour parfaitement identique, dans le meilleur des cas, bien sûr. I tried to look forward but the horizon was limited to tomorrow and tomorrow was the same day, that is to say another perfectly identical day, in the best case scenario, of course.

While in Buchenwald, he can’t imagine his future, he doesn’t have one anymore. And when he comes home, the future he had no longer exists. This former fate has been taken from him. He can’t erase what happened to him, it shaped him into someone else, he can’t resume his former life and he doesn’t know what his new fate is. He’s fateless, left to face his fatelessness.

But for me, this fatelessness also refers to something else.

Wikipedia mentions that “Between 15 May and 9 July [1944], Hungarian authorities deported 437,402 Jews. All but 15,000 of these Jews were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and 90% of those were immediately killed. One in three of all Jews killed at Auschwitz were Hungarian citizens.” György’s (and Kertész’s) survival is a miracle. His fate is sealed by chance. (Same thing for Levi and Semprún). When he arrives in Auschwitz, another prisoner makes him understand he needs to lie about his age and say he’s 16. He doesn’t know why but instinctively follows the advice. It saves his life. In Buchenwald, he ends up in the hospital and it saves his life too. At the beginning, one of the characters caught on the bus on the way to the factory keeps saying that he was going to see his mother, that he almost missed the bus, that he wouldn’t have been there if he had missed that bus and decided to go home instead of giving it a chance and try to catch it. Back to Camus again. Life is unpredictable. The events flow randomly and fate is against us. He ended up in Buchenwald but he could have escaped it or ended up in the Danube like other Jews from Budapest.

S’il y a un destin, la liberté n’est pas possible ; si, au contraire, ai-je poursuivi de plus en plus surpris et me piquant au jeu, si la liberté existe, alors il n’y a pas de destin, c’est-à-dire—je me suis interrompu, mais juste le temps de reprendre mon souffle—c’est-à-dire qu’alors nous sommes nous-mêmes le destin : c’est ce qu’à cet instant-là j’ai compris plus clairement que jamais. If there is a fate, then liberty isn’t possible. If, on the contrary, I said, more and more surprised and getting into it, if liberty exists, then there is no fate. That is to say—I stopped, just long enough to catch my breath—that is to say we are fate ourselves. That’s what I understood at that moment, with the greatest clarity.

Yes fate doesn’t exist or more exactly what we think as fate is a succession of tiny decisions, barely conscious sometimes, that change our route, our life. Even in this barbaric, dictatorial steamroller that what the organization of the Holocaust, the narrator did make decisions that changed his life, like lying about his age. As all of us, the narrator is fateless, his future is not determined by any superior being.

Here’s another review by Lisa.

DSC_1170Memorial of the Jews who were killed and thrown into the Danube during WWII in Budapest.

Vienna Tales

September 26, 2015 18 comments

Vienna Tales. A collection of short stories edited by Helen Constantine and translated by Deborah Holmes. Not available in French.

The good old days and good old Vienna belong together like husband and wife. When you think of one, the other comes to mind. There is something touching about the fearful assiduousness with which the Viennese seek to uphold the belief that the good old days are still here in Vienna and that the city remains unchanged. (Heinrich Laube)

I’d already planned to spend a few days in Vienna in August when I read Marina’s review of Vienna Tales, a collection of short stories by various authors. As the title gives it away, Vienna is the common point between the stories. Some are snapshots of life in Vienna at different times:

  • Day-Out by Joseph Roth (1894 – 1939)
  • Merry-go-round by Joseph Roth
  • Vienna 1924 to …by Friedericke Mayröcker (1924)
  • The Prater by Adalbert Stifter (1805-1868)
  • Ottakringerstrasse by Christine Nöstlinger (1936)

Vienna_TalesIn these stories, you wander in Vienna along with the writers, discovering neighbourhoods and places. For example, Day-Out is an impressionist description of an outing in the outskirt of Vienna and the story is so short it’s more like a vignette than an actual story. The Prater is the big park in Vienna a mix of Central Park and Tivoli Gardens (Copenhagen). Stifter’s description of people promenading in the park reminded me of Zola in Money or Proust when they show us bourgeois parading in their carriages in the Bois de Boulogne.

Some stories focus on a moment in Vienna’s history.

Vienna by Heinrich Laube (1806-1884) portrays Metternich, a major Austrian political figures of the 19thC century, in the aftermath of Napoleon’s defeat.

Lenin and Demel by Anton Kuh (1890 – 1941) is set between the two world wars and starts with an image of Bela Kun standing at Vienna’s gates. Demel is a famous café in Vienna. It reminded me of the beginning of Anna Edes by Desnő Kostolányi: the first scene is Bela Kun fleeing from Budapest in an airplane, taking with him pastries from Gerbeaud, the Budapest counterpart of Demel.

In The Twilight of the Gods in Vienna, German author and film director Alexander Kluge. (1932) retells the episode of WWII when the Vienna orchestra recorded The Twilight of the Gods during the bombing of Vienna by the Allies.

Other stories are common short stories set in Vienna, like

  • The Four-poster Bed by Arthur Schnitzler. (1862-1931)
  • Oh Happy Eyes. In memoriam Georg Groddeck by Ingeborg Bachmann (1926-1973)
  • Spas Sleeps by Dimitré Dinev (1968)
  • The Criminal by Veza Canetti (1897-1963)
  • Envy by Eva Menasse (1970)
  • Six-nine-six-six-nine-nine by Doron Rabinovici (1961)

The two stories by Schnitzler are very short too, infused with melancholy and philosophical thoughts. Where Roth is mainly descriptive, journalistic, Schnitzler looks more into the souls of his characters.

Spas Sleeps is one of my favourite stories of the collection. It resonates with today’s news about refugees seeking asylum in Europe. Dimitré Dinev is of Bulgarian origin, just like his character Spas Christov. The story opens to Spas, sleeping outside like a bum. He arrived in Vienna to find work, build a new life. He remembers his years as an immigrant and how work becomes the only thing that matters. It’s the Open Sesame! to a future because it means the end of fear, identity papers, money and dignity.

Work was the most important thing. Everyone was looking for it, not everyone found it. And anyone who didn’t find it had to go back. Work was a magic word. All the other words were inferior to it. It alone determined everything. Work was more than a word, it was salvation.

It takes a special dimension with the migrants pushing through the doors of Eastern Europe these days. The story is really moving. Dinev is not trying to sell misery. He just puts Spas’s hardship at human height. Through this single case, he triggers empathy. You see Spas’s experience with eyes that could be yours and you hear him, you root with him and hope he’ll get a work permit.

Oh Happy Eyes! is a lovely tale of Miranda who’s blind as a bat but refuses to wear her glasses because she finds that the world isn’t that nice when she sees it with clarity.

And last but not least, two stories are about the Viennese literary world.

The Feuilletonists by Ferdinand Kürnberger (1821-1879) is another of my favourites in this collection. With a great sense of humour, Kürnberger pictures the different kind of feuilletonists working in Vienna. You have the house feuilletonist, the street feuilletonist, who strolls through the Hyde Park of modern industry like the serpent in paradise, seducing at every step the modern daughters of Eve who would much rather have the latest style in Parisian fig leaves than the most dewy-eyed innocence in all eternity, the salon feuilletonist, whose  natural habitat is actually Paris or London, the tavern feuilletonist, whose species is naturalized in the coffeehouse, the social feuilletonist and the forest feuilletonist who always walks alone. Seen from a distance, he resembles a candidate for suicide. I loved the description of the house feuilletonist:

‘There is, for example, the common house feuilletonist, Feuilletonistus domesticus. Only look at this exemplar and you will see right away that there is actually no need for city or public life to provide inexhaustible subject matter for a feuilleton. The material of the house feuilletonist is just that, his house. He describes to us his staircase, his parlour, his furniture, the view from his window. We are acquainted with the moods of his cat and the philosophical worldview of his poodle. We know the precise spot behind the oven where his coffee machine stands, and when he takes up the cross of civilization every morning with the first cup of the day, we know how many beans he grinds, how many drops of spiritus he uses, how much water is in his milk and chalk in his sugar. Like Humboldt discussing the folds of the earth’s crust, he talks about the tendency of his dressing gown to tear, missing buttons are sewn on before our eyes, in fact, he lives just like a prince whose every private action is performed in public. He seldom airs his own feelings (another aristocratic characteristic!), but shares with us in great historical detail the love affair between his poker and his shoe-horn, or else the stories he sees unfolding amongst the ornamental figures on his mantelpiece in the twilight hour.

I guess the contemporary house feuilletonist is a blogger, a frantic social media user. It seems that the temptation to expose one’s life to others is not new…

Out for a Walk by Arthur Schnitzler is best described by Helen Contantine is her informative foreword to the book:

‘Out for a Walk’ enriches my anthology not only with references to Viennese topography, but also to its literary history. The four friends would have been immediately recognizable to readers of the time as portraits of the central clique of ‘Young Vienna’: Schnitzler, Hofmannsthal, Felix Salten, and Richard Beer-Hofmann.

I totally missed the reference but I can understand that it was obvious to Schnitzler’s contemporaries.

I enjoyed Vienna Tales but I have suggestions about the lay-out of the book. Since we leap from one writer to the other, from one time to another, it would be great to have the year the story was published along with its title. Moreover, I have the Kindle edition and the lay-out of the pictures doesn’t work very well, I found it hard to navigate in the book and it’s something you want to do more with a collection of short stories from various authors than with a novel you’ll read from cover to cover. I also found it a bit difficult to switch from one story to the other, from one style to another and it took me longer than usual to finish the book. It’s still worth reading after a trip to Vienna.

I’ll end this billet with a last quote that really describes my experience with Austrian cuisine:

Overnight, Spas became a cook. He fried Schnitzel, chicken, mushrooms, cheese, and chips. He boiled egg dumplings, soup with strips of pancake or liver dumplings, frankfurter sausages and smoked sausages. He roasted meat and made salads. That’s how easy Austrian cuisine was!

Piazza Bucarest by Jens Christian Grøndahl

September 13, 2015 9 comments

Piazza Bucarest by Jens Christian Grøndahl (2004) Translated from the Danish by Alain Gnaedig.

Raconter n’est pas seulement conserver des souvenirs mais aussi en éliminer. Narration doesn’t only preserve memories, it also eliminates some.

Grondahl_Piazza_BucarestPiazza Bucarest won the Prix Jean Monnet de Littérature européenne in 2007. The list of the prize winners seems interesting to explore and it rewards a work of European fiction that was translated into French. I can understand why it won this prize: it’s set in Denmark, Italy and Romania and in a way deals with a page of European history, the collapse of the Iron Curtain.

Scott is a photographer from New York who settled in Denmark. In 1988, he flies to Bucarest for a reportage. It is before the fall of the Caucescu regime and he decides to marry his guide, Elena, to help her flee Romania. Their marriage doesn’t last and she eventually leaves him. Scott is devastated by her departure, so when, years later, he receives a letter addressed to Elena at their old home, he asks the narrator to find her and bring it to her.

The narrator shares a special bond with Scott as Scott used to be married to Vicky, the narrator’s mother. Vicky was quite young when the narrator was born and Scott is six years younger than her: the age difference between Scott and the narrator isn’t big. The two men are rather close.

Scott is a quiet man who ended up in Denmark by chance. He was on a trip in Europe in 1966 when he received his papers to go to Vietnam. He decided to stay in Denmark and marrying Vicky helped him out. He’s not very forthcoming and Elena never really confided in him. The narrator will be the first to hear the story of her life when he finds her in Italy.

I wasn’t enthralled by this novel although it has literary merits. Scott is too contemplative, too passive, I wanted to shake him up. The narrator is a writer, like Grøndahl and sometimes I’m tired of novels where the main protagonist is a novelist. Elena’s story is banal but in an unusual environment. I don’t want to reveal too much about her as discovering her past is part of the interest of the novel.

The narrator tries to reconstruct Scott’s feelings for Elena and the ins and outs of their failed marriage. He’s following leads from former conversations with Scott, time spent with Elena. He tries to guess what happened even knowing how futile it is. No one can understand someone else’s marriage or love relationship.

This European trip to find Elena is an opportunity for him to mull over Scott and Elena who have one thing in common: they both left their country and family behind. It is a reflection about freedom, exile and literature. Elena is ready to make a lot of sacrifice for the freedom of the West. Is it worth it? Is it as freeing in real life as it is on paper? Grøndahl gives us a tentative answer.

La liberté ne donne aucun sens mais des possibilités, cependant, elle nous offre, entre autres, le choix de les saisir ou non. Liberty does not give any meaning to life but it opens opportunities. However, among other things, it gives us the choice to seize them or not.

And how do you live in your new country? How do you adapt to it? What kind of relationship do you keep with the country you left? Elena doesn’t elaborate and the narrator contemplates her position, tries to imagine hers and Scott’s situation. Elena may not voice her thoughts about exile but she’s not as quiet about the place of literature:

Elle [Elena] répliqua qu’elle n’était pas écrivain, mais que si jamais il lui prenait l’idée d’accabler le monde avec un livre de plus, ce serait parce qu’elle aurait un message, une interprétation radicalement nouvelle de la place de l’homme et de l’Histoire, et non pour convier les lecteurs à admirer à quel point j’étais doué pour remuer les tourments de mon nombril avec une cuillère à thé. She [Elena] said that she wasn’t a writer but that, if it ever occurred to her to burden the world with another book, it would be because she has a message, a totally new interpretation of the place of humanity and History and not to invite the readers to admire to what extent I was gifted to stir my navel’s turmoil with a teaspoon.

That’s the crux of the literary matter, right? Elena is too ambitious. Who wouldn’t find writing daunting if your book had to bring a totally new interpretation of the place of humanity and History? Phew! That’s quite a challenge. Who’s up for that? And there’s a wide range of possibilities for books between explaining the grand scheme of the universe to readers and observing one’s navel under a microscope.

I can’t help thinking Grøndahl is a bit self-deprecatory here and the narrator’s books are actually his. I haven’t read any of his other novels but this one rather fits the description. If Grøndahl had literary cousins, I think they would be Modiano, Noteboom, Kundera and possibly Marias. His cousins would be European, not American. In my opinion, this is a trend in European literature. While these novels are often beautifully written, full of marvelous exploration of the fleetingness of life, of memories, they also often leave me unsatisfied. I don’t like to generalize but the characters are often in the same social circles as the writer: journalists, writers, university teachers, artists. No corporate executives, shop owners or plumbers in these books. They dig deep in the characters’ psyche or angst and they feel a bit disconnected with real life. I had this impression with Piazza Bucarest and with Dimanches d’août by Modiano. They are good books, ones that give you a long list of artistic quotes but whose plot is fuzzy a few weeks after you’ve read them. Does that ring a bell to you?

Have you read Grøndahl and what do you think about this last quote?

 

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