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New York Review of Books
Monday, July 7th, 2008
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Fire and Knowledge: Fiction and Essays

by Peter Nadas

The Genius of Péter Nádas

A review by Deborah Eisenberg

In countries where a state apparatus, by means of continuous and perceptible monitoring, threats, and reprisals, accords due respect to the power of language, it is hardly surprising that both readers and writers would take words and their uses seriously. And although it's certain, insofar as anything can be, that Peter Nadas would have become an extraordinary writer no matter what his circumstances, life in Hungary under a Soviet-backed regime has left a burning imprint on his writing. His work's frank claims to be on a high level, its ambition, assurance, rigor, and tone of urgency, as well as the extent to which it sometimes makes free with the reader's stamina, not only suggest irrepressible artistic and moral force but also seem unburdened by personal arrogance. What is at issue for him, clearly, is to discover truth and tell it in whatever way possible.

Nadas was born in Hungary in 1942, and, except for some travels, primarily in Germany, has remained there, under the heavy shadows of World War II, the cold war, the long, hopeless period of stasis between the superpowers, and the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet empire. As a boy in Budapest he witnessed the Hungarian Uprising of 1956; in 1958 his father, a high-ranking Party functionary, committed suicide.

His titanic novel A Book of Memories -- which has been subsequently outweighed by his 1,500-page Parallel Stories, finished in 1995 but not yet available in English -- was written over a period of more than ten years. Its dense and intricate plot unfolds at mesmerizingly close range. Specific information tends to appear only obliquely or incidentally; it takes some time for us to orient ourselves and to understand that the narrator, whom we first encounter in Berlin, is in love with a young man who has just disappeared, presumably to the West, and that both of them are also emotionally involved with a well-known actress. Sections of the book that deal with this period of the narrator's life alternate with sections about his childhood in Stalinist Budapest. A second voice, that of a dissolute aesthete and anarchist, who we come to realize is an invention of the first narrator's, braids itself between these settings, and toward the end of the book, a third narrator -- an important childhood friend of the first -- takes over for a while.

The story is refracted and amplified through these semipermeable consciousnesses, which, from time to time -- from the force of longing, pain, revelation, or danger -- fray still farther. It is in the convergences and divergences of various love triangles and wrenching, hidden family histories, in the multiple political and personal alliances and treacheries, and in the mergings and sunderings of identities that we feel the underlying heart of the book -- the search for the sense of self that is the precondition of both autonomy and commonality.

Memories -- not as static snapshots but as active conduits -- move the story forward; the long sinuous sentences delicately approach, probe, recoil, and approach again from new angles the details in their path, sliding easily here and there through time. The prismatic narratives and psyches strike rich harmonics, and now and again the reader can become lost in the welter -- or at least I did -- but that scarcely matters; the book is so intense an experience that when one comes up for air, the incarnate world around one seems no more vital than wallpaper.

Scrutiny is fundamental to the milieu Nadas portrays, where every intimacy creates new ambiguities and new ground for betrayal, and there's no work I know that examines so atomically the composition of an instant of experience -- the interstices of that instant; at times it's miniaturization writ almost too large to take in. Here is a fragment from an episode in which the first narrator and a school friend, Maja, suspecting their fathers of being spies, go through their desk drawers:

How could we have known that our relationship reenacted, repeated, copied, in a playfully exaggerated form -- today I know it followed a diabolical pattern -- our parents' ideals and also their ruthless practices, and to some extent the publicly proclaimed ideals and ruthless practices of that historical period as well? Playing at being investigators was nothing but a crude, childishly distorted, cheap imitation; we could call it aping, but we could also call it immersion in something real, for Maja's father was chief of military counter-intelligence and my father was a state prosecutor, and therefore by picking up on hints and remarks they dropped, we were both initiated, almost by accident and definitely against their will, into the professional pursuit of criminal investigation; more precisely, for us it was turning their activities into a game that enabled us to experience their present life and work -- which we thought was wonderful, dangerous, important, and, what's more, respectable -- and also to bring their past closer, which, judging by the contents of those drawers, was filled with adventure, real-life dangers, narrow escapes, false papers, and double identities -- we could see their youth, and if I were going a little further -- and why shouldn't I? -- I'd have to say that they were the ones who blessed the knife with which we sought their lives....

After finishing the book, I, for one, felt irreversibly altered, as if the author had adjusted, with a set of tiny wrenches, molecular components of my brain.

Nadas can actually make you experience what it is to feel or think two mutually exclusive things at once. Attraction and revulsion, for example, or anguishing tenderness and murderous rage, or the simultaneous conviction that one is imparting an intimate truth and awareness that one is laying a deceitful snare, or a feeling of approaching a safe harbor and one of sudden endangerment. Not that this isn't something that happens -- perhaps continuously -- in the course of an ordinary day, but it's a shock to have the sensation plucked forth from the hidden recesses of one's mind and put into the consciously perceptible forefront.

Fiction inevitably examines, to some extent, lying; and lying -- or falsification, anyhow -- is woven into our very existence; every moment differs from the last, thus our every response must be inaccurate to both the moment that has passed and the one that has arrived. But the workings of a totalitarian regime refine and focus the inquiry into the true and the false, and if you want to get some insight into the elaborate mental, moral, and emotional gymnastics entailed in negotiating a milieu in which spying and surveillance are a given, A Book of Memories will provide it.

For people who would like to acquaint themselves with the distinc-tive timbre of Nadas's voice, Fire and Knowledge is a fine introduction. And many who are already readers will be elated to find these early though astonishingly accomplished stories, and will be fascinated to see, in the essays, a number of his continuing concerns interweaving and transmogrifying as they attach themselves to diverse events and experiences. The fourteen essays and nine pieces of short fiction in Fire and Knowledge were chosen by Nadas from his copious works and arranged by him as well. They were written over nearly four decades, from 1962, when he was twenty, to 2000. The latest piece of fiction in the collection was written in 1975, after which the author turned the considerable force of his attention to A Book of Memories.

In these essays, Nadas writes about art, theater, and prose, about the relative powerlessness of the East Bloc countries, the obstacles to an integrated Europe, and the relationships between the West and the East Bloc, or former East Bloc, countries, especially during the period he refers to -- enclosed in quotation marks as effective as the gloves of a sanitation worker -- as the period of "peaceful coexistence." "The archives are open," he writes:

One can learn how the great, parasitic world systems were built into and worked inside each other.... Their sense of reality suffered great injuries during the cold war, and with the facts of these injuries they had overwritten the universal ideals.

He writes about continuities that can outlast specific political systems, such as the stratifications of class and privilege that endured the revolution and thrived, paradoxically, despite their altered composition under communism. About the social construction of character, specifically expressed as the various costs -- in honesty, dignity, and integrity -- to the individual and a culture incurred by a totalitarian history, about personal responsibility in times inimical to personal autonomy. He alludes to his vacillating and tormented relationship to Communist and socialist ideologies, and describes his youthful failure -- as a military recruit assigned, he realizes to his surprise, to Hungarian Military Intelligence -- to confront his own complicity with the regime:

I was sitting in the secret power center of one of the world systems. Care was taken to keep me away from sensitive material, and I also took care to keep away from it.... In sober self-defense I kept to all the regulations lest it might occur to someone to use me for something other than what I was being used for. I did not want to know anything. It was as if someone who had to go through the door a hundred times a day were being careful not to touch the doorknob.

Virtually none of the essays approaches its goals in a straight or single line, and in some instances it is the points of intersection of these lines in the mazy skeins of thought that are the most interesting aspect of the piece. Recalling the moment of the Cuban Missile Crisis, he writes:

Helplessness, confinement, fear, and enforced silent endurance carved another deep groove in my memory, and distrust settled into it like a lasting experience; it became the psychic reality of my life.

Later in the same essay he writes:

In a dictatorship it is very difficult to determine the proportions of one's participation and one's refusal. Four more years had to go by before I could, and it was not I but the combined military forces of the Warsaw Pact that determined the final proportions when in 1968 they overran Czechoslovakia. Only now am I fully aware of the many decisions I made back then—without available information.

Although a reader might happily dip into the book here or there, the first two selections -- one nonfiction, one fiction -- provide an excellent starting point. The opening essay, "The Great Christmas Killing," written in 1998, is an account of the lawless and somewhat improvisatory execution by firing squad on December 25, 1989, of the Romanian despots Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu. The author describes and assesses his responses as he watched it -- twice -- in televised documentaries:

Dispassionately I watched myself enjoying the tyrannicide. I kept observing that although I should have been ashamed for enjoying the sight, I was not ashamed at all...

I believe in just, legal procedures. Despite this belief, my conscience was conspicuously silent. I do not believe in capital punishment. Still, the brutality of the procedure I was witnessing did not offend me. Being vaguely aware that there had to be something I should object to in this outrageously unlawful, dilettante farce -- though I had no objection -- and that there should be another law-abiding and humane person within me to protest my moral indifference and oppose my aesthetic naivete -- though there was no such person to be found -- created a strange vacuum.

He then describes the physiological effects of excitement and goes on to say:

...If one's closed physiologic system is not preserved for the more noble pleasures, then the chaos of suspicion, of being insulted, of the unquenchable thirst for revenge, of covetousness, envy, selfishness, vanity, and greed will quickly swallow one up. Sometimes one person with hysterical tendencies is all that is needed to drag the rest of a group along. This sort of chaos swallowed up Yugoslavia quite some time ago. The membrane that still protects Ukraine, Russia, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, and Croatia has grown very thin.

This essay, brief and probably the most straightforward in the book, gives us a clear view of the author's ferocious intellect, his profound humanism, his skill in depicting a scene, and his ingenuity in structuring thoughts and impressions. We sense his psychological acuity, narrative energy, moral vigilance, and exacting self-scrutiny. The essay suggests what it means to him to go about the task of understanding something. And most significantly, I think, the dispassionate observation of his own psyche here persuasively demonstrates his conviction -- fundamental to his work -- of the primacy of the experience of the body, that it is this from which attitudes arise and are differentiated, thus the experience of the body must be closely attended to and monitored.

Nadas's reflections on the killing of the Ceausescus could be considered an examination of a localized symptom of the dissolution of the East Bloc, interesting in its own right but restricted in its scope to a particular place and particular moment of history. But in fact, now, almost two decades later and far from the former East Bloc, the essay reads in huge, flashing letters, signaling hazards ahead of us and around us, not behind us.

We can hardly fail to think, as we read it, of the grisly execution of Saddam Hussein, so defining of a newly prominent set of cultural values in the US; how painfully it reminds us that after precious little debate our nation seems to have accepted kidnapping and torture as acceptable political instruments. The central concern of the piece on the Ceausescus is really the universal, bodily pleasures of retaliation. It implicitly raises the question whether the notion of punishment is anything more than a pretext for violence -- a way to legitimize it -- and it reminds us that if we want to account for the rapid degradations in our own political and judicial landscape, we need look no farther than our own pulse.

The first story in the book, "Liar, Cheater," is an elegantly simple narrative, highly controlled and told with a deadpan naivete in the cleanest possible prose, as if a child's memory had penetrated, by painful intensity, and overwhelmed, an adult consciousness. A child who has recently learned how to read and write is on his way to school when he comes upon the fascinating spectacle of some men tarring a road:

In the first recess it occurred to me that it would be better to watch the roadworkers than to sit in the classroom for no good reason. After all, I already knew how to write. I tore a page out of my notebook and wrote on it the following:

DEAR TEACHER PLEASE RELEASE MY SON BECAUSE TODAY IS HIS BIRTHDAY AND WE WOULD LIKE TO CELEBRATE IT

And I signed my father's name. In nice block letters.

His teacher excuses him and he spends the day intently watching the road crew. That night, the teacher appears at the door of his home, all dressed up and bearing a chocolate bar, announcing that she wants to commemorate his birthday:

We were standing in the dark hallway.

The door was still open because I couldn't close it. Somehow, I couldn't move my hands, though I knew I should close the door. And I couldn't say anything. Though I knew I should say thank you and ask her to come in. But I couldn't say a word. The teacher pretended not to notice anything. Though I saw that she did. And with light steps she began to cross the hallway as if she had visited here many times before.

Light was coming out from under the living-room door. The teacher's high-heel shoes approached the door; then she stopped and, with her gloved hand, knocked on the door. She did not bend her fingers; she knocked with her clenched fist. She opened the door, and in the sudden light, she hesitated for a second to see if I'd follow her. But I could not move. I would have liked to move, if she hadn't been going to the living room or if some-thing else might have happened. Then she closed the door behind her.

The teacher and the child's parents spend an evidently cordial evening together in the living room while the child panics in his bedroom. His parents have never punished him and he doesn't expect them to now. He does not know -- the presumably adult narrator still does not know -- what has taken place between the adults. At the end of the evening when he is put to bed with a bedtime kiss (but no bedtime story) nothing has happened, and yet everything has changed.

The story is tense and exquisite. One reads it with a pounding heart. It is within the darkened areas of the story, the "strange vacuum," that life unfolds; the story shapes itself with an architectural sense of volume around those areas of ignorance. One emerges from the childish narrative deeply shaken, with a feeling of having been marked, simply by virtue of being human; of having unwrapped, inadvertently, the whole shaming, fated, observable, and irremediably solitary package of oneself.

There is, in a number of pieces, a blurring of fiction and essay. The wonderful "Vivisection" is categorized, and reasonably so, as a story. In it, the narrator describes, in careful detail, the movements of a model undressing in an artist's studio, noting her ruddy, puffy hands, the scar on her stomach, a cheap medallion around her neck. He then dissects his own description, revealing the places where he distorted or even invented the facts so as to "emphasize the rawness of the image." The story becomes a poetic disquisition on aesthetic questions or, more precisely, a narrative analysis of narration. "What is surprising to me," he discovers,

is that approaching a goal of so little importance can lead to such a distortion of reality!... But just as with reality, we can uncover only the details of reality's distortion.

And some of the pieces designated as essays, such as "Meeting God" and "Clogged Pain," are truly cryptic in a manner we might generally consider a prerogative of fiction.

Since the specter of the censor haunted his notebook from the moment he first picked up a pencil, it's not surprising that Nadas would be adept at indirect expression. A number of the stories conspicuously employ familiar elements of allegory or parable, enabling them to masquerade in part as extended, creepy fairy tales or as vaguely satirical versions of Christian iconography. That he could make such evasion and mediation work to the advantage of his fiction is evidence of his remarkable creativity and technical control. His specificity of observation, flexibility of style, and skill at rendering the concrete allow stories such as "The Lamb," "The Bible," and "Minotaur" to read, despite layers of metaphor, not as abstractions but as terrifying, subtle, and instantly engaging fiction. Here the narrator of "The Lamb" recalls the story's central figure, a solitary, elegant, enigmatic -- and Jewish -- neighbor, Mr. Róth:

We did not yet know that there were differences among the objects of our fears, because we did not yet know that to be frightening was at least as terrible as it was to be frightened. So instead of being attracted to Mr. Roth, we were attracted to our drunkard fathers and to the strange tramps, whores, tavern brawlers, and loudmouth bullies from the edge of the city who loitered around our settlement; with our instinct to emulate authority and threatening behavior, we looked down on Mr. Roth the way we scorned our mothers, always disheveled, always smelling of dishwater, whose powerful slaps we nonetheless dreaded.

The stories differ greatly, but they have a singular character that resists any simple description. There is throughout Nadas's work an atmosphere of dread and the hazardous, faint eroticism of what is cloaked. The very difficulty of navigating around the contours of the invisible and unknowable is inebriating -- we feel our way along, our course often determined by episodes of emotional or physical violence; our active participation as readers is required, and thus the writer whose contact with his readers would be automatically impeded pulls them right into the compass of his excavations.

There's a remarkably intimate quality about Nadas's nonfiction, too -- as if he has found some way to strike down the distance between reader and page. And naturally, many of the essays concern themselves, both explicitly and implicitly, with language and communication. The premise of the excellent title essay, "A Tale of Fire and Knowledge," written in 1986, is overtly metaphorical: a newscaster denies the rumor that mysterious fires are raging inward from the four corners of Hungary.

Though we in the West may, in recent years, have altered or inverted the meaning of many words, such as "democracy," "freedom," "safety," "war," and "terror," to name a few, we at least understand their encoded usages and can communicate within those. But in "A Tale of Fire and Knowledge" Nadas illustrates how totalitarian restraints can do the linguistic distortions of imperialist propaganda one better.

"Although everyone knew the news did not mean what it meant," he explains, nonetheless they are obliged to pretend to one another not to understand what it might mean:

In the Hungarian vernacular of the time, "significant" meant "insignificant," for example, and "insignificant" stood for "significant," but since words had not completely lost their original meaning, there could be no consensus on just what they really meant. Silent agreement could therefore extend only to what a nonexistent general agreement could not mean.

If by some turn of good fortune the words lost their original meanings, they would acquire new ones, but this in turn was unimaginable without making individual knowledge public, without a new general agreement. As a result, every word of the language -- now according to people's individual knowledge, now according to their common ignorance -- meant something other than what it once had meant, and people had to look for the word's meaning by alternately considering the speaker's situation and the word's new meaning relative to its original one.

Though brilliant and arresting, "Fate and Technique," like some of the other essays that deal with the relationships between the former East Bloc and the West, is not uniformly convincing -- to me at least—and one has to wonder if the author's view, often implied in these essays, that the spreading of democratic values has been an essential motive in the West's imperialist ventures may not have been somewhat altered by global events of the past few years. Nonetheless, the example Nadas provides of the difficulty of communication between "the person who organizes his own fate," that is, someone who lives in a free-market democracy, and "the person who is at the mercy of his fate," someone who lives in a region recently released from the grip of the Soviet Union, is irresistible:

When two persons left to their fate meet, a response like "I'm fine" can cause a great shock, because it would mean that in the misery that is the life of both persons, the respondent is rejecting solidarity with the other. Usually, when such people want to be courteous, they must strive to describe as vividly as possible -- and to outdo one another in the depiction -- their unbearable, intolerable fate in all its details. They do this even when by chance they happen to feel good, because their collective identity, expressed in this elementary courtesy, demands that they do not burden each other with accounts of well-being. This is the very opposite of what elementary courtesy demands from people who shape their own fate. When they meet, the basic interest of both parties is to avoid burdening each other with news of bad feelings, even if they happen to be in bad shape. If they did otherwise, they would have to entrust to a relative stranger the confidential information that they have been shaping their fate badly, that they have failed, that they have been losers, and in that case they would be casting doubt on the functional capacity of the all-encompassing theory on which the collective identity of fate-shaping people is built.

Of the essays that deal directly with integrity of language, possibly the most interesting, because it also deals so directly and open-heartedly with the author's fiction, is the movingly titled "Homecoming," in which the author recounts the process by which he came to find, starting in about 1973, a way into his A Book of Memories.

He begins with a description of his autumnal temperament, the anguish of a serious intimacy, and the allure of suicide:

In those years my narrative style gave me the most trouble. Not that I couldn't write plain sentences that others believed to be authentic; I was the one who did not sense a complete, perfect inner credibility, the kind that could be measured against my being. I felt in my own sentences as if I were walking around in strange clothes, now in this kind, now in another, always in some costume. Of course fate had blessed me with a certain penchant for mimicry, but it seemed that this gift, which is indispensable to understanding and living the lives of strangers, would deny me the means to express the relationships and attractions that interested me most.... At the same time, I was successful, and that made my situation all the more dangerous. Critics, comparing my descriptive talents with those of great writers, publicly showered me with praise. But fortunately I listened more to my pains....

These torments increased to the point where after the execution of a few polished short stories, not only did I become dissatisfied with my sentences, but I also felt the punctuation of my sentences was invalid and false. Commas and periods, dashes and question marks: they were all false. I found paragraphs even more repulsive....

I felt I was putting punctuation marks here or there because that's how others were doing it, without comprehending their relation to me; so my marks had only a global meaning but no personal value. And the more faithfully I served this consensually accepted global sense, the more I distanced myself from my personal requirements.

A period of time passed during which Nadas hurled himself against the expressible in this way, trying to force it to yield to his needs: he spent another two years at this, much of them in bed, his imagination proliferating with characters and incident while his paper remained blank. Then:

One afternoon, with earplugs in my ear, a soft velvet-covered pillow pulled down on my head, I tried to ignite the usual seance of my imagination; it was no go. I got up, sat down at the table, and began to work.

Of course this "began to work" is not an exact phrase. It would be more correct to say that somebody, for the first time in his life, began to speak in his natural tones. I was that somebody, but at long last I succeeded in writing sentences that were stretched out between the rawest demands of self-knowledge and the subtlest form of imagination, without slipping over to tasteless confession or mere fantasizing.

Most of us, in attempting to purge our thinking of the received and approximate, the stale encrustations of guff, do not go through so rigorous or conscious a process. But neither are most of us so habitually alert to the question of the nature of the discourse we share with our readers.

The samizdat readership looked to literature in a more or less devotional spirit, for reflections and illuminations of the world it lived in but was forbidden to observe or speak of directly. And when we think of the eager and presumably highly discerning samizdat readership, the writer from the free-market tradition can hardly help writhing, tasteless as that may be, with envy. But obviously a life of terrifying repression is no more enviable for a writer than it is for anyone else, just as it is not repression that gives either words or the truthful and accurate use of them their value.

The task of locating what must be said at a given time -- and how to say it -- is extraordinarily difficult. In a dictatorship, the obstacles, at least, are clear ones, and the contract between writers and readers against authority is clear; it is understood by the first two groups that they need each other in order to resist and penetrate the falsifications engineered and levied by the third; they need each other for honest and sustaining conversation.

But it seems to me that serious fiction is under some sort of assault here, now, as well -- by forces that are far more complex, more subtle, and harder to trace than the distortions of an entrenched dictatorship, or, for that matter, of pure market capitalism. Although there is a rapidly widening gulf here between the interests of the governed and the government -- or the corporations those governments actually represent—the reciprocity between fiction writers and readers has not been proportionally invigorated. On the contrary, it seems to have slackened.

Here in the West, fiction writers are welcome to be absolutely outspoken; maddeningly, no one much cares what we say -- we pose no threat. Is it because our writing is not sufficiently forceful? Because our potential readership has been trained to look elsewhere to gain an understanding -- or misunderstanding -- of their world, or has been, in the course of the single-minded cultivation of an army of consumers, ruthlessly undereducated? Because what contemporary writers perceive and say is in some fundamental way divorced from reality? Certainly, in recent years, we, the populace, have been stunned with fear and shame by events in which we have had, however unwillingly, a hand, and this fear and shame seem to have taken a great toll on our composure, our ability to look at what is in front of our eyes.

It could be that fear and shame have interrupted the conversation between reader and writer. In any event, it is as if fiction has largely come to be treated as a self-enclosed arena, and judged by standards that have little to do with the living world beyond it; in our life of the moment, which is both highly politicized and highly commodified, whatever we have to say is in danger of being transmuted, as soon as it hits the paper, into something trivial and inessential. Perhaps part of the problem is that not only have we not located the obstacles to our meaningful expression, we hardly discern that there are any.

The work in Fire and Knowledge is illuminating, profoundly strange, searching, and fascinating, and it contains the mysterious, addictive flavors that Nadas's readers crave. And reading it now, nearly a decade after its latest piece was written and in a very different circumstance, one is reminded that when it is necessary to discover how to write truthfully and meaningfully, it might be possible, under even the most difficult circumstances, to find a way to do so.

Deborah Eisenberg is the author of four collections of short stories and a play. She is the winner of the 2000 Rea Award for the Short Story, a Whiting Writers' Award, a Lannan Foundation Fellowship, and five O. Henry Awards. She lives in New York City.


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