Kertész, Imre 1929–

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Kertész, Imre 1929–

PERSONAL: Name is pronounced "Im-RAY KERtez"; born November 9, 1929, in Budapest, Hungary. Ethnicity: Jewish

ADDRESSES: Home—Budapest, Hungary. E-mail[email protected]

CAREER: Writer, journalist, and translator. Deported to Auschwitz, Poland, 1944, and Buchenwald, Germany, 1945; Világosság, Budapest, Hungary, journalist, 1948–51; writer and translator, 1950–. Military service: Hungarian Army, 1951–53.

AWARDS, HONORS: Brandenburg Literary Prize, 1995; Leipzig Book Prize, 1997, for Diary of a Slave; Welt Prize, 2000; Nobel Prize for Literature, Swedish Academy, 2002; Great Cross of the Republic of Hungary Order of Merit, 2003; Goethe Medal, 2004; honorary degree from the Sorbonne, 2005.

WRITINGS:

Sorstalanság: regény, Szépirodalmi Könyvkiadó (Budapest, Hungary), 1975, translation by Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson published as Fateless, Northwestern University Press (Evanston, IL), 1992, translation by Tim Wilkinson published as Fatelessness Vintage International (New York, NY), 2004.

A nyomkeresoe: két regény (title means "The Pathfinder"), Szépirodalmi Könyvkiadó (Budapest, Hungary), 1977.

A kudarc: regény (title means "Fiasco"), Szépirodalmi Könyvkiadó (Budapest, Hungary), 1988.

Kaddis a meg nem születetett gyermekért, Magvetõ (Budapest, Hungary), 1990, translation by Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson published as Kaddish for a Child Not Born, Hydra Books (Evanston, IL), 1997, translation by Tim Wilkenson published as Kaddish for an Unborn Child, Vintage Books (New York, NY), 2004.

Az angol lobogo (title means "The English Flag"), [Budapest, Hungary], 1991.

Gályanapló (titles means "Galley Diary"), [Budapest, Hungary], 1992.

A holocaust mint kultúra: három eloeadás (title means "The Holocaust as Culture"), Századvég (Budapest, Hungary), 1993.

Jegyzokönyv, Magvetõ (Budapest, Hungary), 1993.

Valaki mas: A valtozas kronikaja (title means "I-Another: Chronicle of a Metamorphosis"), [Budapest, Hungary], 1997.

A gondolatnyi csend, amig a kivegzoeosztag ujratölt (title means "Moments of Silence While the Execution Squad Reloads"), [Budapest, Hungary], 1998.

A szamuezoett nyelv (title means "The Exiled Language"), [Budapest, Hungary], 2001.

Liquidation, translated by Tim Wilkinson, Knopf (New York, NY), 2004.

Author of short stories, essays, and plays. Translator of literature and philosophy from German to Hungarian.

ADAPTATIONS: Fateless was adapted for film, 2005.

SIDELIGHTS: When Hungarian writer Imre Kertész won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002, the Swedish Academy praised his works for "writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history." Kertész, a survivor of both the Auschwitz and Buchenwald death camps erected by the Nazis during World War II, became the first Hungarian writer to win the award, even though his works were not widely known in his native country, much less the rest of the world, at the time. Kertész attributes this fact as much to an unwillingness among the Hungarian people to acknowledge the Holocaust as to his own unwillingness to conform to literary status quo during the decades Hungary suffered under Soviet oppression. "There is no awareness of the Holocaust in Hungary," Leonard Doyle quoted Kertész as saying in the London Independent. "I hope in light of this recognition, they will face up to it more than until now." His books have been popular in Germany, and in a press conference covered by the Hungarian News Agency, Kertész commented, "Here [in Germany], my books are fulfilling the kind of mission a writer dreams of all his life."

Through his novels, Kertész explores his belief that the Holocaust, and the kinds of torture inflicted in concentration camps, are not an aberration of history, but a state of normalcy. His three most well-known works, Sorstalanság: regény (published in English translation as Fateless and as Fatelessness,), A kudarc: regény, and Kaddis a meg nem születetettgyermekért (published in English translation as Kaddish for a Child Not Born and as Kaddish for an Unborn Child), form a semi-autobiographical trilogy in which Kertész examines the horror and degradation visited upon the individual as a result of human animosity fueled by political power and religious intolerance. "As a Jew persecuted by the Nazis, and then a Hungarian writer living under a communist regime, Kertész experienced some of the most acute suffering of the twentieth century," commented a writer for the Glasgow Herald. Thane Rosenbaum, writing in the New York Times commented, "Kertész's books are reflections on the nature of survival and the impact of the Holocaust on those who must reconcile themselves to living in a world of madness and mass death." In acknowledging Kertész's first-hand experience with one of the greatest horrors of modern history, the Swedish Academy concluded that "for him, Auschwitz is not an exceptional occurrence. The shocking credibility of the description derives perhaps from this very absence of any element of the moral indignation or metaphysical protest that the subject cries out for."

Kertész was still a teenager when he was liberated from Buchenwald in 1945 and returned to Hungary. Several years later, he became a journalist but lost his job when the Communist party assumed power and turned his newspaper into a propaganda publication. For many years, he earned a living as a translator of literary and philosophical works, introducing works by Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Friedrich Nieztsche to Hungarian readers. His first novel, Fateless, took ten years to find a publisher, and though it was initially praised in literary circles, it was not widely read. It was never banned by the government, but Kertész's steadfast refusal to join the Communist party's official writer's association ensured that his works would never enjoy literary prominence in Hungary as long as the regime was in power

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, Hungary transitioned away from Communism peacefully, and by 1989 Kertész's novels had gained a wider audience. A loyal following developed, particularly in Sweden and Germany, where his novels were readily available, and winning several prestigious literary prizes, including the Brandenburg Prize and the Leipzig Book Prize, strengthened his reputation.

In Fateless, written in 1965 but not published until 1975, the fifteen-year-old narrator, Gyorgy Koves, is taken to Buchenwald and learns to survive amid the starvation and boredom that fill his endless days. In the camp, Gyorgy is ostracized by the other Jews because he knows neither Hebrew nor Yiddish and becomes an outsider among outsiders. In order to cope in such an absurd world, Gyorgy rationalizes everything, and eventually he comes to believe that Buchenwald is a beautiful place. The concentration camp is not an aberration in his mind; it is a normal place, and Gyorgy does not bother to protest his treatment or contemplate the indignities he suffers. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly praised "Kertész's spare, understated prose," noting that the novel's intensity "will make it difficult to forget." His next novel, A kudarc: regény, is also narrated by Gyorgy, who is now a middle-aged novelist detailing his concentration camp experiences for a book. Upon completing the novel, Gyorgy prepares himself for rejection, but to his surprise the novel is published. He receives no solace, however, when the book is released and he continues to suffer the sadness and desolation that have plagued his entire life.

Kertész confronts his Jewish heritage in Kaddish for a Child Not Born. Despite the book's title, Kertész considers himself a nonbelieving Jew, even though much of his identity is tied inextricably to the religion. The book's title refers to the Jewish prayer for the dead, which in this case is said for the children the narrator could not bring himself to father, despite his wife's wishes for a family. Distrust, fear, and a Jewish identity are only three of the factors that torment the novel's narrator, a middle-aged translator and Holocaust survivor, who is eventually deserted by a loving wife because he cannot cast out his demons and live a "normal" life. The narrator hints at horrors other than the Holocaust that led to his neurosis. A traumatic childhood in Budapest, complete with the humiliating rigors of boarding school, pre-date his time in Auschwitz. These combined atrocities have left him pessimistic and faithless, circumstances under which he is not willing to create life. The sadness caused by his decision not to have children in turn leads him to mourn the absence of these children. In this cyclical despair, the Kaddish prayer becomes "a cry for death," wrote M. Anna Falbo in the Library Journal.

Kertész's writing has been described as dense, and Kaddish for a Child Not Born is no exception. The short novel does not contain chapters, and one paragraph comprises nearly a quarter of the text. The story itself, according to Robert Murray Davis in World Literature Today, is similarly complex: "Part meditation, part memoir, part highly abstract and achronic narrative in the first person, part transcriptions from drafts of earlier work, part circling around a series of scenes, images, and issues without reaching any conclusion except the fact that it stops with a prayer to cease forever." Likewise, a reviewer for Publishers Weekly commented that the strength of the novel is the strength of the narrator, noting that "the reader is carried along on his desperate, nihilistic tirade."

Kertész's 2004 novel, Liquidation, continues the author's semi-autobiographical story. This time a character named B., who was in Auschwitz, has died from a heroin overdose but leaves behind a manuscript of a play titled Liquidation. The play foretells the liquidation of B.'s publisher and B.'s suicide. The novel follows B.'s editor Kingbitter as he searches for B.'s novel, whose existence is hinted at in the play. Although this part of the story is narrated by Kingbitter, the novel also features other narrators talking of B. and his life, including B.'s lover, ex-wife, and others.

"Liquidation's real literary value lies in its relation to its prequels, the way in which it subtly, even perversely, plays with the themes of these earlier novels," wrote Amos Friedland in the Globe & Mail. Noting that Liquidation "begins precisely after B. has committed suicide," Friedland wrote: "Because of this, there is a narrative shift away from the perspective of the first two novels. It is no longer the first-person survivor speaking, but those who surrounded him." Kelly Cherry, writing in the Hollins Critic, noted: "The question under examination in Liquidation … is, we are told, not To be or not to be? but Am I or am I not?" Nation contributor John Banville wrote: "Where Kertesz's work is concerned, the term 'unreliable narrator' is wholly inadequate to denote the twists and turns, the evasions, turnabouts and sheer effrontery of the narrative voice."

Despite the somber tone of his writing, Kertész himself does not wallow in the mire that often traps his narrators. Alan Riding, writing in the New York Times quoted literary critic Hermann Tertsch as describing Kertész as "a person who has created literature and culture where others would find only desolation and neurosis," adding: "His smile is a permanent gesture of conciliation toward a world that at no moment deceives him. And his amiable nature seems like a generous revenge for the cruelties and miseries he has known."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Vavári, Louise O, and Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek, editors, Imre Kertész and Holocaust Literature, Purdue University Press (West Lafayette, IN), 2006.

PERIODICALS

America's Intelligence Wire, October 28, 2004, "Nobel Laureate Imre Kertész Gives First U.S. Reading."

Booklist, October 15, 2004, Ray Olson, review of Liquidation, p. 389.

Daily Telegraph (London, England), October 11, 2002, Nigel Reynolds, "Holocaust Survivor Wins Nobel Prize for Literature."

Europe Intelligence Wire, September 9, 2003, "Nobel Laureate Imre Kertész Receives High State Honour"; March 22, 2004, "Nobel Laureate Imre Kertesz Gets Goethe Medal in Weimar"; March 9, 2005, "Nobel-laureate Author Regrets Europe, USA Estrangement"; March 10, 2005, "Sorbonne Confers Honorary Degree on Hungarian Nobel Laureate."

Globe & Mail (Toronto, Canada), November 27, 2004, Amos Friedland, review of Liquidation, p. D43.

Herald (Glasgow, Scotland), October 11, 2002, Thane Rosenbaum, "Survivor of Auschwitz Wins Nobel Prize; Writer's Work Looks at Ability of Man to Overcome Barbaric Forces."

Hollins Critic, April, 2005, Kelly Cherry, review of Liquidation and Kaddish for an Unborn Child, p. 15.

Hungarian News Agency, October 11, 2002, "Nobel Prize Winner Imre Kertész Holds International News."

Independent (London, England), October 11, 2002, Leonard Doyle, "Auschwitz Survivor Wins Nobel Prize for Literature."

Library Journal, June 1, 1997, M. Anna Falbo, review of Kaddish for a Child Not Born, p. 149; January 1, 2005, Michael Rogers, reviews of Fatelessness and Kaddish for an Unborn Child, p. 172.

Los Angeles Times, October 11, 2002, David Holley, "Hungarian Holocaust Survivor Is Awarded Nobel in Literature," p. A3.

M2 Best Books, March 6, 2006, "Shortlist for the 2006 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Announced."

Manchester Guardian, October 11, 2002, "Hungarian Camp Survivor Wins Literature Nobel."

Nation, January 31, 2005, John Banville, reviews of Liquidation, Fatelessness, and Kaddish for an Unborn Child, p. 29.

New Leader, November-December 2004, Alvin H. Rosenfeld, review of Liquidation, p. 30.

New York Times, October 10, 2002, Associated Press, "Hungarian Author Wins Nobel Prize in Literature"; October 11, 2002, Alan Riding, "Hungarian Novelist Wins Nobel Prize in Literature," p. A1; October 12, 2002, Thane Rosenbaum, "The Survivor Who Survived."

Publishers Weekly, August 24, 1992, review of Fateless, p. 73; May 19, 1997, a review of Kaddish for a Child Not Born, p. 63.

World Literature Today, winter, 2002, Robert Murray Davis, review of Kaddish for a Child Not Born, p. 205.

ONLINE

BBC News Web site, http://news.bbc.co.uk/ (October 11, 2002), "Imre Kertész: Literary Survivor."

Fantastic Fiction, http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/ (August 26, 2006), information on author's works.

I Survived, http://isurvived.org/ (August 26, 2006), Stefan Theil, "The Last Word: Imre Kertész" (originally published in Newsweek International).

National Public Radio Web site, http://www.npr.org/ (October 10, 2002), "2002 Nobel Prize Winners."

NNDb, http://www.nndb.com/ (August 26, 2006), biographical information on author.

Nobel e-Museum, http://www.nobel.se/ (October 10, 2002), "The Nobel Prize in Literature 2002."

Village Voice Online, http://www.villagevoice.com/ (December 20, 2004), Ben Ehrenreich, review of Liquidation.