Nádas, Péter 1942-
Nádas, Péter 1942-
PERSONAL: Born 1942, in Budapest, Hungary.
CAREER: Fiction writer.
Egy családregény vége, Szepirod (Budapest, Hungary), 1977, translation published as The End of a Family Novel, Farrar, Strauss (New York, NY), 1998.
Leíras (short stories), Szepirodalmi Konyvkiado (Budapest, Hungary), 1979.
Néz’’otér, Magveto (Budapest, Hungary), 1983.
Emlekiratok konyve, Szepirodalmi Konyvkiado (Budapest, Hungary), 1986, translation by Ivan Sanders and Imre Goldstein published as A Book of Memories, Farrar, Strauss (New York, NY), 1997.
Játéktér, Szepirodalmi Konyvkiado (Budapest, Hungary), 1988.
Esszék (title means “Essays”), Jelenkor (Pecs, Hungary), 1995.
Kritikák, Jelenkor (Pecs, Hungary), 1999.
A Lovely Tale of Photography, translation by Imre Goldstein, Twisted Spoon Press (Prague, Czech Republic), 1999.
Love, translation by Imre Goldstein, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2000.
(With Péter Esterházy) Kalauz: Bojtár Endre Kíséro írásaival, Magveto (Budapest, Hungary), 2003.
Saját Halál, Jelenkor (Pecs, Hungary), 2004.
(And photographer) My Own Death, translation by Janos Salomon, Steidl (London, England), 2004.
Párhuzamos Tórténetek, Jelenkor (Pecs, Hungary), 2005.
Fire and Knowledge: Fiction and Essays, translation by Imre Goldstein, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 2007.
SIDELIGHTS: Considered a national treasure by some in his native Hungary, Péter Nádas did not see publication of his major novel, A Book of Memories, in the United States until 1997, a full eleven years after its appearance in Hungary. Many critics praised the Proustian talent evident in the novel’s more than seven hundred pages. Stanislaw Baranczak of the New Republic wrote, “If a masterpiece is a book that makes us wonder how we could have claimed to understand our own existence before we read it, then Péter Nádas’s book is unquestionably a masterpiece.” Jane Perlez, writing in the New York Times Book Review, noted, “His work has evoked comparisons to the poetic traditions of Thomas Mann, the sexual explicitness of Jean Genet and the stream-of-consciousness of James Joyce.” Eva Hoffman wrote, also in the New York Times Book Review, that Nádas “has accomplished a remarkably interesting feat: he has transposed the novel of consciousness to the Socialist universe, and closed the gap between prewar modernism (inflected here by post-modern psychoanalysis) and Eastern Europe.” In World Literature Today, fellow countryman Arpad Goncz called Nádas “perhaps the best prose writer” of his generation.
The writer behind this modernist bildungsroman was born in 1942 and grew up in Budapest during Hungary’s darkest Stalinist decades. Nádas’s father, a hard-line communist and local head of the telephone system (he supervised wiretaps), found himself on the political outside in 1958 and committed suicide outside the family’s apartment building on the Danube River. Even before his father’s suicide—which would have a profound influence on his life—Nádas had already decided that he wanted to be a writer. He dropped out of high school and soon began his writing career. Nádas’s first book of short stories was published in 1967. He also supported himself partially as a magazine photographer, and he was as outspoken in his opposition to Communism as his father had been committed to the cause. Nádas told Perlez, “Communist parents were involved in such injustices that they couldn’t explain to their children; it was natural their children would fall out with them.”
In 1968, worried that his own words and actions would implicate and endanger his friends, he moved to the country. Perlez reported that Nádas said of his self-imposed exile, “I was well aware that this small space I had—what Western liberalism considers prison—was enough space to express what I was writing about.” Because he had kept up his membership in the state writers’ union, Nádas was able to apply for a theater scholarship in East Berlin in 1971. His time in East Germany, in addition to his Budapest experiences, provided him with the seed for A Book of Memories, which he began writing in 1973.
The unnamed narrator of A Book of Memories is, as Nádas had been, an expatriate Hungarian author living in Berlin during the 1970s. This narrator is involved in an affair with an older actress named Thea and with a young man, Melchior Thoenissan, with whom Thea is also in love. The romantic intrigue is underscored by day-to-day life in Berlin, replete with petty political machinations and betrayals. The narrator is writing a novel about a turn-of-the-previous-century German novelist, Thomas Thoenissen, who acts as an alter ego for the narrator. The narratives of the Hungarian author and the German author intertwine, so that the actions and observations in each are a running commentary on the other. “The fictitious German author is clearly an emanation of the personality of his maker, that is, the Narrator,” Baranczak commented, “while the point of difference between the two comes down to their placement in two contrasting historical epochs.” In the same essay, Baranczak noted that “Nádas’s ‘novel within the novel’… is the vehicle by which the protagonist may escape from himself, from the unchangeable concreteness of his own ethnically, socially and historically determined identity. By moving the time of the action back seventy or so years, and making his hero an imaginary German aristocrat, he tries to leave the confines of his own self, at least in his art.”
Added to this heady concoction are the narrator’s remembrances of his childhood, reawakened because Melchior reminds him of a beautiful boy he once knew—and kissed—in Budapest. The narrator reminisces about that pure moment with the boy and about the defiant student uprising of 1956 in which he took part. He also reflects on the love-hate relationship with his father who, like Nádas’s own father, is a communist who eventually commits suicide.
Nádas is often praised for his descriptions of inner emotional states displayed through their outer appearances. Hoffman addressed this aspect in her review: “This dense physicality of description is the most striking feature of A Book of Memories, and perhaps the most radical aspect of its vision. Its epigraph comes from the gospel of John: ‘But he spoke of the temple of his body.’ The entire work can be read as a gloss on this metaphor. The novel contains so many descriptions of people looking at each other (with anger, supplication, cupidity, understanding) that it constitutes a veritable taxonomy of the gaze.” Hoffman continued, “Consciousness, Nádas seems to imply, is always incarnated; it is as if, in his minute analyses of hairbreadth nuances of reaction and response, he wanted to go Proust one better, to break down experience into even smaller components, into the irreducible, quivering quanta of perception and feeling.”
Nádas’s earlier novel, The End of a Family Novel, is rooted in childhood experiences rather than in the adolescent and young adult experiences that inform A Book of Memories. Though shorter in length, it addresses some of the same concerns of the later work. The protagonist is a young boy who lives with his grandparents much of the time because his father’s job as a state security agent often takes him away from home for long periods of time. The boy listens raptly as his grandfather spins tales of a family history that is part real, part fable. The peripatetic Jewish clan of the grandfather’s stories traces its genealogy from East Central Europe to medieval England and Spain, and even back to Roman times when, the grandfather claims, some of the group’s ancestors were disciples of Christ and others were rich Roman Jews. The boy’s father disapproves of the ailing grandfather’s fabulism and during one visit harangues the man into utter dejection. The grandfather dies soon after, and the grandmother as well. The father, meanwhile, is implicated in an assassination plot and, after being found guilty, he disappears. The boy ends up in an institute for the children of traitors.
In World Literature Today, Ivan Sanders found The End of a Family Novel to be “remarkable not only for its scope and breadth but also for reveling in old-fashioned fabulation. At a time when plotless, static novels still seem to be the norm, and when critics keep predicting the demise of the genre, Nádas, like some of the extravagant ‘post-modern’ fabulists, rediscovers the joy of weaving an intricate yarn.”
Love conveys the hallucinatory outlook of an unnamed narrator as he tries to break up with his girlfriend while high on marijuana. “Losing his bearings after smoking,” Michael Pinker explained in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, “the speaker seems to wallow in his overheated imagination, while his mind careens among episodes of a nightmarish solipsism that will not be resolved or terminated.” Only when he finally decides to stay with the woman he loves does the hallucinatory episode come to an end. Nádas, according to the critic for Publishers Weekly, “tests the limits of the imagination and, occasionally, the reader’s patience.” But Marianna D. Birnbaum in World Literature Today found that “an invisible, precise structure powerfully holds together the half-dreams and hallucinations” of the story, while the “sober and sobering morning, which brings the events and nonevents to an end, puts the novella in a proper frame.”
In A Lovely Tale of Photography, Nádas, as a Central Europe Review Web site contributor noted, “revisits his old profession in the story’s lead character—a photojournalist suffering from a strange combination of schizophrenia, epilepsy and unrestrained desire.” The novella is told from multiple points of view in short and fragmented scenes that create, as the same reviewer noted, “a hallucinatory narrative supported by a not always identifiable ‘voice’ that wafts in and out of the story.” A female photographer named Kornelia is at the center of the book. Committed to an asylum after a ballooning accident, she is there confronted by an assortment of characters who, in a variety of ways, try to open her eyes beyond the camera’s frame. Thus the camera becomes a metaphor for human consciousness. A contributor to the Chicago Review noted that with this novel, as in his earlier master work, A Book of Memories, the author “turns once more to modernism for inspiration, but with far less happy results.” Specifically, this reviewer thought that Nádas “takes as his aesthetic model, not the encyclopedic novels of Proust and Musil, but the oneiric, anti-realist novellas of symbolism and surrealism.” The Chicago Review contributor further noted, “while all of these ideas are weighty and profound, something goes horribly awry in their development.”
Nádas gathers nonfiction prose in the Hungarian-language publication, Esszek (“Essays”). George Gomori, writing in World Literature Today, noted that most of these nonfiction prose works “rreflect upon the problems of evaluating the experience of communism and the frightening discrepancy in the thinking of Western and ‘Eastern/ex-communist’ Europeans.”
Nádas’s 2007 collection, Fire and Knowledge: Fiction and Essays is a work that, according to a Kirkus Reviews critic, “enlarges our sense of the moral, political and literary worlds we inhabit.” Here the Hungarian author collects short stories, novellas, and essays written over four decades. Among the nonfiction offerings are essays ranging in subject matter from the suicide death of his father to the killings of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, the Romanian leader and his wife; an exploration of the literary traditions of Europe; and the thoughts stirred by a model undressing. Among the fiction offerings, the long short story “Lady Klara’s House” was the “heftiest work,” in the opinion of the Kirkus Reviews contributor. Nádas also includes verse, such as the prose-poem “Way,” describing early morning meanderings on city streets. Booklist contributor Brendan Driscoll thought “this gently chaotic and revealing scrapbook is a must-have for serious European literature collections.” Sophie Harrison, writing in the New York Times Book Review, found more to like in Nádas’s fiction than in the essays: “While Nádas’s essays billow into abstraction, his stories pay lovely attention to the particular.” Similar praise came from Library Journal contributor Wesley Mills, who noted, “Readers will be drawn into the very private lives of [Nádas’s] characters, investing themselves in their every word and deed.”
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Encyclopedia of World Literature in the Twentieth Century, Continuum (New York, NY), 1993.
Booklist, Brendan Driscoll, review of Fire and Knowledge: Fiction and Essays, p. 23.
Chicago Review, summer-fall, 1999, review of A Lovely Tale of Photography, p. 192.
Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 2007, review of Fire and Knowledge.
Library Journal, April 15, 1997, review of A Book of Memories, pp. 118-120; September 1, 2007, Wesley Mills, review of Fire and Knowledge, p. 137.
New Republic, July 28, 1997, Stanislaw Baranczak, review of A Book of Memories, pp. 32-36.
News and Observer (Raleigh, NC), August 10, 1997, review of A Book of Memories.
New Statesman, April 2, 2001, Zulfikar Abbany, “Love Brings the Fall,” p. 56.
New York Times Book Review, July 27, 1997, Eva Hoffmann, review of A Book of Memories; September 9, 1997, Jane Perlez, review of A Book of Memories; October 7, 2007, Sophie Harrison, review of Fire and Knowledge, p. 19.
Publishers Weekly, April 21, 1997, review of A Book of Memories, p. 59; October 2, 2000, review of Love, p. 56.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, summer, 2001, Michael Pinker, review of Love, p. 166.
World Literature Today, summer, 1978, Ivan Sanders, review of Egy családregény vége, pp. 496-497; winter, 1981, Arpad Goncz, review of Leírás, p. 149; fall, 1996, George Gomori, review of Esszék, p. 999; winter, 2001, Marianna D. Birnbaum, review of Love, p. 132.
Central Europe Review,http://www.ce-review.org/ (August 30, 1999), review of A Lovely Tale of Photography.*