Imre Kertesz, a Hungarian Jew who is this year’s Nobel laureate in literature, often says that he’s a medium of the Holocaust. “Auschwitz speaks through his stories,” a friend of his, the Israeli literary critic and author Shmuel Thomas Huppert, tells The Jewish Week. “His main theme is Auschwitz. He stresses the fact that first of all he’s a writer. He didn’t become a writer because he was in Auschwitz but, by being in Auschwitz, he found his major theme.”
Although there have been other Jewish writers who have won the Swedish Academy’s literary award, and Elie Wiesel was honored with the peace prize, Kertesz is the first survivor of the Nazi concentration camps to win the prestigious award. (In 1966, poet Nelly Sachs shared the prize with S.Y. Agnon; she left Germany for Sweden in 1940, and wrote a lot about themes of suffering and the fate of the Jews.)
In a conversation with The Jewish Week, Wiesel praised the latest Nobel laureate, whom he has read in French. The two men have never met although they were in Auschwitz and Buchenwald at the same time and are about the same age. They come from very different backgrounds: Wiesel’s family was religious and Kertesz’s was assimilated.
Kertesz is also the first Hungarian to win the award. Little known in this country — only two of his novels have been translated into English and published here — Kertesz, whose style is unadorned and powerful, was cited by the Swedish Academy for “writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history.”
Born in Budapest in 1929, Kertesz was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 and from there sent to Buchenwald. Upon liberation in 1945, he returned to Budapest, unaware that his parents had been killed. He began work as a journalist in 1948 but was dismissed in 1951, when his newspaper adopted the Communist party line. He then supported himself mostly by translating. His first novel, “Sorstalansag” (“Fateless”), was long in the making: He spent about ten years writing it, completing it in 1965, and then it was another ten years before it was published in 1975, initially to much silence in Hungary; it was published in the U.S. in 1992.
Ivan Sanders, a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University who has translated essays by the Nobel laureate, says that for Kertesz, Auschwitz “was clearly a watershed, the central experience of his life.” He explains that the author, like the protagonist, Gyorgy Koves in “Fateless” was a young teenager when deported, although Kertesz would insist that the book is a work of fiction, not memoir. “What I think is extraordinary,” Sanders says, “is how he is able to convey the point of view and sensibility of an innocent, who is not outraged, who doesn’t judge, accepts the whole experience almost as if it were normal.”
Sanders, who was also born in Hungary and left in 1956, describes the novel as a “literary feat and also a kind of moral feat.” “Fateless” is now being made into a feature film by award-winning Hungarian cinematographer Lajos Koltai (who did “Sunshine” and other films).
Kertesz’s next work in his trilogy is “A kudarc” (“Fiasco”) — published in Hungary in 1988, not yet published in English — featuring Koves as an aging author who has written a novel about the Holocaust and expects it to be rejected; instead it is published and he feels a sense of emptiness. In the third novel, “Kaddis a meg nem szuletetett gyermekert” (“Kaddish for a Child Not Born”) — published in 1990 in Hungary and in 1997 in the U.S. — he portrays Koves’ refusal to have a child in a world that permitted Auschwitz. Kertesz has also written several other novels and collections of essays. When the prize was announced, he was in Berlin, finishing a novel set in Budapest after the fall of Communism; the book is said to take a “last look” at the Holocaust, focusing not on survivors but on later generations.
The Nobel laureate’s connection to Judaism seems complicated. When asked if Kertesz sees himself as a Jewish writer, Sanders reads from an essay he translated, not yet published here. “If I say I’m a Jewish writer, I don’t necessarily mean I’m myself a Jew,” Kertesz writes, noting that he had no religious training, speaks no Hebrew and is unfamiliar with Jewish texts. He describes himself as a “chronicler of an anachronistic condition, that of the assimilated Jew, the bearer and recorder of this condition, and a harbinger of its inevitable demise. In this respect the ‘final solution’ has a crucial role. No one whose identity is based primarily or perhaps exclusively on Auschwitz can really be called a Jew.”
Israeli critic Huppert, a survivor of Bergen-Belsen, believes that for Kertesz, Jewish tradition is something “deep in him despite the fact that he seems far away from it.” He cites several examples, first telling a story of how Kertesz, while visiting Vienna, went to synagogue and when security guards required identification, he said that he was a Hungarian writer who writes about the Holocaust. He didn’t know the answer when asked which religious service this was, and his companion responded that it was the eve of Shabbat. “This shows how far he is from his Judaism, but it’s not a complete answer.”
Huppert then recalls Kertesz’s talk at a conference in Israel at Yad Vashem, where he reported that at 14 the Germans arrested him and placed a yellow star on his chest that has been there ever since; he can’t tear it away. Huppert also points out that his friend spent all of his life fighting against anti-Semitism in Hungary, and has always had deep sympathy and care for the State of Israel. For Kertesz, he says, it’s important to have the freedom to identify himself as he wishes — not to have an identity thrust upon him.
To understand Kertesz’s work, it’s important to realize, as Sanders points out, that the author never left Budapest; he stayed in a country he felt ambivalent about. In 1956, when it might have been a logical time to leave, Kertesz was in his 20s, certain he wanted to be a writer and tied to the Hungarian language, too old, he felt, to change languages. In an essay Sanders cites called “The Exiled Tongue,” Kertesz explains that the language of the Holocaust is always a borrowed language, not one’s native tongue.
The Columbia professor adds a wry note: He says that on the one hand, among Hungarian literati, who see their language as so isolated, there has been a long obsession about a Hungarian winning this prize and this is a vindication for them. But, there are also those Hungarians — “and unfortunately there are not few” — who, for reasons of nationalism or plain anti-Semitism, are not pleased that a Jew has won this honor. “There’s a segment of the population, including intellectuals, who would not consider Kertesz a Hungarian writer because what he writes about has nothing to do with Hungarian reality.”
All who know Kertesz agree that he’s an affable, generous and gracious man without pretension, that despite his dark subject matter he’s quite cheerful. Huppert notes that he is married for a second time (his first wife died) and although he has had no children, like his character Koves, his wife has a son and this son has a child “so he’s a grandfather in a paradoxical way and seems very happy about that.”
Several American writers commented on the choice of Kertesz. In the Los Angeles Times, staff writer Tim Rutten says that in the wake of rising anti-Semitism internationally, the announcement suggests that the Swedish Academy has “once again recognized not only aesthetic excellence but also an author’s particular relevance to the moral moment in which the world finds itself.” He goes on to say that in selecting Kertesz, they have “powerfully summoned the world of literature and — thorough it — the community of ideas to weigh carefully where the slander and hatred of Jews may lead.”
“The Kertesz victory must be seen morally as something that simply transcends him,” says novelist Thane Rosenbaum, author, most recently, of “The Golems of Gotham.” He sees this year’s prize as a group award “for all those survivors who write and have written about Auschwitz and its aftermath.” He cites writers like Primo Levi and Paul Celan, who might have won had they lived. “Other than Elie Wiesel, whom they’ve honored in a different way, the person I thought might would win is [Israeli novelist] Aharon Apelfeld.
Novelist Melvin Jules Bukiet is one of the few New Yorkers who had a copy of “Fateless” on hand. He explained that he saw it on the remainder table of a local bookshop last summer and bought it. “Some books one reads because one seeks them out, others make themselves visible to you — their time has come.”
Bukiet, editor of a recent international anthology, “Nothing Makes You Free: Writings by Descendants of Holocaust Survivors” and author of a forthcoming novel “Manhattan Rhapsody,” believes it’s a shame that Americans don’t read many foreign writers. “If Sweden had called me, I might have suggested George Konrad,” he says, referring to another Hungarian Jewish writer.
Jonathan Brent, now editorial director of Yale University Press, was the editor who acquired Kertesz’s work when he was at Northwestern University Press and publishing a series on Eastern European literature. It was Ivan Sanders who called his attention to the Hungarian writer, and Brent found the sample translated pages to be brilliant. Brent was “just ecstatic” when he heard the news. “I’ve been waiting for something like this. I didn’t know it would be Kertesz. Surely, wonderful writers from Eastern Europe have something extremely important to tell the world.”
Northwestern University Press is now sold out of both novels, and has returned to press for printings in the “tens of thousands,” according to a spokesperson.
In Budapest, all of Kertesz’s books disappeared from bookstore shelves in the two days following the Nobel announcement. Csilla Farkas, a journalist and communications consultant in Budapest who often rereads Kertesz’s books, cried when she heard the news. “His writings touch your soul at the very core,” she says, observing that his books have not been required reading in schools and now probably will be. “Even if some teachers are unenlightened, once the books reach the hands of the students, Kertesz’s works will make them understand the horrid history of the last century and open their hearts and minds, and also make them ask questions about the Holocaust and the Jews.”
Inset: Hungarian literature Nobel prize winner, Imre Kertesz, in Berlin, 2005. Getty Images