kaddish for a child not born by imre kertesz

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speaking about the one thing that saved him (“albeit it saved me for the sake of destruction”), i.e. his work, kertesz writes,

“In those years I recognized my life for what it was: as a fact on the one hand and as a spiritual form on the other, or, more precisely, the spiritual form of the survival instinct that no longer can survive, doesn’t want to survive, and probably is no longer capable of survival, but one that still and because of it all demands its own, that is to say, its own formation like a rounded glass-hard object so that it could continue to exist, no matter why, no matter for whom–for everyone and no one…” (94).

echoing bernhard — whom kertesz has translated — this great and dark autobiographical monologue is one of negation and destruction, which nonetheless (hopelessly) creates. it tells impossible truths with a brazen and an often almost obscene courage, or another way: he writes with a courage so courageous it becomes obscene.

also, to mention: some reviews i read somewhere favored the wilkinson translation over the wilson’s. because of this i picked up both to compare (after starting with the wilson’s)… even if kertesz himself seems to prefer the wilkinson (perhaps because this more recent, post nobel-winning translation is being done by a larger house), the wilson’s was to me the far better translation, much more readable, and one that seemed to capture the book’s bravura and darkness and humor with much more panache. of course i don’t speak hungarian so maybe i’m wrong, but a little research has at least this agreeing opinion from joshua cohen:

Kertész’s early novels exist in two English translations: Tim Wilkinson, a British expatriate in Budapest and translator of both fictions under review, retranslated two books for Knopf that had earlier been translated by Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson and published by Northwestern University Press in the days before the author’s laureate and fame. Kertész himself is said to approve of Wilkinson’s translations, or at least to disapprove of the Wilsons’, telling The Journal News: “I really tried to protest against the first translations, but I found complete rejection. The publisher was not willing to do new translations…”

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury of those of us who care about translation — this is a case of an author having to be saved from himself, or from his enthusiasm at being retranslated, at interest being breathed anew into his work. “Fateless” by the Wilsons is every word as effective as Wilkinson’s “Fatelessness,” and “Kaddish” I would reread in the Northwestern translation (titled “Kaddish for a Child Not Born”)…

If Wilkinson is a good translator, he’s a middling writer. He knows Hungarian, he must, but he hasn’t much art in his native English, which is paramount for a prose as spare as Kertész’s, in which every word, every comma, counts.
from www.forward.com/articles/13167/

find it used or find it at a library

liquidation by imre kertész

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beckett and bernhard may be the basis of “Bee,” the writer whose suicide is the vacuum at the center of this novel. as such it makes sense that under the layer of gossipy bedswapping tales by intelligentsia and almost crudely titillating descriptions of common breakdowns and various life botchings is the novel’s real content–our natural state of depravity which makes such crudeness and vacuity our continued mode of being.

the book is either great because it shows how literature redeems the banality of our evil world or because it honestly depicts how our great arts are debased and fundamentally banal. a dark choice.

the articulation of the former by the book’s sometimes narrator: “But I believe in writing–nothing else; just writing. Man may live like a worm, but he writes like a god. There was a time when that secret was known, but now it has been forgotten; the world is composed of disintegrating fragments, an incoherent dark chaos, sustained by writing alone. If you have a concept of the world, if you have not yet forgotten all that has happened, that you have a world at all, it is writing that has created that for you, and ceaselessly goes on creating it” (97).

and while the book is about the impossibility of existence after auschwitz, the parts that affected me most were strangely those about the comparably negligibly-weighted topic of the literary life. but i think that’s the truth and greatness of kertesz: to speak unsentimentally and defiantly crudely. a crudeness that is only possible due to an elemental refinement, a rare ability to look sincerely at our limits.

here’s a long passage, capturing both the pleasures of literary life as well as the self-awareness of its vanity and foolishness:

“The fact is that in my nineteenth or twentieth year…a book came into my hands… I knew about the existence of this book only from other books, in the way that an astronomer infers the existence of an unknown celestial body from the motion of other planets; yet in those days, the era of undiscoverable reasons, it was not possible to get hold of it for some undiscoverable reason. I happened to be grinding through university at the time; though I did not have much money, I staked it all on the venture, mobilizing antiquarian booksellers, denying myself meals in order to acquire an old edition. I then read the bulky volume in less than three days, sitting on a bench in the public garden of a city square, as spring was in the air outside while a constant, depressing gloom reigned within my sublet room. I recall to this day the adventures of the imagination that I lived through at the time while I read in the book that the Ninth Symphony had been withdrawn. I felt privileged, like someone who had become privy to a secret reserved for few; like someone who had been suddenly awakened in order to have the world’s irredeemable condition revealed to him, all at once, in the blinding light of a judgement.

Still, I don’t think it was that book which carried me into my fateful career. I finished reading it; then, like all the others, it gradually died down within me under the dense, soft layers of my subsequent reading matter…

[A] person becomes a literary editor, and later a publisher’s reader, our of error in the first place. In any event, literature is the trap that captures him. To be more precise, reading: reading as a narcotic which pleasantly blurs the merciless outlines of the life that holds sway over us” (38-9).

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