In the world of Hungarian literature, of Kertész and Krúdy, of Konrád and Krasznahorkai, how can a writer stand out? Attila Bartis answers that question with his foul masterwork, Tranquility. First published in 2001 and in English for the first time this month, Bartis’s Tranquility is a book of unfathomable realism—by which, of course, I mean endless cruelty, depthless pain and emotional deadness.
Set in post-communist Budapest, this novel is the life of Andor Weér, a writer. Weér is a continually conflicted character and bears comparison to Philip Roth’s Portnoy and Zuckerman, particularly so in his disturbing relationships with women, especially his mother. Rebeka Weér is a living corpse, a reclusive actress who, though she hasn’t seen a stage in decades, has yet to give up her overwrought theatricality. The home they share—which her son frequently refers to as a crypt—is cluttered with stolen stage furniture, “the armchair had one belonged to Lady Macbeth, the bed to Laura Lenbach, and the chest of drawers to Anna Karenina.” In flashbacks, Ms. Weér is a singularly self-absorbed woman, sexually liberated and unfeeling toward her children. When her daughter, a gifted concert violinist, leaves communist Hungary to pursue her career elsewhere, Rebeka Weér’s reaction is macabre and cold:
She opened the coffin with her foot and threw in Judit’s letters. Then all of the sheet music from Paganini to Stravinsky, then the music stand, the strings and the resin. From the birth certificate and the left-behind clothes to Judit’s coffee mug, she threw everything into the coffin . . . anything with the slightest hint at Judit Weér’s existence would go into the coffin.
And as if the ceremonial killing of her daughter were not enough, she buried her also, then:
. . . she purchased ten blank death notices and . . . continued to copy from the telephone book the mailing address of the Ministry, because she was sending death notices not only to my sister, but to the theatre’s party secretary.
Tranquility is a book that never considers its reader—a fact I find gratifying. In fact, the novel is so thoroughly immersed in the troubled mind of Andor Weér that we lose sight of Attila Bartis completely. Weér is so wholly developed, so completely bared to the reader, as to seem more real than his author. Weér seems to have written this novel himself; these are his thoughts and memories and not merely thoughts and memories ascribed to him by some mysterious author. The style of the text, the tendency to run as a stream of consciousness and to occasionally blur together phrases like, “wherehaveyoubeenson” and “Idon’tknowmyself,” makes it all the more internal, personal to the character.
Much can be said of Weér and his peculiar development. The novel’s form, however, is what makes it truly exceptional, and what makes it real. Time is utterly fluid; events from Weér’s are presented to the reader without chronology becoming at all confusing; this is some very artful time-play and well worth the price of admission. Through this device, Weér’s miserable life is relived for our benefit, from his early experiences with sex through the torture of life with his addled mother.
As his mother ages. the phrase “wherehaveyoubeenson” is a frequent one; Weér’s mother has grown old and weird, Weér writes:
That for fifteen years I’ve been getting the vitamins, the Valerian drops, lipsticks, nail polish and hair dyes for my mother and for fifteen years she’s been sitting in the flickering gray light of the TV or standing in the blind spots of her mirror. Considered in this way, she’s been dead for years. An ordinary corpse, its stench concealed by the smell of mint tea and its skin rubbed human-colored with vanishing-cream.
This Hitchcockian corpse-mother haunts Weér, but adds a predictable stability to his life through times of change.
Really, many aspects of this novel reflect the uncertainty that came of living in flux, through the waxing and waning of communist rule. As in the quote above, Weér’s mother fearfully (and vindictively), buried her daughter alive. Hungarians are overheard to say things like “We’ll have to pay the bill one day for our new freedom” and Weér himself noticed that, “. . . everybody was talking politics then too. Some people wanted neutrality with lots of banks, as in Switzerland . . .” Somehow communism always seems to lead to oppressive bureaucracy, to a Kafkaesque state, to absurdity. For a reasonable person, this can be crushing. For literature, however, it is an unbelievable godsend. An encounter with the police brought an incredible exchange that stands out as one of the most powerfully disturbing in a book of already extraordinary power.
Much of this power comes from the remarkable depth of depravity in this novel. The grotesque realism provides a daring contrast to the self-indulgent introspection of Weér, but no respite from the overwhelming darkness. My sense of good taste doesn’t prevent me from mentioning Andor Weér’s early dalliance with incest, but certain passages did cause me to blush uncomfortably; I won’t quote them. This book approaches sexuality like a war and the acts described are damaging and painful, to both the narrator and to the reader. This is powerful writing intent on exposing human sexuality as it exposes so many private things.
More than anything else, that sense of exposure captures the central purpose of this book; nothing is sacrosanct: not religion, not government, not life, love, or motherhood. Bartis and Weér, Weér and Bartis; they touch everything normal and leave nightmarish fingerprints and filthy smears across it all. Their artistry, though, is thrilling and this book is an extraordinary achievement. But for me, one question remains: in all of this obscenity and blood and emotional turmoil, where can one find any tranquility?
“Rambling Jack—what’s that?”
“A novel. Novella, I guess.”
“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
“Sorta. It’s a duel language book, so really, only about… 50 pages total.”
“And this—what. . .
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