After a bit of a hiatus, Read This Next is back, with a book of truly massive proportions. This week’s title is Parallel Stories by Hungarian author Peter Nadas, which is translated by Imre Goldstein and just out from FSG.
It’s impossible to mention this book without talking about its size and scope. The 1,133-page novel opens in 1989 with a university student in Berlin discovering a corpse during his morning run. From there, the novel stretches back to 1939 to relate a series of interconnected stories focusing on three “unusual” men: Hans von Wolkenstein, whose mother is linked to “secrets of fascist-Nazi collaboration,” Agost Lippay Lehr, whose father worked for Hungary’s political regimes, and Andras Rott, “who has his own dark record of mysterious activities abroad.”
Nadas spent 18 years writing this book (or series of books—I’ve always heard of this referred to as a trilogy), yet, according to editor Elizabeth Sifton, this is a very tight, very well-constructed novel.
And Tim Nassau, who reviewed this for us, claims it’s one of the best books he’s ever read, one that he would recommend indiscriminately. Here’s another bit of his review:
Most of the books I have reviewed for this site were only reviewed in one or two other places: small journals, literary blogs, a paragraph in Publishers Weekly, perhaps . . . This is, of course, the norm for literature in translation, and the discrepancy between the quality and coverage of these books has been bemoaned enough that I do not need to revisit it here. Every so often, however, a new book comes out that is big enough and important enough for its translation to be an event, and everyone takes notice. [. . .]
Which is why I do not intend to review Parallel Lives. Enough people will do so that several will surely do a better job than I could; Jonathan Lethem reviewed 2666 for the New York Times, and, to be honest, I find such a high level of competition intimidating. The case might be different if I hated the novel, if I believed that all the hype was just a ploy to move copies, but I do not believe these things. If you have come here to know, simply, if you should read this book, then the answer is yes. It is one of the best novels I have read, and I recommend it indiscriminately. Here is post-war Eastern Europe: an encyclopedia of people’s lives as exhaustive in detail as it is ambitious in scale, an unflinchingly honest depiction of political and personal perversions. Yes, the characters are the products of Nádas’s imagination, but the way he describes their emotions and motivations reveals such an uncommonly deep and sensitive understanding of what forces constitute any person that the reader cannot help but feel he is gazing at his own soul.
So instead of talking about the plot of the book, etc., Tim spends most of the review praising Imre Goldstein’s translation. You can read the full review by clicking here.
And after reading that, I’m sure you’ll want to read an excerpt from the book itself, which you can do by clicking here. (It’s fitting that this, the longest book we’ve featured in Read This Next also has the longest sample.)
In addition, you can also click here to hear Elizabeth Sifton’s comments on the book. It’s cool to hear her talk about this, and she manages to make this sound even more interesting.
Finally, FSG published this interview with Nadas, which is also worth checking out.
Most of the books I have reviewed for this site were only reviewed in one or two other places: small journals, literary blogs, a paragraph in Publishers Weekly, perhaps . . . This is, of course, the norm for literature in translation, and the discrepancy between the quality and coverage of these books has been bemoaned enough that I do not need to revisit it here. Every so often, however, a new book comes out that is big enough and important enough for its translation to be an event, and everyone takes notice. On the back of my reader’s copy of Parallel Stories, Hungarian writer Péter Nádas’s magnum opus, it says, at the bottom, “Author Appearances • National Publicity • National Advertising.” I don’t know if these phrases were printed as a request or an order, but they certainly create a grand air of expectancy, and I can’t help imagining an exclamation point after each phrase (Author Appearances!), as if a literary carnival were coming to town. Perhaps they are, simply, a statement of how it will be, as if the naming of these things could call them into being.
Not that the publishers should be worried. Susan Sontag, perennial blurber though she was, called Nádas’s last novel, Book of Memories, “The greatest novel written in our time, and one of the great books of the century.” That one clocked in at upwards of 700 pages after 11 years of writing. Parallel Stories runs over 1,100 pages and took 15 years to produce. It is being sold (National Advertising!) as a modern day version of War and Peace or The Magic Mountain, and Nádas has been dubbed a new Proust, so why not throw In Search of Lost Time into the mix? We must pity those reviewers who come late to the party and find that all the good comparisons to other thousand page novels have already been taken (it’s a twenty-first century Hungarian Tale of Genji!). We seem to have on our hands a masterpiece, a ready-made Classic in the great modernist tradition of Europe, or at least that’s what someone wants us to believe.
Does any of this sound familiar? Does it not recall the excitement around another massive book published by FSG at almost exactly this time three years ago? Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is a tremendously different book than Parallel Stories (to neither one’s discredit), but it was met by a small media frenzy, winning the Triple Crown with write-ups in the New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books, and the New Yorker. I do not bring any of this up to criticize, but merely to observe that, as a reviewer of exclusively foreign literature, I find myself in the rare position of being one of the score of critics that will weigh in on this novel, rather than one of only two or three.
Which is why I do not intend to review Parallel Lives. Enough people will do so that several will surely do a better job than I could; Jonathan Lethem reviewed 2666 for the New York Times, and, to be honest, I find such a high level of competition intimidating. The case might be different if I hated the novel, if I believed that all the hype was just a ploy to move copies, but I do not believe these things. If you have come here to know, simply, if you should read this book, then the answer is yes. It is one of the best novels I have read, and I recommend it indiscriminately. Here is post-war Eastern Europe: an encyclopedia of people’s lives as exhaustive in detail as it is ambitious in scale, an unflinchingly honest depiction of political and personal perversions. Yes, the characters are the products of Nádas’s imagination, but the way he describes their emotions and motivations reveals such an uncommonly deep and sensitive understanding of what forces constitute any person that the reader cannot help but feel he is gazing at his own soul. The following is a description of Döhring, a fellow university student around my age:
He had lived in the city for two years but had neither friends nor acquaintances. How else could he explain this except that this was the way he wanted it to be.
He did not say that yes, I am a prematurely embittered, rather sad person and the reason I chose to study these sciences is to steel myself against constant suffering, to give my mind some means to battle my gaping doubts, and perhaps these studies will help me find out what makes me suffer.
Listen, people, he would have shouted, all day long I pretend that everything is all right, but that makes me suffer even more. Help me, somebody, anybody, come, knock on my door, break down my door, anytime. No, he did the exact opposite.
What I would like to do, very briefly, in lieu of reviewing Parallel Stories by Péter Nádas, is review its translation by Imre Goldstein, and to do so from the same position as the majority of its potential English-speaking readers: as someone who does not speak Hungarian. Goldstein has translated several authors (his translation of Tranquility by Attila Bartis won the Best Translated Book Award a few years back), but his focus is on Nádas; this is the sixth book by the author that Goldstein has translated, and it took him five years to do so. But what, now, is there to say about his work here? Very little, and this is perhaps the highest praise: the English does not feel stilted or encumbered (unless it is meant to), and so the book reads very well; if the translation drew undue attention to itself, then something would be amiss.
And yet, on every page, there are the marks of an elegant translation. Consider the second to last sentence in the passage above, the one that begins with “Help me.” Every sentence leading up to it is constructed out of long, drawn-out phrases, the results of a rational mind considering its own irrationality until, finally, emotion takes over, the pace picks up, and the thought ends on an “anytime” that sounds slightly off. It seems like it should be the “anytime” of a friendly neighbor (Stop by anytime!) and so here it makes the desperation that much more palpable, as if decorum were slightly out of reach. Consider this brief passage, from the description of the architect Samu Demén, as well:
Everything on him was finely wrought; everything was long, longoid, bony though not without some flesh, like his fingers; at the same time wild and unruly, like the fine strands of his shiny black hair that spilled out from under his headgear.
The use of “longoid” evokes, perhaps, the image of some strange scientific specimen, and its juxtaposition with “long” instantly tempers how we think about this person. So too with the word “headgear.” Why not just say hat? Demén is certainly not wearing any orthodontic appliances, but “headgear” gives a sense of the eccentricity and the awkwardness that characterize Démen, who appears charming and at ease until he opens his mouth.
Such gestures, be they the choice of adjective, the pacing of a sentence, or a certain image (such as the notedly not uncharacteristic “fat shit sausage”) are not always that subtle, and their accumulation over a thousand pages is the constitution of a style. I cannot tell you if these two passages are “accurate” translations, but they are written in English and they operate in English and if they operate as well as they do then we have Imre Goldstein to thank. Every word in this book was written by Nádas, certainly, but by Goldstein as well. Parallel stories indeed.
One of the fall books that I’m interested in checking out is Peter Nadas’s Parallel Stories, an extremely long trilogy (like 1200 pages long) that’s coming out from FSG this October.
This fall FSG will publish Parallel Stories by acclaimed Hungarian author Péter Nádas. Editor Elizabeth Sifton writes, “After his last novel, A Book of Memories, appeared in English in 1997, many critics and readers agreed with Susan Sontag’s assessment that it was the greatest novel written in postwar Europe. But Nádas was already moving past that signal achievement. And now we can see how Parallel Stories—which took eighteen years to write, Nádas has said, and appeared in Budapest in 2005—extends and deepens the scope of his fiction, both in historical terms and in the most intimate, hidden terms of body and soul. The multilevel narrative reaches back to the 1930s, thickens in the crisis seasons of 1944–45, 1956, and 1961, and thrusts forward to 1989; and at every point we experience the intense and daring ways that the men and women he so memorably creates live through or transcend, create or deny the brutalities of their strife-torn times. This is a great novel about the twentieth century and, with its dazzling formal innovations and daring candor, a postmodern novel for the twenty-first.” [. . .]
Csaba Károlyi: You wrote an article called “Structure and Plot Patterns in Parallel Stories,” in which you formulated the creative problem at the crux of the novel. You wrote: “I could no longer escape the thought that prose writing actually works as the maid-servant of causal thinking.” Your aim was “to write the stories of people who can’t ever have met, who have only a very superficial knowledge of each other, and yet interfere most profoundly with each other’s lives.” I can see that your characters are intertwined even more closely than that, though, and still, the whole thing does not fall to pieces or become chaotic. As if the plan had been more radical than its realization. And in any case the reader will insist on deciphering on a causal basis, no matter what.
Péter Nádas: And they will succeed, too. I try to leave open the points that offer clues for this deciphering. Not in all cases, though.
We constantly strive to control the effect of our words or actions. The question is what sort of qualities this effort produces in other people. I have no guarantees concerning the perceptions of others. I tried to take all of this into account when I created connections between the different people, plot lines, or historical periods.
And then some systems are identical, others are similar, and yet others are different. We can say that people act along similar or even identical lines because they had similar upbringings or are constitutionally alike. And there are also differences according to these criteria—when, for example, you do something or other not because that’s the way you were socialized, but because you’re going against your socialization, following your instincts, or acting upon
your convictions. People can have direct and strong interactions; there are cases of both direct and indirect impact: when A has influenced B but does not know C, who was influenced by B, then, although A doesn’t know it, he or she actually influenced C. A causal relationship always tries to stick to being unequivocal, but I tried not to lose sight of the multivalence of things. This naturally yielded structures that no longer fit into the structure of causal thinking. Naturally, causation isn’t entirely absent but it falls into a totally different context or exists in a different space from the start.
The whole interview can be found here.
A number of people are raving about Deborah Eisenberg’s essay on Peter Nadas from the current New York Review of Books, and for good reason.
The main occasion for the article is the release of Fire and Knowledge: Fiction and Essays, which came out last year from FSG, and is now available in paperback from Picador. (As is a new printing of A Book of Memories.)
For people who would like to acquaint themselves with the distinctive timbre of Nadas’s voice, Fire and Knowledge is a fine introduction. And many who are already readers will be elated to find these early though astonishingly accomplished stories, and will be fascinated to see, in the essays, a number of his continuing concerns interweaving and transmogrifying as they attach themselves to diverse events and experiences. The fourteen essays and nine pieces of short fiction in Fire and Knowledge were chosen by Nadas from his copious works and arranged by him as well. They were written over nearly four decades, from 1962, when he was twenty, to 2000. The latest piece of fiction in the collection was written in 1975, after which the author turned the considerable force of his attention to A Book of Memories.
A Book of Memories is considered Nadas’s best work to date, and Eisenberg does a great job selling this:
His titanic novel A Book of Memories — which has been subsequently outweighed by his 1,500-page Parallel Stories, finished in 1995 but not yet available in English — was written over a period of more than ten years. Its dense and intricate plot unfolds at mesmerizingly close range. Specific information tends to appear only obliquely or incidentally; it takes some time for us to orient ourselves and to understand that the narrator, whom we first encounter in Berlin, is in love with a young man who has just disappeared, presumably to the West, and that both of them are also emotionally involved with a well-known actress. Sections of the book that deal with this period of the narrator’s life alternate with sections about his childhood in Stalinist Budapest. A second voice, that of a dissolute aesthete and anarchist, who we come to realize is an invention of the first narrator’s, braids itself between these settings, and toward the end of the book, a third narrator — an important childhood friend of the first — takes over for a while.
FSG is bringing out Parallel Stories sometime in the near future (next spring?), which should be quite an event. (Good thing FSG only brings out one of these literary tomes a year . . . Maybe by the time the Nadas comes out, I’ll be finished with 2666/)
Americans tend to be amnesiacs. Europeans, however, worry history, and no writer in Europe today has dealt more eloquently with the obligations and moral conundrums of memory, private and collective, than the Hungarian novelist and essayist Peter Nadas. Berlin, it happens, is where he came years ago to work on what turned into “A Book of Memories,” which, when the Hungarian censors finally consented in 1986 to let it be published, invited comparison to Proust and Thomas Mann, and caused Susan Sontag, after its translation into English 11 years later, to call it “the greatest novel written in our time, and one of the great books of the century.”
(I may be repeating myself, but seriously, Ben gets to review the cream of the crop . . . )
The book sounds interesting, but also seems to be one of those mishmash books of essays and discarded fiction that is interesting in part, but isn’t worth reading all 400-pages. . . . I’m really looking forward to the new novel that’s on its way. I believe it’s part of a trilogy that FSG will be publishing. Supposedly it’s on the scale of The Book of Memories, which I’ve heard FSG (or Picador, I forget) is reissuing this soon.
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