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.
Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .
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“Rambling Jack—what’s that?”
“A novel. Novella, I guess.”
“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
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