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Imre Kertész (1929- )


Hungarian novelist, essayist, and translator, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002. In his semiautobiographical novels Kertész has analyzed the experience of the individual during barbaric times, especially exemplified in the Holocaust. Kertész early prose exhibit existentialist traits but his works are difficult to classify within any stylistic trend.

"Auschwitz must have been hanging in the air for a long, long time, centuries, perhaps like a dark fruit slowly ripening in the sparkling rays of innumerable ignominious deeds, waiting to finally drop on one's head." (in Kaddish for a Child not Born, 1990)

Imre Kertész was born in Budapest into a family of Jewish descent. According to a story, he received at the age of ten a diary as a birthday present, but its white pages scared him. In his youth Kertész experienced the horrors of the Nazi system. Germans occupied Hungary in 1944 and began exterminating Jews and Gypsies. Kertész was deported together with 7,000 Hungarian Jews from Budapest to Auschwitz. There he spent a few days and was then transferred to Buchenwald and Zeitz. "I am a nonbelieving Jew", Kertész has said in an interview. "Yet as a Jew I was taken to Auschwitz." In the factory of death Kertész suddenly realized that he could be killed anywhere at any time. This existentialist moment became crucial for him as a writer.

In 1945 Kertész was liberated by the Allied forces. After returning to Hungary, he was employed as a journalist by Világosság, a Budapest newspaper. When the newspaper adopted orthodox Communist ideology, Kertész was dismissed. For a while he worked in a factory. Between 1951 and 1953 Kertész served in the army, and then devoted himself entirely to writing.

During the Hungarian uprising of 1956, some 200,000 people fled to the West. Literary life did not return to normality until 1963. Like a number of dissident writers in European countries under Communist dictatorship, Kertész supported himself as a translator, focusing on such German-language writers as Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Elias Canetti, Joseph Roth, and Arthur Schnitzler, and such thinkers as Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. For the theatre he wrote musicals and other light pieces. Kertész did not have a typewriter. He first wrote with a pencil, then with a ballpoint pen.

Kertész never joined the official Writers' Association and did not have any privileges. With his wife he lived in a small one-room flat, writing in his voluntary "prison cell" without much possibilities getting his books published. At the Lukács bathing establishment, where he could discuss relatively freely about literature and politics, he swam daily for nearly 40 years. Among the modern novels which influenced him deeply was Albert Camus's The Stranger (1942), found from a second-hand shop.

Kertész's first book, Sorstalanság (1975), was a detached account of a fifteen-year-old Jewish boy's experiences in concentration camps. Kertész do not regard this as an autobiographical work. In an interview he has said, that he has never wanted to tell about his own life. Sorstalanság was completed in 1965, but not published until 10 years later in a limited edition. The work was treated with silence, perhaps because of the subject, the deportation of Jews, a shameful episode in Hungary's recent history. However, it started a trilogy, which continued in A kudarc (1988, Fiasco), and Kaddis a meg nem születetett gyermekért (1990, Kaddish for a Child not Born), written in a stream of consciousness technique. The protagonist is a middle-aged survivor of the Holocaust, whose literary career has been unsuccessful. His marriage has failed and his ex-wife has a new family and children. The tremendous truth of Auschwitz is revealed to him in the figure of a father, and he tell to his friend that he does not want to become a parent in a world, which has given birth to the Holocaust.

The young witness of the Shoah in Sorstalanság is physically imprisoned in a concentration camp, but he argues that "It is true that our imagination remains free even in captivity. I could, for instance, achieve this freedom while my hands were busy with a shovel or a pickax – with a moderate exertion, limiting myself to the most essential movements only." The Holocaust survivor of A kudarc is Kertész's alter ego, György Köves, who lives in a totalitarian state. He has finished his first novel, a memoir about Auschwitz, which has been turned down by the publisher, and he works on his second book, which is funny in the way that Kafka and Hašek are funny. During a political crisis – the Hungarian uprising? – he is allowed to leave the country, but he decides to stay. "I want to flee but something holds me back", he thinks, trapped like Sisyphus.

Thinking he is too old to learn another language, Kertész also decided to stay in Hungary. The author has once said, that infantile language is the only means of expression in dictatorship. In his search for the meaning of Auschwitz in a wider historical and political context, Kertész followed the example of many intellectuals in European Socialist countries, who disguised their writings about totalitarianism as portrayals of Nazism. But for Kertész there is nothing incomprehensible in concentration camps. Evil in the world is not a mistake or accident, but a result of rational acts of individuals. Good is not rational; it has no explanation.

In the early 1980s Kertész was still relatively unknown writer in his own country. He was not mentioned in A History of Hungarian literature, edited by Tibor Klaniczay (1983), and Lóránt Czigány mentioned him only in passing in The Oxford History of Hungarian Literature (1984). Since the "quiet revolution" of 1989, Kertész's work started to gain international attention. His books were translated into French, Swedish, German and English, but for example in the United States he still remained less well known than his fellow writers Péter Esterházy and Péter Nádas. Kertész himself once said, that "I know my books are not so popular here because the Holocaust in not embedded in Hungarian consciousness".  For a time Kertész was a member of the Hungarian Writers' Association, but he then resingned in protest; the organization was accused of Anti-Semitic statements. A leader of the governmental party, the poet Sándor Csoóri, wrote in a right-wing journal, "Liberal Hungarian Jewry intends to 'assimilate' the Hungarians to their style and thinking."

In the 1990s Kertész published more works than in the previous decades. A Számuzött nyelv (2001), a collection of essays, included his address at Berlin's Renaissance Theatre in November 2000. Kertész ended it with the word "Love" – "Und wenn Sie jetzt fragen, was mich heute noch hier auf Erden hält, was mich am Leben hält, antworte ich, ohne zu zögern: die Liebe." According to Kertész, we can speak today of the globalization of the Holocaust, or even its inflation. In another essay, published in Die Zeit, Kertész dismissed Stephen Spielberg's film Schildler's List as kitsch. The Holocaust is a trauma of the whole European civilization, not only a matter between the Jews and the Germans. After the Nobel Prize, Kertész finished the novel Felszámolás (2003), in which a publisher tries to find the lost work of a writer, a Holocaust survivor, who has committed suicide.

With his second wife Magda Kertész  has spent much time in Germany, writing and lecturing there. Magda Kertész had left Hungary already in 1956. She lived in Chicago for 33 years before returning to Europe. In November 2012 Kertész told the German weekly Der Spiegel that he does not wish to write any more. He has suffered from Parkinson's desease, but the reason behind his retirement was that he considered his oeuvre, closely related to the Holocaust, as closed.

Kertész's literature awards before the Nobel prize include the Brandenburg Literature Prize (1995), The Book Prize for European Understanding (1997), the WELT-Literaturpreis in 2000, Ehrenpreis der Robert-Bosch-Stiftung (2001), and Hans-Sahl-Preis (2002). In April 2002 a conference was held on his works. A gondolatnyi csend, amíg a kivégzoosztag újratölt (1998), a collection of writings, sums up much of Kertész's thinking from a long period. Fateless was made into a film in 2005, directed by Lajos Koltai, and starring Marcell Nagy, Gyuri Koves and Daniel Craig. 

For further reading: Lange, dunkle Schatten: studien zum Werk von Imre Kertész, eds. Mihály Szegedy-Masák, Tamás Scheibner (2004); Imre Kertész and Holocaust Literature, eds. Louise O.Vasvári and Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek (2005); Kertész und die Seinigen: Lektüren zum Werk von Imre Kertész by Miklóss Györffy, Pál Kelemen (2009); Reconciling Community and Subjective Life: Trauma Testimony as Political Theorizing in the Work of Jean Améry and Imre Kértesz by Magdalena Zolkos (2010)  

Selected works:

  • Sorstalanság, 1975
    - Fateless (translated by Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson, 1992) / Fatelessness (translated by Tim Wilkinson, 2004)
    - Kohtalottomuus (suom. Outi Hassi, 2004)
    - Film adaptation (2005), prod. Hungarian Motion Picture Ltd., Magic Media Inc., EuroArts Entertainment, dir.  Lajos Koltai, music by Ennio Morricone, screenplay by Imre Kertész, starring Marcell Nagy, Gyuri Koves, Bálint Péntek, Daniel Craig
  • Detektívtörténet, 1977
    - Detective Story (translated byTim Wilkinson, 2008)
  • A nyomkereső: két regény, 1977
    - The Pathseeker (translated by  Tim Wilkinson, 2008)
  • A kudarc, 1988
    -  Fiasco (translated byTim Wilkinson, 2011)
    - Tappio (suom. Outi Hassi, 2005)
  • Kaddis a meg nem születetett gyermekért, 1990
    - Kaddish for a Child Not Born (translated by Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson, 1997) / Kaddish for an Unborn Child (translated by Tim Wilkinson, 2004)
    - Kaddish syntymättömälle lapselle (suom. Outi Hassi, 2004)
  • Az angol lobogó, 1991
    - The Union Jack (translated by Tim Wilkinson, 2009)
  • Gályanapló, 1992
    - Kaleeripäiväkirja (suom. Outi Hassi, 2008)
  • A holocaust mint kultúra: három eloadás, 1993
  • Jegyzőkönyv / Imre Kertész; Élet és irodalom / Péter Ésterházy, 1993
  • Valaki más: a változás krónikája, 1997
  • A gondolatnyi csend, amíg a kivégzoosztag újratölt, 1998
  • A száműzött nyelv, 2001
    - Kieli maanpaossa: kaksi juhlapuhetta (suom. Outi Hassi, 2003)
  • Felszámolás, 2003
    - Liquidation (translated by Tim Wilkinson, 2004)
    - Lopetus (suom. Outi Hassi, 2006)
  • A megfogalmazás kalandja, 2009
  • Briefe an Eva Haldimann, 2009 (translated by Kristin Schwamm)

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