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Péter Nádas (1942-)


Hungarian novelist, essayist, and dramatist, a major central European literary figure. Peter Nádas made his international breakthrough with the monumental Emlékiratok könyve (1986, A Book of Memories), a psychological novel about remembering and forgetting in the tradition of Proust, Thomas Mann, and magic realism.

"Experiences related to my past, but the past is itself but a distant allusion to my insignificant desolation, hovering as rootlessly as any lived moment in what I might call the present: only memories of tastes and smells of a world to which I no longer belong, one I might call my abandoned homeland, which I left to no purpose because nothing bound me to the one I found myself in, either; I was a stranger there, too, and not even Melchior, the only human being I loved, could make me belong ..." (in A Book of Memories, tr. Ivan Sanders and Imre Goldstein)

Péter Nádas was born in Budapest, the son of László Nádas, a high-ranking party functionary, and Klára Tauber, a working-class woman. During WW II, when Hungary was allied with Germany, they supported the illegal Communist party, which gained control of the government after the war.

Nádas's youth was shadowed by the loss of his parents: his mother died of cancer, and his father, a state prosecutor, committed suicide, soon after the Soviet troops to crushed the 1956 Hungarian uprising. Before the tanks entered Budapest, Nádas himself witnessed in front of the Parliament building the speech of Imre Nagy ("someone stepped forward, stumbled, his hat flew off... Laughter arose above the square..."), and was seized by "the sensation that everybody is with us, the whole world is with us," as he recalled.

In his early teens, Nádas began read voraciously, having a particular fondness for Russian classics, Thomas Mann, Proust, Musil, Moličre, Shakespeare, the Bible. At the age of 16 his uncle, the journalist Pál Aranyossi, gave him a camera. After dropping out of school without finishing his chemistry studies, Nádas turned to photojournalism. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he worked as an editor, reader, and drama consultant. Following the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Nádas quit his job as a journalist and devoted himself to literature. "I resigned, walked out, and turned my back on the system to save my soul," he later said in an interview.

In A biblia (1967), a novella, and Kulcskereső játék (1969), a collection of short stories, Nadás recalled his childhood experiences. In the early 1980s Nádas moved with Magda Salamon from Budapest and settled in Gombosszeg in south-western Hungary. Nádas and Salamon, who had been living togerher since the 1960s, married in 1990. With the trilogy Takarítás (1977, House Cleaning), Találkozás (1979, Encounter), and Temetés (1980, Burial), Nádas established his fame in Hungary as one of the most original playwrights of his generation. When he wanted to make a trip abroad, to visit places important to Thomas Mann, the Hungarian secret service tried to recruit him to inform on his acquaintances. "I didn’t see the world until I was in my 30s because I wouldn’t accept the rules of the regime for travel," he has said. "I would rather have isolation than be told what I can do by the state."

Egy családregény vége (The End of a Family Story), written between 1969 and 1972, was published in 1977 after much hesitation by the authorities. It depicts the eternal conflict of generations in Stalinist Hungary, the era of Mátyás Rákosi, which led to the Hungarian uprising. The events are seen from the point of view of a child, Péter Simon, whose father, a state-security officer, becomes himself a victim of the police state. Péter's illogical world, limited mostly to his near circle, includes his grandfather, a Jew and a Holocaust survivor. "Grandpa used to tell me lots of stories. But not fairy tales, real stories," Péter recalls. In his monologue the grandfather reveals his bizarre theory of the family history, and traces the genealogy back to biblical times. Péter's father is treated as a traitor and the boy is sent to a reform school. The ambivalent end of the book and the narrator's world comes suddenly.

It took Nádas over ten years to finish Emlékiratok könyve (A Book of Memories), and several years to battle with censors before the work was published in Hungary. During this period he wrote the novella Szerelem (1979, Love), in which a man smokes a joint of marijuana with a woman and examines, in excruciatingly minute detail, his actions and his surroundings. He sees the outside world as an insane asylum. "The biggest problem with "Love" is how dated the drug trip feels," wrote Lisa Zeidner in The New York Times (December 17, 2000). A Book of Memories is made up of three first-person voices - it is a confessional autobiography of a young Hungarian writer, working on a historical novel about a German novelist named Thomas Thoenissen, the memoir of a character of his own, a turn-of-the century aesthete, and finally the voice of the protagonist's friend, who describes the writer's last years. Combining an overall view of the decline of Communist rule with introspective reflections on life, society, and human nature, it documents changes in the mental history of Europe. "Like contemporary physics, fiction seems to work with ever more microscopic units of observation; in the process, strange things happen. The terrain of Eastern European experience depicted in "A Book of Memories" might seem a gloomy and constricted place; yet it gains an amplitude and an illumination from the painstaking attentiveness, the penetration with which it is imagined and contemplated." (Eva Hoffman in The New York Times, July 27, 1997)

A Lovely Tale of Photography (1999) tells about a tormented photojournalist, who is confined to a sanatorium. The novella, which was nominated for the 2001 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, is composed of different short "scenes" and a flow of voices and monologues. "The sensation of thirst is more intense, more excruciating, and more maddening than any other bodily sensation, and for this reason it is no accident that in most languages it is synonymous with uncontrollable desire, and we often use it to form phrases such as thirst for revenge and bloodthirsty." (in A Lovely Tale of Photography).

Párhuzamos történetek (2005, Parallel Stories), a trilogy on which Nádas worked for 18 years, revolves around the histories of two families, one Hungarian, one German. The novel was a bestseller but received mixed reviews by critics, who were puzzled by its lack of organizing perspective and chaotic structure. Abandoning causal narrative and the assumption that the world has a symmetrical structure, Nádas creates between his characters an irregular web of acausal internal connections and analogies through such keywords as murder, poverty, Jewishness, racism, masturbation, etc. "The question is not what connects people who know each other, but rather, what is the nature of the connections between those people who don't?" Nádas has argued. Most of the tales take place in Budapest, where the center is an apartment building designed in the early 20th century.

Fire and Knowledge: Fiction and Essays (2007) included Nádas's masteripiece 'The Lamb' (1966), about anti-Semitism, in which the narrator and his friends bully a park caretaker named Reszo Róth. "... if he hadn't been a Jew, and if our parents hadn't brought this up so often as the ultimate argument against him, we might have discovered at the bottom of our fear some attraction to him." In criticizing the legacy of the Kádár regime and the rise of right-wing populism in Hungary, Nádas has stated that "the first round of Hungary's attempt to catch up with the modern states in Europe has failed." (Die Zeit, 15 April, 2010) According to Nádas, the problem lays in the lack of a stabilising national bourgeoisie.

Nádas has received several literature prizes, including the Prize for Hungarian Art (1989), the Austrian State Prize for European Literature (1991) and the Vilenica International Prize for Literature (1998), the Franz Kafka literary prize (2003). In 2006 Nádas became a member of Akademie der Künste in Berlin and in 2007 he received the Order of Merit of the Hungarian Republic. As a return to his early hobbies and profession, the author had in 1999 a photographic exhibition in Budapest.

For further reading: Mindnyájan benne vagyunk: Nádas Péter művei by Péter Balassa (2007); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 3, ed. Steven R. Serafin (1999); 'Emlékiratok Könyve' by I. Sanders, in World Literature Today 61:2 (1987); 'Egy családregény vége' by I. Sanders, in World Literature Today 52:3 (1978)

Selected works:

  • A biblia, 1967
    -TV film 1990, dir. Gábor Várkonyi, starring Enikö Eszenyi, László Méhes, Péter Bakonyi, Tünde Murányi
  • Kulcskereső játék, 1969
  • Holt vidék, 1971 (screenplay with István Gaál)
    - Prod. MAFILM IV. Játékfilmstúdió, dir. István Gaál, starring Mari Töröcsik, István Ferenczi, Irma Patkós, Szergej Elisztratov
  • Egy családregény vége, 1977
    - The End of a Family Story (translated by Imre Goldstein, 1998)
    - Erään sukuromaanin loppu (suom. Hannu Launonen, 2000)
  • Takarítás, 1977 (play)
  • Találkozás, 1979 (play)
  • Szerelem, 1979
    - Love (translated by Imre Goldstein, 2000)
  • Leírás, 1979
  • Temetés, 1980 (play)
  • Zöldségfélék vetése korszeru gépekkel, 1981
  • Színtér, 1982 (plays, contains Takarítás, Találkozás, Temetés)
  • Nézőtér, 1983
  • Emlékiratok könyve, 1986
    - A Book of Memories (translated by Ivan Sanders and Imre Goldstein, 1997)
    - Muistelmien kirja 1-2 (suom. Juhani Huotari ja Hannu Launonen, 2006)
  • Játéktér, 1988
  • A Biblia és más régi történetek, 1988
  • Évkönyv, 1989
  • Tutajosok, 1989 (screenplay)
    - Film 1990, prod. Budapest Játékfilmstúdió, Feeling Productions, La Sept, dir. Judit Elek, starring Sándor Gáspár, András Stohl, Pál Hetényi, Zoltán Mucsi
  • Protokoll, 1990 (script, short film)
    - Film 1990, prod. Magyar Televízió Müvelödési Föszerkesztöség, dir. Zsolt Balogh, starring Péter Haumann, Judit Pogány and Tamás Végvári
  • Az égi és a földi szerelemről, 1991
  • Égi és földi szerelem, 1991
  • Párbeszéd: négy nap ezerkilencszáznyolcvankilencben, 1992 (with Richard Swartz)
  • Talált cetli és más elegyes írások, 1992
  • Vonulás: két filmnovella, 1995 (film scripts)
  • Drámák, 1996
  • Minotaurus, 1997
  • Kritikák, 1999
  • Koniec rodinnej ságy, 1999
  • Valamennyi fény, 1999
  • A Lovely Tale of Photography: A Film Novella, 1999 (A fotográfia szép története; translated by Imre Goldstein)
  • Upratovanie: drámy, 2003
  • Saját halal, 2004
    - Own Death (translated by Janos Solomon, 2004)
    - Film 2008, prod. For-Creation, dir. Péter Forgács, starring Peter Meikle Moore, András Novák, Péter Nádas (narrator)
  • Párhuzamos történetek, 2005
    - Parallel Stories (translated by Imre Goldstein, 2010)
  • Hátországi napló: újabb esszék, 2006
  • Fire and Knowledge: Fiction and Essays, 2007 (translated by Imre Goldstein)
  • Szirénének: szatírjáték, 2010 (play)
  • Fantasztikus utazáson: esszék, 2011
  • Párhuzamos olvasókönyv: Nádas Péter regényének forrásai és visszhangjai, 2012 (with Gábor Csordás)

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