June 18, 2008

Imre Kertész: The Pathseeker

Posted in Kertész Imre, Melville House at 8:01 am by John Self

Beaten but unbowed (well: perhaps a little bowed), I delved straight back into the literature of Nobel laureates after my recent failure. After falling in literary lust with Melville House’s Art of the Novella series, I was pleased to see them expanding into modern fiction, with the unsnappy but unarguable Contemporary Art of the Novella series. That, plus at just over 100 pages, I felt this was a Nobel winner even I could get through.

The Pathseeker

I have mixed feelings about the way I found this book. On the one hand, it was the blurb which interested me in it ahead of others in the series, and yet I know my enjoyment – and puzzlement – could have been enhanced if I had approached it cold. The description sounded, probably to misuse an overused term, Kafkaesque (Martin Amis points out that the word has become so devalued that a long queue in the Post Office is now described as Kafkaesque). Perhaps a better one would be ‘Ishiguroish': I’m thinking in particular of his wonderful but overlooked 1995 novel The Unconsoled. Its atmosphere of mystery and foreboding, an unknowable man with an unclear purpose in a strange town, seem just right for the blurb of The Pathseeker:

In a mysterious middle-European country, a man identified only as “the Commissioner” undertakes what seems to be a banal trip to a nondescript town with his wife – a brief detour on the way to a holiday at the seaside – that turns into something ominous. Something terrible has happened in the town, something that no one wants to discuss.

In quoting this I have stopped short of the giveaway words, of which there are two: one repeated just in case you didn’t pick up on it the first time, and one which kills stone dead the vaunted sense of mystery, the sort of word which comes with its own capital letter. For the blankness and openness of the story itself, the white, uncluttered cover seems to suit it nicely.

This is a new translation, but The Pathseeker is one of Kertész’s earliest works – though ‘early’ is not quite right, as it was published when he was 47, two years after his debut and most famous work Fatelessness (also published in English as Fateless). Tim Wilkinson has done a fine job as translator, and in the Michael Hofmann tradition has thrown in a free afterword, which helps the reader with some of the more obscure references in the book, and suggests a tangential connection with Melville’s ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’.

So what can I say about this book, or story, without spoiling it? It has a dramatic opening, where the Commissioner, visiting the unnamed country and hosted in the home of a man named Hermann, in the middle of a friendly conversation, suddenly becomes an unwelcome guest.

He took the pipe from his mouth and cut him short with calm, premeditated hostility. He then informed him in a single terse sentence who he was and the objective of his mission and the investigation that he was to pursue. Hermann turned slightly pale.

The Commissioner proceeds with his investigation, and along the way Kertész makes references to relationships of predation and submission, and how willing people are to submit to power. Even passengers on a train – a symbol pretty heavy with meaning in this context – are “blind instruments of a higher design, they faithfully fulfilled their roles, dutifully meeting the calculation that was attached to them.” The Commissioner admits he wants “to make a splash with his presence, advertise his superiority, celebrate the triumph of his existence in front of these mute and powerless things,” which leads to notions of the objectification of human life. He visits a factory, with German language ironwork on the gates, and an exhibition of “defunct instruments of past ages, contraband curiosities … cheerfully illuminated.”

What could this collection of junk, so cleverly, indeed all too cleverly disguised as dusty museum material, prove to him, or to anyone else for that matter? Its objects could be brought to life only by being utilized. The only test of their efficacy could be experience.

The Pathseeker is both nebulous and forceful, obstructive and direct, which leaves room for the reader’s own responses while directing them artfully along Kertész’s chosen path. There is a ghostly creepiness to it, and the sort of calm silence around the setting which settles after a period of calamitous noise. Tim Wilkinson tells us that the story took twelve years for Kertész “to wrestle into a form he was happy with,” and was then rejected by the publisher he submitted it to. And more than three decades after that, it has been finally been translated into English, so we can benefit. The Pathseeker made it at last.

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23 Comments »

  1. lizzysiddal said,

    It’s only because of my latest half-hearted book buying embargo that I haven’t taken possession of this little beauty … but come the next Amazon parcel …

    BTW: Do you know when MHP are releasing Adair’s “The Death of the Author” in the same series?

  2. John Self said,

    Do I! I’m eagerly awaiting it, and will be rereading it with relish (even though I already have the hardback from when it was published in 1992). I just hope it stands up to my nostalgia…

  3. Isabel said,

    Sounds like a recent book that I read:
    Three to See the King – Magnus Mills.

    I couldn’t say much in my review without giving it away either.

  4. JRSM said,

    I didn’t know they were doing contemporary ones too! More money to be flung in their (Melville House) direction!

  5. Nick said,

    I read The Unconsoled many years ago and thought it was wonderful too. I just love any kind of surrealism and this had it in spades. Other people find the endless unreality and mystery and confusion utterly tedious but I loved it precisely because of the way it keeps playing with our assumptions and expectations and nothing ever happens the way it’s supposed to.

  6. [...] on his excellent Asylum blog, John Self has been writing about Imre Kertesz’s The Pathseeker (part of Melville [...]

  7. John Self said,

    Yes Isabel, Magnus Mills is favourite of mine too – which reminds me, it’s been three years since his last novel and we don’t normally have to wait so long. He also exhibits the strangeness that Nick observes in The Unconsoled. I should say that The Pathseeker isn’t quite like that, and it was more the blurb that made me think of Ishiguro than the book itself.

  8. Trevor Berrett said,

    John, a few thank yous. Because of this post I bought Kertesz’s Liquidation (a shorty if you’re looking for more by him) and really enjoyed it–and soon I will be going through Roth’s Zuckerman books. Also, I was inspired to create my own blog in an effort to figure out how I felt about books I’m reading and to make my memory of them more lasting. Much appreciation!

  9. John Self said,

    That’s great news, Trevor, and the reasons you give for blogging are very good ones, which I share. Give us a link to your blog so anyone reading this can come and visit! I look forward to reading your thoughts on Roth and Kertész.

  10. Trevor Berrett said,

    Though I am still searching for my blogging voice, I would love to get some of your comments and feedback on my blog:

    http://mookse.wordpress.org

    (Oh, please forgive if at this point it looks too much like your own blog! As I said, I’m still searching for my style – I mean it as flattery!)

  11. John Self said,

    Sorry Trevor, that link just takes me to the WordPress home page. However I had a tinker around with the address and this works:

    http://mookse.wordpress.com/

    I think what you’ve written is extremely good by anyone’s standards, not just a beginner! I read with interest the posts on Murdoch and Kertész – the former particularly interesting as The Sea, The Sea for some reason is one Booker winner I’ve never been tempted to try: maybe now I will. Your post on Kertész is excellent and comprehensive, though it does give away rather a lot about what happens, particularly to B.! I think it’s difficult to know when writing about a book how much to say about what happens: on the one hand it’s not a good idea to ‘spoil’ the story; on the other hand there are always vital themes and aspects that can only be discussed with reference to what happens. Perhaps we should classify posts into those for reading before the book, and those for reading after! Anyway keep up the good work Trevor.

  12. Trevor Berrett said,

    Thanks John! Glad you visited. I hope I didn’t spoil Kertesz too much! Interestingly, a lot of that about B. is told up front, as he is dead from the very beginning (ten years’ dead actually) and Kingbitter is ruminating on the fact that he could know so much about what happened after his death. But some of my ideas about why he committed suicide might taint another reader’s reading – I will mark parts of the blog that are more “discussion” based than review based. Thanks for the advice! (And sorry to have made the comments here turn into a back-and-forth about my blog). On a Kertesz note, I just got Kaddish for an Unborn Child, and it looks very interesting.

  13. Trevor Berrett said,

    I finished Fatelessness last night (click here). Not as short as Liquidation, and early on I wasn’t sure I was going to like it. However, it became much more than I anticipated. I’ll soon venture into Kaddish for an Unborn Child. Be sure if/when you read these you let me know. I’d like some discussions.

    By the way, does your blog go back further than January 2007?

  14. John Self said,

    No Trevor, I began it in February 2007 and then put in a few entries and backdated them so as to give it a bit of content!

    You’re way ahead of me on Kertész – I don’t even have any of his other titles. However I’ll be sure to engage with you on them when I do, and will be visiting your blog to see what you continue to make of him.

    I’ve made your URL into a clickable link. If you tinker with your WordPress profile, you should be able to make it so that your name becomes a link to your blog when you leave a comment on other WordPress blogs (like this one!). Can be useful at directing traffic to your site.

  15. [...] chose Imre Kertész as I was impressed with his novella The Pathseeker, and wanted to try his most celebrated work. I think however that I am likely – again – to [...]

  16. [...] that, while Detective Story was originally published in Hungary in 1977 in the same volume as The Pathseeker, here the two books have been published individually, at full price, despite barely scraping 100 [...]

  17. leemonks said,

    I’ve just read this: it does have an awful lot of that Ishiguro-esque seamless cancelling of interludes, where time seems to be some kind of abstract whereby memory and actuality collapse on one another and everything is part of a thread of warped consciousness. Regret, paranoia, expectation, identity issues, bizarre weather, surreal events – all seem flatlined in a sort of anaesthetised state of involuntary unravelling. Quite an effect to achieve successfully. Anthropomorphised buildings and impressionistic humans, a nightmare pervasion of elements. Very good indeed.

  18. John Self said,

    Never mind all that, Lee – welcome to the blogging world! I was wondering when you’d get the urge. And what a lot of films you’ve seen since yesterday…

    • leemonks said,

      Ha! I’ve been posting them for a wee while on another blogging tool; as you can probably gather, I am below layman status when it comes to organising them etc! I’ve got a few more to sort out. I might throw the odd book on, but the bar has been set high by yourself and Trevor et al there.

  19. leemonks said,

    Thanks, Trevor. It won’t be up to Mookse and the Gripes standard but it’s better than merely consuming and doing nothing with it. That’s my theory, anyway, and I recall yourself and John talking about it helping you ascertain what you thought and felt at the time, which is another good reason. And it’s fun!

    PS I’m hoping to finish Ghosts later on (I know it’s a slim tome but snatches of time etc) and I have to say that, thus far, it has been quite magnificent. Beautiful piece of work.

  20. [...] Kertesz, The Pathseeker : “both nebulous and forceful, obstructive and direct, which leaves room for the reader’s [...]

  21. […] Kertesz, The Pathseeker : “both nebulous and forceful, obstructive and direct, which leaves room for the reader’s own […]


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