October 4, 2008
Imre Kertész: Fateless
It’s common enough for me to write about the format and design of a book on this blog, but this time that aspect will be more important. Like several other book bloggers, I was offered the chance to try the new Sony Reader by a PR company working for Sony, and being a bit of a gadget-liker, I didn’t resist. I got my choice of book uploaded onto the device for me, and the one I chose was Imre Kertész’s most famous novel, Fateless (1975), on the very reasonable grounds that (a) it’s short, and (b) the paperback cover is horrible anyway, so I wouldn’t be missing much by having it in this format.
The second point is important. As regular readers of this blog will know, I love a good cover design and to me a book can and should be a beautiful object just as much as a beautiful piece of writing. Sacrificing this for a piece of electronic jiggery-pokery is no small consideration. But I do it every time I download an album on iTunes instead of buying the CD, losing the artwork and packaging; and the Sony Reader – even if it’s no iPod – is certainly a handsome device (knocking spots off the Amazon Kindle, at least in looks). It’s also slim and not too big: a little smaller than a slender B-format paperback (the size used for ‘literary fiction’ in the UK).
The Sony Reader is not strictly compatible with Apple Mac computers, but I managed to get around this by downloading the excellent Calibre software, which enabled me to transfer files and order them on my Reader, including the 100 free classics which come on a CD with the Reader. (These include, along with plenty of the usual suspects – Austen, Dickens, Shakespeare, Tolstoy – such lesser spotted titles as George Meredith’s Rhoda Fleming and Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, which I was delighted to see. And even though I don’t think the Reader will become a regular plaything for me, it’s nice to have all those volumes holed up together in a sleek sliver of metal and software.)
I 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 disappoint anyone seeking insight and intelligent comment on this book, as the experience of reading it in a new format, with its various teething troubles, distracted me from paying it proper attention. One of the reasons for this was the bizarre formatting of the Reader edition of Fateless. The pagination bore little resemblance to the number of pages to be turned: even on the smallest text size, each ‘page’ filled 1½ screens, so page 8 would give way to ‘page 8-9′ and then to ‘page 9-10′ and then ‘page 10′ – in other words, to read ten pages I had to turn the page 15 times; or 270 times for this nominally 180 page book.
This might seem – it is – a trifling point, but on this blog I have always tried to reflect the experience of reading in a real world situation, where we all have many other calls on our time, and that includes (for me) an almost obsessive level of page-count awareness. The perception of reading the book slows down, and a book which seems longer than you were expecting, is also likely to seem duller than you were hoping. This is exacerbated by slow page turns – though this enhances battery life, as the screen only uses battery power when turning the page, not when displaying a page – and odd dangling widows and orphans:
and curious insertion of footnotes in the middle of a page – the following one finally appeared seven pages after the initial reference, when I had long forgotten about it.
These footnotes apply to untranslated German, which arises in the scenes in Fateless which are set in camps in Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Zeitz, where Kertész’s narrator György is transported through the course of the book. György is a teenager, and so what we have is a half-child’s eye view of the Holocaust. The distinguishing feature of the narrative is György’s sanguine, almost blithe, approach to life in the camps. This comes right from the start, when “the Jews of Budapest” as György’s uncle describes them, seem more concerned about the most hardwearing materials to make their yellow stars from, rather than the meaning of the stars. Only György’s father, heading off to the labour camp, seems to have a more balanced view:
‘You too,’ he said, ‘are now a part of the shared Jewish fate,’ and he then went on to elaborate on that, remarking that this fate was one of ‘unbroken persecution that has lasted for millennia,’ which the Jews ‘have to accept with fortitude and self-sacrificing forbearance,’ since God has meted it out to them for their past sins, so for that very reason from Him alone could mercy be expected, but until then He in turn expects of us that, in this grave situation, we all stand our ground on the place He has marked out for us, ‘in accordance with our strengths and abilities.’
After a family farewell, György observes, “at least we were able to send him off to the labour camp with memories of a nice day.” When he is forced into employment at a petroleum works, he optimistically notes that “I have actually acquired a privilege of sorts, since under any other circumstances those wearing yellow stars are prohibited from travelling outside the city limits.” He engages with other children on the question of Jewishness, and one friend “sometimes … felt a sort of pride but at other times more a shame of sorts.” György cannot “find a reason for these feelings either. Anyway, a person cannot entirely decide for himself about this differentness: in the end, that is precisely what the yellow star is there for.”
This rash of quotes I am extracting reminds me of another aspect of the Reader. There is a bookmark feature, which enables one to ‘turn down the corner’ of any number of pages in the book, but it doesn’t enable me to mark individual notable passages. Really what I want from an e-book reader is a touch screen. I could turn the pages at the slide of a finger. I could flick through the book, as I can flip through my albums using Coverflow on the iPhone. (Page turning is slow on the Sony Reader, so flicking back and forward is impossible.) I could highlight a notable sentence with the swipe of a finger. I could bring up an on-screen keyboard – again, as on the iPhone – to annotate a passage. Perhaps next time, Sony?
Admittedly this means that when I bookmark a page of Fateless for the purposes of writing this, I then have to read all 30 lines of the bookmarked page and identify the passage I was noting. If it doesn’t stand out, then perhaps it wasn’t worth marking in the first place. A corollary of this is the whole experience of the Reader which strips away the usual ephemera of the reading experience: not just the cover and design of the book, but the overdone quotes of praise which raise one’s expectations, and the publisher’s blurb which, when it doesn’t wholly misrepresent the book, reveals two-thirds of the plot. It was a refreshing change to read a book as, theoretically, all books should be read; no foreknowledge or expectations, just words on a page – or screen.
But to return to Fateless. There is black humour in the book as well as dramatic irony. When György is being transported from Hungary, he and his fellow Jews are stopped by a police officer, “impelled by good intentions”:
His behest was that insofar as there were any monies or other valuables still left on any of us, we should hand them over to him. “Where you’re going,” so he reckoned, “you won’t be needing valuables anymore.” Anything that we might still have the Germans would take off us anyway, he assured us. “Wouldn’t it be better then,” he carried on, up above in the window slot, “for them to pass into Hungarian hands?”
Soon, György begins to learn the truth of the camps, though oddly the book retains an even, almost banal, tone. At this point I began to wonder how much Fateless deserved to be classified as fiction, as it seemed to reflect in a fairly unexceptional way the details that I knew of Kertész’s youth. As a straight depiction of life in a concentration camp, Primo Levi’s If This is a Man (US title: Survival in Auschwitz) is surely leagues ahead.
What finally gives Fateless its punch is its exploration of how the human spirit can become accustomed to, even dependent on, whatever it knows.
“Can we imagine a concentration camp as anything but hell?” he asked, and I replied, and as I scratched a few circles with my heel in the dust under my feet, that everyone could think what they liked about it, but as far as I was concerned I could only imagine a concentration camp, since I was somewhat acquainted with what that was, but not hell.
“I would like to live a little longer in this beautiful concentration camp,” he adds. However György does understand a larger aspect of his experience.
It had not been my own fate, but I had lived through it, and I simply couldn’t understand why they couldn’t get it into their heads that I now needed to start doing something with that fate, needed to connect it to somewhere or something; after all, I could no longer be satisfied with the notion that it had all been a mistake, blind fortune, some kind of blunder, let alone that it had not even happened.
The title comes in here too. “If there is such a thing as freedom, then there is not fate; that is to say, then we ourselves are fate.”