October 4, 2008

Imre Kertész: Fateless

Posted in Kertész Imre at 8:00 am by John Self

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.”

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24 Comments »

  1. Linda Grant said,

    Can I recommend a re-reading, when you aren’t so focussed on the gadget?* The ‘banal’ tone is quite deliberate and what gives the novel, that’s right, novel, its great power and what renders it totally different to Primo Levi. And the theme of fate and fatelessness, needs to understood in the context of it being written in 1975, in communist Hungary.

    I have read a total of two novels that deal with the Holocaust which I have not wanted to throw across the room, this and David Grossman’s See: Under Love.

    * which I want

  2. JonathanM said,

    Aah, but has Dovegreyreader offered to make you a cover for it yet?

  3. John Self said,

    Can I recommend a re-reading, when you aren’t so focussed on the gadget?

    Yes you can, though I think I would probably have to buy the paperback. I did find the Reader a distraction, though of course it’s hard to know how much of that is due to the novelty of it.

    I must admit though that I did prefer the more oblique take that Kertész used in The Pathseeker, and I’m keen to read his Detective Story, which has just been published in English.

    Linda, I suspect your own fiction on Hungarian immigrants means you have much that would be valuable to say about Fateless, so if you’d like to expand on your own views, I’d welcome that. Can I also ask why most Holocaust novels inspire such a violent reaction?

    Jonathan, as a Belfast man I am thinking a knitted balaclava for it would be appropriate – and cosy.

  4. Linda Grant said,

    ‘Can I also ask why most Holocaust novels inspire such a violent reaction?’

    In a word, trivialisation.

    Here’s a review from Amazon of Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces:

    Simply irresistable……allow yourself to be captivated., 1 Mar 2001
    By dcs1024@yahoo.com (Wales) – See all my reviews
    There may well be more accurate depictions of the holocaust but none so lyrical

    And an historian friend found himself on the receiving end of a recommendation for the same book with the words, ‘What I really liked about it was that it’s a book about the Holocaust that isn’t upsetting.’

  5. John Self said,

    Ah, well quite. I must admit I couldn’t get on at all with Fugitive Pieces, though it was at least as much for the lyrical content independently – cloying, portentous – as for trivialisation.

    A Holocaust-themed novel which I read not long ago (but pre-blog) and was impressed by was Aharon Appelfeld’s Badenheim 1939.

  6. Linda Grant said,

    Yes, another great work, dealing with the Holocaust through allegory.

  7. John, I might also recommend, when/if you take this on again, Tim Wilkinson’s more recent translation. I found his translations of all three books in this tetralogy (since only three of the four are translated into English so far) to be far superior to what I read in the other translations when I was looking for my own. Plus, the American editions, I think, are quite lovely. I notice on Amazon.co.uk that copies of that version (under the more satisfying title Fatelessness, are going for less than five pounds. (See my blog for the covers of Fatelessness, Kaddish for an Unborn Child, and Liquidation).

    And I’ve been very anxious for your feelings on the Sony Reader. My wife has been contemplating getting me that or the Kindle for quite a while, and I always tell her I’m not interested – at least, not until I know more about it. Your review here gives me good reason to not change my mind.

  8. Linda Grant said,

    Off topic, The Clothes On Their Backs will be published in the US by Scribner in about a month’s time. Beautiful cover!

  9. John Self said,

    I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that, Linda! (Actually had a look for the cover to do a link and couldn’t find it, even on Scribner’s website.)

    Trevor, my edition is the Tim Wilkinson translation: it’s published by Vintage, which has both US and UK rights. The UK edition was named Fatelessness originally, but retitled Fateless because of the film tie-in cover. Asinine, I know, and the original title is better.

    I was thinking more about the idea of books trivialising the Holocaust. Trevor on his blog recently wrote about Amis’s Time’s Arrow, a book which I am fond of, but which I recall came in for some stick on publication for trivialising the Holocaust. Now admittedly, the example I specifically recall was in Private Eye, whose literary criticism I don’t take seriously as they only ever write about books to knock them – if they also reviewed titles to praise them, their opinions would be of more interest.

    Anyway, the central charge seemed to be that in Time’s Arrow, Amis didn’t explore or address the horror of the Holocaust. Well, first I would say that he did: the central conceit of the Final Solution being something which goes so against any comprehension of common humanity that it can only be explained in a world where everything is literally backward. Second, there must be some subjects, the Holocaust high among them, where a universal moral indignation can be understood, and it is permissible to proceed from that assumption without having to restate it.

  10. Linda Grant said,

    The link is here, but they only did the first draft of the cover yesterday afternoon, so give it time!

    http://www.simonsays.com/content/book.cfm?tab=1&pid=649205&er=9781439143193

    http://www.simonsays.com/content/book.cfm?tab=1&pid=649203&er=9781439142363

    Can I suggest that you dd to your reading list another novel which deals, in two of its chapters, with the Holocaust, Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, which is the one novel I can say with some certainty changed my life and completed altered my opinions.

  11. Daniel Lopes said,

    John, please contact me at editor.amalgama@gmail.com. I’d like to translate and reproduce in amalgama.blog.br a review of yours. I’ll explain more.

    Thanks in advance.

  12. I stand corrected, John! I didn’t even know there was going to be a movie! I’m glad I got my edition before the awful tie-in movie poster version.

  13. While you’re knitting your bootees, you could run up a balaclava too!

    Your account convinces me that the form factor and reading experience has some way to go before I want an eReader.

  14. John Self said,

    Trevor, you’ve missed it – it was released in 2005. It was a Hungarian production and Kertész himself wrote the screenplay. One IMDb reviewer has a pretty concise commentary on it, and hasn’t read the book, so it makes the film sound pretty faithful:

    First, that all of us, who were not there in the camps, will never be able even to imagine how that was like. And the second, that people don’t really listen to what you want to tell them, they listen to that, what they want to hear, and if your story does not satisfy them, because they want to hear something else, or because they can’t accept your point of view, you will be left alone… And you will be lonely even among people of your own kind. And I think that’s why this kid is fate-less, he himself tells at the and of the movie, he has to continue his life, which is not possible to continue, and he has to do this alone, because no one ever will understand him. Even fate has forsaken him.

    Alan, I had mixed feelings about the Reader, but I don’t expect it to become a regular companion. Other bloggers – see the links – have felt differently. Also, I didn’t realise until after I’d written my comments that Sony have touch screen and the ability to annotate passages incorporated as features in the next edition (also linked in the main post above). The LED lights to help when ambient light is not sufficient are a good idea too: I was unable to use the reader in low light where I would still have been able to read a paper book.

    Linda, Grossman’s book has been on the rim of my awareness for years since I first saw it in the dauntingly hefty Harvill edition. And when I was in a bookstore a few weeks ago I saw a man buying two copies – I admired his dedication! I will pick it up sometime soon.

  15. Linda Grant said,

    I read it five years ago. It took me three weeks to read and three weeks to recover. It is a realist novel of vast scope, the Soviet War and Peace, and all I’ll say is, don’t make the mistake of most readers and fail to discover the list of dramatis personae at the back until you’re half-way through.

    I did not like The Reader. I liked the film of Fatelessness.

    Here’s the wiki entry on Life and fate.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_and_Fate

    His letter to Krushchev:
    “I ask you to return freedom for my book, I ask that my book be discussed with editors, not the agents of the KGB. What is the point of me being physically free when the book I dedicated my life to is arrested… I am not renouncing it… I am requesting freedom for my book.”
    Puts the case against censorship . . .

  16. Aha! John, I did know that there was a Hungarian film adaptation (though I never saw it and don’t know if I will). What I missed this morning was my mind!

  17. On the subject of tasteful treatments of the Holocaust, how about W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz?

  18. lifeblogger said,

    I hate SONY with this book. It dead after 7 months write after my warranty expired. So I’l never ever will buy SONY product.

  19. Lee said,

    May I recommend Feedbooks to you, which offers many ebooks for free in Sony-compatible format (and most other e-reader formats as well)? Their formatting is good:

    http://www.feedbooks.com/

  20. I know there are books that are tangential to the Holocaust that do anything but trivialize it but I can’t think of any of the titles at the moment, The Archivist is I think one of them. But the Holocaust is not the main theme. I have not read any fiction with the Holocaust as the theme but to trivialize it would definitely make me throw the book in the fire.

    John, this gadget sounds like a horrible thing. I may be old fashioned but, short of the only way of saving the stories, I never want to read books this way. Nothing can beat holding the book in your hands, admiring the cover (I love them as well) and turning the pages as you savor the prose that allows you to live many lives in one. I bought the British edition of The Clothes On Their Backs. It cost a bit more but I liked that cover. I have been finding, in general, the British editions are of much better quality in every way to ours.

  21. Steerforth said,

    Are the Sony Reader’s pages as grey as they look in the photo?

  22. John Self said,

    Yes they are, Steerforth. As I mentioned above, there were times when I couldn’t read the screen in dim light that would have been sufficient to read a paper book. Of course the non-illuminated nature of the screen (or ‘electronic paper’) is the point, to prevent it from glaring and becoming a strain on the eyes. It’s also said to be readable in bright sunlight in a way that an LCD screen wouldn’t be – though sadly we haven’t seen much sun around here in recent months for me to test that. I did however have some problems with reflected light on the screen when I was reading with it sitting flat on my workplace desk, with the striplight above.

  23. [...] John Self at Asylum [...]

  24. Andrew said,

    I try as much as possible to resist the temptation to read the blurbs of books, that is when there is no doubt that I will buy it. The back of one Hesse book- I’ll not mention which in case of performing the offence I’m mentioning- mentions the hero’s “final suicide (which) is at once a symbol of despai and an exemplary supreme sacrifice.”
    This final suicide occurs on the very last page of the novel. What clown thought he had earned the right to disclose this useful addition to one’s reading pleasure is a mystery.
    What is perhaps even more astounding is that the “suicide” is actually a death arising from a heart attack after some ill-advised phhysical exertion. Beggaring all belief.


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