Here, as promised, is my review in the Independent on Sunday of Agota Kristof’s The Illiterate, a sort of companion to her masterpiece The Notebook. You can buy it here (and The Notebook here).
CB Editions is well known to readers of this blog. Its practice to date has been to publish new books, particularly those which might struggle to find a place elsewhere – through not lack of quality, but lack of mass appeal. Here, however, we have its first reissue, of a novel last in print in the UK almost 20 years ago. That made me think this must really be a book worth reading. Praise from Slavoj Zizek (“a book through which I discovered what kind of a person I really want to be”) added texture, and the deal was sealed by Gabriel Josipovici’s comment that reading The Notebook for the first time was one of those rare occasions “when you know immediately you are in the company of greatness.”
The Notebook (Le Grand Cahier, 1986; tr. 1989 by Alan Sheridan) was Kristof’s first novel (and the first of a trilogy), though previously she had written poems and plays. Her memoir The Illiterate (L’Analphabète), which I’ll review next month, tells how The Notebook began life as “short texts based on my childhood memories.” Short they are: no chapter here is more than three pages long. In her real childhood, Kristof was separated from her brother; in fiction, she reunites them, in fact reinvents them as twin brothers. This is the one false note in the book, or perhaps it was a false note in my reading, as I was unable to hear the narrative in a male voice. It sounded simply like Kristof to me.
But that should not be surprising. Kristof fled her native Hungary for Switzerland, and lived there for years before learning to write in French. When she did, she consciously adopted a stripped and plain voice, one which resists easy attribution to a gender. The translator of her memoir, Nina Bogin, describes it as rendering “words as if they were being used for the first time, stripped of embellishment or metaphor or excess of meaning.” The brothers – who narrate in first person plural throughout – go further:
We have a very simple rule: the composition must be true. We must describe what is, what we see, what we hear, what we do.
For example, it is forbidden to write: ‘Grandmother is like a witch’, but we are allowed to write: ‘People call Grandmother the Witch.’
Words that define feelings are very vague; it is better to avoid using them and to stick to the description of objects, human beings and oneself; that is to say, to the faithful description of facts.
And so they do. At the beginning of The Notebook, the boys are evacuated from the Big Town to the Little Town for the duration of the war. (There are no places or times mentioned in the book, but we presume it to be Hungary during the Second World War.) They live with Grandmother, their mother’s mother, who is indeed known as the Witch. “Sons of a bitch!” she calls them, and beats them. In response, the brothers “decide to toughen our bodies in order to be able to bear pain without crying. We start by hitting and then punching one another.” They decide to toughen their minds too:
Looking each other in the eyes, we say more and more terrible words. One of us says:
The other one says:
We go on like this until the words no longer reach our brains, no longer reach even our ears.
Only then do they realise that they must also reduce the pain of other words, words their mother used to say to them: ‘My darlings! My loves! My joy! My adorable little babies!’ “By repeating them we make these words gradually lose their meaning and the pain that they carry in them is reduced.” They engage in other exercises, to get used to hunger, to cruelty. (“We Extend Our Repertoire”, one chapter is titled.)
And so, conditioned and hardened, the brothers embark upon life in the Little Town. They encounter comic figures, like the shopkeeper from whom they try to buy writing materials, and grotesque ones, like Harelip, a girl who allows herself to be fucked by a dog. (“The dog places his front paws on Harelip’s back. His back legs begin to shake.”) With their hearts and minds toughened, the brothers gain a reputation. “You’ve the makings of murderers,” says the postman. Yet for the reader, the brothers never do anything more or less than what is necessary to survive. And to survive together: they are a sort of gestalt entity, and when they are briefly separated in school, they fall ill. The connection between them, their indivisibility, is the strength they draw on and that they use to support themselves in dire circumstances. They empower each other: they use a priest’s secrets to make him pay money to Harelip and her mother.
‘It’s monstrous. Have you any idea what you are doing?’
‘Yes, sir. Blackmail.’
They encounter a masochistic army officer, who makes good use of their learned cruelty. All in all they become notorious, unassailable, but remain sympathetic and even vulnerable. Their story is rendered unemotionally but is fully engaged and engaging. The sheer range of the book, all coming from that plain language, makes you see what Josipovici meant when he spoke of “greatness”. What happens at the end is stated simply but echoes with the cumulative force of everything that has come before, and is devastating. In its odd, memorable, unique way, The Notebook is a masterpiece.