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Crystal Salt
  • Writer's pictureCristina Deutsch

Today about: Péter Nádas - A Book of Memories


A novel that I "worked upon", so to speak, to finish was A Book of Memories by Péter Nádas (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1997. Translated by Ivan Sanders with Imre Goldstein - meanwhile, I found out that there is also a Romanian translation, since 2011, belonging to the late Anamaria Pop, and printed by Curtea Veche Publishing, "Byblos" collection). I promise to approach, on the next occasion, also this translation because, it is true, it is a text that requires time, patience, and concentration but, once you have finished it, you know, instinctively, that the time will come to reread it another time. The novel was published in 1986, received a lot of literary awards, and is ultra-sophisticated, the action takes place between Budapest and East Berlin, in the period immediately following the Second World War. Concerning the themes, as the title says, the focus is on remembering, on memory as a tool for finding identity. For Nadás, precisely the idea that collective memory can be as important as individual memory is what supports the structure of the novel; for him, the collective past has the power to influence not only how a society develops and builds its identity, but also how the perspective of the individual, as a singular entity, contributes, through his personal experience, to the reconstruction, from fragments, of a complete image of the past.

So, A Book of Memories is a novel that can be read as a reflection on the impact that major historical events can have on people's lives, and on how the past can influence the present and, implicitly, the future. On the other hand, regarding the concept of identity - which, as I said, Nadás explores, presenting it as fluid and evolving over time, in a world that is constantly changing and that is always in a transitional state– this emphasizes that, in the course of the narrative, characters find and lose their identities according to the events that affect and shape them, with memory playing a crucial role in this process. This is best reflected in the way in which the characters are built, which are not only made up to the finest intimate chords but are, very often, subjected to deep and introspective psychological analyses. I think that one can see in their construction, without much trouble, a cumulative construction, with influences from several literary traditions, going from European modernism to American postmodern literature.


For example, Thomas Thoenissen, the main character, a young German writer who travels to Hungary to write his book, is obviously an alter ego of the author, who, moreover, also narrates a large part of the novel's story. Young, and seemingly inexperienced, he has an introspective and philosophical structure, often referring to issues related to cultural identity, history, and memory, his role is to find a deeper meaning in these issues. A thread that should certainly be explored in depth is the potential connection between this character and "Jewishness", a theme that seems to be touched on very little in the novel (which, frankly, surprised me...), but which is present subtly and, despite this fact, is certainly significant. Although Thomas is not Jewish himself, instead has a problematic relationship (literally!) to manage with his father, a German Catholic priest, we see how the Jewish theme is actually present throughout the novel, subsidiarily, especially through cultural and historical influences; reading, one feels this constantly (at least in my case it did). In his game between Thea and Maja he very often captures this interest as, for example, when he describes the latter, making her rather an embodiment of the artistic ideal that Thomas never ceases to seek, in a relationship extremely ambiguous and complex: " her nose, skinny and slightly hooked, might indeed have been a bit large, she had her father's nose, she once told me, the most Jewish feature of her face, otherwise she could pass for a German, even, she added with a laugh; she'd never known her father, was too young to have remembered him—just as Krisztián had no memories of his father—he was "deported"; the word made as profound an impression on me as that other phrase about Krisztián's father, who "fell in battle"; and I liked running my fingers over her nose, because then I felt I was touching something Jewish; in any case, the color of her skin made up for this tiny flaw, if one can call flaw the irregular which is so organic a part of beauty; her complexion complemented her beauty, made it whole, though not fair, as one might expect in a person with blond hair and blue eyes but with the hue of a crisp, well-baked roll, and it was this color, full of tenderness, that created the harmony of perfection out of her sharply contrasting features;". (Péter Nádas, A Book of Memories. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1997, p. 368). This tension becomes even more visible in the relationship with Thea, within the love triangle that she will end up forming with Melchior. Mysterious, a true femme fatale, Thea has the role of taking the reader into the depths of interpersonal relationships to reveal, layer by layer, the full complexity of human emotions. Melchior, on the other hand, I think, at least from my point of view, proves to be the most mysterious character in the entire novel. Definitely, a father figure to Thomas, but their relationship is extremely fraught with conflict and resentment. The tandem made me think especially of The Enchanted Mountain by Thomas Mann where, as in Nádas's novel, human nature (in general) and relationships between people (in particular) are intensively explored. I think the similarity between Thomas and Hans Castorp is obvious, although there are also obvious differences in context; but both explore, definitively, the meaning of life and embark on a "journey" aimed at finding oneself. However, I see Thomas as a much more complex character than Hans Castorp, the latter being really a naive and idealistic young man, while Nádas's character has long since crossed these boundaries.

It would be interesting to draw a parallel between Melchior and the Naphta-Settembrini pair, Melchior being a kind of mélange between the two (Naphta is also mysterious, has a perspective inclined towards nihilism, is fascinated by the concept of death; Settembrini, on the other hand, is a humanist, an optimist who believes in progress and a better world). Well, Melchior is a kind of balance that tilts sometimes to one side, sometimes to the other: “And so, when I interrupted Melchior's coolly delivered confession about being a man of lies, careful not to offend him, I tried to share some of these observations with him, telling him I found nothing false in the way he had furnished his apartment but, on the contrary, saw in it a unique fusion of bourgeois practicality, proletarian contentment with bare necessities, and aristocratic aloofness, in which all the signs and elements of the past were present, albeit shifted from their original places, a peculiar, warped system of animate and inanimate traces of the past and present mingling with one another that could be found all over the city; he listened, looking at me askance, and though I felt I was straying into an area where he couldn't and wouldn't even want to follow me, I went on, pointing out that to me the overall effect of the apartment was neither intimate nor attractive but very truthful and, above all, very German, and without knowing how things were on the other side, I'd be willing to guess that all this was uniquely local in character, and therefore it wasn't so much my brain as my nose and eyes that objected to his reflections on his own people and to his statements, which, to me, smacked of self-hatred.” (op. cit., p. 477).

Another masterfully constructed character is Krisztián - through which he penetrates directly, without detours, into postmodern literature - and initially, I saw him very close to Oskar Matzerath, the "telepathic child" of Günter Grass, from The Tin Drum, but as the reading of the novel progressed, I kind of changed my mind. Certainly, much closer to Salinger's Holden Caulfield, especially when you understand that Krisztián's main role is to live his life as a keen and meticulous observer of the reality around him.

As can be seen, Nádas's novel lends itself extremely well – precisely because of its extraordinary complexity – to a virtually inexhaustible series of comparisons which (at least at the moment) I do not feel the need to enter and delve into. However, given that I made this discovery (some of them are certainly not even new ideas) I will limit myself only to recalling them: the first - and the most important would be Proust (later I began to check and I found a lot of studies and articles that play exactly with this parallelism, like, for example, an article signed by Eva Hoffman, as early as 1997, and published under the title The Soul of Proust Under Socialism). Here, the connections that can be made are particularly focused on the themes (memory, identity, and how they relate to the human condition). Just as obviously, a parallel can be born with One Hundred Years of Solitude by G.G. Márquez (also from the point of view of the themes, adding, to "memory", the fact that it is, in reality, "family memory" to which are also added sub-themes such as love/ disillusionment/ death; in addition, they can be analyzed in detail here and the arguments of a technical nature (the flash-back technique and that of the time leap, etc.). Going along this line, it is impossible not to connect Nádas with Joyce (including at the level of complexity, which - for me, because I am a little dumb had been reflected in the snail's pace of the reading itself) - to the themes I would also add that of sexuality (although, despite the assumptions, Melchior is only an allusion to the LGBT zone, it's not a certainty in the novel). The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner would also work here, without problems (the fragmented narrative structure, the lack of linearity, the mosaic that involves the puzzle-like merging of various memories and experiences immediately jumps out at us; at the themes chapter, I think it could go even further, adding the subjectivity of reality and the multiplicity of facets that truth can add up to – in a conceptual perspective, obviously). And that would not be all, I have given only a few examples; one could also go towards a comparison with Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth (if we still approached, in the beginning, the vein of "Jewishness" in Nádas's novel), taking over and developing what he observed and, in the attempt, to parallel with Joyce, sexuality (as sexual identity) and the complexity of interpersonal relationships. As in the case of Krisztián, Portnoy is also an extremely unstable type of narrator who carries behind him a baggage of fragmented and chaotic memories. Also, the impact of family + society on the individual is another aspect that could be followed.

And if I've come this far, I'd even dare to go a little further (far beyond....) and link Art Spiegelman's Maus to A Book of Memories - especially because a graphic novel shouldn’t go well with a "written novel" (or what should I call it?) of 800 pages. I have to confess that I generally stay away from graphic novels, I'm not (or I wasn't) a big fan of comics and other stuff in that category, but considering that Maus is a well-known and well-loved masterpiece, I say it's worth the risk. The connection is easy to make: it is about the theme of trauma, plus the theme of memory (yes, again...), but this time collective (of a people; and in addition to the two previously specified, personal memory, respectively family memory). It is true that Spiegelman's characters are animals (anthropomorphic) and that the theme is that of the Holocaust (the memories being his father's) but, also with Nádas, the stake is, after all, "anthropomorphization", in the sense of "attributing certain qualities and human qualities" of characters that are so real precisely by their tendency to relate to this aspect, as well as their "introduction" in history (from Hungary in the 1950s to Berlin in the 1980s).

Certainly, Péter Nádas's novel, A Book of Memories invites (or, more appropriately, compels) us to reconsider the past and confront it, not necessarily in a constructive way. However, history (personal, family, or collective) is important regardless of how we relate - in fact, what matters is creating a relationship and not necessarily its nature. Is it more about cultural identity perhaps? Very possible. But I think that is already another discussion.

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