The Nobel Reprise, Letters 1 and 2: Imre Kertész and Samuel Beckett
The Nobel Prize is the literary world's most prestigious honor. But many of the authors who have won the award are read widely only in the months following the Nobel ceremony -- after which they sink back into obscurity, at least in America.
This is, in part, what drove Horace Engdahl, the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, to recently characterize American readers and writers as: "...Too isolated, too insular... too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture."
And yet, and yet -- numerous books by Nobel Prize winners are published in English every single year. But, for the most part, we somehow don't see them. They don't get featured on American bookstore shelves. They don't get reviewed. They somehow slip by.
In 2008, for example, Italica Press issued Grazia Deledda's beautiful 1913 book, Reeds in the Wind; Deledda won the prize in 1915. How many copies sold? Or Pierre and Luce, the astonishingly tender novel by Romain Rolland, published in 2007 by Mondial, and reviewed almost nowhere. How many people read it in the U.S.?
What does a prize do? It is a historical record, sure. And the Nobel Prize is the oldest literary prize in the world. But it is also more than that. It is a fingerprint, a lingering and traceable mark on the history of literature.
Alfred Nobel -- the man who invented dynamite -- signed his will at the Swedish-Norwegian Club in Paris on November 27, 1895, giving the modern equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars to the Academy to establish the prizes. Dynamite and cash and a tower of books; ideas risen out of a broken soil.
As part of the Nobel Reprise, the writers Pauls Toutonghi and Ben Greenman have set out to read and reflect upon at least one book by every Nobelist, in letters. Letters are a way that books stay alive; a conversation, about them, and their ideas, in dialogue on the page.
The books will not necessarily be the best-known. Laureates will not be handled in chronological order. But Pauls and Ben will read every author who has won a Nobel Prize in Literature -- starting today.
LETTER 1: IMRE KERTÉSZ (NOBEL PRIZE FOR LITERATURE, 2002)
I’ve been staring at babies a lot, lately.
As you know -- on April 29, 2010 -- my wife gave birth to twins. The house is full of howling and giggling at all hours of the day and night.
The babies make noise, too.
But since the noise they make is not English noise, I have to admit that I’ve started to wonder what they’re thinking. And they clearly are thinking. Here’s a list of what I’ve noticed that they perceive: Hunger, joy, panic, satisfaction, pain, excitement, sleepiness, wonder.
These emotions are clear; there’s no doubt when they’re hungry, happy, or sleepy. They are not shy. As Woody Guthrie sang to little Arlo Guthrie so many years ago: “I want my milk and I want it now.”
But there’s one thing that my children don’t yet seem to do. They don’t remember.
I have no memories from when I was an infant. And I’m always suspicious of people who have them -- no matter how stridently they insist that they can close their eyes and see, vividly see, the color of their nursery walls. I just don’t buy it. I think they’ve built that memory as adults. They’ve sneaked into the citadel and planted the seed of the memory, themselves. We learn to remember at about the same time we learn to speak, I think.
Another thing I’ve been thinking about a lot lately? Foreign travel.
Especially at 2:30 AM and 5:00 AM, when the babies are squealing and I’m stumbling around the nursery in a sleepless daze -- the idea of traveling far, far away seems especially wonderful. I would love, right now, to be a tourist, stumbling instead through a European city or along a tropical beach.
Tourism is a desire industry. It is a memory industry. It is constructed around these twin imaginaries: Desire for a future that’s different from your present. And memory of a past that was somehow different from that same present. So I guess it’s also a distraction industry. It’s an industry built on separating you from your present moment.
European gentry, of course, have been touring the world for centuries. Carried over the Alps by pack animals and retinues of servants, they’ve spent the last millennium going from north to south to east to west, and back again. The traveling baroness is a staple of the early English novel; she arrives imperiously at the rainy castle in the mountains and dries her riding boots in front of the smoldering fire (the fire is always smoldering).
But folks like me -- middle class folks with immigrant parents -- have only been traveling for 150 years or so. Thomas Cook organized the first mass tourism excursions in mid-nineteenth-century England, herding packs of temperance crusaders around the country on the Midland Counties Railroad.
Memory and language and tourism and the history of the novel: It all adds up to something. And it’s all part of the story of The Union Jack.
* * *
Busloads of foreign tourists. They undoubtedly bring cash to a local economy. But what else do they bring? They bring an intense hunger for some kind of quick experience -- something that can be understood in the moment and, ideally, photographed. Take a picture, it’ll last longer. It’ll last longer and -- hurry, hurry -- the bus is leaving in five minutes for the hotel.
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings.
Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair.”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
The states of Eastern Europe, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, rejected their totalitarian leadership. (But do you think, Ben, that hegemonic capitalism is simply another form of totalitarian control? That’s my hunch, anyway.) The old regimes toppled. The continent veered into a new century, trying to shake off the legacy of its oppressive past.
There were, of course, a number of problems with this. One problem, in particular, was: The communists loved statuary.
Evidently, they hadn’t read, in ENGLISH 101, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias.”
And so the question became: “What do we do with all the goddamn statues of Lenin and Stalin and The People’s March into the Brightly Lit Agrarian Future?”
Why, put them in a statue park, of course. And charge admission. A capitalist enterprise built on the remains of the communist past.
Have you been to Szoborpark outside of Budapest? I will never forget standing there on a hot day in July of 2008. Gray-blue sky. Twenty miles away, my hotel in downtown Budapest. I was staying, for two nights, at The Gellert. It was my honeymoon. And for those two nights of my honeymoon I had just spent 410 dollars. I wasn’t feeling especially middle class at that moment -- although the fact that I mention the price of the hotel is probably evidence that I am actually not an aristocrat, that I am not a member of the traveling gentry.
And there they were: Stalin’s boots. A bronze depiction of Stalin’s boots. Just the boots -- with the rest of the statue having been sold for scrap. I stared at them. His feet. How terrible that Stalin had feet. And his feet had hair, most likely. How terrible that he probably had fine brown hair on the tops of his feet. I had just paid admission to look at them.
I turned around. There was Lenin, making a speech to nothing -- to no one, except the middle-class tourists. Which might or might not include me -- a young man whose mother had been a refugee from Soviet Latvia. For my mother, Soviet leaders meant six years in a refugee camp and a new life in America. She would never pay money to look at them. Even at their boots.
One more question: Do tourists help preserve public memory, or do they destroy it? Right now, Eastern Europe is living through the legacy of Soviet colonialism. What does it mean that there are lots of folks flying in on airplanes who want to pay a chunk of cash to look at a metal reproduction of Stalin’s boots? I guess that’s another question. So is this: Is Szoborpark a victory garden, or is it post-Soviet kitsch, or is it an outcropping of ostalgie, of nostalgia for the east -- of a physical feeling that inhabits the body and stubbornly refuses to leave?
Standing there, in Szoborpark in July of 2008, I started laughing.
Stalin had fat ankles.
And somehow I’m certain that this is part of the story of The Union Jack.
* * *
That’s where I started, Ben. That was the first book in the project to read one book from each Nobel Prize winner in literature over the past century. Just over a hundred books. And so, I have to admit, The Union Jack was exciting in part because it was short. My two newly arrived children demand a certain amount of attention. When the baby is crying -- the baby doesn’t care if you are reading Imre Kertész.
But then, I thought: Letters! These can be letters. Written from one American writer to another. With a single, Nobel-winning text at their center.
Why the Nobel?
Prizes, like statues, are meant to preserve the past. To give the past body, and memory, and historical shape.
If you’ve read The Union Jack, then you know that this review has been mimicking its form. Its maddening form. Because Kertész’s novella starts out with a simple premise: A man sits down, he indicates, to tell the reader “the story of the Union Jack.”
If I may perchance wish now, after all, to tell the story of the Union Jack, as I was urged to do at a friendly gathering a few days -- or months -- ago, then I would have to mention the piece of reading matter which first inculcated in me -- let’s call it a grudging admiration for the Union Jack…
That’s the first paragraph of the novella. But what happens over the next seventy pages is almost the exact opposite of what you might expect. I don’t think it ruins the book to tell you that it takes seventy pages for Kertész to actually tell the story he’s promising you in the first sentence. Life intervenes. Kertész thinks of one thing after another that’s more important than that specific anecdote. It’s obviously an ironic device. And it works remarkably well, getting funnier and funnier every time it resurfaces. Let me tell you the story of the Union Jack -- except that I’m not actually going to tell you that story. Not at all.
And then -- the anecdote, itself, turns out to be anticlimactic. It isn’t much of anything: A Jeep flying the British flag and driving down a Budapest street. But this is the way life works, isn’t it? This mimics the pattern of great storytelling. The buildup -- the anticipation -- is its heart. This is where life occurs. And it’s where the strength, the sinew, of Kertész’s book also occurs.
Furthermore, this happens to be a handy metaphor for the process of writing, wherein you often sit down to tell one story but end up telling another story, entirely.
* * *
Not that The Union Jack is a funny book. It’s actually a terribly sad book. At its center is the Terror of the early 1950s in Hungary -- the totalitarian police state which butchered its citizens even as it built statues to the beneficence of its leaders. (The Terror which is commemorated at another remarkable tourist attraction, at the Terror Museum on Andrassy Ut in the heart of Budapest.) Tim Wilkinson’s English translation is brilliant, preserving what I can only imagine is the precise wit of the Magyar original. The world of the story, 1956 Budapest, is referred to as a “disaster world.” The word “formulation” also figures prominently in the book; it has more life to it than I ever imagined the world “formulation” might have.
This is a phenomenally formulated book.
This is a heartbreaking book.
This is a beautiful book.
And – and -- it’s really tough to read.
Tanks roll through its pages -- which is something that I wonder about, you know? I love my life, here in America. But it is soft and bereft of the sufferings that characterize life elsewhere in the world. (Of course, having said that, I will now most likely have my house foreclosed, be mugged at gunpoint, get cancer, and lose my job to the recession.) But I wonder about this sometimes, Ben: Can good literature be created from the safety of middle class life? Cheever is great, I guess. But there’s only one John Cheever, right?
But it’s not just American middle class life that threatens literature. The end of The Union Jack reveals the occasion on which the narrator is telling his story. It’s his birthday party -- and, rather than “the story of the Union Jack,” you should really substitute, “the story of my life.” He tells “the story of my life.” And the gathering -- a group of young writers -- has a funny reaction:
…what had stood out for them from my entire story was something, they said, that they had actually always suspected and assumed about me, namely, that by retreating inconspicuously into my own area of expertise, I had lived a diminished life, though I might also have pursued an intellectual existence and (if merely in my area of expertise) been creative -- in other words, as they said, where and how had the “break” in my, so to say, “career” occurred.
His reaction is swift. This is the very next sentence:
I was staggered to hear this, for it meant that I had told them the story of the Union Jack to absolutely no purpose; it seems that they, children of destruction, no longer understand, are unable to understand, that the devastation of total war was turned by total peace into complete and, so to say, perfect destruction.
Perfect destruction, beneath a peaceful, gray-blue sky.
In my copy of the book, I wrote “Statue parks. Budapest,” above this passage.
What do you think?
Where do we go from here?
LETTER 2: SAMUEL BECKETT (NOBEL PRIZE FOR LITERATURE, 1969)
I just finished reading your Nobel essay, which was about The Union Jack, a novella by the Hungarian author Imre Kertész. Kertész won the prize in 2002, though The Union Jack looks back at the Stalinist terror of the 1950s. You used the book as a springboard to discuss broader issues of literary motive, culture, and identity. Your letter was humane and touching. You included a picture of your newborn twins. In part because I don’t have twins -- my kids are six and nine and more rough-and-tumble than cute -- and because I want to spark a dialogue, I’m going to go in the other direction. I’m going to zig where you zagged.
First, though, I’m going to run alongside you for a little while; that should make it clearer, and possibly sadder, when our paths diverge. For my Nobelist, I selected Samuel Beckett, who won the Prize in 1969, and I picked him because of your twins. Let me explain: The picture of them together got me thinking about birth, and how none of us are really born alone, no matter what Sartre (who refused the Nobel in 1964) said. Your twins were born together, but even a non-twin is born into a world of ideas, conventions, and expectations. I have a friend who says that the most valuable thing you can do as an adult is read a good history or biography about the years just preceding and including your birth. That’s the blind spot in most people’s consciousness, and that’s the span that should be spotlighted.
For that reason, I settled on Beckett, who won the Nobel the year I was born. The Nobel Prize was given in December, in Stockholm. I was born late in September, so while I was technically eligible, my chances were slim.
Had I been so honored, however, I would have endeavored to attend. Beckett did not. He did not like the idea of the prize and what it represented. Beckett’s wife, Suzanne, upon learning of the award, said, “This is a catastrophe!” That may have been melodramatic.
My choice of Beckett was not just an accident of birth. Since my early teens, I have had a long-standing interest in him that has sometimes risen to the level of obsession. I read all the major works (Godot, Endgame, Murphy) in school, and tried to read most of the rest, both the prose and the drama, on my own time, where I had less at stake but, oddly, more to invest. I had, and still have, a special interest in Beckett’s later writings. His work always seemed like that of an old man, so what happened when he actually became one? That line of thinking led me to the first thing that Beckett published after he won the Nobel Prize -- Le dépeupleur, a work of fiction that is either a very short novella or a long short story and which originally appeared in 1970; two years later, it was translated into English, by the author, as The Lost Ones. I have encountered The Lost Ones before -- I will relate the circumstances of that encounter later -- but determined, for the purpose of this project, to encounter it again.
The Lost Ones is odd, to say the least: clinical, dense, highly imaginative but told in a manner that annihilates the notion of imagination. It concerns itself with a highly specific topography: a cylinder fifty meters around and sixteen meters high and composed of a substance that is described as a kind of tough black rubber. The light inside the cylinder oscillates rapidly, as does the temperature. Here is a picture of the cylinder that I drew this morning:
The cylinder is populated by roughly two hundred people. They do not speak. They don’t appear to eat. As a result of the drastic changes in climate, their mouths dry up, and there are scraping sounds when they kiss; only the bravest attempt copulation. Most of their time is spent moving around the cylinder and propping ladders up against the sides of the structure. The people then climb these ladders to reach niches and tunnels that cut into the side more than halfway up. Here is a picture of the cylinder complete with ladders, niches, and tunnels.
There are four kinds of residents: those who move around within the cylinder constantly, those who pause at times, those who are primarily sedentary, and those who never move at all. Most move; the motionless are a select (which is not to say privileged) group called “the vanquished” who are the elders of the community. The ladders that help the residents explore the upper reaches of the cylinder are also described in meticulous detail; most ladders are incomplete, because rungs have been torn off for use as weapons. Beckett’s narrator notes that the missing rungs are do not follow any set pattern, or “harmony”: if every other rung was missing, he says, it would not be a major problem, but a gap of three rungs requires acrobatics. (This accumulation of detail results in a kind of black comedy that is never far from the surface of the fiction, no matter how bleak it becomes.) The ladders lead to the niches and tunnels, which are important because those who move around inside the cylinder possesses believe that there might be a way out, an escape into external nature, though it seems that this is no more than a myth. Similarly, there are rumors of a trap door at the top of the cylinder.
The trap door is a source of particular fascination, because it suggests the presence of a richer world beyond the cylinder. Early on, Beckett’s narrator explains that the tallest ladder, if leaned against the side of the cylinder, is close enough to the ceiling that the tallest resident, if standing bolt upright on the top rung, can barely touch it. This gives way to a trenchant moment later on in which Beckett notes that if the tallest ladder was held perpendicular to the floor, or perfectly upright, then the tallest man could, from the top rung, explore the ceiling and possibly reach a height sufficient to thoroughly explore the possibility of a trap door offering access to the outer world. But, he says, this will never happen. There will never be enough cooperation to hold a ladder perfectly straight so that the tallest man can climb it in this manner. There is too much competition for the ladder, too much violence between residents.
The novella is short, but not that short, and I will not summarize all of the information Beckett conveys about the cylinder, the ladders, the niches, the vanquished, and so on. Instead, I’ll get on to a kind of interpretation. The Lost Ones operates on three levels at least. The first is the most obvious. The cylinder is human existence. We move through it with a mix of mindlessness and desperation, always attempting to climb up the sides and take refuge in ideas and theories, religions and political systems. Those are the niches and tunnels. As we get older (wiser?) we lose motivation, or interest, and submit instead to a kind of torpor. It is a fascinatingly grim worldview, more ant farm than animal farm.
But there are two other levels as well. Because it’s a black-and-white world preoccupied with the ways in which meaning is made (and unmade), I read The Lost Ones as a text; or rather, I read the world of The Lost Ones as a world of text. The cylinder is a written work, and the behaviors of the residents mirror the ways in which we attempt to locate meaning in a text. Most specifically, The Lost Ones is a self-reflexive document; it offers an explanation of how it is to be read. It is a self-defining but also self-defeating world, a world that does not give enough of itself to be consistently illuminated or to lead us, as readers, into a broader truth.
So far, Pauls, this feels a bit like a lecture. I apologize. The Lost Ones is an intense work to read and it is difficult to discuss it without becoming similarly intense. It is compelling, this cylinder, in part because I tend to think it’s an accurate reflection of our existence. We seek out meaning to avoid the fact that our world has no meaning. We search for illumination until we are illuminated by the knowledge that the search is fundamentally futile. Like you, I have devoted and will continue to devote much of my life to the process of writing short stories and novels that try to say insightful, funny, sad, or surprising things about people. Do you, like me, wonder why we do this at all? I don’t think I’ll stop writing, but even in the cylinder, the sedentary residents can start moving again. Only the vanquished have reached a point of total stillness.
Oh, one more thing, Pauls. I have used “Beckett” and “Beckett’s narrator” interchangeably, and confusingly, and done so on purpose, for this reason: if there is no way out of the cylinder, then it stands to reason that there is no way in. And if there is no way in, then the tone of the piece -- that of an outsider who suddenly has access to the strange world of the cylinder -- is, even according to the work’s own terms and rules, an affectation. It is a fiction within this fiction. The voice that tells us that the world deserts us is not the voice of a being who is above that desertion, or beyond it, but of a being who is subject to it. Does that make the work, or the process of reading it, more frightening? Before, pace Sartre, I said that we are not born alone. But that doesn’t mean that we are (or can be) happy in a world populated by others afflicted by the same humanity that afflicts us. Misery loves (and possibly is) company.
I said that I have encountered The Lost Ones once before and would relate the circumstances of that meeting later. It is later now. In the late '80s or early '90s, I became aware of The Lost Ones for the first time. I had a friend, a woman, either a little older or a little younger, who knew everything. I liked for her to read the things that I was writing. She did not live where I lived -- she was in a different cylinder altogether -- so we communicated by letter. I was twenty, maybe twenty-one, and had written a very short story, almost a parable, in which I tried to explain to this woman that I believed that she and I might make a good couple, despite the fact that we had, until that moment, only been friends. At the same time, I tried to explain to her that we would most likely not make a good couple. My goal was to be both grandiose and presumptuous on the one hand and realistic and nullifying on the other. She wrote back that the piece reminded her of The Lost Ones and recommended that I read it. I started but pulled the ripcord after a few paragraphs. She was a few years older, and I assumed that the Beckett piece was something she had been assigned, and something that was coming for me on in school. It never did. For years, I have kept it in the back of my mind, wondering why she wanted me to read it, what lines of commonality she saw between his fiction and mine. Now that I have read The Lost Ones, the question is both answered and asked again. Here is my piece:
Life was a platform, and he had everything he needed there: a phone, food, companionship. He was happy. Then he looked to his right and saw a platform that was slightly higher, maybe three feet or so. He thought to himself that he might be happier on the other platform. The second platform also had a telephone, food, a companion. But he felt certain that the telephone was of a superior design and color, that the food was prepared better, that the companion would entertain and enrich him in ways that his companion could not. After all, the other platform was higher. He was consumed by the thought of jumping to it. He wasn’t sure if he could make the jump. He needed to make the jump. He agonized over it. He lost sleep, and when he did sleep, he dreamed about the slightly higher platform. Then one day he woke with the courage to jump. He knew that it was the day. He placed a final call on the telephone on the platform. He ate a final meal. He told his companion that he would be only one platform away, and that since it was higher, he would be able to jump back whenever he wanted. Then he took a running start and jumped, pushing off as powerfully as he could, certain that he would need all his effort to reach the higher platform. In the air he worried about falling into the void between platforms. What would that be? Death? Solitude? Neither was a thought that comforted him. Somehow, miraculously, his foot found the edge of the other platform. He landed there in a heap. He looked around. The phone looked about the same. The food looked about the same. The companion looked about the same. But at least he was higher. Then, as he was commending himself for having the courage to jump, the platform started to sink down, imperceptibly at first but then enough that he could see it move. It came to him in a flash: he had forgotten to figure in the effect of his own weight. He looked across at his former platform and it was rising. He closed his eyes. He opened them. He was standing on a platform. He had everything he needed there: a phone, food, companionship. Then he looked to his right and he saw a platform that was slightly higher, maybe three feet or so.
This is more optimistic than The Lost Ones. At least the narrator is provided for. But the notion of choice is just as vexed, as is the prospect of improvement. Is that what life ends up being? Tunnels that lead nowhere except back to a place governed in part by the mistaken belief that they lead somewhere? A platform that serves as pointless temptation? It is not, to me, especially depressing to admit this, and maybe that’s why I have always come back to Beckett.
This is literature, then: To say what is true beyond what is believed, beyond what is observed. And if this is life, this isn’t so bad, is it? This is a catastrophe!