Portrait of the Author as a Historian: Imre Kertész

Struggling to make sense of the Holocaust, one Hungarian novelist came to the startling realisation that the 20th century’s darkest moment might not yield any lessons for posterity, writes Alexander Lee.

In April 1945 Imre Kertész was liberated from Buchenwald concentration camp. Not yet 16 years old, he had been transferred there after narrowly escaping death at Auschwitz the previous year and had endured months of cruel mistreatment at the Nazis’ hands. 

Though still weak and malnourished, Kertész eagerly made his way back to his native Budapest. But when he arrived, he struggled to adapt to his new life there. Although much was familiar, the city felt alien. The streets were not as he remembered; buildings had been made unrecognisable by shellfire; even the people seemed different. He already knew that his father had died in captivity and he soon found that many of his other relations had disappeared, too. There were still some friends and neighbours from the old days. They showered him with kindness and encouraged him to talk about what he had been through in the hope that it might help him to put it behind him. But when he tried, he could not. He did not know how. Every time he attempted to give them some sense of what Auschwitz had been like, he would mention the trains, the barbed wire, the inspections and the gas chambers; but it always seemed uncomfortably impersonal and remote – as if he were describing something that had happened to another person. Deeply dissatisfied, he avoided the subject, saying little and writing nothing. In time, as the shadow of communism fell across Hungary, his memories began to grow dim; until eventually, all that remained were ‘a few muddled impressions, a few anecdotes’. 

Beyond history

As Kertész later recalled, it was ‘on a lovely spring day in 1955’ that he finally realised what was wrong. Until that point, he had been trying to narrate the Holocaust in a conventionally historical manner. He had been treating it as an objective phenomenon that could be comprehended as a unitary whole and that could be explained as an orderly sequence of events leading inexorably to a determinate conclusion. It had seemed perfectly reasonable at the time. After all, how could other people comprehend the Holocaust, except through such abstract generalisation? How could they be made to understand what Auschwitz had been like without such a sense of tragedy and fate? 

But Kertész now saw that he had been misguided. That was not how he had experienced the Holocaust at all. Indeed, he doubted whether it was how anyone had experienced it. And this was the crux of the problem. As he explained in his lecture after winning the Nobel prize for literature in 2002, whenever one tried to generalise like that, human beings became ‘nothing more than objects’ even to themselves ‘and their stories merely a series of disconnected accidents, which they may wonder at, but which they themselves have nothing to do with’. 

To Kertész’s mind, the Holocaust could never be generalised. The ‘world of violence’ that the Nazis had created was, by its very nature, narrow and specific. Hemmed in by irrational and unpredictable brutality, individuals had been stripped of their humanity, deprived of fellow feeling and – in the end – reduced to a state of nothingness. Constantly uncertain, their purview was restricted to the immediate and the personal. Each lived through the horror not as a whole, but hour by hour, minute by minute. They had no awareness of what the next moment might bring, no sense of direction, no sense of the Holocaust as a whole. They were, in a sense, beyond tragedy and even history: fateless. 

Having spent much time reading and translating the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Kertész came to believe that such subjective experiences were the only true reality. If he wanted to explain what Auschwitz or Buchenwald had been like, he would have to reclaim those experiences from that ‘dreadful Moloch’, history. He would have to recreate them, not with the benefit of hindsight, but as he had lived them. But doing so would prove unsettling. 

Fatelessness

In 1960, Kertész began writing Fatelessness. Although a work of fiction, it was an attempt to articulate his past in a subjective way. Initially set in Budapest in 1944, it is narrated by György Köves, a 15-year-old boy from a secular Jewish family. Naturally enough, he tells his story in the past tense, but he is careful not to allow himself the benefit of hindsight. He knows that, at the time of the events he will describe, he had little grasp of what was happening and does not pretend otherwise. 

After his father is taken away to a labour camp, György is dragged out of school and sent to work in a brickyard. He is not overly troubled. Indeed, he rather enjoys being out in the sunshine. Even when he and his friends are rounded up by a policeman and marched off to a train station, he does not seem disturbed. Having no reason to be suspicious, he cheerfully boards a box cart and, after a long train journey, finds himself arriving at Auschwitz. The name means nothing to György. As he gets out, he has no idea where he is or why he is there. He does not realise what the chimney is for and assumes that the emaciated figures in striped uniforms must be criminals of some sort. At the inevitable inspection, he lies about his age – little realising that this saves him from being gassed – and, on running into some old friends, begins laughing at the ungainly, naked figures that are still running around in front of him. 

Soon enough, György is transferred to Buchenwald, where he is assigned to a work detachment. Though he is initially proud of his youthful vigour, hunger gradually eats away at him. As he grows weaker, his outlook narrows: he can only think about getting through the next few moments. Eventually, he becomes ill and is transferred to a hospital, where he remains until the camp is liberated. He then makes his way back to Budapest. There, he finds that his father has died and that his stepmother has moved away. He does, however, find some old neighbours he recognises. But when he is asked about the horrors he must have seen, he struggles to speak. To their amazement, he says that he cannot really remember any atrocities. That they occurred, he did not doubt; but he points out that, while he was in the camps, he had no inkling of all that was happening around him. Perhaps if he had, he would have gone mad. Instead, he had thought only about what was in front of him at any given moment and taking one more step forward.  

Survival urge

Fatelessness caused an immediate stir. Uncomfortable with Kertész’s failure to take a stronger line against Nazism and disturbed by the ambiguous emotions György’s reactions provoked, the novel was turned down by one publisher after another. Not until 1975 did it appear in print. Even then, it was greeted with hostility. The few reviewers who covered it denounced its pessimistic, even nihilistic outlook. If the Holocaust was treated merely as an irrational litany of suffering endured by uncomprehending individuals, they asked, then what lessons were to be drawn from it? What hope did it leave the reader? 

Kertész’s answer was simple: none. As he openly admitted, it was a crushing realisation to come to. That the culture of the Christian West had produced something as senseless, as terrible as the Holocaust was bad enough; but that it had obliged its victims to labour blindly through its horrors, deprived of the solace even of tragedy or fate, was enough to destroy the soul. It made one long not to have been born. Certainly, as his narrator explained in Kaddish for an Unborn Child (1990), he did not wish to bring a child into a world that allowed such things to happen. 

But though Kertész’s ‘subjective history’ was pessimistic, the act of narrating it was not. Despite the urging of his friends in the late 1940s, he had come to realise that he did not want to draw a line under the Holocaust. Like the mysterious character ‘B’ in Liquidation (2003) – a famous author and Holocaust survivor who, at the outset of the book has recently committed suicide – Kertész believed that, by constantly trying ‘to apprehend Auschwitz in his daily life, in the way he lived’, he could recreate for himself not only the ‘destructive forces’, but also ‘the survival urge’. He would remember that, with each blind little step, he had survived – despite all the odds. And, as he had learned from Nietzsche, there was no more powerful affirmation of life. As long as he clung to this, he would endure no matter what the world threw at him.  

Alexander Lee is a fellow in the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance at the University of Warwick. His most recent book, The Ugly Renaissance, is published by Arrow.

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