You are a writer who seems to be most intrigued by history as a source of knowledge about a particular country, and about life. How do you choose the era you are going to write about?
I am never interested in an era per se; not even in the historical event that is going to be the 'topic' of my novel. It may come as a surprise, but as a writer I am not interested in history. I am interested in how things can be narrated. An anecdote comes to mind, or I read a document, and it is transformed into an idea from one moment to another. It takes five to ten minutes for the idea to take shape, and then I work on it for two or three years, plus several months of preparation. But I don’t want to evade the question: I have never written a novel about antiquity or the Middle Ages, and I will certainly not write one for some time. I think it is the early modernity and the recent past that can be evoked and addressed. Of course it is not clear where exactly history ends in time. Can something that we have clear and detailed personal memories about be considered as history? Is what happened yesterday or this morning history? What makes someone a historical personality? etc.
Does the idea immediately define the genre as well?
No, the idea already appears within a certain genre. I am a fiction writer, so I mostly have narrative ideas. When I translate literature, I also do it as a narrator. Translating gives me repose from writing novels. You cannot imagine how relaxing it is. For example, there’s no need to invent a plot as it is already there. There’s no need to invent a linguistic strategy either, or rhetorical devices. It is enough to recognize and reproduce them. And it is extremely exciting to understand, while translating, how the mind of another author works, to study and even learn their tricks. Every good writer has a trick. The most excellent ones even have two.
What kind of tricks are these?
Let me give you three examples of writers who became close acquaintances as I translated their works. Gottfried von Strassburg, who wrote a courtly romance about the love of Tristan and Isolde, realized that human personality constantly changes, and that love is a contradictory phenomenon: great happiness is accompanied by even greater misery, which is something his contemporaries did not know. He found a narrative form for these recognitions. Heinrich von Kleist understood that each sentence is time travel, and that travelling to and fro in time in sentences increases the sweep of the narrator. Goethe realized that truly great works do not need to be completed, or not immediately, it is better to enlarge them and reflect on them for sixty years as the intellectual horizon of the author becomes ever wider. Of course, one can only do that if they live long enough.
Any Hungarian examples?
Krúdy knew that creating an atmosphere can substitute for a plot. Móricz was aware that the intensity of moments in a novel makes rounding it off unnecessary. Iván Mándy knew that one does not have to spell out everything, because omissions and ellipses are just as expressive as manifest declarations. Let me stress that these are writerly tricks. However, writing says a lot about the way of life of a person as well.
And what are your tricks?
This question reminds me of the great illusionist Rodolfo whom I saw as a child. He used to say "look at my hands, I am cheating." This is brilliant: insisting that he is cheating, and at the same time diverting the audience’s attention in the moment of cheating. That is precisely what the writer does: he cheats and lies, all the while claiming that he is recording the truth, and by doing that, he entertains his readers. To come back to my tricks, if I have any at all: I think my job is not to reveal them but to make them work.
I remember one of your tricks as a reader. You once said that before deciding whether to read a book or not, you read the first and the last sentence, and a third one, randomly, towards the middle. If all three are good, then you decide for the book. Does this always work?
A good writer is not necessarily a good reader. Ever since I was a child I have tried to be a good reader, and I think I managed. I’ve also tried to separate my abilities as a reader from my writerly abilities. That I didn’t manage. I often realize that I read as if I was writing, and I write as if I was reading. This is not necessarily a problem in itself as long as one is aware and in control of it.
The first and the last sentences of a work are actually quite telling. And the middle one as well, the random one. But there are some exceptions. There are masterpieces that begin awkwardly or uninterestingly. And there are excellent works with imperfect endings. Or no ending. Or three endings, one after the other, because the author failed to notice that he had already finished it once or twice. The lack of authorial self-knowledge is not felicitous but it does not exclude talent.
Your most recent novel, Our Little Republic, is a tragic-grotesque satire, and represents a new tone. Doesn’t it make your oeuvre too disheveled to have so many different voices?
If a writer doesn’t die young, sooner or later he will have to face a severe contradiction. On the one hand, he must renew himself in each new phase, otherwise he will merely repeat himself. On the other, he must preserve the continuity of his personality and worldview, or otherwise he will deny his earlier self, and will not be able to build on his earlier achievements. I think my new book has many points of connection with two of my earlier works, The True Story of Jacob Wunschwitz and Shady High Street. All three are about a town as a community. Moreover, Shady High Street takes place at roughly the same time as my new book, in the middle of the twentieth century. A decade and a half have passed ever since I wrote it. The situation has changed, I have changed, and my writing has changed as well. Hopefully, for the better.
Do you wonder sometimes what your rate would be on an imaginary stock exchange of writers? How do you think critics, scholars and the audience rate you nowadays?
For me, it is enough to be able to look into the mirror. And I do that only in the morning, with the sole aim not to cut my cheeks while shaving.
If you could enter the study of László Márton at the age of twenty, what would your advice be to him?
I was precisely twenty in 1979 when I wrote my first short stories that I regard as valid even now. If I remember correctly, I had no study of my own at the time. And I wasn’t interested in what fifty-somethings had to say. Keeping that in mind, my advice to someone starting their career now would be to defend the autonomy of their personality and their moral integrity at all costs. And to always listen to their best instincts.
This interview was originally published in Hungarian at nol.hu. Photo by Tamás Korponay.