He received the Nobel Prize in 2002 for his novel entitled Sorstalanság (Fateless), which records the experience of a young Hungarian Jewish boy during the Holocaust. His works have been translated into many languages, including German, English, Swedish, French, Hebrew, etc.
But as he himself put it on the cover of the 1977 edition of Nyomkereso (Pathfinder): "I do not know of a more difficult task than talking about myself. I am a novelist, and thus I'm living in a state of crisis. It is not only the crisis of a genre, but that of existence, the constant crisis of creation and demise. At the time of history's total presence, there is no isolated human being; yet people still feel lonesome at times. In the hours of anxiety their hesitating hands reach out for books: they are looking for their fate in them, and for the Value they have not found in the Heavens for so long and which so often feels illusory here on Earth. [...] Thus I write books.
By the way, I was born in 1929, and I am in the privileged position of my generation that I can also tell my life-story with the help of a few dates: 1944, 1945, 1948, 1953, 1956. I could complete all this with a few more data, personal appendages, one or two anecdotes, but what use would it be? They will all end up in a book anyway..."
Literary recognition has not come easily to Kertész. He started out as a journalist and playwright, writing 'light' theatre pieces out of economic necessity, plays he does not regard as part of his oeuvre now. While getting by on the royalties, he led a secret life as a novelist. He realised he had a novel to write, and worked on it for ten years, with only the closest friends knowing, in the privacy of his home. After ten years' work, and two more after which the novel was finally published, Imre Kertész emerged as a 'young' novelist, his first volume out at the age of 46, with Sorstalanság (Fateless).
His unique use of language is striking, already on the first page, as he begins to tell the story of 16-year-old Gyuri Köves from the boy's perspective. It seems as if he used simple sentences, everyday words, but then we realise that he uses a somewhat more sophisticated/academic register for certain notions/words which makes the whole linguistic structure more elaborate, while still keeping it on the possible level of a sixteen-year-old. This stylistic juxtaposition fills the text with subtle irony, never allowing it to turn sentimental.
It is a 'Holocaust' novel if you will, but it did not come with the wave of Holocaust literature after the war. The story, the philosophy matured for twenty years. It is a radical attempt to speak about the unspeakable, to show how a concentration camp can become reality for a person, a boy maybe too naive to realise what is happening to him at first. But it is his naiveté, his openness that guides us through the terrors. As Gyuri Köves says in the book when he is asked whether we should imagine a concentration camp as hell: "as far as I was concerned I could only imagine a concentration camp, since I was somewhat acquainted with what that was, but not hell." Yet the most radical trait of the novel is its frankness: it talks openly about the hate one is left with after being spared, and the impossibility of communication with all those who have not been through a similar experience. "Yes, the next time I am asked, I ought to speak about that, the happiness of the concentration camps. If indeed I am asked. And provided I myself don't forget."
Fateless was followed by two short novels, Pathfinder and Detektívtörténet (A Detective Story), but it was the fourth novel, Kudarc (Fiasco) that continued on the path Kertész started on in Fateless, making it the second novel in what later was to be considered - perhaps not so much by the will of the author but rather that of the literary world - an autobiographical trilogy, then tetralogy.
Fiasco, published in 1988, is a self-commentary and a parable at the same time. The first part of the book shows the Öreg (the Old One) preparing for writing, in the course of which he finds some papers - a kind of a diary where his younger self talks about the period he finished his first novel and tried to get it published. Here the personal comes to the fore, the past penetrates the present, thus evoking another past timeframe that becomes the present of the novel the Old One - a not very old, rather middle-aged persona of the author - eventually starts and finishes in front of our eyes.
The two texts are connected by motifs and repetitions. The first part has a narrator, an ironic onlooker, who comments on everything the Old One does, using lots of repetition and self-correction (in brackets), constantly reminding us of the details we had been told before. The second part, which is actually the novel that is being written, has Köves as its main character, a younger version of the Old One. The name recalls the hero of Fateless and is also a trans-textual allusion to stone in the myth of Sisyphus (Köves' name comes from the Hungarian for stone, ko). At the end of a strange voyage Köves arrives at the recognition of an inner need to write his novel, faces the first rejection of the publishers and comes to terms with it - thus becoming the Old One, or better yet, an aging Sisyphus, who, according to the ending of the novel, should be imagined as a happy person: the rock is not immortal. It grinds away after so many years of rolling it uphill. Sisyphus realises it is only a grey pebble now, pockets it whistling and goes home... but holds onto the 'rock' until the moment of his death.
The next novel of the tetralogy is Kaddis a meg nem született gyermekért (Kaddish for a Child Not Born), published in 1990. This novel is an outburst of compulsive speech. It begins with a captivating cry of No! and goes on till the final Amen explaining this No! and all its consequences. Kertész is still trying to make us understand what even he (or rather his alter ego) has trouble putting into words: how survival may affect the living. It may seem strange that the Holocaust experience does not create a stubborn will to pass life on, but merely makes one to hold on to one's life, unconsciously re-creating the experience of free camp life in a small rented room, terrified or incapable of re-entering the world of the living.
The text is built on the pillars of pictures and repeated text fragments that create a spiral in this whirlwind of speech, drawing us deeper and deeper into his reasoning. It is a dialogue with the reader, with the unborn child, but ultimately it cannot be other than a dialogue with one's own self. A 'private survivor' as the author defines himself - or rather defines B., a translator, the hero of the novel talking to his unborn child, who sees his life as the possibility of the child's existence, thus later realising that the child's non-existence inevitably means the complete elimination of the existence of his own self. An existence of which he is so frightened that he buries himself in work, thus converting fear into constant activity. Here existence and non-existence together with survival become the subject of work itself.
Felszámolás (Liquidation, 2003)
His most recent work is a sort of an ending to the previous novels. We encounter characters we have met before and find a new narrator, again with a telling name: Keseru (Bitter). He is also in the publishing business, and finds a play in the house of a friend who had previously committed suicide, that contains scenes of the characters' future and present-day lives. Is it a case of a self-fulfilling prophecy? The quest starts for B.'s lost novel, while we find out that B. was one of the few 'miracle-children' who were born in Auschwitz. He should write a novel about his life, Kürti tells him. Even the idea is kitsch, B. answers. But even so: where is it?
Thus Kertész arrives at the quintessence of his theme. His main character (now dead) becomes Auschwitz personified - the unexplainable life that remains in spite of all the deaths. With the novel B. had written about his existence, the basis of reality for the play he had written lost, in the end we are left with no reality. Only the options blinking on Keseru's computer screen: Next or Exit.
Kertész' essay-novels are important components of his oeuvre, but here we cannot analyse them in detail. All of them - either as compilations of smaller writings (e.g. Az angol lobogó - The British Flag) or novel-length books (e.g. Valaki más - Somebody Else) - continue to explore the possibilities of existence while giving a sort of diary-like account of the author's thoughts on philosophy, writing and literature.
Although Kertész has used structures and story-telling techniques that the public admired in other writers' works, the subject matter seems to have overshadowed the radicalism of artistic creation. He approaches the historical, political and moral consequences of the Holocaust with such bravery that shocked the Hungarian public, as Hungary has never been through the kind of emotional and mental cleansing after World War II that Germany, as well as some other parts of Western Europe has. With the Communist regime installed on the ruins of another dictatorship, all the problems remained buried under the rubble. That is one of the reasons why Kertész's work has had a better reception abroad, or at least it reached a wider audience. His international success started around the publication of Kaddish, successful in Hungary as well, coinciding with changes in Central Europe. Not surprisingly it was the German public who appreciated Kertész's work the most, his strict use of the language being easily approachable to German readers, who on the other hand were also the most open to and 'educated' in the theme he examines. Reception in the English speaking world has been less enthusiastic, due to an unfortunate translation of Fateless. Now there is a new translation in progress, and Kaddish and Liquidation will also soon be available in English. The essay-novels are all available in German.
As Gyozo Ferencz writes in a review of a book of essays on Kertész (Azértelmezés szükségessége, L'Harmattan, 2002), others may have written more entertaining meta-novels, but Kertész's oeuvre is unique in that his writing's focal point is Auschwitz, which condenses the impossibility of narration, much like a black hole's singularity bends the space and time continuum into itself, so nothing, not even light can escape from it.