Portrait – 13th April, 2004

Péter Nádas


Portrait–13th April, 2004


"I have needed many coincidences and the passing of years to understand what tragic consequences it can have if we are not able to accept the rules of Nature, and in particular the mysteriousness of human beings."

Péter Nádas is an author working in more than one genre, but his oeuvre, presenting an unusually strong integrity in its line of thought, from the first short stories to the novellette and then to his novel Emlékiratok könyve - available in English as A Book of Memories - through the essays, critical writings, film stories and plays, his essay-novel and his dialogue with Richard Schwartz, dissects the same problematics with indefatigable meticulousness, approaching it from diverse directions.

With a thorough knowledge of psychology and the work of ancient Greek philosophers, following the traditions of the psychological novel, he casts light on the nature of dictatorial state systems, and the personality of people living in such systems, through the survey of these systems' effects on personal development, and questions the applicability and content of truth of the precepts of Greek philosophy and Judeo-Christian culture.

His complete works, a corpus of 13 volumes, have been published in Hungarian, and his third novel, entitled Párhuzamos történetek (Parallel Histories), of which only extracts have been published in magazines, is in preparation.

"I have needed many coincidences and the passing of years to understand what tragic consequences it can have if we are not able to accept the rules of Nature, and in particular the mysteriousness of human beings."
(Bárány - Lamb, a short story)

Péter Nádas was born in 1942 in a family professing liberal views. Even though his parents had both their sons baptized, their life was intimately linked with Communist dictatorship: during World War II, his parents were illegal Communists, and later on held fairly high positions in the Communist administration. His mother died of an illness when he was 13. In 1956, his father was slandered, then exonerated, but committed suicide: Péter Nádas became an orphan at 16. Thanks to a branch of the family, he gained insight into Judeo-Christian as well as upper-middle-class culture, and living as a member of the Communist élite was later able to ponder the permeability and viability of the values of each group. Trained as a photographer, he worked first in this field, then as a journalist, before abandoning journalism to become a writer. After publishing volumes of short stories (A Biblia - The Bible, 1967; Kulcskereso játék - Key-Finding Game, 1969), he was not allowed to publish anything else until 1977. Egy családregény vége (The End of a Family Story), his first novel, was published in 1977 and instantly hailed by critics as being on a par with Péter Esterházy's prose works as the starting-point of a new poetics.

"The universe of childhood should be disclosed."
(Péter Nádas in an interview)

He attracted public attention with his first short stories. His story entitled A Biblia (The Bible), written at the age of twenty, and most of the pieces in the volume of that name, analyse the rôles played by individuals. Observation of the environment and incorporation of the results of introspection into the world of short stories results in a survey of the destructive effect of power on the personality, the potential cruelty hidden in every personality, and the paralysing effects of the fear originating in the ambiguous position of being simultaneously observer and observed, a situation created by an enforced community life imposed by dictatorship.

The world of the first short stories reaches back to early childhood and thematises, in images drawn with psychological precision, the influence that pervasive power fields exercise on the personality. Egy családregény vége (The End of A Family Story, 1977), his first novel, is a picture of the crisis of the values of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The narrator is Péter Simon, who tells the reader about the games he plays and describes the tensions in his family's life while listening to interpolated stories, family anecdotes and stories about Jewish tradition told by his grandfather. The other characters of the novel also tell stories which are interpolated in Péter Simon's monologue.

"I am not analysing my responsibility or the responsibility of others, but my own behaviour. And it is my conviction that this makes me come up to one of the basic requirements of European thinking."
(A Dialogue with Richard Schwartz)

The name of Thomas Mann is often mentioned in relation to Nádas, as that of a predecessor whose novelistic tradition he both continues and challenges. In any case, his novels have had a strong influence on the world of those written by Nádas.

In Emlékiratok könyve (A Book of Memories, 1986), Péter Nádas' second novel - also translated into English - the author describes the world as a system of relations linking human bodies to each other. The motto of the novel is taken from the Gospel according to John: "But he spake of the temple of his body" (John, 2.21). The novel is divided into four parts told by three narrators, each one's discourse remaining distinct. The continuity of the narrative is interrupted by excursus, but this discontinuity does not destroy the epic unity of the work. 

 "Punctuation stands in direct relationship with physiology."
(Burok - Caul, an essay) 

The stylistic constitution of Nádas' sentences is on an exceptionally high level in contemporary Hungarian literature. In his essays he writes about the development of his creative methodology, his problems and his doubts. Having turned narrative style into a thematic question, his interest has departed from stylistics to erotics, a domain that is able to elude the rules of the political system. The idea was of writing a novel about something missing in others' work, something nobody wrote about because of an unspoken social consensus, moral reasons, or simply personal constraints. With the form and the balance of sentences created, he spent ten years writing his two-part novel, a work of undoubted importance because of its stylistic values, its scope and its exhaustiveness in the chosen topic, thanks to the meticulous work of observation, and the new language used to speak of the body: Nádas tries to speak of universality through the narration of the human body, of bodily intercourse. 

 "I am driven by a kind of curiosity, I want to understand..."
(A Dialogue with Richard Schwartz)

His essays, critical and other writings all reflect a consistent line of thought. Beyond question are his achievements obtained in a continuous struggle for clarity in the meaning of words and the distinction between inherent and foreign personality features.

Gabriella Györe
Translated by Kinga Dornacher


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