Review – 25th October, 2008

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György Konrád: Pendulum

Review–25th October, 2008


Just as the author oscillates from his beloved cities, Budapest and Berlin, to the city of his imagination, Kandor, and then back again to a stone cottage located on a windswept plateau, his works also swing from literary prose to nouveau roman, only to return once more to essays and sociological observations.

As the narrator of Pendulum wryly comments, “A bit of rambling and some reminiscence occurs on these pages.” The narrator is none other than the author, who defines himself as a “seventy-five-year-old Hungarian writer” in the description found on the book jacket. In fact, the way in which this “rambling reminiscence” creates its own artistic and literary form is perhaps György Konrád’s greatest achievement in Pendulum, the latest addition to his series of autobiographical works.
A perfect match to Konrád’s philosophical and expressive nature, the narration’s regular fluctuation between thoughtful dialectics, personal memoir and mature meditation gradually evolves into the volume’s central metaphor, as referred to in its title, Pendulum. Naturally, in György Konrád’s case this state of moving to and fro is far more than the symbol of a certain viewpoint: it is a way of life. Just as the author oscillates from his beloved cities, Budapest and Berlin, to the city of his imagination, Kandor—created from the letters of his name and based upon seventy-five years’ worth of experience—and then back again to a stone cottage located on a windswept plateau, his works also swing from literary prose to nouveau roman, only to return once more to essays and sociological observations.
A pendulum can only sway in either direction once a fixed point has been firmly established. This set point not only renders motion possible, it also allows us to draw conclusions based on each individual trajectory. In Konrád’s latest work the narrator’s contemplative, reflective character provides precisely this “fixed point.” To put it more exactly, the way in which the author minimizes his own importance—a gesture steeped in irony—forms Pendulum’s core. (“A vessel, a link in a chain, your daily postman is what I am: the words just pass through me.”) The other necessary component to this work’s free motion is provided by the narrator’s rejection of the exclusive definitions and conditions surrounding the usual relationship between reality and fiction, generally accepted as total opposites. The following, pithy comment summarizes this exactly: “Remembering is but an imagining of the past.” Only, in Konrád’s case, his steadfast quest for understanding is combined with a kind of epistemological scepticism: “What really happened is a nut that can never be cracked. Hit it as hard as you like, but you’ll still never break it open. Meanwhile I continue to search for the truth concerning the circumstances of my own life, and an answer to the question of what all this is around me.”
Pendulum can therefore be judged as not only the newest addition to a series of autobiographical works, but also as a reflection upon and interpretation of the nature of memory conducted within the secondary context of György Konrád’s previous memoirs. The volume itself is comprised of one- to two-page entries, a string of paragraphs lacking any arrangement by title, subtitle or chapter. Recurring motifs abound, interspersed with a variety of fresh attempts to experiment anew as the author strives to record a private moment, a brilliant color, a magnificent view or the lay-out of a street in the most precise and clear manner possible. At the same time, it must be said that there are certain points in this book at which the narrative tempo seems to pause for a rest, or—forgive the expression—to nod off for a moment. (The author has himself made ironic observations concerning this ability of his, a fact also mentioned by the group of friends who gathered to celebrate his birthday. An additional explanation may lie in the fact that the hypnotic motion of the pendulum may sometimes induce sleep.)
György Konrád pinpoints the years following the fall of the Iron Curtain as Pendulum’s central pivot in time: “The 1989 political change—a peaceful revolution during which society redefined itself and reverted back to bourgeois standards—forms the fulcrum of this book… There is, in other words, a specific time and a definite point of juncture.” Konrád discusses the different aspects and issues of fascism, antisemitism, communism and democracy within the reflection of his apt metaphor, “the expanding middle.” Thus the periods of 1944–1945 and 1956 continue to be inevitable points of juncture in his autobiography, as best shown in the reappearance (and subsequent deaths) of Konrád’s childhood schoolmates on Pendulum’s pages as well. First introduced in the staggeringly beautiful first volume of György Konrád’s memoir, A Guest in My Own Country, their lives and fates are redefined in the context of a moving supplication: “I beg the shadows and ghosts of János Baumöhl, Miki Feuerstein, Gábor Nemes, Vera Klein and Baba Blau, my former classmates and the crematorium’s victims, to extend their protection to my children and grandchildren.”
In reference to 1956, however, Konrád’s recollections and reflections sometimes take a turn for the satirical. The following excerpt takes its place amongst the best-presented anecdotes to be found in a novel: “The phones were working here and there, and I made sure to stop in at the Writers’ Association, which could be counted upon to be humming with activity. Emissaries came and went while legations gathered information. A young writer declared he had just finished off a short story and shot two Soviet soldiers dead. An elderly poet—in adherence to his own special brand of art—accompanied this declaration with a sceptical fart.” The young literary critic, Konrád, meanwhile describes how he was busily translating handbills into Russian sentences “of great complexity” and arranging to launch his own journal—with an initial printing of 60, 000 copies, no less!—whilst bemoaning the fact that he had yet to shoot anybody. “In answer to my impatience, the eldest member of the revolutionary committee recommended that I grab a pistol and go take a look outside. If, after thoroughly appraising the situation on the streets, I find it necessary to shoot an anti-revolutionary, then I should do so by all means just to see how good I am at terror.” I suspect the story’s ending is not ruined by the revelation that György Konrád did not shoot anybody: he proved incapable of terror.
This particular scene is once more reconstructed in Pendulum, not to mention that the hero of Stonedial, Dragomán, also finds himself in a similar situation in Konrád’s previous novel, A Feast in the Garden. Dragomán’s reaction to this moral dilemma is not only far more complicated, but also remains unsolved in keeping with this particular novel’s poetic philosophy. In contrast to previous interpretations, Pendulum’s narrator simply hides his machine-gun under a mattress, drinks a cup of hot tea and—in lieu of a weapon—places a copy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s philosophical work, Les aventures de la dialectique in his satchel. Thus armed, he sets off on November 4, 1956 with Adventures of the Dialectic at his side and continues on into the following decades of János Kádár’s dictatorship. He sets off on his journey without ever leaving home, a fact that remains characteristic of György Konrád, an author who is at home no matter where he goes.
Further on in Pendulum, the reader can also meet up with detailed descriptions of Konrád’s experiences in West Berlin during the late 1970’s. He makes the following observation about the divided city’s triple nature: “To tell the truth, Berlin contained three kinds of awareness, all existing right alongside one another—the Ossi, the Wessi and the West Berliners. With a certain kind of aristocratic fussiness, the latter group would allow Wessi weekend tourists to overrun the Kurfüstendamm on Saturday evenings.” As a result, certain places and spatial relationships form definite points of reference in this volume the same way that certain dates do. Berlin, for instance, reappears in Pendulum in reference to the reunited city’s policies on culture and the past. György Konrád’s observant (or as he describes it, “a trafficker of observations”) and reflective character obviously enjoys making connections between thoughts and places.
Thus, according to Konrád’s personal mythology, the city—or more appropriately, The City—is the natural location for the kind of openness and tactful cohabitation that lies at the basis of genuine urbanity. To quote a sentence that is unfortunately still true today, “I like cities for the very reason that everyone else dislikes them. I like cities because every world-class metropolis possesses its own abundant and colorful underworld; cities are places where eccentrics, homosexuals and transvestites don’t need to live in fear of heterosexual aggression.” In other paragraphs the author describes the metropolis as virtually a phenomenon of nature, for in Konrád’s opinion each part of a city possesses its own, unique aura and creative energies: “In spite of the fact that the twentieth century has brutally wiped out much of each quarter’s special characteristics, I am still in awe of the rejuventaing powers of the locus spiritus. Where there once was a bookstore, a bookstore will arise once more. Where a night-club once was, a night-club will once again spring up out of the soil.”
This kind of tone is usually used in connection with virgin terra—a beautiful idea, even if it sometimes seems a bit ideological. Perhaps the fact that it is ideological is what makes it beautiful. At the same time, negative descriptions of the city are also seen in Pendulum; one or two crumbs of memory bring to mind the miserable surroundings so typical of The Case Worker, arguably Konrád’s most important work (available in English translation). Then, for example, György Konrád recollects his experiences as a case worker for child welfare, he literally returns to the same crumbling houses and dreary courtyards visited by The Case Worker’s narrator. While The Case Worker is a definite work of fiction, Pendulum, on the other hand, is an example of fictionalized life relayed in the form of an essayistic novel. Herein lies the main difference—nor is it a small one, either—between these two works.
Similar to his previous character, Dragomán, Konrád also returns once in a while to his utopic city, Kandor, in order to provide a more complete panorama of his “urbanistic” vision. The narration therefore takes the narrator and his travelling companion, the reader, along as it strolls from a street in Kandor to a corner of the Hungarian city, Pécs. The streets between the genuine and fictive cities flow into one another, connected by the narrator’s unbelievable mobility. The narrator’s treatment of the past displays a similar kind of free motion, for he jumps from date to date with abandon, sometimes running ahead, other times shuffling back. Indeed, decades are sometimes spanned in the space of two sentences. At the same time, the measure of György Konrád’s art as a writer continues to be a combination of lengthy, rythmically meandering sentences followed by sparkling bursts of lightning wit delivered in short sentences. This perhaps explains the speech-like quality of Konrád’s prose, a characteristic that allows the reader almost to hear the author’s rumbling voice underlying each word.
In György Konrád’s interpretation, a city’s topography is connected to its mental world. Thus West Berlin becomes an island refuge for emigrés and other displaced intellectuals while the quiet city hidden in the Colorado peaks comes to symbolize a kind of removal from everyday existence into an “otherworld.” Toward the end of the 1980’s, Konrád spent a year living in Colorado Springs with his wife and small children, where he taught world literature at the local university. The pages dealing with this period mostly report on the awakening senses of consciousness and various experiences of Konrád’s children, who are also characters in Pendulum: “I see myself and those who are close to me as figures in a novel, a journey through the mind, a game with duality.” Virtually every thought and observation made by the seventy-five-year-old Hungarian author as he looks back on the past is imbued with the regard and consideration he bears his family. “Every morning I take careful stock of my reasons for beginning another day. Then, while drying myself off, I make my arguments against death: a rough, cotton towel is essential to this part of the process.” This forms Pendulum’s most personal core, the creative hub of the aforementioned fixed-point—and the only place where there is no need even for irony.
Eventually Konrád’s autobiographical pendulum swings into the present. In the course of his memories surrounding the last few years, György Konrád repeatedly refers to a number of speeches made on differing subjects, as well as to various public declarations. The author frequently adds these parts to the volume’s “circulative” system. Due to this work’s form—a series of brief essay fragments that gradually evolve into a whole—the presence of these parts does not strike an odd note. In other words: this book is so mosaic-like in form that the addition of any new element goes practically unnoticed.
The volume closes at Saint George Mountain in the highland region of Lake Balaton, the same setting found in the second volume of György Konrád’s autobiographical series, On a Mountaintop During a Solar Eclipse. Konrád strings together a sequence of “epigrammatic/laconic aphorisms” in conclusion. The author’s message is perhaps over-refined in places, such as in the case of syntactic groupings like “the red wine of the soul.” In the case of the following remark—“A story has a beginning and an end, just like any other journey”—it seems that the pendulum pitches back and forth far more than it swings. These personal and intimate observations do, however, find an appropriate form and context throughout most of the book. As a fitting ending to this review, allow me to quote a sentence that requires no further comment: “At the same time, let me express my thanks for having been placed amongst people and objects. It is an unending source of comfort to be surrounded by things: the beauty of old people, trees, coats, dogs, typewriters and bicycles.”
Konrád György: Inga
Budapest: Noran, 2008

János Szegő

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