Monday, May 11, 2009

PEN World Voices: Pétér Nádas

I had originally wanted to see this "conversation" (aka interview) because Daniel Mendelsohn was supposed to be asking the questions and he's such an interesting critic. As it turned out though he wasn't able to make it, and unfortunately I didn't catch the name of the woman who was pinch hitting for him. I'd never heard of Pétér Nádas before but learning about authors you've never heard anything about is kind of one of the things that makes the PEN festival fun. 

Anyway the interviewer began by asking Nádas how much of his own life experience showed up in his writing and also asked him to speak about confession and memory. Nádas--who spoke through an interpreter--explained that he uses his own life as a "point of orientation," and that his aim was navigating between imagination and reality without going into port on either side. His own life, he said, was an important element but only as a mechanism of control. Something that allows him to check whether the products of his imagination are "acceptable." The character then is not him but also not entirely imaginary. "An imagined common."

The interviewer then asked if he was searching for Truth, and if imagination got him closer to that than his own reality did. Nádas said that he was searching for something more "object-like. Declarative." And that would ideally contain elements of Truth. When the interviewer asked what that object was he provided a list that, one got the feeling, was in no way intended to be definitive. Thought...a act...a series of acts...a series of events...the entire arc of a plot...

They then talked about the intimacy and politics of his writing and the way the two intertwine. Is such intimacy exhausting? It's exhausting to live so it's also exhausting to write. He said that he didn't think his profession was more exhausting or demanding than others but also that, "things can't be pushed aside. 

She asked about the fact that his Book of Memories was held by the censors for five years and wondered if maintaining a private life separate from the state was  a political act. Nádas said that it was a test of how certain things operate under a dictatorship. And also that it's hard to separate the private from the public because you, "can't just take a pair of scissors and cut." There is less space for a private life under a dictatorship and he wanted to see how much space was left for love and if the dictatorship infects even that. He was exploring whether or not love might be freedom. But it's not so. 

The interviewer then asked about the excitement of the Hungarian Revolution and, I think, if it was still exciting (I think I missed something with this question). Nádas said that there is no excitement anymore. Perhaps sadness or despair but even that not very much. He claimed that the era of revolutions has ended and "many things have ended with it." He described the Hungarian Revolution as the last European revolution and when the interviewer asked about the revolutions in the 80s and the fall of Communism he said that there was no revolution there. The Soviet Union collapsed. It wasn't even Communism that collapsed because there were no communists left and "it's hard to say that Communism collapsed without communists."

She then asked him about his decision to write explicitly about sex which is apparently atypical in Hungarian literature (having never read any Hungarian literature I wouldn't know). Nádas said that it was part of the attempt to engage the dictatorship by lending the private life authenticity. How was the homosexuality received? People wrote about the book without taking any notice, this being possible because Hungarian doesn't have gendered pronouns. He said that not a single review mentioned it but a couple alluded to it and excused him as just writing about love (which was his aim anyway). Was it easier to write about two men? No. More difficult because it was provocative. 

They spoke a little about the Hungarian language which he said was full of opportunity because it is a young literature. That in the great languages of literature it's hard to create something new. He also said that it's hard for translators because they are always looking for an "existing formula" but when you use these formulas it, "doesn't represent the object in movement. About his writing process he said that if he can't surprise himself with something in his writing then it's not a good work day. He also said that while he worked on Book of Memories in a state of great depression he, "doesn't think depression is the enemy," and while in certain professions it is probably a good thing to fight depression in his he needs to work through it. 

The interviewer than asked him about being compared to Proust and Mann. He said that the diplomatic answer is that it's a great honor and of course he has to refute it. What he actually thinks though, is that it's an easy way out for the critics and allows them to avoid analyzing his work. He said that he has explored things they did not, wrote about things they did not, forms they considered forbidden. 

This was followed by an audience question and answer session during which there was the usual parade of uselessness and self-involvement (I really hate these question and answer sessions at events like this). The one question that did elicit a particularly interesting response thought was a request to elaborate on what has been lost along with revolutions. Nádas answered that Western European and American societies are ones of opportunism. And this took the place of a quest for enlightenment. He talked about the "renunciation of the possibility that we can say something new to one another as people or artists," and said that the summit of that is post-modernism. An absence of critical thinking creates the space for this opportunism and causes the confusion between what is real and what is virtual. 

These author interviews can be kind of hit or miss. Sometimes the authors have interesting things to say about literature in general and their own writing in particular and sometimes they don't. I think you want to leave these things thinking about how you'd really like to check out so-and-so's books, but sometimes you leave them thinking, man, what a douche and that you have no interest reading anything they've written ever. So I was glad that Nádas had insightful things to say and left me more interested in reading his books rather than less. 

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