BOOKS AND ARTS APRIL 20, 2012
By Péter Nádas
Translated by Imre Goldstein
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1,133 pp., $40)
Péter Nádas’s novel begins with the most formulaic kind of narrative device: the discovery of a corpse. The place is Berlin, the time is Christmas in 1989, “that memorable year when the famous Berlin wall came down.” The body has been found “in the Tiergarten not far from the graying marble statue of Queen Louise.” It appears to be that of a prosperous middle-aged man, but there is no evidence of a crime; the only witness is a young jogger, one Döhring, who claims to have discovered the body while on his daily run. Döhring is interrogated by a clever detective named Kienast, who senses that something about this young man is not quite right—but what?
Reading the first pages of Péter Nádas’s epic is like settling into a comfortable chair: the reader waits for the mystery to be unfolded, for Döhring to reveal his true nature, for Kienast to prevail. Given the setting of the story, it is natural to hope for a political dimension to the crime: perhaps the corpse will turn out to be a spy or a dissident, someone implicated in the Cold War that is just coming to an end. Even the reader who has uneasily noted that Parallel Stories is 1,133 pages long will breathe a sigh of relief. The murder draws the bow of the novel tight, and the released arrow of the plot will surely keep flying to the very end.
But as any reader of Nádas’s earlier fiction could have predicted, every part of this supposition turns out to be wrong. We never find out who the dead man is, or why he was killed, though we get a pretty good idea of the identity of the culprit. Nádas has nothing to say about the end of the Cold War: most of the novel turns out to take place in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, and not in Berlin but in Budapest, where Nádas himself was born in 1942. Kienast and Döhring disappear fairly early in the book and do not resurface for another eight hundred pages, and then only briefly.
By opening the novel with this kind of blow to readerly expectation, with such a defiant deflation of suspense, Nádas makes clear that the characteristic movement of Parallel Stories will not be forward but lateral. In a skillfully disorienting manner, Nádas slides from one story or character to another, and then to another; the alternation takes place not from chapter to chapter, but from page to page and even from sentence to sentence. Pronouns are a mystery and a challenge: when a chapter opens “I did feel it on my back,” or “He could not go back during the next few days because of the steady quiet rain,” it generally takes a while to determine which of the book’s stories we are hearing. And while these many stories are not, strictly speaking, parallel—they do intersect, sometimes quite elliptically—they also do not culminate. In fact, the last hundred pages of the novel are largely devoted to an entirely new character, who is the relative of a very minor character introduced long before.
Only when the book is finished does it become possible to summarize Parallel Stories as the tale of a family, the Lippay-Lehrs, living in Budapest in the mid-twentieth century. When we first meet them, Erna, the matriarch, is waiting for the phone call from the hospital that will announce the death of her husband. Her adult son, Ágost, is a spy for Hungary’s communist government, stranded in Budapest as he waits for a new assignment. Ágost’s lover, Gyöngyvér, is a beautiful but crude young woman from a peasant family, who feels ill at ease with the Lippays. Erna’s nephew, Kristóf, has been in her care ever since his mother ran away with another woman and his father was killed; Kristóf is obsessed with a local shopgirl, Klára, but also cruises for men.
This is already enough material for a novel or two, yet the Lippays are really just the circumference of Nádas’s many narrative tangents. Erna is friends with a group of women that includes Gyöngyvér’s landlady, Irma, a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor. Before the war, Irma had an affair with an architect, Madzar; in the 1930s, Madzar’s friend Bellardi, an aristocratic steamboat captain, tried to recruit him into a fascistic underground organization. Ágost’s friend and fellow spy János Kovách was born in Germany as Hans von Wolkenstein, and spent his childhood at a boarding school where the boys were used to test Nazi racial theories. Another friend, András Rott, is involved in a plot to smuggle evidence out of Hungary for use in the Adolf Eichmann trial, which is taking place in one of the novel’s simultaneous presents.
Each of these characters occupies center stage for a while—a few pages or a few hundred. Stories are nested within stories, time frames shift back and forth without warning. By the last few hundred pages, when Nádas draws even the most minor of characters together, it takes a good memory to appreciate the ironic connections, which are reminiscent of a Kieślowski film. Yet while these stories connect, they do not make up a grand pattern. Just as the opening pages present a mystery that is never solved, so the book as a whole takes the form of a riddle that has no answer.
In this sense, the form of Parallel Stories is well suited to its thematic burden. For what Nádas means to undermine is something more primary than our expectations of narrative pleasure. It is pleasure itself that he mistrusts—every kind of pleasure, but especially bodily ones, and above all sexual ones. A mystery novel with no solution is a literary version of coitus interruptus, and Parallel Stories is absolutely teeming with examples of failed copulation: again and again, between the desire and the spasm falls the shadow. And the failure is most pronounced when the act itself is completed successfully, for it is then that Nádas confronts the limits of sexual union, the way the joining of bodies is predicated on the separateness of bodies.
THE BODY, the condition of embodiment, is in fact Nádas’s great subject as a novelist. This may sound like cant—“the body,” with the generalizing article attached, is a tiresomely popular subject in literary theory—but Nádas is not interested only in the body as an idea. He is continually drawn to the kinds of sights and smells, seepages and emissions, that seldom find their way into serious literary writing. In Parallel Stories, characters fart, urinate, leak breast milk, ejaculate, and defecate, with a frequency possibly even exceeding that of real life. And they are themselves entranced with their own bodily products:
He licked the taste of his prick from his palm and wasn’t bothered by the strong smell of his ass either. But he wouldn’t dare reach into his hole yet. He was always a bit afraid of reaching into soft shit, but his rectum seldom remained unclean. It had grown light enough by the fire for him to see himself grow darkly erect against the flames, his purple bud open and then close under the folds of skin; but it wasn’t so light that he would have to be ashamed ... If it got dry, he made it more slippery with his spittle, but the excitement had already squeezed out the fore liquid, the liquidum seminale, also known as seminal fluid, through the wide-mouthed urethra, which made it slippery and increased his pleasure.
This masturbator is a concentration camp guard who has snuck away from his duty during the last days of World War II. Just after this scene, he is murdered by escaped prisoners who recognize him as their tormentor. His name is Döhring, and he is a relative of the young jogger we met at the beginning of the book. We see the 1945 Döhring hide a sack of gold in his farmhouse, and later the 1989 Döhring suspects that his twin sister has found the gold and taken it. But then, in a characteristically murky passage, a description of the escaped prisoners dissolves into the wakening of the 1989 Döhring. Everything we have read about these events at the end of the war, we slowly realize, was part of Döhring’s dream.
“And quite sensibly it occurred to him,” Nádas writes, “that perhaps I, the one thinking these things, am not me. Others might live in me, people I don’t know ... no matter how much he’d like to separate his self from all the others, he is not he, he cannot find himself, he has no self of his own, he has no self, he does not exist.” Except that Döhring must exist, because what woke him up is the fact that he shat in the bed: “He did not understand why he smelled the smell of shit so strongly, and then who was the one who smelled it ... I shat in bed, or maybe I’m dreaming this too. The crack of this somebody’s ass is full of shit, or rather in the soft puddle of the runny shit there is a harder, fatter sausage, right in the crack of the ass, inside the pajamas.”
Döhring represents an extreme case of dissociative disorder—as will become clear around page 900, he is in fact a psychopath. But this does not nullify his insight, for Nádas writes in a romantic tradition according to which madness, extremity, and passion are the keys to wisdom. (“A sane mind is praiseworthy, and good for nothing,” one character reflects.) What Döhring believes about the fragility of identity is echoed by Kristóf, who comes closest to being the novel’s main character—and whose voice is most similar to that of the autobiographical narrator in A Book of Memories, Nádas’s previous vast novel. “The feeling that I was not who I imagined myself to be, and not who others thought I was, always tormented me,” Kristóf thinks. “Actually nobody is what he or she appears to be, and I’m not the only one who doesn’t know who he is or to whom he belongs.”
The body, for Nádas, is not so much a vessel of the soul as a thin line of demarcation between two chaoses: the inner chaos of psychology and the outer chaos of history. Irma, the psychiatrist, has given up her practice because she no longer believes in the continuity of the self: “It’s a nice romantic idea that there are borders between people or even within a single human being. An individual has permanent traits, yes, but the essence of humans is easily permeable, and the traits themselves are malleable, showing different faces in different situations.” Yet when Döhring loses himself in his nightmare of the Holocaust, it is shitting, the most infantile and automatic of acts, that recalls him to himself. The body is the one consistent element in what Nádas calls his “continuous dream,” the one reality that cannot be denied.
In Budapest in the 1950s, the body also often bears the stigmata of history. Riding on a streetcar, the young Kristóf sees victims everywhere: “Some with a leg missing, some with an arm; where once there had been limbs, the shirtsleeves or pants were fastened with safety pins or flapped freely on the stumps.... There were wooden legs ending in shoes, crutches fastened to stumps or waists. And scars and wounds, deformities and missing limbs, tracing of burns and frostbite on hideous, horrifying faces. None of this needed explanation.” It would not have needed explanation to Kristóf, that is, or to Nádas’s original audience; but at least some familiarity with the history of twentieth-century Hungary is indispensable for an American reader trying to make sense of Parallel Stories. For in its elliptical fashion, the book is a historical novel about twentiethcentury Hungary.
BORN IN BUDAPEST in 1942, Nádas grew up during World War II and witnessed the Soviet invasion of Hungary as a young child. In A Book of Memories, the novel that brought him to attention in America in 1997, he drew heavily on his own experience as the son of a state prosecutor in the Communist regime, a figure of power and dread who ended up committing suicide after the uprising of 1956. That uprising was at the center of A Book of Memories, and it appears momentarily in Parallel Stories, when Kristóf sees a Soviet tank gratuitously blast a line of civilians waiting for bread. As a child, Nádas wrote in one of his essays, “it never occurred to me that there should be, could be, or perhaps actually was another, gentler and more innocent, more enlightened world in which people didn’t have to have several dead relatives and friends all at once—heroes, martyrs, hangmen and victims.”
Only against this background does the frantic eroticism of Nádas’s characters make sense. In a world where politics and religion and civil society are constrained, where communism takes up all public space, Nádas, like Milan Kundera and Ivan Klíma before him, suggests that only private life remains for selfexpression and self-discovery. As a result, Nádas’s characters still take seriously a high Romantic idea of sexual intercourse as the archetypal human experience, the one moment when bodies and souls can merge. “He did not feel her on his cock, not even close to it, but rather at the spot where he should be feeling his cock; through a single point, he felt the entirety of the other person,” is how Nádas describes the lovemaking of Ágost and Gyöngyvér.
Indeed, the first half of the novel is anchored by two extremely long sex scenes. At the same time that Ágost and Gyöngyvér are concluding a days-long bout of lovemaking on her couch, Kristóf is venturing out into the gay cruising grounds of Budapest’s Margit Island, both seeking and dreading a sexual encounter. What defines both of these experiences, Nádas shows, is the insatiability of desire. Ágost and Gyöngyvér keep approaching an ideal communion: “There is probably no perfect symmetry in the world,” Nádas writes. “It would be insanely utopian, vain, to hope for one, yet they might have come close to it precisely because at this moment, even with the indifferent imaginations, they succeeded in complementing each other harmoniously.” But by endlessly prolonging the sexual act—Nádas’s extended description puts Mailer and Brodkey to shame—Ágost and Gyöngyvér ironically demonstrate the failure of its rather shopworn promise of conclusiveness. In the same way, Kristóf is out not just for sex, but also for completion, for the moment when “there’s no longer any difference between the inner and outer worlds, everything was prepared during Creation, and now only the resolution, the cadenza, is lacking.” Yet he ends up on the floor of a urinal as dozens of strangers ejaculate onto him.
It is not clear whether Nádas means this scene to represent degradation or a kind of negative transcendence. For during the orgy in the urinal, Kristóf gets to embrace for a moment a stranger he calls “the giant,” whom he decides for no apparent reason is the one man who will complete and fulfill him. Afterwards, he wonders “how the giant could have known him well enough to hit all the right keys on the keyboard of his guts and take possession of him just as he wished. How could there be such congruence in nature. He did not understand this.” One possibility is the old Platonic one that each soul has its mate—or, as Kristóf puts it when he meets Klára, “This was nothing more or less than what happens when one fits the right plug in the right outlet and the current flows and the bulb lights up.” That Kristóf seeks this kind of union now with a man, now with a woman, is one of many examples of Nádas’s belief in our essential bisexuality: if the soul is what seeks fulfillment through the body, the gender of the body is irrelevant.
But as Kristóf recognizes, there is another, less hopeful explanation for the perfect match that he experienced with the giant: “Perhaps there are no differences between men because they are nothing but stupid mirror images, which is why they immediately recognize themselves in one another. And in that case, men’s life stories are nothing but repetitions and empty experiences.” With a writer as saturated in psychoanalytic concepts as Nádas—the Oedipus complex was the governing trope of A Book of Memories—it is surely pertinent to see this as an allusion to Lacan’s idea of a “mirror stage.” For Lacan, the infant’s glimpse of himself in a mirror provides his first notion of selfhood: the self is always defined by a spurious projection of perfection onto an essentially illusory other. “It was very clear that real life consisted of substitutions,” Nádas writes near the end of the book. And if any ideal object can be substituted for any other, the emptiness of the ideal becomes unmistakable. Sex, in Parallel Stories, is a mutual deception in which bodies pretend to be souls, while souls gratify themselves in the most concrete bodily terms: “Gyöngyvér’s swollen and protruding clitoris was banging rhythmically against the hard crown of his penis’s bulb.... the extraordinary, incredible, and sharp sensation that could extinguish all other sensations was forever seared into both their minds.”
THAT IS WHY the sexual act that most interests Nádas, that provides the emblem of the novel as a whole, is masturbation. The most important sex scene in the book is one in which Ágost slowly masturbates in front of Gyöngyvér, while refusing to allow her to approach him. To her, this is an unforgivable perversity, an insult. But to Nádas it exposes the essential solitariness of sexuality, the way identity can never truly transcend embodiment. The more disgusting the details of one’s body, Nádas proposes, the more one is fascinated by them:
Putrefying urine, the translucent drops of semen that bubbled forth at the most innocent sensual excitement, the dried remains of the previous night’s ejaculation and the excretions of his penis, now swelling, now shrinking under the uncircumcised foreskin, were the ingredients that produced this lasting, penetrating odor. He kept sniffing it, drew it across his lips.
Phenomenologically, Nádas suggests, there is no escaping the body. But politically, he also knows, it is essential that the body be transcended. Nazism, as it appears in this novel, is a regime based on the reduction of human beings to bodies—or even further, to germ plasm and genetic material. The boys at the school where Hans von Wolkenstein spends his childhood are constantly afraid that they will reveal some defect in their racial purity, and the anxiety leads to a steady stream of suicides. When a boy jumps off the nearby bridge, his teacher uses it as a lesson in the rate of acceleration of falling bodies: only in this way can the students appreciate what he calls, chillingly, the “dazzling regularity” of human life.
This is the regularity of bodies as mere matter. But is it not materially that the body responds to sexual stimulation? Where, in a world in which the public and private realms both end up defining the body so grossly, can we find what Robert Lowell called “a loophole for the soul”? These are the questions that Nádas raises, indirectly and without answering them, in Parallel Stories. They are important questions, and they are expressed by means of a narrative that is ingeniously wrought and full of psychological and historical insight.
Yet there is a price to pay for writing a novel so intelligently suspicious of pleasure. It is that Nádas does not offer much pleasure of his own. This may be partly a function of translation—not the quality of Imre Goldstein’s translation, which is self-evidently a work of enormous skill, but the simple fact of being translated at all, which strips the prose of its original rhythms and associations. (This is one of the indignities of belonging to a small nation like Hungary, which Nádas has written about with bitter humor.) But when a novel has little stylistic allure, and little narrative momentum, and no sense of humor, and deals with the history of an unfamiliar country, and is more than 1,100 pages long, its virtues will become irrelevant to many readers. A Book of Memories was also a long, difficult book, but it had a mad confessional energy that gave it an unflagging interest. For all the complaints we regularly hear about the failure of Americans to read fiction in translation, the fact is that even long foreign novels can become critical and commercial sensations in America—Robert Bolaño’s 2666, or Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. It is hard to imagine Parallel Stories joining their company.
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the May 10, 2012 issue of the magazine.