HISTORY JUNE 22, 2011
by Johanna Adorján | translated by Anthea Bell
W.W. Norton & Company, 192 pp., $24.95
ON OCTOBER 13, 1991, in a suburb of Copenhagen, a dignified elderly couple followed a simple to-do list:
6 p.m., weak tea and toast;
7 p.m., anti-emetic, normal dose;
7.30 p.m., sleeping tablets.
Two days later their bodies were discovered by the police. They were found in bed, holding hands. A note on the door read, “Please do not try to revive us.”
István, at eighty-two, was suffering from heart-failure and would have died within a few months, but Vera, his wife of forty-nine years, was a sprightly seventy-one. They were Hungarian Jews who had survived the Holocaust and then Hungarian communism. Why, then, did they later take their own lives? This is the question behind Johanna Adorján’s memoir of her grandparents.
The American cultural imagination pictures suicides as passionate, rash, or, occasionally, the result of a deep depression. Perhaps what disturbed Americans the most about the Kevorkian suicides was not related to morality so much as it was to the violation of taboos and expectations, an outrage to American joie de vivre. What, then, do we make of Vera and István, survivors of unthinkable suffering, who chose, after much deliberation and planning, to take their lives together?
Their story is the story of twentieth-century Europe. Members of the Jewish bourgeoisie of Budapest, they were marked by an old world elegance. They attended operas and private recitals, had servants in Hungary, made smoking appear glamorous, and always addressed each other with the Hungarian formal pronoun “you”. When the Germans invaded Hungary in March 1944, not two years had passed since their marriage. Vera had forged papers and remained in hiding throughout the occupation, even giving birth to a son, the author’s father. But Vera’s parents were discovered by the Hungarian Nazis and shot in the Danube in December 1944, and István was sent to Mauthausen, a category III camp (extermination through labor). He was one of the 600,000 Hungarian Jews who were deported by the Germans. Eventually he was transferred to Gunskirchen, from which he was eventually liberated. One of Vera’s friends remarked to the author, “As far as we were concerned, life began in 1945.”
After the war, they joined the Communist Party—almost everyone did—and lived comfortably if uneasily. In 1952, István spent seven months in North Korea, working as a surgeon in a hospital that Hungary had donated to its fellow communists. In late 1956, the Soviet Union invaded to quash a rebellion, and István and Vera fled in the night to Austria. They eventually settled in Denmark, which accepted scores of Hungarian refugees. (It now has some of the tightest immigration restrictions in Europe and a powerful nationalist party.) They learned Danish. István practiced medicine in Copenhagen. Vera became the consummate Danish housewife, learning to cook, to bake, to garden. They bought a dog and filled their home with Danish-designed furniture. They had many Danish friends. But Adorján wonders if they were ever at home: “Like so many Jewish stories, the story of my father’s family is of a hopeless attempt to fit in.”
Vera was baptized a Protestant, along with her children, including Adorján’s father. In trying to recover the story of her grandparents, Adorján is also trying to recover her family’s Judaism. Her father, when asked by an Israeli security official if he is Jewish, replies that he does not know. She spends several pages questioning what it means to be Jewish. On not being raised Jewish, Adorján writes: “I lack a piece of myself. Something is missing and I don’t even know exactly what.”
Any memoir about depression, suicide, or tragedy has the potential for melodrama. One of the in-book endorsements reads: “A breathtaking fairy tale of suicide.” But Adorján avoids the temptation to canonize her grandparents. She could have omitted, for example, that each had a love affair in Hungary. She also questions the motives of Vera, who had twice before considered suicide—first if István did not return from the concentration camp and again if he did not return from Korea. Adorján wonders, “Was there not also a considerable amount of aggression in behaving, so far as her [Vera’s] own children were concerned, as if she was entirely alone in the world?” And elsewhere: “Does not their death, above all, suggest fear? A woman’s fear of being unloved, alone, a burden on others, perhaps sick and frail herself some day?”
David Foster Wallace, who took his own life, once wrote that for millenials “the great transcendent horror is loneliness.” This is true of Adorján, herself a millenial: “the feeling more familiar to me than any other: I am all alone.” But perhaps that has always been the Great Fear. It was for Vera. When Vera’s best friend tells Adorján that her grandmother was horrified of being left alone in a world where no one loved her, the author empathizes: “Suddenly I understand my grandmother’s love, which was so exclusive, so needy, so great, and ultimately conditional. Prove that I am wrong, prove that I am worth loving, and then I will always be with you, I will follow you even into death. Suddenly I can imagine why she didn’t want to live without him, why she died with him.”
There is a certain tension in Adorján’s memoir, a very public remembrance about two very private people. The author has written for film and theatre, and her background is reflected in the book’s structure of jump-cuts and vignettes, some of which begin with stage directions: “cut to a peaceful Austrian landscape near Linz,” or “back to Paris again.” The vignettes allow her to hold several time frames together, effortlessly taking the reader into her family history, the day of her grandparents’ suicide, and her own life.
Adorján was twenty when they died. As a result, Vera and István have a strange, almost lopsided quality in the book: Adorján overemphasizes those things that struck her as a child and teenager—their house, her grandmother’s sense of fashion, their bickering, their smoking. The book is rife with descriptions of smoking. Surely they did not live to smoke, and yet the reader almost gets that impression, particularly of Vera. It is clear that the author has spent loads of time rifling around in her childhood memories of them. (Who does not remember exactly the way their grandparents smelled or the knickknacks strewn about their house?)
A third of the book is fiction, the author’s imagined story of how her grandparents’ final day unfolded. As the book progresses, we see Vera going around and turning on all the lights (all the lights were on when the bodies were discovered), Vera making a cake (Adorján’s admitted invention), and sorting the pills that would eventually kill them—pills prescribed by István. The fictive portrayal of their day gives the book a narrative structure and functions as a thread tying all the vignettes together. Anticipating the complaints of those readers who would ask for the truth of the day, Adorján closes with the Danish Police report, almost as if to say: “Here are the cold, hard facts. They are dead.”
An Exclusive Love is not without its faults. Adorján’s prose is lovely, but there are a few passages that break the spell: “NB to myself: keep slapping on the lipstick after the age of eighty.” The book would also have benefited from the omission of a vignette about the author trying J-Date while living in New York. But ultimately Adorján presents readers with a hard look at a couple whose love seems to have carried them through the unthinkable. Like Vera and István, An Exclusive Love is elegant, slightly affected, and brave. “Perhaps you live a longer, happier life if you don’t look back so much,” the author writes at one point. The reader can be thankful that Johanna Adorján didn’t quite believe her own counsel.
David J. Michael is the editor of Wunderkammer, a web-based journal of cultural criticism. He is currently pursuing a graduate degree at Lund University, Sweden.