Writing in Dark Times: Imre Kertész’s Difficult Legacy

Imre Kertész

Imre Kertész. Photo: Csaba Segesvári

Rita Horanyi is a recipient of a 2017 SRB-CA Emerging Critics Fellowship. This is the first of three essays by Horanyi that will appear on the Sydney Review of Books, alongside essays by other fellowship recipients, Robert Wood and Darius Sepehri. Read all the essays

Imre Kertész, Hungary’s sole winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, died two years ago, on 31 March 2016. An Auschwitz survivor, he spent his life attempting to understand what the Holocaust means for European culture. Kertész is therefore, reasonably enough, often labelled a ‘Holocaust writer’, a category he fits into somewhat ambivalently. This is because, for Kertész, the Holocaust is neither a ‘Jewish question’ nor an historical exception. As he points out in his Nobel Prize Lecture entitled ‘Heureka!’:

What I discovered in Auschwitz is the human condition, the end point of a great adventure, where the European traveler arrived after his two-thousand-year-old moral and cultural history.

For Kertész, all the great writers of the twentieth century demonstrate an awareness of the rupture caused by the Holocaust; their art cannot but respond to its challenge. However, if artists wish to comprehend what the Holocaust means, they must register that rupture in their style, because the very facts of the Holocaust—the mass deaths, the way humans were transformed into something almost inhuman in the camps—makes the old art forms obsolete. The attempt to find new forms that reflect this difficulty defines Kertész’s work, especially his ‘trilogy’ of fictionalised life-writing—Fatelessness (Sorstalanság) (1975), Fiasco (A kudarc) (1988) and Kaddish for an Unborn Child (Kaddish a Meg Nem Született Gyermekért) (1990).

Based somewhat on Kertész’s experiences, Fatelessness tells the story of fourteen year-old György (Gyuri) Köves’s deportation, first to Auschwitz, then Zeitz and Buchenwald, before his liberation and eventual return to Budapest. In its general details, the novel does not greatly differ from other well-known works of Holocaust literature, such as Elie Wiesel’s Night. In the style and narrative techniques used to approach the subject matter, however, it is unique. Fatelessness is remarkable for presenting the events that befall Gyuri with a complete absence of sentimentality and in a strictly – one might even say remorselessly – chronological fashion. This adherence to chronology creates a discomfiting irony for the reader, who knows very well what Gyuri cannot have the slightest inkling of — what awaits him at Auschwitz. From the novel’s matter-of-fact opening lines — ‘I didn’t go to school today. Or rather I did go, but only to ask the class teacher’s permission to take the day off’ — to Gyuri’s repeated use of the term ‘naturally’ throughout the text, Gyuri’s apparently reasonable and detached acceptance of the world around him is ironic. This is because Gyuri’s acceptance is at once understandable and absurd: understandable, because it a product of the society Gyuri has come from, one that did not in any way prepare him for the possibility of Auschwitz; but absurd, because it is this same society that planned and executed the concentration camps, and the kind of acceptance Gyuri exhibits makes these camps possible. This irony is emphasised later in the novel when Gyuri reflects that his school back home in Hungary claimed to prepare students for life:

But then in light of that, really, I ought to have been learning all along exclusively about Auschwitz. Everything would have been explained, openly, honestly, reasonably. The thing was, though, that over the four years at school I had not heard a single word about it.

Only very occasionally do insights from an older, more experienced perspective come to inform Gyuri’s analysis of everyday events. One example of this is when Gyuri reflects on his experience of time in the concentration camps:

Like I say, I saw all that, only not the way that I was now able, if I thought about it, to review it, to reel through it like a film so to speak, but only frame by frame, becoming habituated to each single image again and again and so consequently not actually noticing at all.

In his Nobel Lecture, Kertész notes:

But the hero of my novel does not live his own time in the concentration camps, for neither his time nor his language, not even his own person, is really his. He doesn’t remember; he exists.

Given Gyuri’s experience of time in the camps as not really his and as reducing the world to something that happens frame by frame until one becomes ‘habituated to each single image’, the ‘now’ the narrator of Fatelessness inhabits as he remembers and reflects upon this must take place outside the concentration camps, at a point when he has the ability and the freedom to contemplate his fate. In general, however, the novel works against giving the reader a sense of this. As J. Hillis Miller has also pointed out, Kertész’s use of the present tense in the beginning of chapters (‘I didn’t go to school today’) contributes to the impression that the events in the novel unfold in a continuous present.

By using this narratological technique Kertész reflects the conditions a totalitarian world imposes upon individuals. In sections of his diaries published as Gályanapló (Galley-Diary) (1992), Kertesz grapples with the question of how to create art that depicts an individual who is fateless, someone who lacks the basic requirements of the tragic hero—the capacity to create his own destiny. He asks himself:

The next and greatest question is therefore: how can I represent things from the perspective of the totality, but in such a way that the perspective of totalitarianism nonetheless does not become my perspective?

The answer to this problem is found in the irony of Fatelessness, in the depiction of Gyuri’s unknowing subjection to events, in much the same way that Josef K can have no knowledge of the outcome of his trial in advance and is only able to gain some understanding of his situation as he becomes more entangled in the structures of power. But by using these narrative devices, and occasionally implying that there is a later version of his self that has survived, Kertész demonstrates that the perspective of the totality is not his perspective.

Although the sequential nature of events in time allows individuals to adjust themselves to new outrages and to accommodate fresh atrocities, it is also in this fact that Gyuri discovers the possibility of freedom. As Gyuri explains to his extended family once he has returned from the camps, it is precisely because events occurred step by step, that they also, at each point, could have happened otherwise. It is in the nature of dictatorial regimes to encourage us to forget this fact and of Kertész’s novel to provide a powerful antidote to that forgetting.

Of course, dictatorships also encourage forgetting though a general rewriting of the past. The state socialist regime in Hungary was no exception, and there was little discussion of the history and meaning of the Holocaust beyond its exploitation for political gain. The situation Kertész found himself in after his return to Hungary—of trying to comprehend and write about the Holocaust in a new but still brutal dictatorship — forms the basis of the second novel in his trilogy, Fiasco. Fiasco centres around the attempts of an aging writer, referred to simply as the ‘old boy’, to write his second novel, extracts of which form most of the book and which are concerned with the experiences of ‘György Köves’, a young Hungarian Jew who has returned from the concentration camps and will eventually attempt to write a novel about his experiences.

In structure and style, Fiasco somewhat recalls Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape (1958): the novel opens with the ‘old boy’ looking through notes from his diaries, which include his musings on the letter of rejection he received from a publisher for the manuscript of his first novel. The contents of this letter are quoted in the diary extract and closely resemble the reasons given to Kertész for the initial rejection of the manuscript of Fatelessness. Among the reasons given in Fiasco are complaints about the protagonist’s ‘gauche comments’ that ‘repel and offend the reader’ and the fact that protagonist’s behavior throughout the novel gives ‘him no ground to dispense moral judgments, call others to account’. Other diary entries in Fiasco contain long passages that grapple with the problem of aestheticizing violence and the challenges to representation posed by what Hannah Arendt termed the ‘banality of evil.’ It quickly becomes apparent that Fiasco is about the necessary failure that writing about the Holocaust entails (the fiasco of the work’s title) and about the struggle to write in dark times.

Throughout Fiasco, the events recounted in the novel within the novel about Köves closely reflect Kertész’s biography. This demonstrates the deliberate distancing from his self-representations that is typical of his writing and which brings to mind the ‘autrebiographical’ (writing that depicts the self as if it were an other) stance employed by a writer such as J.M. Coetzee. Kertész, however, describes all such writing as fiction. As he puts it in his ‘memoir’ Dossier K (K Dossié) (2006), which is written as a long fictionalised interview with himself: ‘autobiography is a recollection of something, fiction creates a world of some kind.’ While this neat distinction can be blurred (and, indeed, is questioned by the ‘interviewer’ in Dossier K), Kertész insists that writing that follows the ‘sovereign world of fiction’ and the rules of art is not autobiography, regardless of how much it draws on the facts of the author’s life. This distinction is emphasised in a work such as Fiasco, which self-reflexively depicts the challenges of transforming life into art. The narrator of Fiasco writes, after informing the reader that Köves’s novel will eventually be published: ‘He had changed his person into an object, diluted his stubborn secret into generality, distilled his unutterable reality into signs.’ The artwork has become its own ‘sovereign world’ and the ‘I’ at the centre of that world is no longer identical with its author.

An awareness of this split can be felt in all of Kertész’s fictional writing, even in the first person narration of Fatelessness. Kertész’s strategy of making the reader aware of this gap captures the experience of living under dictatorial conditions, where one is alienated from one’s fate and one’s language. In his essay ‘The Exiled Language’, Kertész describes how acute discrimination can make a person perceive themselves as ‘foreign’, though all ‘you have done is blend in with your alienating surroundings.’ The totalitarian dictatorships of the twentieth century forced individuals to identify with a particular position or designation. Gradually the individual comes to identify with this position until it results in what Kertész terms the ‘complete destruction of the individual.’ If the individual manages to survive this process (at least physically), with what language could they begin to speak about their experience? Kertész’s emphasis on exposing the gap of non-identity with dominant structures and language reflects his belief that this is a possibility for freedom in dictatorial conditions.

This tendency towards negation in Kertész’s work manifests itself in the third novel in his trilogy, Kaddish for an Unborn Child, as a refusal to mourn. At the end of Fatelessness, Gyuri informs his uncles that he does not want to move on and forget the past in order to ‘live freely’. He will not allow his experiences in the camps to be simply considered an aberration or an accident that does not relate to the decisions each and every one of them took. Kaddish takes off, in this sense, where Fatelessness ends. The novel begins with a resounding ‘No!’, as the narrator recounts to a friend why he refused to father a child—he does not want to bring a child into a world where Auschwitz is possible—a decision that ultimately leads to the dissolution of his marriage. The novel is told in a digressive, circumlocutious style, but, in this instance, the repetitions contain an echo of the liturgical rhythms of the Kaddish.

In his work on the poetry of mourning, Jahan Ramazani analyses the link between the decline in mourning rituals in modernity and the form of the modern elegy. Ramazani argues that modern elegiac literature counters increasingly impersonal, bureaucratic and rationalised rituals around death by depicting the departed in a deeply personal and often ambivalent manner. The Holocaust presents profound challenges to such forms of literary mourning due to magnitude of the horrors that occurred, the trauma suffered by survivors who struggle to assimilate their experiences, and the reduction of individuals to piles of corpses. Works like Kertész’s Kaddish or the recent Hungarian film Son of Saul (Saul Fia) (2015) respond to this difficulty by staging deliberately failed or incomplete forms of mourning.

In Kaddish this failed mourning demonstrates the difficulty of surviving the Holocaust, that ‘survival that I never survived’, as the narrator puts it. It is significant that the narrator does not truly attempt the process of mourning, which would allow him to come to some sort of reconciliation with the world that attempted to exterminate him, but chooses to remain steadfastly attached to his life-negating worldview. Although the narrator perceives an ethical imperative in his refusal to mourn or participate in life, which he considers to be merely total assimilation to extant conditions, the book lays bare the destructive personal cost of this refusal. His wife, who leaves him because she wants ‘to live’, describes him as contaminated by a ‘sick and poisoned intellect’, as only possessing a negative freedom that must be directed against something and as having no interest in recovering from the wounds he carries inside him. The narrator’s refusal to father a child symbolises his rejection of mourning and the novel, paradoxically, becomes a work of mourning for the narrator’s inability to mourn. The work’s title aptly describes the content of the novel: the whole work is a threnody for something that cannot be lost because it never was, but which nonetheless haunts the narrator. The unborn child of the novel is the self that the catastrophes of twentieth century European history destroyed. Nevertheless, by writing down his ‘still fallible, stubborn life’, as the narrator puts it, he bears witness to this problem and thus to the Holocaust’s difficult legacy. As, of course, does Kertész.


Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Viking Press, 1965.
Kertész, Imre. Fatelessness. Trans. Tim Wilkinson. New York: Vintage International, 2004.
–  ‘A Számüzött Nyelv’ (The Exiled Language). Európa nyomasztó öröksége (Europe’s Oppressive Legacy). Budapest: Magvető, 2008.
Dossier K (K Dossié). Trans. Tim Wilkinson. Brooklyn: Melville House, 2013.
Fiasco. Trans. Tim Wilkinson. Brooklyn: Melville House, 2011.
Gályanapló (Galley-Diary). Budapest: Magvető, 1992.
– ‘Heureka!’ NoblePrize.Org. Online. Stockholm: The Nobel Foundation, 2002.
Kaddish for an Unborn Child. Trans. Tim Wilkinson. London: Vintage Books, 2010.
Miller, J. Hillis. The Conflagration of Community: Fiction After Auschwitz. Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2011.
Ramazani, Jahan. Poetry of Mourning: The Modern Elegy from Hardy to Heaney. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.