Book Review: Fatelessness, by Imre Kertész

The protagonist of Imre Kertész’s Fatelessness is so congenitally rational that he manages to justify every aspect of his suffering. Interned at the Zeitz labor camp during World War Two, Georg Koves at one point drops a bag of cement.

The bag’s paper had burst and the contents spilled out, leaving a heap of the material, the treasure, the costly cement, powdering the ground. By then he was already on me, I had already felt his fist on my face, then, having been decked, his boot on my ribs and his grip on my neck as he pressed my face to the ground, in the cement, screaming insanely that I scrape it together, lick it up. He then hauled me to my feet, swearing he would teach me: [‘I’ll show you, asshole, shithead, goddam Jew-dog,’] so I would never drop another bag again in the future. From then on, he personally loaded a new bag onto my shoulders each time it was my turn, bothering himself with me alone; I was his sole concern, it was me exclusively whom he kept his eye on, following me all the way to the truck and back, and whom he picked to go first even if, by rights, there were others still ahead of me in the queue. In the end, there was almost an understanding between us, we had got the measure of one another, and I noticed his face bore what was almost a smile of satisfaction, encouragement, even, dare I say, a pride of sorts, and from a certain perspective, I had to acknowledge, with good reason, for indeed, tottering, stooping though I might have been, my eyes seeing black spots, I did manage to hold out, coming and going, fetching and carrying, all without dropping a single further bag, and that, when it comes down to it, I would have to admit, proved him right. (169-170)

The tortuous interrupters throughout Georg’s narrative – “I have to admit,” “unless I’m mistaken,” “truth be told,” etc. – are typical of his overriding devotion to objectivity. Seeking always to accept any given situation as reasonable, Georg is incapable of influencing it. Indeed, his resistance to impulsiveness is absolute. When, shortly after his initial arrest, he might have had a chance to slip away, he decides against it:

I became alive to the sudden flash of a piece of yellow clothing up ahead, in the cloud of dust, noise, and vehicle exhaust fumes: it was ‘Traveler.’ A single long leap, and he was off to the side, lost somewhere in the seething eddy of machines and humanity. I was totally dumbfounded; somehow it did not tally with his conduct at the customs post, as I saw it. But there was also something else that I felt, a sense of happy surprise I might call it, at the simplicity of an action; indeed, I saw one or two enterprising spirits then immediately make a break for it in his wake, right up ahead. I myself took a look around, though more for the fun of it, if I may put it that way, since I saw no other reason to bolt, though I believe there would have been time to do so; nevertheless my sense of honor proved the stronger. The policemen took immediate action after that, and the ranks again close around me. (55-56)

Georg is a prisoner of his own nature or perhaps his fate. Later in the book, Georg suggests that fate is the opposite of freedom. “If there is such a thing as fate, then freedom is not possible….If there is such a thing as freedom, then there is no fate.” (259-260)

So why is the book called Fatelessness, when it seems to be about fate? Perhaps the implication is that the latter is only an excuse for the former. When Georg says, “I took the steps, no one else, and I declared that I had been true to my given fate throughout,” (259) is he admitting that his “declaration” had always been false, that he took all of his steps freely, even as each step took him closer to Auschwitz, Zeitz, and Buchenwald?

“We ourselves are fate, I realized all at once….All that was needed was to admit it, meekly, simply, merely as a matter of reason, a point of honor.” (260)

Book Review: The Queen’s Necklace, by Antal Szerb

It’s fitting how I’ve been putting off writing this review of The Queen’s Necklace, Antal Szerb’s last book; for Szerb, likewise, seemed to have been putting off finishing it. A lifelong Hungarian Catholic whose Jewish ancestry doomed him to underemployment and murder under Nazi occupation, Szerb passed up several opportunities to escape, preferring to share his people’s fate. With the final, fatal crisis approaching in 1943, Szerb sought refuge in the history of eighteenth-century France, dwelling on its most minute details, digressing and diverting along myriad tangents, as though contriving, like Scheherazade, never to reach the end. The Queen’s Necklace is Szerb’s valediction, how he wanted to go: not in bitterness but in erudite frivolity.

Pausing one last time, just before the close, Szerb makes the subtlest of allusions to creeping melancholy:

This age was as beautiful as the most finely worked lace, as a piece of Sèvres porcelain with its timeless charm and fragile delicacy; as the noble oozings of the Tokai grape, full and rich with sweetness; as the autumn air in Hungary, when the reddening leaves are scented with the inexpressible sweetness of death.

Not inexpressible, Antal. You expressed it. Thank you.

Passages: From Love in a Bottle, by Antal Szerb

“Do you love me?” I asked doubtfully, and stupidly.

She burst out laughing — with the same unfathomable drunken laughter that had so charmed me earlier. It did not charm me now. Back on the veranda, that earlier laugh had somehow soared into the summer sky, an endearing cry for help addressed to some far-off Dionysus. But now she was laughing at me, and into me, the way any woman might laugh at any man held in an embrace of perhaps half an hour. It was a common, rather vulgar, laugh, an utterly godless laugh, one that could have been heard a thousand times at that moment in any of the parks of Paris and the banlieue — and how was I any different from the thousand other poor wretches who at that precise moment were preparing for the stereotypical games of love?

— from the short story “A Garden Party in St. Cloud”

Passages: From The Pendragon Legend, by Antal Szerb

“Your way of life isn’t compatible with premeditated murder. I don’t think you’d even pick a flower, you have such a horror of any form of violence. I don’t intend any praise by this. You are neither a good man nor a bad man: the intellectual type cannot be forced into either category. You could be capable, out of selfishness or love of comfort, of omitting to do things which any decent man would do for his fellow creatures. But you would be incapable of doing anything which might deliberately hurt another. You’re too passive for that.”

*****

For two days she might be seen with a Chinese engineer, then for a week with a Canadian farmer, who made way for a French gigolo, who would himself be replaced by an aging German classical philologist on tour and a Polish ping-pong champion simultaneously. And all these lovers, and myself, would be told about all the other lovers, in hair-raising detail and with a total absence of emotion, though she did make occasional reference to das Moralische, which versteht sich von selbst (I never quite discovered where the self-knowledge came in) – but it was all perfectly objective, quite terrifyingly objective.

*****

At that moment, in that spontaneous outburst of unguarded arrogance, I suddenly understood him. Just minutes before, he had said that what distinguished man from the animals was the capacity to see beyond appearances. The animal sees his mate as simply another animal, but man views his as more than human.

And for a proud man no error can be more painful than to admit that in this regard he has blundered; that the woman he has chosen is not what he thought her. For a truly proud man the worst horror of disappointment in love is not the slight he has received: far, far worse is the failure of judgement that led him to construct a myth with no basis in reality. And a man as supremely proud as the Earl of Gwynedd has thereafter to maintain the illusion, in the face of every contradictory circumstance, lest he be forced to admit to himself that he has blundered.

That was why, for all his self-control, he gave way to superhuman rage when anyone attacked the Eileen myth.

*****

It was dark by the time we reached the car and got in. The wind searched impatiently among the trees in the woods beside the road, and every so often the bloodshot face of the full moon lit up the clouds, as they chased each other eastwards in a wild, silent ecstasy.

*****

“You speak like someone who has no ideals.”

“True. I am a neo-frivolist.”

“And how does that differ from old-fashioned frivolity?”

“Mostly in the ‘neo’ prefix. It makes it more interesting.”