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1929 (9th November) born in Budapest into an assimilate Jewish middle-class family
1944 deported to Auschwitz, then to Buchenwald
1945 liberated; returnes to Hungary to complete his secondary schooling
1951 factory worker, civil servant
1949-1950 on the staff of Világosság
from 1953 freelance writer and translator

1983 Milán-Füst-Prize; 1986 Forintos-Prize; 1988 Literature-prize Artisjus; 1989 Attila-József-Prize; 1992, 1995 Soros-Prize, 1995 Brandenburgischer Literaturpreis;1996 Sándor-Márai-Prize; 1997 Kossuth-Prize, Leipziger Buchpreis zur Europäischen Verständigung, Friedrich-Gundolf-Preis der Deutschen Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung; 2000 Herder-Prize; 2002 Nobel-Prize for Literature


Kertész's Fateless is the most shocking Hungarian novel on the Holocaust. The protagonist, the schoolboy György Köves ("Stone"), narrates the story of his deportation to and return from the concentration camps in the first person singular. By the device of being made to view events through Gyuri's seemingly offhanded, artless, eyes, the reader gains a more penetrating insight into the chilling "normality" of the camp world. The novel does contain clearly autobiographical elements, but Kertész himself has made it clear that he intentionally does not adhere to the specifics of his own experiences. As the title expresses, the victim of the totalitarian state is devoid of any individual fate. In the writer's words: "The hardest task I can imagine is to talk about myself. For a novelist the first person singular can only be valid if this 'me' equals 'everyone' ... only this can elevate the faint cries of an individual swept away by the totality of history into the inevitable element of objectivity, and if the role of the novel is historical - and I am convinced that it is - it must be - its sole task to present total structures and mechanisms." (Imre Kertész) Fateless eschews any ideological slant, whether the anti-fascist stance of a Jorge Semprun (in the Long Journey) or ascribing the events to a Jewish faith and fate. Kertész narrates the unnarratable, the universal metaphysical offence that was incurred by Auschwitz; for him, the destruction of the Jews is not a purely Jewish affair but a traumatic scar on Western civilisation as a whole. As such, he joins Tadeusz Borowski, Jean Améry, Primo Levi, Paul Celan and Elie Wiesel as one of the crucial and most scrupulous first-hand witnesses of the Holocaust.

The failure

The Failure is a novel-in-a-novel in which the 'old boy' narrator, living with his waitress wife in a tiny Budapest bedsit apartment, relates the circumstances in which Fateless came to be written and published, whilst he glumly searches for inspiration for his next work, before hitting on "The Failure". Taking up the remaining two thirds of the book, this is a story about Köves's life as a journalist when he travels to the 'brave new world' of a distant totalitarian state (quite obviously Hungary of the early Fifties). With its complex time-shifts, this is again a clearly semi-autobiographical work, with Köves stating at one point, "I can only write the sole novel that it is given me to write," suggesting that the author regards his entire oeuvre as a single novel.

Kaddish for an Unborn Child

This novel is another station in a writer's consistent and credible thinking, the analysis of the self and of history, conducted by a mind approaching extreme and deadly precision. Taking its motto from Paul Celan's Death Fugue, the novel opens with a categorical "No!" that its narrator gives to his wife's express wish to have a child, and the rest of the novel provides explanation and justification for that "No!" in a magically rich, polyphonic tapestry of self-reflective, philosophical reasoning. The narrator is not only lamenting the child that he chooses not to father, or the unborn children, but the speaker himself as well, Jewry and humanity in general. To quote the protagonist of the novel, "We shouldn't look for a meaning when there is none: and the century, this perpetual firing squad, is once again prepared for decimation, and I just happen to be the tenth in the row, that's all. - These are his last words, in my interpretation, of course."


Joining the trilogy of Fateless, The Failure and Kaddish..., Kertész's new novel takes up where the previous one left off, with the monologue of an author who survived Auschwitz. The man in question, B., committed suicide in 1999, and his friend and editor, Keserű ("Bitter"), sets out to find the manuscript he is supposed to have left behind. In this posthumous drama, B. told the future of his friends with ghostly foresight, as they would soon become the survivors of "the so-called reality" instead of the real one. It is no wonder Keserű is obsessed with coming to terms with his friend's fate, his love life and the circumstances of his death.

The File on K.

261 pages Zoltán Hafner, a literary historian, conducted a series of in-depth interviews with Kertész during 2003 and 2004. The dozen tape cassettes of recorded material were transcribed and edited, and the manuscript was sent to the author. On receiving it, he for his part - at least according to the testimony of his brief preface - promptly set it to one side and wrote this fictitious dialogue. He himself gave both questions and answers their final form, the product being this "autobiography for two voices" as a new, independent work. In it the writer talks about his childhood, his parents, his life and his works. For instance, the extent to which the story of Gyuri Köves's experience in the Nazi death camps was (or was not) identical with his own personal history, and in general how his own life can be related to the lives of the protagonists of his fiction works. The link is by no means straightforward or obvious, and the author is perhaps most passionate of all in speaking about this. For him his life as such is less important than the works he has written. Thus, the extent to which Fatelessness, The Failure, Kaddish and other works are autobiographical is the book's salient question, but the answers that emerge are ultimately evasive: in Kertész's view the artistic creation overwrites memory. "Undoubtedly the most serene and relaxed of all Imre Kertész's works; his delicate sense for grotesque situations, his humour and irony regularly break through amidst the dire truths and grim facts of life." Péter Dérczy, Élet és Irodalom

The burdesome legacy of Europe

Imre Kertész's latest essay collection invites the reader on a journey by turns exciting, resigned, and bittersweet. It is a journey in several senses: one can accompany the author to the various big European cities where he is invited or where he arrives as a traveler of the mind. Between the Vienna diary opening the volume and the closing Berlin essay, there is a charming portrait of Salzburg and a still relevant report from Jerusalem. The volume also includes Kertész's most famous speeches, including the Stockholm acceptance of the Nobel Prize. The esteemed writer's return to the Birkenau platform, where he walks that same distance of one kilometer, is yet another journey of sorts, as is the celebrated writer's recollection of many decades of voluntary failure. And finally, yet another journey is the move between styles: the literary essays connect the objective ornamentality of analytical prose -- the stylistic bravura of Kertész's fiction -- with the intellectual, reflexive and self-reflexive perspective of the essays. The first half of the volume contains the now classic texts about the culture of the holocaust and the possibilities of writing it. These texts have aided the authentic understanding of Kertész's novels and illuminated his theory of the novel and philosophy of language. Another third of the book contains a miscellany of the past 15 years: exhibition openings, laudations, tributes, prefaces, open letters, as if they were items in a work journal. These sources reveal Kertész's affinities as well as influences on him. The last sections of the book move from the shadow of the holocaust to the prospects of the future. The protagonist of the new book is not a person, though one cannot help but hear the acerbic, yet optimistic voice of a man obstinately attentive to his own humanity; instead, the protagonist is the continent of Europe and its culture. Kertész pulls the grand city streets and the previously mentioned concentration camp platform into the realm of culture, as if the two paths were parallel but also followed from each other The pages of The distressing heritage of Europe nevertheless shimmer with Kertész's characteristic glee, which punctuates the shadowy pages, as sunshine sometimes suddenly brightens up a a spring morning despite the colder weather. Or rather because of it.

Europe’s Oppressive Heritage

Imre Kertész (b. November 1929) brought out a volume entitled Európa nyomasztó öröksége (Europe’s Oppressive Heritage) which brought together both some of older and some of his newest writings. The earliest are from the early 1990, appearing in the collection A holocaust mint kultúra (The Holocaust as Culture, 1993) or, towards the end of the old millennium, A gondolatnyi csend, amig a kivégzőosztag újratölt (The Pause for Thought While the Execution Squad Reloads, 1998). These count now as classic pieces of writing about—as the titles of the collections implies—the growing Holocaust “industry” and the nature of what it is possible to express in writing, and they have helped many a reader to gain a deeper understanding of what Kertész’s novels are really about, providing insight into his ideas about the theory of the novel and his philosophy of language. In the central third are more recent writings from the last decade or so, a few published before in the A számű½zött nyelv (Exiled Language, 2001), but many of them newly collected here. These are the texts of addresses made in opening various exhibitions, toasts and welcoming speeches, recollections and homages, prefaces to books, and open letters—giving an impression of elegant roughs in a workbook. They give a clear idea of the writers who have had an impact on Kertész, those with whom he feels kinship. With the Holocaust having thrown a long shadow over the early part of the volume, the latter part examines future prospects. Kertész draws some of the most imposing metropolitan streets into the ambit of subject matter, alongside the ramp of Auschwitz, as if the two were at least in part running on parallel lines, in part twisting in and out of one another. For all that, even on the pages of Europe’s Oppressive Heritage, one encounters that characteristic Kertészian good cheer, which is capable of facing even the shadowed side of things in much the same way as the sunshine can make a sudden appearance on a fine spring morning in order to make its presence known despite— or maybe precisely because of—the coldness of the weather.

Haldimann Letters

In 1977 Éva Haldimann published a perceptive and laudatory review of Kertész’s monumental novel, Fatelessness (Sorstalanság), in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Kertész learned of the article quite by chance, while relaxing at the Lukács Baths in Budapest, and then the text itself made its way to the author via a circuitous route indeed. Kertész sent Haldimann a letter by way of thanks, enclosing his newest book, The Pathseeker (A nyomkereső). That is where their mutual story, that of a fascinating literary friendship, begins. The volume closes in 2002, with a letter not by Kertész this time, but one that Haldimann sent to Kertész at his residence in Berlin as he prepared to travel to Stockholm to accept the Nobel Prize. The 1990s are the focal point of the twenty-five-year story covered by the book. This period following the fall of communism marked a turning point in Kertész’s life; indeed, it might be said that this is when he was halfway along the road from almost complete obscurity in his native land to the world fame that was to come in the wake of his Nobel Prize. This, then, is when the world began to open up for him—most palpably, owing to his travels to Vienna, Berlin, and other European cities. And this is when Kertész determined that Hungarian politics and public life remained irretrievably closed—that the momentary euphoria associated with the democratization that had followed decades of authoritarian rule was but an illusion. In these letters we get a rare, rich look at a great writer’s reactions to and reflections on his society’s politics and public life, while also garnering information on how his newest works were taking shape both in detailed terms and in broader, aesthetic-conceptual terms. Kertész is calm, cool, and collected—nay, reserved—throughout. His personal emotions get hardly a word. However, the volume does include one moving exception: the telegram he sent to Haldimann notifying her of the death of his first wife, Albina Vas.

Save As

Imre Kertész’s book, Mentés másként (Save As), consists of the author’s diary entries written between 2001 and 2003, aff ording the reader a rare opportunity to glimpse into the author’s life and thoughts and major preoccupations. The title Mentés másként refers to various types of changes in the author’s life. Its fi rst meaning ‘mentés másként’ – ‘save as’ [lit: save diff erently] is a clear reference to computers which, having come into Kertész’s life at a late date, provided him with a new way to save his work. But the title is also a reference to diff erent ways of relating to culture and identity, which itself comes to be written about in an unconventional manner as the writer looks at himself and his cultural identity through the maze of contradictions and antitheses he posits for himself, and given this complex situation, he is less interested in defi ning his own identity as in identifying the rejected “other”. Since in Kertész’s universe, identity arises in opposition to this “other”, the preservation of identity also happens diff erently (“Save As”). The diary entries also record the changes in the author’s life accompanying his change in residence from Budapest to Berlin, the fi rst of which he has come to reject, the second of which he has always found welcoming – a contrast that fi ts organically into his discussion of identity. Kertész also writes about how the body changes with age, a coming to terms with an elderly man’s twilight years. Not surprisingly, these preoccupations are inseparable from questions arising from the dilemma of Jewish identity. At times they appear as reminders, at others they are discussed in light of social and political events with the clear-sightedness we have come to expect of the author, whose latest book, Mentés másként, is the exciting document of an exceptional writer’s mature period interspersed with incisive and radical views that off er a summation of his life and vision. Magvető, 2011

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