Holocaust Lit Fall 2016: Week 6 Imre Kertesz’s Fatelessness

This fall, I’m blogging about my course on Holocaust Literature. You can catch up on the first two installments here.

We’re already through six weeks of the semester, and if you’re keeping track at home you know I’ve missed three weeks. I hope to get to those later, but don’t hold your breath. It’s hard to keep up, and even harder to reconstruct. The headlong pace of the semester sweeps all before it, but I’m delighted to say that I’m having so much fun teaching this group. They are the best class I’ve taught in years. After six weeks, almost all students still participate regularly in discussion, and most of the ones I suggested come meet with me after less-than-distinguished early papers actually did so. Unheard of!

This week we faced our toughest challenge yet: Imre Kertesz’s novel Fatelessness (1975). Kertesz, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002, insists the novel is not especially autobiographical, though its protagonist, György Köves, shares some of Kertesz’s wartime experiences. Like Kertesz, György grows up in Budapest to divorced parents, is deported to Auschwitz in 1944 at the age of 14, and is later transferred to Buchenwald.

Fatelessness is a hard book. It’s not only a lot longer but also far more conceptually complex than anything we’ve read so far. (Which is saying something, since Primo Levi, in particular, is no slouch when it comes to intellectual sophistication.) I teach the newish translation by Tim Wilkinson; it seems to me admirable though by no means easy or always elegant, which I suspect is true of the original too. There’s an earlier English translation by Christina and Katharina Wilson, which goes by the slightly but significantly different name Fateless. I’ve not read it, so can’t compare them. If anyone has, I’d love how the translations match up. I’d especially like to hear from anyone who has read Kertesz in his native Hungarian.

It’s been several years since I taught Fatelessness. Students tended to resist it, and although I could tell it was remarkable, I didn’t have a good handle on it myself. The ending in particular is hard to make sense of. I took it off the syllabus for a couple of years, but I never found anything that satisfied me more and the book kept calling to me, so back on it went. Third time’s the charm, I guess. I’m still not entirely clear on what Kertesz wants to say, exactly, in the last chapter, but I feel more confident with it than before and this group of students tackled the book cheerfully and with good will, which made me like the book even more.

So it was a good week in the classroom. (Really, the book deserves even more than a week, but sometimes less is more.) Here I’ll concentrate on the first day’s discussion and allude occasionally to some of the things we covered during the rest of the week.

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We began, as I like to do, at the beginning. I read the opening paragraph:

I didn’t go to school today. Or rather, I did go, but only to ask my class teacher’s permission to take the day off. I also handed him the letter in which, referring to “family reasons,” my father requested that I be excused. He asked what the “family reason” might be. I told him my father had been called up for labor service; after that he didn’t raise a further peep against it.

What’s the tone here, I asked the class, and how can you tell? It’s straightforward. What does that mean? Is “straightforward” a tone? It’s simple, you can tell already he’s young. How can you tell? Well, he is supposed to be in school. Right. But can you tell by his way of speaking? His sentences are simple—they’re not complicated and they almost all start with “I.” That’s mostly true, here, about the syntax, though that third sentence is a bit more complex. And we’ll see that his sentences are actually often rather hard to parse, clotted as they are with seemingly unnecessary qualifications and hesitations, the most apparent of which is the term “naturally.” But let’s stick with your other observation—the sentences almost all start with “I.” Does that suggest anything about him?

Maybe he only cares about himself, came the tentative reply. Is he selfish elsewhere? Maybe not selfish, but he doesn’t know how to deal with other people. For example? Well, later he’s embarrassed about all the emotion around his father leaving. And he always seems to be astonished by other people’s reactions. We considered a couple of examples from the first third of the book. Then I brought us back to the opening paragraph. Are there other things you notice about his way of speaking or the kinds of words he uses? He says, “peep.” That’s a young word. A young word? I teased. Like, we just invented it? The student blushed, became more precise. A word a young person would use. Immature. Right, this instance of slang seems important. It suggests something about this person. Neither Levi nor Wiesel would have said “peep.”

What else can we tell about him based on his way of speaking? Think especially about the first and second sentences. What’s the relation between them? After a minute we concluded that the second sentence reverses the first, or, rather, qualifies it. Qualification of this sort is everywhere in the book. It’s the most obvious characteristic of György’s narration. (Later we looked at a famous, grotesque example. György gets inflamed wounds on his hips—phlegmons—that burst and become infected with the lice that are everywhere in the camp. Contemplating the voraciousness of the parasites he comments: “In the end, I realized that, to some extent, and taking everything into account, I could see it their way.” Three qualifying phrases in one simple sentence—typical of his way of speaking.) What kind of person might he be then, given these incessant qualifications and hesitations? Here I was pushing a particular line, and the students could sense it. That always make them clam up—they get scared of giving the wrong answer. Someone ventured: he wants to get things right?

Interesting. Yes, accuracy matters to him. He can’t cut any corners, someone said, he has to tell it exactly. He likes rules, I added. Can we think of any examples? He worries about being with his father on the day of his deportation because that’s the day of the week he’s supposed to be with his mother, according to the court ruling in his parents’ divorce. And he worries about the star on his jacket, someone added. Oh yeah, remind us about that. It’s on page 5—he’s walking and decides not to take his coat off in case his star gets covered up: “It was a clear, balmy morning, considering it was still just early spring. I was about to unbutton myself but then had second thoughts: it was possible that, light as the head breeze was, my coat lapel might flap back and cover up my yellow star, which would not have been in conformity with the regulations.”

The stakes of following rules are high for someone like György, I said. But he’s also shallow, someone said. How so? He doesn’t want a home made star. He thinks those are embarrassing. Yeah, he’s really immature, someone else piled on. But he’s only 14, another student said. He doesn’t know anything other than the rules the Nazis made for him. (Here I gave a brief clarification about the relation of the Hungarian and German governments during the war, but the student’s point still stood.)

So thinking about this rule following and then going back to the opening paragraph, we can see that there is something both fussy and oddly accepting about György’s attitude to his experiences. Fussy is the word I always come back to for György’s style, with its endless qualifications and circumlocutions.

All of this had taken a while, so I also didn’t mention the two uses of euphemism in the opening paragraph—one quoted (“family reasons”), the other not (“labor service”). But they are significant because of a tendency we remarked on later—the way György accepts, even takes on and unthinkingly uses, the language of his oppressors.

Over the course of the week, we saw that tendency ever more clearly and worried a lot over what it suggested. Is it a sign of how thoroughly he’s been duped, how unable he is to escape from the ideology that vilifies him? Or is a sign of something more nefarious—is he a traitor to his people? (A people he has little to do with—an early scene shows how assimilated the family is, serving pork at the father’s farewell supper, stumbling through prayers in a language almost none of them speak. György falls in with the other Jewish kids in his building, but only because they have all been singled out as Jewish, something that never meant anything to them before.) Is György an idiot? Totally clueless? Self-hating?

I reminded students of the extraordinary, ten-page long description of György’s arrival at Auschwitz, where, among other things, young György admires the SS officers spotless uniforms and observes with interest but also revulsion the prisoners who unload them from the train: “It was quite a shock, for after all, this was the first time in my life that I had seen, up close at any rate, real convicts, in the striped duds of criminals, and with shaven skulls in round caps. Dude, I shouted, shamelessly mugging for the students, that’s you!

The best way to understand György in moments like these, I suggested, is to think about the novel’s unusual use of time. When is György telling his story? A hard question, met with silence. As they’re happening to him, someone finally ventured. Is it in present tense? The student had to admit it wasn’t. So not quite as it’s happening, but you are basically right, I said. It’s very close to the events, from some imaginary, impossible to pinpoint position that is after the events but not much after.

Compare this, I said, to the texts we’ve read before. Borowski also used a first person narrator in “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,” but he told the story in present tense. Even more characteristic is the first person voice of Wiesel’s Night and Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz (these are the missing three weeks’ worth of blog posts). Remember that Levi and Wiesel regularly used retrospection. They narrated from well after the events. We noted how Levi liked to move from narrative to essayistic mode (typically noted by a shift from “I” to “we”), as he stepped back to consider, for example, how the Germans’ thoroughgoing utilitarianism was at work in the “selection” process. We noted how Wiesel regularly castigated the Jews of his hometown of Sighet for not seeing what was about to befall them. These attitudes can only be offered in retrospect, through a hindsight that, in Wiesel’s case in particular, is pretty dubious. (Hindsight 20/20, etc.) Kertesz’s novel, by contrast, is never retrospective. It sticks so closely to its events, because it believes that is the most honest way to represent them, especially for its young protagonist, who lacks any context to make sense of what’s happening to him and his world.

At the end of our last class on the novel, I would wrap up the week’s discussion by reading an excerpt from Kertesz’s Nobel Prize address in which he takes up this method:

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. So he has to languish, poor boy, in the dreary trap of linearity, and cannot shake off the painful details. Instead of a spectacular series of great and tragic moments, he has to live through everything, which is oppressive and offers little variety, like life itself.

But the method led to remarkable insights. Linearity demanded that each situation that arose be completely filled out. It did not allow me, say, to skip cavalierly over twenty minutes of time, if only because those twenty minutes were there before me, like a gaping, terrifying black hole, like a mass grave.

What Kertesz here calls linearity is linked to a scene at the end of the novel that we considered, in which György returns to Budapest at the end of the war and is asked by a reporter to share his stories with the world. The reporter seems to have his heart in the right place: he wants to avoid platitudes, he wants to mobilize citizens’ attention to what happened, he wants to fight the apathy the world threatens to sink into even though the war has only just ended. (He’s a lot more sympathetic than the family who has taken over György’s father’s apartment, and refuses to let him in or even to acknowledge his existence.) But he also sees György as a symbol of the times rather than as an individual, and he presses him to describe what it was like in “the hell of the camps.” György responds firmly that he is “not acquainted with hell and couldn’t even imagine what that was like.”

Here we see the outcome or even payoff of the extreme literalism that characterizes György’s way of expressing himself from the beginning of the book. He refuses to speak grandiosely of atrocities, not out of some kind of perverse admiration for the camps, but because he never experienced anything grandiose, only boredom and pain and hunger and even pleasure, the pleasure of still being alive, a sensation that never abandons him even when he is reduced to the most minimal sentience. The reporter give György a slip of paper with his address and urges him to come see him but György lets it drop into the street as soon as the men take their leave of each other. Why does he do that I asked one student, a really smart kid who saves everything for his writing and is unaccountably quiet in class. He hadn’t been expecting the question and struggled a little and then said, simply, I don’t know, I was wondering that too. How did it make you feel, I asked. Upset. Frustrated. That seemed to me a completely understandable response and many students agreed. Despite the novel’s first-person narration, we’re much closer to the reporter than to György, who we have a hard time identifying with. But then another student piped up to say that she was glad György dropped the paper, because the reporter just wanted to exploit him. (Indeed. And that should make us think hard about what our relation to the works we’ve been studying might be. What do we want from them?) I agreed, even if the exploitation was more metaphysical than financial (the reporter admits that neither of them is likely to make much money from any articles they would write together.)

Our insistence that survivors return to tell the world about the atrocities they suffered through is a version of the retrospection that Kertesz contests. What Kertesz wants instead is to present the experience of the survivor from within, which is to say, from the position of someone who is merely surviving, not yet a survivor. Some of the power of Fatelessness comes from the dramatic irony that arises when we compare our knowledge of historical events with György’s—we know what it means to have been “selected,” whereas Györy can only, disquietingly, exult in the clear physical superiority of those in the group he’s been sent to when the people in his transport are separated out. But most of its power comes when we allow ourselves to think about what that disquiet implies: an utter refusal to make of the events something other than what someone going through them might have experienced.

Fatelessness is the only novel I know of that attempts to portray the experience of what was known in camp slang as the Musselmänner, the Muslims, those who were unable through bad luck or poor constitutions or mere inability to find a way to finagle, through some kind of position or job, a few scraps more to eat than the allotted rations and who quickly wasted away. These figures are present throughout Holocaust literature, sometimes as objects of fear, sometimes of contempt, sometimes, as in Levi, as the representatives of the truth of the entire genocidal project, a truth no survivor can be said to share. Here we see one reason why Kertesz needed to write a novel rather than a memoir. By definition, we have no testimony from within that experience, since no one survived it. But Kertesz makes it palpable and plausible how one could be reduced to this state, and how within this zero-degree of human sentience there could still exist, however minutely, the desire for life. It is in this sense that György, transferred to Buchenwald, nothing but a sack of skin and bones who can no longer walk and is left for dead on the ramp until through the most contingent action—he happens to blink just as he is about to be carted to the charnel house and is instead taken to the camp infirmary, it is suggested because the prisoners sorting the living from the dead are so amused at the sight of one so obviously far gone attempting to announce his connection to the living—only in this sense can we understand what otherwise seems only ironic or deluded, György’s breathtaking statement. “I would like to live a little bit longer in this beautiful concentration camp.” In the same vein, György, who survives by being taken on as a kind of pet prisoner in a hospital unit manly for non-Jewish prisoners, for reasons that are obscure to us because they are unclear to him, can also think, back in Budapest, fondly on the camp: “I was seized by a sharp, painful, futile longing for it: nostalgia, homesickness.” This feeling too must somehow be accepted as part of what Kertesz woudl doubtless shudder to call “the Holocaust experience.”

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There’s so much more to say about Kertesz’s remarkable—and still too little appreciated—novel. But I’ve already said a lot. Suffice it to say that the class did terrifically well with this demanding novel. Next week, after a break for Rosh Hoshanah, we’ll spend several days working on the first long essay. I’m crossing my fingers that when we return to the course texts, this group will continue to keep on bringing it the way they have so far.