By Péter Nádas
Translated by Imre Goldstein
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1,152 pages, $40
Published in 1986, during the waning days of János Kádár’s stewardship of Hungarian communism (and translated into English in 1997), Péter Nádas’s “A Book of Memories” represented for Susan Sontag the culmination of her hopes for the high modernist novel in a postmodernist era. She famously called it the greatest novel of the age, and it is not difficult to see why. It melds a frosty ardor with psychological insight, the facile polymathy of a piercing intellect, minimalist-rococo ornamentation, an adroit ironic stance and the accumulated narrative skill of the entire 19th century with the earthier concerns of our fallen age.
“His master subject is the complexity and insatiability of desire,” she wrote. “In heroic detail, ‘A Book of Memories’ is devoted to describing the possession, part by part, of the body of a desired other.” If this avatar of central European erudition, dissident high priest and chronicler of history enmeshed with carnality never existed, she would have had to invent him.
It is a pity, then, that she is not here to see her hero, Nádas, triumph. The bountiful bulk of that earlier, immense book has been surpassed by a half; its gorgeously sculpted interiority upended, refracted and combusted outward. Two decades in the making, “Parallel Lives” is a 1,160 page behemoth composed of three volumes that could each stand on its own as a modernist masterpiece. In fact, even to call it a “modernist masterpiece” does justice to neither its classical, realist and nouveau roman lineage nor its evolutionary leap in the composition of the modern novel.
The “Parallel” stories float, slide and sidestep each other. They clasp and release just as lightly, and they leave most things unresolved, floating away in mists of intimation. The body of an elderly gentleman dead of a heart attack, found on a Berlin park bench at the beginning of the novel, is never identified, though we have an idea who it is by the end of the book. This seriality propels him into what Hungarian critic Gábor Csordás styles “corporeal synecdoche writing” when describing Nádas’s method of providing a “staggering multiplicity of essentially independent stories, which no realist construction would be able to embrace within a single narrative.”
The book is as colossally ambitious as and deserves comparison with those of Tolstoy, Balzac, Broch or Mann. Yet here, the narrator of the catholic 19th-century realist novel is pulled down from his celestial heights and swaddled in the fabric of the narrative tapestry. He does not know any more then we do and, indeed, perspective shifts ceaselessly as plots proliferate, tangle and loop back languorously and purposefully. And unlike many maximalist post-modern novels, they entangle without the cluttering effect often wrought by bricolage and the over-accumulation of device.
The novel is set in Budapest in the spring of 1961 and extends forward to the unification of Berlin in 1989 and back to the beginning of the war. There are scenes set during the violence of the Holocaust, the Nazi occupation and immediately afterward; there are descriptions of savage crimes and allusions to every event of political significance during these six decades. The novel spans the landscape of totalitarian Europe and all of postwar European history. It encapsulates and charts an entire civilization.