What to Read When the Revolution Begins

There’s something special about the novella form. Long enough to bind—too many pages to staple, words enough to merit book length without resorting to margin tricks—but short enough to read in a sitting, with breaks for coffee, underlining, pencil-sharpening, maybe lunch. Melville House publishes a series of backlist novellas—the classics, Turgenev and Eliot and Shelley and Proust—and a line of contemporaries, many appearing in English for the first time, all bound in eye-catching glossy covers the titles in a font so big you can be sure everyone in your subway car will notice your discerning taste. So here’s this, one of the latest from their contemporary line: The Union Jack, Melville House’s second offering from Imre Kertész, the Hungarian writer and translator who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002.

I suggest you avoid reading it on the subway. Or the bus. Don’t read it on your lunch break, either, and by all means don’t try to catch a few pages in an elevator or while standing in line for anything that doesn’t involve a ration card, “meat coupons,” or rumors of bread. This is a book about reading. So read it in one sitting. Read it the way Kertész’s unnamed narrator consumes books: catch tuberculosis and be thankful for a politically safe reason to read instead of work. Read with a “sense of exaltation, of mission,” read to become “acquainted with the experience of reading, reading for nothing in particular, an experience in no way comparable with the experience of reading as it is generally understood.”

Why? Because the stores are empty and there’s no train coming. Kertész’s Budapest is the “disaster city” of 1956, in the midst of the Hungarian Revolution—a violent uprising that began with state police firing at student demonstrators and quickly escalated to widespread unrest (mainly in Budapest, where armed militias battled Stalin’s tanks with Molotov cocktails along its narrow streets). By the time it was over—Soviet victory, revolution crushed—2,500 Hungarians were killed and 200,000 fled as refugees. For Kertész, this reality—both the violence and the mass arrests and denunciations that followed after it for months—was best experienced from the safety of low-awareness: reading instead of facing the disaster, letting the disaster only graze his consciousness on his way back to his room to read. When asked what he remembers of the revolution, Kertész answers with The Union Jack, a short book that’s barely about the revolution at all—and about it totally. It’s complex and layered and opaque, and demands to be read as Kertész read: alone in your room, insulated for a few hours from the world, reading as if for rescue. Attention undivided. The sentences themselves are clause-heavy and compound, and Kertész’s paragraphs (there are four) might be at home in Bernhard or Sebald, even Kafka or García Márquez. The first one doesn’t end until page 70.

Ostensibly about a moment during the uprising when Kertész (or his narrator, the book is autobiographical) witnesses a truck pass bearing the British flag, The Union Jack is a mediation on chance (“if such a thing exists…though I personally doubt it”), the “consequentiality of destiny or the absurdity of destiny,” and “the adventure of formulation;” that is, Kertész’s escape from the world (and later reconnection with it) through reading, and through what we might call a change in mindsets: the adventure of constructing the world, and one’s identity within it, with and without knowledge of the world, and without, beyond one’s construction of identity, knowledge of the self.

“Everything happens for a reason,” so the saying goes. It’s an American coinage, but conveys a sentiment popular among survivors of tragedy worldwide, from the personal—bad luck, addiction, hard times—to the widespread—thousands of personal tragedies in tandem, disaster, war. You might not expect it from a Holocaust survivor (Kertész’s first novel Fatelessness, made into a film in 2005, is about his experience at Auschwitz and Buchenwald at 15), but Kertész addresses meaning and chance head on in The Union Jack and comes up on the side of meaning. Coincidences are not coincidences. But the world created by the state—Stalin brutally oppressed the uprising; mass arrests continued after it for months—was, like the Holocaust before it, upside down, a world of total meaninglessness and horror. The disaster city, like a film set that Kertész’s narrator barely registers himself as an actor in, is prone to rapid changes in the names of its streets. Its citizens live in fear and denial of denunciations and accusations, sham trials, sentences to internment camps (“for the usual reasons—that is to say, no reason at all”). Once-respectable adults are reduced to “near-meaningless ravings that belied all common sense.” Nothing happens for a reason here. It’s all arbitrary, and that arbitrariness is the essence of the wrongness of the world. There’s nothing left but ruin: “Budapest was a city that had tumbled into ruins, souls that had been tipped into ruins, and hopes trampled underfoot amid those ruins.” Things that do happen for a reason, then, appear like promises of another world—one that’s restored to order, where life is as it’s supposed to be, free of totalitarian regime. Even in the disaster there are glimpses of this other, better place: “chance” encounters determined by fate, or the sight of an encouraging flag. (Seeing that truck pass, no doubt fleeing from the embassy, its flag draped across the grille, struck Kertész/his narrator as nothing short of revelation—more than chance.)

But the belief or non-belief in coincidence and chance might just be another one of Kertész’s “formulations”—it’s hard to say. A chronicle of his narrator’s intellectual coming-of-age, The Union Jack is the story of these formulations—constructions that serve as ways of making sense of life, but also function, as all good mindsets do, to shield a person from the world. As Kertész’s puts it, formulations keep the “unformulable—namely, the essence, which is to say this life, grinding and stumbling along in the dark, lugging the burden of darkness—in the shadows.” Things that don’t make sense—the unlanguaged unconscious, spaces where beliefs contradict, or dreams—are not recognized. At the outset these formulations help the narrator do the opposite of bear witness. They make life comprehensible. They let him hide out in his room with books. He doesn’t pay attention to the revolution, its suppression, the trials that begin; he numbly witnesses the arrest of a “party bigwig” and sits in stupefied silence as the editors at his newspaper denounce their former colleague the next day. But the formulations cannot hold. Kertész’s narrator is a budding journalist, but not a very good one—as soon as he tries to understand the world, he can’t. He’s at once afraid and laughing and confused, and is soon so disconnected he gets fired from the paper for being out of touch. And begins to fall apart:

From that moment I slipped…out of the world of formulability, and thus the sustainability of my way of life, the events going on around me—and hence I myself as an event—disintegrated into fragmentary images and impressions. But the camera lens that captured the jumbled images, sounds and even thoughts was still, agonisingly and irreducibly, me, only a me that was growing ever more alienated from myself.

Jobless, Kertész’s narrator keeps reading. He experiences Wagner’s Die Walkürie and wraps himself in its story instead of the disaster world, seeing no connection between the two, until he reads, hoping to learn more about Die Walkürie, Thomas Mann’s The Blood of the Walsungs (another novella). Without doing us the favor of describing its story (it’s also a semi-autobiography, featuring incestuous twins), Kertész writes: “That book . . . swept away the haze of my formulations from the surface of my life, so that I may see life, face to face, in the fresh, startling and bold colours of seriousness. . . That book . . . marked the start of the radicalisation of my life.”

But life without formulation is almost impossible—every consciousness needs stories to tell itself about itself, to understand both the world around it and its place there. Kertész’s narrator doesn’t deny this. The problem, he says, is the way these stories separate consciousness from experience. Kertész writes of the

Iron curtain that rises between formulation and being, the iron curtain that rises between the story-teller and his audience, the iron curtain that rises between one person and another, and, in the end, the impenetrable iron curtain that rises between a person and himself, between a person and his own life.

So he makes new formulations. Better ones. Stories that connect him to the world. Kertész’s narrator—perhaps the author himself by this point, given the moralizing tone of his reflections—speaks to us from this side of the retrospective past—tells us there is a “morally obligatory experience of life.” We may not like stories that end in morals, but The Union Jack’s is a pretty good one, as far as morals go: We must live presently, bearing witness, without the curtain, and let go of formulations that keep us in hiding, wrapped up in ourselves, in our identity and books. (Books for Kertész are both good and bad—bad when they serve to further our illusions and desire for escape, but good when, like The Blood of the Walsungs or The Union Jack itself, they lift a few curtains, showing something about life we weren’t previously able to see.)

Maybe I’m stretching here, but the mindset that Kertész discards doesn’t seem too different from the one that tells us we should care about what people see us reading on the train. Or the one that keeps us lodged in our rooms, alone, reading, or “doing nothing” (self-abuse as TV, video games, Googling ourselves), thinking that the various disasters of our present world, so long as we refuse to acknowledge them, will stay safely held at bay. We may not be living in Kertész’s Budapest, and if you’re reading this (or reading Kertész) (or reading any of Melville House’s fine novellas), you’re probably not living in a Burmese refugee camp, a tent outside Port-au-Prince, or under fear of drone attack. But the fearfulness of reality, life as it is and not as we want or believe it to be, and our desire to hate or avoid that fear, isn’t so different from what Kertész experienced (and did not experience) during the Hungarian revolution. Ignorance and self-absorption are traits we’re all born with, no matter where or when.

So read The Union Jack alone, in your room, preferably at your desk. It’s a book that takes care and time and attention to follow. But when you’re done, get up. Leave yourself. Leave your desk and room and practice witnessing the world.

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