The work of Nobel Laureate Imre Kertész: Writing as an imperative

His refurbished gravesite unveiled in the National Cemetery

editor: REMIX NEWS
author: Zoltán Hafner

Imre Kertész was born ninety years ago on Nov. 9, 1929, and it has already been three years since he passed away. When his first novel, Fatelessness, appeared in 1975, and he felt that his work would be destined to “lie dormant in the mildewed depths of a Hungarian cellar,” he turned to his publishing editor with this outlandish declaration: “Only worldwide fame can help me.”

Continuing his recollections in a diary entry of January 1995, he wrote the following about that moment: That statement was just as absurd as my decision in 1954 to become a ‘writer’, the kind of writer that was unimaginable here, one who would not take pragmatics as his starting point and not be guided by local circumstances, but – so to say – take eternity as his guiding standard.”

If we take some time to think about it, we see that the life of Imre Kertész was a series of absurdities and that his work was the ruthless analysis of these absurdities, always accompanied by stern self-examination. After he finished Fatelessness on May 9, 1973, and its release was rejected by the publisher Magvető Kiadó at the end of July that year, he took stock of the work he had done and considered smuggling the novel’s manuscript abroad to have it published.


In secret – effectively illegally – he began his work, which appeared to be impossible and lacking any guarantee of success. He had to wait nineteen years to see his first book in print, and he was sixty when he received his first literary award, the Attila József Prize. The success came too late to spoil him or encourage him to make any kind of concession – even to himself. He took spiritual exile for granted, adjusting his lifestyle and literary strategy to it:

“It would be impossible to survive – to get through the affairs of everyday life here – without trying to detach myself and trying to create a spiritual mode of existence in which this detachment becomes first acceptable to me, and then creative. So, however paradoxical it sounds, I can be very grateful for the past forty years. For the fact that, for example, I was never accepted as a writer and also for considering myself to be completely incompatible with that community and not striving to gain access to literary circles. This gave me perspective…”

He repeatedly quoted Emerson’s definition of a hero as someone who cannot be shifted from their central axis. In relation to himself, he translated this as a personal demand that, above all else, he should shape his own personality and create a work of art from his life.

As he expressed it on the dust jacket of Fiasco, My moral code is for the novel I have written to be the one I have lived.” For him, writing was an imperative act, and at the same time the arena for the acquisition and reacquisition of identity. In all of his works, Kertész wrote about and exemplified the weighty responsibility of determining how our life can be expressed, how at all times – especially in the face of dictatorships that seek to expropriate the individual – it can be made one’s own unique fate, and determining whether our story can serve as a lesson for others.

The entire life and work of Kertész focused on the process and cost of this struggle and at least as much on what we can do with the burden and experience bequeathed to us.

Due to his personal fate and lived experiences, Kertész was among the few who could speak to us with equal authority about the 20th century’s two monstrous dictatorships. The value of his work can be found in his eyewitness account, which is never framed in the past and always addresses the reader at an existential level.

Although Imre Kertész paid no small price for his outsider status, he remained free throughout the darkest of historical periods, and his books were conceived in this freedom. If there was something for which he was not forgiven, it was this. And he would have been consigned to an oblivion even swifter than that which is customary among us had it not been for the arrival of worldwide fame in another absurd turn of events in the form of the Nobel Prize, a “catastrophe of luck,” as he referred to it.

He was able to finish his lifework – at least in the form he wanted to see it and wanted it to be seen – in spite of his increasing illness, which proceeded in parallel with his increasing success. As he was well aware, however, even in its isolation this form is fragmentary. But it is not only this inheritance with which we are familiar (deeply or superficially, and with no little misunderstanding) and which demands intense and continuous nurture.

His hitherto unpublished and forgotten writings constitute a body of work which is at least as extensive. One of the reasons for setting up the institute bearing the writer’s name is for this unknown area of his work to eventually become our common inheritance. Working towards making this exceptional lifework accessible in its entirety is not only demanded by the last honors due to him, but also by our own need for self-knowledge.

Allow me to mention, if only briefly and as a general outline, the following actions which have been fulfilling our duty to honor his memory.

A memorial plaque has been installed on the wall of the building on Budapest’s Török utca where the writer lived, and his funerary monument has been completed in accordance with the wishes of Magda Kertész.

The preparation of the writer’s unpublished works and the collection of documents related to him has begun. A digital knowledge base devoted to the writer – a remarkable example in its own field – has long been available for research on the internet. A traveling exhibition also presents his education from 1934 to 1955 and the harrowing life story of his first wife.

In addition to all of this, we are also supporting other projects. We have only just started the work to be done, and there are a multitude of tasks ahead of us before we can assess the true scale of all that we owe to this exceptional creative force.


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