In June 1999, Riccardo Benedettini, writing a thesis on French literature under the supervision of the poet Valerio Magrelli at the University of Pisa, traveled to Switzerland to interview the great Hungarian émigré writer, Ágota Kristóf. This transcript of their conversation is presently one of only a few interviews with Kristóf available in English.
Kristóf did not write in her native Hungarian, but in French, which she painstakingly learned after immigrating to Switzerland when she was twenty-one years old. And as Magrelli, who brought this interview to my attention, puts it, “Kristóf invented a new kind of French.” Unlike Beckett, who kept language itself at arm’s length for the sake of form, she did not experiment with French out of artistic ambition, but in order to live and be understood, not playfully, but with rigor and dedication to correctness—and she did so to devastating effect.
Kristóf fled Hungary on foot and under cover of night with her infant daughter, her husband, and two bags, one containing diapers and the other dictionaries. The family arrived in Austria before settling in Switzerland, where Kristóf found work in a clock factory. Among her fellow workers, many of whom were also exiles, talking was strictly forbidden. Outside the factory, Kristóf was mute for a lack of French—and even once she had mastered spoken French, she remained effectively illiterate for years. Four of her friends, all Hungarians exiled in Switzerland, committed suicide soon after arriving. Kristóf’s memoir, The Illiterate, which describes these events, is one of the most restrained and concise examples of the genre in all of literature; at just forty-four pages, it portrays Kristóf’s life from childhood in a strange, private, and singular music.
In this remarkable interview, translated here for the first time by Will Heyward, Kristóf answers questions in simple and remarkably direct terms, reminiscent of the brutal sparseness with which she wrote her trilogy, The Notebook, The Proof, and The Third Lie. When asked how or why she created a certain disturbed character or perverse scene, she answers only that she knew that person, or saw that scene. That was just how it was. But her references to what we might call “real life” do not so much highlight the importance of her biography, but how she creates fiction. Even when Kristóf answers “I don’t know,” she reveals something. Kristóf writes; that is her answer. To write is to invent, to amuse, to distract from life’s many kinds of suffering. As the character Lucas says in The Proof, “There are many sad stories, but nothing is as sad as life.”
—Mieke Chew, New York, May 2016
Riccardo Benedettini: You have had a lot of success with your novels, and your writing is often compared to Thomas Bernhard, Beckett, and Kafka. Do you think certain aspects of your work have been misunderstood, or neglected?
Ágota Kristóf: It pleases me to talk about Bernhard because I just love him (laughs). I don’t know. I don’t like it when people talk about me and Marguerite Duras. I don’t like Duras. Have certain parts of my work been misunderstood? Oh . . . well. I don’t know. I don’t know what you mean by that.
RB: Your books have been translated into twenty languages—
AK: [Interrupts] No . . . Into more than thirty languages.
RB: Excuse me, thirty. What do you make of such a wide-reaching reputation?
AK: Ah, early on it was amazing. What’s interesting is that the books still sell, after more than ten years in print. That is incredible. The Notebook sells a lot. And I often receive requests for adaptations.
RB: I’ve heard that. Has a film adaption been made?
AK: Not yet, but the rights have been sold. The producer is American and the cinematographer will be Danish. It’s to be set in the center of town, of Kőszeg, facing The Hotel, where the bookshop was located. You would have definitely seen both when you went to Kőszeg. The building they’ll use for Grandmother’s house, her house in The Notebook, has already appeared in several other films. And for my book, Yesterday, some Italians have optioned the film.
RB: Your texts are the subject of much literary criticism. What are the aspects of your work that you would like to see critics pay attention to?
AK: I don’t know. It’s all the same to me.
RB: Do you think there is a message to be taken from your books?
AK: Of course not. I don’t want to have a message. No [laughing], not at all. I don’t write like that. I wanted to say a little about my life. That’s how it all started. In The Notebook, it was my childhood that I wished to describe, what I saw with my brother Jeno. It is purely biographical.
RB: Since you have been writing, in what ways have you evolved?
AK: I have evolved a lot, clearly. I started writing when I was thirteen years old, and everything has changed about my style since then. Everything. The poems were too poetic and too sentimental. I don’t like this kind of writing, I don’t like my poems at all, not any more.
RB: When did you realize you were a writer?
AK: I have really always known. In my childhood, I read a lot, especially the Russians. In my childhood, I loved Dostoevsky. He might well be my favorite. I also read a lot of detective novels.
RB: What is your creative process?
AK: In all honesty, I don’t know. I started to write scripts for plays in French. When I was young, and had just come here, in my twenties, I wrote poems in Hungarian. Then, when I started to learn French, I started to write in French. That was enjoyable for me. Yes, I did it to amuse myself a little bit. After that I started to meet theater lovers and directors. I began to write plays and I also worked a lot with theater students. We performed many of my pieces for the radio, although a lot of them weren’t edited. It was fun.
RB: Can we see a link between the theatrical dialogues and the dialogues in The Notebook?
AK: Yes, absolutely.
RB: What do you make of your novels?
AK: Well . . . They are very serious, too sad. Yes, a little too sad.
RB: Which writers are most important to you?
AK: I love Knut Hamsun and another writer . . . but I don’t know how to say his name. It was my editor who had given me a book by this writer, telling me that it resembled my own work a lot. Yes, that novel, very heavy . . . But I didn’t see any resemblance to my work. Now I don’t read a lot. I like Francis Ponge, and George Bataille as well, but I don’t know many contemporary writers.
RB: Do you feel like a spokesperson for a Hungarian national literature, French-Swiss, or truly stateless?
AK: Hungarian, even if I write in French. All my books are about Hungary. Even the fourth one, have you read it?
AK: Yes. Well, it is set here in Switzerland, but in a refugee neighborhood. It is more or less a true story. It is very autobiographical. I had worked in a factory. The factory was in the fourth village. We had to take a bus. We lived in the first village. I am Line, the character from Yesterday, it was me who got on the bus at the first village. My ex-husband had a scholarship. The character Sandor was a tzigane, a gypsy, who also worked in a factory. We worked together. My first daughter recognized all that. The apartment that I describe, for example. Yes, I think it is the most autobiographical of my novels. Everything I describe really happened, the suicides too. I knew four people who killed themselves after emigrating from Hungary, and that was all I wanted to talk about.
RB: I would like to know the exact date that you left Hungary.
AK: It was in 1956, after the revolution.
RB: Yes, but I want to know which day.
AK: I think it was the 27th of October, but I’m not sure. No, no, it was the 27th of November.
RB: The 27th of November?
AK: Yes, I think so. We left late in the night. We were in a group. We arrived in a village, which was already full of refugees. Straightaway, they looked after us. The group was mostly children. We were welcomed into the homes of peasants who were paid to provide us with food and shelter. I don’t know how many days we stayed there. After that, the mayor of the village bought us bus tickets to Vienna. We paid him back later. In Vienna we stayed in a barracks.
RB: You didn’t plan on going to Switzerland? I read that you would have preferred to go to Canada. Is that right?
AK: No, no. Never to Canada. I wanted to go to the United States because I had family there. When we arrived there, they told us we could only stay for six months. After that we returned to Switzerland where there was a scholarship for my husband. He was a history teacher. They really looked after us. They found us the apartment, a job for me, a nursery for the baby. That was why we stayed there. I wanted to go back to the US, but I had to wait. My children are here in Switzerland, and I don’t want to be too far away from them.
RB: When was the first time you returned to Hungary?
AK: Twelve years after I left, in 1968. I still had my parents and my brothers. Now my parents are dead. I only have my brothers and their young children in Hungary. But they don’t live in the little village anymore. My brother Attila, the writer, lives in Budapest. I go back to Hungary often.
RB: Did you have the impression, when you left Hungary, that you were still the victim of those who had stayed under the regime?
AK: I’m not very interested in politics. It was my husband who wanted to leave, because he, on the contrary, is very interested in politics, and if he had stayed he would have been thrown in prison, that is for sure. His friends who stayed did two years in prison. In any case, two years isn’t that long.
RB: But even if we just keep to your novels, Clara, the widow from The Notebook, whose husband is executed, gives us evidence of the injustice of the regime.
AK: Yes, Clara is my mother. She told me about it. Her hair turned white from shock, like Clara’s. It is true, they, the regime, singled people out. All the people who, for example, had had contact with the Yugoslavians were traitors.
RB: Did you have a lot of difficulties when you arrived in Switzerland?
AK: A lot. For five years I couldn’t read. I worked in a factory where we weren’t allowed to speak to each other much. I only knew Russian. My father taught mathematics, but before leaving for the front he taught everything, he was the only teacher in the village. My husband spoke a little bit of French because he was a lot older than me. Not very well, but enough. When he had gone to school, they had still taught French and German, but afterwards it was only Russian. Here I went to university, but I only took courses for foreigners. You had to have a baccalaureate even here.
RB: Did you still write in Hungarian?
AK: No, I spoke Hungarian perfectly, but when I wrote letters or cards I often made mistakes. Very often I put things in the wrong places, like including a silent “e,” for example.
RB: Do you agree with the definition according to which a novel must be based on the incompatibility between the individual and the world around her?
AK: I don’t know. I don’t think about things like that.
RB: The word “trilogy.” What do you think about the choice of this word as the title of the translations of your novels?
AK: It is a word I accept, yes, because it is the same people in all three, and so they go together.
RB: The war clearly influenced your relationship with the world. How did it influence your relationship with your fictional characters?
AK: The war had an effect on me, I wrote about that. I was ten years old when the war ended, and it was interesting to me. The story that I tell in my first novel starts in 1944. We spent the last year there. It has to be said that the last year was the most difficult and the most dangerous, too, because the front was approaching, always getting closer, closer. But our village wasn’t bombed much, only a little actually. There weren’t many houses destroyed. There were lots of alarms and the school would be closed during those. In the school there weren’t any tables for the students, and even if there were, no one wanted to go to school, and no one could.
RB: Do you agree with a realistic reading of your books, that is to say, a reading which seeks to recognize the historical time and place in which they are set?
AK: Yes, it is after all my life, my feelings, my return the village.
RB: But the atmosphere is outside of time. Why this temporal and spatial imprecision?
AK: I have always written like that, even in my scripts. Have you read them?
RB: Yes, absolutely. La Route, for example.
AK: Yes [laughing] . . . But is hasn’t been edited and published. How did you get them?
RB: From your editor. He sent me a copy.
AK: Ah, yes, it has been a long time since I sent him copies.
RB: So, can we recognize in the town of S, which you describe in the Third Lie, the town of Szombathely, next to the town of Kőszeg?
AK: Yes, exactly.
RB: Would you also accept a reading linked to fables?
AK: Yes, we can talk about fables too. It is all the same to me.
RB: The choice of two twins brings with it inevitably the difficulties, the problems of identity. Why twins and not simply a brother and sister?
AK: I don’t know. They came into my head. At the start I wrote about my brother and me, and it didn’t work so nicely. So I used “we.”
RB: What is the value of the objects that make up the twins’ few possessions? I’m thinking of the Bible, my father’s dictionary, and the big notebook.
AK: These are the essential things in life. The first reading is of the Bible. When we read a book, it is the Bible. The dictionary is above all me because when I arrived here I didn’t really know any French. So I read the dictionary a lot. I was always looking up words. I really like dictionaries; I use them a lot in Hungarian too. And the big notebook was because I wrote a journal in Hungarian in high school. In school I had invented a way of writing that now I couldn’t read even if I wanted to. I have forgotten it.
RB: Did you, like the twins, follow a special autodidactic education with your two brothers?
AK: Not really an education, but exercises, yes. Not eating for two days, not moving, not speaking for an hour. Exercises of cruelty, as well, because neither my mother nor my father killed animals. Well, maybe my father, but he wasn’t there anyway. So it was my brother who killed the chickens. Me . . . no, I couldn’t. We hanged a cat, too, it is true. It was always my brother who did it. It was difficult to watch. The cat became very long, and we thought it was dead, so we took it down. It stayed still for a while, and then it ran off. When I told my brother that I was writing about our childhood, he said to me, “Don’t forget about the cat.”
RB: There is the hanging of a cat in one of Dostoyevsky’s novels also. The Brothers Karamazov, if I’m not mistaken.
RB: Yes, but it isn’t so important. Now I’d like to take a moment to talk about some of the other characters. In your novels, there is a quite striking duality between representation and reality. What meaning do you give the figure of the grandmother and, for example, the scene with apples?*
AK: The grandmother is an invented character, but her work is not made-up. The garden, the chickens, that’s my mother, who worked very hard. And later we also saw the old peasants, very mean. Yes, there were lots of women like that. With the apples, yes, the grandmother does it willingly, of course.
RB: In striking contrast to that character there is the figure of the housekeeper, who is sort of a symbol of the population indifferent to the drama of others. She is kind with the two children, but reveals herself to be needlessly cruel during the deportations of Jews from the village.**
AK: But, you know, it is also true. We lived in a town and really saw the deportations. A procession of women, the elderly and children. We had a nanny at our house, she was Austrian. She was eating and she did that. She held out her bread as they passed and then withdrew it. There was a transit camp in my village. Today there is even a monument at the site of the camp. Have you seen it?
RB: No, unfortunately. Line, in Yesterday, is at once a symbol of pure love and of the most cruel and needless racism. At heart, this is what holds together your characters? The opposition between how they appear and the reality, between the lie and the truth?
AK: Yes, it is true. I think that people are neither altogether good or altogether bad.
RB: The Notebook is, if you will, a novel about the quest for oneself and freedom. The powerful connection between the twins is necessary in order for them to survive. But they must also break this link in order to live autonomous lives. Is it or is it not the case?
RB: It is as such the case in The Third Lie that a total reunion between the two brothers can’t be possible?
AK: Yes, Klaus lives alone. He doesn’t want to change his habits. He was to live quietly. And then he is jealous of his brother.
RB: Love plays a secondary role in your books, but you try to show sex, often in all its violence. What’s more we get the impression that the only characters capable of love, are those who love in way that is “different.” Why?
AK: Yes, completely. Because we discussed this a lot in our childhood. We were always aware of what was happening around us. It was at Csikvánd [the Hungarian town where I was born]: there were two animals and all that. All the children knew everything. I think that in childhood sex has a big place. There is a curiosity to know what happens, what one has to do, and how. And then, during the war, there are a lot fewer secrets, rape is freed.
RB: Why did you think of a foreign officer, homosexual and masochistic?
AK: The officer really existed. It was in our apartment. There were three rooms, one of those had a separate entrance, and during the war it was always occupied. First by Hungarians, then by Germans, and finally by Russians. But the officer, no, he wasn’t a pedophile. That’s nothing but an invention, but it isn’t there in order to shock the public. Not at all. If I hadn’t included that, everyone would be able to read it, even children, which I would prefer. This detail prevents lots of people from reading the book, and because of that I regret it.
RB: But the officer loved them?
AK: Yes, it is true, the officer loved them.
RB: In any case, incest prevails. In Yesterday Sandor says that the perfect marriage is between brother and sister, like among the pharaohs. Why, then, do we never see a scene of the twins’ autoeroticism, the twins who, because they are two, carry out clearly erotic games between the two of them?
AK: I don’t know.
RB: It is odd that, despite the narrowest physical intimacy thanks to their condition, the two twins never touch each other. Why are they always presented as spectators of the sexuality of others? If they have sexual relations, like with the servant or the officer, they always have a detached air, as if to confirm that their foreignness to the action. Why that inaction?
AK: They are detached, yes.
RB: Do you think there are certain writers who have influenced you?
AK: Yes, I read a book, which resembled mine a lot, but it concerned a boy and a girl. It was a violent style, the style of The Notebook. So I asked my editor what we could do, and he told me it wasn’t worth the effort. In any case, that book didn’t really work. Yes, I think I’ve influenced a good number of people [laughing].
RB: I actually asked you the opposite. Who had influenced you. Well . . . I think it is good to change the subject. The character Harelip, from The Notebook, *** also moved me a lot. Is that based on a person you knew or purely fiction?
AK: Ah, no she existed. It was a woman of Kőszeg. I didn’t know how to write her, because it was already the worst. She didn’t have a nose any more. She had fallen and broken her nose. She hadn’t healed and it had fallen off. She slept with all the men in the village. She had two magnificent children, two or three, I don’t know any longer, buy they were truly beautiful. My brother has also written a book in which he talks about her. He wrote a book about exactly the same period, but very different. He wrote about an assassination. In which novel of mine is there an assassination?
RB: Your novels have lots of assassinations . . .
AK: Yes, that’s true. But . . . the assassination of a woman, do you remember?
RB: Ah, there’s the assassination of the wife of the insomniac in The Proof . . .
AK: Yes, that’s it. It’s the wife of the insomniac in The Proof. That really happened. There was a woman who was killed in his house. She lived really close to our house. My brother took that as the pretext and he wrote about what happened. She was killed because she had three factories in the town. What’s more, she was a foreigner and the government couldn’t nationalize the factories of a foreigner. That was why she was killed. My brother wrote his novel around this story. He looked everything up, researched it all. He went to the police, where the archives were kept.
RB: And the insomniac.
AK: The insomniac, that wasn’t at Kőszeg, that was here, at Neuchatel. I had a neighbor who lived opposite me. She was a woman who spent the whole night sitting in front of the window. She asked the time from passers-by. “What time is it? What time is it?” She would ask. I had a balcony and she tried to talk to me.
RB: If we return to the character of Harelip, I think that we can consider her death as a paradoxically happy death. What do you think of that?****
AK: The death of Harelip, yes, it is a happy death.
RB: Do you think sometimes of death?
AK: I think about it all the time. I am afraid of it. It isn’t even death, but old age and sickness. Of course, death too. And what’s more I don’t believe in God.
RB: The presence of the writer in the work of a writer. Why does the story of Victor occupy so much of The Proof?
AK: I had a friend here at Neuchâtel. He was an alcoholic, he smoked terribly. He didn’t kill his sister, but he always wanted to write. He gave me some pages also. They were poems. They were very good, but he wasn’t able to write an entire book. After his death, his sister wanted his manuscript because she wanted to have it published. I regretted that, because I could have written another novel just about him. I could have said a lot more.
RB: I noticed the presence of several dreams. Mathias’s dreams in The Proof, Thomas’s dream in Yesterday. Always an animal, a puma or a tiger, with silky hair. What is the real reason behind this presence, and what above all what is its meaning?
AK: In general, those are my real dreams.
RB: The death of the twins’ father? In the chapter “School” the two children have already, in a certain way, sent him to the front. Is that why you have him killed by a bomb? I read that your own father was very strict.
AK: My father was an instructor at Csikvánd, the village where I was born, not very far from Kőszeg. In this village, they didn’t even have a headmaster, and the students had to go to school in the neighboring village in a bus. It didn’t even have a train station either. Yes, he was very strict. We were happy when he was at the front, it was a lot better [laughing]. Yes, we can say that the twins sent him to the front. It is totally deliberate.
RB: How do you live today in Switzerland?
AK: I earn enough . . . I don’t work anymore.
RB: Yes, I am sure, Madame, but I don’t want to talk about your finances. I wanted to talk about your actual life, your relationship with the Swiss people.
AK: I have some friends, I go out very little, I watch lots of television, read the newspaper, a few books too. I make visits to my children, and they visit me. They have little children.
RB: If I can play the “desert island” game with you for a moment, which of your books, supposing that you could only take one, would you take with you to a desert island?
AK: The Proof.
RB: Would you like to undertake such a trip?
AK: No, not at all. I hate traveling. I traveled a lot because of my books, but now I don’t want to. They invited me to Moscow, Leningrad, Belgrade as well [laughing]. I didn’t accept.
RB: What is the part of your actual life you regret the most and which part do you look back on with the most nostalgia?
AK: My children and my books.
RB: On the other hand, what is the part which you would forget with the most pleasure?
AK: Leaving. And marriage too.
RB: What are you working on at the moment?
AK: Nothing. I write very little.
Translated from the French by Will Heyward
* In The Notebook, Grandmother is knocked unconscious with the butt of a rifle by a soldier after “accidentally” dropping her apron which is filled with apples as a deportation of Jewish villagers is passing her house. Grandmother says, “But all the same there were some who were able to eat my apples!”
** The scene with Grandmother is almost a complete inversion of the scene with the housekeeper in the previous chapter. As the deportation is passing the housekeeper’s room, a Jewish person holds out his hand and asks for bread. “The housekeeper smiles and pretends to offer the rest of her bread; she holds it close to the outstretched hand, then, with a great laugh, brings the piece of bread back to her mouth, takes a bite, and says: ‘I’m hungry too.’ A soldier who has seen all this gives the housekeeper a slap on the behind; he pinches her check, and she waves to him with her handkerchief.”
*** “She has a harelip, she’s cross-eyed, she has snot in her nose and yellow dirt in the corners of her eyes. Her legs and arms are covered in pimples. She says: ‘I’m called Harelip.’”
**** Harelip dies after intercourse with a group of invading soldiers, presumably Russians, who are conducting “searches” which involve stealing from the homes of villagers and raping the women inside. The twins find Harelip dead in her home and ask Harelip’s mother what happened. She answers, “She called them. She went out on the road and waved at them to come in. There were twelve or fifteen of them. And as they took her, she kept shouting: ‘Oh, I’m so happy, I’m so happy! Come, all of your, come on, another one, again, another one!’ She died happy, fucked to death.”
Riccardo Benedettini has a PhD in French Literature and is a research fellow at the University of Verona. He is the author of several works published in Italy and abroad.
Mieke Chew is the founding editor of Higher Arc magazine. She has written for the Sydney Review of Books, Music & Literature, BOMB Magazine, and other publications. She works at New Directions.
Will Heyward is a book editor in New York City. He has written for The White Review, Music & Literature, BOMB Magazine, Vice, Stonecutter, The Australian, and other publications.
Ágota Kristóf, born in Csikvánd, Hungary, in 1935, became an exile in French-speaking Switzerland in 1956. Working in a factory, she slowly learned French, the language of her adopted country. Her first novel The Notebook (1986), gained international recognition and was translated into more than thirty languages. It was followed by the sequels in the trilogy, The Proof (1988), and The Third Lie (1991). In 2004 Kristóf published a memoir, The Illiterate, about her childhood, her escape from Hungary in 1956, her learning a new language as a refugee, and writing in this new ‘alien’ language, French. She also wrote plays and further novels. She died in 2011.