There are, among artists, two outstanding types: the artist whose work will last five years, and the artist whose work will last five hundred years. Metaphorically, this is to say that the present is a very uncertain barometer of art’s value, and what might be fashionable today will be easily discarded in the future. The unifying quality among artists of a high caliber, however, is a very deep understanding of the natural state of human beings and an extraordinary sense of detail when it comes to expressing that natural state.
In many ways, much art of worth (that is to say, art that will last beyond its own time) is concerned with the documentation of the inner life of emotions through the exterior form of nature. Frequently, art that stands the test of time expresses common emotion through common experience. (Perhaps this is why so many readers find The Da Vinci Code so poorly written: many of its author’s metaphors are not drawn from immediate experience, but from hypothetical or secondhand experience, giving an intensely unreal atmosphere to the book.) Thus, how simple and beautiful becomes Shakespeare’s description of a person whose character is as “constant as the northern star,” when we ourselves go outside night after night and gaze at that unmoving figure of that celestial body, the only seemingly unchangeable thing in the natural world? Shakespeare at once both expresses the depth of humankind at its best—loyal and with self-control—and the beauty and mystery of the world we find ourselves in. “Two things awe me most . . . the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me,” said Kant, and this is perhaps human experience at its greatest point of profundity and truthfulness.
This understanding of both emotional and physical nature as experienced by human beings is particularly true of the work of Ágota Kristóf, whose prose concisely illustrates to the reader the very world around them in its most complete and tragic image. From this we can conclude, I believe, that Kristóf is a great artist, the briefness of her prose and the limitations of her subject matter being the only elements that keep her from the rank of the greatest artists. That Kristóf's work is becoming more widely available in English is commendable, and will hopefully bring the author the greater attention she deserves.
Born in 1935 in Hungary, and forced into exile from that country as Russia invaded and strengthened its hold there in 1956—an event prompted by calls for independence that disconcertingly mirror the current invasion of Ukraine by Russia—Kristóf’s writing is marked by a sense of upheaval and sparseness that she endured for much of her life before and after exile. An emigrant to Austria and then to Switzerland, and adjusting in her new home to both the French language and a new body of literature she could now read (a canon she did not have access to during her early youth), Kristóf was an exile of both country and of language. Cementing her identity as an outsider, Kristóf would earn success in both her adopted homeland and her adopted tongue, publishing her first novel La Grand Cahier (The Notebook) in the mid-1980s with a major Paris publishing house after years of small-scale writing for the stage and for radio and factory work to support her daughter. The discipline Kristóf developed on the hard road to stability is everywhere evident both in the refinement of the author's short, elegant sentences and the caustic realism with which she describes the human condition. Her translators here expertly mirror Kristóf's precise and moving language, borne out of a discipline that is everywhere evident both in the refinement of the author’s short, elegant sentences and the caustic realism with which she describes the human condition. It seems appropriate, indeed, to call her prose as hard and precise as steel.
Two works—one a short novel and one an autobiographical essay—that each frame the author’s experience in brief and quiet flashes, The Notebook and The Illiterate balance and flesh one another out wonderfully. Both books detail life in the progression and aftermath of World War II. Squalor and dejection are quite simply the building blocks of reality that characters must cope with in all parts of a harsh and merciless life. The Illiterate details Kristóf’s abandonment of Russian society as she exiles herself with her husband and young daughter to Switzerland and her eventual realization of her identity as an author, while The Notebook is a portrait of the moral desolation of Hungary just before it falls to Russia in the post-war era.
Describing the lives of two young twin boys as their mother leaves them with a grandmother so that they will avoid the horrors of war, and ironically exposing them to some of its greatest horrors, The Notebook is as much about human development, and the conditions under which that development is either allowed to occur or hindered, as it is about life in wartime.
The novel is dominated by profound tragedy and surgically precise language. In fact, the book’s narrator recalls that imprecise language was treated with derision when sculpting out sentences during the process of learning to write: “Words that define feelings are very vague; it is better to avoid using them and to stick to the description of objects and human beings and oneself; that is to say, to the faithful description of facts.” The Notebook’s narrator is therefore quick to disregard all-encompassing words like “love” or “kindness” in favor of what can be readily understood and subject to precise language. And yet, one realizes, what is life like without such words? Are not “love” and “kindness” the only words to live for? The novel goes on to illustrate the consequences of such a life without those words.
As the twins begin their descent into the moral wasteland of war, the conceptual web of their minds begins to lose the use of empathic words like “love” or “kindness”: it is as though their use of language mirrors the decline of their mental faculties. The caveat of such emotionless writing is that all sentimentality is abandoned as untruthful and all major emotions are subject to mistrust. For children who suffer mistreatment from authority figures, this is a sensible but tragic conclusion, and one forged in a violent and pitiless society. It may be said that the twins’ use of a language lacking terms such as “love” mirrors their growth as individuals who see no use for such words. They begin to lose all sense of trust and respect for truth, just as they abandon words that would express such concepts.
Left to earn their meager existence in a bleak agricultural society, the twins quickly come to understand that if they are to survive, they must teach themselves how to outsmart, outman, and outdo the people around them. Bullies, abusers, and murderers dot the landscape in which they grow up, and the twins adjust to this harsh landscape with equal harshness, teaching themselves to slaughter farm animals to overcome an aversion to killing; to steal when rations are low; to blackmail in order to survive. All this becomes cruelly useful when the twins discover that a priest has sexually abused a disadvantaged girl living near them; the book does not lack for other exercises of self-denial and moral violence.
The twins' actions often have misguided but good intentions. By threatening the priest with exposure of his crimes, for example, the boys are able to extort money for food for the young girl in winter, so that she and her deaf and blind mother will not freeze or starve to death. The protagonists never abandon a sense of goodness per se, but in the end their version of goodness permits the greatest evil to occur. As they numb themselves to the pain of living, they numb themselves to deeper emotion. The twins’ behavior is borne out of a makeshift ethics related to the protection of the weak against the strong. (A foreshadowing of Stalin’s rule as Hungary falls to Russia is always dimly apparent in the background of the story. Adult characters voice their fear of their imminent disappearance and execution, for example, as the thought of Russia taking over or an alliance with Germany occurs to them, or are forced into action by a fear of such punishment.)
Indeed, the twins even have an affection for their cruel grandmother, in whose risky care they are left by their mother. The twins develop a work ethic largely to care for this old woman, whose drunkenness, theft of the twins’ money and clothing, and emotional abuse often turns into self-abnegation. Having no moral spectrum with which to compare their grandmother’s behavior, except their own quickly-fading sense of right and wrong, the twins withhold judgment against their elder. Somehow, they view her with both curiosity and a distant and unqualified affection.
It is only as the novel progresses that the twins’ moral system begins to break down. Without the anchor of experience to guide them, the twins simply begin to take the world as it is, reacting to each new situation with brute violence or dishonesty. Hearing an army officer speak of suicide, they gladly offer to help the man by shooting him to death. To them, there is no moral difference between helping someone to accomplish their aim and the long-term effects of their decision. Such, Kristóf seems to say, are the effects of war on the psyche, and such are we responsible for when we allow war to destroy all values. Do the twins pity others? Yes, to an extent. Do they have the framework to understand this pity, and develop it into empathic reasoning? No. Pity is shown to those who are left on the outskirts of society, and anger is reserved for those who take advantage of outcasts. But there is little grasp of varying moral gradients, and when larger ethical issues arise the twins seem to become lost in a psychological maelstrom they are unprepared to deal with. Manipulated by the adults in their society, the twins simply seem not to understand their situations. Under these circumstances, the twins abandon any sense of self-pity and accept their lot with spirit and cunning, acknowledging that in order to survive they must work under brutal conditions for the most basic of their needs. Tragically, this means that they also accept the misfortunes that come to them without defense or understanding. When winter comes and starvation becomes a very real possibility, the twins jump into action to keep themselves and those around them from death, knowing no other force will prevent a terrible end. Conversely, they fall in with a group of adults who take advantage of them, not recognizing the need for their own defense. As the year progresses, and the fighting in the war intensifies, the twins lose all sense of moral equilibrium, and slowly become psychopathic in the moral vacuum of this society, as survival amid brutality slowly turns into extreme mental illness. As the consequences of these changes slowly occur, the twins undergo a truly frightening transformation.
Such negative subject matter would normally bring grief to its readers, but The Notebook allows its readers to empathize with and embrace its characters. The main virtue of the novel is its willingness to explore the depths of human experience. The reader hardly notices, in fact, just how brutal the novel’s scenes can be, and how easily the twins veer from preventing disaster or rectifying injustice to causing it themselves. The novel’s recurring character of “Harelip,” for example, a sexually abused girl that the twins befriend, is the most sympathetic of the story. Amoral but caring when first introduced, an inversion of what the twins themselves will eventually become, Harelip is essentially a human being in its most natural state after withstanding societal abuse: a victim of others. The victimizers are the unnatural ones in this story, for they balance their chances of survival by enacting cruelty to gain an advantage over others. Harelip, in her mental illness, and her longing to be loved, is much more like the filmmaker Robert Bresson’s character Balthazar the donkey, Christlike in her acceptance of the world’s violence. Perhaps a better comparison is Bresson’s Mouchette, the abused girl whose life becomes a never-ending nightmare. Unlike the twins, Harelip is not cunning enough to begin to emulate her abusers to survive. In her seeking of love, hers is the most heartbreaking of the stories of The Notebook.
And how precise are Kristóf’s psychological portraits! Harelip’s abuser’s guilt is revealed in his mannerisms and furtive denials, and their grandmother’s by hers: slips of the tongue, lies that insistently reveal themselves. There is a slightness to these portraits that seems to place Kristóf beneath the sphere of truly great writers (how fascinating it would be to see these characters interact with good people! The children’s mother makes a late, brief appearance, but circumstances prevent the meeting from imparting moral sense or stability), but Kristóf’s eye and her understanding of human motivation and behavior are precise. What results is a great beauty of description and a profound revelation of human nature: that if we are to judge what is good or bad in terms of action, we must first seek to understand the thought process that engendered that action. We then might do much to prevent its happening again.
In a sense, the novel is not about the twins at all, but about Hungary—and in fact all countries—under the threat of war and desperation. In Kristóf’s view, it is a condition that produces monsters. How relevant, when the United States has abandoned Iraq after the 2003 invasion. How many times will the story of the twins play out in that war-torn country, with its populace undeserving of all its suffering? The Notebook is a profound book, then, but one that sits uneasily in the reader’s mind—but all the more important for having caused us to reexamine our deepest critical faculties.
The Illiterate, like The Notebook, gets to the sadness at the core of human existence, but it is a much faster story, covering years of time in the space of only a few chapters and pages. A minor work compared to The Notebook, it is nonetheless a fascinating read, especially in the author’s description of postwar Hungary under Russian rule. The event of Stalin’s death is treated with irony and slyness, and the general poverty and discipline of the age is described brilliantly. The author’s education in a spartan school and the warmth of camaraderie she develops with others demonstrates Kristóf’s own warmth of character: one feels in reading her work like a confidant and friend, and is sad to lift their eyes from the page for fear of losing her steady and disciplined voice.
Kristóf’s stories also feel deeply resonant with current events. Indeed, the Hungary of the 1940s and 1950s seems to share a tone with the United States of recent memory, with poverty becoming an increasingly common state and a general sense of apathy filling the moral atmosphere. When Kristóf finally abandons Hungary, with her husband and infant daughter in tow, on a frightening exodus through the forest to the Austrian border—an escape in which she risked almost certain execution—we are glad to learn that she will eventually discover her ability to place her experience into words. The world would be a poorer place without Kristóf’s examination of our time.
Jordan Anderson is a writer and musician from Portland, Oregon. His literary criticism has appeared in World Literature Today and The Quarterly Conversation.