The Arty Semite

The Humiliations and Triumphs of Imre Kertész

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share

At 80, the Hungarian Jewish Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertész is battling Parkinson’s disease while laboring on two new autobiographical works.

Best known for his fiction-like “Detective Story”, “The Pathseeker”, and especially “Fatelessness”, Kertész pensively, with verbal virtuosity (he has translated many German-language authors, including Freud and Joseph Roth, into Hungarian), expresses his experiences as a teenage prisoner of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. A new fictional work, “Union Jack”, set amid the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, is due from Vintage on January 19, and Actes Sud in France has just published a collection of his speeches and essays (Kertész calls them “approaches”), “Holocaust as Culture” (“L’Holocauste comme culture”) which adds essential insight into this complex, nuanced creative spirit.

Recounting trips to Austria and Israel, Kertész arrives at the axiom: “He who has been humiliated once will be humiliated always; he who is humiliated in his own land will also be humiliated abroad.” While finding solace in literature, which he terms “the sole meaning of life,” Kertész incarnates an alienated, existential stance, doubtless due in part to the ongoing stew of antisemitic discourse in Hungary. “Holocaust as Culture” asserts that the “Holocaust is a universal experience, and through the Holocaust, Judaism is today a renewedly universal experience.” Kertész greatly admires the documentary filmmaker Claude Lanzmann and the Austrian-born author Jean Améry, whose correspondence with Primo Levi (so far unavailable in English) he terms a key text. By contrast, Kertész finds the film “Schindler’s List” to be “kitsch as fat as a dinosaur,” insofar as Spielberg portrays mere survival as a form of triumph. Kertész insists that “no one survives” the concentration camps “since they are always with us.” He prefers the widely excoriated Roberto Benigni film “Life is Beautiful” for its irony and humor.

Finding himself moved and stirred by a 2002 trip to Israel to attend a Yad Vashem international conference “The Legacy of Holocaust Survivors: The Moral and Ethical Implications for Humanity”, Kertész showed himself to be a living, breathing, thinking contradiction of fascinating depth and range.

Watch the 2005 film adaptation of Kertész’s “Fatelessness” here, and see Kertész sitting on stage at the 92nd Street Y in 2004, listening intently while his friend, the Hungarian Jewish pianist András Schiff, plays Schubert, below:

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Nobel Prize, Imre Kertész, Holocaust Literature

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • This guy skipped out on seder at his mom's and won a $1 million in a poker tournament. Worth it?
  • Sigal Samuel's family amulet isn't just rumored to have magical powers. It's also a symbol of how Jewish and Indian rituals became intertwined over the centuries. Only three days left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love.
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.