Book of Memories. Peter Nadas.

Nadas, Peter. A Book of Memories. Picador (paper) New York. First published 1986, English translation 1997. F;08/11

What a giant rambling 700-page mess of a thing this is. In the early going I decided not to finish it a dozen times. But something lovely or intriguing or my own bloody-mindedness kept me at it. Like persevering with exercise. Anyway, finally done after about six weeks.

I need an unraveling of the plot, which is tangled among eras, narrators, works of fiction within works of fiction, Eastern European communist politics, sex (including homosexuality, incest, triangles, and (almost) animals), murder etc. etc.

From what I can piece together, we have a nameless Hungarian boy narrator who describes his older childhood and adolescence around and after World War II, also rendered as an adult writer transplanted to Berlin who (we are able to deduce from book jacket précis and other sources) concocts a semi-autobiographical partial novel about a writer in the late 19th century, all discovered as a manuscript by one of the characters in that manuscript (the original narrator’s childhood friend and imaginary homosexual lover), who comments on it. Pretty much everybody is killed or dies naturally, and it finishes up with a Hungarian Finnegan’s Wake of a further fragment of the manuscript alleged by the ultimate narrator to tie things together. It doesn’t…

Digressive is a wild understatement. Nadas doesn’t hesitate for a second to follow everything on his mind, even if it means a sixty-page diversion, even diversion from one decade to another or imaginary work of fiction to another (or real one) without explanation, as long as it serves the purpose (um, what purpose?).

In walks the grandmother to a bedroom where her son, his wife, the son’s best friend (who is the wife’s former lover and possibly father of the narrator) plus the narrator age eleven clandestinely listening at the door are standing in the midst of a tense unresolved conflict, the friend and lover fresh out of five years in prison possibly denounced by the son, the gorgeous red-haired wife and narrator’s mother who has just revealed her mastectomy to the old lover doing everything she can to prevent a catastrophic confrontation, the boy trying to get out of the room, the two men verbally fencing in a duel which could literally end up being to the death, and we drop through a narrative trap door into a two-page discussion of the philosophy of imposing social norms versus seeking the truth, apropos of the grandmother’s wordview (no resolution, but a pretty good exploration of pros and cons of both). Good Lord.

I don’t think I’ve ever run across this detail of emotional description. People glance at one another and the faces and postures explode with outrageously minute detail pointillated with immense and conflicting emotional significance. Sex is especially teased to pieces in slow motion, usually without losing much voltage. Carefully examined emotional intensity is casually assumed to be normal traffic, like we live in it and have no choice but to go up and down, back and forth, over and over, in and out, all around every last idea about what we’re feeling and about what it all means (um, what does it all mean?).

Commentators I’ve read decry some silliness, and there is some of that for sure. When the rollercoaster swing this wildly up and down and back and forth it’s bound momentarily to leave the tracks from time to time. And there’s so much apparent contradiction one almost comes to see it as shorthand for “look out, even more ill-defined significance than usual lurking…”

Here are my flagged spots:

(Love scene on page 72-73) Fear, hate, reminiscence, anger, shame, and guilt all disappear “without a trace” during foreplay, only to return again and again as reflections during the whole eventually successful (very realistic) sex scene.

(Page 439-440):

I also felt that though I might be dull, clumsy, mean, ugly, cruel, fawning, given to intrigues, or anything that from an aesthetic, intellectual, or moral standpoint might be considered inferior, I could balance this aesthetic, intellectual, and moral inferiority, as well as moral turpitude, with the firm belief that my instincts were infallible and incorruptible: I’d feel first and know second, for I wasn’t a coward, unlike those who know first and only then allow themselves to feel, according to the prevailing norms, and therefore knew intuitively and incontrovertibly what was good or bad… (the sentence continues for quite awhile but we get the quite important drift).

(Page 456-457):

(of reflection on those who seek to expose and destroy the safety and security of a conventional life because of its “brittleness, falsehood, and illusory nature”, to build a new world “fashioned in their own image”) I might say, then, that while my eyes, tongue, and ears savored the pleasures of the morning’s unchanged old-fashioned order, my mind’s eye viewed its own joys, reminiscent of its childhood, from the greatest possible distance, and as it did, I suddenly grew old (my bold).

Obviously I select these passages from among dozens and dozens depending on mood, sleepiness, alertness, current moral stance, recent experience, susceptibility to ideas, alcohol and alcohol withdrawal, blah blah… this kind of talk and thinking could make even an emotional 20-year-old like me grow old. Tired.

So. What does it all mean? It reminds me of DH Lawrence’s commentary on Moby Dick (in his Studies in Classic American Literature). He called it a work of “considerable tiresomeness”. About what it means (what the whale was a metaphor for IE), he said (to paraphrase): “I doubt if even old Melville himself knew.” The whole thing is so huge and complicated. By its beauty, depth, complexity and moral heavy lifting it simply carries its own significance.

I might say a bit more after I’ve tried to find out if anybody has deconstructed the plot. The score is a guess in a way: 9.6/9.4 (assuming translation renders the style accurately. The style is probably better in the native Hungarian.)

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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