A BOOK OF MEMORIES is Hungarian novelist Peter Nadas’s debut novel in English translation. It has already been lauded as a great work by significant American critics such as Susan Sontag after receiving an extraordinary reception in Europe. The novel is encyclopedic and autobiographical, combining probing explorations of politics and society with erotic scenes of riveting intensity. Some familiarity with contemporary history—especially with the Hungarian uprising of 1956 against the Communist government and the role of Berlin as the battle ground of the Soviet and western sides in the Cold War—would be helpful in threading through the novel’s multiple narratives.
The first narrative concerns a young Hungarian poet and his intense love for a German poet. The Hungarian poet is also writing a second narrative, a novel about an aesthete whose refined, anti-bourgeois sentiments seems a reflection of the poet’s own struggle to deal with his Communist family. Yet a third narrative is told from the viewpoint of the poet/narrator’s childhood friend in Budapest.
This complex layering of narrative and history make A BOOK OF MEMORIES about the writer’s role in history and how the role gets written and imagined. Nadas makes few concessions to the reader. The first one hundred pages are difficult going, for the reader has to become painstakingly accustomed to the intense, all absorbing language of the writer as he confronts and reshapes his world.
Nadas’s work bears favorable comparison with Marcel Proust and Thomas Mann, both of whom used the novel as art and history, and who saw in it a capacious form capable to tackling any subject. If Nadas’s work has been hailed in extravagant terms, it is because he has reawakened an ambition for the novel that few contemporary writers continue to pursue.