György Konrád Konrád, György (Vol. 4) - Essay

Konrád, György (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Konrád, György 1933–

Konrád is a Hungarian social worker and novelist. He is known to Americans as George Konrád.

Beneath the lowest rung of society live the speechless. They are the broken and deranged, the flotsam and the lumpens, all those helpless people who have signed a separate peace with reality and now choose not to confront regulations, skills, responsibilities….

Modern literature has noticed them not as "cases" but as creatures…. [Never,] to my knowledge, have they been evoked with such intimate authority and grating clarity as in "The Case Worker," a brilliant first novel by a new writer from Hungary. With this one book George Konrád, himself a social worker in Budapest, strides to the forefront of contemporary European literature….

It is a powerful book, and it gains its power from Konrád's gift for the vignette, the suddenly snapped picture, as if taken through a slightly overfocused camera. The graphic prose carries one from paragraph to paragraph, with no expectation of pleasure or accumulation of suspense, yet a need to share in the fated journey of a mind seeking to reach its limits.

Necessarily, there are losses in this kind of fiction, and the very success of this novel helps to define them. The vignette, the prose snapshot, the virtuoso passage cannot yield us that experience of a sustained narrative that Lionel Trilling has described as "being held spellbound, momentarily forgetful of oneself, concerned with the fate of a person who is not oneself but who also, by reason of the spell that is being cast, is oneself, his conduct and his destiny bearing upon the reader's own." No; in reading "The Case Worker" we are not held spellbound, we are not forgetful of ourselves, since the author is trying for other effects—the effects of a kind of ratiocinative blow, almost a cringing before the extreme possibilities of existence. But what saves the book from mere shock is that Konrád believes overwhelmingly in the moral significance of other people's experience, and writes out of the conviction that the world, no matter how terrible, is still the substance of our days.

The materials of this book are of a kind that in recent years have often become the special property of documentary movies—we have even been told that the old-fashioned printed word cannot match the film for vividness. But "The Case Worker" shows, if anyone doubts it, that language remains the greatest of human powers, with unrivaled capacities for evocation, parallel and echo. A notable debut, a remarkable achievement, and a vindication of the word.

Irving Howe, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 27, 1974, pp. 1, 24.

A grim talent of Eastern Europe has emerged: one who has the ability to invest the sinister with a fool's cap without diminishing its horror or our humanity. Konrad is now under surveillance, probably for being talented enough to describe reality. Well, you can say this about the Iron Curtain countries: they certainly know who their best writers are.

Martin Washburn, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; © 1974 by The Village Voice, Inc.), February 28, 1974, p. 23.

For ten years, the middle-aged, middle-echelon bureaucrat in a contemporary Budapest child-welfare organization who is the narrator of this scathing first novel ["The Case Worker"] has listened to his "clients'" grotesquely similar, "massive, tentacular, and incurable woes"; he has said "Have a seat, please," some thirty thousand times, he speculates; and he has swept so much pain and remorse off his desk with a bang of his rubber stamp that he feels like "a surgeon who sews up his incision without removing the tumor." The narrator takes us through the encounters of a typical, depressing, frustrating day, through his nightmare-like store of memories of past cases, and, at one point, through a fantasy he entertains about shedding his bureaucrat's armor, leaving his family, and caring for an idiot five-year-old whose parents have recently poisoned themselves. The language is straightforward and utterly unsentimental, which makes the incurable illnesses, perversions, cruelties, lies, and social injustices he describes on page after page all the more shocking. Pity and loathing tug at the case worker (and at the reader) with equal force. The case worker's task—patching up the injuries that the wretched inflict on each other, and especially on their children—is, of course, comically Sisyphean, obscenely unaccomplishable. Such raw human suffering as is depicted here is infrequently the subject of works of fiction, and even more infrequently the theme of a writer as skilled, brilliant, and willing to take risks as Mr. Konrád. This is an almost unbearable book to read, but it should not be missed.

The New Yorker, March 11, 1974, p. 134.

At first glance, there doesn't seem to be anything either absurd or particularly Eastern European about The Case Worker, a stunning first novel by George Konrád, a young Hungarian writer (in a translation by Paul Aston).

For these precise and dispassionate accounts of the most horrendous forms of degradation and suffering have also become something of an Eastern European specialty—if only because they are so simple and straightforward, and never sensationalist or self-indulgent in the Western manner. (In reading Konrád's book, one thinks inevitably of Jerzy Kosinski who in his terse tales of human perversity has also drawn on his Eastern European experiences.) But Konrád, though he himself worked as a superintendent in a child welfare agency and has, like Kosinski, a background in sociology, is not merely a dispassionate observer and recorder….

What makes Konrád's book a remarkable achievement—what transforms the sociological content of his work into art—is that he succeeds in revealing, with his physical descriptions even more effectively than with the actual case histories, the true state of his clients…. Konrád, almost in the manner of the French nouveau roman, constructs a world of precisely observed objects—but his objects speak, and their tales of woe remain vivid.

The only other examples of Konrád's stylistic departure from his clinically concise narrative are his occasional anguished outbursts. But even in the searing parallel sentences of these prose poems, we find no rhetorical exaggeration, only an intense concentration on fact, a mixture of impassioned plea and ironic understatement…. Konrád's novel is not only an artistic tour de force, it is also a moral triumph—a book without despair is not altogether despairing.

Ivan Sanders, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), March 16, 1974, p. 26.