Britain's first book blogger (November 2000). This Space is now a major motion picture, or something.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Existential OuLiPo: The Illiterate by Agota Kristof

Today marks fifty days since I began learning German on Duolingo, a website I discovered by chance. That is, fifty days in a row. I know this because the site rewards continuity and persistence. Online e-learning has now enabled me to progress far further than I had ever imagined possible. Many years ago I signed up for a schoolroom course in which "immersive" interaction with neighbours in the new language was the sole method of learning. No lists of nouns, no gender tables, no rules of grammar. We didn't even look at words. I should have known better: this was how they taught French at junior school and my persistent memory of that time is of our teacher Mrs Hollick repeating out loud the question Qu'est que c'est? and me being resentful that the spelling I had seen in my mind was not the one she eventually wrote on the blackboard. Not only did "Kiskersay" lack the letter K, it was several words with vertical dashes inserted apparently at random. I never learned French, and the German course was a waste of time.

I need to look at words, to see their shape and how they relate to each other. Perhaps this visual imperative is why I am uncomfortable at author readings, as the voice appropriates the agitated silence of letters on a page. This has nothing to do with me, I think.


Mehr nicht!

Learning German has no apparent motive. Yes, I have German friends and many of my favourite authors write in the language and perhaps one day I'll be able to read Kafka, Rilke, Celan, Bernhard and Handke in the original, but the translations have already been more than enough. I do not fetishise the master text as composed by the great man. If it makes any sense, I would say I am drawn more toward the other of the original. This could mean that I think criticism should be less analyses of textual nuance than exposure of the work's silence to the Lebenswelt.

So what if, in handling the original manuscript, the writer's editor had made a mistake on a crucial point and the text was never corrected? So what if the editor's error was then compounded by the printer and was itself never corrected? That makes two mediating barriers. And so what if the editor's error compounded by the printer was compounded further by the translator, and then by the editor of the translation, and then by the printer of the translation? One should use Occam's Razor only to slash the throats of New Critics.


Agota Kristof says she also struggled to learn French. Unlike her native Hungarian, it is not a phonetic language, so the difficulty was amplified. But she didn't give up and The Illiterate is her account of moving to a new country, living in its language and eventually writing Le grand cahier, her extraordinary novel translated as The Notebook, both now published by CB Editions.

The need for language is there from the start:
I read. It’s like a disease. I read everything that comes to hand, everything that meets my glance: newspapers, schoolbooks, posters, bits of paper found on the street, recipes, children’s books. Everything that is in print. I’m four years old. The war has just begun.   [Translated by Nina Bogin]
For another seventeen years this continues, but then the uprising in Hungary forces an end and, to escape persecution, she makes the dangerous crossing of the border into Austria. The welcome they receive and the hospitality of the locals is a pleasant contrast to what reading Thomas Bernhard might lead one to expect of his fellow countrymen. The refugees are dispersed and Kristof, her husband and child end up in Neuchâtel in Switzerland where she begins work in a factory. Life is settled and safe and, you would think, happy. However, the loss of home, family and language dominate her life:
We expected something when we arrived here. We didn’t know what we were expecting, but it was certainly not this: these days of dismal work, these silent evenings, this frozen life, without change, without surprise, without hope.
A chapter entitled 'How do you become a writer?' – First of all, naturally, you must write. Then, you must continue to write – hints a more passionate and wilful person behind the quiet, cool prose: the two years it took to compose what she calls "short texts based on my childhood" that make up Le grand cahier pass in four and a half lines. And while she shares Thomas Bernhard's expressive reticence displayed in My Prizes, his own book of little personal essays, this appears to be a quality imposed by the French language rather than, as Gabriel Josipovici suggests in his introduction, a personal artistic credo. (Of course, it could be both.) The simplicity and directness of the prose prevails upon Kristof in the manner of a formal constraint as practised by OuLiPo, that legendary band of French writers for whom mathematical patterns and linguistic games provide an armature for literary creation. In Kristof's case, however, the constraint is imposed out of existential necessity. Whatever the cause, Josipovici welcomes the effect, as it means "her books are, thankfully, free of the overwriting which one finds in so much of the best post-war Hungarian authors".

One wonders then how much exile, silence and the struggle for a voice made Agota Kristof the writer she became, and how stifled or stifling she may have been as a writer of Hungarian rather than French literature. The new language does not then suppress the writer as reveal what she would not have discovered otherwise, making the space between home and exile a living presence. Samuel Beckett provides surest evidence of what happens when a writer adopts or is adopted by a language. Perhaps such a constraint is what I seek in learning German, as this sort of thing is easy to write after all.

More evidence of the value of distance comes in her chapter about the death of Stalin. She knows of no Russian dissident who has addressed his catastrophic influence on the national identity and culture of countries like Hungary.
What do they think, those who suffered under their tyrant, what to do they think about those "unimportant little countries" that suffered, in addition, under foreign domination, their domination? That of their country. Are they ashamed of it, or will they be ashamed one day?
Her role model for dealing with such shame, with standing outside and alone, is a writer to whom she admits devotion. This writer "never ceased to criticize and to denounce his country, his era, and the society in which he lived" albeit with love and humour as much as with hate and anger. She wishes there were more like him: "Thomas Bernhard will live on eternally as an example to all those who pretend to be writers". Agota Kristof's own name might easily replace his within this sentence.

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