Column Editor: Donna Jacobs (Retired, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC 29425)
One piece of historical truth inspired George Saunders to ask the question: “How do we live and love when we know that everything we love must end?” in his novel Lincoln in the Bardo. The newspapers of the day reported that President Lincoln repeatedly visited the crypt of his recently deceased son Willie to hold the body and grieve. From this sensational and fantastic report, Saunders weaves a story using both historical fact from this time and voices from fictional dead characters. His structure of the story is unique and the reader is left with a wild interpretation of what happens in the bardo. It is quite a read and set the tone for my next Nobelist choice, Imre Kertész’s Liquidation. The author was a random selection from the list of Nobel Literature Laureates because the novel’s title was delightfully intriguing.
Sidebar — back to random since a systematic approach produced the very dark story for my previous column. And yet death, relationships, and horror are elements in Kertész’s Liquidation, too. Maybe Saunders’ question is everywhere to be asked.
Imre Kertész won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Literature “for writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history.” He was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1929 of Jewish parents. World War II broke out, and he was just 14 years old when he found himself among the many Hungarian Jews sent to Auschwitz and then later to Buchenwald. He had the good fortunate to be liberated in 1945 and made the decision to return to Budapest, graduate from school and pursue a career in journalism. Kertész discovered a much greater appreciation for his work once he moved to Germany and was living there when he became the first Hungarian to win the Literature Nobel.
Liquidation is not the first book about a search for a book that I have read from Nobel Laureates. Yet this story is part detective, part introspective, part love story all entangled in the manuscript of a play entitled “Liquidation — a Comedy in Three Acts” discovered by the main character Kingbitter upon the death by suicide of his friend, Bee. Kingbitter successfully retrieves the bulk of his friend’s papers but the “One” critical manuscript that would “decipher the code name Auschwitz” is not among those he retrieves. The scenes and characters in the play deliver not only insights into the post-Holocaust political and personal struggles of the characters in the book but also foretells Bee’s course of action. Early in the story Kingbitter is perusing the play and he reads a scene that nine years later plays out exactly as Bee has written it. The publishing house where he and his colleagues, Kürti, Obláth, and Sarah (the other characters in the book and thus the play) — work is “to be liquidated.”
“Kürti: The state is always the same. The only reason it financed literature up till now was in order to liquidate it. Giving state support to literature is the state’s sneaky way for the state liquidation of literature.”
The ultimate fate of this “One” critical manuscript was incineration by a trusted friend, the last wish of Bee.
I leave you with two excerpts from this story within a story, one from a scene that does not make the final manuscript of the play, and the other a musing of Kingbitter about a book he has read.
The scene: Bee and Kingbitter are seated at “a table tucked away at the back of a café.” Bee is speaking about suicide to Kingbitter.
“Bee: Dying is easy
Life is one enormous concentration camp
that God has established here on Earth for mankind
and that man has refined yet further
as an annihilation camp for his own kith
Taking one’s own life amounts to
outwitting those who stand on guard
escaping deserting those who are left behind
laughing up one’s sleeve
In this big Lager of life
the neither-in-nor-out neither-forward-nor-back
in this wretched world of lives held
in suspended animation where we grow decrepit
without time moving any further forward…
this is where I learned that to rebel is
TO STAY ALIVE
The great insubordination is
for us to live our lives to the end
and equally the big humiliation
that we owe ourselves
The sole method of suicide that is worthy
of respect is to live
to commit suicide amounts
to continuing life
starting anew every day
living anew every day
dying anew every day
I don’t know how I should continue.”
“The fact is that in my nineteenth or twentieth year — it was the early sixties by then — a book came into my hands. I think I mentioned this book earlier, though I shall not identify either title or author here, because names and the perceptions that accrete to them have a different significance for everyone in every era. I knew about the existence of this book only from other books, in the way that an astronomer infers the existence of an unknown celestial body from the motion of other planets; yet in those days, the era of undiscoverable reasons, it was not possible to get hold of it for some undiscoverable reason. I happened to be grinding through university at the time; though I did not have much money, I staked it all on the venture, mobilizing antiquarian booksellers, denying myself meals in order to acquire an old edition. I then read the bulky volume in less than three days, sitting on a bench in the public garden of a city square, as spring was in the air outside while a constant, depressing gloom reigned within my sublet room. I recall to this day the adventures of the imagination that I lived through at the time while I read in the book that the Ninth Symphony had been withdrawn. I felt privileged, like someone who had become privy to a secret reserved for few…..Still, I don’t think it was that book which carried me into my fateful career. I finished reading it; then, like all the others, it gradually died down within me under the dense, soft layers of my subsequent reading matter. Masses of books, good and bad, of all sorts of genres are dormant within me. Sentences, words, paragraphs, and lines of poetry that, like restless subtenants, unexpectedly spring to life and wander solitarily about or at other times launch into a loud chattering that I am unable to quell.”
And this is why I am a booklover….