On A Book of Memories

10Jan08

Today – after more than two months of reading over 700 pages of tightly wound dream and remembrance – we finally finished A Book of Memories by Peter Nadas. If you remember, it was a Michael Kimmelman interview with Nadas a few months ago that prompted us to write a diatribe against the beleaguered state of the “gay voice” in American fiction, which we defined as “a voice that resonates with perspective of the sexually-oriented ‘outsider,’ so that we come away with an understanding (and it does not have arrive by way of a literal representation) that ‘heterosexuality’ is, like certain governmental regimes, the subject of some dissonance, if not revolt… a voice that conveys an ambivalence for the present, a fundamental pessimism (in the philosophical sense) with regard to life, and an understanding that only the most obsessively detailed examination of the past can bring us any sense of reconciliation with a present in which we so obviously do not belong, or at least are not wanted by the more established and powerful elements of society.”

At the time we were outraged that Kimmelman felt comfortable locating Nadas’ book in the literary tradition of Marcel Proust and Thomas Mann, but could not be bothered to mention that this is fundamentally a gay tradition to the extent we have just outlined. Now that we have actually finished A Book of Memories and found our rage completely justified – the book is essentially a modern manifesto of the modern gay-recluse aesthetic of beauty, pessimism and psychological introspection written with a (gay) sexual frankness not possible (except for Proust, for whom nothing was impossible) in the early twentieth century – we feel less vindicated than saddened by the failure of Kimmelman and so many others to accurately and honestly describe the brilliance of this work and so many others like it (and the stifling effect this has had on American literature). It is not so much that anything said by these critics is so terribly wrong – after all, we are not oblivious to the importance of political oppression and economic concerns – but the sin they have committed is one of omission, and would be like describing the Mona Lisa without mentioning her smile (or more to the point, a masterpiece like Beloved without mentioning race).

A few words about the book itself: it is not an “easy” read (which is to say that it would never have found a publisher in the United States). The plot follows a young Hungarian living in East Berlin – where he falls in love with another man, a frustrated poet who longs to escape to the West – where he remembers both his childhood in Hungary and intersperses these memories with chapters of a belle-epoch novel he is also writing, in which the lead character closely resembles the Hungarian (in demeanor, if not circumstance). If that’s not confusing enough, both narratives are written in the first person, are rarely chronological, and involve frequent digressions and tense changes as the author moves from narrative to philosophy and exposition. For the first 250 pages or so, it can be difficult to decipher which time period you are in, as both characters spend pages and pages going over the details of their very similar childhoods. Gradually, however, differences emerge and the Hungarian narrative in particular picks up a momentum that carries you through the final 400 pages or so; most compelling were the descriptions of his adolescence, the secret love he felt for one boy in particular, along with the shifting and often brutal alliances in a group of boys and girls in their immediate circle. It is hard to imagine anyone surpassing Nadas’ depiction of both the terror and exhilaration – along with the seriousness with which games of love and treachery are played – that marks this period in our lives.

We had some problems with the book, none of which should prevent even the most mildly interested party from buying it as soon as possible and forming your own judgment! At times Nadas seemed needlessly circuitous as he would lead us up to a pivotal climax to a particular scene, only to digress away from it for a paragraph or two (easily skimmed, ahem) before getting to the denouement; nor did we love his occasional indulgence in what could loosely be called “micro” descriptions of bodily functions and secretions; in a way, it made the characters less believable in these passages, which seemed to be written not from a position of knowledge and experience but lifted from a textbook (in this regard – and this is not to be an attempt to speculate about the “real-life” Nadas – we will note that his descriptions of heterosexual scenes were far less believable than his homosexual ones).

Because this is a “book of memories,” we thought we would leave you (in the post below) with a list of our own; these are the approximately fifteen passages we felt moved enough to underline or mark as we progressed through the book. Reading these over, we feel relieved to be done with Nadas, but also grieving just a bit at the loss, as if a ghost who has been whispering in our ear — by turns oracular and cryptic — has finally been laid to rest.

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