Parallel Stories

With the publication in English of Péter Nádas’s capacious Book of Memories in 1997, the American press granted this living giant of Hungarian literature an exalted role: that of philosophical novelist of Eastern Europe’s socialist experiment. The New York Times led the way, designating him something of a cross between Proust and Thomas Mann, an intensely cerebral explorer of consciousness, yet one with a meaty, Germanic understanding of European history.

Little was heard from Nádas in the U.S. until 2008, when A Book of Memories was reissued, along with the much slimmer book of essays, Fire and Knowledge, reigniting Western interest in Hungary’s leading Nobel candidate. For the occasion, the Times enlarged the praise it gave Nádas in 1997, declaring him Europe’s preeminent chronicler of the “obligations and moral conundrums of memory, private and collective.” Perhaps even more outstandingly, Deborah Eisenberg raved in The New York Review of Books that, among other things, “Nádas can actually make you experience what it is to feel or think two mutually exclusive things at once.”

Now with hindsight, we can see that the 700-page Book of Memories, sizable as it is, was but prologue: Farrar, Straus & Giroux has just published Imre Goldstein’s translation of Nádas’s titanic Parallel Stories, eighteen years in the making, 1,200 pages long, and with grand historic ambitions. Already the book has begun racking up comparisons to War and Peace with a maddening regularity.

For all its daunting size and ambitions, Parallel Stories is not a difficult book to sum up. It is grounded in 1961, in which we find friends Hans won Wolkenstein, Ágost Lippay Lehr, and Andras Rott exiled together in a Budapest bathhouse and discussing the future of “a Budapest where the world had been shut off for good like a dripping faucet.” Much of Parallel Stories will concern itself with filling in their histories during the Nazi era, as well as the histories of their friends and lovers, plus friends and lovers of those individuals. The one major exception is Döhring, whose story opens the book and who is caught up in a murder just as the Berlin Wall falls in 1989. Nádas will narrate these histories as obliquely as possible, going to great lengths to shroud the tenuous links between his large cast of characters.

Nádas travels widely in Parallel Stories: from the upper echelons of Nazi eugenicist experimentation to the failed Hungarian revolution against the USSR in 1956 to underground societies of Nazi enthusiasts (pre- and postwar) to the concentration camps and the fall of communism. Historically, the book is capacious, including everything from the board game inventor Milton Bradley (who was a noted enthusiast of eugenics) to the famous Grand Hotel on Margit Island in Budapest to the Eichmann papers. Thematically it shows similar ambitions: strange underwear boutiques in post-communism Berlin, architectural theory, furniture design, contraband wood used to construct illicit railroads in prewar Hungary, underground societies to promote the Aryan race…the list goes on. Throughout, Nádas freely blends multiple narratives into one thread, leaping back and forth between eras, locales, and consciousnesses, occasionally getting diverted from one story into something else entirely. In this regard, the book frequently recalls the vicarious, distributed narratives of the French nouveau roman, though without any of their experimental spirit. Nádas here is much more a consolidator of discoveries made decades ago than a writer who sets out to chart new structural territory.

At its best, Parallel Stories achieves a spectacular mix of history and personality, with the scenes of historical fiction being easily among the best writing in the book. In one haunting stretch dropped right into the middle of the novel, Nádas makes the bold choice of writing from within the Buchenwald concentration camp. These brilliant, fable-like fifteen pages recount the executions of a steely lump of a communist and the preternaturally beautiful, malevolent adolescent boy he has loved in the camps. In its cold, spooky surrealism, the story calmly embodies the brutality of its setting, achieving a strangeness-in-reality that typifies the best of Nádas’s writing. In another fine incidence of historical writing later on, Nádas will describe the terror of a suffocating basement as Budapest is besieged during Hungary’s failed revolution, as well as an incident of a tank firing on a bread line during the same event. Anchored by the insignificance of human fears and needs against the implacable movement of history, Parallel Stories in these scenes rises to its highest, a complex interpenetration of the very mundane, human stuff of day-to-day survival and the monolithic forces of history that draw through it like a scythe. What comes across most clearly is the very Hungarian sense of helplessness, first in the face of the marauding Nazi goliath, and then against the domineering Soviet machine.

Along with history, the other great force running through Parallel Stories is sex. The book is without a doubt among the most obscene literary works of the year — in fact, for the book’s first half, hardly a scene goes by that does not depict (and usually revolve around) a sexual encounter. The sex is of all kinds, although Nádas shows a distinct taste for the perverse, particularly the masochistic. More than that, he is not shy at all about portraying in gruesome detail the sexual organs and the various substances they emit: he commonly chooses to displace more sterile words like penis and vagina with charged ones like beak, bulb, cunt, and cock.

To be sure, a 1,200-page book will by definition be an excessive endeavor, but Parallel Stories would have been a better book if Nádas had curtailed his sexual surfeit. The book’s first volume, for instance, includes a seventy-page sex scene told in excruciating detail. To be sure, Nádas’s sex scenes do much more than just take a microscope to the mechanics of intercourse — for him, one’s character is never so truthfully revealed as during the very visceral pinings of desire. Moreover, Nádas makes of sexual conflict a pure distillation of the power struggles that typify friendships and romances; in his favor, it should be said that he has a precise eye for the ways sexual pleasure isolates individuals from one another, and his sex scenes are nothing if not galleries that display how aggressors make sex into a mode of narcissism and self-interest, leaving their mates to wallow in self-doubt and supplication.

These traits are key to Nádas’s understanding of character, and sex is a proper activity with which to illustrate them. Nonetheless, he unnecessarily embellishes lewdness for its own sake — he has stated in interviews that this is his style, for better or worse — and his vulgar descriptions of fluids and organs soon come to feel like bludgeons. (Curiously, when describing the disfiguring effects of war, Nádas shows exactly the lightness of touch that he lacks with carnal matters.) In addition, his sex scenes are poorly served by language that frequently drops off into a dull mediocrity:

Their beastliness opened up new liberating and unknown layers of pleasure. And a huge open throat was approaching them, gaping and belching, infernally rattling, coming from far away with an even, continuous clatter, a persistent hum…. Their limbs and other parts were merging and submerging in one another. With their tongues, wide-open lips, teeth and gums they were inching forward in each other and they not only searched but also found, yet couldn’t say what.

The excessive detail of the sex scenes in Parallel Stories — in which we can scarcely have a thrust without a paragraph-long disquisition about what it means to both the giver and the taker — reveals another indubitable fact of Péter Nádas’s literature: he is first and foremost a writer of psychological fiction, perhaps the most thorough psychologizer I have ever read. This is not always a good thing. When Nádas maintains a balance between the action he is describing and the consciousnesses behind it, his characters become lifelike and the scenes meander along at a pleasing clip. But often the modus operandi for Parallel Stories is the opposite — to halt all motion by vastly expanding each and every tick of a heightened moment. Proust could do this with amazing facility, seemingly unable to find a single dull sentiment no matter how deeply he probed a moment, but Nádas’s results are mixed. Beneath this haze of adjectives and excessive details the reader will often enough strike upon genuinely insightful observations, but in the book’s denser stretches the search can become tiresome.

But you don’t read a 1,200-page book not expecting the author to indulge himself, do you? With this book one must take the good with the bad, and there is no doubt that there is very much good: Parallel Stories is impressive for its sweep, its many successes, and its compelling characters. He ably tells a massive story, one large enough to encompass Hungary in the tumultuous decades during and after the Second World War. In the many parallel stories that only touch upon one another in the lightest, most tangential ways, Nádas drills down to the essential qualities of life in his home country.

The book is admirable for all it does, yet it is a novel that instructs more than inspires. Reading it, one feels that Nádas is looking backward, explaining the world as he sees it, and with occasional pedantry. As such, Parallel Stories lacks the incandescent verve of Nádas’s fellow Hungarian, Laslo Krasznahorkai, whose strange, dangerous approaches to the legacy of fascism in Eastern Europe seek to drag modernism into terra incognita. If there is any validity to Nádas being compared to Tolstoy, it is in that he is a throwback to nineteenth-century realism, albeit with some structural, sexual, and political upgrades for our own era. There can be no doubt that Parallel Stories is a goliath, although it is one that is often lumbering and frustrating, carrying with it ungainly baggage en route to its many accomplishments.