Friday, October 11, 2002
After Auschwitz, to write poetry is barbaric, a philosopher once concluded. A long line of poets and novelists have thought otherwise, and on Thursday, the Nobel Prize in literature went to Imre Kertesz, a Hungarian novelist and Auschwitz survivor.
Honoring the 72-year-old Budapest Jew for his uncommon, single-minded gift for saying the unsayable, the Swedish Academy singled out his 1975 debut novel, "Sorstalansag" ("Fateless"), about a young man who is taken to a concentration camp but conforms and survives.
"For him Auschwitz is not an exceptional occurrence," the academy said. "It is the ultimate truth about human degradation in modern experience."
Kertesz was deported in 1944 to Auschwitz in Nazi-occupied Poland, then to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, where he was liberated in 1945. Of the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust, some 600,000 were Hungarian.
Kertesz is the first Hungarian to win the award, worth about $1 million.
"My immediate reaction is one of great joy. It means very much to me," he told The Associated Press in Berlin, where he is on a teaching scholarship.
"There is no awareness of the Holocaust in Hungary. People have not faced up to the Holocaust. I hope that in the light of this recognition, they will face up to it more than until now," he added.
Since the end of World War II, writers and scholars have debated how to make art out of the Holocaust and whether they even can and should.
"To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric," the philosopher Theodor Adorno wrote in 1949.
But Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel and Paul Celan are among many survivors who turned their experiences into acclaimed literature. Even some Jews who were spared the Holocaust, such as Cynthia Ozick, and non-Jewish authors such as William Styron ("Sophie's Choice"), have written highly regarded books.
Approaches vary in style and format. Wiesel's "Night" is an autobiographical novel, while Levi's "Survival in Auschwitz" is a philosophical memoir. The telegraphic violence of Celan's poem "Death Fugue" mirrors the madness of the camps ("he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground").
Aharon Appelfeld, a Romanian-born Israeli, has written about the prelude and aftermath of the Holocaust but has shied from recording his experiences of the concentration camps, likening them to a flame you dare not touch.
Louis Begley, a Polish-born Jew now living in New York, was a refugee during World War II and hesitated before writing his award-winning novel "Wartime Lies."
"I was very concerned that to write a novel about the horror of the German occupation of Poland was morally wrong and I questioned myself very hard," said Begley, who proceeded with his book after encouragement from his wife.
|Excerpts from Nobel winner's 'Fateless'In "Fateless," Imere Kertesz's description of arriving at Buchenwald is made more horrifying by its unembroidered prose:"Then it's into the hallway, before sliding glass windows and they inquire whether you have any gold teeth. Then, a compatriot of yours who has been here longer and even has hair writes your name in a big book. He gives you a yellow triangle, a wide strip and a band, both made of cloth. In the middle of the triangle there is a letter U, a sign that you are, after all, also Hungarian. The band has a printed number on it, mine, for example, is 64921."|
Kertesz was honored for writing "that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history," in the citation by the Swedish Academy.
Wiesel, an Auschwitz survivor who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, applauded the award.
"He is a great writer," Wiesel said. "His style and his approach are of such high quality that he deserved to be given the highest prize in literature."
"Fateless" and "Kaddish for a Child Not Born," his only novels available in English, are part of a trilogy on Holocaust themes.
Kertesz is not a best-selling writer in Hungary, and only "Fateless" and "Kaddish" have been translated into English.