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Péter Nádas: Emlékiratok könyve (A Book of Memories)

There are times when you read the blurb on a novel and then you read the book and you wonder if the blurb writer read the same book you did. This is one of them. Susan Sontag said The greatest novel written in our time and one of the great books of the century, while The Daily Telegraph said The monumental event of recent Hungarian history, the fated uprising of 1956, is accounted for in the most affecting manner imaginable in these haunting pages. Inside, the blurb writer says …claiming and extending the legacy of Proust and Mann. I thought it was crap. Forget Proust and Mann. Think more of Last Exit to Brooklyn. For, make no mistake, this book is not about the Hungarian Uprising, nor is it a Proustian madeleine-in-the-tea memory recall. It is, purely and simply, about getting laid.

The book is nominally a manuscript left behind by a now dead Hungarian exile (in Berlin at the beginning, Moscow at the end). It recounts his life and, as we learn from its editor at the end, is probably inaccurate. But for nigh on five hundred pages, our narrator is concerned in passing with the Hungarian Uprising and with his parents but most of all he is concerned with getting laid or, rather, his sexual fantasies, which may lead to getting laid but are just as likely to lead to masturbation. Not only does he fantasise sexually about his female peers at school, he also fantasises sexually about his male peers, his sister, his parents (both of them – his obsession with his father’s penis is a key bit), his German landlady’s large breasts, indeed, anyone he can think of. That this takes place against the background of the Hungarian Uprising and his father’s arrest and his mother’s illness does not make great literature. In fact, it is particularly boring. I would recommend that, in future, he just takes out his penis and masturbates and spares us the details. If we want books of memories, we can get the real thing from Proust and if we want the Hungarian political situation as the background to our reading, then we would be far better off with Konrád.

Publishing history

First published in Hungarian 1986 by Szépirodalmi Könyvkiadó, Budapest
First published in English 1997 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Translated by Ivan Sanders with Imre Goldstein