"Shoes on the Danube Bank", a Holocaust memorial in Budapest on 16 April 16, Holocaust memorial day. Photo: Getty
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House of horrors: The Notebook by Ágota Kristóf

The Hungarian writer’s grimly humorous novel is a tale of monstrous twins during an unnamed war in an unspecified European country. 

The Notebook
Ágota Kristóf; translated by Alan Sheridan
CB Editions, 174pp, £8.99

The Illiterate
Ágota Kristóf; translated by Nina Bogin
CB Editions, 58pp, £7.99

Like many authors in translation, the Hungarian writer Ágota Kristóf (and no, her name isn’t an eastern European corruption of “Agatha Christie”, as Slavoj Žižek admits he initially assumed in his admiring afterword) has not become widely known in this country. Yet this is not to say her most famous novel, The Notebook, remains an obscure case of succès d’estime, celebrated only by a small circle of devotees. The book, handsomely reissued by CB Editions, has been translated into 30 languages since it was first published in France in 1986 and last year it was made into a critically acclaimed film.

Little is known about Kristóf’s life, but most of what we do know is contained in her short memoir The Illiterate, which came out in 2004 and is now available to us in this excellent translation by Nina Bogin. (Bogin informs us that later in life, despite the lack of detail in these 11 short chapters, Kristóf regretted publishing the book.) Growing up in a remote village, the precocious Kristóf, whose father was the local schoolteacher, contracted early on what she calls the “reading disease”. In 1949, when she was 14, the first major disruption to her life came when her father was imprisoned by the communist authorities (we don’t learn what for) and she was separated from her beloved brother and sent to an orphanage-like girls’ boarding school in the city. It was here that, through necessity and loneliness, she began to write and act.

Without saying goodbye to her family, the 21-year-old Kristóf escaped Hungary in the aftermath of the 1956 uprising, crossing the border by night into Austria before finding a home in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. While working in a clock factory and navigating the precarious existence of a refugee, she painstakingly began to “conquer” and then write seriously in an “enemy language . . . killing my mother tongue”. Eventually Kristóf had plays performed in French in a local bistro but her breakthrough came with the publication of The Notebook, which brought her prizes and well-merited international recognition.

The title alludes to the “Big Notebook” of secret diary entries kept by young twins during the tail end of an unnamed war in an unspecified country. Their mother evacuates them from the Big Town, which is under siege, and deposits them at their grandmother’s house on the edge of the Little Town. Grandmother, who makes it clear that she doesn’t want the boys, is a miserly old crone known as “the Witch” and is rumoured to have poisoned her husband. The twins devise toughening “exercises” to immunise themselves against the physical and verbal abuse meted out by Grandmother and strangers alike. They arm themselves with a razor and lash each other with belts, gradually learning to stop crying. They commit, with unnerving calmness, senseless acts of violence, kill animals and conduct experiments in fasting and “immobility” (lying face-down on the floor for as long as possible). Through play-acting as deaf and blind beggars, they learn to scrounge in local taverns; drilling holes in the floor of the attic, they spy on the masochistic foreign officer billeted in Grandmother’s spare room.

The boys strip corpses they find in the forest beyond the garden, full of war deserters and locals attempting to escape across the heavily guarded frontier into “the other country”. Once the occupying forces retreat, as the “New Foreigners” advance to liberate the Little Town, the twins break into what is clearly a concentration camp, heaped with charred bodies. Even without the facts later borne out in The Illiterate – reminiscences of growing up in a border town under Nazi and then Soviet occupation – such details confirm the feeling that The Notebook is a thinly veiled parable of Hungary towards the end of the Second World War.

The boys have their own set of skewed values but just when the reader believes they have displayed some sign of humanity, they jolt you with new heights of pathological cruelty. In this land devoid of moral agency, riven by nameless foreign armies, deportations, forced disappearances, air raids and “liberators”, they clinically record their exploits in the Big Notebook kept hidden in the attic. The aim of these strict “composition exercises” is to set down a record unadorned by opinion or information superfluous to a straight record of fact. It is the spare nature of the narrative that sets up The Notebook’s most grimly humorous moments and makes it such a compelling read.

Most shocking are the accounts of the twins’ hare-lipped young neighbour, who is so starved of intimacy that she indulges in bestiality, later to die “happy, fucked to death” by a gang of foreign soldiers. When the twins’ mother is killed by a shell blast, they bury her in the garden where she fell but later dig her up, polish her bones, re-articulate the skeleton with wire and hang it from a beam in the attic. The Notebook is a transfixing house of horrors.

J S Tennant works for PEN International and is the poetry editor of the White Review

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis