Rose Gowen: The Last Book I Loved, A Book of Memories
After I read Péter Nádas’s beautiful novella, “Le nu féminine en mouvement,” in the Winter 2010 issue of The Paris Review, I couldn’t believe it: who is this writer? Why had I never heard of him before? How did he do that?
I discovered that he had written other things, many of them translated into English. Just now, I have finished reading his big novel, A Book of Memories. This is the book I have needed to read for years; I feel a little sorry for myself that I didn’t know of it sooner; I feel anxious about how easily I might have missed it.
It is a long book, and rich. It starts in media res, and there are several elements that intertwine and are not marked; but the prose is beautiful and, as you read, you begin to see where you are. It goes forward like a spiral, coming around to earlier scenes to amplify and expand, then moving ahead.
We are in Budapest in the 1950’s; East Berlin and Heiligendamm, a German resort town, in the 70’s; and in Berlin and Heiligendamm again, at the end of the 1800’s. An unnamed narrator tells the stories of his childhood in Budapest, and of an important love affair in East Berlin; his memoirs are interspersed with chapters of his novel about a young man in the 19th century, whose biography is a transformation of his own.
When I finished reading the novel, I looked up post-war Hungary on Wikipedia. During the years that the narrator of the novel (and Nádas, too) was a child, “the secret police… persecuted all ‘class enemies’ and ‘enemies of the people.’ An estimated 2,000 people were executed and over 100,000 were imprisoned. Some 44,000 ended up in forced-labor camps, where many died due to horrible work conditions, poor food and practically no medical care. Another 15,000 people, mostly former aristocrats, industrialists, military generals and other upper-class people were deported from the capital and other cities to countryside villages where they were forced to do hard agricultural labor.”
What happens to a boy who grows up in a place where it is not safe to speak? Where an ill-planned word might send a parent or friend to prison, or worse? Where his family, and the families of all his friends, are already broken or compromised? Perhaps he becomes an adept of the language of the body; the way it moves through the world, its gestures voluntary and involuntary, expressions of the face and looks from the eyes, its touch.
Nádas is infinitely attentive to the body and the way it communicates with other bodies. He writes of the way children interact with the bodies of their parents, and with the bodies of their peers; he writes of the way lovers speak body to body, and enemies.
I wish I had had the foresight to take notes while I was reading this book! But, I was reading greedily, purely for pleasure. Now I want to end with a quote, to show why I love this book. I’m turning the pages, and it’s hard to choose; every page is good, and everything is so interconnected. I want to snip out a piece that makes sense on its own, and I don’t want to give anything away.
Here is a child doing breathing exercises with his parents:
“…Mother liked me to stand right next to her, quite close, I might say in the heat of her body’s warmth, so close that the shoulder ruffles of her puffed-sleeve dress almost touched my face, but this certainly did not mean that in her frustration she sought solace in me or began to have impermissible and troubling feelings of tenderness for me—I don’t think she harbored such feelings for anybody—no, there was a purely logical reason we ended up next to each other; this way she could hear and then follow the rhythm of my breathing, and by the same token, if she faltered or was out of breath or, letting her mind wander, got confused, I could wait for her and help her get back on track; I was able to hold my breath for a long time, wait for and enjoy the slight dizziness that would displace my feelings while things I could only see before but not feel grew sharper and pervaded my senses; I could lose myself at last and be anything I wanted—a distant sound, the crest of a wave, a seagull, a falling leaf landing atop a stone wall, or just vacant air—until in the redness of the blood rushing to my brain everything would slowly turn dark, yet the instinct to breathe would still force me to hear distinctly and sense how Mother, with a few interpolated exhalations and inhalations, was reverting to our previous rhythm and how, her own breath balancing at a precarious standstill, she’d wait for me to take the lead again; we did not look at, and could not see each other, our bodies did not touch, yet only incaution and inexperience could explain and excuse the blindness with which she allowed us to stray into such emotionally dangerous territory; she should have known that we were doing something we shouldn’t have, and that in this instance she was the seducer, because mutual sensation, when deprived of tactile and visual contact, will resort to more receptive, more primitive, one might even say more animal-like means, and then the other body’s heat, odor, mysterious emanations and rhythms can convey much more than a glance, a kiss, or an embrace ever could.”