Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Agota Kristof

I wasn’t going to write here about Kristof (1935–2011) for a while, because there aren’t any CBe Kristof books to sell until early next year, but I’m prompted by this Slavoj Zizek piece in the online Guardian earlier this week in the series on ‘A book that changed me’.

Books can do that. I love that this series takes this as a given.

Kristof’s The Notebook – first published in French in 1986 – has been out of print in the UK for more than two decades; CBe will re-issue it early next year. Search and you’ll find a US omnibus edition that also includes its two sequels, an edition which officially is not for sale in the UK but of course you can get hold of it; you can also download it, probably for free, as you can download most everything, but I happen to publish books. And The Notebook, for me, is one of those books: the ones that come out of the blue and knock you sideways, and when you get to your feet again you’re in a slightly different place.

Two children, sent to a remote village for the duration of the war, devise physical and mental exercises to render themselves invulnerable to pain and sentiment. Their story is told by themselves, in the first-person plural, in brief chapters of no more than two or three pages. They steal, kill, blackmail and survive; others – the cobbler, the harelipped girl who craves love, the children’s parents – do not survive. Though no places or historical events are named, the novel grew out of the experience of Nazi occupation and Soviet ‘liberation’ during World War II; at the time of the book’s first publication in the UK, one reviewer wrote that ‘Closing this chillingly unsentimental novel, I felt that it had contrived to say absolutely everything about the Second World War and its aftermath in Central Europe’. But the book is also about writing itself, and it stands apart from any specific historical occasion. Another reviewer: ‘Kristof seems to be writing on the edge of anxiety, surrounded by pleasure and terror. The reader swings by his heels until the book rushes to his head. It’s that good.’

The Notebook came to CBe indirectly. First, Nina Bogin, an Anvil poet based in France, sent me her translation of Kristof’s brief memoir that recounts how, after being smuggled out of Hungary in 1956, she wrote The Notebook: slowly, while working in factories in French-speaking Switzerland and learning an alien language, jotting things down and not expansively because she didn’t have that command, that luxury (the memoir is titled The Illiterate). I said yes, because Nina Bogin writes well and because Kristof is important. Then, belatedly realising that there’s not much point in doing the memoir if The Notebook isn’t readily available, scouted around; and found the translator and went to tea with him, and did some deal with the rights holders in France; and the result is the memoir and a re-issue of The Notebook coming out together.

Meanwhile, Zizek isn’t the only one. Gabriel Josipovici, at the start of his introduction to the The Illiterate: ‘Every now and again you read a book by an unknown author and you know immediately that you are in the company of greatness.’ George Szirtes, on whom I inflicted advance proofs: ‘What a stunning, brutal and beautifully written (and translated) book.’ Gilbert Adair, from a reprinted late-1980s newspaper piece: ‘… Agota Kristof, whose twinned novels The Notebook and The Proof impress me as near-masterpieces’.

That ‘near’ is good enough for me. Why is Kristof not better known? (Why is she not among the Penguin Modern Classics?) One reason is pointed to in the Adair piece: ‘In the book pages of any self-respecting newspaper or magazine a new work of fiction by William Boyd or Penelope Lively is passed under review at a length and with a gravity that will, I’m convinced, bemuse posterity. Kristof, if reviewed at all, has almost invariably found herself tucked away under Other New Novels or else, quel horreur!, Translated Fiction.’ But The Notebook deserves better than to be tucked away.

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