Posts Tagged ‘agota kristof’

Best Books of 2020 Part 1

December 21, 2020

Rather than focusing only on what’s new, I thought I would begin my books of 2020 with those older volumes which had stood out for me this year. (As I haven’t yet decided the winner of the missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize of 1996, I have excluded the long-listed books from this category).

My one year sprint through all of Muriel Spark’s novels has turned into a three year marathon, but, in further vindication of continuing, I found it difficult to select which of her later novels I had most enjoyed. In the end I decided on Symposium, her dinner party novel, where an exquisite layer of social satire lies above robbery and murder, which, in turn, rests on madness and hints of satanic influence – Jane Austen via Dennis Wheatley. Its best line is perhaps the suggestion that the vows of marriage, made under the influence of love, are “like confessions obtained under torture.”

Of contrasting tone, Agota Kristof’s Yesterday (translated by David Watson) is a bleak vision of grinding poverty, both in childhood and adulthood. “The full horror of my present life stares me in the face,” is a fair summary of much of it. The narrator works in a factory, the kind of occupation which so rarely features in literature. Focusing particularly on the immigrant community, it briefly suggests the possibility of redemption before dashing the narrator’s, and the reader’s, hopes. Not for the faint-heated, but unforgettable.

My great discovery, in terms of older writers, this year has been Marguerite Yourcenar. A Coin in Nine Hands uses the composition classic (‘imagine a day in the life of a penny’) to paint a portrait of fascist Italy. The plot revolves around a failed assassination attempt but the real joy is in the extensive cast of characters who flit in and out of each other’s stories. Each one is like a disparate note which together play an increasingly melancholy tune.

Another unexpected surprise was Antonio de Benedetto’s Zama, translated by Esther Allen; unexpected not because it isn’t widely regarded as a classic of Latin American literature, but because I hadn’t expected it to be so entertaining. The catalyst for its energy and verve is the unlikeable narrator – arrogant, short-tempered, unfeeling – who somehow wins the reader’s sympathy by the final pages of what turns out to be his tragic life. As with many tragic figures, he owns his faults regardless of his circumstances, winning our reluctant admiration.

Finally (and not yet reviewed) Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes proved to be all that others had claimed, superficially charming but with a dark interior. Full of wonderfully quotable lines (“Wherever she strayed the hills folded themselves about her like the fingers of a hand”), the novel is both the flower and the serpent under it. Its author may well become the Muriel Spark of 2021.

Yesterday

August 24, 2020

Agota Kristof is a Hungarian writer who left the country for Switzerland aged twenty-one when Russia suppressed the uprising of 1956. In 1986 she published her first, and most famous, novel The Notebook, written in French. It was followed by two further novels – The Proof and The Lie – to form a trilogy. Yesterday is a later novel, from 1995, which was translated by David Watson in 1997, but has recently been reprinted. It tells the story of an immigrant who spends his days working in a factory and writes at night – just as Kristof worked in a factory for five years when she moved to Switzerland – but is far from being autobiographical.

The novel’s narrator, Tobias, hates working in the factory. As the novel opens, he stays on the bus as it passes the factory stop, only getting off at the end of the line where he is found later, face down in the mud, by a walker. He is taken to a psychiatric hospital, which he finds preferable to the life he was living:

“I was happy to stay in hospital, because I didn’t have to go back to the factory. I was fine here, I was looked after, I could sleep.”

Here, a psychiatrist asks him about the woman, Line, he is waiting for, but most of what he tells him is untrue. He claims that Line is made up, “she doesn’t exist,” and, when asked about his childhood:

“I’m a war orphan. My parents were killed in the air raids. I am the only survivor from my family. I have no brothers or sisters.”

In fact, his mother was not killed in an air raid but brought him up alone, prostituting herself so they could survive:

“My mother was the thief, beggar, and whore of the village.”

When he goes to school, he realises that the man who visits his mother who (unlike the rest of her clientele) clearly isn’t a peasant, is the teacher. (“He gazed at me for a long time, he stroked my hair, he kissed me on the forehead, he pressed my hands against his cheeks,” is his description of a prior encounter at home). It is there he meets Line, Caroline, the teacher’s daughter:

“You’re wearing my brother’s jacket. And his shoes. What’s your name?”

As you have probably guessed, Tobias is the teacher’s son. He finds this out when he overhears a conversation between the teacher and his mother at the point (twelve years old) when he can leave school:

“I don’t want my son to become a peasant. Even worse, a farm hand, a beggar like you.”

Tobias is filled with hatred for both his mother and his father, and he runs away – “without realising it, I arrived in another country in a large city.” He changes his name to that of his father, Sandor. After spending some time in a children’s home, he begins work in the factory. His life becomes routine and he even develops a relationship with a woman, Yolande, but, as he tells the psychiatrist, he goes on seeing her “because I don’t have anyone else.”

“Today I start the idiotic routine again. I get up at five o’clock in the morning, I wash, I shave, I make some coffee, I set off, I run to the main square, I get on the bus, I close my eyes, the full horror of my present life stares me in the face.”

Everything changes when he see Line in the bus one morning and realises she, too, is now working at the factory:

“So it was her I was waiting for! I didn’t know. I thought I was waiting for a woman who was unknown, beautiful, unreal. And it’s the real Line that has come after fifteen years of separation.”

The mythical Line he was waiting becomes the actual Line from his childhood. Despite the fact she is married with a child he is determined that she is the only woman for him.

Yesterday, then, is a love story of a kind, though Tobias’ love is like a straw he holds onto in a storm. He is a character who has had nothing but bad luck, and whose decisions seem only to reinforce that misfortune. The thought of Line is all that lies between him and giving up. His life is not quite as wretched as those in The Notebook, but he has little to hope for.

This is partly due to his status as an immigrant, and the novel is very good on immigrant experience. Tobias’ only friend (a generous description of their relationship) is another immigrant, Jean, even poorer than he, whom he pays to paint his room. Jean sends the little money Tobias can pay him home to his wife and children, but he can’t go home himself:

“The whole village would laugh at me. I promised I’d make a fortune.”

Jean “cries almost all the time” and the immigrant community is riven with suicides:

“The post mortem showed that Vera had taken an overdose of sleeping pills.
“Our first death.
“There were others not long after.
“Robert opened his veins in his bath.
“Albert hanged himself, leaving a note on the table written in our language, ‘Fuck you.’”

Very few writers can access grinding poverty in the way Kristof can, embedding the narrative, without commentary, within that world. Both Line and writing represent vague, unformed hopes for Tobias, and it is questionable whether even he has much faith in them. Readers should not expect either to lead to salvation. Kristof is not for the faint hearted, but she is a very special writer.

The Notebook

December 22, 2014

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Whatever or whoever convinced CB Editions to reprint Agota Kristof’s The Notebook earlier this year, that decision was a stroke of genius. Originally published in 1986 and quickly made available in English by Alan Sheridan, it had long fallen out of print in the UK. As Kristof was hardly prolific after this first novel, and died in 2011, it seemed likely that her work would fade from memory here, but instead it would be reasonable to claim that she is the rediscovery of 2014. This is all the more surprising when we take into account the unredeemed bleakness of the novel’s vision.

The novel is set during wartime – which war is not mentioned, it doesn’t matter to the poor and dispossessed of the novel, but Kristof’s birth in 1935 and various other clues make clear that this is the Second World War and we are in Eastern Europe (Kristof was born in Hungary). The novel is narrated in the first person plural by twin boys who are taken by their mother to stay with their grandmother in the countryside where it is safer and there is more food. The grandmother is a figure of unrelenting bitterness; her daughter has not spoken to her in years and only desperation has driven her back for her children’s sake. The grandmother asks her what she has done with the other children:

“Bitches have four or five puppies at a time. You keep one or two and drown the others.”

Despite Grandmother’s harsh treatment, the twins seem to have a built in survival instinct (one of Kristof’s aims seems to be to make us think about what it takes to survive): they sabotage the ladder to the attic so only they can get there and then make holes to spy on the rooms below; when they find a dead soldier in the woods they take his gun and cartridges and hide them. They take this one step further when they begin to train themselves to cope with all that life might throw at them:

“We decide to toughen our bodies to be able to bear pain without crying.
We start by hitting and then punching one another.”

Grotesque as this is, there is a logic to it that comments on the life they must live rather than their desire to be fit for it. Later ‘exercises’ include insulting each other, begging and fasting. They reject self-pity, telling a soldier who has deserted, “Crying is no use, you know. We never cry.”

The twins have each other, but other characters suffer a desperate loneliness that can only be temporarily assuaged through sexual contact in a world where affectation no longer exists. Kristof writes about sex and children through the twins’ objective lens, neither repulsed nor prurient. When the Priest’s housekeeper bathes them she cannot resist touching them and getting them to touch her: “Oh! How nice it is, how nice it is to play with you!” This scene seems positively homely, however, compared to the neighbour’s daughter enticing a dog to penetrate her, or the army officer who rents a room in Grandmother’s house asking the boys to urinate on his face. Shocking as these moments are, they demonstrate a world where appetite is all as the future is too uncertain to even be thought of.

Are the twins, then, amoral? In fact, they often show kindness in the novel, for example when they take food to a neighbour. When they see the housekeeper taunt a passing prisoner (part of the ‘human herd’ being transported through the village) with bread they punish her by placing one of the soldier’s cartridges in the firewood they take to the Priest. When a girl is housed with them for protection and they fear their Grandmother intends to kill her, they protest:

“We promised the old gentleman to look after pour cousin. So nothing must happen to her – either through accident or illness. Nothing.”

The twins may in some ways exist beyond good and evil, but they live by rules, and it is the unrelenting logic of those rules that makes the novel so terrifying. Usually child narrators are used for irony or sentimentality, but here they provide an unnerving clarity. I was reminded of J. G. Ballard’s reply when he was asked about his unusual childhood in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. It was not unusual, he said, most children in the world experienced much the same.