Translated by Tim Wilkinson
January 1, 2001
New year: the old one was difficult, and fairly unproductive, interspersed with ugly maladies, one of which (Parkinson’s disease) will stay with me to the end of my days, the “result” of which is this wonderful manuscript; but it does remind me that death is approaching, so life (i.e. work) is urgent…
January 10, 2001
Yesterday [I was] invited as the guest of a Jewish couple well into their fifties. The woman (strongly Semitic in outward appearance), with stereotyped wonder at “the so-called ‘anti-Semitism’ of the ‘present day,’ related that before” (meaning in the era of Kádár-style socialism) she never experienced anything of that kind (as the so-called “Jewish question”). Then she spoke about her father who was a doctor; he was taken off to Auschwitz and released in Dachau but back home he never once, in family circles, uttered a single word about the concentration camps “If God could permit Auschwitz,” she quoted him, “then he had settled his accounts with God, finished with Him.” That was all he said about the matter, leaving it at that. Presumably he was a Communist, or at least became a party member, Such banality of thinking. . . His children, of course, were not brought up in a Jewish frame of mind—that is, unless one does not recognize in the above-outlined way of thinking that characteristically Jewish frame of mind that the accommodating Jewish petty bourgeoisie evolved by way of an obscure and inadequate form of protection for themselves. Out of which what becomes clear is a person’s intellectual feebleness and defenselessness against any kind of violence. The boundless stupidity that living here [in Hungary]—a way of life conducted in malicious, destructive anti-Semitic manner—demands of its virtual victim, the first precondition, the first step on the road to perdition. But why is it easier to be to be a blockhead, than, recognizing things for what they are, to prepare oneself for death with a few footnotes?
January 11, 2001
Everything has come to a standstill—that fundamental issue was haunting me. But what, in point of fact, has come to a standstill? The possibility of revolution, the very possibility of every new intellectual movement. The future, the intellectual future, has come to a standstill. That is why, by way of literature I write even for myself either obituaries or linguistic constructions concerning, as it happens, being at an intellectual standstill. But why is it a problem that the revolution has come to a standstill? After all, where did the revolution lead? To the Nazis and the Gulag. The lesson of the French Revolution: a person’s social position is unjust, and therefore society had to be changed, leading to even greater injustice and later genocide: power, all power, even nowadays, is illegitimate (in spite of democratic elections). There seems to be no way out of the washout of European culture: where there is any dynamism the outcome is an overshooting of power and eventual genocide; where there is no dynamism you get stagnation out of which ensues a threat of sclerosis. Is there any other goal which is worthy of mankind and that mankind has not yet disgraced, Is renewal, a renaissance, still possible? What do I have to do as a human being and as an artist? “I don’t know. Honestly, Katya, I don’t know,” Chekhov wrote.
January 25, 2001
In Hungary it is possible to study well what is happening in places where nothing is happening. The country has long been written out of history; its is not in a position where it would be able to have any influence on history or the processes of the world—so therefore it doesn’t understand them anyway. Its experiences are exclusively negative; its forced passivity acts castratingly on the country; as a result, the creativity which keeps a nation alive (not just in a vegetative state of sheer survival) is slowly dying out. The consequences that has on my own activity, even from the viewpoint of my very existence, are becoming increasingly clear. I am operating in an uncomprehending medium, in an obtuse language, that those who would otherwise understand, fail to understand it.
January 30, 2001
At the weekend: Salzburg. András Schiff. A nocturnal stroll in Salzburg’s alleyways. His marvellous Mozart concerto. … Schiff confessed that although he had lived for just a few years (as an adult) in Hungary’s “soft” dictatorship, even now it was still a marvel for him to be able to move freely about the world. The Ligetis said the same: since 1956 they had been living freely under civilized, Western conditions, but even nowadays they were still unable to look on that as being quite natural. Both on the train and in Salzburg I bored M. a lot with my usual moans: living in Hungary is a disgrace, having to tolerate public anti-Semitism; that’s just the smaller of the problems: my real intellectual misery stems from the fact that I have no job to do, no business there intellectually speaking, I told her that even now, at 72 years of age, I was quite prepared to take up German citizenship; I have the feeling that I have a job to do there; however slight the influence that a writer may exert, the influence that what I write exercises there falls on good ground, they have a need for my intellectual bridging yet nevertheless widely encompassing work; I belong to Western culture; that always separates me from, the grounding, the people, the “culture,” in whose language I write. Away from here: that is a strategic matter to the extent that I am able to forge any strategic plans at all for the short time I have left.
March 10, 2001
There seems to be no way out of the washout of European culture: where there is any dynamism the outcome is an overshooting of power and eventual genocide; where there is no dynamism you get stagnation out of which ensues a threat of sclerosis.
I am browsing through a detailed bibliography of Primo Levi. What is to be known (or learned) about someone who came back home from Auschwitz then decades [later] committed suicide (obviously in connection with his KZ camp experiences)? There is no logic to suicide, only a dramaturgy, which implies a prolonged conduct aimed against suicide (don’t forget what Cioran noted down about Celan: he exhausted every possibility of avoiding destruction (or something along those lines).
March 11, 2001
After a sleepless night, he washed himself clean, a pale-coloured morning from beside his writing desk; the popping up of an early passer-by awakened distant memories—I don’t know precisely what kind of memories, about early-morning aromas, coffees, hurrying, dawn lights, colours…
…In the last few days the whole standard-Jewishness thing—Kafka, Celan, Levi—has been chafing mightily in me against everything; am I against the Auschwitz mysticism, the various sorts of identity problems? Why do I have to be a Jew who was transported to Auschwitz? Out of stubbornness? Rebelliousness? I abhor the Jewish religion just like any religion, but I find fellowship in the faces, the tones of voice, in a smile. My Magda’s pretty face is not a Jewish face but I find fellowship in it, I recognize the kinship in the faces of Levi and Celan, but that bears no relationship to Jewish mysticism; I can well imagine playing footie with Celan in the Gábor Boarding School; I can well imagine sharing a desk with Levi at the Barcsay [Street] Grammar Scholl in Pest. What am I driving at? That I am being suffocated by a platitude and no longer have any wish to be slotted into any kind of recipe book of roles; I want to be me, even though I can have no way of knowing who I am; but I have the feeling that writing will slowly more likely inhibit me from, rather than assist me in learning anything about myself; I am controlled by the constraints of a language that is alien to me, But undeniably I am happy. Does it matter?
Suicide may be the recognition of some big lie; [the] recognition of a big truth, I suppose, tends more to keep one in life. (The difference between a big lie and a big truth? Maybe it’s just a moral difference, and it touches on precisely the question of staying alive or suicide.)
April 1, 2001
The most important criterion of “a state of fatelessnes” is nonetheless the complete absence of a relationship between existing and one’s real life. Existing without being, or rather being without existing—that it the age’s big innovation.
“Ich bin Mitglied einer Minderheit, die immer geschimpft und geschändet, und im 1944 zum Tode verurteilt war, und dieser Urteil ist bis heute nicht aufgehoben worden…” Interesting how much easier it is for me to write that sentence in German than in Hungarian. So, I belong to a minority which has always been persecuted, reviled, and then, in 1944, condemned to death—a sentence which has not yet been lifted to the present day. I belong, therefore, to the minority that as it happens is called Jewish, or Jewry, but that has nothing to do with my Jewishness, my very own personal knowledge related to being Jewish—whether linking to it, or setting me apart from it; and in the end it has nothing with true Jewishness, if anything of the kind exists.
For another thing, taking into account the ten years since Hungary has become a free and so to say, democratic state, a decade during which I have been even more firmly locked into the cage of “Jewry.” but it has also become obvious that the “nation” lays no claim on my experiences or literary output: in the light of those developments I am unable to work up in myself any sort of feelings of national solidarity with so-called “Magyardom,” i.e. I don’t identify with being Magyar, I don’t feel or think concurrently with despairing Magyar ideology. That is sad, because anti-Semitic prejudice is proved by the fact that a so-called Jew is of no interest to a so-called Hungarian. Everything in that semantic field is a lie and deceit; not a word. not a concept, has a real, clearly articulatable sense. No sense exists in this terrain.
April 17, 2001
It is time that I finally decided what kind of writer I am in truth; in plain language, for whom am I writing. Two or three decades ago I would still have reckoned that as being the most fraudulent of all the questions one might pose. So then for whom am I writing? For myself, naturally, the answer would have been, and essentially still is to this day. But nowadays I’m increasingly inclined to the realization that in that in myself—in producing it—the social circumstances have indeed played a certain role. I am at least partially a prisoner of my circumstances, and that also relates to my intellectual utterances. If I say “I am a Jewish writer” (because that fact most of all stamped and stamps its mark on my circumstances), then I have not said that I myself am Jewish—because sadly, by virtue of my culture and convictions, I cannot say that. But I can say that I am a writer of the “Galut,” the exile, an anachronistic Jewish mode of existence, a mode of existence of the assimilated Jew; a vehicle and presenter of that mode of existence, a chronicler of its liquidation, messenger of its necessary discontinuation. The Endlösung plays a decisive role in this respect; anyone for whom that experiment at exterminating the Jews, Auschwitz, is his sole Jewish identity, is a certain sense cannot after all be called a Jew—he’s a non-Jewish Jew in Isaac Deutscher’s sense, the rootless European variant of that; he plays a big role—perhaps an important one—in European culture (if there is still such a thing), bur he has no role at all in Jewry of the most recent history, in its renewal—again, it has to be said: if there is, or will be, such a thing.
Only for anti-Semites is “Jew” an unequivocal category.
April 27, 2001
Suicide may be the recognition of some big lie; [the] recognition of a big truth, I suppose, tends more to keep one in life.
A depression which has lasted for weeks… Every day is supper, in company, with strangers. The greater part of my life is a senseless frittering-away of time of which I am profoundly aware. I am unable to extricate myself. My tenderness vis-à-vis M. The physical humiliations of old age. Old age (I would never have credited it) ensues all at once. Suddenly you body posture alters, and there’s nothing you can do about it. A spasmodic desire to urinate suddenly takes you over, and you have to obey it within minutes or else your underwear will be besmirched. The biggest blow is impotence, when you have by no means yet lost interest in women, the other blow being insomnia. At the moment the night lasts three hours and forty minutes, and I have not yet slept a wink…
May 11, 2001
Hungary: anti-Semitism being the sole consensus of the right wing which is now exercising power. the whole thing ridiculously resembles the Thirties. Then the anti-Semitism was associated with irredentism, which is also present today but—on account of the political environment—in ever-more latent form. It is not out of the question that the same will go for anti-Semitism, but why do the chances of that happening fill me with the same unparalleled optimism which characterizes assimilants here? To begin with because irreparable damage is being done to the use of language, the way of thinking, the mentality; besides which any solidarity with the country has been so killed out off me that any danger and any chance of that being possible here fills we with equal disgust.
June 22, 2001
Interesting: Hitler in his entirety was an outdated phenomenon (his entire “ideology” a product of nineteenth-century narrow-mindedness), but one which brought into being Auschwitz, which was nonetheless the truest expression of the most modern.
July 28, 2001
Of what does the catastrophe consist? Is it indeed of the Newtonian conception of the universe, as Milosz considered? History undeniably can find no explanation for anything. Explaining endeavors the apocalypse like Auschwitz or the Gulag with economic reasons or backward social structures is truly almost ridiculous. Psychology, sociology, and all other species of the social sciences are just as fruitless. How, then, are the apocalyptic deeds, forms of behavior, and degeneration of the most highly developed societies going to be explained? How to explain the cowardice of the Wet? Politics serves up direct causes for everything, but what motivates politics? In the end, large-scale visions like Spengler’ or, for that matter, the Bible’s, those are still the worthiest attempts. The dream world-orders of great mystics, the mysterious deep world of old mystics—in that inheres something about the destiny of humankind—compared with that the scientific way of looking at things, for all its well-equippedness, knowledge. and successfulness, is childish naivety.
Or must one perceive the catastrophe as some kind of “natural” return? For instance, the catastrophe of the Mongol raids in the thirteenth century? Albeit not for the Mongols All the same we are aware of it as a catastrophe because the history, or rather the story, was recorded by the peoples stricken by the catastrophe. What do the Mongols themselves write about their thirteenth-century raids? We don’t know. Maybe for them it was the start of something, the start of some triumph, the start of an acculturation—or would have been had it not been brought to a standstill by the death of the Great Khan in 1241. Was it a catastrophe, then, or not a catastrophe? To me, yes; not to you. A dreadful truth, because in the end a catastrophe has to be seen for what it is: a catastrophe. Let it be made clear, then, that one can only speak about a catastrophe in places where people are clear about the cultural significance and meaning of the word. The collapse of European culture was a catastrophe—although not a cosmic catastrophe, of course; perhaps not even European.
A catastrophe for you? Yes. Then write that it is a catastrophe, along with all its consequences.
I don’t seek a solution; I do not wish for a mass grave to be yawning between me and the world.
August 4, 2001
I begin preparations for leaving Hungary. My wife is with me. If it works it will only be realizing something which has long been necessary, and long (one might say “for ages”) been brewing in me (“ages” in the scale of a human life, of course).
In Hungary, it is possible to speak about the Holocaust, even about Holocaust art, without mentioning my name, as if I had never completed anything on the subject. What is their problem with me? For one thing, personal hatred and envy. For another, my radical way of thinking. Third, I have experiences at my disposal; I can’t be lied to: I was there, and from the business perspective must be considered extremely detrimental by the extremely untalented, yet all Holocaust prevaricators, the more ambitious younger generation, which sets off from sentimentality, the assimilation culture and business-profiteering.
In Hungary people are not enamoured of the fact that I am—a fact that Hans Magnus Enzesberger, in his laudation on the occasion of the award to me, movingly found downright pleasing.
In Hungary people do not like Jews, and Hungarian Jews are not too fond of me.
August 6, 2001
The Holocaust prophetess, or female guru, again. With her Red-Indian face, withered to a brown wood carving, and her hooked nose fixed on the public (the audience, this being a televised occasion), she pronounced that the Holocaust was not a historical event, and that it was unintelligible.
What is unintelligible to me is what I never understood. Why unintelligible? After all, it was simplicity itself. A monomaniacal fanatic seizes state power, the true masters of money and power all at once see a great opportunity in him and his principles, whereas the riff-raff are able to indulge their true inclinations, hatred, murderous sadism, servility, pseudo-heroism, and, above all, to steal anything left over for them. Why were the Jews precisely selected for this purpose? Well, they were the most suitable, the most easily nameable, the Christian Church having had two thousand years to work out all the models for unleashing murderous instincts (Raul Hillberg showed that the Nazis only added the technology of the “final solution”—Auschwitz—to already existing practices of the Roman Catholic Church). What is unintelligible here? That in Rousseau’s opinion human nature is different? Oh, Lord! Rousseau was wrong, but then again he was unable to judge his own nature.
It is time that I finally decided what kind of writer I am in truth; in plain language, for whom am I writing.
I think that the prophetesses of films like that are obstacles to people truly displaying empathy to the great sensation of 20th-century history. Besides which there are Spielberg’s interview subjects, those old folks. women and men, who after the first word are so moved by themselves that they bust into tears on screen or become aggressive. If a chisel-faced elderly woman with a chin like a nutcracker, her false teeth clattering , relates with evil disposition commonplaces that are familiar to everyone, one could be forgiven for thinking that if it had to happen, then better it happened to her…. (I am no cynical, I am simply speaking the truth, which few do, or dare to do; I, however, have reached a point, where it’s now all the same to me.)
The Holocaust is not an original event—one which has created its own culture—by virtue of the fact that Frau Schwarz was wrongfully treated, and maybe her family was exterminated. Those things are tragic, but the so-called relativisers of the Holocaust are right in saying that those sorts of things had already happened to other peoples. I would go further: the most essential point is not that it happened to the Jews, the essential point is that it happened to European values. The revelation of the Holocaust in point of fact consists in the fact that from a crisis of value it reached a definitive countermanding of values, The revelation of on Mount Sinai lost its validity with the manifestations in Auschwitz. It signifies nothing that people try, partly out of cowardice and partly out of a sense of responsibility, try to cover up the coming into effect of the chaos, or, if you prefer it: the apocalypse. But the what the little powers of eastern Europe and the Near East are capable of, sensing themselves to have been relieved of all responsibility, because they were deceived, can be studied thoroughly in the Balkans and elsewhere—for example, with the puppet theatre on the stands of football pitches in Hungary.
I am well aware that what I am saying is totally superfluous. As Borowski put it: “We shall be… drowned out by the voices of the poets, the jurists, the philosophers, and the priests.” I would nonetheless draw to people’s attention that in my most recent volume of studies (A számu˝zött nyelv) I endeavoured to propound that it is no longer possible to speak about Auschwitz in a pre-Auschwitz language because that language has lost its validity, at least in relation to Auschwitz. “Unintelligible” is one such pre-Auschwitz term. Before Auschwitz it really was unintelligible; in and after Auschwitz it is natural. I am sorry to be “nasty,” but I also do not regard as relevant arguments along the lines that a lot of people understand that (pre-Auschwitz) language. so that with it and through it larger masses can be “approached.” The reason that does not truly wash with me as I, in contrast, consider it to be unintelligible that a truth can only be “sold” at the price of a lie. All well and good,, but the truth is not for sale, and anything sold in that way is not the truth. Who profits by that? who will become richer? the answer to that stands for itself: Steven Spielberg (and his emulators). But that is not the truth, and it is no consolation.
August 10, 2001
Why do I not call the time and age in which we are living by its rightful name? We are living the age of Auschwitz culture.
September 6, 2001
Of what does the catastrophe consist? Is it indeed of the Newtonian conception of the universe, as Milosz considered? History undeniably can find no explanation for anything.
Horrible facts verified horrible facts. Metastasis to the lymph nodes has been established in Magdi. Frightful things now await her (me, too, of course), but we have decided to stick them out. There is a limit beyond which it is not worth going; in this case, though, we have not reached that. M. herself says that has not yet been able to grasp it, but in this case there is nothing to be grasped. I recollect my conversation with a tumour biologist. His eyes gleaming, he explained the way in which cells operate in the human body, Those cells exist and function completely autonomously in accordance with their own rules or, if one prefers it, their own whims. hey link up and separate, mutate or pass through mutations, etc. When I remarked that that was horrible he looked at me in amazement.
“Why?” he asked. The disease has nothing to do with our perceptions; in the final analysis, it has nothing to do with us, at most it will kill us. Nothing to do with morality, nothing to do with our actions; it has no relation to our virtues or sins. Cells are blind and rule in us in an absurd manner. For that reason our lives are not entirely serious. a much greater significance is attributed to our lives than their magnitude in reality; in reality a human life amounts to nothing: one individual out of the whole species—not worthy of note. It is only to us that a life is painful, either because one loves it or it happens to be oneself.
I should seriously analyse how tightly I grip on to life—with particular respect to the old age I an faced with. the degradation, the physical misery, which brings o to one’s knees and deprives one of all self-reliance, every last crumb of dignity.
September 7, 2001
Camus was profoundly mistaken in calling suicide a philosophical question; it is a purely practical matter.
I know that yesterday the better part of my life came to an end. And what was that better part, if one disregards creation—the finest part. Never again will we travel around Provence by car; never again will we be care-free and liberated. operations on our body and soul, the traces of the death-wish of our decomposed physical being. the confidence one placed in life was been shaken to the roots. the nightmare of physical breakdown; one will slip out of this world. I am seized by self-pity; if I think that I spent the greater part of my life in a dictatorship of poor character in a provincial country of poor character while in Europe’s better half la dolce vita flourished with the one-off opportunities for the prosperity and sparkle of forty happy, heedless years. Now that the Russians have bequeathed Eastern Europe to them the troubles have started there as well That is called political responsibility, which for forty years, in essence, they owed no one. anyone who experienced those forty years in West Europe can now experience something new in which there was still a fragrance of the “ancien regime,” its stability, its cultivation, and its Europeanness…
September 11, 2001
The social contract in the countries of western Europe runs that they stand under the supervision of the authorities and it is not permissible to hound people highhandedly, and there are guarantees to protect the populace from a system of concentration camps and internment camps; a dictatorship can only come into being by an illegal route (if it can come into being at all), and all the while one needs to reckon with legality and being made accountable for one’s actions. this is all a product of historical processes and social activity. in Central an East Europe, however, democracy was proclaimed over the heads of the inhabitants, and the political processes of the last decade prove that the contract can be withdrawn at any time. In the countries of Central and East Europe it has not been established that democracy is a condition of existence; in those societies it is not yet detectable that a defensive instinct against autocracy has developed. On the contrary, it is more the case that the instincts which have developed are those which serve deception by autocracies and the preservation and survival of authoritarian power. As for what the difference is, neither the one party nor the other knows: neither the Western nor Eastern Europeans, and the worst of it is that sometimes they think they are speaking the same language.
October 13, 2001
Camus was profoundly mistaken in calling suicide a philosophical question; it is a purely practical matter.
Auschwitz happened, and that it happened (could have happened)—that is irrevocable. In that inheres Auschwitz’s great significance. Everything which happens influences everything which has yet to happen it cannot be erased from time, cannot be erased from the process that is called destiny, for want of a better term. And it cannot be changed.
October 16, 2001
How strange this Christian-nationalist-irredentist-democratic Hungary is! It reminds me at one and the same time of the country of Döme Sztójay and János Kádár. It does not remind me of God’s country, nor of the Greater Hungary of the nineteenth century,’ nor of a democracy, nor of freedom—it is mot reminiscent of the worst period of pre-fascist Hungary,
October 20, 2001
A diary is not the right place to portray myself if by any means this irresolute, contourless being—myself—does nor reflect the prevailing chaos in the world. This chaos, which is teeming with actions, is well-known precisely for being an obstacle to action. he destructive world of the lie, in other words, in which every action is a lie and destructive. Besides which it is no longer of interest.
At night, a desperate black nigh, I tried to read The Red and the Black. … I can hear my wife’s breathing, which means she is sleeping. Her dreadful pains. The path leading into darkness onto which must tread. I desire my destruction with all my heart. I know not why I had to reel out his long life when in due time I could have been killed off at a time when ambition and the futility of struggling were as yet unknown to me. Nothing made any sense; I did not manage to bring anything into being; the sole outcome of my life was that
I been able to gain acquaintance with the foreignness which separates me from life. I was dead already in the course of my life. Now that mode of existence in the course of which I deluded myself with the appearance of creation, there is in fact no reason for me to carry on living.. I have to wait and see what will happen M.; I must stay beside her while she has need of me; I must nurse her as long as I am able, then quickly… It is not absolutely necessary to purchase a revolver or to acquire some morphine, One can just jump out of a window. That is still the cheapest of all.
October 31, 2001
A diary is not the right place to portray myself if by any means this irresolute, contourless being—myself—does nor reflect the prevailing chaos in the world.
The following communication appeared in the “News” column of the October 29 issue of the prominent Hungarian daily newspaper known as Népszabadság: “BERLIN BOOK WEEK. On Sunday there opened with a reading by the Hungarian writer Imre Kertész the 10th Berlin-Brandenburg Book week in the course of which 100 authors will give readings and interviews. the 71-year-old Kertész, one of the survivors of the holocaust [sic], gave a reading from Jegyzo˝könyv, written in 1993 [!]. Born into a Jewish family in Budapest, Imre Kertész was deported to Auschwitz at the age of 15, and he was liberated from concentration camp in at the end of the war, in 1945.” That text so stirred me up, and the excitement was so unworthy in relation to the significance of the matter, that it showed clearly that I am suffering from a life-threatening overdose of Hungary—We were looking for a house in Berlin.
November 2, 2001
Everything denies me—every text, every manifestation of this place, this country, this public, these people, this literature, this scheme of values. Whatever I listen to I hear this denial; whatever I read, I read this denial; whatever I see, I see this denial, etc. Away from here!—so goes the burning imperative.
November 5, 2001
There is no more fatuous question than to ask how such a fate befell one, for all that one’s failure to understand how such a fate did befall one. But that is precisely what fate is, and everyone must pay the price of having dared to be born, even though one can do no more about that than about one’s death. This evening I assessed the distance which yawns from the balcony to the pavement, and I recoiled. Yet sooner or later there will come a time when I have to act.
November 17, 2001
The weeks which have gone by? They went by. Twice in Berlin, both times with my wife; her horrible disease. and that in spite of chemotherapy. I must cure her, That is not blasphemy, but a lot depends on me how would I dare to diminish, let aloe deny, my wife/ What an ordeal!
We have found an apartment in Berlin. Courage and inclination for a new life. Alongside that a big, big weariness. My conflict with Unseld My dander was up…. In the meantime I supposedly turned 72 years of age. In principle, it means nothing, but if I said it aloud I feel that it is no joke.
Published by permission of Rowohlt Verlag GmbH, Reinbek, © 1998, 2003 by Imre Kertész, © 1999 by Rowohlt Taschenbuchverlag, Reinbek bei Hamburg.