The Visionary Memoirs of Péter Nádas

In 1988, a year before the end of Communist rule in the People’s Republic of Hungary, and 30 years after his father’s suicide made him an orphan, Péter Nádas published an essay on the topic of melancholy. “Melancholy” is a difficult piece, oscillating between philosophical and poetic registers and frequently veering into opacity. But it contains one unforgettable line. Referring to another work on the subject, Melancholy by László Földényi, Nádas says that “[w]hoever reads this book will feel more precisely what melancholy is but will understand it less.”

At first I thought Nádas was just throwing a little shade at a fellow Hungarian writing on the same theme. Isn’t the point of reading a book on something to understand it better, not less?

But now I have navigated Nádas’s massive, difficult memoir: two volumes aggregating nearly 1,100 pages of shifting narrative perspective, obscure digressions, political history, and crushing personal and familial loss. And it occurs to me that the memorable line from Nádas’s earlier essay may not have been shade at all, but rather, the highest of compliments. For Shimmering Details seems meticulously engineered to convey powerful feelings—indeed, decades upon decades of weighty, consciousness-defining emotion—and to thwart anyone who might attempt to engage Nádas’s prose primarily with her Thinking Brain rather than her Feeling Brain.

Nádas had a front-row seat to some of the twentieth century’s most tumultuous moments. Born in 1942 to Hungarian Jewish parents who supported the Communist resistance, he has said that his earliest memories were of the firebombing of Budapest. When he was 13, his mother died of cancer; a year later, Soviet T-54 tanks encircled Parliament in downtown Budapest to extinguish the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. Nádas’s father, a Communist Party civil servant who was tried and acquitted for embezzlement, killed himself in 1958. Nádas trained as a photojournalist in the Hungarian realist-documentarian style. But in 1968, when the Soviets invaded Prague, he quit photojournalism to “save his soul” and focus on writing.

cover Peter NadasThe seventies and early eighties, spent variously in northwestern Hungary and in the German Democratic Republic, were difficult years, in which Nádas struggled with finding a form for both his writing and his work. He felt constantly fragile, anxious, even suicidal. His second novel, A Book of Memories, published in Hungarian in 1986 and in English in 1997, took a dozen years to write and a few more to work its way through the Hungarian censor’s office. It caught the attention of international audiences as the Iron Curtain collapsed.

A more conventional memoirist might have used such chronology as a foundation for a narrative arc; a Bildungsroman, perhaps, about an artist coming into his own amid turbulent times. What Nádas does is much more interesting.

Like much of Nádas’s fiction, Shimmering Details is a delicate fusion, supplementing the high-modernist realism of Proust and Musil with an expressionist’s commitment to the distortions generated by strong feeling. As the title implies, the details are key. Nádas captures them with an analog photographer’s eye for latent conflict, or buried emotion. For example, a riff prompted by a nickname:

When my grandfather called my grandmother by her nickname, her annoyance and the intention behind her awkward attempt at a smile afforded a glimpse of their most secret lives…she could be as tolerant toward my grandfather as my grandfather was toward her, though by all indications, this sort of mutuality did not exist between them. They lived side by side…irrevocably separated, isolated from each other, but in their state of isolation they nevertheless found each other. 

Or another, capturing the minutiae of a somber epiphany:

Mrs. Halmágyi or Harsányi pulled her sweater over her head as we hurried in the falling snow along the tree-lined path that led to the church until we reached this small, gray military-looking structure, and as soon as we entered, I felt a strange weight descend on me, a weight that would not relent for decades to come. There was a blazing fire raging in the big, ornate cylindrical stove. I now know that the weight is called anxiety.

Such details—remembered sensations; curious juxtapositions; a dust mote in a sunbeam—take the foreground throughout. Poignant moments are wrapped in satin, caressed with adjectives, held up to the light. As in a dream, a salient image or even a specific word will yank the text in an unforeseen direction, never to return to its leaping-off point. The entire narrative is a mountain of switchbacks; a thousand handbrake-turns. Relentless, like life itself. The effect on the reader is frequently physical. Other than the intermission between volumes, there are no pauses: no chapter breaks; no section numbers; not even a single dinkus to which a bewildered reader might cling while catching his breath.

Shimmering Details ends well before Nádas reaches adulthood. It also starts well before his birth. Nádas narrates not just his own consciousness, rooted in the memories of his childhood, but also the imagined and inferred experiences of other family members, especially those that lived through the war that ended while Nádas was a toddler. Family history, prompted as if by a photo album, oscillates between affectionate nostalgia and outright terror. Multiple stories weave into one. Again and again the narrative returns to Le Vernet, the concentration camp in southern France where Nádas’s uncle was imprisoned after the Spanish Civil War, and where, during World War II, thousands of Jews were held until they could be deported to Nazi facilities further east. None of this is presented in chronological order.

The result is a highly unconventional approach to narrative memoir, a deep and turbid river of individual and collective consciousness that swerves frequently and oscillates between interior landscapes and exterior events with a quasi-musical cadence. The book is at once deeply personal and unavoidably political: invested in Hungarian history and culture, while indignant at modern Hungary’s relative lack of self-reflection regarding its complicity in Nazi atrocities. Plagued with doubt and loss, Shimmering Details is anchored in melancholy; there is no late-life triumphalism, no victory lap celebrating the author’s many successes. It’s maximalist in its prose, and its page count, but minimalist in its message. This life, it urges, is just a series of moments. Try to understand it as anything other than that, and it will forever defy you, the way this text defies you. But let yourself feel the moment, put in the work to engage the text emotionally, and now we’re getting somewhere.

To paraphrase: Whoever reads this book will feel these moments more precisely, but will understand them less. 

Like a hummingbird, which aeronautical engineers assure us shouldn’t be able to fly at all, much less fly backwards or hover in place, Shimmering Details shouldn’t really work. There’s too much ambition; too much noise; too much history; too much to say and too little actually said out loud. Can realism and expressionism ever really cohabitate? Maximalism and minimalism? Can a book so deeply personal also be urgently political? Can a memoir so deeply rooted in the events and images of the mid-twentieth century really speak to the anxieties and aspirations of the early twenty-first?

Susan Cheever, herself something of a pioneer in the genre, has suggested that memoir is “the novel of the 21st century,” a form that, despite “a couple of people who’ve tried weird things,” holds largely untapped potential. Nádas is one of those people trying weird things. And, with Shimmering Details, he shows us that for writers willing to challenge genre conventions, memoir can be as ambitious, resonant, and demanding of its readers as any work of fiction.

Brendan Driscoll
‘s book reviews have appeared in Booklist, the National Book Critics’ Circle’s “Critical Mass” blog, and elsewhere. He is writing a novel about the horrors of immigration law. Originally from western New York State, he now lives in Oregon.

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