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Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

Filling in the blank

Theodor Adorno famously pronounced that to continue writing poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric. The remark is not only pompous but pointless. We cannot stop people writing or making fictions about the Holocaust or indeed about anything else – even though in some cases, on grounds of taste, we might wish to.

Imre Kertész, who was deported to Auschwitz aged fourteen and many years later wrote a novel, Fateless, about the experience of a child in that camp complex, spent much of the 1950s writing not poetry but musical comedy. From which we can conclude what? That we can recover from even the greatest of traumas? Perhaps not. Perhaps just that we should be careful of making overconfident ex cathedra pronouncements, in the Adorno manner, about other people’s experiences. Kertész tells the Paris Review: “I was interned in Auschwitz for one year. I didn’t bring back anything, except for a few jokes, and that filled me with shame.”

The story which Kertész, who was born in 1929 and is now gravely ill with Parkinson’s disease, tells in this fascinating interview is not the story of a “Holocaust survivor”, though he was and is, more than very many others, a survivor. It is rather the story of a writer. And a writer, it seems, is a person who writes and then is unhappy with what s/he has written. And so writes it again, and is unhappy again. And so on. I like his story about the “beautiful journal” which as a child he was reluctant to mark with his inadequate words - we would say notebook not journal. The French make the most beautiful notebooks (carnets) in the world (the manufacturer is Clairefontaine) and I own several, bought at various times because I was sure I needed them, and yet they still have many blank pages, very many. Perhaps I have the young Kertész’s problem; or perhaps I just don’t do enough thinking. What, the Paris Review asks, was your introduction to literature? Did anyone in your family write?

No one in my family wrote. And there was no real introduction. I suppose I somehow blundered into it when I was about six or seven years old. I was asked what present I would like, and, without knowing why, I responded that I would like a journal. It was a beautiful journal—so beautiful that I didn’t want to sully it. As time went by, I tried to write and ended up resenting everything I put on paper. And so I tried to improve what was already there. I think a man turns into a writer by editing his own texts. Then all of a sudden I realized that I had, in fact, become a writer.

Paris Review interview here