The Life of Imre Kertész
The Hungarian writer was born 90 years ago

One thing all Hungarians (or enthusiasts of Hungarian culture) know about Imre Kertész: the Nobel Prize in Literature 2002 was awarded to him “for writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history.” Although his world-famous 1975 novel Fatelessness is considered his greatest masterpiece, it’s worth getting familiar with the whole oeuvre.

Imre Kertész was born into a Jewish family on 9 November 1929. At the age of 14 in 1944 he was deported to a labour camp in Auschwitz, then in Buchenwald. He survived the inhuman conditions of the concentration camps and returned to Budapest in 1945 and became a manual worker. Later he worked as a journalist before becoming a freelance writer and literary translator in 1953.

Funzine Favourite Quote

One is not born for anything in particular, but if one manages to stay alive long enough, then one cannot avoid eventually becoming something.” (Dossier K, 2006)

It took him 13 years to write Fatelessness, his first novel that follows Gyuri, a 15-year-old Jewish boy to the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Although the book is full of autobiographical references, Kertész said in an interview that he did not intend to identify himself with Gyuri but to respect his character and his own way of expression, aka his use of language. Months passed between writing two chapters, because Kertész could not find the adequate style without placing Gyuri and his experience into reality, which according to Kertész would have ruined the whole structure of the book.

Fatelessness was written between 1960 and 1973, but it only came to light in 1975 as Magvető Kiadó had refused to publish the manuscript due to the socialist aesthetics. Kertész’s second novel Fiasco (1988) – the sequel of Fatelessness – tells the reception story of Fatelessness in literary circles, which was followed by Kaddish for an Unborn Child in 1990. Kaddish is a follow-up on Gyuri’s adult life, in which he tells his kaddish (a Jewish prayer) for the unborn child he ceases bringing to a world that let the Holocaust happen. The fourth Kertész novel Liquidation (2003), which is often considered the last piece of a tetralogy on life and remembering, describes a search for a lost manuscript and fading life paths.

The main works of Imre Kertész

Tim Wilkinson translated the following Kertész works that are available in English.

  • Fatelessness (1975)
  • The Pathseeker (1977)
  • Fiasco (1988)
  • Kaddish for an Unborn Child (1990)
  • The Union Jack (1991)
  • Liquidation (2003)
  • Dossier K (2006)

The other important part of Kertész’s oeuvre includes essays and diaries on the freedom of man in a totalitarian world, the irreconcilable nature of different beliefs and the failure to process an atrocity like the Holocaust.

Even though Imre Kertész was the first (and only) Hungarian to have won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002, he spent most of his life in Germany, which proved controversial in the Hungarian press that often criticized him for leaving his country.

Kertész was struggling with depression all his life, just like the main character in Liquidation who commits suicide. In 2009 the writer was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease which eventually led to his inability to write. He managed to get two more of his books published in the 2010s before he died in Budapest on 31 March 2016 at the age of 86.