Kertész Imre: Biography

Imre Kertész (Budapest, 9 November 1929 – Budapest, 31 March 2016)

Nobel Prize and Kossuth Prize-winning writer and literary translator. Founding member of the Digital Literature Academy from 1998 until his death.


Born on 9 November 1929 in Budapest to parents László Kertész, a merchant, and Aranka Jakab. In 1944, at the age of 14, he was deported to Auschwitz, from where he was sent to the Buchenwald and later the Zeitz labour camps. After the liberation of the camps, he returned to Budapest in 1945, where, after finishing high school, he worked as a journalist and factory worker, and also did military service. During this time he had a lively social life and met Albina Vas, whom he married in 1960. In the mid-fifties he found his calling and decided to become a novelist. From then on, he changed his lifestyle and began his „internal emigration”, during which he tried to devote all his time to writing and to withdraw from the everyday life of the communist party-state. Until 1963, he earned his living by writing scripts for musical comedies (Donkey Rig [Csacsifogat], Love Knocks [Bekopog a szerelem], Lady Doctor [Doktorkisasszony], The Marriage of Cyrano [Cyrano házassága]), but his diaries show that he felt constant remorse that his work, which he felt was frivolous and superficial, did not leave him enough time for the prose writing that he considered his real task.

From the second half of the 1950s, he was preoccupied with planning several novels. The most detailed drafts from this period which survived are The Loner of Sodom (Szodomai magányos) and I, the Executioner (Én, a hóhér). These were the novels to which he would return until the end of his life; a late version of the former was published as a diary titled The Last Tavern (A végső kocsma, 2014), and a transcription of the latter as a chapter in Fiasco (A kudarc, 1988). The different versions carry important characteristics of his later, completed works: the characters, vulnerable to the workings of power, confronting this vulnerability or reflecting on it through the medium of writing, foreshadow the later Kertész heroes. From this time onwards, his creative activity is encompassed in the careful keeping of his working diaries. From these diaries we learn, among other things, that on 18 March 1960 he conceived the idea for his autobiographically inspired novel, initially entitled Vacation in the Camp (Vakáció a táborban), then Muslim (Muzulmán), and finally Fatelessness (Sorstalanság), published in 1975: „Now, however, I have suddenly – though not entirely unexpectedly – decided to put aside the whole I, the Executioner complex and write my own mythology – the story of my deportation.”

The 13 or so years of work on Fatelessness constituted a period of continual re-starting, of alternating enthusiasm and disillusionment, as we learn from the subsequently edited Galley Diary (Gályanapló, 1992), a selection of his diaries. The result of many years of effort, this poignant work creates a literary language of its own, capable of conveying both the ordinariness and the striking absurdity of the Holocaust. The novel’s stylistic consistency is coupled with a detailed social and art-theoretical conception, which was greatly influenced by Albert Gyergyai’s translation of Albert Camus’s L'Étranger. This literary influence is already evident in the famous opening sentence of Fatelessness („Today I did not go to school”), which may evoke the no less famous opening line of Camus's novel („Today my mother died”). The narrator of Fatelessness, György Köves, is motivated in telling his story to reclaim his „self” from the forces of power that seek to reduce him to a mere object. In order to do so, he rejects the necessarily objectifying perspectives and the roles these perspectives offer (e.g. the role of the innocent victim), and accepts the story of his adaptation to previous roles as his own, and showing how he himself tried to be a „good prisoner” in the process of his own destruction. In order to be able to tell his story without the perspective of hindsight, Kertész develops a form of expression familiar from L'Étranger, one that is unemotional, affirming the outside world and thus shocking the reader. The most striking features of this are the frequent use of discourse markers with an authenticating function, e.g. „of course”, „so to speak”, „certainly”.

The novel, which was more than a decade in the making, was rejected by Magvető Publishing House in 1973 and published by Szépirodalmi Publishing House in 1975. Although the book received critical acclaim, it did not get any serious response from the average reader. It was then that Kertész was confronted with the fact that literary activity was not only a way of „reclaiming” personality and escaping from imposed roles, but also a counter-process of creating a simple book object and the fictional characters it contained, as well as of creating the role of author in the literary public sphere. It is this experience, among other things, that his second novel, Fiasco(A kudarc, 1988), deals with. In it, the authorial function is presented as a contradictory and inexorable activity, evoking the title character of Camus’s essay The Myth of Sisyphus: just as Sisyphus, aware of failure but always starting again to roll the rock up the hill, so the writer-alter ego of Kertész in Fiasco begins his new novels again and again.

For Kertész, literary success came in the period following the regime change. One reason for this is that his works published at that time – Kaddish for an Unborn Child (Kaddis a meg nem született gyermekért, 1990), The Union Jack (Az angol lobogó, 1991), Notebook (Jegyzőkönyv, 1993), Galley Diary (Gályanapló, 1992) – provoked more intense reaction from both professional and wider readerships. The prose aesthetic of the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard is the most important forerunner of his earlier texts. The long monologue in Kaddish…, which starts from a rejection of childbearing and ends with a radical rejection of the established order, is again narrated by a main character who is a writer. The success of his novels is also due to the fact that in the 1990s his works began to get translated and published abroad, most notably in Germany, and soon he became a well-known and respected author in Europe. The German-language editions of Kaddish… in 1992 and Fatelessness in 1996, both published by Rowohlt, were great successes. In 1995 he was awarded the Brandenburg Prize for Literature, in 1996 the Sándor Márai Prize, in 1997 the Kossuth Prize and the Grand Prize at the Leipzig Book Fair, and in 2000 the Herder Prize and the Die Welt Prize for Literature. Literary success and the financial support that came with it changed his life radically as he grew older, as the „internal exile” of the Kádár regime had meant decades of deprivation. His first wife Albina died in 1995; he married Magda Sass in 1996 and they moved to Berlin together in 2003. On 10 October 2002, he becomes the first Hungarian writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for Fatelessness. According to a statement by the Swedish Academy, „The refusal to compromise in Kertész’s stance can be perceived clearly in his style, which is reminiscent of a thickset hawthorn hedge, dense and thorny for unsuspecting visitors. But he relieves his readers of the burden of compulsory emotions and inspires a singular freedom of thought.” He found his success difficult to live up to, seeing another role forced upon him in his function as a world-famous writer: „I can hardly keep up with the constant, breakneck pace of the literary enterprise that bears the Kertész brand”, reads his book of notes from 2001–2003, entitled Save As (Mentés másként, 2011).

Although the regime change in 1989 marked a major transformation in his way of life and made him an internationally renowned writer, he does not characterise this period of writing any differently than previous ones. His Notebook (Jegyzőkönyv, 1993) tells the story of an unsuccessful journey to Vienna, during which the narrator is forced off a train leaving the country – an event he sees as irrevocable proof that the world around him has changed only in appearance, and the logic that drives it is still valid: the past will not be left behind. His novels, in fact, explore the similar functioning of society in different historical eras. (Fatelessness in the context of the Holocaust, Fiasco in the context of the fifties, The Union Flag in the context of the 1956 revolution, Kaddish… in the context of the Kádár era, Notebook and Liquidation in the context the regime change and its aftermath.) This is why the German reception might have initially treated Kertész’s first three novels (Fatelessness, Fiasco, Kaddish…) as a trilogy, a construction that expands into a tetralogy after Liquidation(Felszámolás, 2003) is published.

Kertész is known primarily as a novelist, but has also made significant achievements in other genres. From the 1990s onward he lectured and wrote essays on European culture as seen through the lens of the Holocaust. He argues that the experience of totalitarianism remains valid in describing the way the world works and that human freedom can only be won by opposing repressive mechanisms. His critique of society and culture in these essays is among the most important analyses of the 20th century in Europe: The Holocaust as Culture. Three Lectures (A Holocaust mint kultúra. Három előadás, 1993), A Moment of Silence while the Firing Squad Reloads (A gondolatnyi csend, amíg a kivégzőosztag újratölt, 1998), The Exiled Language (A száműzött nyelv, 2001), The Oppressive Legacy of Europe (Európa nyomasztó öröksége, 2008), The Adventure of Formulation (A megfogalmazás kalandja, 2009). In addition to his essayistic work, he continued to edit his diaries, publishing Someone Else (Valaki más) in 1997, Save As (Mentés másként) in 2011, The Last Tavern (A végső kocsma) in 2014, and The Spectator (A néző) in 2016. In these, the figure of a renowned writer with an increasing number of illnesses emerges, who expresses a strong and scathing opinion of his surroundings – in less grand reflections than in the Galley Diary, and increasingly in simplistic and exclusionary thoughts.

Kertész was also a prolific translator, having translated the works of Sigmund Freud, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Friedrich Nietzsche, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Arthur Schnitzler, Tankred Dorst, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, among others, from German into Hungarian.

In the last years of his life, he suffered from Parkinson’s disease and moved to Budapest with his wife Magda. He died on 31 March 2016.


The biography was written by Botond Szemes, translated by Benedek Totth and Austin Wagner.