Holocaust survivor who won the Nobel prize for literature
Thursday 31 March 2016 13.25 BST
‘To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric,” wrote the German critic Theodor Adorno soon after the second world war. He later modified his statement by saying: “The main question is: can we go on living after Auschwitz?” This was the problem with which the Nobel prize-winning Hungarian Jewish writer Imre Kertész, a survivor of the Holocaust, grappled throughout his life and literary work, until his death at the age of 86.
Kertész’s first and most influential novel, Sorstalanság (Fatelessness, 1975), is the story of a 14-year-old boy, Gyuri Köves, who survives deportation to Auschwitz and captivity in Buchenwald, and, on his return to Hungary, finds it impossible to relate his experiences to his surviving family. The book was at first hardly noticed by Hungarian critics and only became a success many years later once it had been translated into German and then, in 2005, made into a film by the Hungarian cinematographer Lajos Koltai. While lacking the biting irony of Tadeusz Borowski’s Auschwitz stories, Sorstalanság differs from most accounts of Nazi concentration camps in its relentless objectivity, and as such is a unique achievement of its kind.
It was mainly on the strength of this book, followed by two more novels: A Kudarc (The Failure, 1988) and Kaddis a Meg Nem Született Gyermekért (Kaddish for an Unborn Child, 1990), that Kertész was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 2002.
Kertész was born in Budapest, into a lower-middle-class family. From 1938 laws had been introduced that curtailed the freedom of Hungarian Jews, but the situation changed dramatically in March 1944, when Adolf Hitler invaded the country. Unable to continue his schooling, Kertész, aged 14, was forced to work as a manual labourer. A few months later, he was held in a round up of Budapest Jews and deported to Auschwitz and then Buchenwald, where he survived the war.
Nobel Prize in Literature
He returned to Hungary to complete his studies and gain his high school certificate in 1948, and for several years worked as a journalist for the journal Világosság (Clarity). After a spell as a factory worker, he found a position in the press department of the ministry of heavy industry, and from 1953 onwards he was a freelance journalist and translator of literature, in particular of the works of German language writers and philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Hugo von Hoffmanstahl, Elias Canetti, Arthur Schnitzler, Sigmund Freud and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Kertész struggled to get his first novel published in the restrictive atmosphere of Hungary’s communist regime, partly due to his focus on the problem of Jewish identity and its consequences. In Kaddis, the narrator is asked by his wife whether they could have a child. The answer is “no”, because as a survivor of the Holocaust Kertész’s hero finds the human condition almost unbearable. His problem is not finding a place in Hungarian society but “assimilation to life itself”. His decision not to procreate alienates his wife and the marriage breaks up.
Kertész’s books also sometimes betrayed his ambivalent relationship with religion, which at times led him to doubt the existence of God. In his work Gályanapló (Galley Boat-Log, 1992) he chose a paradox to express his doubts: “God is Auschwitz, but also He who brought me out of there, who obliged, even compelled me to give an account of all that there happened, because He wants to know and hear what he had done.”
Often tempted by suicide, Kertész somehow persevered and it was not until 2003 in his novel Felszámolás (Liquidation, 2003) that he produced a hero who actually kills himself. The ending to that book was probably influenced by his recurring depression after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. In 2014, having lived in Berlin for a number of years, Kertész moved back to Budapest, ostensibly for medical treatment.
His last book, A Végső Kocsma (The Ultimate Inn, 2014) was not a conventional novel, but an amalgam of sketches for a would-be novel allied to notes from his diaries of 2001 onwards, mainly on the subject of the decline of the west and his ambivalent feelings about contemporary Hungary, where deeply rooted antisemitic views are still rife and often displayed by unscrupulous politicians.
Kertész won numerous literary honours from 1983 onwards, including the Attila József (1989) Márai (1996) and Kossuth (1997) prizes in Hungary, where he was also appointed to the Order of St Stephen, the country’s highest distinction. He received many foreign awards and decorations, too, including the Brandenburg literature prize (1995), the Friedrich Gundolf prize (1997) and the Goethe medal (2004).
Kertész is survived by his second wife, Magda Ambrus, whom he married in 1996. His first wife, Albina Vas, died in 1995.
• Imre Kertész, writer, born 9 November 1929; died 31 March 2016