Version classiqueVersion mobile

Writing Europe

Ursula Keller

In the Intimacy of Literary Writing

Péter Nádas
Traduction de Imre Goldstein

Texte intégral

Európa az idők kezdete óta állatiasságban szunnyadó,
ködös agyú szörnyeteg. Olykor felnyög, fújtat,
hánykolódik a nagy tengerek közé szorított büdös

1Europa. With a name of Phoenician origin, which Hesiod mentions among the forty elder daughters of Téthys and Oceanus and the four wives of Zeus, Europe emerges from the dim of prehistoric days, and, naturally, neither reads nor writes. Yet the people living on the continent bearing her name assume that anyone who masters the written alphabet is able to write. It is probably this embarrassing belief that prevents them from ever really learning how to write. From time immemorial Europe has been an addle-brained monster slumbering in her beastliness. Once in a while she groans and pants, tossing and turning on her foul-smelling couch stuck between the great seas.

2According to some legends, the breath of Europe smells of saffron. Rubens painted her as a wildly plump female, who at the moment of being abducted, presses the pelt of a panther to her body. Europe has always had more fat and gold than the knowledge she would truly need. From the beginning of time Europe has been illiterate and will remain so to the end of time. And this situation will not be altered if some individuals, some of whom can also read, acquire the skills of penmanship. It may not be superfluous to mention that the Greek word for illiterate (analphabetos) refers to persons who are not only unfamiliar with the alphabet, but who are also unacquainted with the administration of justice; they do not know how to enter into a contract, or how to defend their rights in a court of law. They are panting domestic animals. Even in antiquity such a person or situation must have been a great burden, a weight around society’s neck. Judgment in court could be based only on circumstances that had been presented in writing. Quod non est in actis, non est in mundo. What is not in the files, does not exist.

3Which of course implies that there had been a period of pristine conditions, prior to antiquity, in which proficient oral communication was sufficient to maintain existence in the world. I write. The individual person must have arisen from the enormous mass of primary matter by making use of the written word. For more than forty years now, every morning at ten minutes to eight I sit down at my table covered with my handwritten notes. Individuals have no other means by which to convey their existence to others. And even writing cannot produce more than a mere sketch of a full personality. Personal intimacy is usually felt through the sense of touch. If, however, people fail to convey to one another at least a sketch of the intimacy of their existence, then the existence of everyone will remain blind and deaf, insensitive to social contacts, insensitive to bodily contacts, as a result of which they will all sink back into the chaotic primary matter. Something that has already occurred, and most likely will occur again, in the horror-filled history of Europe.

4So that this should not occur, everyone, every single day, should lift himself out the primary matter of one’s simple-mindedness.

5And the person able to prepare a daily written report of this successful or failed effort, at least concerning himself, may begin to hope that after a few decades, perhaps before his death, he might even learn to write.

6Learning to write cannot begin with writing. For example, every afternoon after writing I begin my not-writing period, because if I want to be able to write the next day, I must know every day precisely where the division is between my own reality and the reality of my own writing. And this dividing line, given the nature of the thing, changes every day. But no matter what I do without or instead of writing, all further activity must occur from the viewpoint of writing. I must go to bed neither too early nor too late, and I must be aware, whether awake or asleep, just how far I let the unavoidable influence of others penetrate my being: deep enough to reach the marrow of my bones, or let it be stopped at the epidermis. In my youth, for example, I learned to sleep so that I could analyze my dreams while dreaming them, and after waking to fix them firmly enough in my consciousness so as not to forget them later. The reality of the dream ought to find its place in the reality of writing. At the edge of madness one begins to see the structures of one’s own consciousness, and this is very important to an understanding of the consciousness of other people. If only for the reason that language, the common mother tongue that tomorrow will become the material and subject of the writing, cannot be understood without the manner in which others use the language.

7Since my younger days I have spent the first hour of the morning in exercises of classical associations, classical analyses, in the breaking down and rearranging of the contents of consciousness. I continue where the monks left off at the end of the Middle Ages. Anyone looking at me at such a time would see a compulsively idle man, staring foolishly out the window; and the sight would be almost identical every day. While the mad rush begins outside, I keep life in a high state of eventlessness. In due course the little differences will shed light on many things. But not on everything, and not by themselves.

8At any rate, because of the involuntary observation of things, the contents of human consciousness appear to be so rich and so full of detail that one would need several lifetimes to process them and write them up properly.

9There is no point or circumstance in one’s thinking of oneself at which one wouldn’t have to step out of oneself, and therefore place everything in a conditional mode, to continue thinking through the system of parallel connections. Something that only a computer would be able to do. As if while thinking one would constantly have to ask oneself: do other people think what I think, or conversely, am I thinking what others — because of other people — are thinking?

10You haven’t even started writing and you can already tell that you wouldn’t get to the end of it, because the end cannot be reached; but you shouldn’t be frightened by this. One could easily start the whole thing from the beginning and, if needed, once again from the beginning. The use of language by strangers contains strange references to the contents of strange consciousness, and these varied linguistic signs will produce at least the sketch of a structure. Following this trail, however, may make it difficult to find the points where the writing should start and end. Because there is no such thing. This realization paralyzes one only in one’s youth. Your own life, and that of others — oh, horror — consists of eternal repetitions. What else can there be? One eats, purges, makes love, and then starts all over again. Others before you have already searched for those starting and terminal points. If you can’t find God either, or an explanation for God’s absence, then perhaps it is enough for you to recognize the structure of repetitions, to evaluate them, and to bring them in some connection with the particular structure of others’ repetitions. Then you’ve at least had a tiny insight into the nature of creation. If every morning you can deal with and take care of part of this task, and if you manage to surprise yourself a little with the result, then with this knowledge you may slowly approach the manuscript where you had left it the day before.

11It is important that you should write for decades only by hand, and thus see immediately in your handwriting the differences and similarities between today and previous days. A writer must be able to distinguish between these different levels — something he’ll never be able to do on a typed page or on the monitor of a computer. A handwritten manuscript of the previous day opens dimensions that, led by the deepest instincts, no one likes to look into. One would see something that requires immediate correction. You may improve the quality of the manuscript, or make it worse, with corrections; but there is nothing to be done about the previous day’s written form. Whether one is satisfied or dissatisfied, the written form must be accepted as the only reality.

12The written form is personal; however, the personal way of writing takes its place in a larger tradition that has continental peculiarities, but no continental borders. Although my own way of writing is strongly locked into the system of secret connections and intricate references of European literature, these connections and references cross naturally over ethnic, linguistic, religious, and national boundaries. And they do so even when the Continent falls on its own sword of ethnic, linguistic, religious, and national distinctions, and sinks back into the state of precivilization.


Further Reading:
A Book of Memories: A Novel. Translated by Ivan Sanders and Imre Goldstein. Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1997.
A Lovely Tale of Photography. Translated by Imre Goldstein. Twisted Spoon Press, 1999.
The End of a Family Story. Translated by Imre Goldstein.
Penguin USA, 2000.
Love. Translated by Imre Goldstein. Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2000.

Table des illustrations

Fichier image/jpeg, 282k


Born in 1942, the narrative writer, dramatist, essayist, and photographer Péter Nádas trained as a photographer and worked for some years as a photojournalist. He published his first novella in 1967 (The Bible). His book The End of a Family Novel, which in Hungary could be published only in 1979, was praised as the most important manifesto of a new generation of Hungarian authors. For his novel A Book of Memories, he was awarded the Austrian State Prize for European Literature, France’s Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger, and the Leipzig Book Prize for European Understanding.

Imre Goldstein (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2003

Conditions d’utilisation :


Volume papier
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search