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Memory Lane

A BOOK OF MEMORIES By Peter Nadas Translated from the Hungarian by Ivan Sanders with Imre Goldstein; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 706 pp., $30

June 22, 1997|RICHARD EDER

There is no more memory for Peter Nadas, only memories. Modern times have splintered the concept of time--time departed and sought-for--upon which Marcel Proust constructed his seven-part "A la Recherche du Temps Perdu." Or, to go by the Scott-Moncrieff translation: There is no more remembrance of things past; only disjointed retrospective flashes.

Nadas, a Hungarian writer, has essayed a monumental Proust-work, suitable for an era in which high literature distrusts narrative and regards memory as simply one of many possible texts. Underlying Proust's novel, for all its layered fretwork of elaboration and digression, there was an implied narrative. It told of a rememberer aspiring to capture, ponder and relive his past and that of his culture.

Memory requires the aspiring rememberer. There is none in "A Book of Memories," hence the entropy of its plural title. Its narrator renounces a singular voice: He renounces the narrator's power to select, order and, above all, to proclaim his story, explicitly or by complex implication. Instead of the securely moored "once upon a time" found from "The Canterbury Tales" to "War and Peace"; or Proust's and Joyce's "many times upon a time"--moored by only one foot--Nadas' own "many times" are expelled from their temporal matrix and drift like white dwarfs through the universe.

There is a story, in fact, in "A Book of Memories," and it is not particularly complex. A Hungarian boy grows up tormented by his family's secrets--his father is a high-ranking Communist security official--and by his own fluctuating sexual identity. Later, as an adult living in Berlin, he has a passionate affair with a male poet, one that is subverted by his tormented attraction to a middle-aged actress. Finally he retreats back to Hungary to attempt his memoir: this book.

The complexity comes from the author's methods. Like the artist in Georges Perec's "Life: A User's Manual," he paints a picture and saws it into jigsaw pieces. He then assiduously scatters the pieces across more than 700 pages. The reader works to reassemble them, and as he or she does so, Nadas agitates the table.

A vital telegram is announced on Page 54; its three-word content is not disclosed until Page 705. A scene typically begins in mid-passage, resumes 100 pages later for its ending and then, after another interval, takes up at its beginning. A climactic kiss requires nine pages to deliver; it includes such usual features as hesitation, excitement and discovery. There is also a topographic survey: the kiss as seen in middle-distance, close-up and from behind the tongue, looking outward. We read what the salivary glands and neural paths meanwhile are up to.

Such splintered and scrambled memories convey the splintering of Nadas' rememberer. Even his voice is fragmented: For most of the book, there seem to be three different stories by three different persons. As the three alternate, chapter by chapter, it takes awhile for a reader to figure out what is happening.

Voice one is the narrator at 30, just after he flees Berlin and prepares to return to Hungary. Voice two gets a name--Thomas Thoenissen --but this is because he is a flamboyant late 19th century fictional character devised by the narrator. As such, he has no need to worry about his own reality, unlike his deliberately nameless Postmodern creator. Voice three is the narrator, still nameless, as a boy growing up in Hungary. Briefly, there is a fourth voice. Near the end, Krisztian, a childhood friend whom the narrator was in love with, delivers a chilly, uneasy and clearly unreliable critique of everything that has gone before.

The childhood narrative is the heart of the book, providing its most vital and vivid writing and a formidable emotional power, despite its stylistic complexities. Despite and also because of. Nadas writes from the inside of the adolescent boy, and the mysteries and incoherencies of his voice refract the pain of a triply shaky identity.

There is the universal pain of passage into the teens, with its baffling shifts in the internal and external world. Additionally, there are the mystery and silence of his divided family and country. His father is a prosecutor working with the political police, his maternal grandfather a liberal lawyer who has lost everything to the Communists, his mother a noble and appealing figure torn apart in the conflict. Finally, there is the torment and confusion of sex; his unstable passion for and incipient experimentation with two of his male friends, Krisztian and Kalman; and with two girls, Livia and Maja, who hang out with the same group.

It is a volcano, and it throws off scenes of molten brilliance. The boy and Maja--daughter of a police official--spy on their fathers, convinced that they are Western agents. By the time of the 1956 uprising, when Kalman is killed marching alongside the narrator, the latter has come to realize and detest his father's true identity.

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