Yesterday’s post focused on what Péter Nádas was trying to say in his epic novel Parallel Stories (translated by Imre Goldstein)– today’s will look a little more at how he said it, and try to work out how successful this book really is. I hope you're in for the long haul...
There's a lot to discuss when thinking about the writer's use of language in Parallel Stories. The language used in the book is, as you would expect, wide-ranging, and with Nádas’ mother tongue of Hungarian differing so much from English, the translation has attempted to keep as much of the original flavour as possible. The word order can be confusing, reflecting the choices the writer made in the more flexible original language, and the choice of vocabulary attempts to show the tone of the Hungarian words used.
Parallel Stories is notable for its long, elaborate descriptions, almost Proustian in its attention to detail. Where Proust describes inanimate objects in great detail though, Nádas saves most of his descriptive talents for action, especially of the sexual kind. His extended portrayal of Ágost and Gyöngyvér’s sex session (and it is sex, not lovemaking) is probably the most obvious example of this, drawing the reader in and telling them things they would probably rather not know about the external and internal anatomy of the lithe young things.
However, this attention to detail is also evident in the way the writer deals with dialogue. There is a plethora of lengthy conversations in the novel, and Nádas’ approach here is less Proustian than Jamesian. Like Henry James, Nádas performs the feat of having his characters exchange bland, trivial remarks, which appear loaded only because we are told of the physical and psychological state of the speakers. The psychological processes are stripped bare, and it is the emotions we are witness to, rather than the words we hear, which are important.
As if this is not difficult enough for the reader, there are more traps in store. Nádas has decided to dispense with quotation marks, probably because they make life simpler for anyone trying to follow his dialogue. This omission, coupled with a tendency to jump between direct and indirect speech, often in the same conversation, can make it tricky to work out who said what. When you realise that the writer also often avoids giving the name of the characters involved until the chapters are well underway, you can imagine how confusing things can become. Now, imagine, if you will, passages where the action shifts from character to character, place to place, time to time at the drop of a hat, sometimes in mid-sentence…
There are times when Nádas’ relentless prose is a joy, a flow of words washing over the reader. Below is an example I picked out, virtually at random:
“Continually, without letup, relentlessly, I thought of only one thing, that I had never seen such beauty and never would again if I left her even for a moment. Her eyes, the color of her eyes or her glance, I don’t know what, but it paralyzed me. Her scent probably had a part in this, but I could reach only the edge of it because she took it with her, though sometimes she left thick clouds of it behind. Her eyes were not blue but not green either. As if I were looking down into the depths of unfamiliar waters. I did not understand the angry darkness, but the color of the water was throwing sparks at me. No human can have eyes of this color. There is no water of this color, no material of any kind.” p.456
However, at other times, pages of dull, trite, pointless dialogue sludge up the story, brief moments of time stretched out over dozens of pages. It’s this constant battle that makes reading Parallel Stories such a chore at times. Just when you start to feel that you’re making progress, along comes another twenty-page roadblock, stopping you dead in your tracks. Perhaps this effort though, the constant struggle to negotiate the writer’s linguistic choices, is precisely what makes it the book it is…
Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
That is a very difficult question to answer. When confronted with a work like Parallel Stories, it seems almost absurd that it could be on the same footing as some of the other contenders – shouldn’t there be weight categories? Alas, that is not the case, so we are forced to compare books that are as different as apples and monoliths. If we were basing our decision purely on ambition, there would be no contest: Parallel Stories would win every prize going and be mentioned in the same breath as Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdus as one of the most impressive works of literature of the modern era. Instead though we’re basing our decision more on the success of the novel, and I’m not sure the decision here is quite so clear-cut.
There’s an argument for saying that Parallel Stories is both over- and under-written. There are whole sections where you cannot wait for the endless prose to end, for something, anything to happen, for the writer’s attention to be diverted from breasts, penises, lips or whatever body part he is currently focusing on. On the other hand, after well over a thousand pages of small type on very large pages (I’ve heard that the book actually runs to more than 1500 pages in other versions), the intrepid soul who has conquered Mount Nádas gets to the summit and thinks… Have I missed something? Wasn’t there supposed to be a story in there somewhere?
I also have some issues with the translation, mainly personal ones. I’m not a big fan of American translations, preferring to have only one filter, not two, between myself and the writer, and Parallel Stories, set as it is throughout the second half of the twentieth century, is full of foreign, awkward words and expressions. The unique style of the original is undoubtedly to blame for much of this, but when my very-English mind stumbles upon words such as ‘Daddio’, my mental red pen comes out and (in a triumph of mixed metaphors) chalks up another black mark.
So my answer then is no, not quite. The real panel has, as you will know, agreed with me; the Shadow Panel, or at least our chairman, has disagreed. It will be interesting to see what we all think of Parallel Stories when we come to discuss it. Assuming, of course, that any of the other members have managed to get to the end of it…
Why did it miss the shortlist?
For the reasons outlined above, plus one undeniable truth. I honestly don’t think the judges fancied ploughing through it again…
OK, I'm off for a sleep to recover. There'll be more IFFP fun when I've restored my strength :)