March over to Europe to gawk at its churches and what are you told? The tour guides, the tour-guiding priests—they tell you that the greatest cathedrals are left unfinished, and do you know why? Don’t be afraid to raise a hand. The answer is because God’s work is unfinished—because we are unfinished.
Most novelists have to die to leave behind their unfinished cathedrals. Think of Kafka, consigning his conclusionless books to the fire. Think of Robert Musil, who struggled with an epilogue to The Man Without Qualities, producing instead a second volume that sprawls next to the first like a chapel abandoned when the money ran out. Not many writers manage to make, or even aspire to make, that conscious perfect ruin. But with Parallel Stories, which will be published here this November, Hungarian Péter Nádas has done just that: He’s completed, or rather incompleted, an ornate secular monstrosity that must rank as one of his country’s strangest, most ambitious literary achievements. Parallel Stories is a European relic not just aware of but positively evangelical about its own timelessness. “To have inspiration for the future, you go much farther back, all the way to Plato or Homer,” Nádas tells me from his house in rural Gombosszeg, Hungary. “They are present-day authors, no older than Don DeLillo. Why wouldn’t Musil, Mann, or Broch be my contemporaries?”
Eighteen years in the writing and well over 1,000 pages, Parallel Stories is an ungodly book—about capitalism and the Church, about communism and no Church; Hungarian nationalists and Jewish lumber merchants; gay intelligence officers in Budapest bathhouse bacchanals and Gypsy Gastarbeiters. All of Magyardom seems to be in it, along with wide demographic swaths of Italy, France, Austria, and, especially, Germany. There are digressions on Nazi eugenics, architecture, opera, and painting—as well as underwear-purchasing habits in reunified Berlin (“polyurethane” is preferred)—alongside tangential musings on how mandated communal apartments under Hungary’s Kádár dictatorship served as inducements to casual sex.
That narrative proliferation is purposeful. The reader must not merely confront but veritably experience—character by character, decade by decade—a half-century of European totalitarianism, which, in its mission to organize and ennoble life on the Continent, succeeded only in destroying it. As Nádas is the first to acknowledge, his project is similarly fraught: “Every time we make a serious effort to create order,” he says, “we deepen the chaos.”
Chaos was Nádas’s birthright. He was born Jewish in Budapest in 1942. His childhood was hiding. Nádas’s mother died of cancer while he was still quite young, and his father—a Communist state prosecutor wrongly accused of embezzlement—committed suicide soon after Soviet tanks crushed the Hungarian uprising. Photojournalism became Nadas’s eventual career, and sharpened his eye: “I came to know the different worlds of my country fairly well,” he says of his time working for the Hungarian press, while writing fiction on the side. “They were wonderful years of apprenticeship.”
But also intense years of censorship. If it was difficult to get the news as it was on the page, it was just as difficult for Nádas to get his own novels and stories between covers. After a formative stint in East Berlin, Nádas wrote himself out of obscurity in 1986 with A Book of Memories, which proposed that while a real author might be prevented from fictionalizing freely under communism, a fake or fictionalized author was not so constrained: The novel opens in the voice of a Hungarian writer of Nádas’s generation who liberates himself by inventing a doppelgänger struggling with an earlier ideology—a nineteenth-century German aesthete unable to embourgeoise himself. “It was almost ridiculous,” Nádas remembers. “The older publishers assumed A Book of Memories would be banned immediately. The nervous dictator of this wavering regime, on the other hand, had much more serious problems to worry about than reading such a thick book.”
An erotic, hyperdetailed epic of late-communist life and an unsparing inquest into whether we narrate history or history narrates us, A Book of Memories was hailed throughout Europe as the definitive glasnost novel of the Eastern Bloc, a new genre that promised the publication of decades’ worth of masterpieces previously relegated to drawers. In America, Susan Sontag, with a perhaps irrational desire to find the embers of Modernism still burning behind the Iron Curtain, declared it plainly “the greatest novel written in our time, and one of the great books of the century.”
The new novel is just as erotic and just as detailed as A Book of Memories, but in Parallel Stories Nádas has turned his previous interiorisms outward. The result is a pointedly public narrative, embellished with a succession of genre styles—chronicling the Nazi era with touches of socialist realism, fifties and sixties Budapest as a romance, and post-1989 Berlin as a mystery or thriller. That none of these three primary plots ever resolves or reaches even a temporary denouement is, of course, precisely the point: “I’m expanding constantly,” Nádas says. “My narrative mode and rhythm are not organized by closure but determined by an open form. It would be nice to believe that life begins with birth and ends with death. If that were the case, I’d probably tell well-shaped, rounded little stories. Instead, I’m interested in how these stories are interconnected, or how they remain ignorant of one another, unaffected by one another, lying side by side.”
A novel begun under the dictatorship, written during the collapse of Sovietism, and finished and published under the new democracy, Parallel Stories is a protean beast, a machine of change—built in a way that seems to mimic the globalism into which its author has arrived: “Globalization in no way means we are living in the greatest possible harmony on Earth, or happily possess the best possible truths and thus can bring about the greatest possible harmony on Earth,” says Nádas, who has been translated into a dozen languages. “We can distribute around the world only goods, methods, technology, and financial artifacts; the colorful juxtaposition of the most various cultures, religions, and forms of life remains. The globalization of the world means we can only accept parallel worlds when we recognize and understand their histories.”
It is this catholic concern that ultimately recommends Nádas’s teeming cathedral of a book, written with such devotional care that every one of his dozens of characters—each gay and Jew, German and Hungarian—is both saved, with a novelist’s grace, and sentenced, with a historian’s impartiality. Nádas is less impartial outside that cathedral, sentenced himself by happier circumstances—an improbable partisan of the global present, and of that eminently unfinishable secular heap called the Internet. “During the course of writing,” he tells me, “I suddenly discovered that I, with the structure of my novel, was following the same laws, the same design, so to speak, that people I didn’t know, very far away from me, were using to create computers and later the Internet. It was a powerful confirmation,” he says, ecstatic. “That’s what people mean by the Zeitgeist.”
By Péter Nádas.