Years ago, when assigning my graduate students Ágota Kristóf’s The Notebook (1986)—a hair-raising novel told from the perspective of identical twin boys in an unnamed war-torn country—I’d joke that they shouldn’t confuse it with the identically titled Nicholas Sparks best seller. It was fun to imagine one of them renting the film adaptation of the Sparks weepie and marveling at how Kristóf’s macabre duo (“We cut our thighs, our arms, our chests with a knife and pour alcohol on our wounds”) came to be embodied by Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams. The theorist Slavoj Žižek, selecting The Notebook as “a book that changed me” for The Guardian in 2013, confessed that when he first heard the name “Ágota Kristóf,” he thought it was an Eastern European mangling of “Agatha Christie.”
This singularly powerful book and its creator—a Hungarian in Switzerland who wrote her major work exclusively in French—can seem laughably close to anonymity. Yet these soundalikes and doppelgängers also hint at the nature of her oeuvre, which brims not just with murder and incest and bestiality—a character in Yiyun Li’s recent short story “Wednesday’s Child” calls Kristóf’s novels “worse than pornography”—but with slippery doubles, falsehoods, and jolting narrative tricks.
The Notebook opens like a dark fairy tale, with its boy narrators uprooted from the besieged Big Town to the Little Town where their mother grew up. She has brought them here because “the Big Town is being bombed night and day, and there’s no food left.” She begs her estranged mother to take them “till the end of the war” while she returns to the Big Town. (The boys’ journalist father is absent, reporting from the front.) The old lady sniffs that she’ll make them work for their keep.
Every day, she tends to her garden, takes produce and game to market; on boozy evenings, she “talk[s] in a language we don’t know,” arguing with some invisible interlocutor before she collapses in sobs. The twins learn that locals call her the Witch, for allegedly poisoning their grandfather. The Little Town has other secrets, too, like the priest who molested a pitiable girl nicknamed Harelip. Much of the novel’s brute force comes from its unadorned descriptions of children preyed on by adults: the twins themselves are molested by a masochistic foreign officer and a randy housekeeper, encounters they relate with eerie equanimity.
Though the local school has shut down because the male teachers have left to fight, the boys regard education as essential to survival. At the stationer’s, they help themselves to pencils and “a big thick notebook,” flatly informing the owner, “We have no money, but we absolutely need these things.” The twins assign each other themes to write about. One says to the other, “The title of your composition is: ‘Arrival at Grandmother’s.’” This brother, meanwhile, has assigned the first one to write about “Our Chores.” These happen to be the titles of early chapters in The Notebook, the very text we’re reading. It’s as if the novel is being composed in real time, an illusion deepened by Kristóf’s use of the present tense.
Instead of despairing over their displacement and maternal abandonment, the twins make a ferocious effort to learn how to endure and even master their new surroundings. They develop a harsh mind–body program that’s the literary equivalent of the training sequence in an old kung fu flick (“Exercise in Blindness and Deafness,” “Exercise in Fasting”). In “We Expand Our Repertoire,” they master juggling, card tricks, and acrobatics. If that sounds ludicrous, it’s meant to. But each new skill is also a metaphor for Kristóf’s own astonishing abilities.
Her meticulously emotionless prose teems with feeling. A chapter like “Exercise to Toughen the Mind” shows how swiftly she can subvert the limits of a childlike point of view:
People say to us:
“Sons of a Witch! Sons of a whore!… Idiots! Hoodlums! Snot-nosed kids! Asses! Slobs! Pigs! Devils! Bastards! Little shits! Punks! Murderers-to-be!”
When we hear those words, our faces get red, our ears buzz…. We don’t want to blush or tremble anymore, we want to get used to abuse, to hurtful words.
We sit down at the kitchen table face to face, and looking each other in the eyes, we say more and more terrible words.
One of us says:
The other one says:
We go on like that until the words no longer reach our brains, no longer even reach our ears….
We contrive to have people insult us, and we observe that we have now reached the stage where we don’t care anymore.
The twins systematically empty words of their potential to hurt. That would be enough, but Kristóf extends the experiment to the vocabulary of affection. Recalling how their mother called them “My darlings! My loves!” they resolve to “forget these words…because our memory of them is too heavy a burden to bear.” The terms of endearment are repeated until they lose all meaning “and the pain they carry in them is assuaged.”
Another aspect of the twins’ philosophy of language soon emerges. In a crucial passage, they explain the grading rubric for their self-assigned homework:
The composition must be true. We must describe what is, what we see, what we hear, what we do….
It is forbidden to write, “The Little Town is beautiful,” because the Little Town may be beautiful to us and ugly to someone else….
Words that define feelings are very vague. It is better to avoid using them and stick to the description of objects, human beings, and oneself, that is to say, to the faithful description of facts.
These rules, adhered to from first page to last, mean we believe every sentence of this free-floating nightmare. (They also make for very short chapters—few exceed three pages.) Even when the twins commit premeditated murder, the intimate linguistic spell keeps us rooting for them—indeed, changes what we think might be our moral center, at least for the duration of the book. When one of the twins at last flees over the border, plot, character, and style all collapse at once, in a controlled explosion. The final sentence, lacking the “we,” is radically disorienting: “The one who is left goes back to Grandmother’s house.” Without the dual voice, the story cannot go on.
But it did go on, in two unusual sequels. (“I couldn’t leave the twins alone, although I tried to write something else,” Kristóf said in a 2011 interview.) The Proof (1988) employed the third person, focusing on Lucas, the twin who remains in the Little Town after the war in the absence of his brother, Claus. (They now have names.) Although the story picks up the minute The Notebook ends, time unfolds oddly, and it’s with some shock, nearly fifty pages in, that we discover Lucas is twenty. He forms relationships with townsfolk new and old, tragic figures all: Victor the bookseller, who retires to his sister’s house to write a book and ends up with blood on his hands; Yasmine and her misshapen son, born of incest with her father. Lucas develops an oedipal fixation on the war widow Clara, a librarian whose job has turned into its opposite: she now throws out books that the government has banned.
The Proof’s title conveys veracity, but the story is called into question when Peter, a government official, observes that pages have been torn out of Lucas’s notebook; in a vertiginous moment, the reader wonders if, in fact, The Notebook has been revised or rewritten by Peter for his own political reasons. At the end, Kristóf delivers the coup de grâce: a document that deconstructs, in bloodless bureaucratese, all that came before.
The Third Lie (1991) begins, “I am in prison in the small town of my childhood,” but even that simple declarative sentence—ringing out in the first-person singular—soon seems suspect. Is the narrator Claus, Lucas, neither? Perhaps he hallucinated his childhood house, or even that he had a brother; perhaps the brother doing the hallucinating is not the one we assumed. Whoever the narrator is, he is driven to write, though he insists that what he produces is “absolutely meaningless.” He tries to write true stories, he explains, but
at a given point the story becomes unbearable because of its very truth, and then I have to change it…. And so I embellish everything and describe things not as they happened but the way I wish they had happened…. No book, no matter how sad, can be as sad as a life.
Thus, the sequence that once started in The Notebook with “a faithful description of facts” winds up anything but.
I tore through The Proof and The Third Lie, pausing only to register each revision of reality. Both books are tense and disquieting, and few readers who finish The Notebook will be able to resist these sequels (especially when the trilogy comes bound in a single volume). But the title of the final installment implies that all three books are false. This rigorously postmodern conceit saps The Notebook of its lapidary power. It’s as though Kristóf could not abide the perfection of that debut novel, submitting its characters and incidents to constant, radical interpretation. Two good books undermine a great one.
The recent American publication of The Illiterate, Kristóf’s slim memoir (published in French as L’analphabète in 2004), is a revelation and provocation, connecting her hard-won literary success to her life of exile and the scarring loss of her native tongue. Read alongside a handful of translated interviews, these eleven micro-essays suggest a way to assess more thoroughly her fascinating if lopsided trilogy. Twelve years after her death, The Illiterate raises as many questions as it answers.
Though Kristóf lived in Switzerland for over fifty years, she never thought of herself as a Swiss writer. “All my books are about Hungary,” she told an interviewer in 1999. Unlike Hermann Hesse, Vladimir Nabokov, and Jorge Luis Borges—giants of twentieth-century international literature who found their last repose in Switzerland after attaining literary fame elsewhere—Kristóf arrived there almost at random, an accident of history. For her, Switzerland was a contradiction: a source of humiliation that was integral to her success.
She was born in 1935 in the Hungarian village of Csikvánd, where her father was once the sole schoolteacher. The middle child of three, Ágota read ravenously and made up stories at an early age. In The Illiterate she writes about once teasing her younger brother, Tila, by saying he was a foundling, but that she loved him all the same. As punishment for the lie, she was made to kneel on a corncob in the corner. She soon had company: her beloved older brother, Yano, patted Tila on the head and said, “I love you, little bastard,” in order to get punished alongside her.
Her father was called up to fight in World War II, during which Hungary was part of the Axis; Germany occupied the country in 1944. That year, the family moved to Kőszeg, on the Austrian border. Kristóf was nine. A quarter of the residents spoke German, “an enemy language,” she writes, that was a “reminder of Austrian domination…and of the foreign soldiers occupying our country at this time.”
After the war, Hungary held open elections, but the USSR soon exerted its influence. In 1949 her father was imprisoned, possibly for running afoul of the Soviet authorities, and she was sent to a state-run girls’ boarding school, something “between a barracks and a convent.” Kristóf grew homesick. Classwork was dreary, and administrators told their charges, “We are replacing your parents.” Her mother briefly worked in the same town as the school, but Kristóf visited her just once, finding the scene (“a small basement room where a dozen women seated around a large table are packaging rat poison by the light of a single light bulb”) so grim she could barely talk.
Amid this gloom, she took up the pen. When Kristóf writes about this in The Illiterate, she uses the present tense, as in her novels:
I start writing a kind of journal. I even invent a secret handwriting so that nobody can read what I have written….
I cry over the loss of my brothers, of my parents, of our family home now inhabited by strangers.
Above all I cry over my lost freedom.
Kristóf composed poems with phrases that arrived as she cried herself to sleep. More happily, she won popularity and pocket change by putting on comic shows with her schoolmates. They would imitate their teachers, who themselves became keen to watch the performances.
At nineteen, Kristóf married her former history teacher, an academic who was critical of the Soviets, whose domination she also loathed. After the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 was put down by Soviet forces, Kristóf’s husband ran the risk of imprisonment. On the night of November 27, 1956, the couple and their infant daughter fled through a forest into Austria with a smuggler’s help. From a refugee center in Vienna, they boarded a train with their countrymen bound for Switzerland. Residents greeted them warmly with chocolate and oranges.
An essay in The Illiterate begins with Kristóf—by now long resident in Switzerland—seeing a news story about a ten-year-old Turkish child who died of “exhaustion and exposure” after he and his parents tried entering the country illegally. She reacts like “any Swiss citizen,” condemning the parents for their fatal irresponsibility. Then “the voice of memory rises up” to scold her: “Have you completely forgotten? You did the same thing, exactly the same thing. And your own child was practically a newborn.” This is her story, too—and that of border crossers everywhere, from that era to ours, driven by war and poverty to flee their home countries and escape to unfamiliar lands.
Kristóf recounts the night with precision: How her husband carries their four-month-old daughter while she lugs a bag of baby supplies and a bag of dictionaries. How they give the smuggler all their cash. How they walk in circles in the forest, terrified they will wind up back in Hungary, bound for prison or shot by Russian soldiers. How the Austrian border guards lead them to safety. Kristóf is mystified that this memory had evaporated “as if everything took place in a dream,” then understands that the psychic toll was too immense to bear. “That day at the end of November 1956,” she writes, “I lost forever my sense of belonging to a people.”
The eleven essays in The Illiterate, each the length of a Notebook chapter, barely fill forty pages. Sometimes the book seems addressed to a younger person, as in the way the first line of “How Do You Become a Writer?” answers its title: “First of all, naturally, you must write.” Kristóf lets her mind roam, at times shedding the quiet, insinuating voice to bellow in outrage, as when her remembrance of Stalin’s death morphs into a tirade against the “pernicious role” the Soviet Union played in Eastern European culture.
As with the tragedy of the Turkish child, another news story kicks off the book’s title essay. A Swiss neighbor recounts a television show about foreign women who “work all day in a factory, and they do the housework and take care of their children in the evening.” Kristóf says that the experience was hers as well. The neighbor marvels at how the workers on TV didn’t even know French; Kristóf replies, “I didn’t know it either.” Her neighbor can’t or won’t see Kristóf’s foreignness, but for the author it is ever present.
The path to assimilation once seemed impossible. Upon reaching Zurich in 1957, Kristóf’s family was “distributed” to the canton of Neuchâtel, about a hundred miles west. This was Francophone Switzerland; the twenty-one-year-old Kristóf was completely unfamiliar with the language. After five years, she could speak French but still couldn’t read it. “I have become illiterate once again,” she writes. “I, who knew how to read at the age of four.”
Kristóf was one of ten Hungarians put to work at a clock factory.1 As a metaphor, it’s almost too apt. Her youth ticking away at a dead-end job, Kristóf is locked into a numbing routine: wake at 5:30, catch the 6:30 bus, deposit baby at the factory crèche, work till 5 with just coffee and bread for lunch, then return home to prepare dinner, day after day. She called this state of complete social and cultural isolation “the desert.” Years later, she was haunted by the fact that two of the ten Hungarian workers returned home to prison sentences, and four committed suicide.
The only benefit was how the rhythm of the machinery spurred her poetry. Kristóf jotted lines during the day, stashing the paper in a drawer at her work station; she took them home and entered them in her notebook at night. She published some Hungarian poems in an émigré journal, but what was the point? To be a writer in her new country, she must learn French. At the age of twenty-six, she enrolled in a language program, and in two years she could greedily read everything she wanted, from Victor Hugo and the Marquis de Sade to novelists in translation like Faulkner. Along the way, she divorced, remarried, and had two more children.
It took nearly a decade for Kristóf’s French writing to find an audience. Her first play, John and Joe, was performed in 1972, at a dinner theater in Neuchâtel. The absurd sketch involves two ne’er-do-wells, a dine and dash, and a winning lottery ticket. It begins like a language lesson:
JOHN: Hello, Joe!
JOE: Hello, John!
JOHN: What are you doing here?
JOHN: Yes, you.
JOE: I’m walking around, and you?
Aside from featuring a male duo, this amiable outing bears no resemblance to her future novels. But many of her subsequent plays are harbingers: bleak, occasionally postapocalyptic, with violence erupting amid narrative high jinks.2 The cast in A Passing Rat (1972) proves to be mostly in the mind of a single political prisoner. “Why would I be in prison?” one captive asks in the first scene. “We don’t know yet,” his cellmate replies. “We’re in the beginning of the play.”
Kristóf started writing The Notebook to capture memories of her childhood during wartime, spent in the company of her older brother, Yano. Some of its most alarming incidents, like the hanging of a cat, came directly from life, and many characters were based on real people, including the heartbreaking figure of Harelip, of whom she said, “I didn’t know how to write her, because it was already the worst. She didn’t have a nose any more.”
“Initially me and my brother were the narrators, but it sounded so awkward in French, me and him,” she said in 2011, a few months before her death. “So then I added us up and it became we, which is nous in French, so I did not have to announce who was speaking. That’s how this style was born.” She turned the sister into a brother, made the siblings twins. One of the most harrowing books of the twentieth century, then, arrived at its potent final form because of a grammar obstacle. Another inspiration came from her then-twelve-year-old son’s homework. Every sentence in The Notebook—no matter how gruesome—can be understood by a child the age of the uncanny protagonists.
It took Kristóf two years to write the novel, working in a large notebook. After typing and retyping it, “eliminat[ing] everything there is too much of,” Kristóf skipped the Swiss publishers and sent The Notebook to three prominent Paris houses, despite having no connections. In due time Éditions du Seuil brought it out, to great acclaim. The pared-down result, according to the writer Gabriel Josipovici’s afterword to The Illiterate, is a book “thankfully…free of the overwriting which one finds in so much of the best postwar Hungarian authors, such as [Imre] Kertész and [László] Krasznahorkai.”
Kristóf found her early Hungarian verse “too lush and too emotional.” The limitations of her second language became her work’s most striking virtue. By not writing in her native tongue, she produced some of the most indelible fiction about the Hungarian soul. Nevertheless, she maintained that French was the “enemy language.” She never felt fluent speaking it, and even her fame did not erase the fact that she could “only write it with the help of dictionaries.” More than German or Russian, French was “killing my mother tongue.”
In an irony pointed out by the scholar Martha Kuhlman, Ágota’s younger brother, Tila, remained in Hungary and also became a novelist, living in Budapest and writing “detective fiction” under the name Attila Kristóf.3 If Kristóf’s memories of her older brother, Yano, inspired The Notebook, it’s the fate of Tila, her younger brother, that haunts The Proof and The Third Lie, novels in which Lucas and Claus are separated. What if she, like Tila, had stayed in Hungary—and simply become a Hungarian writer? Is the Little Town, replete with the horrors described in The Notebook, a version of Kőszeg? Or does it reflect the safe haven of Switzerland, in which case Claus’s escape across the border at the end of the first book can be seen as a wish for repatriation, a longing for home? It’s as though Kristóf has transplanted the traumas of her homeland to her adopted country and vice versa. Lucas and Claus are anagrams of each other; Attila and Ágota share a good number of their letters, too. Maybe Ágota Kristóf (per Žižek) is a mystery writer as well.
The central figures in all of Kristóf’s novels and the majority of her plays are male, and one wonders if the transformation of the original female sibling was more than just a way around a syntactical encumbrance—a donning of masculine armor. In real life, Kristóf left her brothers behind when she escaped to Switzerland; indeed, she was bereft from being separated from Yano even when she was sent to boarding school. A story in which a pair of abandoned, inseparable male twins winds up commanding a hostile environment is an understandable and irresistible fantasy.
But as in every great novel, all the author’s creations echo her. Kristóf was fifty-one when The Notebook came out, closer in age to the grandmother than to the twins. The crone has lived in the Little Town for ages, yet is shunned for her past; more curiously, she not only speaks words no one understands, but is in fact illiterate.
The enraged, unlettered grandmother has one vivid precedent in Kristóf’s work: the doomed heroine in her shocking 1977 play The Lift Key. A blond woman in a wheelchair exults over her prince of a husband, an architect who toils at his office to keep her safe and happy in a “castle” of his own design, “far from the pollution of the city.” We soon realize, however, that her security is a delusion. She longs to walk in the neighboring forest like she used to, but the only way down from her aerie is the elevator, and he has taken away her key. Then we learn the reason for the wheelchair: her husband had a doctor friend paralyze her legs, to keep her from wandering outdoors. Soon after, they took away her hearing; next, they sliced her optic nerves. “I have no more legs, no more ears, no more eyes,” she says.
She professes devotion to her husband, then muses, “There’s no one else to love, here. Or to hate. There’s only me…. And I hate myself! Dirty old impotent woman, I hate you!” She howls. Her husband rushes in with the doctor, who injects her with a new drug. She grabs a scalpel and kills her spouse. “No, not my voice,” she says, as the drug starts to deprive her of speech.
Even if I can’t hear it anymore, others could hear it. Someone else…Many others…(Crescendo.) I have to tell them…I will tell them everything…Listen to me!
The play ends. Kristóf soon rejected this hysterical register and compressed the emotion into crisp, cruel fictions that made the world listen to her: a woman and a refugee, a clock-factory cog, an illiterate no more.
Sandor, the narrator of Kristóf’s fourth novel, the standalone Yesterday (1995), works in a similar factory, which “produces spare parts for other factories. None of us could assemble a whole watch.” Kristóf said Yesterday was “more or less a true story,” explaining she was also like Sandor’s childhood crush, Line, who arrives at the same village years later with her professor husband. ↩
According to The Illiterate, some were written for radio, and others for students at a local theater school, where classes often began with “exercises devoted to silence, to immobility, to fasting”—a precursor to the twins’ regimen in The Notebook. ↩
Martha Kuhlman, “The Double Writing of Ágota Kristóf and the New Europe,” Studies in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Literature, Vol. 27, No. 1 (June 2003). ↩