Nobel Prize for Literature
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
JIM LEHRER: Finally, tonight, the 2002 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature announced today in Stockholm. He’s Hungarian writer Imre Kertesz. The Nobel Committee cited his 1975 debut novel, Fateless, the story of a young man’s arrest and imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp in World War II. Mr. Kertesz is in Germany tonight, and unavailable for an interview, but Katharina Wilson is here. She translated into English two of his novels, including Fateless. She teaches comparative literature at the University of Georgia. Professor Wilson, welcome.
KATHARINA WILSON: Hello.
JIM LEHRER: Did you ever believe that Mr. Kertesz would win the Nobel Prize for literature?
KATHARINA WILSON: No. No, I could not imagine. I genuinely could not. I always felt that he was a first rate writer. He is a genius in his genre. But I never thought that he would actually be nominated, much less be given the Nobel Prize.
JIM LEHRER: Is that because he was so, he was not that well-known, his writing was not that well-known?
KATHARINA WILSON: No. No, he was reasonably well-known in Germany. But I don’t think he was at all well-known anywhere else.
JIM LEHRER: I notice today in the wire stories said only 5,000 copies of his book, that you and your husband translated into English, have been sold.
KATHARINA WILSON: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: So he had a very small readership in the English speaking world, right?
KATHARINA WILSON: Yes. I just think he is not well-known in spite of the fact that his novel did win a prize in ’92 I think it was.
JIM LEHRER: But even in Hungary he wasn’t that well-known, right, he isn’t that well- known?
KATHARINA WILSON: No, he really wasn’t. He was considered one of the better writers, but I don’t think he was considered in the very top echelon.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think makes him a gray writer? What was it that the Nobel Committee saw in his writing that you had already seen and had caused tom get the Nobel Prize?
KATHARINA WILSON: Well, I don’t know what the Nobel Committee saw. But let me tell you why we decided to translate him. It was really by chance, by an accident that I picked up the book, and I just couldn’t put it down. And it was at a time when I felt there was such a strong sense, and my students, for example, to minimize the tragedy that the Holocaust represented, and I felt that he was a man who appealed to all audiences, including the young audience, someone who didn’t hit them over the head with a two by four, but someone who had the voice that appear appeals to young people. But what genuinely, what most appealed to me about “Fateless” was his invention of the first person narrator. He tells the story of Auschwitz, from a first person narrator’s point of view — and the point of view of a young boy, the young boy who is 14 years old, and who genuinely does not understand what is going on. It is the point of view of an innocent young man. And the tragedy of the narration is that the reader is forced to understand that, the atrocity of what is happening, but the narrator doesn’t. So in a sense being forced in that situation to make a judgment, which the narrator refuses to make, makes the experience much more heart rending.
JIM LEHRER: Now, we asked you to read a little piece from “Fateless”. Would you do that? If you need to set it up in some way, go ahead, but give us a sample of his writing.
KATHARINA WILSON: Okay, I will. As a matter of fact, I chose two passages, the second one is from his second novel called “The Kaddish for a Child not Born.” And I would kind of like to read that too. But the passage that we chose from “Fateless” is the very end of the novel. And I think to a certain degree it exemplifies how unusual the relating of the experience is, rather than dwelling on the tragedy of what happened, he really tries to see the good that he experienced in the concentration camp. So may I read it?
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
KATHARINA WILSON: He’s just arriving back in Budapest after having been in prison for a year. And he says, “My mother is waiting for me. She certainly will be happy to see me, the poor dear. I recall how once she planned for me to become an engineer or a doctor or something like that. This is certainly what she wants. There is no impossibility that cannot be overcome, naturally, and further down the road I know now happiness lies in wait for me like an inevitable trap. Even back there in the shadows of the chimneys, in the breaks between pain, there was something resembling happiness. Everybody will ask me about the deprivation, the terrors of the camp. But for me, the happiness there will always be the most memorable experience, perhaps. Yes. That’s what I will tell them the next time they ask me about the happiness in those camps. If they ever ask. And if I don’t forget. “
JIM LEHRER: If we have time I’ll have you read the other on moment. But before we do that, I want to you tell us about, you know Mr. Kertesz, do you not?
KATHARINA WILSON: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: What’s he like? What do we need to know about him as an individual?
KATHARINA WILSON: Oh, he is a an intensely private individual. And any time I would ask him anything about himself, he would refuse to tell. He would talk about his work, he would talk about the world, he would talk about politics. He would talk about philosophy or history but almost never about himself. He’s an extremely handsome man, very tall, very lean, extremely articulate. He is of course a very well educated man, too he’s a philosopher. But he doesn’t want to talk about himself. All I know about him really is that he works very long hours, that he’s a private apartment that not even his wife can go to, and that’s where writes. He goes there early in the morning and stays and writes there.
JIM LEHRER: This is in Budapest?
KATHARINA WILSON: In Budapest. I was not invited.
JIM LEHRER: You were not invited to the apartment?
KATHARINA WILSON: No. I don’t think many people were.
JIM LEHRER: But how does he make life? What is his life like? What could you tell us about his life?
KATHARINA WILSON: I think he’s a work horse.
JIM LEHRER: But how does he make a living?
KATHARINA WILSON: I don’t know how — by writing, he’s a writer. He makes his living by writing, and occasionally translating. His German is fluent. His German is really excellent. And he has done some translation, translating some of the philosophers.
JIM LEHRER: What did you detect the cause of his privacy, where does that come from? Do you think it goes back to his experience in the concentration camp, or is it hard to tell?
KATHARINA WILSON: Well, think it’s very much like his voice in the novel. I don’t think he ever thinks of himself as an individual, I think in some ways he thinks of himself as representative of a certain cross section, of a certain event, and moment in history. And I think especially in “Fateless” he consciously refuses to be identified as other. The otherness that is imposed upon him never becomes part of his personality. His humanity, his humanness is the essence of his being, not his Jewishness.
JIM LEHRER: What you know of him, what do you think winning the Nobel Prize is going to do to his life, how will it change him, do you think?
KATHARINA WILSON: You know, I think he’s still going to get up at 8 in the morning and go to his little apartment and work until four or five in the evening and then go home. I just cannot imagine, I just cannot imagine that fame and fortune is going to change him.
JIM LEHRER: He’s 72.
KATHARINA WILSON: He’s 72. Oh, but he’s 72 now, when I met him, when I worked with him about 13 years ago, he must have been 50 something or 60. But he looked barely over 40. So I doubt very much that he looks 72 now.
JIM LEHRER: He had no idea, of course, he’s going to get a million dollars, a million American dollars.
KATHARINA WILSON :I have no idea what he’s going to do with it either.
JIM LEHRER: But the world is finally going to find out about him and his writing as a result of that.
KATHARINA WILSON: Yes, and that’s exciting. He’s not a material man, so I don’t think all of that means so much. But I think he will be quite excited and happy to have young people especially read his novels.
JIM LEHRER: Well, look, we have to go now. If you do talk tom, please pass on our congratulations.
KATHARINA WILSON: I certainly shall.
JIM LEHRER: I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to read the other excerpt from the other novel. But please pass on his congratulations, ask thanks for being with us tonight.
KATHARINA WILSON: Okay. Thank you.