Ágota Kristóf and the Agony of the “Enemy” Language

Ágota Kristóf and the Agony of the “Enemy” Language

Ágota Kristóf and the Agony of the “Enemy” Language

In her memoir, The Illiterate, the formidable Hungarian writer details her lifelong battle with language as a tool of misunderstanding.


Ágota Kristóf’s The Notebook trilogy, which begins with The Notebook, continues with The Proof, and ends with The Third Lie, tells the story of two identical twin boys, Klaus and Lucas, living in a small town with their grandmother during a nameless war and successive occupations. Throughout the first novel, the twins perform “exercises” to strengthen and improve themselves: They go hours without speaking or moving; they starve themselves; they pretend to be deaf and dumb; and they write down descriptions of their exercises in a big notebook that they hide in their grandmother’s attic. When writing in their notebook, they reject “adjectives and things that are not real, that have their origin in feelings.” This is because “the composition must be true.” Words that denote subjective emotions like love must be avoided in favor of “the faithful description of the facts.” They strive for an objective writing, something flat and scientific that reflects a direct, unadorned relationship with the world as it is.

For the most part, Kristóf’s books mirror the kind of spare, descriptive language preferred by the twins, projecting a strict objectivity that, however belied by their convolutions and contradictions, nevertheless demands the reader’s trust. Especially in The Notebook, which is told in the first-person plural, the narrative is related in clear and simple terms, a descriptive mode that at times feels almost devoid of personality. Through its supposed refusal to engage with the world on subjective terms, the twins’ writing also shows an almost absolute separation between the individual and the social world in which they live. Kristóf provides few external markers relating to time or place, and at no time are we told the country in which these events occur.

This separation leads to the possibility of play. One of the greatest pleasures of The Notebook is how easily the world bends to the twins’ treatment of it. We are encouraged to believe that it does so precisely because of their emotional detachment from it, their ability to hold themselves apart from others and their behavior. Instead, they conduct themselves according to their own principles, what they perceive as their duty to others. Importantly, they do this without feeling. Slavoj Žižek, in a text included as an afterword for a collected version of the trilogy published in 2022, calls the twins “ethical monsters.” The little village in which they live becomes the site of their experiments. In one of their exercises, they beg by the side of the road. Their driving impulse is curiosity. After they refuse a woman who offers them work, she asks them why they are begging, and they tell her, “To find out what effect it has and to observe people’s reactions.” Later, they take their time in coming to the aid of the town pariah, Harelip. When she asks, “Why didn’t you help me right away?,” they reply, “We wanted to see how you defended yourself.”

In part, the scientific distance at which the twins hold themselves from others depends on the lack of a shared moral language. They simply cannot understand the world around them in any terms but their own. Though this position wavers as the trilogy progresses, in The Notebook it protects them from harm. Throughout her novels, Kristóf is alert to both the advantages and the agonies of mutual misunderstanding. In The Illiterate, a brief, concise memoir in which she discusses her childhood (in a small village not dissimilar from the one described in The Notebook), her escape from Hungary after the revolution of 1956, and the social and cultural isolation that followed, Kristóf describes the splitting of the self by its separation from its original language.

Save for a few early poems in her native Hungarian, Kristóf’s writing was always carried out in French, an “enemy” language that she learned with considerable difficulty after being settled in Switzerland. She writes: “In the beginning, there was only one language. Objects, things, feelings, colours, dreams, letters, books, newspapers were in this language. I couldn’t imagine that another language could exist, that a human being could pronounce a word that I wouldn’t be able to understand.” But the war brings German, the end of the war Russian, and the experience of exile French: “I arrive in a city where French is spoken, I confront a language that is completely unknown to me. It is here that my battle to conquer this language begins, a long and arduous battle that will last my entire life.” All of her books, Kristóf reveals, were composed with the help of a dictionary.

The Illiterate contains some of Kristóf’s clearest statements on the connection between language and loneliness from the perspective of a refugee. In Switzerland, she works in a clock factory and raises her daughter. She slowly learns French but remains unable to read and write. Eventually, she acquires the skills she needs, but the experience of such total isolation is generative. Cut off from her family and homeland, Kristóf writes short descriptions of the “exercises” that she used to carry out with her brothers. These transformed accounts gradually become a novel, one that she sends to the three most famous publishers in France, confident that it will be accepted. It was, of course. The Notebook (1986) went on to win the European Prize for French literature and was translated into more than 40 different languages. (There’s an exchange in one of Kristóf’s few interviews where the interviewer gets this number wrong, and she firmly corrects him.) Yet success in the new language does not resolve the problem of separation. Kristóf remains a stranger speaking an enemy language. In one passage, she wonders: “What would my life have been like if I hadn’t left my country? More difficult, poor, I think, but also less solitary, less torn. Happy, maybe.”

It is a problem that is reflected in her fiction. Each of her novels is an expression of extreme solitude. Every character is a stranger in some way, despite their connection to the little town in which each book is set. There is the twins’ grandmother, whom people call “The Witch,” and the disfigured Harelip, who lives alone with her blind, deaf mother. We encounter a lonely, pedophilic priest and a lonely, pedophilic German officer. Kristóf’s world is both vivid and curiously empty, devoid of detail, description, and significant landmarks. For the most part, her characters lack names; if they have them, they have nicknames, or else a noun that positions them in relation to some similarly nameless other. Mostly, they go by their professions, what they do in the town. After one of the twins flees across the border, the other must live alone. We finally learn their names: Klaus and Lucas. Once separated, each is in a state of “mortal solitude.”

Like The Illiterate, the trilogy paints a dismal picture of a useless language in crisis. It can provide neither solution nor salvation. Even once a new language has been acquired—as in The Notebook, where the twin boys pick up the language of their occupiers, the Germans, from a sadomasochistic officer and later set about systematically acquiring Russian—it is only ever used instrumentally, for survival or personal gain. At no point does a character profess a belief in the ability of words to convey something individual and particular: They are only acceptable to the twins when they have been arranged in bare descriptions of supposedly objective reality and used to convey basic information about the world they live in. As languages succeed one another and the novels progress, so too does the predominance of lying and miscommunication. Elsewhere, a failure to connect is illustrated through persistent images of sexual mismatch: bestiality, pedophilia, incest, affairs. Harelip has sex with the family dog, while Yasmine, the young woman whom Lucas lives with in The Proof, sleeps with her father, and both the kindly blond housekeeper and the middle-aged German officer sexually abuse the twins as children. Lucas sleeps with a woman who is 15 years older than him and in love with a dead man. True intimacy is only possible with an identical other, whose understanding does not rely on words and is therefore not obstructed by their failures.

In some ways, becoming literate again merely exacerbates Kristóf’s difficulty, which, we begin to understand, was there in the original language too, because in the end all languages are distant and distancing by virtue of their imprecision, their inability to convey what we really mean. In The Illiterate, Kristóf sees reading negatively, as something that removes the individual from the sphere of everyday life: “I read. It is like a disease.” As a child, she caught “the incurable disease of reading,” and this sickness persists into adulthood: “She never does anything. She’s always reading.” If reading is a sickness, writing arises from lack. It originates in misery: “The desire to write comes later, when the silver thread of childhood is severed, when the bad times arrive,” a way to “bear the pain of separation.”

Like the twins of The Notebook, Kristóf keeps a journal. She begins writing when she is separated from her family and sent to boarding school: “So during these long hours of enforced silence, I start writing a kind of journal. I even invent a secret handwriting so that nobody can read what I have written. I note down my troubles, my sorrows, my sadness, everything that makes me cry silently at night in my bed.” This is the opposite of the objective, stripped-back writing of the twins, but it resonates with how, in The Third Lie, Lucas describes the transfiguration that writing permits: from a miserable reality and weakness of character to an idealized vision of strength and self-sufficiency—one that is matched by a corresponding vision of a strong, self-sufficient writing that does not shy away from depicting reality as it is and that does not angle for a general reader, only an ideal one (the self). Like Kristóf, the twins create plays and skits and perform them for an audience. Like her, they write. But this type of writing is born out of necessity; there is no vanity in it, no need. The truth, as Lucas later admits, is much more desperate:

I answer that I try to write true stories but that at a given point the story becomes unbearable because of its very truth, and then I have to change it. I tell her that I try to tell my story but all of a sudden I can’t—I don’t have the courage, it hurts too much. And so I embellish everything and describe things not as they happened but the way I wish they had happened.

The Notebook is a dream of ease, and this is part of what makes it so sad. The twins learn to fend for themselves with little difficulty. They learn how to tend to their grandmother’s garden, growing great quantities of produce—so much that were it not for her stinginess, they might almost be prosperous—and they also learn how to catch fish. They learn how to endure pain, boredom, loneliness, and insults. They learn how to kill. And they learn how to speak two new languages with little difficulty, unlike Kristóf. The German officer teaches them his language in two weeks, and when the Russians arrive, they ask their grandmother to teach them the language of the new occupiers: “It’s simple, Grandmother. All you have to do is talk to us in that language all day and, in the end, we’ll understand.” There’s something about the novel that reminds me of a role-playing game, as if the repeated use of the first-person plural were simply the prelude to the singular “you” of the reader, as in a choose-your-own-adventure book. There is the grind of uncomplaining labor; the perfect impassivity of the twins; their physical beauty, their success, their calm. And in The Notebook, there is no mortal solitude either, because even if the cardboard world that surrounds them is useless, the twins still have each other.

The later books shatter the world of The Notebook twice over. The reader is the one who has to try and piece everything back together, and so Kristóf’s trilogy is a guessing game, a constant searching for echoes and repetitions. Psychoanalysts must go wild when they read it, and the same goes for The Illiterate, which in some ways acts as the key to an otherwise locked text, finally something that hasn’t been balanced on another broken mirror. If the unreliability of language prevents us from reaching the other and condemns the twins to mortal solitude, Kristóf seems to see some possibility in a continued act of translation, which is what the trilogy really is, each book at once a re-rendering and repudiation of the one that came before it. We find all the characters in different places, with different roles and different destinies. Everything is reshuffled; nothing is reliable. Sometimes this almost feels hopeful. Although the disinterested, detached play of The Notebook is impossible, perhaps fiction can protect us from pain. Every one of the trilogy’s lies is founded on a truth that the narrator finds unbearable. Near the end of The Third Lie, Klaus (who we learn is really Lucas) remembers the story of The Notebook, only to immediately correct himself: “All this is a lie. I know very well that I was already alone in this town, with Grandmother, that even then I only fantasized that there were two of us, me and my brother, in order to endure the unbearable solitude.”

For Kristóf, fiction is the only thing that might provide an escape from solitude. In The Illiterate, she describes writing and improvising plays with the other women in the factory. Eventually, versions of these plays end up on the radio. Her novels likewise lead to an engagement with the world. Stories and lies are like games—they involve others. They open things up because of how they undermine what we consider to be true; they shatter a supposed unity. But they can build too. Kristóf’s writing shows us both the pleasure and the necessity of literary refraction. And then, even though The Third Lie ends with a suicide, there is a kind of solace to be found in its title: Lies tend to follow on from one another, after all, and so is there really any finality in this one?

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