Shadow IFFP 2012 – Round-Up Number Twelve-A

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 Storiessuch 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 Storieswould 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 🙂

7 thoughts on “Shadow IFFP 2012 – Round-Up Number Twelve-A

  1. Great review/s, Tony. I'm still beached a bit before half-way. I appreciate the extent of the author's achievement, but I can't say I'm enjoying it, and frankly, when something comes in at 1500 normal-spaced pages, enjoyment's quite an important factor…! A (slightly clumsy) comparison – I'm reading Rafik Schami's 'The Dark Side Of Love' at the moment. It's round about 800 pages, sprawling out over three generations of Syrian history. It's heavy and complicated, but Schami's plain, simple prose makes it an absolute joy to read. I don't want it to end. That engagement, I think, is what Parallel Stories lacks. (and I hope you appreciate the irony of the fact that 'Parallel Stories' has inspired my longest ever blog comment!!!)


  2. It is an issue. There are large sections where it is a pleasure to get lost in the prose, but there are too many parts which come across as obstacle courses, pages to be clambered across, rather than wandered through…


  3. In regards to your long conversations, how do they compare against the conversation/debates that range around the literary salon in Traveller of the Century, which I thought were a joy to read with their subtlety & inference.


  4. I think it should be on shortlist pleased it made ours I tend not to notice americanism as much mainly due to read mostly american fiction in my twenties ,I think this book maybe need a good edit at times but wonder if Nadas is so big in his homeland he can put out what he wants unedited so to speak ,all the best stu


  5. Gary – No comparison. With Nádas the words are almost unimportant – it's all about what's happening inside the mind. With Neuman it's witty, intellectual foreplay 😉

    Stu – I think that this is probably something Nádas has in common with Murakami Stu!

    This is still number six on my list after fourteen (only 'New Finnish Grammar' to go!), and numbers four and five weren't really that far ahead. If it had been a British translation, it may have made it up to number four 😉


  6. Hmm, I'm intrigued but it does sound like hard work. I enjoyed Nádas' previous novel The End of a Family Story, but that was if anything on the short side. Perhaps that suits his style better, as I don't remember any slow bits.


  7. Hard work it is 😉

    I wouldn't mind trying another of his – after finishing this one, anything would seem easy by comparison!


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