Imre Kertész

Imre Kertész
Born(1929-11-09)9 November 1929
Budapest, Hungary
Died31 March 2016(2016-03-31) (aged 86)
Budapest, Hungary
Notable worksFatelessness
Kaddish for an Unborn Child
Notable awardsNobel Prize in Literature
SpouseAlbina Vas
(d. 1995)
Magda Ambrus
(m. 1996)
(d. 2016)

Imre Kertész (Hungarian: [ˈimrɛ ˈkɛrteːs]; 9 November 1929 – 31 March 2016) was a Hungarian author and recipient of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Literature, "for writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history". He was the first Hungarian to win the Nobel in Literature. His works deal with themes of the Holocaust (he was a survivor of German concentration and death camps), dictatorship, and personal freedom.

Life and work

Kertész was born in Budapest, Hungary, on 9 November 1929, the son of Aranka Jakab and László Kertész, a middle-class Jewish couple. After his parents separated when he was around the age of five, Kertész attended a boarding school, and, in 1940, he started secondary school where he was put into a special class for Jewish students. During World War II, Kertész was deported in 1944 at the age of 14 with other Hungarian Jews to the Auschwitz concentration camp, and was later sent to Buchenwald. Upon his arrival at Auschwitz, Kertész claimed to be a 16-year-old worker, thus saving him from the instant extermination that awaited a 14-year-old person. After his camp was liberated in 1945, Kertész returned to Budapest, graduated from high school in 1948, and then went on to find work as a journalist and translator. In 1951, he lost his job at the journal Világosság (Clarity), after the publication started leaning towards Communism. For a short term, he worked as a factory worker, and then in the press department of the Ministry of Heavy Industry. From 1953, he started freelance journalism and translated various works into Hungarian, including Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Elias Canetti.

His best-known work, Fatelessness (Sorstalanság), describes the experience of 15-year-old György (George) Köves in the concentration camps of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Zeitz. Written between 1969 and 1973, the novel was initially rejected for publication by the Communist regime in Hungary, but was published in 1975. Some have interpreted the book as quasi-autobiographical, but the author disavows a strong biographical connection. The book would go on to become part of many high school curriculums in Hungary. In 2005, a film based on the novel, for which he wrote the script, was made in Hungary. Although sharing the same title, some reviews noted that the film was more autobiographical than the novel on which it was based. It was released internationally at various dates in 2005 and 2006.

Following on from Fatelessness, Kertész's Fiasco (1988) and Kaddish for an Unborn Child (1990) are, respectively, the second and third parts of his Holocaust trilogy. His writings translated into English include Kaddish for an Unborn Child (Kaddis a meg nem született gyermekért) and Liquidation (Felszámolás), the latter set during the period of Hungary's evolution into a democracy from communist rule.

From the beginning, Kertész found little appreciation for his writing in Hungary, and he moved to Germany, where he received more active support from publishers and reviewers, along with more appreciative readers. After his move, he continued translating German works into Hungarian, notably The Birth of Tragedy, the plays of Dürrenmatt, Schnitzler, and Tankred Dorst, and various thoughts and aphorisms of Wittgenstein. Kertész also continued working at his craft, writing his fiction in Hungarian, but did not publish another novel until the late 1980s. From that point on, he submitted his work to publishers in Hungary. Grateful that he had found his most significant success as a writer and artist in Germany, Kertész left his abatement to the Academy of Arts in Berlin.

In November 2013, Kertész underwent successful surgery on his right hip, after falling down in his home. However, he continued to deal with various health concerns during the last few years of his life. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, and was again suffering from depression, reported to have been a recurring battle in his life. In fact, Kertész had struggled with this same issue in his writing, as the main character of his 2003 book Felszámolás (Liquidation) commits suicide after struggling with depression.

Kertész died on 31 March 2016, at the age of 86, at his home in Budapest, after suffering from Parkinson's for several years.


Kertesz in the Bavarian Villa Waldberta (1992)

Kertész was a controversial figure within Hungary, especially since being Hungary's first, and only, Nobel Laureate in Literature, he still lived in Germany. This tension was exacerbated by a 2009 interview with Die Welt, in which Kertész vowed himself a "Berliner" and called Budapest "completely balkanized". Many Hungarian newspapers reacted negatively to this statement, claiming it to be hypocritical. Other critics viewed the Budapest comment ironically, saying it represented "a grudge policy that is painfully and unmistakably, characteristically Hungarian". Kertész later clarified in a Duna TV interview that he had intended his comment to be "constructive", and called Hungary "his homeland".

Also controversial was Kertész's criticism of Steven Spielberg's depiction of the Holocaust in the 1993 film Schindler's List as "kitsch", saying: "I regard as kitsch any representation of the Holocaust that is incapable of understanding or unwilling to understand the organic connection between our own deformed mode of life (whether in the private sphere or on the level of 'civilization' as such) and the very possibility of the Holocaust."

In November 2014, Kertész was the subject of an interview with The New York Times. Kertész claimed the reporter was expecting him to question Hungary's democratic values and was shocked to hear Kertész say that "the situation in Hungary is nice, I'm having a great time". According to Kertész, "he didn't like my answer. His purpose must have been to make me call Hungary a dictatorship which it isn't. In the end, the interview was never published."

List of works

Awards and honors

International prizes

Hungarian prizes

See also

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