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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Kaddish for an Unborn Child

Kertész Imre

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To purchase Kaddish for an Unborn Child

Title: Kaddish for an Unborn Child
Author: Kertész Imre
Genre: Novel
Written: 1990 (Eng. 2004)
Length: 120 pages
Original in: Hungarian
Availability: Kaddish for an Unborn Child - US
Kaddish for an Unborn Child - UK
Kaddish for an Unborn Child - Canada
Kaddish for an Unborn Child - India
Kaddish pour l'enfant qui ne naîtra pas - France
Kaddisch für ein nicht geborenes Kind - Deutschland
  • Hungarian title: Kaddis a meg nem született gyermekért
  • Translated by Tim Wilkinson
  • Kaddish for an Unborn Child was previously published in an English translation by Christopher and Katharina Wilson, as Kaddish for a Child Not Born (1997)

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Our Assessment:

A : powerful book of mourning

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 18/9/2010 Nicholas Lezard
The LA Times . 24/10/2004 Richard Eder
The Nation . 31/1/2005 John Banville
New England Review* . (1-2)/2004 Gary Adelman
The Village Voice . 20/12/2004 Ben Ehrenreich
World Lit. Today* . Winter/2000 Robert Murray Davis

Reviews with an asterisk (*) refer to reviews of the earlier English translation by Christopher and Katharina Wilson

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is a lacerating book, a work of great self-laceration in fact (.....) I may have given the impression that this is harrowing, and it is; but it has its moments of great, consoling insight, is about far more than just the Holocaust and in its own haunting way provides comfort for the afflicted, for anyone who has ever thought, if only for a moment, with Calderón, that "Man's greatest crime is to be born."" - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "Kaddish in particular, a breathless, unrelenting monologue in the manner of Beckett or Thomas Bernhard, poses some large and deeply unsettling questions." - John Banville, The Nation

  • "Imre Kertesz's book is difficult to describe: part meditation, part memoir, part highly abstract and achronic narrative in the first person, part transcriptions from drafts of earlier work, part circling around a series of scenes, images, and issues without reaching any conclusion except the fact that it stops with a prayer to cease forever. (...) Kaddish for a Child Not Born is both somber and exhilarating -- somber because of the subject and the obsessive prose, exhilarating because of the creative energy." - Robert Murray Davis, World Literature Today

  • "Kaddish is an impacted Bernhardian document, a breathless run-on confession-cum-apologia." - Sven Birkerts, Bookforum (12/2004-1/2005)

  • "Kaddish does not much resemble Fateless; it is heavily meditative and it lacks the youthful charm and insight of the earlier work. Written in what strikes the reader as one long paragraph, it reads like a stream of consciousness and is hard to follow." - István Deák, The New York Review of Books (25/9/2003)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In Imre Kertész's first novel, Fatelessness, the narrative approach is a fairly conventional one, the story told straightforwardly. Kaddish for an Unborn Child, written a decade and a half later, is anything but. Both novels are autobiographical fictions, but Fatelessness is the story of an adolescent thrust into unspeakable circumstances, relating experience itself in stark, direct form. Kaddish for an Unborn Child is the story of a middle-aged man with both real and literary experience: a writer and translator, his life-work the transformation of fiction, and of experience into fiction. In both cases the character is, essentially, Kertész himself; in Kaddish for an Unborn Child it is the (additional) accumulated literary experience of the author/narrator that plays a significant role in shaping the text: the works of two of the authors Kertész has translated into Hungarian, in particular, are obvious models: those of Wittgenstein and Thomas Bernhard.
       Like a Bernhard novel, Kaddish for an Unborn Child is a novel of repetition and ambiguity, the narrator acknowledging all his uncertainty, and constantly reminding the reader of the difficulty of exact expression. The first sentence is typical in how it tries to convey meaning (as well as in its tangled length), beginning:

     "No !" I said instantly and at once, without hesitating and, virtually, instinctively since it has become quite natural by now that our instincts should act contrary to our instincts, that our counterinstincts, so to say, should act instead of, indeed as, our instincts [.....]
       The emphatic "No !" is also the defining trope of the novel, the central denial that he repeats, in Bernhard-like fashion. It begins the novel, and is repeated several times as he embarks on his story, but then goes long unmentioned -- until, to jarring effect, the refusal again surfaces.
       "No !" sums up the book, but it is the reasons -- and the full extent of what he refuses -- that the text so impressively conveys. The text explains the refusal, too, the author-cum-narrator offering explanations, but ultimately what makes it an effective work is that it conveys all this and more: it works on a level far more profound than the mere literal (X because Y, etc.), in large part because of Kertész's challenging presentation -- a presentation that makes for a revealing honesty (as many of Bernhard's texts do) often absent in more conventional prose.
       Kaddish for an Unborn Child is mainly a meditation on the narrator's failed marriage. Identity is fixed firmly to the present perspective, the narrator reminiscing yet always acknowledging what was to happen: history is uneraseable, even if, at the points he returns to, anything seemed possible. So he writes repeatedly of the woman he was to marry: "my wife (who at that time was not yet and is now no longer my wife)".
       Both the narrator and his wife are Jewish, and both are unable to fully come to terms with that aspect of their identity, especially once it becomes so burdened by Nazi racial definitions and the consequences thereof. The narrator recalls a summer holiday spent in the countryside:
Yes, it was there that I lived for the first time among Jews, I mean among genuine Jews, not the kind of Jews we were, urban Jews, Budapest Jews, which is to say no kind of Jews, though not Christians either of course, but the kind of non-Jewish Jews who still fast on the Day of Atonement, at the very least up to noon
       His wife, in turn, finds it difficult to identify with being a Jew, especially given the suffering so many of them faced, and it is only in reading a story by the narrator that expressed similar inner conflicts that she came to terms with them. He "taught her how to live", she repeatedly tells him; he had, in a small way, liberated her -- but once she had taken this step she was ready for more: not just marriage, but family.
       Literature brought the narrator and his future wife together, but she could not know -- and he would not admit to her -- what it actually meant for him:
How could I have explained to my wife that my ballpoint pen is my spade ? That I write only because I have to write, and I have to write because I am whistled up every day to drive the spade deeper, to play death on a darker, sweeter string ?
       Writing is the one act of creation he is capable of. His wife wanted another: that he father her child. But to have a child is inconceivable to him: "I could never be another person's father, destiny, god". It is this refusal that is the summing up: in this is who he is (or what he was made to be)

       Kaddish for an Unborn Child is a remarkable text, a (self-)analysis of a state of being that's, in turn, deliberate and emotional, troubled by the inadequacy of the written word (and of human reaction). He can not rise above his inadequacies -- including his decision to marry "out of motives and for the aim of self-liquidation" --, but can only try to give them expression.
       This is not a fluid narrative, but there's purpose to the careful locutions and the doubling back and emphasis on the contradictory. It is a rewarding and powerful read.

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Kaddish for an Unborn Child: Reviews: ( Reviews with an asterisk (*) refer to reviews of the earlier English translation by Christopher and Katharina Wilson )

Kertesz Imre: Other books by Kertész Imre under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Hungarian author Kertész Imre was born in 1929. He was awarded the 2002 Nobel Prize for literature

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© 2004-2013 the complete review

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