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the Complete Review
the complete review - autobiographical


Dossier K.

Kertész Imre

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To purchase Dossier K.

Title: K. dosszié
Author: Kertész Imre
Genre: Autobiographical
Written: 2006 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 235 pages
Original in: Hungarian
Availability: Dossier K. - US
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  • Hungarian title: K. dosszié
  • Translated by Tim Wilkinson

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Our Assessment:

A- : deeply personal, intriguing approach to life-story telling

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 4/10/2006 Andreas Kilb
The Guardian . 12/7/2013 Ian Sansom
Le Monde . 17/1/2008 Florence Noiville
NZZ . 2/10/2006 Andreas Breitenstein
The NY Times Book Rev. . 11/8/2013 Martin Riker
The Times . 18/5/2013 George Szirtes
Wall Street Journal . 3/8/2013 Sam Munson
Die Welt . 23/9/2006 Richard Wagner
Die Zeit A+ 26/10/2006 Iris Radisch

  Review Consensus:

  Very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "Es ist das Gegenteil eines Bildungsromans; seine bestimmenden Züge sind nicht organische Entwicklung und Kontinuität, sondern Bruch und Schock. Deshalb beginnt Dossier K., dieses fiktive Zwiegespräch, das zugleich ein realer Dialog zwischen Ich und Nicht-Ich ist, auch nicht mit einer Geburts- oder Kindheitsszene, sondern mit einem Augenblick der Panik. (...) Man sieht, wie raffiniert der doppelte Faden dieses Buches geknüpft ist, wie er Leben und Werk, ästhetische und biographische Existenz miteinander verschlingt. (...) Und doch ist Dossier K., in dem sich Kertész als sein eigener Gegenmensch gegenübertritt, auch ein Versuch, den Anschluß an die Menschheit wiederzufinden, sich selbst als Individuum, als Subjekt der eigenen Geschichte zu bestimmen" - Andreas Kilb, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "The publishers Melville House either don't recognise the difficulties, or simply don't care. Either way, out of ignorance or in bliss, they have done us all a favour by publishing Wilkinson's translation of Dossier K. Though exactly what kind of favour is not entirely clear. (...) Kertész's presence is extraordinary." - Ian Sansom, The Guardian

  • "Jamais sans doute Imre Kertész ne se sera tant livré. Avec une simplicité et une probité intellectuelle sans faille. Citant Gombrowicz, Kertész parle des "gens avec lesquels on rapetisse". De sa fréquentation, au contraire, on sort immanquablement grandi." - Florence Noiville, Le Monde

  • "Hier ist es, das Gegenstück zu Günter Grass' Beim Häuten der Zwiebel -- ein ebenso präzises wie unerbittliches Buch autobiografischer Selbstbefragung, das jede Art von Rechthaberei unterläuft. (...) Das Dossier K., ist ein Selbstverhör mit Alter Ego. Imre Kertész hat seinem Lebensbericht nicht zufällig eine Form gegeben, die das epische Bekenntnis-Schema durch einen platonisch anmutenden Dialog unterläuft. Das Ineinander von Vorstellung und Wirklichkeit ist zu essenziell, als dass Kertész realistisch hätte verfahren wollen. (...) Fast beiläufig und oft nur auf Nachfrage gibt das Buch preis, was sonst den grundlegenden Gehalt von Biografien ausmacht" - Andreas Breitenstein, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "What all of this adds up to is very loosely a memoir, but it might be better described as an energetic and thoughtful introduction (or companion) to Kertesz’s other books. (...) (A)n account of himself that is as original, complex and open to contradiction as the rest of his life’s work." - Martin Riker, The New York Times Book Reveiw

  • "Everything is queried, especially the correspondence between the author and his characters. Kertész takes his a scrubbing brush to the human soul and rubs very hard hoping to expose bare skin, laughing at himself as he is doing it. The translation too scrubs along at a brisk pace. It is rare we find what at first sight seems a philosophical quibble of a memoir such a page turner, but that is what it is. The reader is constantly on the scent of truth about the most basic, most dreadful, most vital human affairs. It is what makes Kertész a great writer." - George Szirtes, The Times

  • "Readers used to well-cushioned American literary memoirs will be surprised and discomfited by Imre Kertész's Dossier K. (.....) (H)is memoir will exert on its readers a demand impossible to ignore: to read his novels." - Sam Munson, Wall Street Journal

  • "Es ist die Skepsis, die Kertész die Form des Splittings von Personen und Erzählperspektiven diktiert. Diese Autobiografie ist nicht nur durch die Dialogform ihrer tradierten Wirkungsweise entzogen, sie ist bereits durch die Titelsetzung gewollt, aber auch nüchtern in Frage gestellt. Dossier K. Eine Ermittlung verweist auf die detektivische Perspektive. Zu dem, was den Leser produktiv irritieren mag, gehört auch ein Plauderton, der in voller Absicht kultiviert wird. (...) Letzten Endes wird uns eine Poetik vorgetragen." - Richard Wagner, Die Welt

  • "Was bleibt einem Autor, dem die großen gesellschaftlichen und kulturellen Tröstungen seiner Zeit versagt waren ? Imre Kertész’ Autobiografie ist so großartig und zu tief berührend, weil sie die Antwort auf diese Frage verweigert." - Iris Radisch, Die Zeit

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:

Note: This review is based on the German translation (by Kristin Schwamm), Dossier K.; all quotes and references are our translation of the German, not the original.

       In K. dosszié Kertész Imre has taken an unusual approach to autobiography. He tells his life-story (or some of it anyway), presenting it as a dialogue -- an interview, practically -- but instead of having another person pose questions for him to answer, he has invented his own interviewer (and hence also all the questions that are asked). (Apparently an attempt at actual dialogue with another -- conversations with his editor Hafner Zoltán, which were recorded in 2003/4 -- was the inspiration (but not the basis) for the book.)
       K. dosszié is an attempt at a memoir, but Kertész suggests it can also be considered a work of fiction. Given how strongly based on autobiographical facts much of his 'fiction' is, the question of where reality begins (or ends) in his work has always been a major one. Not surprisingly, one of the first issues tackled in K. dosszié is that question of what is autobiography and what is fiction in some of those earlier works. Kertész has no doubts: it is simply fiction. The requirements of autobiography -- specifically the attempt to come as close as possible to describing reality as it occurred -- are different from fiction; in a novel, he maintains, what's decisive aren't the facts themselves, but what is added to the facts. Nevertheless, it's interesting to see his questioning alter ego press him on some of the specifics -- and, not surprisingly, it is the fiction the questioner refers to more frequently than facts in trying to determine (or relate) Kertész's life-story here (though, since it is Kertész 'asking' the questions, he knows as much as the author does ...).
       Interestingly, Kertész acknowledges that many details from his life are fuzzy: he doesn't recall many facts or specifics that one would think important. (The fiction, on the other hand, is always there, in black and white -- interpretation, but at least made permanent.) K. dosszié is also not a very detailed memoir in that large chunks of Kertész's life are largely ignored (or suppressed ?). The presentation -- and what is ellided over, and what emphasised -- proves more subtle than it would first appear, too: K. dosszié is more testament than simple interview, carefully structured to reveal even in what is only glancingly addressed.
       Kertész's concentration-camp experiences, and the books about them, are central; less space is devoted to both the before and much of the after. Nevertheless, there is some background about his childhood and his parents (who separated when he was young, with Kertész staying with his father). He was never much interested in his roots, but notes that it was his grandfather who changed the family name from Klein to Kertész.
       Kertész's Jewish identity is also complicated: in a sense he was made into a Jew; hardly observant he never really thought of himself in such categories. (Interestingly, the fictional interviewer is pointedly a non-Jew, a Christian.) His questioner asks Kertész whether living in two worlds (his separated father's and mother's) and leading a sort of double-life didn't cause an identity crisis

No. All the less so, since I didn't have any identity. And I didn't need any -- what would I have done with it ? What I needed was the ability to adapt, not identity.
       It is, of course, this determining (and/or loss) of self -- in identity, in adaptation, in conformity, in rebellion -- that is particularly compelling in Kertész's novels (most obviously in Fatelessness) -- though also in later particulars of his life. After the war he joined the Communist party (not a good or lasting match), while later he was never asked to add his name to any proclamations of the 'democratic opposition' -- because, he wryly notes, they weren't aware of him, and he wasn't aware of them (Kertész only began to rise to literary prominence after 1990). And if he and those working in opposition to the Hungarian government had been aware of one another:
     Otherwise you would have signed ?

     Probably yes.

     Out of sympathy ?

     Out of cowardice: in order not to be considered a coward.
       (Very typical of Kertész: there are any number of ways he could have framed these questions and answers, but he's not one for false illusions -- neither creating nor believing in them.)
       Kertész speaks of books that made an impression on him -- dwelling especially on C.S.Forester's 'Captain Hornblower', a bar mitzvah present he received in 1943 -- and describes how when he went back to school after the war he found little use for the books popular among the elite in his school, Galsworthy and Martin du Gard, while was much more taken by Remarque's Arc de Triomphe or Kosztolányi Dezső's Esti Kornél. In a Hungary where literary production (and distribution) was strictly controlled, he was later limited in what books he had access to, but neverthless found several significant ones: Paul Valéry, the books of P.Howard (Rejtő Jenő), and Mann's Death in Venice (a text, he says, which truly changed his life -- as did Camus' L'Étranger).
       Kertész: describes some of how he became a writer, but it was a very drawn-out process and he only touches on aspects of it (refusing, for example, to address in almost any detail the light theatrical pieces he wrote). The difficulties of getting published -- there were only two publishers who came into question at the time -- are described, but here too he doesn't dwell too much on things. And he doesn't go into most of the hardships of his (and his supportive wife's) from the 1960s through the 1980s.
       K. dosszié is a short and deceptively light book. In some ways it is a life-outline, filling in some biographical detail that is certainly of interest, but its true value and power comes from how it fleshes out the already known. It is more than simply a gloss on the previous fiction, but it does is add considerable meat to the previously known and familiar. This also poses some problems: the less one has read of Kertész's work, the less meaningful much of this will be. (The same goes, to a lesser extent, for familiarity with the Hungarian condition from the 1930s to the present.) It's disappointing that the book was not rushed into English translation immediately, and yet one has to wonder how sensible it is to tackle it when foundational texts such as A kudarc and Az angol lobogó are not yet available in English.
       K. dosszié isn't just another interview, and its brevity belies how much is actually there -- though much is only obliquely presented, the substance found in the question, the reference, the hint, even the tone. Even as straightforward biography, even if just read like just another magazine interview, there's certainly considerable material of interest here, but with K. dosszié Kertész again proves himself as a writer, as a literary creator whose invention transcends genres. It really is quite a remarkable achievement -- but here is an author who can't be grasped simply from this one memoir, or from any one of his books, here is an author who is approachable only in his entirety. But with K. dosszié we have another cornerstone.

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Dossier K.: Reviews: 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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© 2006-2013 the complete review

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