Péter Nádas was born in Budapest in 1942. He’s the author of the novels A Book of Memories, The End of a Family Story, and Love, as well as a collection of stories and essays, Fire and Knowledge. He lives with his wife in Gombosszeg, Hungary.
"A hugely ambitious, breathtakingly inventive and at times maddeningly dense novel intent on obliterating historical, geographical, literary and structural borders."
"A pensive, beautifully written tour de force of modern European literature, worthy of shelving alongside Döblin, Pasternak and Mann."
How does one encapsulate Parallel Stories by Péter Nádas? Where does one even begin with this nearly 1,200 page monster? I wonder, even, if it makes sense to recommend it, as many will probably hate it. Hate it, even, for all the reasons I love it and can't stop thinking about it.
Starting at the beginning: I'm a huge fan of Joshua Cohen, especially his novel Witz and A Heaven of Others, and so I sort of Internet-stalk his every move, but don't tell him. And so I came across his review / interview with Péter Nádas. I had never heard of Nádas and my only experience with Hungary was my cancelled trip to Budapest back in the spring of 2009. But, reading Cohen's piece, I had that strange and surreal feeling when I know a book was made for me, all the more strange since he began writing it around the time that I began living.
And it was for me, and I love it, and even five months since finishing it, I'm still talking about it, thinking about it, pushing it at people, trying to get them to just read even a few pages, trying to figure out how he did the things he does in this novel. He does so many things, and so many of them shouldn't work, shouldn't even be possible for a book so large with so many character. But he does and I truly believe Parallel Stories is the most impressive novel I've ever read, more than Ulysses or The Waves or The Magus or Moby Dick or even -- and it almost hurts to say -- The Brothers Karamazov.
And it's an unlikely love, even though I expected it to consume me. Nádas speaks frankly and at great length about sex, and especially about the physical mechanics of sex to such expansive and minute detail that the act becomes almost absurd and grotesque. And, if you know me, which some of you reading this may, you probably know how boring I typically find sex in literature. It really is my least favorite aspect of most books, though that's a discussion for another day, but what Nádas does is almost beyond comprehension. This disturbingly detailed description of sex, the way he stretches a single moment over forty or eighty pages is somehow -- against all reason or probability -- mesmerizing. He turns sex into so much more than an act, ejaculation so much more than a biological function.
And this level of detail exists throughout the novel, past sex or personal ruminations, making a short and awkward drive to the hospital gargantuan in scope, where the past and present bleed together, where every breath and word and pause becomes significant to an almost comical degree, and you're burning through the pages, at the edge of erupting in frustration and gasping at how perfect every sentence is, and the effect makes you weak in the knees, slack in the mouth, and embarrassed in whatever muscles allow you to write, because you know you can't do this. You can't even begin to try.
It's the relationships that push you on, and the prose that carries you. Parallel Stories's narration crosses time and space, diving in and out of characters at a sometimes dizzying rate and you're swimming as fast as you can just to stay ahead of the current that keeps sucking you in.
But what is this novel about? I don't even know if answering that makes sense here. It's about so many things, from Nazi eugenics to masturbation to Jewish and gay and German and Hungarian identity to choosing one's underwear. Stretching from pre-WWII Germany and Hungary to the collapse of the Berlin Wall, covering genres from mystery to romance all in that modernist style I feel was made for me, this novel is massive in scope and density, but, perhaps it's not really about any of those things, not even about the people, so carefully wrought, who populate its pages.
If I had to say one thing that it seems to be most about, I'd say it's a war over what it means to be Hungarian.
If this novel were an animal, it would be a giant squid, its tentacles stretching in all directions and somehow never reaching a conclusion. And, for me, that's part of its perfection, Nádas' fearlessness, his willingness to, as Cohen says, build a grandiloquent cathedral and leave it incomplete.
And though the narrative threads end abruptly without resolution, Parallel Stories is a deeply satisfying novel. And, for me, about as perfect as novels get.