Nádas's Comedy of Interment
Péter Nádas has written in a variety of forms since his first book, a collection of stories published in 1965; anglophone readers had to wait until 1997 to discover him, when A Book of Memories (1986), his maximal masterpiece, finally appeared in English. To start one's reading of a major writer with that writer's most ambitious, most accomplished, bulkiest book is bound to foster misreadings. There are sizable peaks surrounding this Everest. But it will take time to take their measure.
Burial (1982), the last and best of the plays Nádas wrote in the late seventies, is often described as the third part of a trilogy, of which the first two parts are House Cleaning (1978) and Meeting (1981). All three plays came after the first novel, The End of a Family Novel, which was written between 1969 and 1972, but not cleared for publication by the Hungarian censorship until 1977.
For those reading Burial in English translation, a drama with two nameless characters wandering around a barren stage is likely to evoke Beckett, behind whom stands that Symbolist tradition exemplified in, for instance, Maeterlinck's Les aveugles. This is not, I think, Nádas's genealogy. The roots of Nádas's imagination as a dramatist are thoroughly German: the work with which Burial is best compared would be the encounter-dramas of Pina Bausch and the declamatory plays of Thomas Bernhard.
Much of A Book of Memories takes place in the Brecht-dominated theatre world of the former East Berlin in the 1970s. (This, of course, draws on Nádas's own experience.) But it is one thing to be interested in theatre as a world, as a [End Page 215] metaphor, as a system of meanings; in Nádas's great novel, thinking about theatre is a way of making reality more complex, more layered. Making a work for the stage engages a quite different idea of theatre; in Burial, theatre is a technique for peeling away, stripping down, exposing the layers of reality with which we clothe ourselves. "Despite all our social conventions," he once said in an interview, "we are all naked in front of each other. And theatre is perhaps nothing other than the perception and the demonstration of this nakedness."
For Nádas, theatre, the domain of actors, is not a branch of literature, at least not in the sense that a novel, which has characters, is literature. The novel describes, but theatre performs intensity, carnality. "What interests me in the theatre is not the story," Nádas has declared. Nor is it so-called ideas. That is a matter for literature and philosophy. In theatre it is the system of relations emerging between live bodies that is my interest."
In contrast to the plays of Beckett, but also unlike the plays of Bernhard, Nádas's plays are about sexual desire. Characters are above all bodies, agents of sexual desire. His master subject is the complexity and insatiability of desire, which finds its most original expressions in the heroically detailed, mesmerizing pages in A Book of Memories devoted to describing the possession, part by part, of the body of a desired other. Desire is a form of hysteria. Desire is a mania of possession. Desire is insistence. Reading Burial, one is struck by the obsessional specificity of the instructions for producing the play, with their raging exclusions--no change in the lighting, no music, no curtain call, no acknowledgment of the audience--and the rich punctuation throughout, by silences of different lengths.
Sexual dueling drives Nádas's narratives. Usually, it is a duel à trois--a child and his parents, two boys and a girl--with the desire agitating Nádas's principal character, who is invariably male, eventually veering from the Mother, the girlfriend, to the Father, the boyhood comrade or boyfriend of the girl. Burial depicts the more classic duel of two, female versus male. Still, much of the old ambiguities of attraction, the perennial conflict in Nádas's narratives about which kind of body is desired that is conveyed by a triad of characters, is retained here by stipulating that the two characters, MAN and WOMAN, aka ACTRESS and ACTOR, be dressed exactly alike. Ideally, he says, they are Twins . . . the oldest trope for fusing heteroerotic and homoerotic desire.
This is an opera of words, a ballet of movements. The only criterion is intensity. Again and again, the characters work themselves toward the ecstatic, the incorporating. They speak, they spar, they dance, they chant their engorging, their entering of each other, their exchanges of identity, their pauses, their frustrations. A whole lifetime, a whole relationship is enacted, parodied. Breathing, clutching, avoiding, declaiming, the two characters attempt to exhaust every permutation of their merging and their estrangement. [End Page 216]
It seems to me a limitation in Burial, unlike Nádas's great novel, that the outcome is so logical, even predictable. Two characters called Actors emerge at the beginning of the play and take possession of the stage. Their exchanges rise to a rapturous account of desire. At the end, there is a leave-taking. Why? Perhaps because the play must end. The woman is banished by the man, and the man buries himself. More precisely, he takes up residence in his death.
"Of course," Nádas instructs us at the end (perhaps unnecessarily,
but this is a writer who takes nothing for granted), "ACTOR and ACTRESS
do not come out to take a bow."
Susan Sontag received the American National Book Award in 2000 for her novel InAmerica (a chapter of which appeared in the fall 1998 issue of Common Knowledge) and she received the Jerusalem Prize in 2001. Her play Alice in Bed appeared in the spring 1993 issue of CK. Formerly a MacArthur Fellow, her other novels are Death Kit, Benefactor, and The Volcano Lover. Her volumes of essays include Against Interpretation, Styles of Radical Will, On Photography, Illness as Metaphor, Under the Sign of Saturn, and most recently, Where the Stress Falls.