HAVING FINISHED SZABO'S The Door a couple of weeks ago I was hankering for another Hungarian novel, so I went ahead and read this... ha! Just kidding.
No, I actually started this about four years ago. It's a 706-page Mittel-European cinderblock of a novel, and it was a bit of a climb. I would read 100 pages or so, take a break for a few months, read another 100-150 pages, take another lengthy break, and so on.
Not the ideal way to read "the greatest novel written in our time" (Susan Sontag), but it actually worked, I think. The prose takes a lot of attention--hence the comparisons to Proust, I suppose, but it reminded me a bit more of something like Broch's The Death of Virgil. You just had to surrender to it--you needed to set aside hours, not just twenty minutes here and twenty there. After a few days with the novel, I always needed to come up for air.
An interesting thing, though, was that I could come back to A Book of Memories after months away and be able to re-connect. Its world and its voice are so distinctive and rich that when I picked the book up again, the characters and circumstances would pop back into existence within a few pages, as if I had been reading it only a couple of days ago. It's that vivid and that complete.
It braids three strands of narrative.
The first, to quote the jacket copy, "takes place in East Berlin in the 1970s and features an unnamed Hungarian writer ensnared in a love triangle with a young German and a famous aging actress." Intriguingly, though, this is a real triangle, in that not only are both the Hungarian writer and the young (male) German sexually involved with the actress, but they are sexually involved with each other as well.
The second strand is "composed by the writer"--that is, represents the work of the Hungarian writer involved in the triangle--and "is the story of a late-nineteenth-century German aesthete whose experiences mirror his own." I'm not sure how long it would have taken me to figure that out, left to my own devices. My initial thought was, well, this is about a Romantic Werther-Schlegel-Novalis figure (passionate and introspective, full sail into his sturm-und-drang period) and set many years before the relatively modern setting of the triangle story; I would have started looking for ways it connected to or counterpointed the Hungarian writer's story, but the jacket copy headed me off at the pass. It would have been more fun, I think, not to have known it was the Hungarian writer's work until the novel revealed that circumstance. So what is one to do? Not read jacket copy?
The jacket copy continues, "The third voice is that of a friend from the writer's childhood, who brings his own unexpected bearing to the story." Well... kinda. The third strand, set in the 1950s in the writer's home town or village, is mainly narrated by the Hungarian writer, and so is all about the person who went on to have the complicated affair in Berlin--but only the final chapter in this strand, the book's penultimate chapter, is narrated by the friend referred to in the jacket copy, for reasons that would require a spoiler alert. Almost all the third strand is in the voice of the main narrator, the Hungarian writer, so the jacket copy is actually a bit misleading. Jacket copy writers of the world, why do you fuck with our heads this way? Don't we people willing to take a chance on an enormous Hungarian novel deserve a little better?