Fire and Knowledge Fiction and Essays

Péter Nádas; Translated from the Hungarian by Imre Goldstein




Trade Paperback

400 Pages



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The publication of A Book of Memories in 1997 introduced the work of Péter Nádas to English-language readers. As a novelist and as an artist, critics have compared him to Robert Musil, James Joyce, and Thomas Mann. In the diverse essays and stories gathered in Fire and Knowledge, other aspects of Péter Nádas's major presence in European life and letters are revealed: as a trenchant commentator on the events that have transformed his country and all of Europe since 1989, as a stunning literary critic, as a subtle interpreter of language and politics in societies both free and unfree, as a moralist with a discerning eye for the crippling effects of deception and hypocrisy.

In addition, Fire and Knowledge acquaints readers more fully with Nádas's evolution as a writer of fiction. It includes stories dating from the 1960s and 1970s, when he had to write in extremely stringent, even dangerous circumstances, as well as some from more recent years, since the publication of his major novels and the reintegration of Western and Eastern Europe. Here, in full, is a rich compilation of unique, witty, thought-provoking works by a great living writers.


Praise for Fire and Knowledge

"The stories are effortlessly wonderful . . . Set mainly in small-town and village Hungary, [they] have many of the adornments of fairy tale: mysterious houses, roads curling off into the distance, peculiar old women, pigs. His characters, especially his children, have the monstrous clarity of fable. Yet he never feels old-fashioned. He has Lawrence's symbolic facility without his thumping self-consciousness, and an endless tenderness for the detail of overlooked lives . . . Every story here reminds us that fiction can tell the truth as well as nonfiction—or even better."—Sophie Harrison, The New York Times

"Nádas is the kind of writer who manages to be wry without being funny—the graveyards of Europe's recent past are too fresh for that. His trenchant works fit comfortably into a continental literary tradition of high seriousness that encompasses writers as disparate as W.G. Sebald, Thomas Bernhard and Imre Kertész. A palpable literary hero in Germany, Nádas has produced novels of Proustian theme if not length. This volume collects shorter pieces from 1962 to 2000. Essays and stories in one volume can strike Americans as an uneasy fit, but Nádas's essays are so distinctively associative that they have the force of stories. Judging from these short works, a childhood in Stalinist Budapest left Nádas with a healthy respect for the secret, the unspoken. In the title essay, a multiple arson (someone 'set fire to the four corners of Hungary') leads an impromptu outbreak of candor on the television—in a police state, a decidedly attention-getting act. In the story 'Liar, Cheater,' the consequences of a childhood lie become increasingly inscrutable. Bracing and subtle, this thought-provoking volume has a rightful place on the shelf of any serious lover of literature."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"In this collection of essays, literary criticism, and fiction, Hungarian author Nádas gives readers page after page of thought-provoking and deeply insightful intellectual enjoyment as well as a soul-baring glimpse into his internal struggles with such issues as capital punishment, depression, writing, religion, and fate. His essay about the December 1989 executions of deposed Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauescu and his wife, for example, is a stirring personal account of his struggle to resolve his own contradictory thoughts about capital punishment. Nadás's literary criticism is . . . the particular brand of criticism that has disappeared in recent years and been replaced by the more fashionable 'cultural criticism' of so many universities. With it, he opens readers' eyes to minute sections of the text that bear enormously significant details upon further examination. His short stories, meanwhile, rife with the figurative, the symbolic, and the metaphorical, mix Kafka's paranoia with Bernard Malamud's overt religious symbolism and Henry Roth's familial dysfunction. Readers will be drawn into the very private lives of his characters, investing themselves in their every word and deed. Highly recommended."—Wesley Mills, Library Journal

"A collection of fiction and essays, spanning roughly 40 years. The pieces are arranged neither chronologically nor thematically . . . the book ending with a haunting one-sentence story entitled 'Way,' a geographical prose-poem about wandering urban streets between 1:30 and 2:00 a.m. The heftiest work is 'Lady Klara's House,' a story bordering on a novella. Nádas, a literary descendant of Matthew Arnold and others in the moral tradition of criticism, examines childhood dread ('Liar, Cheater'), politics ('The Great Christmas Killing,' about the execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu), family memory ('Homecoming,' about his father's suicide) and the European literary tradition ('On Thomas Mann's Diaries') with an intense, sensitive-and occasionally harrowing-critical gaze. One of Nadas's most interesting early pieces is 'Vivisection,' in which on the surface he recounts a model undressing in a studio; on a deeper level, however, he examines the elusive ways language can (and cannot) capture the reality of experience-and also the ways it distorts our perceptions of any given event. He concludes that 'the ambiguity of facts is unavoidable.' In a spasm of autobiographical insight in 'Homecoming,' Nadas states, 'I was born to be an onlooker . . . Neither here nor there, I live in a state of in between.' Such a position offers him a freedom of evaluation and judgment on display throughout these pages. A book that enlarges our sense of the moral, political and literary worlds we inhabit."—Kirkus Reviews

"Since English-language audiences were introduced to the works of Hungarian novelist Nádas . . . the author has quickly been canonized as a latter-day Eastern European Proust or Mann for his prewar-modernist structure and detailed attention to his characters' internal conflicts. Here Nádas provides a collection of brief writings—fiction and nonfiction—appearing over four decades of personal and political change. At the core of this selection are a handful of long short stories that meditate, grimly yet with a certain warmth, on serious matters: 'The Lamb' considers Hungarian anti-Semitism; 'Lady Klara's House,' the persistence of class and its challenges to intimacy in postwar Communist society. Nádas' nonfiction chapters are similarly revealing and no less abstract, yet occasionally more illuminating into Nádas himself and on the craft of writing: 'Vivisection,' for example, explores the temptation to deceive when painting a nude with words; and a chapter on the (unfortunate) editing of Mann's published diaries sheds particular light on the author's influences. This gently chaotic and revealing scrapbook is a must-have for serious European literature collections."—Brendan Driscoll, Booklist

Table of Contents

The Great Christmas Killing
Liar, Cheater (A Story)
The Bible (A Story)
Little Alex (A Story)
On Thomas Mann's Diaries
The Lamb (A Story)
Hamlet is Free
Lady Klára's House (A Story)
Vivisection (A Story)
A Tale of Fire and Knowledge
Family Picture in Purple Dusk (A Story)
Our Poor, Poor Sascha Anderson
Work Song
Minotaur (A Story)
Fate and Technique
Meeting God
Parasitic Systems
At the Muddy Source of Appearances
The Citizen of the World and the He-Goat
Clogged Pain
Way (A Story)

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Péter Nádas; Translated from the Hungarian by Imre Goldstein

  • Péter Nádas, born in Budapest in 1942, began writing in the 1960s and was first published in the 1970s. Author of the novels A Book of Memories, The End of a Family Story, and Love, he lives in Gombosszeg, in western Hungary.

  • Péter Nádas Barna Burger