Henry James famously referred to the spate of unwieldy, enormous, world-engulfing 19th century novels that once flooded the literary world, and Tolstoy's War and Peace specifically, as "loose, baggy monsters". Such monsters are now pretty much a genre. Perhaps it's simply that word - monster - but what critic can resist giving the giant novel that kind of label? And, let's face it, books featuring hundreds of characters, squirrelly plot lines (or no discernible plot lines at all), can be threatening. If the 19th century gave us this species, the 20th century literary canon was arguably ruled by such beasts. Joyce, Gaddis, Proust, Pynchon, Mann, DeLillo, Musil, David Foster Wallace; almost every novelist, it seems, had at least one monster in them. Some even had two or three.
With the publication of Parallel Stories, Peter Nádas, the Hungarian novelist, playwright and essayist, has unleashed yet another such 1,000-plus pages into the world. But don't let that scare you. Parallel Stories is, quite simply, the finest literary monster that our young century has produced; it's both a bloated high-modernist anachronism and one of the most fully formed arguments for what the novel is still capable of. Here, finally, is a new way forward.
On its English release in 1997, Susan Sontag called Nádas's previous novel, A Book of Memories, which had been published in Hungary 11 years earlier, "one of the great books of the century". Well, this one is better.
Born in Budapest in 1942, Nádas has lived his life inside the maw of his country's more monstrous years. Eighteen years in the writing, Parallel Stories is the first novel that Nádas has published since the collapse of communism (he began writing it in the late 1980s), and the first, by his own admission, to be written without any kind of oppositional political intent. Unlike many so-called eastern bloc authors who struggled to find a voice to fit the post-communist world, literary and political "freedom" suits Nádas. Unfettered by both state censorship and the need to oppose the same state, Nádas has burrowed deeper into the human condition, one compromised not only by history but by the body itself.
Loosely, baggily, the novel concerns dozens of intertwined characters and nearly 75 years of European history. Hungarians and Germans and Jews and Gypsies; Nazis, communists and secret associations of nationalists and spies, among many others. To attempt an untangling of the threads and stories here would be both impossible and a great disservice to the novel. The very structure of Parallel Stories is in itself a refutation of the linear mode of storytelling and, at times, the novel feels like a film hijacked by its extras.
Parallel Stories is divided into three volumes and twists itself around two families, the Lippy-Lehrs and the Dohrings, and the untold dozens of connected - or possibly unconnected - characters that orbit them. There is family drama, a kinky murder-mystery and some of the best writing on war this side of WG Sebald's The Natural History of Destruction. The themes and historical periods touched upon are as eccentric as they are brilliant: Nazi eugenics, opera singing, pre-war architecture and Bauhaus furniture building, the trenches of the First World War, the Eichmann papers, epileptic bath attendants, Jewish lumber-merchants, Hungarian aristocracy, undergarment fetishism in post-Wall Berlin, the Holocaust, criminology, perfume, academic politics and even a chapter that reads like communist Hungary's answer to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
Not to be crass, but Parallel Stories has an almost Facebook-like approach to character plotting. We have primary and often reoccurring characters - yes, our friends - but then we have our friends of friends, too; and then, scrolling deeper into the work, our friends of friends of friends.
From chapter to chapter, the reader jumps not only between epochs but between the parallel stories of characters that we struggle to place in relation to other characters. From a woman practising her piano to the story of the man who built the furniture with which her flat had once been furnished before the Nazi's defenestrated it; from an unsolved murder in post-Wall Berlin, to a character dreaming of killing his own grandfather, a Nazi prison guard, after the collapse of a German death-camp on the Dutch border.
You surf the novel as if it were a high-modernist social network, stalking through photographs or memorabilia of people you are vaguely familiar with, or who your friends know, getting detailed, immoderate personal snippets of stories that, by their design, can't ever be resolved or expanded on. Just that one click or peak in: everything hyperlinked to everything else. The novel itself an example of chat-speak's TMI (too much information) but, like a fractal, the whole picture seems somehow contained inside these disparate fragments. Or, as one character puts it: "There were secret passages, then, among individual lives. Which she has now uncovered, found the trial of, but should not tell anyone about lest they think she's gone mad."
Make no mistake, there is something maddening about 1,000 pages of this, though reading a well-tempered novel after Parallel Stories can feel a bit like switching from the blazing colour of a cinema to an old black and white television.
Most of the characters in Parallel Stories, like the author himself, whose mother died of cancer when he was 13 and whose father committed suicide when Nádas was 16, are orphans. Absent parents haunt the novel, a theme that glues many of the narratives together and shines a light onto Europe itself. The powerlessness of Hungary, for so long washed-up against the shores of its more powerful neighbours, is a major theme here; a country always searching, often with terrible results, for that one parent to finally raise it into self-sufficient adulthood.
The novel is mostly told in third person, except when it isn't. For instance, suddenly and almost imperceptibly, the narration of one character, the sexually confused Kristof Demen, switches from third to first person.
Why? Hard to say, except that it works on an intuitive level. Nádas's prose is full of such hairpin bends, except there are no signposts here. Instead, he seems to have absorbed high-modernistic modes until they feel less like experiments and more like the only way these stories could possibly be told. Parallel Stories is built from long paragraphs interspersed with single-sentence, almost poetic bumps or jabs, giving the reader a delicious sense of movement and rhythm, as in this quote relating to a character's experiences during the First World War:
"He could never tell whether he saw, imagined, or only envisioned in his memory the impact of the bomb that had lifted the torso of his machine-gunner, along with muddy clumps of earth spraying the sky, high into the air from a spot now emptied and exuding only heat, and, while the torn-off arms flew off in different directions, the gunner's trunk, pared down to its bare frame but still alive, was skewered on a tree branch. Had this really happened; had he in fact seen it."
But central and most revolutionary about Nádas's work is how he engages with and expands the role of corporeality in literature. The human body with all its savage and mute needs, stenches and grace. He writes in a way that makes one uncomfortably aware of one's own physicality while reading. More than any novel I can think of, Parallel Stories is an exploration of what it means to be a human animal. Characters defecate, copulate, twitch and bleed and sweat, and they do this in almost monomaniacal detail.
Parallel Stories charts out a new kind of humanism, one that boldly explores every last breath and belly rumble of the body's consciousness. Not one movement, it seems, goes without being remarked upon. This can be both repellent and exasperating, and there isn't much humour in the book, it must be said. But, ultimately, it does what so little contemporary fiction has the courage to do: it unsettles us and encourages new modes of thinking.
When was the last time a novel made you painfully more aware of your physical body? For too long in fiction the subconscious has been a vassal of the mind; here, the body itself steps up to demand its own consciousness, its own place in the fractured tableau of memory and history. For what else is history, it seems to ask, but those finite, fleshy vessels that contain it?
Peter Nádas's Parallel Stories is an intensely private exploration of the maintenance and demands of the body set against the public backdrop of modern European history. In the end, it's all one and the same. We create our own monsters. Henry James would not have approved.
Tod Wodicka is the author of the novel, All Shall Be Well; And All Shall Be Well; And All Manner of Things Shall Be Well. He lives in Berlin where he is at work on his second novel, The Household Spirit.