Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Reading group: The Notebook by Agota Kristof

Warning: plot spoil.

John suggested this short and, to quote Doug, 'extremely unusual and thought-provoking' novel.

Exiled after the Hungarian revolution of 1956, its author, Agota Kristof, settled in France at the age of twenty-one, and thirty years later produced The Notebook, written in French, the first of a trilogy of novels concerning twin brothers. This first novel takes the form of the notebook that the clever twin brothers, in this book unnamed, keep after being evacuated as children during wartime to stay with their grandmother. It is a present-tense record of events as they adjust to life under those circumstances, written in the plural first person, 'we', with no differentiation whatever between the two brothers. It charts their self-conscious adjustment to amorality in order to survive in a world of immorality and perversion. They learn to steal, blackmail and even kill, always as a matter of expediency for both themselves and the downtrodden others they help. We can assume that it all takes place during World War Two and in the Hungarian countryside, but neither is ever named, nor are the occupying armies (clearly the Germans and then the Russians), nor the persecuted and murdered Jews.

Our discussion opened with two basic questions that were puzzling members. Firstly, the book is written in a very simple style. Early on in the novel the twins make a rule for themselves for writing: 

...the composition must be true. We must describe what is, what we see, what we hear, what we do... Words that define feelings are very vague; it is better to avoid using them and to stick to the description of objects, human beings and oneself; that is to say, to the faithful description of facts.

Mark said he couldn't understand how, in spite of that simplicity, it was somehow a really great book. I think that very objectivity gives the book a great poignancy, formally illustrating the repression of feeling that is necessary for the boys to survive (and the reduction of humanity created by war). The simplicity also gives the book a fairytale air and a consequent universality, as does the lack of naming. The novel, too, is full of fairytale-like grotesques, the grandmother who poisoned her husband and deprives her grandsons of basic comforts and the money their mother sends for them, the sexually incontinent hair-lipped girl and her mother who pretends to be deaf and blind, the priest who interferes with the girl, and his young female housekeeper and the masochistic billeted officer, both of whom make sexual use of the twins.

The second question led to the bulk of our discussion. During the whole of the novel the twins speak entirely as one - their utterances are prefaced only with 'We say' - and they are as one in their actions and plans. However: at the very end of the book, their father appears, needing help to escape into the West across the nearby barbed-wire frontier erected by the Russians. They agree to help him. Their father goes over the first section of the double fence, steps on a mine and is killed, and the last words of the novel follow:

Yes, there is a way of crossing the frontier: it's to get someone else to go first.

Picking up the sack, walking in Father's footprints, then over his inert body, one of us goes to the other country.

The other goes back to Grandmother's house.

Clare wanted to know Why? Why, in the first place, did either of them need to go across the frontier when they had finally built themselves a good life where they were? And, more importantly, why did they separate when they had been as one for the whole of the book preceding?

Had they planned together that only one of them should go over, or had one of the brothers been tricking the other? Had one brother been speaking for the other all along; were they not after all as one in their plans as portrayed? I said, but there is no hint whatever that the narrator is unreliable, and everyone agreed. John, who had been profoundly impressed by that ending, felt that, having been so bound together, the twins in the end needed to individuate. My view is that such realist-psychological explanations are inappropriate: the novel is not intended as psychologically realist in that way. Like the notebook it purports to be, it eschews feelings and motives. A question I asked in the meeting, but which never got a satisfactory answer at the time, was Why has the author chosen to make the narrative voice that of twins speaking as one? The answer, I think, is that, rather than realist characters, they are a kind of collective, or at least doubled, Everyman undergoing the universal circumstance of wartime upheaval. Having read about the following two novels in the trilogy (though I haven't read them), it seems to me that the point of separating the twins at the end is to allow in the following novels an exploration of the differing and/or similar circumstances of Communism and capitalism that Kristof herself experienced. However, perhaps reading the first book in isolation led to more psychological interpretations of its ending.

All in all, we thought it a great and memorable novel, which seemed here to be brilliantly translated by Alan Sheridan, and we were extremely pleased to have read it.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 


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