Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. August 2006

4.3. Die inter- und transdisziplinären Verhältnisse kultureller Vermittlung
Herausgeberin | Editor | Éditeur: Zoltán Zsávolya (Budapest, Győr)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

The Confrontation of Contemplation and Revelation

Visual and auditortexts in Péter Nádas's ouvre

Zsuzsa Molnár (Szeged)


The ouvre of Nádas can be approached from several aspects, his texts are connected with his non-fictional works and relate to each other in many different ways, they allow passage between themselves. The aim of our research is to draw attention to a general problem of these texts especially of those people who never read the following books and never heard about their writer. The figure of Péter Nádas is well known in international literature, we can mention his name together with Péter Esterházy and Imre Kertész, who is the first Nobel prize winner in literature in Hungary. To sum it up, Nádas is a novelist, but he also writes plays, pieces of criticism, filmscripts and essays. He began to work as a photojournalist and reporter. His mother died in his childhood, and after his father’s suicide he spent his youth in an orphanage. Among his notable works are A Book of Memorie(1)and The End of a Family Story(2).

The titles of Nádas’s books are very interesting, he always uses a technical word or a word from classical literature such as memory. His first significant book, A Book of Memories was published in 1986. This year meant a real fordulat in hungarian literature, in this year saw the appearance of Péter Esterházy’s Introduction to Literature - which has a trick, playful title.

It is also interesting that this year and this century is the period of the Peter’s: Péter Nádas, Péter Esterházy, Péter Lengyel, Péter Hajnóczy just to mention a few of important writers of these ages. Actually his first novel is The End of a Family Story, and perhaps we mention here his first short story called the Bible. I think that he started this kind of game with this text: readers expect else, traditional, something common, perhaps a familiar thing. He’s not afraid of this kind of title: Yearbook, Dialouge or his latest book: Parallel Stories. So we suspect, when we come across this thin book: it is A Lovely Tale of Photography(3). The original title can also be translated as: the fine history of photography, fine like fine arts, something complex, a huge, comprehensive work, and finally what we get is tiny parts of an incoherent story, mozaics, fifty-four photographs. And if we don’t ignore the subtitle: it is a compound in hungarian consisting of the words film and short story we can consider this text as a script, forms the basis of a part of A Book of Memories. And if we see it as a script, it can be viewed as fifty-four photoes, fifty-four scenes, fifty-four postures. If we looked at some titles of chapters, we would see, they function as captions in a photo album, some of them are the variations of others and the readers here will also discover the foreign language layer of the book, the dialogues are also in German and French.

The main characters of this short story is a woman photographer, called Kornélia and a male writer, his name is Károly or Karl. These two professions represent two kinds of actions, functions, and also repesent the Image and the Word. Firstly they are active agents: Kornélia takes photoes and Karl writes texts (it is also important what kind of texts), but then because they are in a asylum, but we don’t know what is the type of illnes they suffer from, the doctor takes the camera and the pen away. The lack of these things broadens the concept of image and word, both of them become interpretations. Let’s see how does image and word transform in other texts of Nádas. Name-giving, calling somebody somehow, variations of names, mixed names, changed names lead back to creation, to genesis in the Bible, beside this, all of the characters retell the past, the family legends, and if it’s necessary they also create a future. Tradition is a central phenomenon in these worlds, which always causes problems: jewish origin, to be orphaned or the parents have secrets, for example, one of them is a kind of informer, a spy. In The End of a Family Story all of these things are present: a little boy, called Simon Peter, who has to live with his grandparents, because his father has a secret job, maybe it is illegal, maybe he works for the goverment. When all the members of his family die, he’s sent to an orphanage, and we don’t know, whether his past, his origin, his grandfather’s tales about his ancistors will prove sufficient for him to survive which will happen to him.

In the New Testament word can make miracles, heal illnesses and resurrect dead people. In the hungarian edition of A Lovely Tale of Photography there is another filmscript called Proceeding, at the end of this story by the strength of the voice the blind became one who can see, the toungless a speaker, the cripple startes to walk again. Faith and prayer help, it does not matter whether the chosen one received his talent and power from a God or something Evil. However most of the time the word is expressed in usual ways: somebody is sitting and writing. In A Book of Memories we can find three autobiographies: one is a nameless writers’s, the second one belongs to the same person as a child, and the third one belongs to an imaginary person (created by the nameless writer): Thomas Thoenissen, who records his events of his life and experiments with novel writing. In A Lovely Tale of Photography Karl cannot write, it is forbidden for him, therefore he records everything in his head. He makes his and his lover’s, Kornélia’s lifestory - he writes diary, but it contains unusual notes. Many times he describes an event from lots of aspects.

The other participant of the conflict is the picture or image. In this case it has also a lot of functions: drawings and paintings get extraordinary roles in Nádas’s texts. In A Book of Memories there is a famous chapter, that is just about a description of an antique picture on walls with nymphs and satyrs, its adequacy a fresco in A Lovely Tale of Photgraphy. In the novel there is a photographer called Gyllenborg, whose pornographic photos may influence the investigation of a murder.

Kornélia also likes extreme and astonishing photos, all of them connected to the human body: defective bodies - a hermaphrodite duke, damaged body after an accident. She has to glimpse and peep to record these events, she always finds hide-outs. In these years a black sheet belongs to photomachine, Kornélia hides behind it, when she takes photoes. So the sheet covers up and uncovers in the same time. It functions as a mask, which help discover mysteries. And its user, Kornélia is an observer and a person who is watched. Her governess, Henriette, and her doctor are looking at her permanently. The picture, the photo is not the reality, it’s interpreted, torn and cut reality, but Kornelia has another world, because of her illness, which composed of hallucinations, visions. Finally three words helped us to summerize this part: all derives from latin: spectator (contemplator, who is apart of a deep contemplation), speculum, means mirror - it can be the symbol of her other world, and speculatio can mean glinting.

Eyes of a cat, eyes of a dead child, helicopter glancing into windows - this sense-organ is represented by different pictures: the eyeglasses of Henriett, the balloon which can be seen as an eye-form from the earth.

The author is interested in picture and the questions of picture not only thematical way, but its technical elements can be discovered in the texts as variations and multipled reproductions. Péter Nádas works and writes as a photographer or a film director. Nádas’s heros have alteregoes, mirror images, duplicates, he copies places, repeates them in his other novels.

In A Lovely Tale of Photography we could think that a cutting or retoucher worked with the writer. Retouching is not only covering up, rubbering, making changes or manipulating. The frame is a kind of retouching, after framing something it will be focused, it becomes the centre of the sight and the other stayes inside of the picture.

And we have to mention that Péter Nádas picture and text books, where the pictures aren’t illustrations, they are equal with the text: Yearbook and Death of One’s Own with his own photos.

What is image? Why do we separate image from picture or sight (what is seen) from picture that appears like optical phenomenon in our brains. According to Miklós Peternák(4), who is the great theorist of visual arts and he’s also film/video artist the visual image is that we select, separate from the world of direct vision, a kind of construction whose main component is frame, border-concept. It gets meaning, when the direct sight-experience becomes picture.

In word-image confrontation a theory helped us, it pictures the contrast in its totallity. Impress ed by Richard Rorty’s linguistic turn W. J. Thomas Mitchell(5) created the theory of pictorial turn in 1994. In the same year Gottfried Boehm(6) started a discors he called the iconic turn, he noticed the dominance of pictures and metaphors inside the textuality. Mitchell wants to avoid after that the pictures can be interpreted and treat as on the model of works of literature, cultures, societies.

Ernő Marosi, a hungarian art historian thoughts: It is not only visuality and vision that belong to the classical art history. The art history is not only the science of the image, it cannot be reduced to imagery. This science have to deal with not just the sensory essence of a work, but with the object. The architecture, the sculpture require to count the works of art as object and then as visions. Potentially there is the worth, the valid and strength of the bodily, acoustic senses. Marosi speaks against the theme of Paragone, which focuses on vision as the most refined of the senses.(7) On the contrary Peternák belives in iconic turn, he demonstrate with an analogy when after learning something be more conscious. So the image production is in a "pre speech"-state, and now we get close to a quasi speech-like application of images (we meet pictures on televisions, in films, on the Internet. (The artistic expression refers rather to musical representation.)(8)

Marosi analyzes also the description of apparition in the Hungarian hagiography literature, he asks: which came first: the vision, which is illustrated, or the seen image, that induces the vision?

The paintings about the saints always connect with their own personal stories, the legend of their miracles and suffer, so the visual and the narrative lay compose a unit.

The photo: the photo-picture needs appropriate circumstances, physical and chemical conditions, its exsistence is not influenced by an eye or brain. (Fox Talbot said: nature draws itself) The nature images have three groups, three fundamental forms: the projected silhouette, the print and the mirror. Rather special phenomena are the camera obscura (the sight revealed through the apparatus) or mirage. The photo joins to them and not to to the paintings and sculpture.(9)

Sociologists investigate that the image gains great power in the media: it capables transform the reality. Vilém Flusser stated a very important sentence during the Romanian Revolution in 1990 (to be cited by Peternák in an interview): the philosophy of the image in power is still not in our possession.

Ekphrasis (deskriptio, description) as a part of the retorical practice marks in its completeness the inseperable connection and inherency of image and word. but not forget of the classical genre like dance, acting, music considering opera, where also need the composite experience of several organs. In criticism it is exactly articulated which is not an ekphrasis: it’s more than table of contents, it’s not a list of the elements of the picture, it’s the contradict of re-verbs, such as reverbal, reconstruction, reproduction. Gottfried Boehm gave a negative definition: it’s not a language-photo. That is hard to summerize what is it basically. The content of the concept has changed several times till the 21st century. Now we don’t mind the questions like these: how can we describe the influence of painting, how can it affect the receptive? We thought it belongs to the psychology not to art history, nevertheless the traditional ekphrasis contained the examination of impression. Considering the aspect of rhetoric the ekprhasis couldn’t avoid to convince the audience and rise their emotions up.

In A Lovely Tale of Photography there are two scenes when somebody is looking at photos. One is in the chapter called Picture exchange. "A solitary, smooth, raw-wood stands inside the winter garden; there are only two chairs around it, now occupied by Kornélia and Károly. They sit so far apart that they have to keep standing up and bending over the table as they slide photographs to each other; they take turns, in strict order, handling one picture at a time. No matter how great our curiosity, only from their words are we allowed to gueess what might be on pictures." (25)

Then during her theraphy Kornélia took a photo of her doctor. "The physician lets out a coarse and self-satiesfied laughter, and Kornélia clicks her camera. .. Surprise makes the physician’s face slacken, and in that very instant Kornélia smartly releases the shutter." (50,51)

Beside this rudimental ekphrasis in the short story we can find a more conventional description, but the object of it is just in a function of background. It’s in chapter Bilder auseiner Welt, the tile of the picture - this is a painting (fresco ) - Last judgement. The topics similar to the antique picture of A Book of Memories: nymphs and satyrs, but the style of it connects with some phornographic photos also from A Book of Memories.

Kornélia uses her machine to built her life. The part of the therapy is that she was deprived of her photoapparat. Even she owns it or not, she organises her days and contemplates her surround as a real photographer: blow up, fix, copy, develope, stiffen, expose, cut and record. Does it succeed for her to keep the present, or is what she does just representation, reproduction. She wants to remove a kind of black tissue of their world, without words and language would like to understand the world, but she has to hide behind the black shroud of her machine, whose panels just like folding shutters of her window. She always creats murk. What she discovers, it will be hidden right away. The play goes in an extreme way of transparency and obscure Parallel with the theme the perspective of the narrators and their statements are so undetermined.

Picture as magic tool:Kornélia uses the machine like a magician in a rite. "Kornélia removes the black cloth from the camera and lobs itt o Milena. Then she takes off the lens cover and silently passes it on. Like practiced priesresses of a ritual mystery." Picture is sometimes literally the imitation, they perform the death when death becomes a sort of game. a sort of game. Kornélia and Károly made experiments with anguish and agony: "The burnt-out oak is being dug out by a group of woodsmen. They have gathered to pose for a group photograph, their axes propped against their legs, holding huge saws in their hands, their expressions dead serious. One of them has lain down ont he toppled trunk, two others pretend with grave seriousness to saw the prone figure in halfa t waist, while he pretends to suffer unbearably; the rest of the woodsmen keep grinning into the camera." And when finally Kornélia met the dead body, she carefully avoided to look at it.

In these stories picture makes a lot of problems: the sense of the antique drawing is not decoded, the fresco fades away, the secret photos manipulate an investigation in a murder case. And we know that the antiqe fresco is only a copy. We could talk about the relation of the picture and its reproduction.

This philosophical and pragmatical problem - the conflict of word and picture become real fight, which ends with violence: murder, self-murdering and the stake is the body The motifs of the body prepares another sign-system of the books: an old man’s body is naked, hermaphrodite prince. Hermaphroditos is a mitological figure, he is Pan and Aphrodite’s son. Nádas found a great metaphore to this phenomenon: the male-female snail. The snail has itself a complete body, it doesn’t need completion. These love stories are never about an attraction of a man and a woman. We can built love-social-community, where people love someone else, someone third through another person. Everbody’s aim to leave a mark, a trace. At the end of the short story it seems that the picture won this fight: its representator, Kornélia stayed alive for a longer time and also remained the photo of Károly’s corpse. And we can read in the Proceeding (Nádas’s first filmscript), which is the classical and modern history of the seeing. "After the destruction of the body only the voice stays, there is only the voice - and after all the image."

© Zsuzsa Molnár (Szeged)


(1) Peter Nadas, A Book of Memories, transleted by Ivan Sanders, 1997 Farrar, Straus and Giroux

(2) Peter Nadas, The End of a Family Story, transleted by Imre Goldstein, 2000 Vintage

(3) Peter Nadas, A Lovely Tale of Fotography, transleted by Imre Goldstein, 1999 Prague, Twisted Spoon Press

(4) Miklos Peternak, The new (art) media and the (hungarian) society. Short overview. (IS, a dadaist periodica, 1925, György Gerõ, its editor, Intermedia program in Budapest College of Art etc.). * 1994. 3. English Edition/Angol nyelvû szám, 33-34.

(5) The Pictorial Turn, Artforum, March 1992 , Picture Theory, 1994 , Iconology, 1987 ,The Language of Images, 1980

(6) Hubert Burda, Christa Maar (Hg.): Iconic Turn. Die neue Macht der Bilder, Köln: DuMont 2004, S.28, 29 und 40-42)

(7) pictural turn

(8) pictural turn

(9) pictural turn

4.3. Die inter- und transdisziplinären Verhältnisse kultureller Vermittlung

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For quotation purposes:
Zsuzsa Molnár (Szeged): The Confrontation of Contemplation and Revelation. Visual and auditortexts in Péter Nádas's ouvre. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW:

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