There are plenty of critics out there who'd be happy to savage this book.
The kind who love to take any opportunity to trivialize experimental writing, even while granting that it may, in more benighted times, have served a purpose--though god knows it's only an indulgence today. These are the critics who point out their beloved naturalistic moments in David Foster Wallace then heave a sigh at having to sidestep all the metafictional masturbation to get to a moment or two of sharply rendered detail. Nothing wrong with enjoying a moment of recognition, but I can't help but think that something has damaged these critics' sense of curiosity.
Anyway, Peter Nadas is well-known for his hefty A Book of Memories, but I read this work instead to see what he's up to--it's short, at least. A Lovely Tale, translated from Hungarian by Imre Goldstein, hovers around Kornelia, a photographer, and her time spent in a sanatorium surrounded by a cast of cipher-like characters. Her problems evidently come straight out of commedia dell'arte: she is engaged to a baron who wants her money, yet she loves a young writer she cannot have. So she escapes into illness. She may, in fact, be a creature narrated by another photographer who seems to be finding a way to tell his own death. If so, it helps explain the stilted portentousness which sometimes weighs a bit heavily in this work:
    "Whenever I think of my future, I think of your fate."
    "Neither has anything to learn from the other."
    "And if I combined the two?"
    "My fate would still not save you from your own."
In any case, whether or not Kornelia is some third party's fabrication, the book itself is written as a description of a film, giving it the chance to remark on the voices of narrators as they appear, or mention what can and cannot be seen. I first read it at work, in bits and pieces, without much concentration, and it only annoyed me. But reading it again, in one sitting, with a bit more attention to Nadas's film conceit, I enjoyed A Lovely Tale; it opened up for me. Sections that had earlier seemed like perfume ads struck me as more playful, and the weighty dialogue eventually served a purpose. In part this is because as narrators multiply, the story removes itself from the voices telling it. The book starts and ends with helicopters, and some of its best scenes occur in a balloon (along with one of its greatest lines, "This request is not made by a man in love, but by a concerned balloonist.") It is full of surreal set pieces--a formal dinner in which half of those at the table are rained upon then covered in snow; Kornelia speaking to a graveyard statue; an attempt to walk into a camera obscura's image. In the end, A Lovely Tale is prey to mood; it is interesting and irritating, evocative and pompous, but short enough, definitely, to make it worth sitting through this strange film of words.
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