A Hungarian Scribe’s Antidote to Mental Poison

Matthew Gasda

A Hungarian Scribe’s Antidote to Mental Poison

Shimmering Details
by Peter Nadas
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 576 pages, $37.50

The keystone to Peter Nadas’s two-volume, 1,000-page memoir, Shimmering Details—an account of his childhood in postwar Hungary—is nestled at the beginning of the second volume. “I am professionally bound,” Nadas writes, “to confine myself to people with names.” Born in perhaps the darkest year in his country’s history, 1942, during the brutal “Siege of Budapest,” Nadas, one of the greatest living writers, recognizes, on one hand, that there is no escape from or outside of history—its vast horrors and deep ironies—and simultaneously that the imaginative writer has a responsibility to subjectivity: the minute particulars of experience that are too fine-grained for the historian tracking the rise and fall of nations and empires (and too idiosyncratic for a sociologist or philosopher).

For Nadas, the mass murders committed before, during, and after World War II present “a professional problem” for the writer who does not want to resort to generalities or Spielberg-esque morality tales, and hurl the victims of history into a “profound anonymity.” Thus, by sticking to the names of people he really knew—primarily his family—and reconstructing 1950s Budapest through the telescopic lens of a single child, Nadas, much like Terrence Malick in The Tree of Life, is able to approach the bigger historical and metaphysical questions without resorting to generalization and myth.

Born when Hungary was caught between the pincers of the USSR and Nazi Germany—like being born in Troy the morning the horse was rolled in—Nadas demonstrates that the surest way to reconstruct the lives of the “anonymous” victims of history is to reconstruct the lives of those who, at least for a little while, survived. In his meditating on the “shimmering details” still present in his memory, Nadas resurrects a lost Hungarian and, by extension, European lifeworld.

Though first published in 2017 in Hungarian, the relatively late appearance of Nadas’s memoirs in English couldn’t be more timely. Reading Shimmering Details—measured, stoic, suggestive, and allusive—in November 2023 feels like ingesting an antidote to mental poison: the clickbait, deep fakes, sloganeering, and outright propaganda indigenous to the digital information ecosystem in the 2020s. The method of the memoir is patiently layered detail—both psychological and sensory—so that what emerges is a picture of what it meant (and may continue to mean) to be alive under extreme political and material duress. As much attention is given to food—the rare moments when the old delicacies of the prewar, bourgeois Hungary become available, or are made in secret—as to the specifics of the Siege of Budapest, when Soviet forces encircled the Hungarian capital for nearly two months. Nadas builds up a vast collage in which the quotidian neighbors the existential, and in which the different strata of the self, including the erotic, endure even in moments of profound material danger.