November 20, 2012

Imre Kertesz: The reports of my retirement are “a bit too hasty”


Melville House publisher Dennis Johnson with Imre and Magda Kertesz in Berlin

Imre Kertesz, the Nobel Prize-winning writer (and Melville House author), hasn’t been in the best of health the last couple of years. Of course, it’s remarkable he’s alive at all, given that he nearly died in a Nazi concentration camp as a teenager. But when I visited him last March at his home in Berlin, I was surprised to find him obviously weak but cheerful to the brink of ebullience, and eager for me to go across the street with him and his wife, Magda Kertesz, to his favorite restaurant to get a glass of wine and some lunch. Magda and Imre are nothing if not utterly charming raconteurs, and it turned into an almost raucous occasion, with lots of laughter. The only really somber moment occurred when Imre spoke about his fear of not being able to finish the new book he was working on. Still, he was making progress, he insisted, and was determined to get it done. You tend to believe it when a guy who survived not one but two Nazi death camps (Auschwitz AND Buchenwald), not to mention a subsequent life under a totalitarian regime, tells you he thinks he can pull something off.

So imagine my surprise when, late last week, reports surfaced that Imre had decided to retire from writing.

As I learned when I contacted him, the reports were not true. Or, as he put it in an email — and I’m guessing with a face that, judging by experience, could be a textbook illustration of the cliche “impish grin” — the rumors were “a bit too hasty.”

Nonetheless, those rumors — originating, thinks Imre, from an interview he gave to Der Spiegel magazine — were picked up by major sources around the world, probably fueled by Imre’s stature as a Nobel winner, and by Philip Roth‘s announcement, a few days earlier, that he was retiring. (The Der Spiegel story is unavailable online, but here’s a  report about it from a Hungarian news site.)

Despite his ill health, Imre did make a public appearance last week in Berlin, where he received a standing ovation at a ceremony celebrating the installation of his archives at the Berlin Academy of Art, and he has asked Melville House, as his English-language publisher, to let the world know that he is still at work.

“Naturally, I will try to write as long as I can,” he says, adding that he considers the remaining time he has to write “a special gift from fate.”




Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.