Shape to the shapeless: A chapter summary of ‘Parallel Stories’

March 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

& while flitting among his various stories about the city & its architectural styles, explaining things loudly & pragmatically as they drove along, he felt how immoderate a man he was, what an evader, a rambler who made himself laughable with his awkward, pitiful life, & no matter how hard he tried, his story was never nice & round, & there was no way back. (968)

Rather than defending itself against attacks on the basis of irresolution, dissonance, & misshapenness, Baroque art used the firm elephantine limb — taken for weakness — to possess & elevate its audience. With this in mind, I would without qualms define Péter Nádas’s Parallel Stories as ‘Baroque’. With due respect to this characteristic of the work, I have compiled a breakdown of narrative events as they occur by chapter; no such summary is available online at the moment of publishing [& perhaps this is because others were wise while I attempted bravery]. Any contributions or corrections are encouraged, by way of


~The Mute Realm~

Patricide (14 pages) — The young Carl Maria Döhring reports uncovering a body at the Berliner Tiergarten. He & Dr Kienast, the investigator, share a sympathy & an attraction.

The creator wanted it this way (17 pages) — An elaboration of Döhring’s contempt for people. He arrives in Düsselforf by train; he is supposed to wait for his twin sister at their aunt’s apartment on their way to Pfeilen, their hometown. Instead, he calls her from a park across tom the aunt’s house to tell her he has missed the train; she spots him however. Döhring contemplates confessing to the murder.

A genteel building (32 pages) — Budapest, March 15, 1961. It is stormy. A telephone rings in an apartment (architecture of  Demén) on the Grand Blvd. It is Prof. Lippay Lehr’s home, though he is not there. The residents are Nínó (his wife, a.k.a. Lady Erna), Kristóf (a nephew?), Ágost (the absent son), Gyöngyver (Ágost’s lover), & Ilona (the maid). Ilona answers the phone. Lippay Lehr has briefly recovered his consciousness & has requested interview with Ágost & his wife. Not wanting to go to the hospital alone, Gyöngyver — as a last resort — complies.

Isolde’s lovelorn swan song (16 pages) — In the Maas/Niers/Rhine region. Radios broadcast no news, no warnings, just patriot songs which are the background to this scene. It is part one of Döhring’s dream. The older Döhring, Hermann, a retired Raiffeisenbank director, is sent on a bicycle with a parcel & a mission: to survive, in spite of all others. Two monks & a young boy attack him.

Everyone in their own darkness (36 pages) — Luckács Baths, March 15, 1961. Three friends, all former agents of diverse countries, come together to share in their alienation. They are Hans von Thum zu Wolkenstein/János Kovách, André/András Rott, & Ágost Lehr. Physicality brings them to an intimacy that words do not allow. Secrets weigh heavy on them. Hansi has an epileptic fit, to the spectacle of the entire bathhouse.

The real Leistikow (12 pages) — Young Döhring’s early explorations of character & counter-character, the struggle between private & public worlds, & his estimations of the void.

Döhring’s continuous dream (10 pages) — [a continuation of ‘Isolde’s lovelorn swan song’] The two monks recover Döhring, with abuse. Other refugees appear & their questions confuse him. Like dreaming, the logic of war is “insane” (132): followed not by reason. The dream is young Döhring’s, filling out the tale of his father’s death. The dream is a twin to reality/truth.

Le nu féminin en movement (40 pages) — Kristóf cannot function regularly in his family for repressing his sexuality; he sees Nínó & Gyöngyver off. The ladies are curious about their taxi driver, deciding him an ex-ÁVH man. More still, they are sensing one another’s bodies (the rebukes & comforts). Their closeness invites the story of Gyöngyver’s difficult coming into the world.

Himself in the magic mirror (15 pages) — Alone again in Berlin, Döhring chooses to brave exposing the secret of himself, even privately to himself. He buys silk underpants, which become his obsession & a link with the discovered body. In the store, parts of his continuous dream enter upon him; he calls Kienast, who isn’t at the office, having placed some hope in the man.

Through the entrance to his secret life (28 pages) — March 14 (presumably), 1961. Gyöngyver & Ágost trying to leep quiet in the full apartment. The chapter regards their silent politics of erotics. In spite of the intimacy, Gyöngyver feels exceptionally lonely & envious of others’ lives. Ágost, still unsettled with himself, cannot but think & act selfishly.

The quiet reasons of the mind (98 pages) — Conversation between Gyöngyver & Ágost continues. He tells her of an alienating childhood stint in France, the humiliation of difference & living in foreign beauty (a lifestyle one couldn’t claim). Their sex does “violence to the instinct of reproduction” (240), questioning the value of perseverance, the uses of love, traditional sexual roles, &c. They are interrupted by Irma Szemzó, the landlady, where narrative shifts to a card game at Mària Szapáry’s [where Mrs. Szemzó is heading]. Margit Huber (Gyöngyver’s music instructor) & Izabella Dobrovan (a retired performance artist) are already there; the October 1944 abduction of Erna Demén’s daughter is being discussed. Mária is frustrated by the vanity her friends exhibit by submitting to no explanations for such disappearances. She proves sensitive also on the subject of Elisa, “her sick girlfriend” (283) with hereditary arteriosclerosis.


~In the very depth of the night~

Margit Island (17 pages) — Kristóf is caught up in a chase. It is a carnivalesque amusement for casual sex & orgies between (rebel?) men on Margit Island. He delights in his education, in the struggle & strangeness of physicality. He is drawn to a “giant” [János Tuba] & notices an old friend, Pistike Démen [a relation to Lady Erna née Demén?]. Afraid of being recognised, he makes way to Árpard Bridge, determined to jump.

The other shore (10 pages) — Fuss over Irma’s spilled drink. Izabella Dobrovan deals with the stain, recalling other marks not so easily removed — the result of her fear of pregnancy, for instance. The women try to cover “one illusion with another” (349) by playing cards.

Informed of her own existence (25 pages) — Kristóf, now in first person, realises he is being observed. He longs for human intimacy & regrets the stares which drive him further from it. Kristóf is held back by “being buffeted by these different selves that [he] could not separate” (356). Only to others, under observation, could he be simple, liberated. But this too frightens him. He runs.

Those two (16 pages) — Pozsonyi Rd, the maid’s bed; Ágost & Gyöngyver wake. They had slept with him still inside her: “Through the little point, no larger that the head of a pin, everything streamed into the other person […] It hurt. He wanted to say that in his view they were now mutually dreaming each other’s dreams into each other” (380-81). Without much believing it possible, they attempt at actualising this closeness. Not wanting to leave, they both release their bladders in the bed.

Ilona’s rice chicken (32 pages) — Kristóf comes to, beneath Margit Bridge, woken by a dog. He is bleeding & bruised, but empathises with the animal & thinks to feed him at the Grand Hotel’s waste. Though even this intimacy frightens him. Uncertain himself whether he’s going fome or to attempt suicide again, Kristóf stops into a public rest room where he finds a gay orgy, falling for one participant, “the giant” of four chapters back.

A brand new civilisation (24 pages) — The weak hallway light at Mrs. Szemzó’s, on Dobsinai Rd, is always left on to ease fears. These fears of invasion & strangers as well as the space illuminated by the light form a history of the Szemzós & Lojzi Alajos Madzar, their architect. An ideal of simplicity & function is preferred for the space: “If one decides to build on illusions, it is not easy to break free of hypocrisy & the worship of decoration” (435). These notions are put onto the weakness & delusions of nation-building also. Mrs. Szemzó & Madzar’s attraction becomes apparent as they debate & negotiate.

Otherwise it couldn’t have raged (17 pages) — It is nine months after Kristóf’s encounter with the giant. He is preoccupied by a local waitress, Klara. The attraction is not transparent, as basic sexual desire often is, so it is crippling. He frequents her café daily. Their exchanges are small.

American Dream (7 pages) — An exchange between Mrs. Szemzó & Madzar at the psychoanalysis clinic run by the former on Pozsonyi Rd. Their talk is of ideals & utopias — with the energy of lovers that may have a future together.

Tearing up everything (16 pages) — Kristóf tells of Russian-occupied Hungary: waiting in line for bread/disappointment, normalised deformity, danger on the streets, & its accompanying terror. “[W]e did nothing but scream. As if screaming could remind us of the vestiges of rationality that was still possible” (482).

They could not forget it (38 pages) — Madzar is on the Carolina, headed home to Mohács. The world gets more familiar & smaller as the ship journeys on; memories of alienation, after returning from work in Holland, & fervently wanting to explain the universe. & then memories of Mrs. Szemzó. Captian Bellardi, an old friend, is eager to see Madzar. Bellardi’s wife [Elisa] has repeatedly left & returned to him & their son, yet this is not what he needs to talk about. They have a holiday dinner to postpone serious conversation.

By the summer of ’57 (19 pages) — Pisti(ke) & Kristóf (16 years old) reveal their anti-Russian political sentiments as they are about to be deported. Information is dangerous, so all talk is binding. There are three trains of children from problematic/atypical living situations, presumed to be Dresden-bound. Iren & Erna (Nínó), his aunts, & Ágost see Kristóf off with some affection & some suspicion. The boys wait on the train for a long time & move only a short way before the police stops the deportation. The revolution is over.

Every Hungarian was lost (19 pages) — Madzar is in Mohács again, an old & frequent battleground so a sign of “lost” Hungary. He faces defeat & lack under the example of nations. He is haunted by Bellardi’s confession: that his friend is involved in a secret nationalist group (to which Prof. Lehr also belongs) & requests donation for its continuation. This is considered a sounding out for possible membership. Madzar is revolted. It is morning; he arrives at the office of the lumber merchant.

Saturated sleepers (34 pages) — Gottlieb, who has forgotten his hat, shows Madzar 98 sleepers once cut to extend the national railway though now they hung about as the residue of failed connection or the weight of political restriction (cf. The Treaty of Trianon). Nevertheless, Madzar is delighted with them. The wood is saturated in an unknown chemical, opening considerations of inaccessibility — which is how the two men find each other in conversation, & Gottlieb more generally with the idea of god [thus his ironic name] & with his wife, Margit.

The last judgement (16 pages) — In the moments before his execution, Kramer focuses all of his energy on the survival of Gregor Peix, just as he had done with all his time as a political prisoner in the Pfeilen concentration camp [imprisoned for smuggling communists from Czechoslovakia & Hungary to help the cause — Kovách was the last brought across from the Wolkenstein school]. The prsioners create a perverse sort of society without respecting death, which is taken more as a mercy. Hermann Döhring drowns Peix after torturing him in front of Kramer. These are special deaths to mark the high esteem of both men.


~The breath of freedom~

Anus Mundi (60 pages) — Gyöngyver hits F sharp after some difficulty, under Médike’s instruction. At the same time, Kristóf is fleeing a police assault on another Margit Island meet-up. Afraid that they tapping nails of a stray dog will give him away, Kristóf contemplates throwing the animal off Árpad Bridge. Gyöngyver, still struggling with her notes, recalls her cruel childhood as Mrs. Bizsók’s foster daughter: being locked into a chicken-coop, being left undernourished, &c. The past seeps through the space & its furniture: Mrs. Szemzó is defending psychoanalysis to Madzar: “Between ill-being & well-being there really isn’t a border or bright line” (641). Madzar’s work processes are described; these, he uses for distraction. [It is 1939.] He waits for Bellardi to arrive, but days pass & the specially-baked sweets go stale. Mrs. Szemzó arrives instead, though with her entire family: an elegant betrayal. There is a chance meeting with Chief Counselor Elmér Vay at their hotel; he has been drawing up restrictions for Jewish residents & was in Mohács reviewing one of seven relocation regions.

Like fine clockwork (37 pages) — Otmar Baron von der Schuer is leaving St Anne’s Church in Dahlem with Baroness Karla Thum zu Wolkenstein & Countess Imola Auenberg, who has only just met Schuer & is drawn to him [in spite of her engagement to Mihály Horthy]. The baron’s mining family & involvement with [& scientific restrictions by] the Nazi party. He says goodbye to them, inviting both to dinner. The countess contemplates her doubts, but is unable to share them. They enter the salon of Baroness Erika, Schuer’s wife, & meet their children.

No more time (16 pages) — Kristóf, in first person, is following Klára Vay from the café [Elmér Vay’s daughter?]. He negotiates his desires, admitting to be “more passionately interested in men, since what I’m really interested in is what I am like” (713). She stops for him; they exchange awkwardnesses. Her husband honks from a car & she invites him. Kristóf hesitates.

The lovely angel of revenge (29 pages) — Dinner at Schuer’s. It is three days after his first encounter with Countess Auenberg & the attraction is brimming. Imola sees Schuer as the latest in a series of doubles/“types” to whom she’s been attracted: these men are all possibilities, varieties, to have one was to have all. Karla Thum zu Wolkenstein wrestles with Schuer over eugenics, saying, “A person can have at best a definable idea. That’s the extent of one’s science” (750). When they are alone, he advises that she is his selection to head a new institute in Budapest. Schuer also wants to talk about her son, Hans, who hasn’t done well in recent examinations.

A startling gratification (17 pages) — Klára is arguing with the driver. It is charged with passion, so dangerous. Kristóf remains in the car out of curiosity & a sense of protecting Klára. The streets are looking helpless also, the eternal condition of their city. They stop outside their home for Klára to change.

Hans von Wolkenstein (31 pages) — At the Wolkenstein Lebensborn school, “[s]hackled by a certain physical hypochondria, the boys observed themselves & one another as if expecting some secret ailment to appear at any moment, or some racial impurity” (781). [Kienast is among these boys for his epilepsy.] They are attuned to the experiments done on them & believe in their findings. A suicide epidemic has been in effect, & it touches Hans too. At the viaduct, he is discovered by Ingke Einbock, a childhood friend, bringing a letter from his father which promises to take him away — Hans is conflicted, not wanting to admit being the inheritor of his father’s inferior blood.

I’ve been in this building before (17 pages) — Kristóf stands outside with the supposed husband. Silence brings tension, so the other man, József Simon Hetés goes up to hurry Klára. Kristóf follows him in & is struck by memory at the lobby where he had taken piano lessons with Andria Lüttwitz. He hears arguing from upstairs; pursues it; wants to watch the pair; becomes erect.

The noose tightens (65 pages) — Back in the taxi [Pobeda model], László Bellardi is driving Lady Erna & Gyöngyver to the hospital. Lady Erna is mesmerised by him, who was sentenced to life imprisonment by the People’s Tribunal. Bellardi’s son [with Elisa Koháry] of the same name was a student of Prof. Lehr’s who worked privately for him. This son, Bellardi considered murdering out of protection when Elisa left them. But with Elisa’s sickness “[r]evenge had been taken for everything done to him & to his little boy, & it was very nice of fate to have done this[…] God has given us murder as our freedom” (838). Lady Erna recalls her husband’s infidelities with proletariat women, incited by his aesthetic of perversion. Though all are horrible & perverse, she decides; who isn’t is worse still for seeking their outlets more loudly. They become “the murders, the possessed, the Arrow Cross men, the priests, the psychologists, & the party chiefs” (845). Bellardi remembers confessing the desire to spend his life with Madzar, which is declined with difficulty. Gyöngyver hates Ágost for not being with them. Back to the bathhouse scene, a mysterious head of police, Karakas, is introduced. André Rott suggests to him that Ágost may be traitorous. Karakas leaves to attend to the body of Mária Szapáry, an old friend, who has just committed suicide.

This sunny summer afternoon (17 pages) — Kristóf tells of Ilonka Weisz, a representation of inaccessibility in womanhood & in class. He is even jealous of her family, the comfort of not having at every moment to be grateful. Upon being retrieved from the Rózsadomb school, he says, “I had the definite suspicion I had been exchanged for someone else, I was someone else” (894). Klára appears at long last: Kristóf is transported out of himself by the sight of her. She saves him. They leave without Simon for a party.

Only inches from each other (13 pages) — Like the sensation of love, this chapter is preoccupied with its object, rich in joy, yet somehow contentless. Klára drives them dangerously onward. Kristóf is entirely submitted to her.

The spice of happiness (38 pages) — Kienast visits Döhring’s family home in Pfeilen on request. The investigator is afraid he may have a seizure he sensing coming on. Döhring is shaken by ideas of exorcising his family out of himself & the potential existence of god by whom he may have a mission in life. As his aunt had done, Kienast insists on the freedom of people from fate & on personal accountability. He pities the boy & takes him to have something to eat.

In full swing (93 pages) — Kristóf & Klára are telling the stories of themselves, roughly as we have already heard them [with more embellishment of Klára’s rebellion & spectacular arguments with Simon]; “niether of them felt free to understand certain things that it was more pleasant to misconstrue politely” (980). They enter a party at the Sunshine & the apartment directly above. There, after losing Klára, Kristóf meets Pisti(ke) who accuses him of betrayal in drunken uproar, too far gone to hear his objections & the news of his being in love with a woman. He then bumps into Gyöngyver, bringing news of Dr Lehr’s survival & that she will be moving out; Ágost has needed to marry her as a cover, though she refuses. In a separate room, Simon & André suppress a police raid. In another room again, Klára has a spontaneous abortion — she is taken away while Kristóf seeks out her borrowed mink coat. He cannot trace her for days. The search replaces his old life & removes all doubt from his love. Kristóf finds her, & disappears into Klára. In this time, Dr Lehr has in fact died & Gyöngyver agreed to marry Ágost: a funeral followed by a honeymoon. At the Athenian airport, however, Ágost disappears untraceable.

A fecund apricot tree (63 pages) — Balter, a retired prison security guard, leaves his wife & son to live alone in a cottage across the river Danube: his idea of freedom. The freedom becomes tainted by anxiety of being murdered by them. That fear leads him to kill a vagabond in the village, mistaken for his own son. Meanwhile, Balter has struck a friendship with the local pastor, with whom he tries to exchange illumination through mutual loneliness. The pastor has an orphan nephew staying with him, Dávid, who becomes inadvertently involved in the details of the murder even though the child prefers to live ascetically & attuned to a pagan mysticism of being. Balter takes the ferry across to his old workplace, requesting arrest.

The lover of her beauty (23 pages) — István Bizsók [Gyöngyver’s biological father] has hired gypsies whom he assists in traveling physical labour. He lives in a caravan separate to theirs & savours his morning ritual, permeated by a sense of eternity. Among the gypsy party is János Tuba [Kristóf’s giant], who was treated as a favourite & sometimes joined by a friend from the army [possibly Balter’s son]. Bizsók dreams of his first sighting of the sea in Husum: under Sergeant Fervega, with whom Bizsók has a kinship, the troops gain on a well, though it has been made rancid by enemy corpses; in search of a final hope, they come by the sea.



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