The Notebook by Agota Kristof

I said I would read The Notebook this week but I bought the version published with The Proof and The Third Lie and liked The Notebook so much that I read all three novels that comprise a trilogy of stories about the twins Lucas and Claus. Of all three I think The Notebook is my favourite, but all three novels speak of fractured lives and identities whose loves transgress social conventions, conventions often challenged and changed by war and its ever shifting allegiances. Who are we? Are we bound to the country of our birth? Are we tied to those whose blood we share?

The two brothers are divided during the war, whichever novel you read and whichever plotline you believe. This division, this separation is unbearable and makes life a constant battle fought solely for envisaged reconciliation. This makes The Third Lie particularly hard to read.

It is not hard to miss the historical and political narratives beneath the tales, but nor is it easy to decipher any form of truth not turned by the storyteller’s wheel. The literary oral history of forest and fairy-tale, of epic journeys and miraculous recovery, of transformation and shape-shifting flow fluidly through the lives of the twins making their struggles ache with metaphorical and mythical parallels despite the carefully simple prose. This is stark and potent writing so good it feels as if I’ve read it already and I now know that what may have impressed me in other writing is partly Kristof’s influential echo.

The twins’ description of what work gets written into the notebook they are writing is wonderfully telling. What gets into the notebook must be considered ‘Good’:

‘To decide whether it’s “Good” or “Not good,” we have a very simple rule: the composition must be true. We must describe what is, what we see, what we hear, what we do.

‘For example, it is forbidden to write, “Grandmother is like a witch”; but we are allowed to write, “People call Grandmother the Witch.” …

‘Words that define feelings are very vague. It is better to avoid using them and stick to the description of objects, human beings, and oneself, that is to say, to the faithful description of the facts.’ (p29)

The twins observe life with a fearless, fanatical fervour that sees life and human behaviour without sentiment giving us a picture of the world that doesn’t edit out the unseemly, unpleasant or unconventional. This is truly inspiring, galling work.

Having said that, it’s true that these novels are not for everyone. They don’t make for easy reading, in the sense that they cover difficult topics of war, betrayal and a kind of survivalist cruelty, but they are honest and they are important for anyone hoping to grasp a sense of contemporary European fiction.

Next week I’m reading Tenth of December by George Saunders.