Henry James famously referred to the spate of unwieldy, enormous, world-engulfing 19th century novels that once flooded the literary world, and Tolstoy's War and Peace specifically, as "loose, baggy monsters". Such monsters are now pretty much a genre. Perhaps it's simply that word - monster - but what critic can resist giving the giant novel that kind of label? And, let's face it, books featuring hundreds of characters, squirrelly plot lines (or no discernible plot lines at all), can be threatening. If the 19th century gave us this species, the 20th century literary canon was arguably ruled by such beasts. Joyce, Gaddis, Proust, Pynchon, Mann, DeLillo, Musil, David Foster Wallace; almost every novelist, it seems, had at least one monster in them. Some even had two or three.
With the publication of Parallel Stories, Peter Nádas, the Hungarian novelist, playwright and essayist, has unleashed yet another such 1,000-plus pages into the world. But don't let that scare you. Parallel Stories is, quite simply, the finest literary monster that our young century has produced; it's both a bloated high-modernist anachronism and one of the most fully formed arguments for what the novel is still capable of. Here, finally, is a new way forward.
On its English release in 1997, Susan Sontag called Nádas's previous novel, A Book of Memories, which had been published in Hungary 11 years earlier, "one of the great books of the century". Well, this one is better.
Born in Budapest in 1942, Nádas has lived his life inside the maw of his country's more monstrous years. Eighteen years in the writing, Parallel Stories is the first novel that Nádas has published since the collapse of communism (he began writing it in the late 1980s), and the first, by his own admission, to be written without any kind of oppositional political intent. Unlike many so-called eastern bloc authors who struggled to find a voice to fit the post-communist world, literary and political "freedom" suits Nádas. Unfettered by both state censorship and the need to oppose the same state, Nádas has burrowed deeper into the human condition, one compromised not only by history but by the body itself.
Loosely, baggily, the novel concerns dozens of intertwined characters and nearly 75 years of European history. Hungarians and Germans and Jews and Gypsies; Nazis, communists and secret associations of nationalists and spies, among many others. To attempt an untangling of the threads and stories here would be both impossible and a great disservice to the novel. The very structure of Parallel Stories is in itself a refutation of the linear mode of storytelling and, at times, the novel feels like a film hijacked by its extras.
Parallel Stories is divided into three volumes and twists itself around two families, the Lippy-Lehrs and the Dohrings, and the untold dozens of connected - or possibly unconnected - characters that orbit them. There is family drama, a kinky murder-mystery and some of the best writing on war this side of WG Sebald's The Natural History of Destruction. The themes and historical periods touched upon are as eccentric as they are brilliant: Nazi eugenics, opera singing, pre-war architecture and Bauhaus furniture building, the trenches of the First World War, the Eichmann papers, epileptic bath attendants, Jewish lumber-merchants, Hungarian aristocracy, undergarment fetishism in post-Wall Berlin, the Holocaust, criminology, perfume, academic politics and even a chapter that reads like communist Hungary's answer to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
Not to be crass, but Parallel Stories has an almost Facebook-like approach to character plotting. We have primary and often reoccurring characters - yes, our friends - but then we have our friends of friends, too; and then, scrolling deeper into the work, our friends of friends of friends.
From chapter to chapter, the reader jumps not only between epochs but between the parallel stories of characters that we struggle to place in relation to other characters. From a woman practising her piano to the story of the man who built the furniture with which her flat had once been furnished before the Nazi's defenestrated it; from an unsolved murder in post-Wall Berlin, to a character dreaming of killing his own grandfather, a Nazi prison guard, after the collapse of a German death-camp on the Dutch border.