“One can’t urinate with an erect prick.” This is a true statement, and one that is not often brought to light in serious works of literature. To Péter Nádas, though, it’s a central insight. In his latest, epic novel, observations about pricks, pudenda, asses, mouths, and other orifices abound. The book is called Parallel Stories and it treats of all the monumental things that have happened in Central Europe from World War II until not so long ago. The impressive scope of the novel has led some breathless commentators to proclaim the novel a 21st-century War and Peace.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. You, after all, have never really heard of Péter Nádas. He is not exactly a household name in Bohemia, as of yet. Be careful though. It is getting less and less respectable not to know about Nádas. Susan Sontag proclaimed his previous novel A Book of Memories, “the greatest novel written in our time, and one of the great books of the century.” Granted, Sontag always had a soft spot for Hungarians, but one ignores that kind of effusiveness at one’s own intellectual peril.
Péter Nádas was born in Hungary in 1942. That is to say, his own life spans the time period of his book, beginning with the hard times of World War II, and the aftermath that resulted in Hungary ending up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. It continues with the events of 1956, a year that is burned into every Hungarian soul. In 1956, a nascent Hungarian independence movement attempted to break away from Soviet military occupation. Khrushchev’s tanks rolled through the streets of Budapest and ended that idealistic fancy rather quickly. The subsequent days under Prime Minister Kádár’s repressive regime were dark indeed. Decades were spent in a long slog toward the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union and the re-emergence of Hungary as an independent state—though not necessarily a happy one.
It is to all these matters and more that Nádas turns his attention in Parallel Stories. But it would be a mistake to view Nádas’ novel as a contemporary version of War and Peace. In War and Peace, as you’ll remember, Tolstoy tells the story of a bunch of different Russians living during the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The novel is an intersection of politics, history, and personal narrative. Nádas’ novel is nothing like War and Peace for the simple reason that nothing intersects. Nádas tells stories that are parallel to one another, just as the title promises. He writes of sex with every bit of the attention that Tolstoy devotes to the Battle of Austerlitz. But Nádas refuses to make the sex an explanation for anything else, least of all history or politics.
Much more than Tolstoy, Parallel Stories should be compared to Rabelais. Yes, I am referring to the 16th-century French writer and occasional monk who penned that delightful tale of the misadventures of two giants, Gargantua and Pantagruel. It was Rabelais, after all, who insisted that the body is its own kingdom. A fart can rule the world. What the body wants, it gets. For Rabelais, all the important things that men do in the public sphere—like politics—are just ways to pass time when we’re not serving our basic needs; namely, the desire to eat and shit and piss and fuck.
The characters in Nádas’ book are fully embodied. They are a cacophony of bodily desires and urges and compulsions. Mentally and emotionally, these characters struggle to make sense of what their bodies desire. The opening line of one chapter from Parallel Stories (“A Startling Gratification”) reads, “But we do have some kind of suppressed secret animal sense of which we are quite ashamed.” That could be the epigraph for the entire novel. Unearthing and expressing those animal senses is the book’s central task. Not unsurprisingly, a novel with this goal must deal frequently with cocks and pussies. It must deal with semen and urine and shit. Sometimes it must deal with these bodily things all at once: “They literally submerged themselves in the unfamiliar fragrance of fresh urine and, holding on to each other, spread out in it.”
Nádas is not making the point that politics can only be understood in reference to our animal desires or that we understand politics and history better when we factor in sex. His idea is both bolder and subtler: Our bodily desires constitute a self-sufficient realm. Nádas thinks that the stories of this realm are every bit as important as the stories of worldly affairs and the fates of nations. Since much of the time our thoughts are preoccupied by the stirrings from below, Nádas believes that even a tale of vast historical scope will only be honest when it tells of the body and its desires. He spends about 200 pages early in the book describing, with ultimate care, the details of one particularly epic marathon of screwing. He describes the flesh of it. But he also describes the complex thoughts that go on during the act of screwing, the drifting of the mind. He describes the way pleasure fades in and out, the sudden moments of disgust, the detachment that suddenly interrupts the physicality and then the rush back to immediacy when the pleasure takes over again. This is sex taken out of the realm of cliché and symbolism and handed back to real experience. In real experience, the things happening in our minds and the things happening to our genitals may not coincide at all.
Nádas’ novel also contains politics and history and a subtle analysis of human beings living under political repression. There are episodes from the Holocaust and episodes that describe the bread lines formed under sniper fire during the Soviet siege of Budapest after the 1956 insurrection. These are some of the stories that make up Parallel Stories. In contrast to Tolstoy, however, individual lives are not explained by politics and politics do not explain individual lives.
During a lengthy description of a series of homosexual encounters on Margit Island in Budapest in the first third of the novel, Nádas describes one of the characters as such: “His beastly self,” he writes, “worked in a system parallel to his emotional self.” Isn’t this always the case? A feeling of sadness is not incompatible with a feeling of hunger. They can both happen simultaneously, in parallel and without direct relation to one another. In a later chapter of Parallel Stories, during the description of one character’s childhood, Nádas writes the lines, “Not wanting to feel what he was feeling. Not to think of what he perpetually thought about.” That is the inherent tension of the beastly self in its relation to our rational and socially acceptable desires.
These feelings of shame explain why writers typically neglect the goings-on within the beastly self. We write stories about bad people doing bad things, of course. There are plenty of tales of murder and crime, of deceit and destruction. But that is not what Nádas is writing about when he writes of the beastly self. He means something more constant, universal, and everyday. Something beyond—or maybe we should say below—good and evil. Here is another passage from one of the screwing scenes:
But now, everything located between her mind and clitoris, the former stimulated by will, memories, wishes, and needs, and therefore compelled to run on parallel tracks, and the latter swelling with blood and pulsing to the rhythm of convulsing vaginal muscles, was concentrated on the single question of whether the tip of his cock would appear again and whether she would see it in its entirety.
It is Péter Nádas’ ambition in Parallel Stories to tell a complete story of being human, from both sides of the “parallel tracks.” He is forced, in doing so, to jump from the beastly self, to the emotional self, to the rational self and back again. Rarely will a male character accomplish much in the novel without being distracted by his foreskin or fighting off an unplanned erection. Women are hounded by their clitorises. And then the tanks appear in the streets of Budapest. And then someone is carted off to the concentration camp. And then someone feels a terrible need to eat. And then another tingling feeling in the genitals erupts.
This is an approach to novel writing that would have bewildered Tolstoy. But Tolstoy is dead and we’re living in Péter Nádas’ time now. You’ll never read anything else even remotely like Parallel Stories. Enjoy reading it in whatever moments of free time you may have between sexual encounters, flights of fancy upon seeing an attractive stranger, and furious bouts of masturbation.