Thursday 20 June 2019

Hungarian tale of twisted twins made me think again about everything

Book that changed my life - Brian Conaghan: Fiction: The Notebook by Agota Kristof CB Editions (online), £12.99 (€15)

The Notebook
The Notebook

It was 2003 and I was living in Bologna in Italy. I was working for the British Council, teaching English. I remember it was October. My birthday is the sixth, so it was around that time and an Italian friend gave me this book as a gift. I remember she gave it to me outside the library. It's this beautiful big building right on the main square. I took it in. I started reading it and I didn't stop until the end. It was the first book I ever read cover to cover. Even to this day, I don't read books in one sitting. The Notebook forced me to sit down and read it in that library in Bologna.

I was about five and a half years in Italy and when I look back and think about that book, it takes me back to that whole period. I think at the time I felt a little bit misplaced or directionless. I wanted to be a writer and it wasn't happening for me. I had fallen into teaching and I was enjoying it but it wasn't what I wanted to do ultimately. I had no grand plan.

The Notebook tells the story of young twins living with their grandmother in a small Hungarian town during the last years of World War II and the early years of communism. They're a sort of grotesque couple and in many ways they jump out of the fable world. You can't help feeling these kids jump out of a Grimm story. I have gone on and given the book to other people but you have to be careful who you give it to because it's quite shocking at times.

I remember when I was reading it in Bologna, there were several passages where I was looking around, hoping nobody was looking over my shoulder. Because there is a kind of a guilt about it, that you can read something so totally immoral, these twins have zero morality, but you're enjoying that immorality.

I think the effect it had on me was how I then approached my writing. I had never read anything like it before, it was like getting a sledgehammer in the face. Agota Kristof's background was in theatre and a lot of the narrative in The Notebook comes through the dialogue. I had also studied and worked in theatre but when I was trying to become a writer, I was trying to write these long figurative narratives, with complex sentences - trying to be smart, basically. This book was so disciplined, the language was so taut, laconic; these very short chapters written in sparse language and really matter-of-fact prose. After reading The Notebook, I totally dispensed with all that guff that I was trying to write beforehand and I tried to carry that style through to my own work. I was fortunate enough to win the Costa Prize a few years back for The Bonds that Brought Us Together and I remember on the night of the award ceremony on BBC4, one of the panellists said it reminded them of The Notebook. I took that as a huge compliment.

I read that book for the first time over 15 years ago and it hasn't left me since.

Brian Conaghan's 'The Weight of a Thousand Feathers' won the YA Book of the Year at this year's An Post Irish Book Awards.

In conversation with Jonathan DeBurca Butler

Sunday Independent

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