Every winter I try to read a “big” novel. By “big” novel, I mean a work of at least 500 pages. For the last several years I have devoted this time to reading nineteenth century literature, paying particular attention to Dickens and Dostoyevsky. To me, winter seems to be the perfect time to lose oneself in the pages of big books. It’s too cold to spend much time outside, and since I don’t ski or snowboard (though I don’t object to spending time in ski lodge lounges, preferably with a single malt and a big book), I need something to fill some of my free time. As a professor, the beginning of winter also provides me with almost four weeks of reduced obligations.
This year I spent several weeks going back and forth on which novel I would read. Making the short list was The Pickwick Papers by Dickens, Demons by Dostoyevsky, and Vanity Fair by Thackeray. However, after careful consideration I decided to read a contemporary novel called Parallel Stories by Hungarian writer Péter Nádas. I chose Nádas in part because I am planning a trip to Budapest in 2013 and would like to get a sense of what the city is like in literary terms. Moreover, I’ve had my eye on reading Nádas for some time. I intended to read Parallel Stories last year when it was first published, but could not commit to such a big book at the time.
Parallel Stories was first published in Hungry in 2005. The novel reportedly took Nádas fifteen years to complete, and the final product weighs in at staggering 1,133 pages. Parallel Stories is broken into three parts, or volumes: “The Mute Realm,” pages 1-322, “In the Very Depth of the Night,” pages 323-614, and finally “The Breath of Freedom,” which runs from page 615 until 1,133. Reading a book of this length requires more than just the standard commitment: reading a work of this length and complexity requires that the reader live with the narrative in ways that reading shorter works does not. For example, keeping characters, events, and time frames straight in novels of this length is tricky. While reading one must never be without the obligatory pen or pencil with which to write in the margins and underline passages. When reading novels of this length I often use multiple colors of ink so that I can keep the characters and events straight. At the beginning of the book I will then supply a key to my color-coded notes and refer to them often.
I began reading Parallel Stories very late last night, and only managed to work my way up to page thirty. I am deliberately reading this novel more slowly than I usually read because I think that this book might turn out to be one of my personal texts that I go back to again and again. The novel begins with the following scene:
“In that memorable year when the famous Berlin wall came down, a corpse was discovered in the Tiergarten not far from the graying marble statue of Queen Louise. This happened a few days before Christmas.”
I’m a sucker for Law & Order style beginnings. My curiosity is immediately piqued. I want to know more about the body. How did it get there? Who killed him? I hope that after one thousand one hundred pages I find out. So, as the shortened days turn to longer and colder nights, you’ll find me wrapped inside the pages of a big Hungarian novel that just may be the one that changes my life.
Either way I’ll be sure to let you know.