Northwestern University Press publishes Nobel Laureate

Junie L. Sinson


When it was announced in the fall of 2002 that that year’s Nobel Prize in Literature would be presented to Imre Kertesz, several responses occurred throughout the English speaking world. The first response was, “Who is he?” The next response was, typically, “Is he any good?” The final query was, “Where can I find something he has written?”

The answer to the first question was that Imre Kertesz was a 73-year-old Hungarian writer. As a teenager, he had been imprisoned in Auschwitz. As a journalist and playwright, he had impacted Germany and Eastern Europe with his powerful reporting on his imprisonment and its related dynamics.

The value of his writing could be assessed if one located and studied his novels which included Fateless and Kaddish for a Child Not Born. It did not take long for interested scholars to learn that throughout the English speaking world, no English translations of his writings were available. Who was his publisher? How large had been the printing? And how in the world had he been selected for publication?

The publisher of his works, in English, was the Northwestern University Press. His body of work had seen only two books published in English: Fateless, in 1992, and Kaddish for a Child Not Born, in 1997. Each book had an initial printing of 2000 copies. Fateless had a second printing by Northwestern Press, of 3,500 volumes, prior to the announcement of the Nobel Prize to Imre Kertesz.

publishing coup by a small Chicago area press had to be a source of pride for all Chicagoland book lovers. The Press had been founded in 1893 and started with the publication of legal periodicals and books which addressed legal scholarship. In the mid-1950s, its menu was expanded to include such areas as philosophy, literary criticism, and eventually, Eastern European literature. It was out of the latter area of concentration that Imre Kertesz’s association with Northwestern University Press began. The Acting Director of the Press is Donna Shear. It was during her “watch” that the Nobel Prize was awarded to Kertesz. During her leadership, since 2000, the publishing output of the Press had doubled. When contacted and congratulated for the Press’ contribution to the 2002 Nobel Prize in Literature, she quickly redirected the primary credit to Jonathan Brandt, the current Director of the Yale University Press.

Jonathan Brandt arrived at the Northwestern University Press in 1982 and was instrumental in the development of a journal named Formations. The scholarship and major interest of Jonathan Brandt involved European authors. A special journal issue was created by him which concentrated on Hungarian authors.

Brandt’s energies placed him in contact with Ivan Sanders, an individual recognized as a premier Hungarian-English translator. When asked to recommend significant Hungarian writers, Sanders quickly suggested Kertesz to Brandt. Sanders regarded Kertesz highly and confirmed that he believed Fateless to be a major literary contribution. Initial contact was made by Brandt and the Press with Kertesz in 1990. By 1991, a contractual relationship had evolved uniting the Northwestern University Press and the future Nobel Laureate, Imre Kertesz.

The Northwestern University Press translations of Fateless and Kaddish For a Child Not Born were by Christopher Wilson and Katharina Wilson. It is reported that both the author and Ivan Sanders are not totally satisfied with the Wilson translations. It is Sanders’ belief that the Hungarian text possessed a subtle irony that does not fully come through in the current Wilson English translation. Sanders has expressed a desire to do a future translation of Fateless. A possible new translation and a new edition is currently under the control of the Northwestern University Press.

As of this date, no large publisher or other economic force has come to the Northwestern University Press and sought either a purchase of the publishing rights or a collaboration with Northwestern on a licensing basis. Northwestern has expressed an interest in such a collaboration.

The Northwestern University Press responded to worldwide demand in the English speaking world by printing a second 25,000 volume edition of Fateless and a 15,000 volume second edition of Kaddish.

Various English speaking scholars expressed curiosity as to which texts had been read by the Swedish Academy when studying the body of work produced by Kertesz. Apparently, Kertesz had been extensively published in both Swedish and German. It would appear obvious that the Swedish texts would have been the likely choice for study by the Academy.

The German translations were described by Sanders as excellent. The Germans recognize Kertesz as a modern master. He is certainly not the first author to address Germany and its role in the holocaust. Although the German Nobel Laureate, Gunter Grass, wrote of the period, the consensus is that Fateless struck a deeper chord with the Germans.

Hungarian scholars offer that Kertesz is not the only bright literary light emerging from Hungary. The Hungarian writer, Adam Bodor, and his Euphrates at Babylon is represented as a significant Kafkaesque contribution. Two younger Hungarian writers, George Konrad and Peter Nadash, are also recognized as “special.”

The intentions of the Northwestern University Press involving Imre Kertesz, his existing work, and other significant Eastern European authors, has perhaps not been fully charted.

The past success of Imre Kertesz, and the publishing contributions of Jonathan Brandt, Ivan Sanders, Donna Shear, and the Northwestern University Press suggest that there exist broad shoulders upon which to place praise. The lovers of books, in this area of the country, are compelled to offer both appreciation and thanks to those contributors.

Northwestern University Press edition of Kaddish for a Child Not Born (1999). From the collection of Junie Sinson.

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