Conversation — June 20, 2013, 8:00 am

(One Generation) Beyond Good and Evil: A Conversation with Rebecca Makkai

Rebecca Makkai on reconciling family history in writing

This interview first appeared on The Nervous Breakdown. Read the original exchange here.

In her essay “Other Types of Poison” (in the July issue of Harper’s) novelist and short-story writer Rebecca Makkai explores the legacy of her Hungarian grandparents — well-known leftist novelist Rozsa Ignacz and her divorced husband, Janos Makkai, principal parliamentary author and proponent of Hungary’s infamous Second Jewish Law of 1939.

The essay reads as acutely insightful, and will whet your appetite for Makkai’s other works, whether her debut novel The Borrower or her forthcoming short-story collection Music for Wartime (which will appear after her next novel, The Hundred-Year House, probably in 2015).

Davis Schneiderman: This essay deals with three distinct moments in your family history, but centers, most provocatively, on two of your grandparents. Take us back to the moment you began to discover this complex and contradictory family history. Who was your grandfather to you while he lived his postwar life in Hawaii?

Rebecca Makkai

Rebecca Makkai

Rebecca Makkai: The big disconnect for me is that I knew my grandfather as a goofy yoga instructor who set up elaborate games and obstacle courses in our basement, and spent a lot of his time entering sweepstakes. He lived till I was in high school, though the geographic distance (Chicago to Hawaii) meant I only saw him in person a few times. I remember him doing headstands, and I remember him pumping “Aloha” into my arm (a raspberry in my elbow, basically). He was a joyful, silly man. He would come up with pipe-dream inventions for things like musical diapers.

Until a few years ago, I had the impression that he was a bit of a hero. The narrative went that as a young, naive member of parliament, he’d been coerced into writing up these laws (I saw him as Rolph from The Sound of Music), but that later he stood up in parliament and made a speech against the Nazis and then ran for his life, only to be trapped in a Gestapo prison for the rest of the war. It is true that he later spoke out against the Germans, but what I’ve unearthed recently suggests that this didn’t necessarily represent a change of mind on his part. He’d been upset about the influx of Jewish refugees, which is what led to his political initiatives, and then he was upset about the influx of German soldiers. . . . It was really all part of the same nationalistic line of thought.

DS: And was this narrative, which led you to see him as an at least partially redeemed figure: a) a story the family told because of a need to reconcile the yoga/Hawaii version of János with his past, b) a story to let the children (you) have some knowledge yet remain protected from the difficult history, or c) something else (political cover?)? My family are pre-WWII American Jews. Although, we supposedly have a distant cousin who was a member of the Judenrat, survived the war, and was stopped from emigrating to the United States by a Walter Winchell column denouncing the cousin’s past. I don’t know any more details than this (although your story is inspiring me to dig . . .).

RM: I’m not entirely sure, but I think a lot of it got whitewashed even before my sister and I came along. My father was three when the law was passed, so his understanding would have come years later. . . . But even so, you have to remember that in Europe there’s still a lot of evasion surrounding that time. Things were confusing and poorly documented and secretive to begin with, and then after the war they weren’t exactly running out to write it all down. So as I was researching, some of this information actually came as news to some of my family — the scope of the laws, the way he fought for them.

There’s also the fact that it’s just very difficult, psychologically, to reconcile the face of a real person with one of the darkest moments of the twentieth century. It’s not the same as looking at someone who’s personally violent, likely to reach out and hit you. This guy is chopping up papaya on his balcony, telling jokes, and I think we have an instinct to forgive, to see just the best in that person, to see him at just that moment. (The irony being that this is what he and his colleagues failed to do — to see humans in front of them.)

As for option c, the idea of political cover . . . I don’t think there was any concerted group effort to cover things up, but when he moved to the United States he did change his name (to John Makkay). I was always told he was just Americanizing it, but of course now I’ve started to wonder at the implications.

It’s funny, he’s really only a small part of “Other Types of Poison” — it’s really a story about my grandmother — but his story does steal the scene a bit. I want to write more about both of them. There’s obviously a lot I haven’t figured out yet. And I think that’s always a good reason to write about something.

DS: Yes, his story is a small part of this wonderful essay, and you are clearly focusing on the dichotomy between your grandparents. I think that when you originally told me about this piece as you were writing it, you either led with János, or that was the part that stuck with me. I do want to get to your grandmother and her work but indulge me a bit more on the place of his story within this matrix. Does Rózsa help offset or balance this legacy? Would it be possible to write about János if there were no Rózsa? How and when did you decide to structure the essay in this way? You don’t bury the sensation of his story, but his role in the Second Jewish Law is not the lead, either. I imagine it would be difficult to write about this, and I hope you might give us some insight into the process. What was the genesis of the essay, the pitch?

RM: I mention in the section called “Acolyte” that I’ve been trying to tell that particular story — of my grandmother painting girls’ faces with age makeup so they won’t get raped — for years. If I dug back far enough, I could find drafts going back to high school. When I began putting together Music for Wartime, I decided I wanted these family legends sprinkled throughout the fiction. In the collection, they come at you separately, so that as you read you’re not just getting my short stories, but also some of my own psychology, the reasons a young American writer would be drawn to write fiction about refugees and war zones. As they appear in the collection, my grandfather’s history isn’t revealed until a fourth story, one called “Suspension: April 20, 1984.” In assembling and combining these legends for Harper’s, I couldn’t use that one, as it had already appeared in the Iowa Review (my first published story, in fact). And so I tried to weave the same information into these narratives.

In both cases, I do sort of bury the lead. My grandmother’s story would be worth telling regardless — she was an amazing woman — but half of what I’m fascinated with is the contrast between these two people. They were first cousins, they were married a very brief time, and they were on opposite sides of history (and justice, and empathy, and art). And of course I’d rather own her legacy than his. As unique and stark as my grandparents’ trajectories were, I do hope I’m getting at a sort of universal: as humans, we all have this double legacy of tremendous good and tremendous evil. And I do think each of us has the capacity for both. It’s just that in my case, the examples are sitting right there, one generation removed, begging to be analyzed.

Thinking back to the first time you and I talked about this essay, I think it came up because we were speaking about a mutual friend whose parents were Hungarian Jews. I was telling you how when I make this connection (it usually happens early in my acquaintance with someone, right after “Hey, isn’t that a Hungarian last name?”), I feel the impulse to get my grandfather’s story out of the way quickly. It would be a lot more awkward to wait five years and then say, “So, you know how your family was forced to leave Hungary in 1940 after half of them starved? Well, I have to tell you something . . .” 

DS: Well, that last comment is very interesting — and speaks to what I am perhaps wrongly taking as your feeling of potential or perceived involvement-by-association. Of course, no one would blame you for these laws, nor assume you held those beliefs simply by being the granddaughter. I’m a distant relative of baseball player Hank Greenberg, and while I will bring it up to rabid baseball fans on occasion, I never feel obligated to mention it once someone tells me they like the Detroit Tigers. Is this “impulse” (and that’s a good word) connected to your knowing your grandfather in his later years, when he appeared to you as the harmless, yoga-practicing Hawaiian retiree?

And, I’ll press a bit more . . . if each of us, as you say, has the capacity for both good and evil (I disagree, by the way), then you might have of course experienced the “good” aspects of János, perhaps in the relationship you shared with him. All of this is a complicated way of asking the same sort of questions I’ve been asking all along: Are you, merely one generation away, obligated to explain, to investigate, to “deal” with this legacy? And how much of your writing practice is intertwined with this “impulse,” for better or worse?

RM: We probably shouldn’t get into a debate on intrinsic evil right now, but I’ll say that one reason I think it’s dangerous to think people might be born one way or another — the essentialist argument — is that it isn’t a huge leap from there to thinking in black and white terms about whole groups of people. So in other words: I can’t let myself think my grandfather was purely bad (or that my grandmother was purely good, for that matter) because then I’d be falling to his level of thinking.

I do struggle a bit with the guilt issue, which I know is irrational. I went through a phase in high school where I let people think I was Jewish. (You can pick that one apart all day . . .) On the rational, adult end of things, I’ve come to the conclusion that if he were my grandson, rather than my grandfather, I’d have reason to worry about culpability, even indirect — something I did wrong, some lesson in compassion that I failed to pass down. But chronology is on my side.

As for the investigation, though . . . well, I’m a writer. And I’ve been handed this story. I’d feel the same way if I moved into an old house and found a box of old letters in the wall, ones that hinted at some crazy story that had never been told. And I’d think, “This box made its way to me for a reason!” My grandparents had only one child, and the next generation is just me and my sister — and she’s a piano teacher, so the story is mine to work out and tell. No one else is going to tell it. And — on a purely narrative level — it’s a great story. There’s love and betrayal and guilt and escape and cowardice and courage and the course of the twentieth century. I mean, some writers’ grandfathers worked their whole lives in a bank and only ever got excited about the Green Bay Packers. How could I not write about the guy?

Of course, most of my writing has nothing to do with this legacy at all. The same collection that will contain this piece (in pieces) also has a story about reality TV, and a story about a woman who coughs up J. S. Bach in her living room. But I’ll be returning to this subject, however obliquely, throughout my career — if only because fate has forced me to think more than I otherwise would about things like good and evil.

DS: As aside: I am not an essentialist, and quibble rather with the characterization of any act as “good” or “evil.” I don’t believe that one is born either way, or has the capacity for both acts, because the terms are in fact, for me, “empty.” This is a lesson of the Holocaust, again for me, in the works of everyone from Art Spiegelman to Raymond Federman to Hannah Arendt. The radical evil of World War II, and I’ll include the pre-Nazi Hungarian history we are discussing, is that this “evil” act of János’s — clearly such through our distanced cultural lens — could just as easily, were the outcomes of history different, be viewed as an act of good. While I hope this will not be the case, the future may indeed view his act in this way.

Therefore, I see your exploration as part of the larger way we deal with historical memory (think Walter Abish’s How German Is It?), and I see Rózsa, then, as the heroine of the story: the brave woman who was strong enough to resist, in her work and through her divorce, the “evil” embedded in János’ nationalism. How did you come to know her, and her work? What is her literary legacy?

RM: First I should say that we probably mostly agree about the evil issue. I do come down on the Nietzschean side of things, although I also agree with Dr. King that we all have a choice between creative altruism and destructive selfishness. But maybe that’s enough philosophy for now . . .

As to Rózsa: It’s strange how little I actually know about her. I have certain facts, but they get washed over in myth and hearsay — which is some of what I’m grappling with in this piece, really. I have forty of her novels sitting on my bookshelf, and I can’t read a single one. My father translated one for me, so I do have an idea of her style and subject, but it’s at a remove.

Basically, the two writers she gets compared to are Virginia Woolf and James Michener. The Woolf comparison I get: She was heavily influenced by Woolf, translated some of her work into Hungarian, and from what I’ve seen she was working in the modernist tradition. The Michener comparison is odd, and I think is only because some of her later books focused on specific geographic locales — Hawaii for one.

She tended to write historical fiction because it allowed her to be more political. If the priggish minister in a book set in 1880s Transylvania happened to resemble the current Minister of Culture . . . well, who was going to dare point that out?

She’s remembered in Hungary, and still read, though it’s hard for me to tell how much. If it’s any measure, there was a festival for the hundredth anniversary of her birth a few years ago, and there’s a small museum in the town where she was born. I feel like I’m looking at all of this through foggy glasses — because of the language barrier, the geographic divide (I’ve only been to Hungary once), the ways stories get mutated through the retelling. And along with not fully understanding her literary legacy, there’s so much I don’t know (or don’t trust, really) about her life in the thirties and forties.

There’s one thing I learned after I finished this piece that baffles me: sometime in 1939 (the same year my grandfather passed the second Jewish Law, the same year they got divorced), she took off for Paris and lived there for several months as a correspondent for a theater newspaper in Hungary. It makes sense that she’d take off . . . except that my father was three and he didn’t go with her. I have no idea where he was. Following his father to parliament? Home with the nanny in an empty apartment?

But now that I’m into the mystery of it, I don’t think I’ll be able to stop investigating.

DS: Wow. This implies — with the Parisian trip — a certain social and geographic mobility. I suppose one does not become a member of parliament without having some relative “means,” and yet to indeed take off, sans child, is to make a particular claim to Modernity and the construction of motherhood that could have been quite radical for the moment.

I have a knot of questions: Rózsa also immigrated to the United States? Did she and János come at the same time? Did they both settle in Hawaii? You mention her later work focused on the islands — did she continue to write her novels in Hungarian while living here? And what of this single novel that your father translated — only for you(?)! Why that particular book, do you think (if indeed he let you into his process)?

RM: Yeah, that’s a lot of questions! No, she never ultimately left Hungary. I’ll say first of all that yes, they were relatively wealthy, or at least as wealthy as anyone could be during the war. I mention in the piece that she pawned her silver, piece by piece, to survive — which is true, and sounds quite desperate and scrappy, but of course the underlying assumption is that she had enough silver to pawn to last her through the war. And there was a nanny involved, to the point that my father’s first language was the nanny’s native German. My impression is of a sort of first-wave feminism coupled with upper-class privilege. I think too of how few female writers that far back had children — they weren’t really part of Woolf’s Room-of-One’s-Own plan. I’ve always said that a supportive partner is the key to balancing motherhood and writing, but maybe this is an alternative: a lot of silver, and a blithe disregard for societal norms.

My grandparents were only married a few years, after which my grandfather married an American woman and (after a long, strange saga) ended up in the States. Rózsa stayed behind with my father, who only came over as a young adult in 1956, after the failed Hungarian Revolution. The irony is that the geographic mobility you mentioned vanished completely at the end of the war. My grandfather got out by talking his way through a checkpoint, and my father got out by crossing through mine-laden farmland on foot with friends in the middle of the night. I’ve never heard that she wanted to leave – she wasn’t comfortable in any language other than Hungarian, and if she escaped, the Hungarian presses would never have dared to continue printing her work — but even if she had, it would have been very difficult.

She lived for the rest of her life in Budapest, and was married for a while to a much younger man. As I mention in the piece, she died when I was a baby. And no, she only wrote one book about Hawaii. (I could be wrong, but I think the idea was that she got a special travel dispensation from the government to travel there, where my father was also living at the time, and the book was really a pretense for visiting her son.) Her other books were about other places, other historical eras.

The book my father translated was the same one (A Vádlott) that I describe my mother smuggling out on the train. I think my father attaches special significance to that text because it’s her most honest: she’s writing about contemporary Hungary, and the injustice of the way communism was implemented there. She’d been risking her own freedom simply by having this manuscript in her apartment, and — at least to me — that gives it a power even beyond what’s on the page. In that sense, I’m glad I read it first. I’d rather see her at her most honest before I see her writing under political constraints.

I’ll admit that I’m a little scared to read more of her work, or to see it translated more thoroughly, for fear I won’t love it. Of course that’s ridiculous. Because I will read it all, one way or another, and the point won’t be whether I have some magical connection with this person I barely met, but rather how much I can learn about someone who already fascinates me, someone I’m tied to.

Single Page
is a writer and incoming Associate Dean of Faculty at Lake Forest College. His most recent novels are Drain and the largely blank novel Blank.

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