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11 october 2017

"Je lis. C'est comme une maladie," Agota Kristof begins her wafer-thin memoir L'analphabète: I read. It's like a sickness.

I can relate; I've been posting my symptoms here for fourteen years now. Some people are sick this way, and the illness tends to be incurable.

Kristof, though, is remarkable for the way in which her sickness was unamenable to the most drastic of treatments. In 1956, when she was 21, she fled Communist Hungary for the West. Kristof made it across Austria to Switzerland, across German Switzerland to the French-speaking part of the country. She arrived in a place where she knew nothing of the language around her, where barely any text in the Magyar she knew could reach her.

Kristof became L'analphabète of her title, the Illiterate. Yet of course she cannot represent this process, this state, directly. In 2004, she wrote L'analphabète as one of Switzerland's most celebrated French-language writers, someone not merely fluent in her adoptive language but one of its guiding stylists. Part of the exigence for remembering her long struggle with French comes from hearing about refugees risking everything to cross into Switzerland, wondering like "n'importe quel Suisse" (31), like any other Swiss person, how one could take such chances, especially while traveling with children – and then remembering, almost absurdly, that she herself had done exactly the same thing, traveling with her baby daughter in 1956.

Kristof learned first to speak French but was still illiterate. She later learned to read it, and eventually to write in French (a sickness as deep within her as reading). She struggled with French for years, as she puts it, a struggle that turned out to be a struggle against Magyar: "cette langue," she says, that language, French, "est en train du tuer ma langue maternelle [is in the process of killing my mother tongue]" (24). Still in the process, though she was almost 70 when she wrote those words.

Kristof writes eloquently in brief compass of the absurdities of Stalinism, the necessity of flight in 1956, and then of conditions in safe, featureless Switzerland, worse for her soul and that of many refugees she knew than the dangers they had escaped. She had to remake herself and invent a culture for herself; but reading and writing kept her going.

"On devient écrivain en écrivant avec patience et obstination, sans jamais perdre la foi dans ce que l'on écrit," Kristof explains (49). You become a writer by writing, with patience and stubbornness, without ever losing faith in what you write. Those words are true. John Steinbeck, a writer that Kristof cites as a favorite, put it just a little differently: "The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true." I have abandoned countless writing projects that lost their illusory glow over the past 14 years, but I have kept doggedly at this one. Am I a writer? I have no idea. I have too much writing to do to worry about it.

Kristof, Agota. L'analphabète. Genève: Zoe, 2004.