Luca and Claus, two mirror-like twins forming one single main character, are abandoned by their mother at the beginning of the French Occupation, in a small village near to the German border. Their grandmother, ‘the Witch’, has no choice but to host these ‘sons of a bitch’, who will become so dear to her cold heart. In innocent and desperate words, they define a method to assess the compositions they compile in The Notebook:
‘To decide whether it’s “Good” or “Not good”, we have a very simple rule: the composition must be true. We must describe what is, what we see, what we hear, what we do.
For example, it is forbidden to write, “Grandmother is like a witch”; but we are allowed to write, “People call Grandmother the Witch”.
Words that define feelings are very vague. It is better to avoid using them and stick to the description of objects, human beings, and oneself, that is to say, to the faithful description of facts.’
At once a war diary, a learning resource and a narrative tour-de-force, this novel from the Swiss-Hungarian novelist Agota Kristof advocates ‘precision and objectivity’ over ‘feelings’. Very few writers could carry to these most extreme moral consequences this aesthetic revolt against the absurdity of war and against the conformity of literary styles.
No stone is left unturned in this condensed narration: neither the mundane horror of war, nor the brutality of history, not even the repressed pornography of existence. Indeed, in the famous ‘affaire d’Abbeville’, which took place in 2000, a teacher who recommended The Notebook to his students was sued by parents on grounds of obscenity. Should this book be part of the curriculum? Actually, this book forms a curriculum of its own.
The twins engage in their own education, taking the bleak environment of a world at war as their classroom, embracing the direness of their condition as if it’s a ‘title to a composition’. Surrounded by German officers, lawless adolescents and cruel citizens, they transcend their experience, archiving their daily life in the manner of factual record of events. Yet, The Notebook is at its most suggestive and moving when it fights all emotions.
This first volume in Kristof’s trilogy ends as the two brothers part, separated by a new kind of post-war border, between France and Germany, but still the two authors of a single notebook, in which every lesson that has been copied is as painful, and as equanimous, as truth.
This haunting masterpiece is available from CB editions in a translation by Alan Sheridan that is faithful to Agota Kristof’s corrosive style.
Reviewed by Ulysse Roche
Written by Agota Kristof
Translated by Alan Sheridan
Published by CB Editions (1986, reissued 2016)
Ulysse Roche studies Publishing at Oxford Brookes University and Comparative Literature at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. He has worked as in-house and freelance editor for French literary agencies such as Hyphen-VMK. At Oxford Brookes University, Ulysse carries academic research on French Fiction publishing in the UK.