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Love and Death

In An Exclusive Love, Johanna Adorján tries to make sense of how her Hungarian Jewish grandparents took their own lives—together—decades after having survived the Holocaust

Daphne Merkin
February 03, 2011
Johanna Adorján.(Peter von Felbert)
Johanna Adorján.(Peter von Felbert)

When is love no longer a healthy attachment between two people but something more dangerous and consuming? What does it mean to be literally unable to live without another person? Is it possible to distance oneself from pieces of the past or does unacknowledged trauma inevitably rear its head? How well do we ever know other people, even those closest to us, and does even the deepest knowledge ensure understanding?

These are some of the questions that will occur to the reader of Johanna Adorján’s pristine and altogether remarkable memoir of her paternal grandparents’ joint suicide, An Exclusive Love. Translated from the German by Anthea Bell, the memoir is written in a supple yet elliptical prose that has an inescapably Continental ring to it—putting me in mind at times of the Max Frisch of Montauk and at other times of W.G. Sebald (whom Bell has also translated). This account of an elegant, seemingly contented Hungarian Jewish couple who survived the Holocaust and the 1956 uprising in Budapest only to take their own lives three-and-a-half decades later stands out from the cascade of memoirs that are published every season for its steady intelligence, casual wit, and disarming modesty of intention. What might have been a melodramatic, freakish story becomes in Adorján’s hands a clear-eyed meditation on the impenetrable otherness of other people and the way in which memories can be ignored but not ultimately banished.

“On 13 October 1991,” begins An Exclusive Love, “my grandparents killed themselves. It was a Sunday. Not really the ideal day of the week for suicide. On Sundays family members call each other, friends drop in to go walking their dogs with you. I’d have thought a Monday, for instance, much more suitable. But there we are, it was a Sunday, it was in October.” Already with these first few sentences, in which the author begins her painstaking reconstruction of the last day of her grandparents’ lives, Adorján has signaled her willingness to suspend the usual order of things for the sake of a more radical tragicomic perspective—one that might yield a closer, less judgmental view of the fateful event and thus enable her to consider, for instance, what day might be the “ideal day” for suicide.

The grandparents in question live together with their “phlegmatic” dog Mitzi in a tidy suburb of Copenhagen “where all the houses have gardens and you call your neighbours by their first names.” We quickly learn some of the particulars that define them: Veronika (known as Vera) is beautiful in the way of an old-time movie star (we are told she resembles “Liz” Taylor and Lana Turner), wears Jicky by Guerlain, is a chain-smoker and sometime physiotherapist, and has “remarkably upright” posture. Her husband István (known as Pista) is a distinguished-looking orthopedic surgeon with bushy eyebrows who smokes cigarillos, has a passion for music, and was held at the Mauthausen concentration camp for a year—an experience he declines to discuss with members of his family. To their granddaughter they are “attractive and mysterious, and the fact that they were related to me, were my own forebears, made them absolutely irresistible.”

Slowly, as Johanna tries to put together the pieces by traveling to Paris and Budapest to interview relations and friends of Vera, the better to grasp what led her perfectly healthy 71-year-old grandmother and depressed, ailing 82-year-old grandfather to follow the instructions for suicide that are set out in the book Final Exit—which, though a New York Times best-seller that year, was not readily available in Denmark—the picture begins to be filled in. It turns out, according to Erzsi, Vera’s best friend, that her grandmother had spoken of suicide on two occasions earlier in her life—both times when she was separated from her husband. The first instance was in the immediate aftermath of World War II, when Pista failed to show up together with the other survivors of concentration camps. (He eventually appeared at the door after undergoing a “death march” in the last weeks of the war; Vera had managed to escape both the ghetto and concentration camp with forged papers.) The second was when Pista served in Korea and Vera, beside herself with worry, announced that she planned to kill herself if her husband didn’t return. “She thought nobody liked her,” Erzsi explains to Johanna. “It was her idée fixe. She thought no one in the world liked her. No one but Pista.”

So, it appears that Vera, underneath her stylishness and confidence, was beset by the same abiding sense of aloneness, of not belonging, that plagues her granddaughter in the present. (“No one loves me, no one can love me. That is my deepest conviction and at the same time my greatest fear.”) Much as Johanna is struck by their similarity—“And suddenly I also understand my grandmother’s love, which was so exclusive, so needy, so great, and ultimately conditional”—I found myself wondering whether this cross-generational affinity of temperament or the tendrils of information that the author coaxes out of elderly witnesses (worrying all the while that she is being “discourteously inquisitive”), really explain anything or merely serve to underscore the crucial gaps at the heart of the book, the mysteries that will never be solved.

The largest of these is the mystery of her grandparents’ Jewishness. Despite theirs being “a Jewish family history through and through,” as Johanna discovers when she reads her grandfather’s unfinished memoir, the reality of that Jewishness—which includes family members who were gassed at Auschwitz, others who were Jewish community leaders in Hungary—is never discussed and rarely alluded to. It is an attitude of dis-affiliation that has been implicitly passed on to Johanna’s father, who, although he has given his three children Jewish names, has learned to treat his religion as “deadly dangerous.” The author’s feeling that she has consequently been “deprived … of an essential part of my sense of self” sends her on a journey of re-discovery that leads her to examine the properties of Jewishness—“Typically Jewish: does such a frame of mind exist?”—with an almost comic intensity.

An Exclusive Love reads like an existential detective story, one that involves the search for an abandoned identity—for the part of a family narrative that was edited out. Through her scrupulously unsentimental reconstruction of the day leading up to her grandparents’ suicide, Johanna Adorján sheds light on an otherwise opaque act and enables us to consider the hazards of not looking back.

Daphne Merkin, a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and a contributor to the TLS, The Times Book Review, Bookforum, and Departures, teaches writing at Columbia University. Her latest novel, Twenty-Two Minutes of Unconditional Love, will be out in June, 2020.

Daphne Merkin, a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and a contributor to the TLS, The Times Book Review, Bookforum, and Departures, teaches writing at Columbia University. Her latest novel,Twenty-Two Minutes of Unconditional Love, will be out in June, 2020.