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RIP, Imre Kertész.

Nina Ruecker/Getty Images

The first sentence you will read in obituaries of the winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Literature, who died this morning in his home in Budapest, will no doubt tell you that he is best known for his novels about the Holocaust and his experiences in Auschwitz. This is true enough, and yet it is a way of obscuring the truth. Those words—“Holocaust,” “Auschwitz”—are so freighted with history, so sweeping in their connotations, that they tend to overwhelm the individuals, like Kertész, who lived through the era that birthed them. “The act of naming,” as Karl Ove Knausgaard has written of the Holocaust, “is another form of disappearing.” In works like Fatelessness (sometimes rendered as Fateless) and Kaddish for an Unborn Child, Kertész wrote to rescue himself from this great obscurity—“the need to step out of the mesmerizing crowd, out of History, which renders you faceless and fateless,” as he described in his Nobel lecture. One way in which he did this was to counter the dominant narrative of the Holocaust, holding that its unholy negativeness, as barren as the iron plains of Upper Silesia, paradoxically served to illuminate “the positive fact of our existence.” Or as he wrote in Kaddish for an Unborn Child, Auschwitz was proof that he had “lived through something and confronted something.” Perhaps he would feel that this is enough for an obituary, that a man named Imre Kertész had lived.