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The Hourglass (European Classics) Paperback – 28 Feb 1998

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Product details

  • Paperback: 274 pages
  • Publisher: Northwestern University Press; New edition edition (28 Feb. 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0810115131
  • ISBN-13: 978-0810115132
  • Product Dimensions: 13 x 2.5 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,157,134 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Authors

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Product Description


"A finely sustained, complex fictional performance. It is full of pain and rage and gusto and joy of living, at once side-splitting and a heartbreaker." --John Simon, "Washington Post Book World"

About the Author

Danilo Kis (February 22, 1935-October 15, 1989) was a Yugoslavian novelist, short story writer and poet who wrote in Serbo-Croatian. Kis was influenced by Bruno Schulz, Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges and Ivo Andric, among other authors. His most famous works include "A Tomb for Boris Davidovich" and "The Encyclopedia of the Dead." Ralph Manheim has translated several works by Gunthre Grass and Bertolt Brecht.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 26 Jan. 2000
Format: Paperback
A superb story, really compelling; Kis proves to be a great story-teller, witty, energetic and inteligent. The books reveals destroyed by holocaust world of pre-war Eastern Europe, full of contrasts, different influences and extremes. The major character of this book is Kis' father: a self-taught philosopher and a quasi-prophet and Kis describes his colourfull lifestyle. If you like prose by Bruno Schulz, you would be overwhelmed by Kis.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 6 reviews
11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Train into the Far 15 Feb. 2001
By - Published on
Format: Paperback
If Franz Kafka's Joseph K. had lived in the early 1940's and been ordered to wear a yellow star in Czechoslovakia, he would have resembled a character known only as E. S. in this story of wartime Hungary by Danilo Kis. The trial of an individual and his family at the hands of a vague and hidden totalitarian force are described with growing horror and gallows humor in ''Hourglass,'' a chilling novel in which time is running out for a marked man riding along the tracks of mortification.
One of the trains he takes eventually must lead to a concentration camp. But the journal of the final months of his life is told with such authority in this imaginatively constructed story that the doomed character appears to be in command of his own destiny. ''Hourglass,'' translated from the Serbo-Croatian by Ralph Manheim, is evidently rooted in firsthand family experiences. The reader is informed that a letter attributed to E. S. in the novel is based on an actual letter written by Kis's father two years before his death in Auschwitz. But the universal elements in the story - the attempt to carry on the everyday routine of life and the disbelief in an official policy of genocide - offer a parable about the extermination of the Jews by the Third Reich and its collaborative governments in occupied Europe. Trains were essential for the Third Reich to fulfill the quotas for the Holocaust, and trains play an essential part in the novel. At one point, the narrator sees himself, with trembling hands, gathering up his papers in his seat in the first-class carriage and stuffing them into his briefcase along with bottled beer and smoked-herring sandwiches. The author then transforms an ordinary train ride into an act of terror: ''Who was standing beside him at that moment? A young blond conductor, who was aiming his nickel-plated ticket punch like a revolver at the star on his chest.''
The interrogation of the narrator is bizarre. It shows the police mentality at work in a police state anywhere. The narrator is questioned about a piano in his home. The line of questioning goes: Can the piano be used to send signals? Where in the room is the piano? Can you describe what it looks like? Why was an open score on the music stand? How do you account for the fact that the piano was open and that someone had been practicing so early in the morning? Inevitably, the answers to dumb questions sound somehow suspicious and lead to more questions.
The nameless E. S. wonders how he can avenge himself against the armed police. He indulges in a small act of defiance for his own self-respect: ''Several times he had blown his nose into a newspaper with the Fuhrer's picture on it. Was he conscious of the danger he was courting? Definitely. He always folded the paper as small as possible before throwing it into dense brambles or the river, thus doing away with the corpus delicti of his insane and dangerous act.'' There are deliberate breaks in style as the author shifts back and forth in chapters that are labeled ''Travel Scenes,'' ''Notes of a Madman,'' ''Criminal Investigation'' and ''A Witness Interrogated.'' The year 1942 is a crazy time in the Danube Valley for the first-person narrator. He is trying to maintain a semblance of sanity while composing a letter to his sister that forms the spine of the story. If there is a theme in the novel, it is summed up in the last sentence of that letter:
''P. S. It is better to be among the persecuted than among the persecutors.''
''Hourglass'' owes a debt to ''The Trial'' by Kafka. In the narrator's musings, Kafka is cited: ''Everything that is possible happens; only what happens is possible.'' What distinguishes Kis's novel is its authorial independence. A conventional narrative structure is ignored; it is the author's musings and diversions that magically build suspense. Some paragraphs run on for pages, others suddenly break into short questions and answers between the omnipotent state and its helpless victims. Kis forces the reader to work for him, to pay attention. That he succeeds is a rare achievement...
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
As the concentration camp looms... 8 July 2014
By Ethan Cooper - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In HOURGLASS, Danilo Kis describes the experiences of E.S., a 53 year-old Serbian Jew in March and April of 1942. E.S. lives on borrowed money, has a toxic family life, and has problems with his legal papers, which necessitates the indignities and dangers of travel. In HOURGLASS, the hapless E.S. seeks to restore order to his muddled life. As he does so, he worries that he, a retired and not robust former railroad employee, may soon be called back to work, even though he is gripped by forebodings and his coat prominently displays a yellow Star of David. Meanwhile, the backdrop for his trials and tribulations is the death or disappearance of scores of his Jewish friends and much of his community.

Many people think the story Kis tells in HOURGLASS is masterful. My paperback, for example, has a back-of-the-book blurb from John Bayley, who wrote in "The New York Review of Books": "Probably no other novelist has succeeded better than Kis in making a densely stylistic pattern out of such a nightmare, conveying with gruesome but also aesthetically beautiful effect the interrelation in such a life... of the quotidian and the apocalyptic, the combination of the sense of trivia with the sense of doom."

Kis divides the story of E.S. into 67 units, with most combining to form chapters. His chapters then sort into three distinct narrative approaches. For example, Chapter 2, "Travel Scenes", has six units that, together, convey mundanity--that is, what E.S. sees as he looks out a window in a shack and watches a woman deliver documents in a snow storm. Meanwhile, Chapter 3, "Notes of a Madman", has seven units, several exploring bitter ironies, other refuting these same ironies. Then, Chapter 4, "Criminal Investigation", has three units, all of them written in an overbearing prosecutorial Q&A format. In chapters using this style, a bad-cop interrogator works relentlessly to ascertain the actions and state of mind of E.S. as he attempts to restore order in his helter-skelter and fraught life.

Overall, Kis uses his "Notes of a Madman" approach the least frequently. The reason, I suppose, is that chapters of bitter ruminations about existence are nearly redundant when the "Travel Scene" chapters convey the nightmarish mundanity in E.S.'s life and the "Criminal Investigation" chapters show its oppression by the state.

Nonetheless, I would say that the "Criminal Investigation" chapters--one is a single unit and 49 pages--can be fascinating but also tedious. This is surely Kis's intent, as he puts the reader into the experience as the government interrogates an innocent citizen and seeks some insidious plot amid harmless domestic details and social associations. In focus and execution, these chapters are not unlike Kis's A TOMB FOR BORIS DAVIDOVICH, in which the subject is the psychologies interlaced in authoritarian societies.

Kis shows great range in HOURGLASS, particularly in his "Travel Scene" chapters. In unit 62, for example, Kis is hilarious as he discusses the pros and cons of E.S's sometimes crapulous behavior. But usually these chapters are a mixture of the banal and lurid. IMHO, the best is unit 34, in which E.S. and a friend, playing a game of chess, try to recall all of their mutual acquaintances who have died or disappeared since the run-up to, and start of, the war.

HOURGLASS is a challenging book and there were moments when this reader's mind wandered. Regardless, rounded up to five stars and recommended.
5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Knowing the damage to the human mind the holocaust generated 30 Jan. 2006
By Mark E. Blum - Published on
Format: Paperback
Danilo Kis's Hourglass fulfills what the historian Hayden White described as the most proximate capture of the historical event of the Holocaust, the narrative art of literature. Kis recreates the life of a Hungarian Jew whose life is interrupted by his arrest and detention, but which has begun to unravel because of the limited trust that pervades what had been his normal milieu in a Hungary of assimilated Jews. The phenomenological rigor that opens and continues throughout the novel enables us to experience the disruption of reason that injures our own thought processes. Perhaps death is not the worst experience, rather a gradual loss of the normal imposed from without. At times, when a normal conversation with a friend is possible for an hour or so, it is as if one is given the richest gift of a lifetime, only to see it disappear as the day progresses. There is not in my experience a book or other account that so provides the 'lived experience' of Jews in this time.

Mark E. Blum, Professor of History, University of Louisville.
4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Provocative, but also rather soporific and distant 10 April 2005
By John L Murphy - Published on
Format: Paperback
The "catechetic rhetoric" of the question & answer exchanges throughout the Criminal Investigation segments make for never less than fascinating reading. They evoke not only Kafka but Joyce in his Ithaca chapter of Ulysses; the omniscient and patiently probing inquisitor, here, finally gets "ES" to admit his weariness, but the rare entry of the interrogated into the set-up only enhances its blended horror and suspense.

This ambitious novel, in its other modes of transmission, "Diary of a Madman," and Travel Scenes, intersperse with the Criminal Investigation sections. These, to me, recall many other Central European fictional post-war attempts to plumb the heart of mid-20c darkness. It is not to fault Kis for doing well what he does here, but these portions lack the excitement of the interrogative modes, and by comparison languish on the page in their comparative introspection and wandering reveries.

As a whole, the novel works best in Bloomsian asides, such as ES thinking about how to see the world through glasses that imitate the curvature of a dog's eyes, the weariness of fecundity, or the closing pages in which the Garden of Eden, the stages of man's life, the battle against nothingness so characteristic of Jewish secularised mentality, and the link to Kis' own forebears becomes clearly visible behind the novelistic scaffolding of the previous 250 pages, which read quickly for a subject so dense.
3 of 7 people found the following review helpful
A pastiche of experimental writing 24 Aug. 2004
By Ian Muldoon - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This is a difficult read which I tended to race as I neared the end. Which is not to say it does not have an aggregate of power awaiting the more patient and attentive reader. It raised questions in me, such as Why Literature? which I answered myself in my head as I read

(in the manner of parts of the book itself) as follows: because literature reminds us that no matter how horrible our individual circumstances there is ALWAYs someone worse off and it puts one's own miserable and petty life in perspective( see p. 77) It also has a bitter humour: when notified that her husband had heroically laid down his life for the first Hungarian Regiment of Hussars, the wife immediately consulted a fashion magazine and chose a black dress in the latest style (winter 1941-42) see P.67). He also provides information on how we can dedtermine why the world is doomed to destruction - look into our own hearts, (see p.129). Call it post-modern. Call it difficult. But do not call it an easy read.
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