Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 29, 2010

An Exclusive Love (2009), by Johanna Adorján, translated by Anthea Bell

This is one of the most poignant books I’ve ever read, and it’s intensely thought-provoking.  It’s also another example of Text Publishing having the courage to generate debate about contentious issues…

An Exclusive Love is a memoir of the author’s grandparents,  Hungarian Jews who took their own lives in Copenhagen in 1991.  He was 82, and dying; she was only 71, and in good health.  Together they had survived the horrors of the Holocaust, and escaped Budapest during the 1956 uprising against the oppressive Communist regime; but they could not envisage separation from one another and so when his illness became terminal they ended their lives together.

It seems logical, perhaps even romantic, but like all suicides, it leaves the remaining loved ones bereft.  For some families left behind, it is a torment not to know why, and even though the ‘reason’ for her grandparents’ action seems evident, this book is an attempt by Adorján to make sense of what happened.  She can only tell their story in fragments because she can’t find out much about them, and she creatively imagines their last day together.  The book is written with empathy and affection for them, but it seems to me that the author wrote it in an attempt to reconcile herself about what happened and to ease her troubled mind.

For it is too simplistic to say that this suicide occurred because he was dying and they couldn’t bear to be parted.  The death of a much-loved partner happens to long-married couples all the time, and nearly all of them find ways to endure it.  Indeed, many widows of my acquaintance have gone on to lead joyous lives, savouring new freedom and independence and holding an honoured place in the extended family.   What was it that made this woman deprive her children and grandchildren of that special relationship?  What made her so pessimistic about her chances of rebuilding  her life on her own?

I don’t ask these questions to judge Vera and István, but rather because these are questions that the author asked herself.  This is not just a memoir of her grandparents and an exploration of their motives, but also a journey of their grandchild’s self-discovery. It challenges the silences in her family, exploring her right to prise open the refusal to discuss painful aspects of their family history.  The Holocaust and the Communist repression were ‘things we don’t talk about’.

Adorján admits that she is angry about the denial of the family’s religious history because it impacts on her sense of identity.

If I am to be perfectly honest, that makes me not only sad, but also a little angry. For he stole a part of my identity as well, deprived me of an essential part of my sense of self, bequeathed me a gap in my identity that seems like a mystery.  I lack a piece of myself.  Something is missing, and I don’t even know exactly what.

Such a pity for something to disappear. (p75)

She also recognises emerging self-censorship: she senses the discomfort of those she interviews about her grandparents and feels uncomfortable ‘prying’.   Their unexpected deaths close the door on knowing some things forever, and this just has to be accepted.  She learns to judge which other aspects of their lives matter enough to warrant her ‘intrusions’.

This longing to know her grandparents is at its most poignant when she interviews the elderly ladies who were her grandmother’s friends.  Had she chosen to live on, her grandmother would perhaps have been like them, and part of her life.   It is the aching loss of this grandmother that is felt most keenly.  It is her death that seems inexplicable, despite Adorján’s best efforts.  More than once she writes tentatively that she understands, but then there is this:

Does not their death, above all, suggest fear?  A woman’s fear of being unloved, alone, a burden on others, perhaps sick and frail herself some day?  And was there not also a considerable amount of aggression in behaving, so far as her own children were concerned, as if she were entirely alone in the world? (p146)

It seems to me that the mystery arises because the couple were not legally able to share their decision with their family.  Family issues that could have been sorted out prior to their deaths remain unresolved.  Had they had the legal right to make their decision without fear of interference, the family might have been able to prepare themselves.  But no, although there are intimations that this is what they eventually intend, they have to hide their specific plans.  Vera and István had to lie to Cousin Sebastian when he rang on the day of their death, pretending to have commitments in order to prevent his visit.  How does this cousin feel, knowing that if he had visited that day, they may perhaps have postponed – and perhaps reassessed – their decision? How does he feel, knowing that other family members probably wish he had?

There are hints of this ripple effect of guilt in the interview with Hélène. (p77)  This elegant, lively old woman was Vera’s friend, and she still thinks of the couple every day, blaming herself because she didn’t find the right time to tell Vera that she was welcome to come and live with her in Paris after István’s death.

The title (as translated) seems perfect, and raises questions of its own.  Should love be so exclusive?  What about the others who loved this enigmatic couple?  Adorján hints that something is not quite right when she discovers that the couple abandoned their very small children to the care of a nursemaid when he had study commitments in Paris; she writes that Vera only returned after six months because both the children went down with polio.  (p 76).  This is in 1949, only four years after liberation from the Nazis, when in the post-traumatic period for European Jewry most families would have been at pains to stay together at all costs…

This is an intriguing, demanding, painful book that raised many questions in my mind.   The translation is excellent.

Highly recommended.

Author: Johanna Adorján
Title: An Exclusive Love
Translator: Anthea Bell
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2010
ISBN: 9781921656569
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing


  1. This sounds like a truly amazing but heart-rending book, Lisa. The thing about suicide is that everyone left behind wants to know *why* but sadly you can never truly find out the motivation or the reason — those secrets are taken to the grave — unless, of course, a note is left behind spelling it all out.


  2. just what you’d expect from bell ,she is one of the best about ,i love her sebald translations ,not familar with this book it looks interesting and powerful subject for a book ,all the best stu


  3. This one will go on my list.
    I was raised, much of the time, by my grandparents. Less than 2 days after I found my grandfather killed by a heart attack, I was not surprised when my grandmother (hospitalised with stroke) took her last breath.
    Suicide, too, has shouldered its way invasively into my family.
    So ‘An Exclusive Love’ sounds like something I can relate to.
    I was momentarily jolted by the idea that love could be so ‘exclusive’ as to abandon one’s children. Especially in that era.
    I look forward to reading this book. Thanks for a great review.


  4. How painful and lost it all sounds. I can’t even imagine the author’s pain and bewilderment. My grandmother is alive but at 96, she is very frail. I see her almost everyday and on a good day she and I can talk for hours. She lives with my mother, half a block for me. And everyday, I’m thankful for the time I still get to spend with her. grandmothers are quite special! I hope the book brought a measure of comfort to the author. As always, thanks for the review.


  5. I am still thinking over this book. It really is very powerful indeed because it has challenged some long-held beliefs of mine. I reckon this would make a good choice for bookgroups where the members know each other well enough to tackle it.


  6. I am sure this is excellent – as it your review, which tells me much about the book but still leaves me wanting to read it. Anthea Bell as translator is recommendation enough of course, but the topic of mid-European angst is one I do rather go for. You are right that this would be perfect for book groups.


  7. I enjoyed your review. The rawness of the pain of suicide reminds me of a short story collection I read not long ago, David Vann’s “Legend of a Suicide”. It is clear throughout the stories that Vann was deeply affected by his father’s suicide and the mourning, pain, anger, guilt, and frustration in the aftermath are difficult to get through.

    Now that I think about it, I now realize the past year or so has been a bit suicide heavy for me. Suicide plays an important role in The Good Soldier and Afterwards is about the “afterwards” of suicide. The books are always intense and the rawness of emotion in those based on personal experience is wrenching.

    I haven’t yet read a translation by Bell, but I have only heard high praise for her translating talent and her choice of works to translate. Thanks for putting this on my radar.


  8. Hi Kerry, thanks for making the link back to Legend of a Suicide – I read that too, and you’re right – it’s a similar venture into territory that has formerly been taboo. These authors are sharing their pain as they try to understand the inexplicable. Constrained by their love for the person who has made the decision to hurt them so, they are exposing the selfishness of suicide without judging it as such.


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