January 19, 2013
Ω Three years ago, Five Dials, the online magazine from Hamish Hamilton published some of the notes that David Lambert and Robert McGill took down as they attended one of W.G. Sebald’s last classes on writing. Their piece, then called “The Collected ‘Maxims’,” has reappeared unchanged as “Max Sebald’s Writing Tips.” It’s too bad that Five Dials doesn’t get mentioned, and there is no link to that issue (number 5), which, as I noted at that time, was a “goldmine” of articles dedicated to Sebald. So here’s a reminder of what’s in Five Dials 5:
The new issue of Five Dials is very much an issue devoted to W.G. Sebald. Nearly half of the 32 pages are related to him in one way or another. The issue opens with a “Letter from the Editor” (Craig Taylor) entitled “On Translation and Sebald.” This is followed by “A Little Trick of the Mind,” in which four translators ( including Sebald’s primary English translator Anthea Bell) discuss “the world’s second oldest profession.” (Bell’s father edited The Times crossword puzzle, we learn.) She talks about translating the Asterix books and Sebald, although most of what she says here about Sebald she has said elsewhere.
Joe Dunthorne, a writer and, perhaps more importantly, a striker for the England Writers’ Football Team, writes about reading Austerlitz and what it meant to him as he moved to London.
Simon Prosser (publishing director for Hamish Hamilton) provides An A to Z of W.G. Sebald, an alphabetical soup of reminiscences grouped under subheadings such as Bavaria, Climate, Kant, Lac de Bienne (the one place Sebald felt truly at home), Smoking, and Zembla.
And lastly there is a short piece by the late author Roger Deakin.
Ω Not too long ago I wrote about Laird Hunt’s great 2012 book Kind One. Now there is an interview with him by Roxanne Gay over at Bookforum. Laird gives a very interesting and articulate discussion on a wide range of topics, including the issue of literary genre.
The fact that all the ghosts and witches and detectives and space ships had to operate in the relative shadows for many years brought its own rewards and much brilliant work, some of which is being retroactively anointed (think of the canonizing of Philip K. Dick), but it has also presented us with the strange and distorting notion that there is anything inherently unusual about the inclusion of such elements in writing worthy of being celebrated far and wide.
My first and lasting literary light-ups were European, French in particular, and what we think of as being related to genre is everywhere in writings published by France’s biggest houses. Whether we’re talking de Maupassant or Robbe-Grillet, Jean Echenoz or Marie Ndiaye, S & M, the supernatural and the gangster are all there, unapologized for, and have been for years.
Ω And don’t overlook László Krasznahorkai’s piece in the New York Times, “Someone’s Knocking at My Door.” It’s just damned wicked writing.
“Yes, it’s the weak who invite violence who are the problem.”
March 4, 2012
To open the pages of László Krasznahorkai’s Satantango is to become stranded in a tiny, claustrophobic Hungarian village, a backwater of rain, mud, mist, mildew, and rust, where rumor and superstition serve as hard data. It rains for all but the last thirty pages, giving Satantango the feeling of a terrarium with an ecosystem gone amok. “We are living in apocalyptic times!” declares Bible-thumping Mrs. Halics. There’s a retrograde, stripped-down feeling to Krasznahorkai’s universe. In Satantango there’s a single television set in the local bar (although it never seems to work), a truck and a bus. But there is no telephone, no car, no internet. Nevertheless, his maniacally inventive writing can take on a breath-taking expansiveness, balancing the bitter, alcohol-fueled lives of his villagers with moments that attempt to describe the scope and scale of the universe. He can be apocalyptic, tragic, comic, tender and vulnerable, all in a single burst of words.
The entire end-of-October night was beating with a single pulse, its own strange rhythm sounding through trees and rain and mud in a manner beyond words or vision; a vision present in the low light, in the slow passage of darkness, in the blurred shadows, in the working of tired muscles; in the silence, in its human subjects, in the undulating surface of the metalled road, in the hair moving to a difference beat than do the dissolving fibers of the body; growth and decay on their divergent paths; all these thousands of echoing rhythms, their confusing clatter of night noises, all parts of an apparently common stream, that is the attempt to forget despair; though behind things other things appear as if by mischief, and once beyond the power of the eye they no longer hang together.
Krasznahorkai is a specialist in studying the forms of self-delusion we adopt to repel despair. Forsaken by god and state, Satantango‘s villagers try their best to maintain, each in his or her own way, the semblance of a barrier between “chaos and comprehensible order.” As if picking up where Beckett’s Waiting for Godot left off, they are waiting for their own savior in the form of the mysterious Irimiás, who, after a long absence, is seen as “an angel of hope to hopeless people with hopeless difficulties.”
At dawn, after a long night of quarreling, licentiousness, and dancing to an accordion player who plays the same tango over and over (“nobody noticed”), Irimiás finally appears, bearing the terrible news that a young girl from the village has just been found dead (a suicide with rat poison). He gathers the villagers around him in the bar and embarks on a sermon about sorrow and guilt, hope and redemption. But phrase by phrase, his eulogy slowly turns from the “incomprehensible tragedy” to the promise of “a fairer, better future,” and his eulogy starts to sound like a familiar messianic swindle. Not surprisingly, the only thing lacking to pull off his plan for the villagers’ salvation is money. Urged into a fit of optimism by Irimiás’ proselytizing vision, most of the villagers abandon their homes and head toward a decaying, empty manor house, where he has promised them a new start. But after a miserable first night, the villagers begin to doubt Irimiás, feeling “deceived, robbed, and humiliated” by his failure to appear as promised. Irimiás, who has the perfect timing – and the sartorial heritage – of Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, suddenly appears at dawn.
Irimiás stood there. His seal-gray raincoat was buttoned up to the chin, his hat drawn far down his brow. He stuck his hands deep into his pockets and surveyed the scene with piercing eyes. A cigarette dangled from his lips. There was a stony silence…”I asked what’s going on?” Irimiás repeated threateningly.
In opposition to the power of visionary persuasion exemplified by Irimiás, Krasznahorkai gives us someone pursuing an alternate path to redemption – through the power of observation. The village’s reclusive doctor, who we first encounter as he reads a geological history of Central Europe, obsessively observes the villagers from within his monumentally squalid home, filing away notes on what he sees in carefully marked folders, “all with the aim of not missing the smallest detail.”
However he might try, there being nothing he could do in the face of the power that ruined houses, walls, trees and fields…and human bodies, desires and hopes, knowing he wouldn’t, in any case, have the strength, however he tried, to resist this treacherous assault on humanity; and knowing this, he understood, just in time, that the best he could do was to use his memory to fend of the sinister, underhanded process of decay…
Later on, however, we discover that Irimiás is actually not all that different from the village doctor, when we learn that Irimiás, too, maintains his own set of written observations on the villagers, which he submits to a group of distant clerks, who, in turn, are expected to rewrite his surprisingly frank commentaries into a suitable report for their bosses. In a chapter rife with humor and irony, Krasznahorkai lets the clerks squirm as they translate and sanitize Irimiás’ “depressingly crude scrawl” into officialese.
That foul old bag of poisonous gossip became the more reassuring “a transmitter of unreliable information” and the phrases seriously, someone should think about sewing her lips together and fat slut were resolved without undue difficulty. It was a special joy to them that there were sentences they could simply lift and use in the official version…
Reading Satantango is to watch Krasznahorkai working through his own position as a writer.
He gazed sadly at the threatening sky, at the burnt-out remnants of a locust-plagued summer, and suddenly saw on the twig of an acacia, as in a vision, the progress of spring, summer, fall, and winter, as if the whole of time were a frivolous interlude in the much greater spaces of eternity, a brilliant conjuring trick to produce something apparently orderly out of chaos, to establish a vantage point from which chance might begin to look like necessity…and he saw himself nailed to the cross of his own cradle and coffin…
Might the act of writing just be another folly in the face of despair, Krasznahorkai asks?
And so the words prepared for the occasion tumble over each other and began sparring round as in a whirlpool, having formed the occasional frail, if painfully useless, sentence that, like a mostly improvised bridge, is capable of bearing only the weight of three hesitant steps before there’s the sound of a crack, when it breaks, and then with one faint, final snap collapses under them so that time and time again they find themselves back in the whirlpool they entered last night when they received the sheet with its official stamp and formal summons.
But in the end, it is the doctor, abandoned by the villagers and bereft of anything to observe and record, who has the final say. After the villagers’ disappearance, he suddenly begins to imagine their lives in order that he might somehow continue to write in their files.
…he knew, was deadly certain, that from then on this was how it would be. He realized that all those years of arduous, painstaking work had finally borne fruit: he had finally become the master of a singular art that enabled him not only to describe a world whose eternal unremitting progress in one direction required such mastery but also – to a certain extent – he could even intervene in the mechanism behind an apparently chaotic swirls of events!
The power to fictionalize, or, as he calls it “focused conceptualizing,” the doctor realizes, is a weighty responsibility, but one that makes him “the wielder of mesmerizing power” and master of his own destiny. And before too long, the doctor begins to write the very book we have just finished reading.
Written in 1985, Satantango was Krasznahorkai’s first published novel in Hungary. With the international successes of War & War and The Melancholy of Resistance, it’s great to see older works like this start appearing in English. While I can’t vouch for George Szirtes translation from the Hungarian, he has helped Krasznahorkai deliver three amazing books for English-language readers. See all my posts on Krasznahorkai here.
November 8, 2011
He fully accepted the paradox implied in the conclusion that his movements had direction but no aim.
It’s been on my shelf for years, but I have only now gotten around to reading László Krasznahorkai’s novel The Melancholy of Resistance. I’ve actually written about the book before in a post on the various novels for which W.G. Sebald wrote blurbs. But this summer James Wood wrote an essay on Krasznahorkai for The New Yorker (a brief excerpt can be found here) which prompted me to get The Melancholy and plunge in.
The book’s plot is skeletal. An enigmatic traveling troupe with a mere handful of people appear in an insignificant Hungarian village, towing a large wagon that promises to hold “An Extraordinary Spectacle” in the form of “The Biggest Whale in the World.” But instead of merriment and wonder, the newcomers, led by someone who calls himself The Prince, attract a thuggish group of outsiders who are mysteriously bent on wreaking violence. For a brief time the village descends into total social breakdown until the army finally moves in and an uneasy peace returns. In Krasznahorkai’s claustrophobic universe, there is no law or order and the state scarcely matters. Human progress is a pathetic myth, life is an “icy museum of pointless existence,” and knowledge only seems to lead to “wholesale illusion or to irrational depression.”
Even though a sense of impending chaos and evil hangs over every page, The Melancholy of Resistance is intensely, almost indescribably comic. The plot might be simple, but Krasznahorkai’s style isn’t. Krasznahorkai writes with a maniacal intensity and originality of the bawdy and language-lush novels of the 17th and 18th centuries. His often long sentences operate like a multi-faceted lens that refracts the world into multiple vantage points almost simultaneously. The Melancholy is a digressive ramble, the narrative point of view being handed off from befuddled character to the next like a baton. Here are some extracts from a nearly six-page description of Mrs. Eszter sleeping, while three rats rummage through her room.
She was a sound sleeper, so after a few minutes she quietly nodded off, and the occasional jerking of her feet, the rolling of her eyeballs under their thin lids and the ever more regular rising and falling of the eiderdown were accurate indicators that she was no longer properly aware of the world about her, that she was drifting further and further from the present enjoyment of naked power which was rapidly diminishing but would be hers again tomorrow, and which in her hours of consciousness whispered that she was mistress of her cold poor possessions and that their fate depended on her….Her body – perhaps simply because it was no longer covered – seemed to grow even bigger than it already was, too big for the bed and indeed for the entire room: she was an enormous dinosaur in a tiny museum, so large no one knew how she had got there since both doors and windows were too small to admit her. She lay on the bed, legs spread wide, and her round belly – very much an elderly man’s beer-gut – rose and fell like a sluggish pump; her nightgown gathered itself about her waist, and since it was no longer capable of keeping her warm, her thick thighs and stomach broke out in goosepimples….The night, in any case, was slowly coming to an end, a hoarse cockerel was furiously crowing, an equally angry dog had begun to bark and thousands and thousands of sleepers, Mrs. Eszter among them, sensed the coming of dawn and entered the last dream. The three rats, together with their numerous confreres, were scuttling and squeaking in the neighbor’s rumbledown shed among frozen cobs of well-gnawed corn, when, like someone recoiling from a scene of horror, she gave a disconsolate snort, trembled, turned her head rapidly from left to right a few times, suddenly sat up in bed.
The Melancholy was turned into a film that is usually described in polarizing terms (Roger Ebert, who liked the film, said audiences would either find it maddening or mesmerizing). Béla Tarr’s 2000 film Werckmeister Harmonies translates Krasznahorkai’s novel into a stunning visual and aural experience, full of luminous and mysterious scenes. (The 145 minute film is infamous for being comprised of only 39 shots.) But in doing so, Tarr exchanges the pervasive sense of paranoia and dread for physical angst, and turned Krasznahorkai’s text to humorless and, at times, agonizingly slow scenes.
I can’t do either the book or the film justice, except to recommend both. I also suggest watching Tarr’s 2007 film The Man from London, which has a strong cast that includes one of my favorites, Tilda Swinton. This is an adaptation by Tarr and Krasznahorkai of a Georges Simenon novel of the same title.
July 15, 2011
…all preliminary conjectures about who I am will prove in retrospect futile…” (v)
If you want to know what language and literature permit us to do, read the fourteen short untitled, numbered pieces that comprise László Krasznahorkai’s Animalinside. The best of these pieces transcends any literalness or point of reference and simply speak to us in an oracular, disembodied voice that suggests the impossible, the unimaginable, the indescribable.
You can’t touch me.
I have no eyes, no ears, no teeth, no tongue, no brain tissue, no hair, no lungs, no heart, no bowels, no cock, no voice, no smell; …useless for anyone to scream at me, I don’t understand, because I don’t hear anything, useless for anyone to strike at me, I don’t see, I am entirely blind, you don’t know what I’m like and what I am, because you can’t picture it, you can’t even conjure me up in your dreams, because I am absent from any picture that you have ever seen… (ii)
It’s the voice of a vengeful god warning us of what true, unlimited power really is.
And I am strong. Too strong. So strong that I break a knife in two with my teeth, that I break a sword in two with my teeth, that I break a house in two, that I break one hundred houses in two, one after the other, that I break one thousand houses in two, that I break every building in every city in two, so strong am I that I smash in the middle every bridge on earth…and if I want to break the entire Earth in two, I grab it by one end and – whoop! it’s snapped in two already… (iii)
Animalinside, a forty-page chapbook, is number 14 in The Cahiers Series being issued jointly by Sylph Editions, New Directions, and the Center for Writers & Translators at the American University of Paris. According to the Preface by Colm Tóibín, the work is a collaboration that began when Krasznahorkai wrote a piece based upon one of German artist Max Neumann‘s powerful, enigmatic images of two-legged dogs (they have no forelegs). Neumann created more images in the series for which Krasznahorkai then wrote responding texts. The chapbook is beautifully produced, especially Neumann’s images, which are stunningly printed and selectively varnished to achieve vivid blacks and real texture.
…because my coming is violent, just a few moments now, and I shall break out of you, and you will be that which I am, and that which I have always been. (vii)
For an excellent introduction to Krasznahorkai’s work, check out Jame Wood’s piece on the author in the July 4, 2011 issue of The New Yorker (there’s an online abstract here). I’m reading his darkly humorous book The Melancholy of Resistance right now.