Skip to content

Posts from the ‘László Krasznahorkai’ Category

Vertiginous Links for January 2012

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.”

Babel: Krasznahorkai’s War and War

“I haven’t gone mad…but I see just as clearly as if I were mad.”

Unlike Satantango and The Melancholy of Resistance, the two other novels by László Krasznahorkai translated into English so far, and which are both set entirely in rural Hungary, War and War is an urban novel, opening in a city in Hungary, then quickly moving to New York.  Korin, a bureaucratic archivist, discovers a manuscript that defies immediate classification and so he must read it in order to catalog it.  The manuscript turns out to be “a work of astonishing, foundation-shaking, cosmic genius,” and Korin, an immediate convert,  realizes that previously “he understood nothing, nothing at all about anything.”  The manuscript, however, promises to help him “recover the dignity and meaning whose loss he had been mourning.”  And so he decides he must dedicate his life to giving this lost, obscure manuscript immortality on the Internet.  “There was nothing to do but, in the strictest sense, to stake his life on immortality.”

War and War is an astonishing narrative of Kori’s unquenchable need to find faith and proselytize to a world that literally cannot understand him.

New York was full of Towers of Babel, good heavens, imagine it, he said the same afternoon on a state of high excitement, here he had been walking right amongst them for weeks on end, knowing that he should see the connection, but had failed to see it, but not that he had seen it, he announced with great ceremony, now that he had got it, it was clear to him that this most important and most sensitive city, had deliberately been filled by someone with Towers of Babel, all with seven stories, he noted, his eyes screwed up, examining the distant panorama…

As Korin reels between doubt and faith, with each new setback acting as further proof of the rightness of his mission, a Dostoyevskian blend of paranoia, irrationality, and faith reenforce each other, blinding him to the fact that the rest of the world treats him like a crazy, unintelligible foreigner from Eastern Europe.  Satantango and The Melancholy of Resistance each had a central charismatic, mysterious figure who could bend the locals to their will.  But in War and War, the charismatic figure is a manuscript, and the only character it gains power over is Korin.

The skeletal but convoluted “plot” of Krasznahorkai’s novel quickly becomes buried beneath his maniacal pinball prose, which breathlessly tracks Korin’s mind with precision as it darts and careens from idea to idea, from emotion to emotion.  Toward the end of the book, Korin reflects on the remarkable use of language in the manuscript he is transcribing for the Internet, on how “the sentences seemed to have lost their reason, not just growing ever longer and longer but galloping desperately onward in a harum scarum scramble.”  Surely, Krasznahorkai was referring to his own writing:

…this enormous sentence comes along and starts to egg itself seeking ever more precision, ever more sensitivity, and in so doing it sets out a complete catalogue of the capabilities of language, all that language can do and all it can’t, and the words begin to fill the sentences, leaping over each other, piling up, but not as in some common road accident to be catapulted all over the place, but in a kind of jigsaw puzzle whose completion is of paramount importance, dense, concentrated, enclosed, a suffocating airless throng of pieces…

War and War contains a single embedded photograph depicting a plaque commemorating the suicide of György Korin.

László Krasznahorkai’s War and War, first published in Hungarian in 1999 and translated by George Szirtes for New Directions in 2006.

The Last Tango: Krasznahorkai’s 1985 Novel “Satantango”

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.


Inside László’s Whale

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, 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.

Insideanimalinside

…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, try to find a way to read James Wood’s piece on the author in the July 4, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.

“Intense, uncompromising” – Blurbs by Sebald

One of the challenges for a completist book collector like me has been to figure out how to keep collecting Sebald after I had every one of his books (or at least every one that I could afford). Some directions were obvious and thus I started adding books about Sebald, books that anthologized Sebald, magazines in which his work had appeared… But when I came across Norbert Gstrein’s The English Years, I saw yet another subset within my Sebald collection – books with jacket blurbs written by Sebald. I thought that, if nothing else, these books might shed light on Sebald’s reading tastes or on the network of literary friendships that often lead to requests for blurbs.

In Sebald’s own case, I think book jacket blurbs played a critical role in helping expand international awareness of his writing. And it was all because of of one book review – Susan Sontag’s “A Mind in Mourning” (Times Literary Supplement February 25, 2000) – and the resulting blurbs by Sontag that appeared on some of Sebald’s subsequent editions in English.I know that I picked up my first book by Sebald because of her imprimatur on the cover.

lappin-foreign-brides.jpglappin-the-nose.jpg

Sebald’s first published blurb seems to have been for Foreign Brides by Moscow-born journalist and author Elena Lappin, which was first published in London in a hard cover edition by Picador in 1999, to be closely followed that year followed by an American edition from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Both contained the somewhat ambivalent jacket blurb by Sebald: “A wonderful story collection set between one place and another and shaped by a fearless sense of comedy.” When the British-based Lappin’s next book The Nose came out in 2001, Picador simply trimmed down and recycled the crux of Sebald’s earlier blurb on the front cover: “A fearless sense of comedy.”

melancholy-of-resistance.jpg
The next occasion for a blurb seems to have been for the Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance (NY: New Directions, 2000). Appropriately, the two blurbs on the back cover are from Sebald and Susan Sontag.Sebald’s blurb reads: “[The Melancholy of Resistance] is a book about a world into which the Leviathan has returned. The universality of its vision rivals that of Gogol’s Dead Souls and far surpasses all the lesser concerns of contemporary writing.” The book was first published in English as a paperback by Quartet in London in 1998, apparently with the same blurb by Sebald although I have not seen a copy myself.The connection between Sebald and Krasznahorkai was made by Sebald’s friend the poet and translator George Szirtes (born 1948), who has written in the Hungarian Quarterly of his experiences translating The Melancholy of Resistance and other books from the original Hungarian: “Asked by Quartet as to who might provide a suitable endorsement of the book, I gave the name of W.G. Sebald, then forgot to mention it to the man himself; so when he rang up one day to announce he had received the typescript I was full of apologies. He was not at all put out: he thought it was a marvellous book and was pleased to provide a few sentences.” (George Szirtes, “Foreign Laughter.” Hungarian Quarterly XLVI, No. 180 Winter 2005.)
gstrein-english-years.jpg

Most likely Sebald’s last true blurb was written for Norbert Gstrein’s novel The English Years, which was published shortly after Sebald died (London: Harvill, 2002). Sebald is quoted on the front cover of the dust jacket: “An exceptional work of prose fiction: carefully crafted, unpretentious, and accomplished at the same time.” The connection between the Austrian writer (born 1961) Gstrein and Sebald may well have been the translator they shared during 2001, Anthea Bell.

ledig-payback.jpgledig-stalin-organ.jpgledig-stalin-front.jpg

With the rediscovery of the writings of the German Gert Ledig (1921-1999), instigated in part by Sebald’s discussion of his “unjustly forgotten” books in On the Natural History of Destruction, blurbs by Sebald have become standard issue as Ledig’s books are translated into English and released on both sides of the Atlantic. By comparison with his brief earlier blurbs, the quotation on the back cover of Gert Ledig’s Payback is a generous fifty words or so in length. In this case, however, the blurb is actually a patchwork quotation carefully extracted (and ever so slightly massaged for clarity) from a three-page span of Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction (see pps. 94-6 in the Random House edition). In addition, the top of the book’s front cover is emblazoned with the two word quote from Sebald: “Intense, uncompromising.”Payback (London:Granta, 2003), issued as a paperback original, was the first English-language appearance of Ledig’s Vergeltung (1956).

Ledig’s The Stalin Organ, also released as a paperback original (Granta, 2004), reduced Sebald’s contribution to two words – “Intense, uncompromising” – but left them dramatically at the top of the front cover. This was the first English translation of Ledig’s Der Stalinorgel (1955).When the New York Review of Books released this in America in 2005, the title was changed to The Stalin Front and the publishers reverted to a lengthier, albeit significantly different, quotation from On the Natural History of Destruction – and once again the transcription from Sebald’s original book into blurb was rather loosely but strategically massaged.

Undoubtedly there are more blurbs by Sebald to be found and more to come as publishers mine his critical writings and his fame.