László Krasznahorkai - A torrent of hypnotic, lyrical prose, Krasznahorkai's novel explores the process of seeing and representation, tackling notions of the sublime and the holy as they exist in art

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Seiobo There Below

László Krasznahorkai, Seiobo There Below, Trans. by Ottilie Muzlet, New Directions, 2013.

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Beauty, in László Krasznahorkai’s new novel, reflects, however fleeting, the sacred — even if we are mostly unable to bear it.
In Seiobo There Below we see the goddess Seiobo returning to mortal realms in search of perfection. An ancient Buddha being restored; Perugino managing his workshop; a Japanese Noh actor rehearsing; a fanatic of Baroque music lecturing to a handful of old villagers; tourists intruding into the rituals of Japan’s most sacred shrine; a heron hunting.… Seiobo overs over it all, watching closely.
Melancholic and brilliant, Seiobo There Below urges us to treasure the concentration that goes into the perception of great art, leading us to re-examine our connection to immanence.

A torrent of hypnotic, lyrical prose, Krasznahorkai's novel explores the process of seeing and representation, tackling notions of the sublime and the holy as they exist in art. The chapters are disguised as vignettes, each with its own art form situated in particular time and place. The reoccurring theme of the creation and experience of art provides just enough cohesion to form a philosophical narrative arc. At one point, a visitor of a museum in Venice discovers a painting of Christ that seems to come to life and look back at him with "a sorrow impossible to grasp in its entirety, and entirely incomprehensible to him." Elsewhere, a Noh actor prepares to play Taoist goddess of immortality, Seiobo, by acknowledging that "there is no transcendental realm somewhere else apart from where you are now." Tinged both with sadness and an anxiety about the capability of language, this brilliantly ambitious novel, like the tragic poetry of one of its characters, becomes a "ravishing cadenza" that "cannot be interpreted as anything else but the ceremonial swan-song of a soul sunk into silence." 

Nothing vast enters the lives of mortals without ruin - Sophokles, Antigonick, trans. Anne Carson

A Japanese goddess descends to earth in László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below, bearing the fruit of immortality from her heavenly peach tree — but no one notices. She has come to grace the performance of a Noh play that, like Krasznahorkai’s book, bears her name, but though the actor who dances her role has prayed for the opportunity to perform this piece — “I Give Up My Fate Entirely!” — he does not see how his prayer stands manifested beside him.
There are books that, though fantastical, are nevertheless so profoundly continuous with reality that we cease to read them as fantasy. In Krasznahorkai’s breathtaking novel, the sacred exists; Seiobo, who narrates her journey herself, is a fact, just as the actor and the audience are facts. A later narrator offers us the guiding principle of this, our own, reality: amid the “forbidden symmetries” in the halls of the Alhambra, he observes that “something infinite can exist in a finite, demarcated space.” The god is there in the theatre. Seiobo There Below itself is a finite, demarcated space, but in it something infinite exists.
The latest of Krasznahorkai’s full-length works to be translated into English, Seiobo There Below is a confrontation with the vast, and therefore with vulnerability. In each of its seventeen chapters, the novel describes a process of artistic creation, from the making of Russian icons and the reconstruction of the Ise Shrine in Japan, to the attribution of Italian Renaissance paintings and the carving of Noh masks. Krasznahorkai’s erudition is staggering, but the way he relates the choosing of the wood for the shrine, or the restoration of a canvas, is so attentive and so modest that is sidesteps pedantry entirely, and instead participates in the very concentration it describes. The chapters are numbered according to the Fibonacci sequence, in which each number is the sum of the two before it, and indeed, Seiobo There Below compounds and reinforces itself ever more rapidly, its scope soon defying human proportions.
The artworks Krasznahorkai describes are not only objects, but vessels of a sacred impulse: they are body and soul. The protagonists of the novel — artists, academics, and vagabonds — seek out these works, yearning for transcendence, and are instead crushed by terrifying facts: first, the fact of the work’s existence, its material undeniability, and second, the fact of its radical spiritual loneliness. More often than not, the encounter with art and/or the sacred ends in existential disaster. These former channels to the gods have been closed; they have become nearly empty signifiers. In the chapter “Where You’ll Be Looking,” for example, a guard at the Louvre wants nothing more than to spend eight hours a day looking at the Venus de Milo. But he knows that the statue
did not belong here, more precisely, she did not belong here nor anywhere upon the earth, everything that she, the Venus de Milo meant, whatever it might be, originated from a heavenly realm that no longer existed … and yet she, this Venus from this higher realm remained here, left abandoned ….
We do not want the sacred anymore, Seiobo asserts; we have chased it away. But we left a memory of it in these objects, and when we demand something from these memories, we forget that they have the power to destroy us.
The tension between order and chaos has been central to all of Krasznahorkai’s books available in English, Satantango, The Melancholy of Resistance, and War and War. In Seiobo There Below, this tension takes on its most moving and elegant form. Entropy, for Krasznahorkai, is the ultimate destiny of the universe, and art is necessarily in its service. Many characters in the novel are initially attracted by an artwork and the sacred force within it and compelled toward it, only to be overwhelmed by its presence, and then, in the attempt to retreat, paralyzed or annihilated. Some become forces for evil: one chapter is ominously titled “A Murderer is Born”; in another, an artist carves a theatre mask, never understanding that “what his hands have brought into the world is a demon, and that it will do harm.”
The demonic is the shadow of the sacred, and Krasznahorkai does not let us forget it. He is no stranger to darkness; his work is famously bleak. But with Seiobo There Below, he reminds us of an observation of John Berger’s, once made in relation to Goya: “The despair of the artist is often misunderstood. It is never total. It excepts his own work.” In Krasznahorkai’s case, it excepts not only his own work, but also that of countless others, named and unnamed, from both the east and the west. Small, understated gestures throughout the book remind us that it is love, not fear, that drives us to art.
Within the inevitable move toward entropy, Krasznahorkai traces a tiny space of freedom, a tiny path from which to approach the sacred. It requires making the world as small as possible, narrowing the vastness down to just this one brush, this blue pigment, this hinoki wood, this mask and this tool, this ancient way based on ritual and unflinching observation. The successful artists of Seiobo There Below make the space in which the sacred can appear as small as possible, so that it is not deadly yet, so that Seiobo can come and say, “I am not the desire for peace, I am peace itself … do not be afraid.” Seiobo There Below is, in its way, a joyful book.
Even for the most successful of these artists, however, the final result of an encounter with the sacred is non-existence. “Ze’ami is Leaving” is a poignant, beautiful chapter about an ideal artistic creation: one that subsumes the artist into it, making him disappear like the Chinese painter of legend who sailed off into his own landscape. Ze’ami, the most revered figure of the Noh tradition and the author of the original Seiobo play, has been exiled from Kyoto, his home. At some point during his solitary, uneventful days, a poem begins to take shape in his head, and when Ze’ami contemplates the silent hototogisu bird, art and nature finally combine with such harmony that it is as if the poem arises by itself:
hototogisu literally means the bird of time, he tasted the word in this sense, nearly twisting it around — the compound signifying the cuckoo bird is the bird of time — to see from which side it would be suitable to give form to his soul’s deepest sorrows; at last he found the way, and the melody began to formulate itself within him — he was just thinking about it, not calling it by name — and the verse somehow formulated itself like this: just sing, sing to me, so not only you will mourn; I too shall mourn, old old man, abandoned and alone, far from the world, I mourn my home, my life, lost forever.
Ze’ami subsequently turns to prose and writes, essentially, the chapter we have just read. The book that writes itself in our hands is a frequent feature of Krasznahorkai’s work, and here, it allows his own act of creation to join the collection of objects so reverently described, the human archive that will outlast us.
The Ze’ami chapter is followed by one more, number 2584 in the Fibonacci sequence, called “Screaming Beneath the Earth,” in which buried animal sculptures from China’s ancient Shang dynasty screech for all eternity against the “earth-demon” that crushes them and that will one day crush all of us. This brief, disturbing final episode, with its characterization of China as endless and immeasurable, clearly recalls Kafka. But in its tight, coiled fury, it is also reminiscent of Krasznahorkai’s own Animalinside, a collaboration with the German artist Max Neumann (published in English before Seiobo There Below but in Hungarian after):
and before their cataract-clouded bulging eyes there is not even one centimeter of space, not even a quarter-centimeter, not even a fragment of that quarter, into which these cataract-clouded bulging eyes could stare, for the earth is so thick and so heavy, from all directions there is only that, everywhere earth and earth, and all around them is that impenetrable, impervious, weighty darkness that lasts truly for all time to come, surrounding every living being, for we too shall walk here, every one of us…
Finishing Seiobo There Below is like walking out of a cathedral: its parting gift is a ringing in the ears. This book is magnificent and will outlive interpretation.
Krasznahorkai’s English readers are doubly fortunate this year to have not only Seiobo There Below, but the arts magazine Music & Literature, whose superlative second issue was devoted to Krasznahorkai, Max Neumann, and the filmmaker Béla Tarr. “Ze’ami is Leaving” appeared there several months before the novel was available, accompanied by a selection of Krasznahorkai’s short stories, speeches, and interviews, all previously unavailable in English, and all as bewitching as his novels.
Of particular interest are the commentaries by Krasznahorkai’s translators. George Szirtes’ essay “Foreign Laughter: Foreign Music” describes his process of translating Krasznahorkai for the first time. The translator of Seiobo There Below, Ottilie Mulzet, whose challenges must have been enormous and whose results are miraculous, gives a brilliant interview in which she explains Krasznahorkai’s relationship to Asia and shares her own insight into his work.
Additionally, Music & Literature provides translations of reviews and essays by French, Hungarian, and German critics, as well as original pieces by Anglophone writers. Though the issue is mainly devoted to Krasznahorkai, Béla Tarr is considered in an essay by the Argentinean writer Sergio Chejfec, and Max Neumann is given due praise in a spectacular essay by Dan Gunn, who edits the Cahiers Series that published Animalinside. The volume makes an impressive addition to Krasznahorkai scholarship in English, and will no doubt remain an invaluable resource to his readers for years to come. - Madeleine LaRue
The fiction of Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai is often called “obsessive” by critics. For good reason—his sentences are enormous and repetitive, and his subjects are rigorously examined from all angles. He is a master of the breathless paragraph, the hypnotic meditation. James Wood, in a piece about Krasznahorkai’s pull as a postmodernist, noted that the worlds conjured by Thomas Bernhard seem more logical by comparison. Reading the Hungarian, he said, “is a little like seeing a group of people standing in a circle in a town square, apparently warming their hands at a fire, only to discover, as one gets closer, that there is no fire, and that they are gathered around nothing at all.” This is a colorful image that the latest of Krasznahorkhai’s novels to be translated into English might be seen as refuting. Krasznahorkhai’s subject in Seiobo There Below is the motivations and the machinations behind beauty in art. Why bother with perfection, why seek it? How do we get there? Kraznahorkhai weaves together narratives that look at the connection between people and what they produce. In one plot thread, he looks at a Japanese Noh actor practicing; in another, he writes about a painting that is actually inhabited by Jesus Christ. Each chapter is related thematically and, as the jacket copy is eager to point out, is arranged according to the Fibonacci sequence of integers, which is to say that this is a novel with a method beneath its madness. Seiobo There Below is an excitingly smart and inventive novel, but it’s moving, too. It is difficult to cite particularly moving moments out of context (such is the spell of a book that flowers like an artichoke), because you often don’t know how you got to the feelings you’re having while reading about, say, a reconstruction of a sculpture of the Buddha, or young people discussing The Clash. Krasznahorkai is an expert with the complexity of human obsessions. Each of his books feel like an event, a revelation, and Seiobo There Below is no different. - www.thedailybeast.com/

Hungary has been in the news these past few years for all the wrong reasons. Its government, led by the right-wing nationalist Viktor Orban, has been curtailing civil liberties and cracking down on cultural freedoms, much to the chagrin of other European leaders. It's ironic, then, that at this troubling moment for Hungary, a generation of talented writers has been winning more attention abroad. The Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertesz, author of the new memoir Dossier K, and the polymath Peter Nadas, whose giant novel Parallel Stories was a publishing event, are probably the most famous Hungarian writers working today. But increasingly, young American literary types are falling for an unlikely Hungarian icon: Laszlo Krasznahorkai, a novelist and screenwriter whom the late Susan Sontag once called "the contemporary master of the apocalypse."
"Why is New York's literary crowd suddenly in thrall to Hungarian fiction?" The Guardian asked last year when the writer came to the United States. That may have been an overstatement, but it's true that Krasznahorkai writes unlike anyone else in fiction today, and something about his powerful, unsettling fiction drives fans to excess. His latest book to appear in English is Seiobo There Below, first published in Hungary in 2008. This newest novel — or maybe it's a book of interrelated short stories; the chapters connect only in tangential ways — is an excellent introduction to Krasznahorkai's difficult but deeply rewarding fiction. Brighter and more open than some of his earlier works, Seiobo is a book about art, about artists and spectators, the difficulty of artistic creation, and the glorious, sometimes overwhelming force works of art can have upon us.
In each chapter (or story), set in locations as far afield as Venice and Kyoto and in periods from prehistory to today, we encounter artists struggling to create beauty amid the pressures of daily life, and ordinary people striving to concentrate on works of art against the roar of the world outside. In one section, a homeless Hungarian man wandering in contemporary Barcelona wanders into an apartment building designed by Gaudi and finds himself overcome by an exhibition of Russian icons, "terrifyingly shining and golden." In another, an old craftsman painstakingly carves masks for a Noh theater company; the labor is peaceful, but the result is demonic. Many of the artists and cultural figures Krasznahorkai follows are real, such as the Italian painter Perugino; others are fictional, and still others hover on the border between the two. The link among them — if there is one — is the goddess Seiobo, a figure of Japanese mythology who makes occasional appearances throughout the book. In a rare moment of first-person narration, Seiobo descends from the heavens to inspire a theatrical performer, and themes of the sacred and profane reoccur in other chapters; perhaps she is there too.
The breadth of material these stories cover is breathtaking, but Krasznahorkai wears his erudition lightly. Seiobo There Below proceeds slowly and deliberately, building up from page to page until each chapter obtains an almost unbearable intensity. His characters are usually isolated, in studios or ateliers, and where other authors rely on dialogue, Krasznahorkai relies abundantly on third-person narration. He constructs portraits out of minutely observed details and places them into surprising, sometimes cosmic settings.
I'd quote a sentence here to show you how he does it — but if I did that would take up the entire space allotted to this review and much more besides. This most single-minded of authors never uses a period when a comma will do, and his sinuous, at times vertiginous sentences can extend to eight pages or more. (Ottilie Mulzet, the very capable translator, must have had her hands full.) Here, for example, is the start of an extraordinary passage on Filippino Lippi, a painter of the Italian renaissance: "He already knew how to draw a Madonna even before he knew what a Madonna was, but it wasn't only in this that he displayed an extraordinary talent, but in nearly everything else too, for he was able to read and write, master the skills of carpentry, use the tools of the workshop, grind and mix the pigments to perfection ..." And on it goes, for six more pages, spinning out the whole of Filippino's youth and training in an unstoppable performance of literary acrobatics. One chapter, in which a scholar of Baroque music gives a lecture to a shabby group of villagers, is a single sentence stretching across nearly two dozen pages.
Near-infinite sentences in a nonlinear narrative shuttling across time and space, linked only by occasional appearances from a Japanese goddess? It sounds daunting, I realize. Yet the amazing thing about Seiobo There Below is that Krasznahorkai makes the whole thing feel utterly natural and utterly relevant. Krasznahorkai is one of contemporary literature's most daring and difficult figures, but although this book is ambitious, it isn't ever obscure. On the contrary: it places upon us readers the same demands of all great art, and allows us to grasp a vision of painstaking beauty if we can slow ourselves down to savor it. - Jason Farago

There was a time when, as a Romanian poet once put it, every rotten tree trunk held a god. In Seiobo There Below (Seiobo járt odalent, 2008), László Krasznahorkai reminds us repeatedly that this time is long past. Not only is the sacred in retreat from the world, but we have forgotten how to perceive it (two sides of the same coin, some might say)[1]. And yet the fifty-nine-year-old Hungarian author persists in speaking of transcendence. For Krasznahorkai, the spirits that once conveyed mystery and authority have not completely withdrawn; traces of the divine may still be discerned in the making and receiving of tradition-bound forms of art. Seiobo There Below represents seventeen remarkably diverse and ambitious forays into aesthetic grace.
Seiobo is the fifth of Krasznahorkai’s sixteen books to appear in English. The fact that his other major novels in English translation – The Melancholy of Resistance, War and War, and Satantango – have primarily been set in Eastern Europe makes this latest effort seem like more of a departure than it actually is. A large part of the North American perception of Krasznahorkhai as “the contemporary Hungarian master of the apocalypse” (as Susan Sontag famously labeled him), has to do with the epic film adaptations of Krasznahorkai’s work that he and his friend director Béla Tarr have collaborated on (Damnation, Sátántangó, Werckmeister Harmonies), as well as the order in which the author’s books have appeared on these shores (his first novel, Satantango took 27 years to make it into English). As Seiobo’s translator Ottilie Muzlet has pointed out, Krasznahorkai’s Hungarian readership would be aware of the fact that the years 1999-2008 marked a transitional period in his work, which saw him turning increasingly to the Far East for inspiration.[2]
Fittingly then, the original Seiobo is a work of fifteenth century Japanese Noh theatre, in which the titular goddess comes down from heaven to the earth below, bearing immortality. While the character Seiobo appears in one chapter of Krasznahorkai’s latest work, and Noh theatre pops up in a handful of others, the title Seiobo There Below describes more generally an arc that recurs in a variety of locations and tonal registers throughout the book’s seventeen sections. Each chapter presents an intersection (or failed intersection) between the sacred and the human, the immortal and the perishable, via aesthetic production and/or reception. Krasznahorkai alternates between Europe and Asia, ranging across 3000 years of cultural history, featuring familiar works such as the Alhambra, the Acropolis, and the Venus de Milo, but also a 500 year-old copy of Andrei Rublev’s Trinity Icon, the restoration of a Buddha sculpture, and the rebuilding of Japan’s Ise shrine.
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In the book’s first section, entitled “Kamo-Hunter,” the object of aesthetic contemplation is a white bird standing in the middle of Kyoto’s Kamogawa river:
A bird fishing in the water: to an indifferent bystander, if he were to notice, perhaps that is all he would see—he would, however, not just have to notice but would have to know in the widening comprehension of the first glance, at least to know and to see just how much this motionless bird, fishing there in between the grassy islets of the shallow water, how much this bird was accursedly superfluous; indeed he would have to be conscious, immediately conscious, of how much this enormous snow-white dignified creature is defenseless—because it was superfluous and defenseless, yes, and as so often, the one satisfactorily accounted for the other, namely, its superfluity made it defenseless and its defenselessness made it superfluous: a defenseless and superfluous sublimity; this, then, is the Ooshirosagi in the shallow waters of the Kamogawa, but of course the indifferent bystander never turns up; over there on the embankment people are walking, bicycles are rolling by, buses are running, but the Ooshirosagi just stands there imperturbably, its gaze cast beneath the surface of the foaming water, and the enduring value of its own incessant observation never changes, as the act of observation of this defenseless and superfluous artist leaves no doubt that its observation is truly unceasing…
Vision is crucial in Krasznahorkai’s work. Even in the sad and hilarious thirteenth section, the sole chapter of Seiobo There Below to focus on sound, the visual trumps the aural when a failed architect delivers a hysterical lecture on Baroque music to a group of elderly villagers who cannot take in the man’s words, because “it was really his gut that captured the attention of the locals, because this gut with its three colossal folds unequivocally sent a message to everyone that this was a person with many problems….” In the Kamo-Hunter chapter, however, the white bird serves a dual function. If it were enough just to see this bird in the river, then the initial clause, “A bird fishing in the water,” would suffice. The bird is a living work of art, but Krasznahorkai also grants the creature “the artist’s powers of observation,” so that it possesses the very powers of aesthetic perception that the prose displays. From the outset, Krasznahorkai suggests that perceiving the sublime is going to take more than simply looking as we are accustomed to doing (though the indifferent bystander is incapable even of this).
In The Senses of Modernism, Sara Danius reminds us that, “The etymological meaning of ‘aesthetics’ springs out of a cluster of Greek words which designate activities of sensory perception in both a strictly physiological sense, as in ‘sensation,’ and a mental sense, as in ‘apprehension.’” The indifferent bystander never turns up, but there is at least one person who perceives the Kamo-Hunter with an etymologically faithful aestheticism bordering on obsession: our narrator. In this opening chapter, Krasznahorkai caresses his white bird in mesmerizing, exhaustive prose, returning to it again and again as he weaves his way through modern day Kyoto, the “City of Infinite Demeanor.” The above sentence continues for another half-page and is by no means one of the lengthier ones in the book (in defense Krasznahorkai’s long sentences, the man knows how to wield a semicolon). It is as if the author is attempting a feat of linguistic perception to rival the bird’s “truly unceasing” gaze of “enduring value.” This heroic effort ensures that, in a delicious paradox, even those chapters that present failed intersections between the sublime and the human enact a level of writerly attentiveness that approaches transcendence.
Let us note one further thing about this opening chapter: an adjective attached to the word beauty. “The bird is granted the artist’s powers of observation,” we are told, so that it may represent “unbearable beauty.” For Krasznahorkai, immanence is a terrifying proposition. Few of the encounters with the aesthetic sublime in this book lead to healing, redemption, or acceptance. In a later chapter, a migrant Hungarian labourer’s unintentional encounter with a Russian icon painting leads him to purchase a large, sharp knife. Given the volatile power of art, why would anyone desire to commune with it as intensely as Krasznahorkai and some of his characters do?
Desire itself is commonly held to be the engine of the novel. It is important to remember that Seiobo is a novel, albeit one that at first glance appears to unfurl beneath an entirely different logic. For starters, the chapters are structured according to the famous Fibonacci sequence, and vary in length from eight to forty-eight pages. In the absence of a single main character, one way to connect Seiobo’s episodes to a central longing is to consider what Krazsnahorkai has said previously about his writing, that the sentences “are really not mine but are uttered by those in whom some wild desire is working.” In this sense, the most obvious desire at work would be the Bernhardian compulsion to continue speaking, narrating breathlessly before that final end stop, death, is imposed.
Yet there is another, more commanding form of desire in Seiobo There Below. In a recent essay, Scott Esposito identifies in Krasznahorkai’s writing the aspiration to an “authority beyond the physical confines of our universe as we know it.” Is there another living novelist of whom this could be as convincingly said? Krasznahorkai’s search for this level of authority allies him with the high modernism of Joyce and Rilke (think Stephen Dedalus’s artist-God merging with the terrible angels of the Duino Elegies), and it may also be the driving force behind his search for transcendence in the process of making and receiving of art. There is a fine line between wanting to know God and wanting to be God, a fact which Krasznahorkai is well aware of, and exploits to his advantage. Esposito: “Modernism attempts to conflate the aesthetic with the religious.” Indeed.
The modernists’ desire for mastery has often been linked to the waning of traditional sacred structures in the West. In Seiobo, the European forms have long since been displaced, and it is only in Asia that we find contemporary cultures still connected to living traditions. Fredric Jameson has written that “Modern art drew its power and possibilities from being a backwater and an archaic holdover within a modernizing economy: it glorified, celebrated, and dramatized older forms of individual production which the new mode of production was elsewhere on the point of displacing and blotting out.” Certainly, on one level, this is precisely what Krasznahorkai is engaged in. But notice Jameson’s tense: Modern art drew. This quotation comes from Jameson’s Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, published in book form in 1991, when Modernism and its concerns were considered passé. What then is Krasznahorkai up to? Is he merely inhabiting an unproductive nostalgia for the past? Why can’t we shake our desire for wholeness? Perhaps, as Gabriel Josipovici has argued persuasively, Modernism’s concerns need to be understood not as belonging only to a particular era, but “as the coming into awareness by art of its precarious status and responsibilities, and therefore as something that will, from now on, always be with us.”
This is ultimately the reason why a book that examines the notion that the divine inhabits certain aesthetic objects can feel both epically, off-the-radar strange, and at the same time perfectly relevant. That Krasznahorkai successfully traces this inexplicable presence through a sixty-four clue Italian language crossword puzzle, the making of a Noh mask, and across a twenty-three page single sentence essay on the mysteries of the Alhambra is evidence of an astounding ambition and mastery. Here we are solidly in the realm of what Steven Moore would call “the novel as a kind of delivery system for aesthetic bliss.”[3]
But Krasznahorkai doesn’t just dazzle, he terrifies. By the final chapter, Seiobo There Below has accumulated a horrifically beautiful, almost unbearable force.
Writing about William Golding’s Pincher Martin, Josipovici notes that the traditional purpose of fiction is to protect us from the reality of our deaths. Krasznahorkai strips this protection away. The reality of death is often close at hand in Seiobo; many of the encounters with art bring a sharp awareness of mortality. For Krasznahorkai, the mystery of art is the closest thing to truth that we can glimpse, aside from death. (Perhaps it is no coincidence that these days we have less and less attention to give to either). At the end of the Kamo-Hunter chapter, our narrator advises his bird on the wisest course of action:
It would be better for you to turn around and go into the thick grasses, there where one of those strange grassy islets in the riverbed will completely cover you, it would be better if you do this for once and for all, because if you come back tomorrow, or after tomorrow, there will be no one at all to understand, no one to look, not even a single one among all your natural enemies that will be able to see who you really are; it would be better for you to go away this very evening when twilight begins to fall, it would be better for you to retreat with the others, if night begins to descend, and you should not come back if tomorrow or after tomorrow, dawn breaks, because for you it will be much better for there to be no tomorrow and no day after tomorrow; so hide away now in the grass, sink down, fall onto your side, let your eyes slowly close, and die, for there is no point in the sublimity that you bear, die at midnight in the grass, sink down and fall, and let it be like that—breathe your last.
It is possible, of course, that art will one day no longer be with us, but it is more probable that we will no longer be with art. When there is no one left who knows how to perceive a work, then it may well as crawl off and die, like the white bird that opens Krasznahorkai’s book. But we have not reached this point yet. Against the odds, making and perceiving continue.  – Eric Foley

Seiobo There Below begins with a bird, a snow-white heron that stands motionless in the shallow waters of the Kamo River in Kyoto with the world whirling noisily around it. Like the center of a vortex, the eye in a storm of unceasing, clamorous activity, it holds its curved neck still, impervious to the cars and buses and bicycles rushing past on the surrounding banks, an embodiment of grace and fortitude of concentration as it spies the water below and waits for its prey. We’ve only just begun reading this collection, and already László Krasznahorkai’s haunting prose has submerged us in the great panta rhei of life—Heraclitus’s aphorism that everything flows in a state of continuous change.
But the chapters of Seiobo There Below are not really independent stories; rather, they form a precisely composed sequence of illuminated moments that are interconnected in many complex ways. Of these, “Kamo-Hunter” is the only one that does not describe a process of artistic creation, but a bird’s (and by implication the narrator’s) power of focus, the heightened state of awareness necessary to stem itself against the wind and resist the pull of the current to remain perfectly still until the moment arrives to snatch up its prey. And suddenly it’s less a matter of the ceaseless movement of all things, but of absolute composure, a deepest possible being in the present tense, a kind of timelessness in which the moment and eternity conjoin to create a brief flash of transcendence. It is about “one time, immeasurable in its passing, and yet beyond all doubt extant, one time proceeding neither forward nor backwards, but just swirling and moving nowhere.” This, in short, is the nature of the concentration required to create art—and what makes “Kamo-Hunter” such a cogent opening to this novel.
After the publication in English translation of Satantango, The Melancholy of Resistance, and War and War—which together with Seiobo There Below constitute an important cross-section of Krasznahorkai’s prodigious literary output—his bleak outlook on a human history bent on calamity has become legendary. In an interview published in 2012, he expresses doubt that the human race will survive another 200 years. Regarding our collective ability to alter this course, his prognosis is less than optimistic as he calls the authority of literature itself into question: “This kind of communication is really over and done with. Its disappearance is a rather obvious process; it is happening faster at some points of the world than at others. I’m afraid this kind of literature is not sustainable.” To compound the matter, as the incessant onslaught of information fragments our attention on a daily basis, it has to be said that reading Krasznahorkai is not particularly easy, even given the seductive nature of his prose. Moreover, with Seiobo There Below, he has set himself the task of writing about something that is essentially impossible to formulate in language. We are no longer accustomed to using words like “illumination,” “transcendence,” or “epiphany”; indeed, in our secularized Western world they can sound embarrassing and even ridiculous. Yet his is a language that flows in liquid state, eddying around obstructions to form vortices of swelling thought in which the consistency can suddenly gel, become viscous—and all at once, the writing embodies precisely what it describes as these endless, spell-binding sentences gradually alter our perception and prepare us for a brief glimmer of something outside ourselves, something that can perhaps explain us to ourselves.
Seiobo There Below is a novel comprised of seventeen chapters numbered according to the Fibonacci series, by which each consecutive number is the sum of the two preceding it. And indeed, in a larger sense, each section seems to be part of a hidden pattern that expands in an unexpected manner. The series, which describes the progression of the spiral, the unfurling of a fern, the arrangement of leaves on a stem, and countless other natural sequences, quickly accretes from 1 to 2,584, the number given to the book’s seventeenth chapter. There is, however, a small but significant difference here: perhaps in light of the ontological quandary the leap between nothingness and one implies, Krasznahorkai has not begun his collection with zero.
The subject matter expounded upon in this book ranges from Eastern aesthetic and religious traditions such as Japanese Noh theater and the Shinto rituals governing the rebuilding of the Ise Shrine every twenty years to Byzantine icon paintings; Baroque music; works of the Italian Renaissance; and the mathematical mysteries of the Alhambra and their links to crystal formations, “forbidden symmetry,” and the tessellations of Penrose tiling. There is nothing postmodern about this whatsoever; Seiobo There Below is anything but an accrual of arcane information or a piling up of cultural artifacts. As Krasznahorkai patiently enumerates the many consecutive steps of a process of artistic creation in lengthy excursions on handicraft and religious ritual, we are called upon to negotiate the distance between the wealth of historical material and the deluge of foreign terms this book supplies, and the Zen-like focus required to comprehend the transcendent states the rarefied aesthetic and religious traditions he describes invoke. There are numerous parallels in motif throughout the book’s individual chapters, among them the nature of authorship and the original, the complicated ramifications of restoration, and the history of a work’s reception, to name but a few; more than anything, however, this is a book about the sacred—and its embodiment in some of the most compelling works of art human civilization has produced in recorded history.
As the mystic Simone Weil observed in her meditations on faith,
If sometimes a work of art seems almost as beautiful as the sea, the mountains, or flowers, it is because the light of God has filled the artist. In order to find things beautiful which are manufactured by men uninspired by God, it would be necessary for us to have understood with our whole soul that these men themselves are only matter, capable of obedience without knowledge.
In other words, the beauty of the divine can pass through them and manifest itself even when they are “sleeping.” Seiobo There Below describes methods of artistic handicraft so rich in tradition and so highly ritualized that the full conscious participation of the acting agency, that is, the person or persons physically doing the work, is not entirely necessary. It’s not a matter of personal creative expression or vision, but the sense of the artist as conduit, a vessel through which a meaning far larger than the artist’s individual understanding passes from a higher source. Painstaking descriptions of elaborate preparatory rituals abound; the vessel must be purified, the caldron must be turned upside down and emptied of its contents before it is worthy of holding the sacred meal. Approaching this process from a far less mystical perspective, the phenomenologist Mikel Dufrenne wrote that “even if meaning is not constituted by man, it passes through him. . . . But it may not be enough to say that nature is expressed by the artist. Perhaps we should rather say that it is by means of the artist that nature seeks to express itself.” Creative activity, then, requires a removal of the self, a minimizing of interference on the part of the ego to maximize human receptivity to a natural or divine truth that is then expressed in an aesthetic form accessible to human perception.
Needless to say, Seiobo There Below is a work of metaphysical content. Just as the first chapter is the only one not to be told from the point of view of a maker or viewer of a work of art, “The Life and Work of Master Inoue Kazuyuki” is the only one narrated, in part at least, from the perspective of a deity. During a performance of traditional Japanese Noh theater, the goddess Seiobo leaves her heavenly realm to descend to Earth and inhabit the actor on stage:
you have to know that your own experience in this is crucial . . . for everything occurs in one single time and one single place, and the path to the comprehension of this leads through the correct understanding of the present, one’s own experience is necessary, and then you will understand, and every person will understand that something cannot be separated from something else, there is no god in some faraway dominion, there is no earth far from him here below, and there is no transcendental realm somewhere else apart from where you are now, all that you call transcendental or earthly is one and the same, together with you in one single time and one single space . . .
As the mind ceases to search for something outside itself, time stands still: it is this moment of comprehension, this encounter with immanence that Krasznahorkai approaches again and again throughout the novel.
And again and again, the world foils this endeavor. The distance between everyday life and the sacred is vast. Many of the profoundest masterworks of the past required prayer and ritual to prepare for their creation; these did not merely fulfill a symbolic function, but laid the ground for the divine to enter physical matter in a very real, theophanic sense. Belief is the essential prerequisite, and when the self is deemed not worthy enough to act as a channel for manifestation, the failure can spell disaster. In “A Murderer is Born,” Dionisy, the Byzantine master commissioned to paint a copy of Andrzej Rublev’s famous Troika—not, that is, a copy as we understand it today, but an identical work consecrated upon its completion by a bishop and thereby acknowledged as genuine—has fallen prey to self-doubt,
for surely Dionisy knew better than anyone else that if the soul did not feel what Rublev did in that time, then he himself would certainly end up in Hell, and the copy would come to nothing, because it would be just a lie, a deceit, a mystification, just an ineffectual and worthless piece of trash, which would then be placed in vain in the Sovereign Tier of the church’s iconostasis, in vain would it be placed there and worshipped, it would not help anyone and would only lull them into the delirium that they were being led somewhere.
Conversely, as painstakingly described in “The Preservation of a Buddha,” a lengthy and intricate ceremony must be performed to divert the divine light from the eyes of the Amida Buddha statue of the Zengen-ji Monastery to permit its being transported for restoration. The day the Hakken Kuyo ritual is to commence, the abbot gives the order for the monastery gates to be closed; there are countless prayers to be chanted, the musicians must perform at exactly the right moment, there is the Incense-Lighting Hymn, the Invocation, the Triple Vow, the greeting of the Zengen-ji Bodhisattva, the Prayer of the Sangharama. The temporary removal of the gaze from the Buddha’s eyes constitutes the deepest meaning of a secret ceremony many of the participating monks are not even privy to. When the Buddha arrives at the National Treasure Institute for the Restoration of Wooden Statues in Kyoto, the master informs his workers that they are holding this divine gaze within their souls as they individually labor over the conservation of the dismembered statue. One year later, upon the Amida Buddha’s return to the monastery, the ritual for restoring the divine light to the statue is even more elaborate than the first; it signifies nothing less than a renewal of faith, a prayer that “this treasure-laden throne shall be resplendent until the end of time, when the body itself shall vanish, and that the light between the Buddha’s eyebrows may once again issue forth, and that one ray of this light may spread across the entire Realm of Dharma.”
Each part of Seiobo There Below revolves around an encounter between the sacred and the profane. Often, the character whose lot it is to experience a manifestation of the immaterial has not only not been seeking it, but is horrified by the experience, forced to flee from it. In “A Murderer is Born,” the Hungarian drifter stranded in Barcelona who has wandered by chance into an exhibition of Russian icon paintings reluctantly stops before Dionisy’s Troika, as though summoned by its three winged figures. He is afraid to look at them, and when he does, he suddenly understands, dumbstruck, that they are real. Yet they do not bring him salvation or grace, but delirium; they are the annunciation of his demise.
This is one of many parallels Krasznahorkai constructs throughout the novel. Although the drifter is in need of a miracle to save him from his hopeless situation, he is persecuted by the vision he has. The fatal dissonance that marred the creation of the work of art meets with a corresponding dissonance in its reception. It is as though Dionisy’s crisis of faith had imbedded itself into the painting centuries before and remained there, waiting for the drifter—as though the two were indissolubly bound together. Furthermore, Casa Milà, the opulent building housing the exhibition, is an apt setting for the encounter: Gaudí, a devout Catholic, had considered abandoning the project when he was prevented from adding the statuary he’d planned to integrate into the structure, which included Our Lady of the Rosary and two archangels. Against the convictions of his faith, he was nonetheless persuaded by a priest to carry the work to conclusion. Krasznahorkai proposes the notion of art and the artwork as the dispatcher of a curse, whereby wavering belief and the mishandling of aesthetic power necessarily lead to destruction and ruin.
Although not always on this order of magnitude, the relationship between the creation and reception of a work of art in Seiobo There Below is invariably tense and mysterious. In the best sense, we are pilgrims; in the worst, tourists. The visitor to Venice in “Christo Morto” finds himself in an embarrassing position: to allow the soles of his black leather oxfords to last longer, he has fitted them with metal taps that cause his footsteps to resound deafeningly in the afternoon siesta silence of Venice’s narrow alleyways. He has come to revisit a single building, the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, and his purpose prompts him to set himself apart from the ordinary tourist: “He was not one of those who kept coming back here again and again, in pursuit of so-called illusory pleasures, giving himself over to the blank drift of superficial and frankly idiotic raptures—he was not in any way like one of them!?” Eventually, his conspicuousness gives way to paranoia: he imagines he is being followed by a stranger with an odd, S-shaped body, a kind of serpent that symbolizes the city itself:
he did not love Venice, he was instead afraid of it, the way he would be of a murderously cunning individual who ensnares his victims, dazing them, and finally sucking all the strength from them, taking everything away from them that they ever had, then tossing them away on the banks of a canal somewhere, like a rag . . .
The traveler’s journey to see a particular painting, one that holds deep personal meaning for him, becomes a kind of perilous odyssey he barely survives.
Similarly, in “Up on the Acropolis,” a visitor to Athens makes his way through the scorching heat and maddening traffic of midday Athens, all the way from Syntagma Square through the Plaka, on foot, to behold, in person, what he has dreamed of seeing for his entire life: the Parthenon, the Propylaea, the Temple of Nike, the Erechtheion. He has forgotten to bring water with him; more importantly, he has forgotten sunglasses. Still optimistic before ascending the hill, he eventually succumbs to despair when the blisters on his feet and the inability of his eyes to adjust to the dazzling sunlight glaring off the white limestone ground render him unable to see anything at all: “ . . . like a blind man, he felt the path before him with his foot, as it was utterly impossible to look up by now, just as it was even to glance upwards, tears rolled down from both of his eyes . . . he then understood that what he had come here for would remain forever unseen by him . . . ” The implication is that it’s not merely his actual eyesight that is failing him, but his innate ability to absorb a cultural and religious truth that has already receded beyond the point of intelligibility.
Throughout this novel, the sacred has either grown indecipherable, has turned into something too powerful for the modern world, or has vanished altogether, having understood that it is obsolete and unwanted. When the man in “Christo Morto” revisits a painting of Christ he has seen only once before, he undergoes a profoundly disturbing experience. Throughout the entire day he has been haunted by an article he read that morning in La Corriere discussing the papal position on heaven, hell, and purgatory; he has learned that Benedict XVI, in contrast to John Paul II, regards hell not as a symbol or metaphor, but as something physically real. The newspaper headline—“HELL REALLY EXISTS”—hounds him. And staring now at this painting of Christ, whose eyes begin to open in profound, boundless sorrow, he understands that the true meaning of Hell is not the mere damnation of the individual soul, but an actual withdrawal of God from the world.
Ottilie Mulzet, who has translated Seiobo There Below expertly into English, has observed:
part of the power of these narratives is that they explore the sacred—or rather the complete and total lack of the sacred in the present time through the lens of all these different cultures. And the answer is always the same: we have lost touch with it, we don’t want it, we have become too weak to bear it, or that the sacred itself, abandoned for all time, just wants to disappear.
If Krasznahorkai is saying that the relationship to the divine through art is on the brink of extinction, this book would essentially be a modern tragedy about the failure of civilization to redeem humankind and hence both an affirmation of the sacred and the simultaneous announcement of its demise. And because this is Krasznahorkai, there is the undeniable, brooding sense that the world is coming to a shabby and unspectacular end that makes for a rather pitiful apocalypse of the blind, amnesiac, numb, and brutal.
But there is also a bleak humor running throughout the book, and the impossible figure of a hobby lecturer on baroque music in a village library can be seen as a parodic self-portrayal as well as a tribute to the elderly apodictic protagonist of Thomas Bernhard’s novel Old Masters. While Krasznahorkai’s prose recalls Bernhard in certain obvious ways, and the two have been frequently compared due to their exasperatingly long sentences, or their spiraling syntax, this is where the comparison ends. Bernhard’s vehicles are rant and invective; Krasznahorkai’s is compassion, the actual identification with the suffering of another. His characters are invariably outcasts, untouchables society has expelled—and for good reason. His compulsion is to plumb the soul of the pariah to tap into the inscrutable darkness at the heart of the universal human condition.
Seiobo There Below is a profoundly European book. In a certain sense, it is a farewell to the Occidental world as it has endured in a cultural counterbalance with the Orient. It is also a last look at the West in the eyes of an Eastern European who has witnessed the rapid spread of capitalism at close hand, the irony with which it has left us with one vast “West.”
Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Krasznahorkai embarked on protracted travels throughout Asia. He has engaged in a profound intellectual involvement with the cultures of the East, particularly Japan and China. His book Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens, forthcoming from Seagull Books, documents the disappearance of the last traces of ancient Chinese culture on the very brink of the economic boom. Anglophone readers of Krasznahorkai will be familiar with the trope of the individual from a former dictatorship who is too scarred to bear the sight of beauty; the systematic humiliation and deprivation he has been subjected to have brought about a coarseness and vulgarity, a loss of dignity and self-respect that renders the search for truth meaningless and even dangerous. Here, however, it is more a matter of indifference towards a four-thousand-year-old history that is increasingly being forgotten.
In his essay “About Gods Bereft of their World,” Sándor Radnóti asks if Seiobo There Below is a “new version of art as religion” or “a kind of exclusive personal and artistic travelogue” describing a collection of “specimens of the total (high) culture which functions as the foundation stone of a syncretic religion, whose inspired prophet is the author himself.” Of the recurrent figures in Krasznahorkai’s writing, i.e. the Prophet, the Archivist, the Observer, or the Seeker, it is the false prophet whom Radnóti interrogates—and his skepticism reveals the degree to which he takes the author at his word. This and other essays comprise the wealth of critical analysis and material hitherto unpublished in English translation contained in Issue Two of the arts magazine Music & Literature. Devoted to Krasznahorkai, director Béla Tarr, and German visual artist Max Neumann, the issue is an essential and comprehensive resource that brings together numerous in-depth investigations into Krasznahorkai’s overall literary project that illuminate his development throughout the past thirty years. In the interview quoted above, Ottilie Mulzet, who has tackled the problem of transferring a literary form encased in a “fragile, faraway language” such as Hungarian (not to mention a Central European culture largely unknown beyond its borders), of capturing the “multidirectional quality” of his syntax and translating it into a world language such as English, offers intimate insight into Krasznahorkai’s language and oeuvre. Also among the essays in this issue is an astonishing text by David Auerbach titled “The Pythagorean Comma and the Howl of the Wolf” that examines the “Werckmeister Harmonies,” the central section of The Melancholy of Resistance (and of the film it gave rise to), specifically the keyboard tuning that serves as the essential metaphor for the entire book. At stake is a minimal departure from the absolute purity of musical pitch—and whether “what is clearly a spiritual experience . . . has any real connection to the cosmos and the world.”* * * *
It is generally considered plausible today that human aesthetic activity can be traced back to the visionary. Scientific evidence suggests that human consciousness underwent a profound change around 40,000 years ago, when our Paleolithic ancestors first began painting in caves. The images they produced, among them spirals and geometric shapes, bear resemblance to entoptic phenomena, or the images the human mind perceives under the influence of hallucinogenic substances. This suggests an early relationship between the making of objects/images defined as “art” and altered states of consciousness—whether attained through psychoactive substances or through prayer, meditation, or ritualized dance—that has existed since human beings first began engaging in what we call aesthetic activity. The birth of art, then, may have derived from a need to portray not the animals of the hunt or other everyday occurrences, but the luminous and powerful images perceived within the human mind; in all likelihood, it is inseparable from the birth of mystical experience.
But this is not merely an obscure phenomenon of the distant past. As mathematicians and physicists succeed in locating human consciousness in the interface between quantum physics and molecular biology, science is at the vanguard of a discourse that has traditionally been art’s domain. In analyzing the fundamental historical differences between Eastern and Western conceptions of the sacred, Krasznahorkai reminds us that much of what we call art today has left the realm of communal experience and has ceased to be the vehicle or language humans use to communicate essential, ineluctable truths. As he explores under what conditions the sacred might still be perceived in art, he also, by implication, examines the possibility of meaningful aesthetic activity in contemporary times.
The project to reclaim art’s essential role in formulating the basic questions framing our existence is more modern than ever, perhaps even radically so. Seiobo There Below does not propose a new kind of pseudo-religion or the apotheosis of the artist as divine genius. Nor does it announce the death of art. There is too much crystalline joy in the writing, too much devotion in the excursions on artistic method and technique, too much humble exactitude in the portrayals of religious ceremonies. In “The Preservation of a Buddha,” as the elaborate ceremony to restore the divine light to the eyes of the Amida Buddha is nearing its final moments, “there is something now in the Hall which is difficult to put into words, but everyone present can sense it, a sweet weight in the soul, a sublime devotion in the air, as if someone were here, and it is most evident on the faces of the non-believers, the merely curious, the tourists, in a word the faces of those who are indifferent, it can be seen that they are genuinely surprised, because it can be felt that something is happening, or has happened, or is going to happen, the expectation is nearly tangible ( . . . ).” The question as to whether or not Krasznahorkai believes in or shares the metaphysical and religious experiences he describes is largely irrelevant in light of the fact that, for the attentive reader, the accumulative force of his words bring about the selfsame effect he takes such pains to describe. At its core, Krasznahorkai’s writing is always, deeply, ambiguous. -
László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below has been hailed as a book about the sacred. For the fictional artists described in the collection, transcendence comes through the act of creation. In one story, a Japanese theatre master takes the stage and feels the goddess Seiobo coursing through him. In another, a maskmaker’s chisel moves nearly of its own accord, fashioning a series of wooden faces that are almost alive. But Krasznahorkai also turns his attention to another genre of protagonists: average people who encounter the sacred, completely unequipped to contend with its impact. While the book’s artists find transcendence, other protagonists experience utter bewilderment — and their crisis is the focal point of the 17 stories in Seiobo There Below.
Seiobo translator Ottilie Mulzet notes in her interview with Krasznahorkai that he addresses what has effectively become taboo: “The question of ‘sacred’ in a world which has no need for it anymore.” The Hungarian author’s works are known for their promise of higher meaning and their tendency to approach, but never quite reach, resolution. Krasznahorkai’s previous titles in English (War & WarThe Melancholy of Resistance, and Satantango) earned critical recognition from Susan Sontag and James Wood for their strange, apocalyptic impression. Rife with peculiar characters and sealed into sophisticated structures (Satantango adopts the form of the tango dance, while Seiobo There Below, though billed as a novel, presents distinct stories numbered by the Fibonacci sequence), Krasznahorkai’s fiction makes contact with the otherworldly.
But the stakes are higher in Seiobo There Below. For one, the global nature of the collection is a marked departure from Krasznahorkai’s former English-language releases. The novels that earned him his reputation in America were texts with deeply Hungarian roots. The Melancholy of Resistance and Satantango were both set in crumbling Hungarian villages; War & War featured a Hungarian protagonist newly moved to New York City. Seiobo, in contrast, spans locations from Kyoto to Persia and Perugia. Its narrative voices are equally diverse; we hear from a nascent murderer, a fanatic lecturer on Baroque music, a Parisian museum keeper in love with the Venus de Milo. Moving beyond localized meaning, the stories challenge us to examine the psychology of our moment, a time in which our inability to understand the sacred paralyzes us in its presence.
This bewilderment manifests itself in several narratives of Western European travelers knocked spiritually unconscious by the impact of sacred art. In “Christo Morto,” a traveler is drawn into Venice’s Scuola de la Roca to revisit a painting of Christ he had seen 11 years prior. He witnesses the image of Christ opening his eyes and is frozen by disbelief:
BUT HE IS OPENING HIS EYES, he registered within himself; then again he tried to muster the courage to fix his gaze onto the two eyes of Christ, BUT HOW DARK are these eyes, it was spine-chilling, as although NOW THEY REALLY WERE ALMOST COMPLETELY OPEN, you could hardly see the pupils, and nothing in the white of the eyes, it was completely clouded, a dark obscurity lay in these eyes…and here is Christ REALLY AND TRULY
The capitalization, the quick cadence of thoughts, the terror in beholding the eyes: this man’s franticness is palpable in the text. Bewildered, he sits and stares, then decides to turn away from the painting and leave the Scuola in hopes of dismissing such terrible thoughts. But the last line of the story — “For him there would never be any exit from this building, not ever” — reveals the inescapability of his new, disoriented state.
The next story, “Acropolis,” reiterates this feeling of bewilderment. The protagonist of the tale journeys to Athens fulfill his lifelong wish of visiting the ancient site. He arrives at the site only to find the limestone so bright that his eyes ache and tear. Unable to bear its radiance, he stops his ascent in pain and bitterness, asking himself why no travel guide, no art historical account, had warned him about the blinding light. His bewilderment grows from the expectation that he could have foreseen, let alone overcome, this trial. How could he have known the luminosity of this place?
Not all characters in Seiobo There Below reveal such blatant bewilderment. Several try to understand the sacred by cycling through methods tried and true: scholarly intercourse, scientific inquiry, mathematical analysis. Ironically, the characters who pursue answers down these clear pathways are among the most disconnected. At intervals throughout “Christo Morto,” for instance, we learn about an art historian who had tried to restore the Scuola’s painting of Christ. She brings the painting to a chemical restoration workshop in hopes of discovering the original artist, a mystery over which the board of San Rocco holds its breath. When the chemical restorer X-rays the image and examines the gesso, he finds an underwhelming signature. The painting is left half-forgotten in a small corner display. The art historian is so focused on the work’s scholarly evaluation that she misses the essence of the painting.
This intellectually fueled oblivion percolates through the stories. When a European scholar tries to study the rebuilding of Japan’s Ise Shrine, she misunderstands the tradition to such a point that she obscures the rite’s actual meaning. When a group of travelers camps out in the Carpathians to foster creativity, they grow so preoccupied with their routine that the true artist among them — an elusive man who carves an enormous earthen sculpture — becomes a spectacle.
As one bewilderment follows another, the repetitions themselves start to hold higher meaning. The arrangement of narratives into the Fibonacci sequence is no coincidence. Like the mathematical series, the stories in Seiobo There Below evoke a spiral, both recursive and unexplainable. Plots reoccur, protagonists resemble each other, and narrators repeat phrases as they circle around the topic at hand, always one inch short of final revelation. As one narrator remarks, “Not to know something is a complicated process, the story of which takes place beneath the shadow of the truth.” This is the philosophy of Seiobo There Below. László Kraznahorkai has given us a work that shimmers under a prism of hidden meanings. Our task is to connect the dots, experience the mystery of the text, and embrace moments of bewilderment with patience, openness, and preparation for a deeply meaningful encounter. -

Hell is oneself. Or, if you like, Hell is other people. Either way, Hell’s Modernist vanguard—let’s say Beckett, Sartre, and Eliot—moiled in darkness long enough to recover the bad news and bring it to daylight. Their message? Hell will last as long as we do. Even as their more lighthearted disciples wrung the hereafter, drop by drop, of its holy water, these true believers never sinned against the Dantean orthodoxy that preaches Hell’s totalizing hopelessness. It is worth noting, after all, the titles of their best dramas—Endgame, No Exit, and The Cocktail Party—are euphemisms for Hell.
The Modernists found their most potent expression of Hell in drama, or more specifically, the scene. For Hell’s vanguard, the scene as a form preserves the weight of its etymological origins, implying a stage as much as a unit of dramatic time. It was left to Beckett and Sartre to defamiliarize the scene by literalizing it; only then could it become a symbol for centurial ills. Once its exits were blocked—its spatial and temporal limits made literal—the scene transmuted into paradox: a closed loop, a machine of surveillance and its attendant nausea, an orchestra of trapped bodies that played out the fears of a crowded, exhausted world. With Beckett’s Endgame, the scene reached its endgame. Once a chamber, then a cell, the scene became Hell:
                     (Clov stops chair close to back wall. Hamm lays his hand against wall.)
                     Old wall!
                     Beyond is the…other hell.
No contemporary writer has tarried in literary Hell more faithfully—or more convincingly—than the Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai. In the almost thirty years since his first novel, the infernally-titled Satantango, Mr. Krasznahorkai’s vision of society as an inescapable Hell of its own design has never lapsed. It is an ever-expanding world of deceit and human folly, one spun by interminable sentences that spread quaquaversally, like wild flames, scorching hope wherever it writhes.
True to Beckett and Sartre before him, Mr. Krasznahorkai’s Hell always manifests itself as a scene or closed circle. Though these closed circles are of human design, they are populated by demons who are paradoxically all too human. These demons, themselves deeply acquainted with Hell—the closed circle that never opens—choreograph set pieces of swindle and deceit that lead innocents and the willfully gullible to inexorable doom. In this respect, Mr. Krasznahorkai’s work sharply recalls Pushkin’s “Demons,” a poem later used as an epigraph by Dostoevsky in his novel of the same name:
              Strike me dead, the track has vanished,
              Well, what now? We’ve lost the way,
              Demons have bewitched our horses,
              Led us in the wilds astray.
In Satantango—which implies, yes, a dance with the devil—the closed circle is a failed farming collective lost in the mist of post-Communist Hungary. The novel’s foremost demon is the false prophet Irimiás, who gives pithy expression to Mr. Krasznahorkai’s vision in the form of a hilarious, viciously-circular address:
              I see this tragedy as a direct result of your condition here, and in the circumstances
              I simply can’t desert you.
With Mr. Krasznahorkai’s second novel, The Melancholy of Resistance, the closed circle snakes outward, assimilating the doomed souls of a Hungarian village. The village is roiled by the arrival of a circus that brings with it the cadaver of an enormous whale. Counterposed to the whale is the circus’ homuncular ringleader, named The Prince, another false prophet. The Prince orchestrates a meaningless act of mob violence, one that ruins the “half-wit” delivery boy Valuska, a Shakespearean fool who harbors ecstatic faith in the universe.
As its title would suggest, 1999’s War and War confirms that there is no escape from the closed-circuitry of greed and militarism that defines the globe at the turn of the century. Mr. Krasznahorkai aptly sets his novel in New York City, thought by the angelic Korin to be the center of the world. The city instead reveals itself to be a mega-Babel on the verge of ruin, on the precipice of being “brought low,” as Korin prophecies in the final section. In the figure of Korin, the novel almost imperceptibly joins idiot with prophet, until what emerges is a Cassandra, a confounding voice whose ecstatic revelations about crumbling towers and the coming war are perilously ignored. By the time his searing prophecies become intelligible, the loop is already closed:
              Korin was slowing again—but actually that was not the right word, hopeless was
              somehow wrong, there was no way out of this deadly loop, since it was ready and
              fully functioning in its own way, and calling it hopeless was not going to foul up
              the works, quite the contrary, in fact, it would simply oil them, bring a constant
              shine to them, help them to function.
With Seiobo There Below—the author’s latest novel, now published by New Directions and expertly translated by Ottilie Mulzet—the closed circle, the terrible web of human folly, has expanded to include several historical periods strewn with innumerable depictions of ascetics, murderers, gods, and artworks of terrorizing beauty. Only it is at first difficult to give name to this circle because the title and the first chapter and even the formal structure of the book amount to a demonic ruse, one that tricks the reader into believing he will bathe in the springs of Eastern transcendence. The title itself hints that the goddess Seiobo will descend unto the earth below, that she will count the rhythm of mortal life against the untroubled silence of the eternal. Mr. Krasznahorkai’s ruse is abetted by anecdote: we know that the novelist spent the last decade traveling throughout Asia, especially Japan and China, where, in search of the sacred, he observed Noh masters and ancient statues of the Amida Buddha. It would appear from the preliminary evidence that Mr. Krasznahorkai has shed the disciplined madness of his storyteller—the one who brought us so much chaos—for the impartial gaze of the goddess eye.
The narrator of Seiobo begins by contemplating the cadences of nature by way of a serene lilt, one that matches the flow of the Kamo River and observes the Ooshirosagi, a white bird poised in an S-curve that no sculptor could render:
              …and even the entirety of words that want to describe it do not appear, not even
              the separate words; yet still the bird must lean upon one single moment all at once,
              and in doing so, must obstruct all movement: all alone, within its own self, in the
              frenzy of events, in the exact center of an absolute, swarming, teeming world, it
              must remain there in this cast-out moment, so that this moment as it were closes
              down upon it, and then the moment is closed, so that the bird may bring its snow-
              white body to a dead halt in the exact center of this furious movement, so that it
              may impress its own motionlessness against the dreadful forces breaking over it
              from all directions…
Did the fever break in Mr. Krasznahorkai’s prose? Gone is the viper’s nest of idiots, fools, and prophets; instead there is only the bird and the river and the alien narrator. Until, from nowhere at all:
              …it would be better for you to go away this very evening when twilight begins to fall,
              it would be better for you to retreat with the others, if night begins to descend, and
              you should not come back if tomorrow or after tomorrow, dawn breaks, because for
              you it will be much better for there to be no tomorrow and no day after tomorrow;
              so hide away now in the grass, sink down, fall onto your side, let your eyes slowly close,
              and die, for there is no point in the sublimity that you bear, die at midnight in the
              grass, sink down and fall, and let it be like that—breathe your last.
Fall onto your side and die. There is no tomorrow and no day after tomorrow. Actually it is worse than this, as the reader of Seiobo will eventually learn over the course of seventeen scenes. It is worse because of Mr. Krasznahorkai’s ruse, which is actually a revelation of something we have forgotten. And the ruse is demonic, precisely due to what is revealed. The novelist now writes about transcendent gods because he wants to remind us that the only escape from the closed circle of human misery is the fleeting contemplation of the aesthetic sublime, one that is tied inextricably, in every epoch, to the divine. This contemplation is fleeting, he tells us, because the gods are fleeing from the Below—where we reside—which is not merely the earth but the inescapable Hell of human relations.
The structural burden shouldered by Seiobo There Below is enormous; to stay true to the author’s vision and ambition, the novel must erect an inescapable Hell that spans ages and contains both apogee and perigee of human creation. Mr. Krasznahorkai’s solution to this problem amounts to a startling formal development, at once a renovation of Dante’s infernal edifice and a novelization of the closed loop developed by Beckett and Sartre. In short, Seiobo proceeds by way of seventeen scenes, each of which spins a narrative on the theme of failed transcendence. It is almost as if Mr. Krasznahorkai has condensed the architecture of his prior novels into unbearably taut episodes. And although these episodes or scenes are temporally disjointed—one may linger in fifth century Persia, the next in contemporary Japan—they form an arpeggio; only the reader cannot, until it’s too late, determine whether its notes are rising or falling.
Of course, scenes demand players, and there is no shortage of figurative and literal actors in Seiobo. The most memorable of these is Master Inoue Kazuyuki, whose incredible discipline as a Noh master affords the novel a rare glimpse of human triumph. As his scene begins, it is impossible to tell the difference between Kazuyuki and Seiobo, the goddess whom he incarnates on the stage; Mr. Krasznahorkai’s prose weaves between them, penetrating the human and divine in equal measure, until it settles in the Hell below, where we learn how Master Kazuyuki once tried to persuade his family to join him in a mass suicide.
Scenes, too, even as closed loops, require spectators, and, most crucially, their gazes. The word gaze abounds in Seiobo. Early, and often, the gaze is an object of discipline; it must be trained in order to sustain contemplation of the beautiful, and only in this way does the novel proffer the possibility of transcendence. Eyes in the novel overpower with their significance, especially when they peer from art works imbued with the aura of ritual, as in the case of the Amida Buddha:
              …but they cannot bear to look away from Amida, for most of the believers remember
              very well how the statue looked across the decades, a dark shadow on the altar, with
              almost no contour, almost no light, yet now it is truly resplendent, resplendent in the
              wondrous face the wondrous eyes, but this pair of eyes, if even touching lightly upon
              them, does not see them but looks onto a further place, onto a distance that no one here
              is able to conceive…
On the other hand, the undisciplined human gaze, which it turns out, belongs to every one of us, resolves itself in the pure Hell of the other. Of course, the idea that “Hell is other people” is premised on the gaze that was so crucial to Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and No Exit, where the look or gaze of another is the fount of existential anxiety and dread. Allusive variations on the phrase “no exit” recur throughout Seiobo, most powerfully in the chapter titled “Christo Morto,” which takes place in Venice and works as a comedic (if disturbing) revision of Sartre’s own essay on the same. In the opening section of “Christo Morto,” the protagonist thinks that a man in a pink shirt who “gazes” at him is also trying to murder him. When he turns to look back at the man, while crossing a bridge, the “chilly sensation in his body” escalates from “anxiety” to “sharp fear.” When the protagonist finally realizes that he is not being chased at all, he sits at a café, orders a cup of coffee, and reads a newspaper headline, one that quotes Pope Benedict:
The man attempts to shrug off the headline (“there’s no heaven, no purgatory, that’s fine, to hell with the whole thing”), but he is plagued by the notion that he is somehow, mysteriously, “flirting with danger.” Later he visits the San Rocco, where, like Sartre, he seeks the paintings of Tintoretto. Instead he becomes literally captivated by an anonymous painting of a Christo morto or Dead Christ—in a moment that catches Mr. Krasznahorkai’s sly wink to Sartre in a frieze. As the man attempts to flee the terror of the Dead Christ, to exit the San Rocco, he has no idea that for him “there would never be any exit from this building, not ever.”
While contemplating a novel with its own Cristo morto—Dostoevsky’s The Idiot—Walter Benjamin once noted that “the concept of eternity negates infinity.” It is now obvious that Seiobo There Below is the purest expression of this principle in contemporary literature, especially if we take “eternity” to mean “unending Hell.” To illustrate the way Hell eats infinity, Mr. Krasznahorkai embellishes his novel with a cruel joke. Its sections are arranged according to the Fibonacci sequence, a series where successive integers are always the sum of the prior two. The Fibonacci sequence is often rendered visually as a spiral, toward infinity, and this optimistic picture is routinely paired with the observation that the ratio between two Fibonacci numbers is very near what we have come to know as the Golden Ratio, that mathematical foundation of uncountable human masterpieces in architecture, painting, music, and more. Of course, the novel reminds us again and again that such aspirations toward infinite expression are bound to be lost in the eternal sway of human lunacy. It is just as probable, anyway, that the infinite spiral implied by the Fibonacci sequence points downward, to the Below.
The penultimate chapter of Seiobo, “Ze’ami is Leaving,” ends with a corpse. The final chapter, “Screaming Beneath the Earth,” as the title suggests, is nothing but pure Hell, one that plays out the Mephistophelian joke begun with the Fibonacci sequence:
              …they are hidden deep below the earth in the darkness, and with their mouths
              open wide they scream, the graves they were meant to serve collapsed onto them
              long ago; and collapsing in layers, buried them completely, so that they became
              walled into the earth, among the stolons, the ciliates, the rotifers, the tardigrades,
              the mites, the worms, the snails, the isopods…and before their cataract-clouded
              bulging eyes could stare, for the earth is so thick and so heavy, from all directions
              there is only that, everywhere earth and earth, and all around them is that impen-
              etrable, impervious, weighty darkness that lasts truly for all time to come…
Mr. Krasznahorkai’s pyrexic prose, with its aleatoric yet precise movements through matter and consciousness, retained its heat even as it expanded beyond the Hungarian deadfall, from Satantango to War and War. Yet nothing could have prepared the reader for the boundless scope and unerring erudition of Seiobo There Below. As it shifts from epoch to epoch, meditating on temples, ancient statues, masterworks of painting and architecture, Baroque music, and the abstemious will required to craft and absorb such wonders, the narrative works to overpower familiar arrangements of the novel. As an act of sustained literary creation, as an astonishingly new rendition of Hell—we can say, without fear of infamy—it possesses few if any rivals in the contemporary scene. - 

These stories are about the sacred. Their high artistic character is not in question for a single moment: the flow of the sentences, frequently continuing over pages and broken up only by commas, is captivating; the stories’ forceful progression toward the moment when the sacred appears is masterly; the connection of the separate sections by a half-concealed group of motifs and their arrangement into a Fibonacci sequence are irresistible.
As if this achievement were not enough, after two or three stories an unnameable, haunting quality, beyond all the beauty of mere appearance, emerges from the aesthetic pleasures offered by Krasznahorkai’s unusual prose. We sense how the stories challenge us as readers; we begin to argue and debate with them. Are they right, or are we? “They” are the Russian Orthodox monks under the spell of icons, the Japanese Buddhists under the spell of a Buddha statue, the despairing Westerner unexpectedly under the spell of a Renaissance Christ. With Krasznahorkai, something has returned to art that was taken for granted and considered essential by Dostoevsky, and that has since then become more than a little diluted: the question leading toward the truthfulness of life.
Krasznahorkai brings his enlightened, relativist present-day Westerners, alienated to a greater or lesser degree, face-to-face with the absolute demands that the sacred makes of existence. The medium through which the sacred speaks in his work is the sacred art of the past, approached in stories that, by the author’s account, often have an autobiographical basis. Readers who may themselves be indifferent to religion will not find themselves repelled by this book, with its breathtaking diagnosis of the times. For Krasznahorkai is no preacher: the dimension in which he works is one of questing, inquiring, doubting. Any overweening earnestness is undercut with the irony that accompanies his often eccentric seekers on their path. And he evades the greatest danger of all, inflated pathos, with the most surprising of his stratagems: while he writes of art purely as an expression of the sacred, he does so in the unemotional key of a scholarly expert discoursing on the technical aspects of art history. Hence the Russian icons are, on the one hand, windows through which there shines a world beyond this one, and through which we may gain visions of the hereafter, yet, on the other hand, the religious narrative is directly confronted with a strikingly well-informed art-historical essay on the traditions and techniques of icon painting.
The luminous inner view and the profane external perspective of the holy are assigned a particularly convincing opposition in the story “He Rises at Dawn.” It describes the work of mask-carver Ito Ryosuke over a period of almost two months completing a Hannya mask for the Noh play Aoi no Ue. We witness every one of the minute steps in this procedure, in great detail and with atmospheric intensity, from the transfer of the stencil lines onto a piece of hinoki cypress wood until the completion of the masterpiece, which marks “[that] his hands have brought a demon into the world, and that it will do harm.” For his work, the carver withdraws into a wooden box he has made, to have perfect silence and seclusion. And yet it is not altogether certain who exactly is performing the work. For the carver does not think or plan anything;  “within him there is no desire for the exquisite”; “his head is as empty as if he had been stunned by something, only his hand knows, the chisel knows why this must happen.” Only his hand—and his eyes. Again and again, he holds the mask-in-progress at arm’s length, comparing it with the stencil and with two photographs inside his work box: “this is the model, the ideal to be sought, this is what he must, in his own way, be equal to.” A time comes when his hand and eyes are no longer equal to the task unaided, and he lends support to his eyes with a “system of mirrors,” tilting and revolving mirrors which he installs around the box.
This gaze is contrasted with the external, intellectualized perspective of Western visitors, who pester the carver with “dreadfully tactless questions.” The Westerners want to know “what is the Noh, and what is the meaning of the hannya-mask, and how can there be ‘something sacred’ from a simple hinoki tree.” To the carver, their interrogation is a confusing tangle of questions, to which he can only stammer the briefest of replies: “…he does not occupy himself with such questions as what is the Noh, and what makes a mask ‘spell-binding,’ he merely occupies himself with doing the very best he can within the limits of his abilities, and with the aid of prayers recited secretly in shrines, he only knows movements, methods of work, chiseling, carving, polishing, that is to say, the method, the entire practical order of operations of tradition, but not the so-called ‘big questions.’”
In this way, the story reflects a certain polarity of East and West, at once steeped in the ethnographic nature of a craft and at the same time religious. The hand and its unconscious actions appear in opposition to the head and its questions about meaning; we find here the contrast of intellectual reflection and the external reflection from the system of mirrors. Indeed, most of these stories revolve around fundamental issues in philosophy. One of Krasznahorkai’s protagonists, at loose ends, attempts by a superhuman effort of the will to see the Acropolis on a hot summer’s day. But he sees nothing at all, blinded by the glaring sunlight and his own sweat, and at the end of the story he decides to return to a group of Athenian friends who have renounced all strivings of willpower and individual endeavor and simply do nothing all day.
The key philosophical motifs in these stories are of being overwhelmed, beaten down. Of one character’s response to an angel in an icon we read: “almost immediately at the sight he collapsed.” Of Baroque music: “it subdues one, breaks one’s heart to bits, knocks one to the ground.” A visitor to the Alhambra is “is so stunned by the beauty, by this beauty that is so, but so unbelievably beautiful that he thinks he is struck by vertigo,” where “a truth never before manifested reveals itself.” And a museum attendant who has been devoting his entire attention for decades to the Venus de Milo is “mesmerized,” “feet rooted to the ground.”
Krasznahorkai does not shy away from superlatives when he aims to convey the presence of the “celestial realm.” But, despite the philosophical appurtenances and the essayistic appearance, these stories are not sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought. For the concepts and superlatives are no more than buoys bobbing on the mighty current of Krasznahorkai’s prose. This musical river of language is the true event of this book, and is overpowering in itself. The current lifts up the reader, drags him down, catches him in whirlpools, is caught still, races across rapids, and with all of these qualities generates an experience that bars us from any distanced reading of the stories but forces us to live at the most intense pitch. It is impossible not to identify with these lonely, despairing, tired-of-life or just plain eccentric characters led by Krasznahorkai toward their moment of truth. We are drawn so close to them that it continually astonishes us when we realize that the stories are told not in the first but in the third person.

Of course, what we see here is yet one more balancing act by the great storyteller, László Krasznahorkai: just as he can be essayistic without slipping into didacticism, and emotional without turning bathetic, so too he remains wary of assigning the central position to his solitary and despairing characters, reserving that place to the current that tears everything with it—in one moment narrative, in the next meditative and interpretative—to the current of his prose. - Andreas Isenschmid


László Krasznahorkai, Satantango, Trans. by George Szirtes, New Directions, 2013.
      read it at Google Books

Already famous as the inspiration for the filmmaker Béla Tarr’s six-hour masterpiece, Satantango is proof, as the spellbinding, bleak, and hauntingly beautiful book has it, that “the devil has all the good times.” The story of Satantango, spread over a couple of days of endless rain, focuses on the dozen remaining inhabitants of an unnamed isolated hamlet: failures stuck in the middle of nowhere. Schemes, crimes, infidelities, hopes of escape, and above all trust and its constant betrayal are Krasznahorkai’s meat. “At the center of Satantango,” George Szirtes has said, “is the eponymous drunken dance, referred to here sometimes as a tango and sometimes as a csardas. It takes place at the local inn where everyone is drunk. . . . Their world is rough and ready, lost somewhere between the comic and tragic, in one small insignificant corner of the cosmos. Theirs is the dance of death.” “You know,” Mrs. Schmidt, a pivotal character, tipsily confides, “dance is my one weakness.”

“Linguistically [Satantango] is a stunning novel, but it's tough going, an hours-long slog through mud and meaninglessness and superstition that will leave an indelible mark on anyone who gets through it. ”— The Telegraph [UK]

“Krasznahorkai produces novels that are riveting in their sinewy momentum and deeply engaging in the utter humanity of their vision.”— The Dublin Review of Books

“Krasznahorkai's sentences are snaky, circuitous things, near-endless strings of clauses and commas that through reversals, hesitations, hard turns and meandering asides come to embody time itself, to stretch it and condense it, to reveal its cruel materiality, the way it at once traps us and offers, always deceptively, to release us from its grasp, somewhere out there after the last comma and the final period: after syntax, after words. ”— The Nation

“Krasznahorkai is a poet of dilapidation, of everything that exists on the point of not-existence. He draws a community of oddballs and obsessives trying desperately to combat the passage of time as everything around them sinks into the mud of an endless rain. ”— The Independent

“A writer without comparison, László Krasznahorkai plunges into the subconscious where this moral battle takes place, and projects it into a mythical, mysterious, and irresistible work of post-modern fiction, a novel certain to hold a high rank in the canon of Eastern European literature.”— The Coffin Factory

“A bruising study of expectation and failure.”— Bookslut

“Krasznahorkai proves himself to be capable of bringing anything to life, and Satantango's pages are teeming with it.”— Critical Mob

“His wry, snake-like sentences produce — or unspool — layer upon layer of psychological insight, metaphysical revelation, and macroscopic historical perspective.”— L Magazine

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. - sebald.wordpress.com/

Interview with George Szirtes

Paris Review recommends Sarrazin & Krasznahorkai

NYRB on ‘Satantango’

‘Satantango’ Wins Best Translated Book Award

The Krasznahorkai, Tarr, Neumann Issue

The Millions Year in Reading: Garth Halberg Loves New Directions

City Lights Bookstore celebrates László Krasznahorkai’s Satantango

George Szirtes Converses with The Quarterly Conversation

The Telegraph Calls Satantango One of the Best of the Year

Satantango as Reviewed by the Dublin Review of Books

The Guardian talks with László Krasznahorkai

Words Without Borders on “Satantango”

The Guardian on “Satantango”

László Krasznahorkai Reads from “Satantango”

The Quarterly Conversation on “Satantango”

László Krasznahorkai on “The Leonard Lopate Show”

KGB Bar on “Satantango”

László Krasznahorkai at The Library of Congress

Sun Sluice Discusses László Krasznahorkai at the Paula Cooper Gallery

New Statesman on “Satantango”

The Independent on László Krasznahorkai

The Guardian on “Satantango”

The Millions Interviews László Krasznahorkai

Guernica Interviews László Krasznahorkai

The New York Times Book Review on “Satantango”

The Millions on “Satantango”

The New Inquiry on “Satantango”

László Krasznahorkai, The Bill: For Palma Vecchio, at Venice, Trans. by George Szirtes, Sylph Editions, 2013.

This story, a single story-long sentence about a man and his whore, was originally published in
Best European Fiction 2011
In The Bill, László Krasznahorkai’s madly lucid voice pours forth in a single, vertiginous, eleven-page sentence addressing Palma Vecchio, a sixteenth-century Venetian painter. Peering out from the pages are Vecchio’s voluptuous, bare-breasted blondes, a succession of models transformed on the canvas into portraits of apprehensive sexuality. Alongside these women, the writer that Susan Sontag called “the Hungarian master of apocalypse” interrogates Vecchio’s gift: Why does he do it? How does he do it? And why are these models so afraid of him even though he, unlike most of his contemporaries, never touches them? The text engages with the art, asking questions only the paintings can answer.

“László Krasznahorkai’s taut, almost explosive texts resemble prose poems more than short stories or conventional novella chapters, though they do not pretend to lyricism.”—Nation

“A writer whose characters often exhibit a claustrophobic interiority. . . Krasznahorkai delights in unorthodox description; no object is too insignificant for his worrying gaze. . . . He offers us stories that are relentlessly generative and defiantly irresolvable. They are haunting, pleasantly weird and, ultimately, bigger than the worlds they inhabit.”- Jacob Silverman

László Krasznahorkai and Max Neumann, Animalinside, Sylph Editions and New Directions, 2011.

As if some chained being had to shake its essence free, as if art taken to its limit were a form of howling, Animalinside explodes from its first line: "He wants to break free, attempts to stretch open the walls, but he has been tautened by them, and there he remains in this tautening, in this constraint, and there is nothing to do but howl. . . ." To create this work that strains against all constraints, László Krasznahorkai began from one of Max Neumann's paintings; Neumann, spurred into action, created 14 more images, which unleashed an additional 13 texts from the author. Animalinside is the rare case of two matchless artists meeting across disciplines, and New Directions is very proud to publish a limited edition of this powerful novella, exquisitely produced by Sylph Editions and the Cahiers Series of the American University of Paris with a deluxe seven-stage printing process for the amazing Neumann images.

Animalinside is a cultural event in itself. Simultaneously an art book and a literary work, its thirty-nine pages, organized into fourteen pairings of image and text, mark the genre-defying collaboration of German painter Max Neumann and Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai.  Neumann limns the book’s principal image: always in profile, his featureless, (usually) black mastiff dominates the book. Leaping or howling, alone or in multiples, the dog appears in all of the volume’s fourteen visual representations.  The few faceless human silhouettes in this book are the objects of the dog’s painted menace and verbal violence.  Although the dog will sometimes appear in multiples and call itself we, the first dog we meet is single, and it seems to threaten one (unpainted) human being called you, who has caused the mastiff to become entrapped. You soon becomes an altogether more encompassing designation that refers to all human beings in the written text and out of it, with the readers bearing the brunt of the assault, book in hand.
The dog speaks of its own arrival out of nowhere: its isolation and entrapment in a painted box, behind a painted wall and in ill-defined darkness, signaled by a rectangle of black paint. In the accompanying written soliloquies, this entrapment is clearly described as taking place in a metaphysical space you cannot hope to comprehend.  The dog’s main concern is the havoc it will wreak “if I get out of here.” What it will do is: rip apart my “little master,” make an end of humanity, and extinguish life on earth. The tone is menacing, the aim to avenge—what, precisely, we never know. At most we “hear” two painted dogs (who loom over two painted human beings) remark: “. . .the judgment has been brought upon you, and you do not merit the earth . . . it’s the end of you lot, not even a trace of you all shall remain here.”
Loaded with menace, the fourteen image/text sets of Animalinside are strikingly related (visually and thematically), but not in any of the linear, causal ways that belong to storytelling and narrative. Instead, taken together, the concert of images and texts creates a psychological portrait of a monster. Its story, if we can call it that, is the amplification of its aggressive rage, for the dreamlike succession of image/text pairings respects a principle of magnification: each image/text threatens more gravely than the last.
To some extent, the unusual, nonlinear nature of this tale of amplification must derive from the painter-driven nature of the project. Neumann and Krasznahorkai are friends, and so it was perhaps natural enough that Krasznahorkai wrote the first text in this collection in response to a painting of Neumann’s hanging on his wall. Then a process of mutual incitement seems to have set in. In his preface, Colm Tóibín says that Neumann, spurred on by Krasznahorkai’s first text, “made the rest of the images to which Krasznahorkai, his mind let loose by the captured visuals, responded by writing the thirteen other texts.” Still, while the choice of visual imagery was the painter’s, the combined effect of the two artists’ mutual instigation and their shared knowledge of each other’s work has resulted in such a profound integration of image and text that it would be utterly misleading to say that the written parts of this book “illustrate” the painted ones (or vice versa). Neither a novel nor a story about a conflict with two sides, this series of mutual incitements can be described as a set of visits to various stages or episodes in the life of a force and/or a mentality—represented by the dog—that finally perpetrates Armageddon in the final pages of the book.  Did Neumann or Krasznahorkai initially plan to end on this apocalyptic note? We don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. Animalinside is one beautiful, scary book. Its images and texts perform the apocalyptic mentality better than anything since Slim Pickens’s bomb ride in Dr. Strangelove.
Pictorially, we enter a grave space, dominated by Neumann’s emblematic dog. Lacking forelimbs, the leaping, muscular figure of the cover image appears in white on a black ground, as if its silhouette had been cut from black paper and then laid over a white sheet. The optical illusion suggests that the animal lives below some upper surface—in that sense, it is inside, as the title suggests. Within the book’s covers the animal is black and shiny, always in silhouette, with a slick look as if composed of wet ink, in contrast to the pale, matte backgrounds on which it appears. While two of these backgrounds appear cleanly painted in white or ochre, most look smudged, as if color had been applied and later removed. Some have been stained with watery paint-box colors among which fresh, bloodstain red stands out. The general effect is to place the dog in a separate dimension from the space around it. Neumann’s human figures are often composed of the same black matter. It’s not possible to describe all of Neumann’s technique, but it is fair to say he is a master of “faceless figures . . . in a bare space” to borrow a few words from Le Figaro art critic, Jean-Marie Tasset. While the human beings in this world may seem, as Tasset says, ready to “gutter and go out . . . swallowed by silence” Neumann’s emblematic dog is powerfully present in its own dimension, the place where the animalinside leaps and howls, menacing and fearsome. Beyond this, Neumann’s images either feel ominous or depict calamity—in ways Krasznahorkai’s texts reinforce.
László Krasznahorkai is an acknowledged master of the apocalypse. One of his novels, The Melancholy of Resistance (New Directions, 1989), brilliantly translated by George Szirtes, is set in a provincial Hungarian town in a surreal era, cut off from history. A circus, consisting mainly of a huge stuffed whale and a sinister dwarf, comes to town—somehow tipping off  increasingly dreadful civil disorder that culminates in society’s tearing itself apart in mass violence perpetrated by human hunting packs.  There’s much more to The Melancholy of Resistance than that, but it’s worth noting that the provincial town is torn apart by its human population’s animalic way of going to the dogs.
Krasznahorkai wrote the first Animalinside text as a response to his friend’s painting in which a doglike figure (with a set of hind limbs weirdly humanized by Neumann’s lengthening them in relation to the torso) “taughtens” itself within an enclosed space as if arrested in a leap while it thrusts its muzzle against a wall. Neumann has manipulated the pictorial space, though, so that if you look closely at the image the dog appears to inhabit a different spatial world than the one depicted in the rest of the painting. A portion of the dog’s soliloquy converts the literal circumstance of the painting—the limitations posed by perspective and two-dimensionality—into a metaphysical lament:
I have nothing in common with this space, in the entire God-given world I have nothing in common with this structure, with these perspectives, and these perspectives are not even made so that I can exist in them, so that I don’t even exist, I only howl and howling is not identical with existence, on the contrary howling is despair, the horror of that instance of awakening when the condemned—myself—comes to realize that he has been excluded from existence and there is no way back, if there even was a way here . . .
Written in an evolving dialogue with Neumann’s visual work, each of the following thirteen texts show Krasznahorkai creating the dog-monster as a being cut out from nature, howling, existing as a soliloquy that unspools through long, agglutinative sentences. These are marvelously (and therefore horrifyingly) translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet.
Remarkably, this series of linked images and texts culminates as the dog and its double face off over the edge of an annihilated planet where all that remains are “dead cold ashes, in which we stand facing each other, tensed, on each side pure muscle, and now there is only the question: which of the two of us shall be king.”  This is the final result of the dog-monster’s rapid development from cringing cur to the feral harbinger and (according to these texts) perpetrator of this particular apocalypse.  Along the way, the dog-beast in its various incarnations presents itself as an animal with a dual symbolism, or, anyhow, as a violently animalic essence inside us and as a violently animalic force in the world outside ourselves.
On the one hand, then, the dog is inside man in general. According to the dog’s harangues, it is locked inside a shapeless metaphysical space that forms part of our thinking and yet is inaccessible to ourselves. “ . . . you know nothing, nothing, nothing about anything, because you don’t even know you’re thinking about me.” But you are thinking, the dog implies. I am what you are thinking. Moreover, the dog considers himself the bearer of human meaning: “you understand annihilation and that is why I am coming, so that there will be some meaning to the very fears, the many terrors and anxieties and worries, which are yourselves.” And, finally, the dog is the violent amalgam and essence and cause of these fears and anxieties breaking out of you—us, human beings: “. . .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 always have been.”
The animal outside, by contrast, is somewhat easier to understand.  The dog is a kind of menace, even a juggernaut of sorts, besieging us from without.  Asserting its otherness, it stands over human beings like a nightmare sentry in two of the book’s most frightening images. Indeed, the dog does nothing if not announce its annihilating intensions, and wields then as a constant threat. As the dogs jointly say at one point:  “if you look up you can see how the light sparkles in our eyes, but you don’t look up . . . and that is how life ends for you, because it is impossible to hide away from us . . .”  Ultimately, the animal’s duality—as this being both springing from us and hurtling toward us at the same time—is the key to its utter strangeness and alien quality.  Unrecognized as a foreign element inside ourselves, the dog seems to exist in another realm entirely or to leap out at us from another dimension.
Krasznahorkai’s distinctive use of language animates this small, explosive book and holds its many strands together. In the preface to Animalinside, Tóibín describes it as “a force struggling against . . . easy consumption” that arms itself with “clauses, sub-clauses and asides, preparing high-voltage assaults on the reader’s nervous system.” Tóibín’s engagement with Krasznahorkai’s sentence-making is the highest possible praise for Ottilie Mulzet’s translation, praise it mightily deserves. And the book emerges as celebration of two world class artists, Neumann and Krasznahorkai, who we realize are so potent and commanding not because they live outside this world—fantastical as this project sometimes is—but because they live in it.
Citizens of a continent that suffered war, Fascism and Communism (and the corruptions that reemerged in its wake) Neumann and Krasznahorkai are part of a world that saw itself go up in flames. They have belonged to a world that saw evil strongmen brutalizing the rest of the population. These days people want to know who all the villains were, and, more important still, what villainy really is. And so questions inevitably arise: Are they us?  Is what they were and what they represent something inside us—a foreign element, like that dog, we have yet to recognize?   Could be. Only, “we” don’t feel ourselves capable of certain acts, which is why, to us, those deeds seem to leap out of another dimension. - Jean Harris

To my mind, Samuel Beckett is the author who was most able to broaden one single thought - the must-go-on-ness of life - into a universe of forms. He turned a remarkably powerful insight about the way life was experienced in the mid-20th century into an engine for producing, among other things, a trilogy of anti-novels that meditated upon death and the limits of language, and a post-apocalyptic farce about a woman who lives life buried waist-deep in dirt.   
The Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai is among the handful of authors working today who could reasonably be said to carry Beckett's torch. As with Beckett, Krasznahorkai's writing manifests a formal fascination with language that goes far beyond a desire to tell a story. In an era of chaos, his literature springs forth from a search to understand how language might create suitable myths to replace the ones that have been long since torn down.
New Directions has led the way in bringing Krasznahorkai into English, having already published his acclaimed novels War and War and The Melancholy of Resistance, and planning to rerelease the author's breakthrough book, 1985's Sátántangó, early next year. In the meantime, New Directions has just published in English a slim work called Animalinside, which New Directions originally co-published in Paris as part of Sylph Editions' impressive Cahiers series.
Animalinside is 48 pages long, but it is a large read and you will see few more beautifully produced works of literature this year. The project grew out of Krasznahorkai's relationship with the German artist Max Neumann, whose painting of a silhouetted, dog-like figure oddly straining within a sparsely detailed enclosure had long hung on Krasznahorkai's wall. One day the author wrote a text in response to this painting, which spurred Neumann to create 14 more works of art, and Krasznahorkai 13 more textual responses. Aware that the final product would be published in the Cahier's pamphlet-like format, Krasznahorkai necessarily limited the length of each of his responses to what would fit on one or two pages.
The result of this international, multimedia collaboration is Animalinside, a book in which a galaxy of implication springs from Neumann's striking, muscular animal form. It is an iconic image, somewhere between a demented howl and a vicious leap, instantly recognisable, adaptable, enigmatic. The figure features prominently in each of Neumann's paintings, which are reproduced magnificently in the book. The reproductions' range of texture is superb, capturing the subtle, diffuse shifts in shade that characterise Neumann's backgrounds and the crisp blotches of colour that seep atop them.
As with the images, the powerful centre of Krasznahorkai's prose is the creature. He begins by apprehending it from the outside, telling us as though projecting into a Rorschach blot "he wants to break free ... there is nothing else to do but howl". In these first lines Krasznahorkai establishes the creature's mind, as well as the book's obsession with the limits that exist within infinities: "they have placed him inside this moment, but in doing so have excluded him from the moment previous, as well as the one to follow, so that he howls with one howl, expelled from time."
In the following sections, Krasznahorkai switches from the third-person to the first, building up the creature's "persona" out of remarkably strange attributes. In section II, for instance, the creature defines itself almost entirely in the negative, proceeding from the words "you can't touch me" to an enormous list of qualities that it is not, concluding with the one thing it is: "Within me there is only hatred, only disgust, only fear." Section III is its vicious declaration of spatial infinitude, beginning with "I extend from one church spire to the other" and proceeding up through being bigger than the "universe" before challenging even the nature of quantification: "I am bigger than everything that can be measured."
Yet the creature becomes marvellously difficult to pin down, Animalinside deriving a Beckett-like depth from its constantly contradictory, self-defeating, unreliable statements. Thus, in section X the animal says of the howl that was previously called an expression of unimaginable angst "we don't know why but it is good to howl, and it was always like this". Even more unsettling is section XII, which begins quite disarmingly with "my little master, where have you gone?" The creature proceeds to rather pathetically beg for its dinner before declaring that when it grows up "I will rip away your ears, because then I will tear off your nose, because then I will burn out your eyes". It then finally concludes by repeating "my little master", which, at this point, can only be read with heavy irony. Were that not enough, section XIII repeats the feints and threats of XII almost word for word before concluding with the even more ironic "I'm only kidding - my little master." Elsewhere the creature variously: threatens "you" with a death that will occur in an infinitesimal moment; describes itself as a pathology inside a "you" waiting to burst out; and speaks of itself as a "we" standing in "judgment".
Although Animalinside is a writhingly complex work, the language throughout tends towards the simple. Krasznahorkai builds up lengthy sentences out of short, comma-spliced sentence fragments made from lapidary words, and the book's power comes from how he layers repeated words and phrases into a sort of cumulative syntax. In an essay written for the website Hungarian Literature Online, the translator Ottilie Mulzet stated that Krasznahorkai gave her an "unequivocal" instruction: "There are many repetitions in the text, and this is very important; repeat everything exactly as it is in the original regardless of what the English language WANTS."
Krasznahorkai's imperative notwithstanding, Mulzet's translation does not feel foreign so much as stateless, a kind of transcontinental English suitable to the existentialist myth Krasznahorkai has created. In this it resembles other notable translated modernists, the aforementioned Beckett among them, as well as Thomas Bernhard, Sadegh Hedayat, all authors whose obsessive, repetitious prose feel less tied to a place and time than a way of thinking. Mulzet has done a fine job of maintaining Krasznahorkai's arid, almost inert rhythms while finding the proper words to get across the text's sense of irony, the strange mixture of doubt and certainty that characterises its language.
Animalinside is a remarkably open text, something like a collection of discontinuous forms clustered around an absent centre. It does not progress so much as exist as a network of suggestion: for instance, Beckett's profoundly conclusive "I can't go on, I'll go on" here becomes merely the theme on which section IX is set. Even the finitude of the book's final, 14th section, a scene of ash and expiration that sets up a final battle to end all battles, dissolves within the multiplicity of what has come before. How can we really trust that this is the end after all we've seen and heard?
Krasznahorkai's success with Animalinside is that, despite the feeling of great instability that undercuts any definite conclusion to this text, it nonetheless feels "about" something - and something important. The creature's deep contradictions make it into a complex, living entity, and the chaos itself becomes a source of understanding. In section XIV, the last two creatures in existence declare "we've made it undone in our hatred", adding that "no verb at all shall ever be heard again, no memories, no traces, no judgment and not even any crime, no punishment, the last word died away long ago". Despite these admissions they continue to speak, and what's more they end with a final clash to discover who will be "king". The nothingness over which they preside, it would seem, is purely metaphorical - not the end of existence but the end of meaning.
That is as terrible a consequence of complete isolation as I can imagine, and I would venture that it is the natural state of Krasznahorkai's creature. It is notable that Animalinside is at its most nostalgic when the creature is recalling - or imagining - time spent with its fellows, where the simplicity of experience forms a common bond that does not need language. The book is perhaps best understood as an exploration of a consciousness trapped within an inability to communicate. It is a deep, upsetting vision, one that marks Krasznahorkai as an original whose prose must be wrestled with. - Scott Esposito

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Review by Jeff Alford
The prose of Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai is full of menace, but it would be a mistake to read the menace either as political or as coming from nowhere. In novels such as The Melancholy of Resistance and War & War, his imagination feeds on real fear and real violence; he has a way of making fear and violence seem all the more real and present, however, by removing them from a familiar context.
It is fascinating to watch the work of László Krasznahorkai as though in action, spurred into sentences by the suggestive images of the German artist Max Neumann. The writer worked first from one of Neumann’s images and then Neumann, spurred on in turn by the words, made the rest of the images to which Krasznahorkai, his mind let loose by the captured visuals, responded by writing more texts. What follows is an excerpt from the book, Animalinside, that resulted from their collaboration.Colm Toibin

Drawing by Max Neumann
Withdraw into protection and safeguard all that is important to you, take it down to below the earth, all that you have, take down the jewelry, the food, the children’s photographs, the armchair where you like to sit with a book in your hand, the curtain, behind which you feel yourselves to be safe, from the window; gather together all that was dear to you, gather together the identity cards and baptismal certificates, take the money out of the bank and hide it in the cellar behind the wall, but really every piece of jewelry, every scrap of food, every photograph of the child, every armchair and every beloved book, every curtain and every document, and really all of the money down to the very last cent, and really hide all of these things well, but really well, under the earth, so that at least you will be able to believe until then that there was some sense to it all, until we get there, seek out protection at least until then, while you are still able to believe that we haven’t got there yet, believe and hope, hope and believe very much that it is rational to prepare for our arrival, just move away and pack up, take the chests stuffed full of pilfered loot, take them one after the other, down below the earth, at least until then do not think about how it is not necessary to wait for us, that it is not necessary to be afraid of us, that we are coming and that there is no need to worry about us, that the day is coming and we are coming, and seeing as it’s already here, seeing as that day has come, and you didn’t notice that it has come, here we are, we see it all, we see what you’re doing with your little chests, we see what you’re doing with your little possessions, and we see what you’re doing with the child, we see everything already from up here, because we are watching you, if you look up you can also see how the light sparkles in our eyes, but you don’t look up, and that is how the day ends for you, and that is how life ends for you, because it is impossible to hide away from us, there is no depth within the earth that could be a refuge for you, we are here, above, here, look we’re watching from up here what you’re doing down there, but we don’t have to watch everything, because we already know everything about you, because the judgment has been brought upon you, and you do not merit the earth, that is what it says in the judgment, because you have gambled away your luck upon the earth, that is what it says in the judgment, because you have become unworthy of the earth belonging to you, all you lot will clear out of here now and someone else is coming, someone else shall live upon the earth, it’s the end of you lot, not even a trace of you all shall remain here, that is what it says in the judgment, so that now you might as well put down that last chest, that too is written in the judgment, and that is why we came here, to execute that judgment upon you.

Drawing by Max Neumann
You are my master, I’m inside you, just like that, inside you, you who are standing here, your hands clasped behind your back, you lean forward attentively and look, but really where do you think you are, in the zoo? a blossoming meadow? in an orchard!? Well no, no, not in the zoo and not in the blossoming meadow and not in an orchard but within your own self, you are completely alone, there where between you and me there isn’t any distance at all, because I’m not out there but I’m in here, because I was always inside you, at first just as a kind of cell, or rather something like a mistake in a cell, but then suddenly I grew and now I exist within you with all my force, you carry me everywhere with yourself, your bearing is nice, your clothes are nice, your coat is nice, your shoes are nice, nice and shiny and not even a speck of dust on them, not even a drop of mud, not even a speck of grimy slush, nothing, you are elegant, you went, you strolled, and now something stopped you, or rather you thought oh I’ll stop here, I’ll clasp my hands behind my back, and I’ll look at something, I will look and see what this thing is in front of me, that’s what you thought and that’s what you did, the only thing is, I am there inside, you carry me within your own self, it’s of no help at all, not the nice bearing with the head nicely tilted to one side, not the nice clothes, not the nice coat, not the two nice shoes neatly shining, nothing, and now you’re still thinking about nice things, thinking for example well let’s have a look at what’s over there, that looks pretty ghastly let’s admit it, you say good-naturedly and unsuspectingly, you clasp your hands behind your back, you put your two nice clean shoes next to each other, and you lean to the left and you look at me, erroneously, because it’s not me that you’re looking at, even if you think you are, because I, that thing that looks so ghastly, is within you, because I am within you, and I am watching all of your nice thoughts, as you think to yourself how pleasant it is here in the orchard, how marvelous it is here in this blossoming meadow, how enchanting it is to stroll a little now here in the zoo, and I look at all of these nice thoughts, and I’m watching how nicely you look and you think, but here I am inside, and I’m extending outwards, here I am inside, and I’m straining more and more, and always forwards, and always in an outward direction, and at one point I will break out, and that will put an end to all the nice thoughts, an end to the nice looks, and an end to the nice clothes and the nice coat and to how nicely you hold your head, and you look, because then you won’t be looking anywhere at all, you won’t even have any eyes, because I shall begin by corroding both of them, 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 always have been.
Translated by Ottilie Mulzet
This text is drawn from Animalinside, by László Krasznahorkai and Max Neumann, translated by Ottilie Mulzet, with an introduciton by Colm Toibin. It was published jointly by the Center for Writers and Translators of The American University of Paris, Sylph Editions, and New Directions press, as part of the Cahiers series. 
…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. - sebald.wordpress.com/

László Krasznahorkai, War & War, Trans. by George Szirtes, New Directions, 2006.
      read it at Google Books

War & War, László Krasznahorkai's second novel in English from New Directions, begins at a point of danger: on a dark train platform Korim is on the verge of being attacked by thuggish teenagers and robbed; and from here, we are carried along by the insistent voice of this nervous clerk. Desperate, at times almost mad, but also keenly empathic, Korim has discovered in a small Hungarian town's archives an antique manuscript of startling beauty: it narrates the epic tale of brothers-in-arms struggling to return home from a disastrous war. Korim is determined to do away with himself, but before he can commit suicide, he feels he must escape to New York with the precious manuscript and commit it to eternity by typing it all on the world-wide web. Following Korim with obsessive realism through the streets of New York (from his landing in a Bowery flophouse to his moving far uptown with a mad interpreter), War and War relates his encounters with a fascinating range of humanity, a world torn between viciousness and mysterious beauty. Following the eight chapters of War and War is a short "prequel acting as a sequel," "Isaiah," which brings us to a dark bar, years before in Hungary, where Korim rants against the world and threatens suicide. Written like nothing else (turning single sentences into chapters), War and War affirms W. G. Sebald's comment that Krasznahorkai's prose "far surpasses all the lesser concerns of contemporary writing."

“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. - sebald.wordpress.com/

I said I’d been holding off reviewing this book, originally published in Hungarian in 1999 but only translated into English now, until I knew more of what to make of it, and I’m not sure if I’m quite there yet. But the past week has been personally rather lousy for me, and overlapping as it does with the conflagration in the Middle East between Israel and, well, nearly everyone else, War and War has been at the front of my mind in ways that I cannot totally quantify. The way it treats the amorphous yet concrete intersection of the personal and political is so convincingly evocative of my current admixture of petty personal woes and fatalistic political worries that I have to say that it is the book for now.
I thought Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance a fantastic book, a haunting and violent political allegory that had more to say than a hundred contemporary books. I wrestled with it as I do with Musil, Riding, Gass, and too few others. In its sweeping, uncanny world, it is the book J.M. Coetzee has tried to write several times, but never quite succeeded. (I think Waiting for the Barbarians comes closest.) So I looked forward to War and War, also translated by the poet George Szirtes, as the most promising book on the horizon this year.
War and War is a remarkable novel, and it is drastically different from Krasznahorkai’s previous novel. Stylistically, the huge sentences and paragraphs are there, as is the sheer bleakness and black humor, but this book is far more oblique. It is not an allegory, but neither is it a realistic narrative, nor a fantasy, and as unusual as his past work was, War and War is sui generis. It is intensely personal, and I think it works hard to defy easy analysis. Krasznahorkai was quite explicit about the narrative and thematic construction of The Melancholy of Resistance within the text; here he draws back whenever the text is about to be too conclusive.
The story is odd and spare. A Hungarian scholar, Korin, has located a historical manuscript of tremendous importance to him, and he wants to share it with all humanity. To do so, he goes to New York, the heart of the living world, makes acquaintances with some unpleasant characters, and purchases a computer and web site to post the manuscript. He describes the manuscript at length to everyone he encounters. Korin is quite touched (and out of touch), and by the time of his eventual suicide, one wonders how he made it so far.
The manuscript is something else entirely. We only hear about it through Korin’s descriptions, but it is one strange beast, placing four somewhat nebulous travelers in various historical times and places from Greece to Italy to Africa, usually just before some sort of catastrophe or war. Often their bete noir, the Mephistophelian Mastemann, makes an appearance. The manuscript becomes hazier and more chaotic, according to Korin, until he himself has no idea what to make of it, other than being convinced of its utter importance. His most explicit summary comes towards the end, speaking of the possible author Wlassich and the four men:
It was a way out that this Wlassich or whatever his name is, was seeking for them, but he could not find one that was wholly airy and fantastical so he sent them forth into the wholly real realm of history, into the reality of eternal war, and tried to settle them at a point that held the promise of peace, a promise that was never fulfilled, though he conjures this reality with ever more infernal power, with ever more devilish fidelity, even greater demonic sensitivity, and populates it with the products of his own imagination, in vain as it turns out, for their path leads but from war to war, and never from war to peace, and this Wlassich, or whoever it is, despairs ever more of his one-person, amateurish ritual, and eventually goes completely off his head, for there is no Way Out. (203)
Needless to say, Korin is living this nightmare himself, though in a rather abstruse manner. The severity with which he goes about his life, even the simple matter of traveling to New York and publishing the manuscript, is difficult to bear at times. It is this historical weight, the constant sense of grand war and a society that is too great and heavy with suffering for a person to contain, that is the heart of the book, as inexplicable as it may be. Korin suffers it constantly and acutely. Krasznahorkai does not give any simple explanation, or any real explanation at all, for Korin’s condition, in which the historical and personal have collapsed and are overwhelming him. But the “historical” is not quite what we read in the papers and in books; it is, as Korin says, “the version that has triumphed by stealth.”
As for the Way Out…Krasznahorkai leaves it somewhat open. The end uses a couple of metafictional conceits. One of them is quite a punchline, and the other is touchingly ingenuous. Both reinforce that Korin’s nightmare is meant to be shared, as it is Krasznahorkai’s and his readers’. In his online introduction, Krasznahorkai says:
there was an unexpected, fierce, poignant vision: a couple of people running for life in timeless devastation and meanwhile taking stock of all that they have to say good-bye to.
The book I started to write in 1992 rests on this vision, and given the feeling I had while working on it that there were less and less people who would grasp the meaning of a vision like mine, from 1996 on I tried to get in touch with them. I had been writing messages for two years and dividing them into separate sentences I had them published in literary journals. Then in 1998 I sent a kind of a last message, a story forwarded as a letter and entitled Megj&#xc3&#xb6tt &#xc3&#x89zsai&#xc3&#xa1s /Isaiah has come/ in which the future hero described the roots, origin and spirit of the novel announced to be published the following year.

Perhaps Krasznahorkai is trying to resituate Beckett and Kafka’s private mirrors of the self in known historical reality, a goal with which I am wholly sympathetic. His open conception of a narrow readership seems in line with this goal, and it matches the book’s concept as well, since Korin and the four travelers are such aberrant figures. I don’t know if I’m included in that readership, but for the last week I’ve felt like I am, felt shaken as Korin does. - David Auerbach

Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai’s War & War (Háború és Háború), first published in 1999, is a story of a total failure, a fool named Korin. Krasznahorkai’s “hero,” who works, similarly to the anti-hero of José Saramago’s 1997 novel All the Names, as an archivist—a man who, like one of Eliot’s living dead, is afraid not only to “eat a peach,” but is fearful of literally “losing his head” which, he is absurdly told by doctors, is only tangentially connected to his spine and will ultimately break loose and fall off.
The fiction begins with what will be a series of attacks on the “hero” as he is surrounded by members of a brutal young gang who attempt to rob him and are willing and ready to slit his throat. But the strange, incoherent story Korin begins to tell—the complexity of which the author suggests throughout his work by dividing his fiction into 2-3 page units, each consisting of one long, rambling sentence—strangely transfixes them, not so much because of its (im)possible content, but because of the intensity with which the old man speaks. To the young gang members he is a human specimen so ridiculous that they are fascinated by his absurdity, and, in listening to his tale, like Scherezade’s Schahriar, spare his life. Little do they imagine that he has a large sum of money sewn into the lining of his outdated and filthy greatcoat.
In the very next scene Korin repeats his verbal assault, this time in the company of a good-looking flight attendant to whom he, apologetically and, once again, somewhat incoherently, attempts to tell his life story. Apparently he has discovered by accident a manuscript in the archival files that has completely transformed him. As he reads and rereads this mysterious fiction, filed mistakenly with other family records, Korin realizes a new purpose in life. Abandoning his job, selling all his possessions, and attempting to escape the authorities he believes are determined, because of his condition, to deny him travel, our hero eludes his invisible trackers through a series of meandering train rides, ultimately arriving in a Budapest ticket office in hopes of continuing on to New York.
Because he has no visa he is forced to procure a quickly issued one at great expense. The travel agency, moreover, cannot assure him of space on a plane for the next few days. His intense conversation with the stewardess in the agency offices and his idiotic determinedness, however, work in his favor, and miraculously he arrives in New York.
Arriving without luggage and with no clear destination in mind, he is whisked away to security where he finds himself face to face with a disinterested Hungarian interpreter, who, like the others before him, is bored and transfixed by Korin’s attempts to explain himself. The interpreter loses his job because, recognizing the incompetence of the man he questions, he hands him his personal business card, containing his home address.
Not without further ado, Korin makes his way through the terminal and is delivered up by taxi to a Bowery flop, where for days he holds up before attempting to adventure out into the Manhattan streets. When he does leave the room, the event ends in a fearful encounter with the abject poor seemingly incarcerated in a nearby flophouse, and in horror Korin calls the number listed on the interpreter’s card. Since the interpreter now has no income he agrees to let a room to Korin and even helps him to set up—in what has been the secret aim of the man’s confused wonderings—a website where the former archivist hopes to post a copy of his discovered manuscript.
Perhaps the most poignant and intense moments of this episodic work occur in this apartment where the interpreter lives with his mistress—an abused Hispanic woman—who, knowing only a little Hungarian, nonetheless silently endures Korin’s breakfast litanies about his life and the mysterious manuscript he is determined to post to his website for posterity.
Gradually Korin becomes aware of the beatings she endures and the nefarious activities of his landlord, but, in his obsessive single-mindedness, he has little power to change the course of their fate. A friendship between the “hero” and the woman, however, develops, even if the words he shares with her have little meaning. Once more, the intensity with which he tells his story is what seems to matter. The reader, however, begins to perceive the nature of his literary discovery: a tale of four men (Kasser, Falke, Bengazza, and Toót) who voyage freely through time, in each story discovering a near-paradiscal society (the mythical Kommos and the historical Venice) or architectural wonders (the cathedral of Cologne and Hadrian’s Wall) that in the midst of their admiration are destroyed soon after the appearance of an enigmatic figure (Mastemann). We recognize that each version of the tale reveals the same message, that cultural and societal achievement and harmony is perpetually destroyed by evil. But Korin is confused by the various stylistic maneuvers of the storyteller, particularly in the last section, when the narrator—not unlike how others have perceived Korin himself—seems to go mad, jumbling together various lists and information that transgresses against any coherent message the story might wish to convey.
Safely ensconced in the interpreter’s apartment, where he is forbidden late afternoon and evening use of the computer, Korin ventures out, gradually exploring the unfathomable city around him. When, accordingly, he has finished posting his tale, and, after suffering, along with the interpreter’s lover, a series of strange events wherein intruders suddenly remove all the apartment’s contents, followed, a few days later, by new intruders delivering boxes that fill the small living space, the “hero”—piecing together these events with his discovery of a large cache of money hidden behind a piece of tiling in the toilet—escapes what has been his only home in this new world in order to seek someone in the Hungarian community who will sell him a gun, presumably to accomplish the suicide he has promised earlier in the narrative.
But even here, Korin reveals his incompetence. Hooking up with a slightly mad figure of the streets (a man who places manikins in various artfully life-like positions throughout the neighborhood) our “hero” stays the night with his newfound friend, awakening to discover photographs of work by the real-life artist Mario Merz upon the walls of the man’s apartment. One of Merz’s tent-like environments so moves Korin that he determines to travel to Zürich where he believes the author resides to seek out one of the structures in which to kill himself. If he has previously been blessed by a sort of innocent madness, armed with his new, negative resolve, Korin is no longer blessed and is finally robbed and left for dead on the streets; without money, he returns to the interpreter’s apartment to discover that both the man and his mistress have been brutally murdered. Now perceiving (or perhaps only sensing) what the murderers have sought, he removes the money from behind the tile, and uses it to pay for his final journey.
In Zürich he discovers that Merz himself does not live there, but that one of his artworks—pictured in the photographs—is housed in a nearby museum. Korin, however, has grown even more deluded—interpreting the strange disintegration of his manuscript’s narrative as an evocation and expression of madness that has overtaken the world and believing that the characters from the fiction have joined him in person to seek “a way out.” He finally finds a way to purchase a gun and makes his way to the museum. Arriving in the middle of the night, Korin attempts to enter the museum, while the guard explains that the building is closed until the morning. Fearing, however, that the late-night stranger may be an artist or even a guest curator, the guard calls the director. Unable to gain access to the museum, Korin seeks shelter in at all-night bar, where, brandishing his gun, he shoots himself in the arm. Even in suicide he fails, although the shot so terrifies him that he collapses, remaining unconscious; the book ends without answering the reader’s questions about Korin’s condition: “Later they took him away.”
What we do know, however, is that Korin ultimately does succeed in suicide, for a plaque within the Schaffhausen Museum testifies: “This plaque marks the place where György Korin, the hero of the novel War and War, by László Krasznahorkai, shot himself in the head. Search as he might, he could not find what he had called the Way Out.” The plaque, strangely enough, seems to indicate that, finally, someone has made sense of Korin’s story, that his life has mattered; if nothing else, it testifies to his heroic attempt to escape from the horrible fate of the world revealed in both the archivist’s manuscript and in the novelist’s fiction wherein the tales are embedded.
In fact, the sensitive reader—and anyone who has persisted in reading Krasz-nahorkai’s bleak tale, perhaps by definition, is such a reader—has perceived, Korin may be an idiot, but like Erasmus’ man of folly, he is a Christ-like figure, a man of deep compassion, belief, and hope. He is a wise-fool, desperately seeking in a world of fleeting fragments a unified vision that will give meaning to life. Even if his magnificent posting will never be read—and with the death of the interpreter who has sworn to keep the website alive, one can only suppose that eventually that website will disappear (indeed a visit to www.warandwar.com results in the message: Please be informed that your homepage service has been called off due to recurring overdue payment. Attempted mail deliveries to Mr. G. Korin have been returned to sender with a note: address unknown. Consequently, all data have been erased from your home page.)—it is the effort to share his discovery that truly matters. In his reading—even his misreadings of the work—Korin has himself become a creator, and in that creation, that recreation, he has brought purposefulness to life. Through each of his absurd attempts to relate information, Korin reveals the transformative power of storytelling itself. It is not just the story that matters, perhaps not even the story that is important, but the telling itself, the very act of creating fiction can completely change lives.
The reader perceives this already in the first scene, where the gang of young thugs, seemingly entranced by Korin’s storytelling even as they disdain it, begins to tell their own tales the next morning about the old man and his bizarre behavior. The stewardess has her own tales to tell about the silly man who entertained her while she was waiting to accompany a disabled traveler; but we perceive also how she is touched and moved by Korin’s words. Even more affected by the storytelling is the interpreter’s companion, who in the midst of abused life, waits patiently each morning just to hear the boarder’s words, touchingly revealed several times in the work, particularly as she turns her bruised face toward him and, in the last scenes, they lay together upon a bed in a gentle conspiracy of hope against what they both recognize are destructive acts by the master of the house, who parallels the Mastemann figure of the War & War fiction.
Korin’s great discovery, the source of both his joy and desperation, evidenced in his suicide, is that all of life matters, all life is “of equal gravity, everything equally urgent,” a fact that any artful storyteller and reader recognizes as the truth. It is no wonder that Korin hardly knows where to begin and has no comprehension of how to end once he has started. As for Scherezade, once the telling has begun, once one has embarked upon the perilous voyage of the imagination, there can be no end but in death. 1001 nights do not cease in a mere two years and nine months; for the ancient Egyptians the hieroglyph for 1000 represented “all,” and one more than all, accordingly, stood for an infinity. There is, alas, no “way out,” no ultimate redemption for Scherezade. The characters of Korin’s discovered fiction are blessed as well as doomed to begin again and again in their search for paradise, in their foolishly wise search for a world in which everything matters and all is of equal importance. - Douglas Messerli

László Krasznahorkai, The Melancholy of Resistance, Trans. by George Szirtes, New Directions, 2002.
      read it at Google Books

The Melancholy of Resistance, László Krasznahorkai's magisterial, surreal novel, depicts a chain of mysterious events in a small Hungarian town. A circus, promising to display the stuffed body of the largest whale in the world, arrives in the dead of winter, prompting bizarre rumors. Word spreads that the circus folk have a sinister purpose in mind, and the frightened citizens cling to any manifestation of order they can find — music, cosmology, fascism. The novel's characters are unforgettable: the evil Mrs. Eszter, plotting her takeover of the town; her weakling husband; and Valuska, our hapless hero with his head in the clouds, who is the tender center of the book, the only pure and noble soul to be found. Compact, powerful and intense, The Melancholy of Resistance, as its enormously gifted translator George Szirtes puts it, "is a slow lava flow of narrative, a vast black river of type." And yet, miraculously, the novel, in the words of The Guardian, "lifts the reader along in lunar leaps and bounds."

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. - sebald.wordpress.com/

Geegaw points me to Giornale Nuovo‘s review of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance, and since the book seems somewhat relevant to the day’s events, I offer my commentary.
The book is nominally about a circus that comes to a small, anonymous, Hungarian town. The circus has two main features: first, a really huge cadaver of a whale (yes, that would be a Leviathan); and second, the Prince, a homunculus-like figure who sows nihilism and violence, and eventually stirs the town’s people into a frenzy of rioting and killing, which is responded to in kind by the police.
Through this pass two sympathetic figures, the naive man-child Valuska, who does performances of the heavenly bodies in motion for bar patrons, and his mentor Mr. Eszter, who is obsessed with a project of retuning a piano to “natural” harmonies and abandoning the well/equal-temperment that was used as the basis for what Krasznahorkai evidently considers to be the peak of aesthetic achievement, “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” Krasznahorkai’s explanations are not especially clear, which is unfortunate, since it’s clearly the major metaphor of the book.
For reference, this explanation seems good, and for those of you with time on your hands, this essay on “Pythagorean Tuning and Medieval Polyphony” seems awfully interesting. The Chicago Reader offers a somewhat-helpful summary, and while this may not be helpful, it’s pretty amusing. The first piece concludes with a great passage:
There are four main reasons why modern scholars have lost interest in the question of what is the best tuning system. First, in the 1930s, Carl Seashore measured the pitch accuracy of real performers and showed that singers and violinists are remarkably inaccurate. For non-fixed-pitch instruments, the pitch accuracy is on the order of 25 cents. Yet Western listeners (and musicians) are not noticeable disturbed by the pitch intonation of professional performers. Secondly, on average, professional piano tuners fail to tune notes more accurately than about 8 cents. This means that even if performers could perform very accurately, they would find it difficult to find suitable instruments. Thirdly, listeners seemingly adapt to whatever system they have been exposed to. Most Western listeners find just intonation “weird” sounding rather than “better”. Moreover, professional musicians appear to prefer equally tempered intervals to their just counterparts. See the results of Vos 1986. Finally, pitch perception has been shown to be categorical in nature. In vision, many shades of red will be perceived as “red”. Similarly, listeners tend to mentally “re-code” mis-tuned pitches so they are experienced as falling in the correct category. Mis-tuning must be remarkably large (>50 cents) before they draw much attention. This insensitivity is especially marked for short duration sounds — which tend to dominant music-making.
But no matter, since Eszter’s obsession is with finding the harmony of the spheres and returning to mathematically pure intervals; all those nasty intervals are to him the indicators of “an indifferent power which offered disappointment at every turn.” But he doesn’t have much luck; in his purer tunings, Bach sounds awful.
After the riots, order is re-estabished by Eszter’s estranged wife, Mrs. Eszter, who cheerfully and aggressively implements new martial law in light of the need to exert control over the town. She is the sort who was born to fill a power vacuum, and she stands in opposition to both Eszter and Valuska, representing the human capacity towards control, organization, and power; she’s effective, functional, but brutal and arbitrary. Just like the imposition of equal temperament on music (it is all but said).
And when Mr. Eszter retunes his piano back to equal temperament at the end of the book so he can again hear the glory of Bach without his ears bleeding…you can guess what that means. Krasznahorkai’s moral position is ambivalent, but his ideological layout seems to still be derived from Hobbes (and to some extent, Burke): we are given limited natural tools out of which we construct edifices that can reach heights of beauty as well as oppress and dullen. But they remain arbitrary, able to be torn down and built back up. Eszter’s appreciation of equal temperament is as good as it’s going to get.
(I don’t agree with this; I actually think there are significant problems with this metaphor, but the book offers enough to chew on that I’m willing to take it on its own terms.)
Krasznahorkai manages to end the book with a masterstroke, though, with a stunning, sustained description of the body’s biology, which he reveals as a more precise metaphor than temperament. The drama offsets the nagging feeling that Krasznahorkai has left a few loose ends hanging. For the record, Eszter ends up fine, and Valuska is beaten but alive.
So I think about this book while watching television and seeing the statue go down for the Nth time, and the looting and the anarchy and the celebrations and the violence, and I think the book may be too nihilistic, not for its painting of inherent natural imperfection or the implication of destruction in every creative act, but for its lack of differentiation: to use the metaphor, for being unwilling to distinguish one tuning from another. The resignation, or lack of attention, makes the book dark for the wrong reason. In pursuing an ornate Faberge egg of a metaphor, Krasznahorkai loses sight of a complex anthropological standpoint and ends up as a reductionist. The book sets lofty philosophical goals and makes immense progress towards them, but I do not find it fully-formed.
As a footnote, the movie adaptation, The Werckmeister Harmonies nearly obscures the main thrust of the book and goes for a more tepid, sensory approach, turning the complexities of the book into a parable. - David Auerbach

Beyond Order and Chaos

All that is transitory is but a parable.
Goethe, Faust II

This line, meant by Goethe to indicate that our worldly lives are but symbols for a greater, permanent afterlife, carries with it ambiguities that Mahler never considered when he used it rather clumsily at the climax of his Eighth Symphony. If we are all Christians, how easy to dispose of the travails of this life by casting them as imperfections of a greater, lesser-known world. But if we do not know that world, how do we construct that parable, and how do we sustain it in the face of reality’s constant resistance to conform to it? This is the question that the Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai pursues in his fiction.
In the post-war years, many European authors, especially those from Communist states, engaged in surrealism, parable, and allegory as a way of containing the mid-century chaos that spilled over from the war, where the psychology and rationality of modernism no longer seemed capable of fighting the irrationality of Nazism and Communism. While there have been some stunning works by Ludvik Vaculik (The Guinea Pigs), Bohumil Hrabal (I Served the King of England, Too Loud a Solitude), Imre Kertész (Detective Story, Liquidation), and others, this general approach has more frequently produced limp sentimentality and disposable weirdness (Milan Kundera and Victor Pelevin, spring to mind). Within their own works, Günter Grass and Ismail Kadare have met with both success and disaster plowing this field.
It is Krasznahorkai who has, to my knowledge, engaged in the deepest investigation of how these metaphorical understandings are formed, how they succeed, and, most importantly, how they fail. Like Kertész at his best, he questions the process of making meaning.
Beginning with Satantango in 1985, Krasznahorkai has written, along with stories and scripts, at least half a dozen novels. Only two of these, The Melancholy of Resistance (1989) and War and War (1999), have been published in English (in translations by George Szirtes), though further efforts are currently afoot. I want to focus first on The Melancholy of Resistance, because it is a more linear, less allusive work than War and War.
In outline, The Melancholy of Resistance is the story of the visit of a carnival to a small Hungarian town. The carnival brings its two main attractions, “The biggest whale in the world” held dead and preserved in a trailer, and The Prince, a chirruping demagogue who ominously speaks through his interpreting “factotum” and foments mass riots. After great violence The Prince’s followers are eventually subdued, and after the departure of the carnival a new order is established by the tyrannical Mrs. Eszter, who has placed the town under martial law.
I tell the story in its barest form because adding anything more would be misleading. The story’s meaning is constantly in doubt; this is the very method of the book. The main characters are not those above but the intuitive naïf Valuska and the reclusive crank Mr. Eszter (Mrs. Eszter’s estranged husband). Valuska sees but cannot explain: “He had no sense of proportion and was entirely lacking the compulsive drive to reason,” and so before hell breaks loose he surrenders himself to his circumstances and expects nothing of the universe. Mr. Eszter, in contrast, vainly seeks a new, more natural piano tuning than the arbitrary well temperament of Werckmeister, used by Bach in The Well-Tempered Clavier. Both seek a certain harmony that is beyond human-made reason.
But natural harmony does not appear. The book is about order and chaos, with The Prince loudly declaring he is the latter. His factotum translates the chirruping:
He says, he is always free in himself. His position is between things. And in between things he sees that he is he is himself the sum of things. And what things up to is ruin, nothing but ruin. . . . Only he can see the whole, he says, because he can see there is no whole. And for The Prince this is how things must be . . . as they must always be . . . he must see with his own eyes. His followers will wreak havoc because they understand his vision perfectly. His followers understand that all things are false pride, but don’t know why. The Prince knows: it is because the whole does not exist.
The closest antecedent I see for the Prince’s inflammatory chirruping is the sound of the phone at the beginning of Kafka’s The Castle:
The receiver gave out a buzz of a kind that K. had never heard on a telephone. It was like the hum of countless children’s voices—but yet not a hum, the echo rather of voices singing at an infinite distance—blended by sheer impossibility into one high but resonant sound that vibrated on the ear as if it were trying to penetrate beyond mere hearing.
The buzz is infinite and impossible, beyond human sense, just as, according to The Prince, the nature of the whole is beyond human understanding. But in Kraznahorkai’s vision the menace from such incomprehensibility is more devastating: havoc, ruin, and violence.
Pages after the Prince’s speech, Mrs. Eszter, who will enact her new order “like clockwork,” is already planning for the war against The Prince and his followers. There is much talk like the factotum’s on both sides, and even though it generates terror, it never quite adds up.
Valuska, caught up in the conflict, finds that he cannot make sense of it in the way that he once thought he could, through openness and detachment. Likewise, Mr. Eszter gives up on discovering the natural, perfect tuning he is searching for and returns to the imperfect Werckmeister tuning to hear Bach’s human order restored.
The same tension between order and chaos manifests itself in the novel’s very sentences. It’s difficult to evaluate Krasznahorkai’s style not knowing Hungarian, but having read him in English, French, and German, I think I can triangulate some idea of the effect of his extremely lengthy, disorienting sentences. Of Valuska, we read:
One superfluous phenomenon, however, Eszter immediately added, did not indicate merely that people had ceased to note and were actively neglecting such beings, but that, in his own view, the refined sensibilities and spirit of observation that registered such generosity and incorruptibility as distinct virtues and ornaments did so in the certain knowledge that there was nothing, nor ever was anything, to which such virtue might refer or quality ornament, or, to put it another way, that it referred to or ornamented some singular, useless and undemonstrable form—like some kind of excess or overflow—for which ‘neither explanation, nor apology’ existed.
The story is orchestrated with passages like these, which (if you are of a certain temperament) entrance and confound as they twist back on themselves. They may bear some stylistic similarity to Thomas Bernhard, but that is all at the surface. While Bernhard uses rhythmic repetition and slight variation to hone in on precise but ambiguous motifs, Krasznahorkai piles on contradictions and reversals: not explicitly, not dialectically, but in the ever-lengthening conditions, slight disparities, and digressions inserted into these long sentences. (Javier Marias has used similar devices, though to more prosaic and less effective ends.) What seems like a rephrasing often turns out, on closer examination, to be a reimagining, as one idea turns into another. Far from a stylistic tic, this tortuous writing is the symbolic center of Krasznahorkai’s work. Perhaps it’s better seen in a more concrete example:
Valuska did, however, have to admit that it had been some time since he had made a conscious choice in the matter of his direction, and rather than nearing a place of potential rest he seemed to be getting ever further from it, and, no use denying it, there was something disturbing in the otherwise insignificant fact that the place he seemed to be approaching was indeed the railway station, though, he thought, the similarity ended there, and so, since these contrary thoughts continued to disturb him, he decided simply to throw the notebook away, for it would surely be a serious mistake to waste any part of his remaining strength.
The disorientation is grammatical, semantic, descriptive, and thematic. Concept and sensory experience are dissolved into an increasingly undifferentiable mass before we’re tentatively pulled back out, only to fall in again. As János Szegö has written of Krasznahorkai’s story “He Rises at Daybreak”:
The town’s squares and museum rooms turn into labyrinths, with that labyrinthine quality being faithfully mapped by the sentences, and if the reader is identified with the protagonist, then the reader, in some cases when it seems that the sentence in which he or she is proceeding will grind into nothing, is only able to trust that there is an end somewhere. (tr. Tim Wilkinson)
This is the serpentine motion that is neither progress nor repetition, the forward and backward steps of the “tango” that explicitly structures Satantango. This kind of movement sheds light on how Krasznahorkai attempts to create a space for art that exists outside society in the “spiritual” and “real” worlds simultaneously. His style deliberately collapses these two worlds by moving between them with increasing confusion. The consequent dislocation makes good on Krasznahorkai’s stated view that an artist stands at a liberating distance from contemporary reality:
The impact that a writer can exert over his or her own society is far more subtle, almost indecipherably complex and indirect, working through a number of transformations. I even doubt whether at such a degree of remoteness you can still call this an impact and an influence. In Oriental cultures, this question has found an almost radical solution: art had absolutely nothing to do with the direct, palpable reality of its own age. On the contrary, real artists were not “members” of their own society, in the same way that saints never are. This way, the art they produced did not exist as an integrated, definable, graspable part of society. Instead, it found its place in an emphatically spiritual space which nonetheless was still perceived as a part of reality.
It is limiting to see The Melancholy of Resistance as a Communist allegory, for even as it relates to these events it relentlessly confuses all possible interpretation of them. It is in the tradition of perverse authors, like Kafka, Kleist, and Ingeborg Bachmann, but also Joyce, Goethe, and even Dante, who all pushed against the limits of the received ideas of their time to construct a more autonomous world in the “spiritual space” of which Krasznahorkai speaks. Contemporary reality becomes mere material for deeper, ambiguous parables.
The Modern Presentation of Mythology
I think of this approach as his modern presentation of mythology, suspended between the literal and the theoretical. It captures what Hans Blumenberg terms the “poetry and terror,” the opposing origins of mythology. And indeed, myth may be the best way to approach The Melancholy of Resistance. Years ago I tried to make a logical, theoretical structure out of the novel’s ideas and characters but only created a reductive and incomplete failure. Two particular myths offer a more incisive, more successful way of reading the novel.
The first is that of those two great primeval creatures, the Leviathan and the Behemoth, each the indestructible monster of sea and land, respectively. They served as the titles for Hobbes’s two books: Leviathan, a portrait of the ideal but draconian political state; and Behemoth, a portrait of the breakdown of England into civil war. Once more, brutal order and violent chaos. If the dead, static leviathan is the whale of the circus and Mrs. Eszter’s new order, then the incomprehensible, ever-chirping Prince could be the behemoth. The factotum’s rhetoric is uncannily reminiscent of the apocalyptic, outsized terms used by Carlyle, in this passage quoted by Ruth Scurr:
For ourselves we answer that French Revolution means here the open violent Rebellion, and Victory, of disimprisoned Anarchy against corrupt worn-out Authority: how Anarchy breaks prison; bursts up from the infinite Deep, and rages uncontrollable, immeasurable, enveloping a world; in phasis after phasis of fever-frenzy; — ’till the frenzy burning itself out, and what elements of new Order it held (since all Force holds such) developing themselves, the Uncontrollable be got, if not reimprisoned, yet harnessed, and its mad forces made to work towards their object as sane regulated ones.
It is a mistake to see the Prince and Mrs. Eszter as some allegory of Communism. As this passage shows, it is a much greater, more generalized political myth Krasznahorkai is invoking, of anarchy and authority, both irrational and violent. Their opposition gives us the movement of the novel.
The second myth is the primal origin story from Hesiod’s Works and Days, in which Chaos alone gives birth to Erebus and Night, the two realms of darkness, one the shadow realm of Hades and the other the celestial realm of the sky. If darkness constitutes the first two forms of order, distinct from chaos, then it represents the absolute order described in Leviathan and established by Mrs. Eszter. It stands in opposition to the Prince’s chaos where “intolerable too [were] the inexplicable ground-rules of human conduct,” as one of the Prince’s rioters writes: where any rules are intolerable.
What is going on is not the rejection of morality but the rejection of any organizing principle whatsoever: an embrace of chaos against conceptual integrity. So the imposition of order is less a restoration of decency than some predictable form that allows for the (tentative) avoidance of the unknown. Yet the darkness does permit the possibility of light (and Bach’s music) to emerge through sheer contrast, just as Erebus and Night gave birth to the goddess of day.
These analogies are not meant to be precise; the point is that Krasznahorkai’s approach undermines the exactitude of philosophy, thus entering the realm of mythology, half-spiritual and half-real. Philosophy’s explanations, by which I mean rational conceptualizations, cannot sit next to chaos. It is only mythology that can make space for the chaos of the Prince and see that existence is not merely a contest of competing orders and ideas but the chronicle of how those orders are temporarily imposed onto a brute chaos that endlessly resists them.
Though many novels are praised for diagnosing the malaise of our time (isolation, capitalism, inauthenticity, suburbia, etc.), Krasznahorkai’s books illuminate why their explanations are so often trite. Their authors are frequently trapped in the same myopia as the society they supposedly critique, dispatching received ideas whose premises they do not question, whose premises arise from a lack of questioning the greater conceptual schemas which are seen to fail in The Melancholy of Resistance. For those who believe that in 20 years time Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections will seem as dated as Norman Mailer’s or Sinclair Lewis’s lesser efforts do today, Krasznahorkai provides a more universal fictional landscape.
Ironically, it is perhaps The Werckmeister Harmonies, the film adaptation directed by Béla Tarr (with a screenplay credited to both him and Krasznahorkai), that shows how successfully his work can be untethered from the present-day. The plot is more or less preserved, but the conceptual and textual manipulation of the novel does not survive in the sparse dialogue or even in the images. Tarr himself has said that he doesn’t much care about “ideas” per se, and this is probably the most auspicious way to adapt Krasznahorkai’s work. Instead, Tarr holds the camera for immensely long periods (there are only about 70 shots in the entire film) on people walking, people rioting, and a long tracking shot of Valuska looking at the immense whale. Unlike Tarkovsky or Miklos Jancso, where the shots provide a sensuous or kinetic immersion in the action, Tarr’s camerawork stays with an ordinary and very gray scene until, as when a word is repeatedly spoken, it becomes alien. This is where he most closely approximates the effects that Krasznahorkai achieves with his labyrinthine sentences.
To the East
In the twenty years since Melancholy, Krasznahorkai has moved beyond work that could be easily identified with the Communist or post-Communist situation. (Interviews with him suggest that he never intended his work to be fixed in such a narrow fashion.) He has written several novels dealing with the culture of China and Japan, where he has traveled extensively. In From the North by Hill, from the South by Lake, from the West by Roads, from the East by River, a modern Japanese man identified only as “Prince Genji’s grandson” travels from present-day Kyoto to an ancient monastery in search of a garden depicted in an ancient painting. The reality of the situation remains open to question, it soon becoming apparent that this is the conceit of the novel. The grandson escapes the labyrinth of the city to the calm but menacing space of the monastery, finally arriving at a secret garden where he finds a momentary, possibly illusory clarity of vision. The point is not to extol the garden over contemporary life but to portray an ambivalent aspect of existence itself: that same space between the real and the conceptual that I’ve been calling mythology.
In War and War, the misfit archivist Korin finds that space as he attempts to translate and publish online a mysterious manuscript that describes four distraught men traveling through different historical eras and locales. They repeatedly encounter a nemesis figure named Mastemann, another figure like Mrs. Eszter who seeks a new world order where “money and all that stems from it would no longer be dependent on an external reality, but on intellect alone.” He is always wrong, of course: the 16th-century Genoa that he lives in and extols would lose half its population to plague in the following century and suffer permanent decline thereafter. Mastemann’s efforts become just another form of war against the uncontrollable terror of which Blumenberg speaks.
As Korin recounts the manuscript’s story to his translator, it becomes evident that he has been pulled into a space halfway between mythical history and the present day. It has sensitized him to, well, something. He sees the skyscrapers of New York as ziggurats, towers of Babel. The effects are not salutary; he becomes unable to cope with the contemporary world around him, even as he fails to comprehend the import of the manuscript. And yet the description of the manuscript is familiar:
He, in his dense, stupid, unhealthy way had managed to grasp nothing, but grasp nothing of it in the last few days . . . the manuscript was interested in one thing only, and that was reality examined to the point of madness, and the experience of all those intense mad details . . . the same sentences endlessly repeated but always with some modification, now with some filling out, now a little thinner, now simplified, now darker and denser.
Rather than deserting the world for some Gnostic realm, Korin is drawn into examining it too closely. He is too sensitive for the world by being too sensitive to it, ejected from the “tangled maze of vulgar expediency” that constitutes the order of our own world, just as it did in Genoa and in Kyoto. This is the terrifying labyrinth that we mostly manage to forget.
Both of the later novels go further than Melancholy in analogizing natural order and human order. Retaining the same oblique style, they downplay traditional narrative characterizations in favor of descriptions of landscapes, history, and scientific processes. Geology, biology, and even math enter into the narratives; in From the North by Hill a French crank rants against Cantor and infinity. These scientific explanations, Krasznahorkai makes clear, are also modern parables, and their presence creates the same sort of defamiliarization that occurred to Valuska and Eszter.
Christian allegory has a rich history in Western culture, climaxing perhaps in Langland’s Piers Plowman, but as Christian myths were mutated or destroyed these surrealistic or metaphorical worlds lost their overwhelming power. As Erich Auerbach says of Christian interpretation, “Such attempts were bound to founder upon the multiplicity of events and the unfathomableness of the divine councils.” The literary techniques live on, but with mixed results, as writers reach for a “spiritual space” beyond immediate reality without quite knowing what they are reaching for. By taking apart this very process and showing the valiant, often traumatic results of witnessing the terrifying mythic forces that cause our understanding to fail, Krasznahorkai earns his place as a seminal author of our time.-

In the list of memorable first sentences, the first sentence of Laszlo Krasznahorkai's The Melancholy of Resistance deserves at least an honorable mention. It is 174 words long. And rarely does a shorter sentence make an appearance in the book. 
      The story centers around a circus show's visit to a small town somewhere in the Hungarian countryside. The act boasts as its main attraction the body of "the largest whale in the world" and is accompanied by a mysterious and grimly silent group of followers. The heart of the book lies not in story, however, but in mood. The tone of Krasznahorkai's novel is dark, the tale cynical yet still touching. Written in a difficult, elastic style, The Melancholy of Resistance takes some effort. Nevertheless, this unheroic saga of entropy makes for a strangely enthralling book. 
      The action takes place during an unseasonable cold spell. The characters circle round and round with the body of the whale their pivot and we see their world disintegrate. Stubborn in the face of danger is the musician Mr. Eszter, who, disillusioned with the twelve-tone scale, shuts himself up in his apartment in a "strategic withdrawal in face of the pathetic stupidity of so-called human progress." At the forefront of the fight against weakness and vacillation (and untidy yards) is his Machiavellian wife, Mrs. Eszter, whose social elevation to president of the women's committee inspires her to try for new heights of power. She is a deliciously awful figure, and provides much of the book's humor. And there is Valuska, whose eyes see nothing but the stars. These and other characters make there way through a town that is tight with tension and, unaccountably, covered in garbage. 
      The book looms with a sense of unaccountable, yet strangely inevitable catastrophe, "as if some vital yet undetectable modification had taken place in the eternally stable composition of the air." And behind the body of the ever-present whale lurks another figure whose hands seem to hold hidden sources of power. Into a world sordid and pointless, hysterical and dingy, the body of the whale brings a climax and, for each character, a change in what was previously a stable universe. 
      The main characters whose thoughts we can see are handled mercilessly but skillfully; the reader is handed off between them infrequently, but transitions are seamless. The sometimes-inside, sometimes-outside view of each characters has its benefit. When we are first with Mrs. Plauf, for example, the discomfort and embarrassment she feels on her train journey absorbs us. Her outrage seems completely appropriate. It is only when we have left her and are traveling with her son that we see her prudery and shallow, fussy nature. 
      The characters' endless orbits are traced by Mr. Krasznahorkai with what seem similarly limitless sentences. Mr. Krasznahorkai is indeed known for length of sentence, even in Hungarian, where long sentences are common. Mr. Krasznahorkai's language may be difficult to adjust to at first, but the enormous loops of sentences begin to acquire continuity after a while. He handles the wonder and shame of the heartfelt Valuska with delicacy and pathos. Valuska's blinding sense of joy in the sheer existence of "the cosmos" is rendered as simple as his friendship for the bitter Mr. Eszter. 
      In the best tradition of storytelling, the characters move from place to place during the action. Only the whale is immobile. But nowhere does the story take precedence over atmosphere and language. The description of physical decay that ends the book, complete with pathological descriptions of rotting tissues, is almost lyrical. This poem of destruction is actually crisper than the rest of the text. As a warning, the back copy asserts that the novel "far surpasses all the lesser concerns of contemporary writing." In general, Mr. Krasznahorkai's style is heavy, though never ponderous or didactic. But the story seems to far outweigh its less than 300 pages. Translator (and poet) George Szirtes has done an admirable job, and cannot be accused of trifling—he spent four years on the project—yet the tone of the Hungarian comes through. The book lacks the concision and clean prose style of English, and some readers may find it hard going. 
      The Melancholy of Resistance was first published in Hungarian in 1989, the year when state socialism in Hungary and other Central European countries ended, and a close atmosphere of those pre-1989 times can be felt in the book. Even the characters, while not exactly stock cliches, are understandable figures of those times. Mr. Eszter is the refined intellectual, disgusted with the world, who no longer bothers. Mrs. Eszter is the successful leader. Reprehensible and with an iron will, she knows when to use people and she knows what she wants. There are the brutal military men and scurrying toadies and, of course, the innocent. 
      The gray inevitability of decline, the militant and self-serving leadership of the ambitious Mrs. Eszter, and the wasted efforts of Mr. Eszter and Mrs. Plauf to keep the world at bay all combine to create a mood built equally of tension and futility. In the midst of this theme of entropy and disintegration, sits the whale, gigantic and inscrutable -- hardly a subtle figure. Neither good nor evil, it is a symbol of the inevitable. Resistance is melancholy indeed. No matter how fantastic and terrible, what must come cannot be avoided. - Maya Mirsky

“Reality examined to the point of madness.” What would this look like, in contemporary writing? It might look like the fiction of László Krasznahorkai, the difficult, peculiar, obsessive, visionary Hungarian author of six novels, only two of which are available in English, “The Melancholy of Resistance” and “War and War,” both published by New Directions. Postwar avant-garde fiction has tended to move between augmentation and subtraction. Mentions Claude Simon, Thomas Bernhard, José Saramago, W. G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño, and David Foster Wallace. Of all these novelists, Krasznahorkai is perhaps the strangest. His tireless, tiring sentences feel potentially endless, and are presented without paragraph breaks. Krasznahorkai’s brilliant translator, the poet George Szirtes, refers to his prose as a “slow lava-flow of narrative.” It’s often hard to know exactly what Krasznahorkai’s characters are thinking, because his fictional world teeters on the edge of a revelation that never quite comes. László Krasznahorkai was born in Gyula, in southeast Hungary, in 1954. He is probably best known through the oeuvre of the director Béla Tarr, who has collaborated with him on several movies. Mentions “Werckmeister Harmonies.” In “War and War,” György Korin, an archivist and local historian, travels to New York, finds lodgings with a Hungarian interpreter, and begins to write the text of the transcendently important manuscript. Slowly the reader confirms what he has suspected from the start, that “the manuscript” is a mental fiction, a madman’s transcendent vision. Krasznahorkai’s most recent work in English is not a novel but a collaboration between the writer and the German artist Max Neumann. “Animalinside” (translated by Ottilie Mulzet, and published jointly by New Directions, Sylph Editions of London, and the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris; $20) is a series of fourteen exquisite and enigmatic paintings, with paragraph-length texts by Krasznahorkai. Resembling, in form, Beckett’s “Texts for Nothing,” Krasznahorkai’s words often seem to be a commentary on late Beckett. Krasznahorkai is clearly fascinated by apocalypse, by broken revelation, indecipherable messages. His demanding novel “The Melancholy of Resistance” is a comedy of apocalypse, a book about a God that not only failed but didn’t even turn up for the exam. The pleasure of the book flows from its extraordinary, stretched, self-recoiling sentences, which are marvels of a loosely punctuated stream of consciousness. - James Wood

This interview was originally published in issue number 204 of The Hungarian Quarterly and is reprinted here with the joint permission of the editor and the interviewer.
Ágnes Dömötör: Many people have the impression that your books are hard to read and to understand. That’s a myth, but don’t you think you’ve got some bad PR?
László Krasznahorkai: You know, the problem is that anything that’s the least bit serious gets bad PR. Kafka got bad PR, and so does the Bible. The Old Testament is a pretty hard text to read; anyone who finds my writing difficult must have trouble with the Bible, too. Our consumer culture aims at putting your mind to sleep, and you’re not even aware of it. It costs a lot of money to keep this singular procedure going, and there’s an insane global operation in place for that very purpose. This state of lost awareness creates the illusion of stability in a constantly changing world, suggesting at least a hypothetical security that doesn’t exist. I see the role of the tabloid press somewhat differently. I can’t just shrug it off and say to hell with it. The tabloid press is there for a serious reason, and that reason is both tragic and delicate.
AD: The tabloids satisfy our primal hunger for gossip, like old peasant women sitting on village benches long ago.
LK: The old peasant women gossiped on a level that the modern, industrialized gossip factories of the tabloid press miss by several orders of magnitude. An old woman in the village will stir up shit in a human space that she can take the measure of. It’s not the same story when you’re dealing with ten million people. The tabloid press doesn’t necessarily work from the premise that people don’t need anything else or couldn’t understand anything else. The structure of vulgarity is very complex.
AD: Does pop culture reach you in any form?
LK: Absolutely. I’m sure I could name ten new rock groups from 2011 that you haven’t even heard of.
AD: So you go to record stores and concerts?
LK: When I was staying with Allen Ginsberg in New York, the studio of David Byrne, the former leader of Talking Heads, was very close by. Byrne would often come over to Ginsberg’s place. Sometimes we would make music together in the kitchen, and I became part of this polygon with Byrne, Philip Glass, Patti Smith and Ginsberg, where artists would give their CDs to one another. They still do that, to this day. For instance, I never heard of Vic Chesnutt while he was alive; and yet I think he is one of the best in this whole rock culture. An American friend sent me Chesnutt’s entire life’s work. But I go to concerts less and less. The last thing I saw was a fantastic show in Berlin: it was Joan Wasser and her orchestra, billed as “Joan as Police Woman.” It was insane. But I’ve got a bad leg and I can’t stand for four or five hours at a concert.
AD: Are you interested in TV and movies?
LK: I can’t watch movies, but I’ve got a TV set and I mostly watch documentaries. I don’t watch much Hungarian TV, but rather English, American, German, French or Spanish channels.
AD: How do you divide your time between New York, Berlin and Pilisszentlászló?
LK: I’ll go to New York again in 2012. I live mostly in Berlin, but I’ve been spending a lot of time in Pilisszentlászló, and I would like to spend as much time there as possible. I love that place.
AD: Many of your works deal allegorically with the end of the world or the demise of civilization. In what other era do you think people might have felt similarly: ‟that’s it, one kind of civilization has failed?”
LK: I thought you’d ask at the end of which era people did not feel that way. There have been many eras like ours when people not only thought an era was over but that the whole world had come to an end. We know little about the end of the earliest golden ages, the Incas, the Egyptians, the Minoans, the Zhou Dynasty in China. Much better known is the decline of the Roman Empire, because the end game lasted for several centuries, and it is very well documented. And it is clear that to a citizen of ancient Rome, when Rome fell, it wasn’t just the end of his world but the end of the world as such. What had been round till then, an image of perfection, suddenly became a triangle. Yet for the Christians, this became the starting point—on the way to their own failures and grave crises. European and non-European history is nothing but a series of failures and crises. It’s a terrible cliché, but it’s true: crisis is the default state of history.
AD: Our age differs from the ends of earlier eras in that we live in a global culture, and furthermore, we are not fighting enemy ideologies. Can you imagine how our time will be seen 200 years from now?
LK: If there will be such a thing as “200 years from now,” then they will find us very amusing. Humor will play a more significant role in their judgments about the past. Because if we survive another 200 years, which I doubt, then we will have good reason to be cheerful as we look either ahead or back to the past. I have the feeling that if someone reads this conversation 200 years from now, they’ll have a lot of fun. They will be surprised that anything has survived, you know, anything at all.
AD: In other words, you don’t see our era as particularly apocalyptic. But then, why do you write about destruction so often in your books?
LK: I’m personally involved in the apocalypse… It’s interesting how your relationship to that changes in the course of your life. You think about it most when you’re young, particularly in connection with death, because you still have a certain courage that you’re going to lose when your own death is getting closer. Later you’re just afraid. When I was young, I didn’t feel the sanctity of birth. I tended to consider birth as the starting point of a journey toward failure, and I’d sadly look out the window for days on end into this grey light that was all that had been given to me. Anything that could arouse compassion had a great impact on me. I was particularly responsive to those aspects of reality and the arts that reflected sadness, the unbearable, the tragic. And I didn’t know what to do with anything positive or joyful. Happiness bothered me.
AD: And when did that change?
LK: There is no single moment we can name, not because such moments don’t exist but because we never know in which particular moment the transformation occurs.
Q; One of your most conspicuous trademarks as a writer, since your very first work, have been your long sentences. It seems to me that these long sentences fit your most recent works, which deal with Oriental themes, better than the older ones. Their slow pace reflects an Oriental concept of time. They’re in no hurry, just like a monk working on a mandala. Did this different concept of time in Oriental cultures really influence you?
LK: What would reflect an Oriental concept of time would be not long or short sentences, but silence. The sentence structures that I use result, rather, from an internal process. I generally spend my days alone, I don’t talk much; but when I do, then I talk a lot and continuously, never ending a sentence. Many people are like that. You may notice that the majority of people talk the way I write.
AD: Do you ever look up on the Internet what readers have to say about your work? There are online reading groups where your books are discussed; other sites make comments on your interviews.
LK: If you mean Hungarian sites, I don’t know too many of those. Recently one blogger suggested that I should be hanged. I immediately put on my space suit, started the engine and went to the moon for a while.
AD: I notice that your greatest fans are not intellectual types wearing fashionable shoulder bags; they’re mostly average young people.
LK: That’s reassuring but, as a matter of fact, not too surprising. Perhaps young people are the hardest to influence; perhaps they like to be seen as free, and they like it even more if they see someone confronting anything and anyone for their sake. For them, nothing has been decided yet. I think we’re talking about those who haven’t yet decided how to deal with their forebodings, or where to hide their imagination, their desires and their dignity in this rotten world we live in. We’re talking about those for whom a book is not just a book; they know that while we hold on to the book forcefully, there is something before the book and something after the book, and that’s what the book is for.
AD: How do you relate to your fellow Hungarian writers? Do you ever e-mail one another? Would you tell György Spiró, for instance,‟I liked your last book, Gyuri?” I’m asking because in an earlier interview you seemed to see yourself as an outsider on the literary scene.
LK: I don’t just see myself as an outsider, I am one. Which doesn’t mean I’m not happy to see colleagues I admire; after all, we share the same fate. But I also worry about them. I worry, for instance, because they’re in literature, something that you can still sell for awhile, but it’s getting harder and harder. This kind of communication is really over and done with. Its disappearance is a rather obvious process; it is happening faster at some points of the world than at others. I’m afraid this kind of literature is not sustainable.
AD: You mean it’s not just the authority of literature that’s finished but literature as such?
LK: The so-called high literature will disappear. I don’t trust such partial hopes that there will always be islands where literature will be important and survive. I would love to be able to say such pathos-filled things, but I don’t think they’re true.
AD: And those who are still reading today, what will they do then?
LK: They probably won’t read. Could it be that people will once again begin to think for themselves? By thinking, I mean original thinking, without someone holding their hand. If I read the works of thinking people, they inspire me to think, but at the same time they give me categories and don’t set me free. Between them and Heraclitus’s rippling stream, they interpose a book. Maybe at some point in the future, there will be nothing between them and the rippling stream. And they’ll get nice and soaked.
AD: You mean we’ll lose the habit of reading because we’re too lazy. But it takes more energy to think than it does to read.
LK: You’re forgetting that human history is full of catastrophes, and it’s the catastrophes that force people to think. But I have another suggestion: we will return to a post-post-postmodern kind of sacrality. The spoken word will once again have a sacred force, which the written word will serve to record. I don’t mean some kind of archaic world, where we’re going to moon about by Stonehenge; on the contrary: the circumstances having changed, a completely transformed view of the world will be considered natural. I can imagine many possible scenarios, except that things will go on the way they are.
AD: Your works were praised by W. G. Sebald and Susan Sontag; Allen Ginsberg was a friend of yours. Whose recognition has meant the most to you in your life?
LK: Those I received as an adolescent. That’s the time when one is really at the mercy of what others think. One recognition came from my classroom teacher in high school, József Banner, who helped me by continually encouraging me. He always put me on display in Hungarian class: this is how it should be done. I was incredibly proud, because we feared and venerated him, and praise coming from a man like him meant more than one can express in words. Then, when my first piece was published, it became part of a literary network that I hadn’t known existed. To me, literature meant Sándor Weöres, János Pilinszky, Péter Hajnóczy. When I was first introduced to Miklós Mészöly, and he told me how much one of my short stories had influenced him, you can’t imagine what that meant to me. Maybe if that hadn’t happened, my whole life would have been different.
AD: Suppose someone who has never read anything by you picks up this interview and says: what an interesting guy, which one of your books would you recommend to them? What would be a point of entry to your life’s work?
LK: The Old Testament. The Book of Revelation. Let them choose from my books at random.
AD: When was the last time you laughed and when was the last time you wept?
LK: Aside from the fact that I have a daughter I have practically not been allowed to see since she was five, which makes me cry, internally, all the time—I really cried last when we were shooting the pub scene from Sátántangó with Béla Tarr. One of the characters was singing a song, drunk out of his mind, with accordion accompaniment. That song, and the way he sang it, was so moving that, as I was sitting there, I suddenly felt tears pouring down my face. My left leg fell completely asleep. Then it was over, I realized where I was, sitting there with Béla and watching the monitor. And that’s when I realised that Tarr, who was also misty-eyed, had been squeezing my left leg with enormous force the whole time. In order to hold on to this wonderful moment. So that nothing would happen and we got the scene right. And we did.
When did I laugh last? When I saw and heard you, I laughed for joy. Because of the way you ask questions. Because you care. And because I again have someone to talk to. Someone I can tell these things to. - quarterlyconversation.com/

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Interview with László Krasznahorkai by George Szirtes

Interview with László Krasznahorkai By James Hopkin

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James Wood: Madness And Civilization. The very strange fictions of László Krasznahorkai
I Don't Need Anything from Here                               
László Krasznahorkai                                                                        
I would leave everything here: the valleys, the hills, the paths, and the jaybirds from the gardens, I would leave here the petcocks and the padres, heaven and earth, spring and fall, I would leave here the exit routes, the evenings in the kitchen, the last amorous gaze, and all of the city-bound directions that make you shudder, I would leave here the thick twilight falling upon the land, gravity, hope, enchantment, and tranquility, I would leave here those beloved and those close to me, everything that touched me, everything that shocked me, fascinated and uplifted me, I would leave here the noble, the benevolent, the pleasant, and the demonically beautiful, I would leave here the budding sprout, every birth and existence, I would leave here incantation, enigma, distances, inexhaustibility, and the intoxication of eternity; for here I would leave this earth and these stars, because I would take nothing with me from here, because I've looked into what's coming, and I don't need anything from here. translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet -