This May, after decades of steadily gaining acclaim in the English speaking world, the Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai was awarded the Man Booker International Prize. Even with this honor, and although he has packed venues in London and New York, Krasznahorkai’s reputation for difficulty will likely continue to limit his audience. Open one of his books and you will be greeted by pages of unbroken text that take readers into a labyrinth of ideas and minute details, contradictions and verbal energy that is unlike anything else in contemporary literature.
In contrast to the overriding trend in contemporary American literature, which can be crudely, though not inaccurately, generalized as being concerned with the psychological and emotional lives of individuals in specific sociopolitical settings, Krasznahorkai’s fiction is populated by ideas, and boiling through his flood of language is a very philosophic conflict with time. Teetering on the brink of madness, characters devise systems of meaning, devote themselves to art, follow charlatans and place their faith in absurd causes in the ultimately futile attempt to halt the onslaught of change.
This has led a number of critics to refer to Krasznahorkai as an apocalyptic writer, but over the course of his career, the often-unsettling tragicomedy of his vision has calmed into a sort of reconciliation—an acceptance of the fact that meaning, beauty and moments of redemption arise out of impermanence. Dualities such as the spiritual and the material, the inner and the outer, never exist in isolation, but always feed off one another. In an interview, Krasznahorkai remarked about his aesthetics of contradictions, “I am working on joining together two words, ‘yes’ and ‘no’, into an indissoluble, organic combination.”
Krasznahorkai’s bleak comedy begins in his first work, Satantango, published in 1985 but not available in an English translation until 2012. Set in communist Hungary—in the ruins of a communal farm known simply as “the estate”—the novel takes place in the aftermath of a failed social experiment. The novel opens with the illusion of hope set against the ruins of time, a theme that will recur like a modulating baseline throughout Krasznahorkai’s subsequent work:
One morning, near the end of October not long before the first drops of the mercilessly long autumn rains began to fall on the cracked and saline soil on the western side of the estate (later the stinking yellow sea of mud would render footpaths impassable and put the town beyond reach) Futaki woke to hear bells. The closest possible source was a lonely chapel about four kilometers southwest on the old Hochmeiss estate but not only did that have no bell but the tower had collapsed during the war and at that distance it was too far to hear anything.
The subsequent chapters scan the thoughts and activities of a variety of townspeople. We are taken through a grotesque night of drinking, the arrival of a false prophet, the death of a young girl, an uncanny vision of resurrection and levitation. Ultimately a series of false promises for a better life and a better society lead the entire population to leave the estate all together.
In the final chapter, a reclusive doctor returns to the abandoned estate after spending two weeks in the hospital. When we first encountered him, the doctor was obsessively observing the people and events in the town, trying to retain the details of everything that happened in a half-mad belief that memory was the best way to fend off the sinister, underhanded process of decay. Now everyone has vanished. Hearing the same bells from the book’s opening, he follows the sound to their source, where he finds that the ringer in the tower is a madman. The doctor returns home and begins to write: “One morning, near the end of October not long before the first drops of the mercilessly long autumn rains began…” He is writing the beginning of the novel we have just read, creating characters and events to occupy a vanished world. The novel leaves us with questions about how an artist comes to terms with what is not. How does one create something out of nothing? How do people bring order to the emptiness in which they live, especially when that order will be swept away by time?
This urge to impose order upon a chaotic, meaningless world is the obsessive concern of characters in The Melancholy of Resistance, Krasznahorkai’s first work to be translated into English. As in Satantango, the setting is a dreary Hungarian town where corrosive and inexpressible change has descended upon the population:
All normal expectations went by the board and one’s daily habits were disrupted by a sense of ever-spreading all-consuming chaos which rendered the future unpredictable, the past unrecallable and ordinary life so haphazard that people simply assumed that whatever could be imagined might come to pass.
During a bitterly cold winter, a traveling show arrives in town, bringing with it the extraordinary spectacle of an enormous stuffed whale. Accompanying them is an enigmatic figure known as “The Prince.” Rumors begin to spread about this Prince and the sinister motives of this traveling show. A plotting townswoman, Mrs. Eszter, has longed for an event that would turn the town over to chaos, and when The Prince and his troupe arrive, she takes advantage of the upheaval to set up a new order.
Set against this backdrop, much of the book is a seismographic readout of the mind of Mrs. Eszter’s estranged husband, Mr. Eszter. A musician who has shut himself up in his room, Mr. Eszter has spent decades neurotically clinging to his idea of “musical resistance.” His work has been dominated by an obsessive search to find the perfect pitch, believing “that music, which for him consisted of the omnipotent magic of harmony and echo, provided humanity’s only sure stay against the filth and squalor of the surrounding world.” When we meet him, however, he is on the cusp of admitting that even music will not protect him.
Acknowledging his need for companionship, Mr. Eszter begins to recognize that his need for order has been part of the problem, as opposed to its solution:
Suddenly [he] realized that he had been escaping all his life, that life had been a constant escape, escape from meaninglessness into music, from music to guilt, from guilt and self-punishment into pure ratiocination, and finally escape from that too, that it was retreat after retreat, as if his guardian angel had, in his own particular fashion, been steering him to the antithesis of retreat, to an almost simple minded acceptance of things as they were, at which point he understood that there was nothing to be understood.
But this is not a conclusion that the novel or Mr. Eszter can rest on. By the end of The Melancholy of Resistance, the town is under Mrs. Eszter’s totalitarian rule, oppressively grounded in (as she puts it) “reality,” and her regime of “law, order, and clear thinking” has been imposed on the town through police force. Valuska, a simple, dreamy eyed youth, is in a mental institution, and the hapless Mrs Plauf who thought she could retreat from the chaos and, literally, tend her own garden, has been killed. The novel brings us to a point where political oppression calls for some sort of systemic resistance. Mr. Eszter’s search for meaning is one such form of resistance, and echoes William Blake’s proclamation of defiance: “I must Create a System or be enslav’d by another Mans.” However, in the world of this novel, such sentiments, though necessary to combat political evil, are quickly made ridiculous, and Mr. Eszter’s quest, based on his idea of “musical resistance,” for all its heroic necessity, is relentlessly undermined by Krasznahorkai’s ironic vision.
The savage comedy of The Melancholy of Resistance is that characters live as if their lives and their convictions mattered, as if there were weight to what they believed or how they acted. This satire of the human condition—at once nihilistic and touched with adolescent bleakness—is given full expression in the book’s final sequence, where the description of a decaying body encompasses the fate of all lives and ideas: to be “consumed by the force of some incomprehensibly distant edict, which must also consume this book.”
War & War, perhaps Krasznahorkai’s best work, opens in a tangle of monologues and fragmented action. The protagonist Korin has recently awoken to the realization that he understands nothing. His wife has left him, his friends and colleagues avoid him, he has lost all his possessions—he would commit suicide if it were not for “some mysterious burden” that compels him forward. He finds a glimmer of hope, in a manuscript he housed in the hall of records. So profound and beautiful is the story contained in this file that he decides to travel from his home in Hungary to New York City, in order to transcribe the story and upload it to the internet so it can be preserved for eternity. Though such a quest is of course comical, it is hard not to be moved by Korin’s vision of redemption through art, which is “that peculiar, furiously desired, greatest, very last freedom that earthly life was capable of offering.”
Korin arrives in New York and knowing virtually no English, he tells the story he’s transcribing to his landlord’s Puerto Rican girlfriend, who understands nothing of his ramblings in Hungarian. The tale he relates becomes a book within the book. Four men—Kasser, Falke, Bengazza and Toót—are survivors of a shipwreck on a Greek island. They travel to the continent (and, in the process, travel through time, across five thousand years of human civilization), their journey marked by philosophic discussions on art, death and transcendence.
In the nineteenth century, the four of them sit at a café outside of the Cologne Cathedral, which, at this point, has stood as an incomplete structure for over six hundred years. Kasser conventionally describes the cathedral as “a brilliant product of human endeavor, the chief element of which was the discovery of sanctity, holiness, the holiness of unknown space and time” to which Falke replies that the cathedral is not a monument to the divine, but represents
this all-consuming idea that weak and feeble man was capable of creating a universe that far exceeded himself … he was not capable of governing such grandeur, unable to handle something so enormous, and it would collapse, and the edifice he had created would tumble about his ears so the whole thing would have to start all over again, and so it would go on ad infinitum, said Falke, the systematic preparation for failure changing nothing in the desire to create ever greater and greater monuments that collapsed.
In the final sections of War & War, it becomes apparent that Korin is not describing the contents of a manuscript he found in the archives but narrating a story of his own creation. His inner world, the outside events and his narration of the manuscript become fused in section-long sentences that go on for pages. As Korin’s mind begins to unravel, the story of the four men grows more confusing and (in his words)“the manuscript becomes genuinely unreadable—unreadable and, at the same time, unrivaled in its beauty … inapprehensible and beautiful”(197).
Korin is an artist possessed by an incommunicable desire for transcendence. The object of his obsession lies in an illusion, in a manuscript of a story that doesn’t exist, but that he was compelled to create in an attempt to give an expression to his vision. The closer he comes to achieving a transcendent quality in his art, the more detached he becomes from the earthly reality in which he lives. It is impossible for the monument he has created to stand in this reality. Ultimately, he descends into madness, and what he wrote, like all monuments that reach for eternity, must fall in the dance of time that brought them forth.
From the decay and disappearance of the community in Satantango, to the bleak ending of War & War, Krasznahorkai has continuously refined his vision, reimagining the apocalyptic traumas of his earlier works into a more imaginatively expansive sense of time and change. Released in Hungary in 2008 and translated into English in 2013, Seiobo There Below is a collection of short stories that are at once wildly different in form and setting yet unified through a subtle, thematic logic where the work of the artist is imagined less as an escape or mode of resistance than as a way to be at home and live with the impermanent things of the world.
Krasznahorkai wrote Seiobo There Below after living in Japan for a number of years, and the Japanese aesthetic of mono no aware, in which beauty is founded on life’s impermanence, appears to have left a strong mark on the work. The book pulses with what can be described as transient transcendence, where what is mutable gives rise to what is eternal. This is beautifully rendered in the opening passage, where minute details are endowed with a cosmic resonance:
Everything around it moves, as if just this one time and one time only, as if the message of Heraclitus has arrived here through some deep current, from the distance of an entire universe, in spite of all the senseless obstacles, because the water moves, it flows, it arrives, and cascades; now and then the silent breeze sways, the mountains quiver in the scorching heat, but this heat itself also moves, trembles, and vibrates in the land, as do the tall scattered grass-islands, the grass, blade by blade, in the riverbed; each individual shallow wave, as it falls, tumbles over the low weirs, and then, every inconceivable fleeting element of this subsiding wave, and all the individual glitterings of light flashing on the surface of this fleeting element, this surface suddenly emerging and just as quickly collapsing, with its drops of light dying down, scintillating, and then reeling in all directions, inexpressible in words; clouds are gathering; the restless, jarring blue sky high above; the sun is concentrated with horrific strength, yet still indescribable, extending onto the entire momentary creation, maddeningly brilliant, blindingly radiant.
The stories are characterized by a meticulous attention to detail, in particular, to the physical process of artistic creation and restoration. Moments of realization, when characters catch glimpses of the eternal, have a hearty connection with their physical and temporal reality. Art is not so much a resistance to the decay of reality, but a way to engage with the process of change, that necessary condition to even gesture towards the eternal.
In a broad sense, the creation and enjoyment of art involves an act of perceiving—and a way of being—that takes place in the here and now. This is deftly expressed in the story about a man carving masks for the Japanese Noh theater: “He merely occupies himself with doing the very best he can within the limits of his abilities … he only knows movements, methods of work—chiseling, carving, polishing—that is to say the method, the entire practical order of operations, but not the so-called ‘big questions.’”
Here the freedom so many of Krasznahorkai’s characters have sought throughout his works occurs in letting go of the ideas and becoming absorbed in the mundane practice of working with the earthly material that is the substance of art. The artist dissolves into his practice, into that larger world “that far exceeds himself.” It is in this act of working with the physical, ever-changing materials that the desire for transcendence can be given expression—even if it only lasts for a moment.
In an interview with the White Review, Krasznahorkai was asked how the world had changed since he started writing. “The similarity,” he said, “is astounding”:
Everything seems to have changed and yet everything is essentially the same … Somehow there is only the whole that is at every instant different and yet the same. The whole does not exist. Nor do the parts. So what is there? There is a changelessness that is always changing. It is beyond grasping.
What characters in his fiction reach for, whether in life or in art, always remains beyond their reach. There is violence and tragedy to this fact, just as there is the potential for comedy. In Seiobo There Below we are often reminded of the failure and absurdity that pulses through the earlier works, but it has been transformed into a very different vision, of what appears to be a very different author. Apocalyptic despair has been replaced by a kind of calm, one that reflects the long discipline of working with the material, of negotiating vision with the insufficiencies of reality to create something that was not.