I’ve decided to reinvent The Millions. The blog world is crowded. I cannot possibly add to or improve upon the innumerable blogs out there that are about music or politics. So many of the things that I have a casual interest in are covered so obsessively in the blog world that it is hard to find something to write about in any sort of compelling way. Nor do I have much interest in cataloging my daily life. I know from experience that my life is capable of producing, tops, a paragraph or two of mildly amusing reading every few weeks, which does not a blog make. Plus, I would like to try to lure some people into reading what I write, and writing about what I ate for lunch today will likely not do the trick. As for the two of you (you know who you are) who read this blog regularly, I hope you will not be disappointed by my change away from that format. And finally, after some thinking, I have figured out what these changes will be. The Millions will be about books. For a book lover without a whole lot of free time (not to mention money) it can be very hard to consistantly find new and interesting books. To do so, in my experience, requires reading dozens of book reviews weekly and trolling book stores looking for the new and interesting (or the old and interesting). The internet improves this process slightly, mainly by cutting out some of the time required, but it offers little help in locating a book that you might like to take a look at. I have yet to find anyone that has had much luck with Amazon’s recommendations. I recently realized, though, that I am singularly qualified to write a blog about books. I work in a great little book store and therefore, in pursuit of my paycheck, I see with my own eyes the hundreds of books that come out weekly and I read reviews in dozens of newspapers and magazines. Finally, I have always loved books and I have always loved telling people about books, and now I have myself a little blog that can serve both of these loves. I hope to update several times a week, if not daily, and hopefully this thing will be chock full of interesting books at all times. So there it is… it feels good to get started on this thing, and if anyone has any comments, questions or suggestions let me know.
Albert Parry’s Garrets and Pretenders, the best and most colorful cultural history of Bohemian artists and their “skylight-addicts,” was first published in 1933. Over the intervening 80 years, the coffee shop seems to have displaced the garret as the prime source of real or imagined literary production, but caffeine is no match for the afflatus that drafty garrets provide. As affordable real estate becomes increasingly scarce — and as a new breed of “micro-units” are cropping up in cities — we should pause to reflect back on the enduring appeal of an imperiled genre: the garret novel.
The two classic 19th century examples are Henri Murger’s Scenes from the Life of Bohemia and George du Maurier’s Trilby, which sings of the “happy times of careless impecuniosity” and of artists “with Paris for a playground, and its dear old unregenerate Latin quarter for a workshop and a home!” Ever since, the increasingly fraught search for an ideal room of one’s own has produced surprising variations on the garret novel.
Despite the garret’s military roots as a watchtower from which “to defend, preserve” (from the Old French, garir), our cultural imagination has long associated those cramped quarters less with archers than with easels. And yet the connection between watchtowers and workshops holds. All good art is obsessive, driven by a compulsion to express and shape, and to be obsessed, etymologically, is to be watched closely, occupied, besieged; Samuel Beckett would describe his postwar burst of writing as the “siege in the room.” Both the observant artist and the watchful sentry, then, are each under attack in their garrets, the latter from without and the former from within.
The following garret novels introduce memorably reclusive protagonists, skylight addicts who, in their zealous guarding of their charmed rooms, stay true to the fortifying history of garrets.
Two female artists, Sirena and Nora, the former internationally renowned and constructing a sprawling installation entitled “Wonderland,” the latter a schoolteacher and artist manqué building dioramas of Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Alice Neel, and Edie Sedgwick in their own “habitats,” agree to share a workshop in a converted Somerville warehouse. The studio is enclosed by a “high chicken-wire fence, in which fluttered the tattered remnants of plastic bags, like flags of the apocalypse.” The insides are of a “bleakness unimagined,” and next door is a factory producing “millions of tiny Styrofoam beads, a particularly noxious undertaking that seemed designed to cause horrible cancers in those who worked there.” There is a mephitic whiff of the demonic about the place that renders the women’s artistic Eden as ripe for corruption as was Adam and Eve’s.
The workshop, at once pestilent and beatific, ultimately teaches Nora a painful but productive lesson: creation and “fouling” are intertwined. Indeed, each woman’s project is an attempt to recreate private worlds even as it exposes them to view. If the studio is a retreat from the world — Sirena’s husband likens it to an elves’ workshop — it finally launches Nora into it, no longer as “the woman upstairs” but as a “murderously furious” artist intent to “fucking well live.”
In Danilo Kiš’s The Attic, we encounter the garret novel in its purest, uncorrupted form:
Hic tandem stetimus nobis ubi defuit orbis. (“Here we finally stand, a place that has fled our earth.”)
So reads the maxim carved into a wall of the titular attic in this enchanting Serbian work. Kiš’s first novel, an English translation of which appeared last year from Dalkey Archive Press, is about a young writer, Orpheus, who is “bound to [his] attic by an unusual, sick passion.” Orpheus devises a site-specific cocktail, “Brandy à la Mansarde,” tames the garret’s legion cockroaches with his lute playing, and sees on its damp walls “wondrous designs of the flora and fauna that bloom and thrive only in dreams.” Who needs an interior decorator amidst such fecund rot?
Among the Belgrade garret’s other advantages, for example a “proximity to the stars,” Kiš stresses its inviolability: “Lord, I’ve been living in that attic as if on another planet!” the protagonist realizes at novel’s end. The Attic is a parody of both the bildungsroman and the classic Bohemian novels of the 19th century, dramatizing as it does the protagonist’s growing awareness of the need to descend from his empyrean heights. For him and his art to mature, he must lower himself, literally, into the world and observe his fellow apartment dwellers rather than the stars.
Orpheus’s dilemma — whether to reign hermetically in his aerie or participate in the “colorful jumble of life” — demonstrates a crucial tension in all novels between a reclusive and an expansive drive; between a retreat into a world of private obsessions and a headlong rush into the great wide world.
Nowhere is this tension more amusingly expressed than with the misadventures of Murphy, Samuel Beckett’s doomed garretphile. Murphy, itself a parodic bildungsroman, chronicles one man’s doomed quest to separate himself from the “big blooming buzzing confusion” around him, a quest that is thwarted — comically and tragically — by the decidedly un-Murphy-like characters around him. That quest is bound up with the anti-hero’s search for the ideal garret. Ever since residing in a Hanover garret as a student, Murphy has been searching for similarly charmed living quarters. However, “what passed for a garret in Great Britain and Ireland was really nothing more than an attic. An attic! How was it possible for such a confusion to arise?” When he stumbles into a job at the Magdalen Mental Mercy seat asylum in London, he is less excited about the prospects of steady employment than his new living quarters: not an “attic, nor yet a mansard, but a genuine garret.”
Paradise at last, it seems, but this is Beckett we’re talking about. The protagonist’s inevitable and explosive demise arises from a faulty gas pipe extending into his garret, a noxious violation of his Edenic space (or the fouling of his Wonderland, to put it in Messud’s terms), the perfect garret he had long sought and finally found. For Beckett, the possibility of establishing such an inviolate cell within the “mercantile Gehenna” of London proves as illusory as Godot’s arrival.
The protagonist of John Cowper Powys’s Maiden Castle, Dud No-man seems as immune to the demands of social life as Murphy. Maiden Castle opens as No-man, a “nameless bastard” and widowed historical novelist, looks up from his bed in his new Dorchester garret and finds that the beams “took the shape…of an elongated and distorted cross.” The rest of the furnishings are similarly charged with its owner’s intensely cerebral, masochistic eroticism and diabolical grotesquerie — martyrs, condemnatory wraiths, and monstrous heraldic carvings. As most Powys heroes do, No-man thrives on such daemonic energies. His garret, with its view of a “region charged with so many layers of suggestive antiquity,” stimulates his historical, psychological, and elemental senses as he writes the erotically charged tale of Mary Channing, the adulteress hanged in 1705 in the nearby Maumbury Rings amphitheatre for allegedly poisoning her husband.
The novel’s conflict derives not from within the spiritually magnetic garret but from without. Maiden Castle is about a man with an intense attachment to solitary enjoyment — sexual, oneiric, imaginative, ambulatory, and masochistic — who is drawn into the very set of social, filial, and romantic relationships from which his intense egotism had so long protected him. But again, the developmental narrative can’t gain traction within the psychically saturated world of the novel’s protagonist. No-man, who describes himself as a “Bronze Age invader” with the soul of a “neurotic nun,” proves ultimately too bizarre, too attached to his garret and environs, to become anything other than what he is.
It would be quite the feat to out-cathect Dud No-man, but Godfrey St. Peter comes close in his attachment to his garret study in Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House. Throughout the novel, St. Peter is exhausted by the professional and familial responsibilities he is too moral to shirk. His malaise obliquely stems from his memories of the “richly germinating” Tom Outland, the deceased student, amateur archeologist, and inventor who had appeared at the Professor’s house years earlier with tales of excavating an Ancestral Puebloan settlement, Cliff City, perched atop the Blue Mesa (a fictionalized Mesa Verde).
The Professor’s House opens as St. Peter is reluctant to move into a new and garret-less house. Despite being “the most inconvenient study a man could have,” it is not without its charms. The attic has a distant view of “a long, blue, hazy smear—Lake Michigan, the inland sea of his childhood,” an idyllic framing that blends into Tom Outland’s similarly hued Blue Mesa. As the Professor lets Outland into his study (to the jealous disapproval of his wife), so does Outland admit the Professor to his elevated sanctuary and shares with him that “glorious feeling…of being on the mesa, in a world above the world.”
If The Professor’s House is dominated by these elevations — Cliff City and the less sublime attic — it is also about the pain of being expelled from them. Both the mesa and the attic are prone to contamination, by a disillusioning commercialization or by (yet another) noxious gas leak. Of all the works, Cather’s is the most elegiac in tone. It best captures the vulnerability of such precious spaces, the pathos of sacrificing them and learning to “live without delight.”
The previous garret novels have staged a struggle between isolation and inclusion, but Thomas Bernhard’s Correction boldly and unequivocally asserts a reclusive vision. As his protagonist, Roithamer, epigrammatically explains: “What we do secretly, succeeds.” A scientist, Roithamer embarks on an architectural project whose audacity would make Howard Roark blanche: a giant Cone in the exact center of the Kobernausser forest (supposedly designed to ensure the perfect happiness of his sister). Roithamer secretly plans the construction from within the garret of an equally audacious project, a house built by his friend Hoeller in “the most impenetrable and so the darkest possible” section of the Aurach gorge. The builder takes possession of Hoeller’s garret so completely that it soon becomes Roithamer’s garret and infused with his thoughts. After the Cone’s completion and Roithamer’s suicide, the unnamed narrator himself takes possession of the garret and undergoes a kind of siege himself, possessed by its Hoeller-garret-thoughts, a Germanic compound noun so mellifluous that it is a small wonder it hasn’t yet gone viral.
At one point, Roithamer calls humans “chronic deserters of original ideas,” a definition of mankind as elegant as it is rueful. The Cone, monstrous in its perfection, is one such original idea, and as such demands a kind of desertion from life. Roithamer wholeheartedly embraces the terror and splendor of isolation, the dreadful necessity to “be absolutely alone in our room” in order to experience the supreme, if awful, majesty of inhabiting a world of one’s own making.
If I have focused too much on the obsessive aspects of garret-thoughts (there’s that Germanic construction again), let me remedy that with a brief demonstration of their conjuring power. In Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan, Gormenghast Castle’s forbidding stone walls virtually seal its inhabitants into a world of “iron ritual.” However, Fuchsia, the reclusive daughter of the castle’s lord, manages to carve out her own “attic kingdom” from within the stony realm, a “world undesecrate” that she fills with imaginary characters:
This was the loft which was for Fuchsia a very secret place, a kind of pagan chapel, an eyrie, a citadel, a kingdom never mentioned, for that would have been a breach of faith — a kind of blasphemy.
It is this wondrous element — secretive, reverential, mythic — that best explains why the garret is so treasured and fiercely guarded by their visionary inhabitants, who devise dreamscapes from within the elevated confines that rival the awesome landscapes without: private Wonderlands, the mystical Dorchester ruins, the sublime darkness of the Aurach gorge, and the richly “germinating” intimations of Cliff City.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
It starts out innocently. I recommend Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. “I think you’d like Johnson,” I say, after reading one of his short story drafts. “The violence and the tenderness together. ‘Emergency’ will knock you out.” He’s never read Johnson before. I know it will knock him out.
It does (of course). He can’t stop talking about it. I introduce him to some of Johnson’s poetry. What else? he asks. Meaning: more, more, I want to be knocked out again.
We’d talked about minimalism. I recommend Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. He is European, so I am sure he’s read it, but he hasn’t. Again, he loves it. What else? Now I have cred. Now we’re rolling.
He goes back to Europe. The email exchanges begin. He sends me “In Memory of My Feelings” by Frank O’Hara. I send him Galway Kinnell’s “The Bear.” Don’t be intimidated by Kierkegaard, he writes, start with the Diapsalmata. And Proust goes fast, once you get into it. Read Sherwood Anderson, I write. Winesburg, Ohio.
Then David Foster Wallace dies, and we both read Consider the Lobster before even mentioning it to one another. What a coincidence. The Dostoevsky essay. Yes, yes, the Dostoevsky essay.
Rilke creeps in (of course he does). He reads Letters to a Young Poet, I read On Love and Other Difficulties. It all comes together in Rilke, he writes. It crystallizes. Yes, I write, Rilke goes his own way, beauty and goodness are one – not sequential, not interdependent, but one.
More Hemingway. I find him unanalyzable, I write. The greatest work is like that, don’t you think? I read For Whom the Bell Tolls and quote this passage:
Then there was the smell of heather crushed and the roughness of the bent stalks under her head and the sun bright on her closed eyes and all his life he would remember the curve of her throat with her head pushed back into the heather roots and her lips that moved smally and by themselves and the fluttering of the lashes on the eyes tight closed against the sun and against everything, and for her everything was red, orange, gold-red from the sun on the closed eyes, and it all was that color, all of it, the filling, the possessing, the having, all of that color, all in a blindness of that color. For him it was a dark passage which led to nowhere, then to nowhere, then again to nowhere, once again to nowhere, always and forever to nowhere, heavy on the elbows in the earth to nowhere, dark, never any end to nowhere, hung on all time always to unknowing nowhere, this time and again for always to nowhere, now not to be borne once again always and to nowhere, now beyond all bearing up, up, up and into nowhere, suddenly, scaldingly, holdingly all nowhere gone and time absolutely still and they were both there, time having stopped and he felt the earth move out and away from under them.
My God, I write, what is there to say? Yes, he writes back, I could not have stated it better, the way pure language leaves you speechless; I feel exactly the same way.
For two months, neither of us writes. His father is ill, my manuscript is due. An awkward, quiet phase, during which I slog through The Brothers Karamazov (can’t seem to keep my head in the game – guilt, theology, melodrama. Too much, too much…). He writes again, responds to my last email in which I complained about the Twilight phenomenon in the US. There are so many other better guilty pleasures, I’d written – Edith Wharton, Balzac, Palahniuk and Pelecanos. Yes, he writes, recalling a particular page-turning summer of his youth: Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Borges’ A Universal History of Iniquity. All mind-blowing, all in one week.
Then, a small thing I notice – a reference to the Norwegian writer Erlend Loe, which he’d recommended some time before, maybe more than once. When you get to it… he writes. That book really changed my life. When I get to it. In the back of my mind – a tiny thought, barely perceptible – I think: when am I ever going to get to Erlend Loe, when I’ve got Jean Rhys, Bolaño, Toni Morrison, and Tolstoy on the nightstand? I think also about whether I’d ever say such a thing: That book changed my life.
He writes that The Name of the World – a minor Johnson novel I’d recommended as an alternative to Tree of Smoke – didn’t speak to him, but Douglas Coupland is wrecking him. I write that since it was the scene in The Name of the World where the narrator has an atheistic epiphany (he is sitting in church and realizes, ecstatically, that he doesn’t believe in God) that really got me, I’d be interested in Coupland’s Life After God. But really, I only half mean it. In the back of my mind, I think: I am too old for it.
I don’t know exactly how old he is, likely a few years younger than I; but now I begin to wonder just how many years.
He’s reading more David Foster Wallace, sings the cultic praises of Kerouac (I roll my eyes a little). He raves about Lars von Trier (ok, but Breaking the Waves made me literally vomit). I recommend In Bruges – Martin McDonagh is kind of a genius, I write – which he watches and then reports back as “odd” and “all falling apart at the end.” We both agree that “Sonny’s Blues” is indeed a masterpiece.
I don’t hear from him for over a month. I do google searches on Erlend Loe and read this at 3000 Books:
If Tao Lin is the self-referential, disaffected freak-pop on the literary twenty-something’s jukebox, then Erlend Loe is the guy sitting in the corner at the piano, picking out notes that eventually turn into a tune.
I add Life After God to my goodreads.com to-read list.
I think: what the hell am I doing?
He writes again, back from travels. I decide to throw in a curve ball, just to see what happens. Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living by the Australian novelist Carrie Tiffany is the best book no one’s ever heard of, I write. I happen to believe this, but I don’t imagine he’ll agree. For good measure, I add: Have you seen Superbad? I could watch that movie over and over again. (This, too, is true.)
I think: what the hell am I doing?
The next I hear from him the email is short. He has deadlines to meet. He is planning a trip to Berlin for work, then Venice with his girlfriend.
You must bring Death in Venice along for the trip, I write.
Ah, yes, it’s been years, he writes. I suspect it holds up over time.
I suspect it does, I write. One of the great literary endings. The decrepit Aschenbach, slumped over in a beach chair, that final reverie of youth and eros.
He asks me if I am on Facebook.
I write yes.
Let’s be Facebook friends.
Yes, let’s. (My mind flashes to all the profile photos of me and J. – grilling fish on the porch, gussied up for a film opening, canvassing for Obama.)
I read on about Erlend Loe: “Naive.Super is a tiny charmer, a ripe fig that falls out of a budget store Christmas cracker onto your toe. Sure, it’s 12 years old, but it remains a fresh antithesis to the meta-literary swagger of the 21st century, an antidote to superanalysis and overcomplexity.” I think: that sounds refreshing. And J. might like it, even though he generally prefers nonfiction. I click, moving it from my wish list into the shopping cart.
Gyula and Khust and Kapušany. There’s something about the sodden, crumbling brick and cinderblock-scape of eastern European towns that I find irresistible. I’m arrested by the desperate beauty of these places: the wrecked medieval castle on the outskirts; the main street with its waterstained two-story layer cake structures in fading pastel pinks and butterscotches; inexpert patching where entropy or mortar shells have left their mark; squat cubical huts slathered in oatmeal stucco. The inevitable Erste Bank. The EURO-MODA secondhand shop. The bad pastry shop. The bad baguette sandwich shop. The Všetko! One Euro! shop. The gatherings of Roma. The improbable Cadillac Escalades of the nouveau-riche wedged into too-small parking.
For me, the allure of these towns is matched only by the pain undergirding them. I wish I was capable of enjoying a less complicated kinship with these places. Just a tourist with no plans of hanging around—here for the halušky and a few somber snapshots at the family boneyard. But like the region where my family name adorns villages and ancestral mansions, my better days are likely behind me. Like them, I am running out of time. Actuarial irrefutabilities are at work; senescence is taking chips out of me on a daily basis despite my plans, my hopes, and the people who depend on me.
For László Krasznahorkai, the 2015 Man Booker International laureate and stalwart-in-translation of the New Directions stable, these locales, or ones like them, comprise the greater part of his published fiction. Over the last dozen years or so, New Directions has released a mini-torrent of Krasznahorkai—seven titles by this soft-spoken Hungarian author whose debut, Satantango, first hit shelves in 1985. What’s the fascination with this author, a chronicler of the detritus of failed collective policies, inebriation, madness, faithlessness, and spiritual asphyxia?
Perhaps the sixth and most recent New Directions release, The Last Wolf & Herman, provides a partial answer for those wondering whether or not to read the writer Susan Sontag referred to somewhat hastily as the “contemporary Hungarian master of apocalypse.” The book is a slim volume consisting of two (structurally and functionally, three) related short stories: I. “The Last Wolf” and II. “Herman”—a) “The Game Warden” and b) “The Death of Craft.” Stylistically, the latter two stories represent a more conventional side of Krasznahorkai, but “The Last Wolf”—involving a wolf we never see and a disillusioned German philosophy professor that we see far too much of—is unlike any wolf story you’ve read before.
Befuddled in Berlin, our professor bends an elbow at a local Hauptstrasse watering hole, puzzling out a conundrum: What is preferable—a life marked by futility or a life marked by scorn? Burning a hole in his pocket is a letter outlining a generous job proposal, but the faded scholar is assailed by doubt:
…he can’t have been the one it was intended for, since he wouldn’t have been invited to Extremadura, by this unheard-of foundation, a foundation staffed by people he had never heard of, asking him whether he felt like spending a couple of weeks there writing something about the region…
The sporadically interested bartender does his best to stay alert as time melds for both teller and tale in this account of epistemic hell. But spilling his story brings the professor little relief as truths and half-truths and facts lost and gained in translation slowly peel back the scab of the unrelenting disquiet that there is, despite the substantial sum offered for his services, little to be learned and less to be accomplished in this venture. But chronically broke, the professor accepts the offer.
The mantle he assumes becomes more a calling than a payday, directing him to a distant country, to confront barren wastelands and scour obscure texts in search of a beast that may never have been. We sit with the barman and listen along with him as our itinerant professor endures the generously financed and enthusiastically, if haphazardly, organized junket to Extremadura—Spain? Portugal? Both? Neither?—where the last wolf in the region may or may not have met its end. The professor is a man drowning in myth and metatext and deep suspicion, but contractually bound to codify whatever he might find, real or otherwise.
By story’s end, relentless self-accusation has the good professor lying curled, fetal, in expectation of his inevitable unmasking and the discovery that “it had been a mistake inviting him, and that they’d be taking him back…asking him not to make them look ridiculous again.”
A common misstep when grappling with eastern European writers is to misread these authors’ personal experiences of a life lived under a fractured Communism, their discombobulated personal Marxism, and their more-than-likely agnostic take on organized religion and to conflate these into a catchall label—“political”—as if that were some sort of commendation, or explanation. László Krasznahorkai’s life and work are not spared this broad misconception, James Wood calling him “a more political writer than Beckett” and Margit Koves in Adelphi “…a romantic anti-capitalist of the age of globalization who examines what happens to various forms of art and culture at the time of globalization,” both of which, while accurate, are akin to focusing on a politician’s modest handsize, or a writer’s height.
To misread Krasznahorkai as merely, or primarily, a political writer is to risk squandering the profoundly personal nature of his stories. More tragically, it is to foist a kind of sloppy activist, and determinately secular métier onto one of contemporary literature’s most sophisticated exponents of the sacred. It is to miss his elegant, if troubling, depiction of the regrettable distance at which the sacred is held from the greater part of contemporary cultural production. With his repeated exploration of the importance of the sacred to life and culture, Krasznahorkai is among the more godly godless authors you’re likely to meet. These, I submit, are what, in a widely publicized quote, W.G. Sebald was hinting at when he said that “Krasznahorkai’s vision rivals that of Gogol’s Dead Souls and far surpasses all the lesser concerns of contemporary writing.”
Though lacking his predecessor’s mad religious zeal, like Gogol Krasznahorkai directs his most consistent and pointed critique against a kind of indolence that results in spiritual vacuity, servility to baser human drives, and incurious acquiescence to the pull of a morally and aesthetically baffled culture. Although clearly no fan of conspicuous consumption, his hard appraisal of the same is more than just fashionably provisional snobbery toward rough-grind economics. Rather than limit his focus to the corrupting power of capital, he would have us seek out worth that lies beyond the realm of what is bought, sold, traded, stolen, corroded, and corrupted.
Often cursorily compared to writers like Thomas Bernhard and William Gaddis, Krasznahorkai employs nothing of the former’s self-crippling contempt for the church, and serves as a proper antipode to the latter’s flippant disregard for all things spiritual. His protagonists are not polemical, but confessional. His motif has more in common with Cormac McCarthy’s via negativa to enlightenment, populated by an absent god, human savagery, holy fools, ersatz messiahs, sacred texts, and the unwashed but heroic who are consumed by the task of making things right. But when making things right proves, as it inevitably does, beyond the capacity of a Krasznahorkai protagonist, it is madness, exile, and ruin that follow.
Audible in the creeping dementia of these central characters —the doctor in Satantango, Korin in War & War, the hapless Valuska in The Melancholy of Resistance, and Herman in “The Game Warden” – are echoes of Samuel Beckett’s crone in Ill Seen Ill Said:
Already all confusion. Things and imaginings. As of always. Confusion amounting to nothing. Despite precautions. If only she could be pure figment. Unalloyed. This old so dying woman. So dead. In the madhouse of the skull and nowhere else. Where no more precautions to be taken. No precautions possible. Cooped up there with the rest. Hovel and stones. The lot. And the eye. How simple all then.
What Beckett manages stylistically in brevity and quick-cuts, Krasznahorkai accomplishes via what his long-time translator George Szirtes has described as “a slow lava flow of narrative.” The ancients might have characterized Beckett as melitta—the sting of a solitary bee, repeated a thousand times, and Krasznahorkai as murias—a thousand individual ants moving in a wave. In regard to the latter, this quite consciously nurtured device of the paragraph- or page- or chapter- or story-long sentence is on full display in “The Last Wolf”—a 50-page story comprised of exactly one sentence.
…how could he explain how long ago he had given up the idea of thought, the point at which he first understood the way things were and knew that any sense we had of existence was merely a reminder of the incomprehensible futility of existence, a futility that would repeat itself ad infinitum, to the end of time and that, no, it wasn’t a matter of chance and its extraordinary, inexhaustible, triumphant, unconquerable power working to bring matters to birth or annihilation, but rather the matter of a shadowy demonic purpose…
George Szirtes’s fluid translation of “The Last Wolf” maintains this feel of textual surge, of ebb and flow, and remarkably, of the parallel poetic structure characteristic of the ancient Hebrew ketuvim. The above citation concludes—if that is the right word—below. An apodosis to the protasis ending in a deep exhale in a literary selah of sorts.
…something embedded deep in the heart of things, in the texture of the relationship between things, the stench of whose purpose filled every atom, that it was a curse, a form of damnation, that the world was the product of scorn, and God help the sanity of those who called themselves thinkers…
It is this kind of writing that, even in his short stories, reveals Krasznahorkai as a writer obsessed in the parsing of the invisible. Parsing it, and then rendering it in a philosophical relation to the visible by means of sentential waves that serve as both trap and what the author calls kijárat—a way out—a way to extract oneself from the conceit, step back, and view the overwhelming detail from a distance as it fashions itself into a cogent whole. In a sublime marriage of form and function, with image-rich prose coming at us in layers of detail and perspective and internal dialogue, Krasznahorkai’s prose readily overwhelms the reader with sadness—or isolation, or beauty—of a purity rarely encountered, but which ultimately compels us to stop, move back from the page, and offer these invisible qualities our more conscious consideration.
A too-brief example: Korin, the aspiring scribe of War & War, describes his narrow escape from peril at the sleazy “Sunshine Hotel” where even the interior windows were sheathed in:
iron bars, at which Korin had hardly taken a glance than he started back, for he only saw the people there for the fraction of a second and did not dare catch their eyes again, they looked so terrifying, but the personage beyond the glass and metal grille somewhat suspiciously asked him, ‘Sunshine Hotel?’ to which Korin had no idea what to answer, but…a few seconds later he was outside in the street again, putting as much distance between him and the place as he could, as quickly as he could, all the while thinking that he should immediately ask someone for help…
This work is that of an artist who articulates the beauty and the terror he encounters, choosing to reveal it typically in characters caught up in life’s abundance, yet an abundance that’s never quite so apparent, able to be appreciated, as when it’s being wasted. The characters shaped by Krasznahorkai don’t dabble in cheap eschatologies, nor does his prose suffer from the fate of so much sci-fi and dystopian literature—drowning in shallow puddle readings of Heideggerian concerns with techné. He addresses dehumanization and the encroachment of “the last things,” certainly, but without the de rigueur fixation on artificial intelligence and the potential for maleficent feats of engineering or bio-engineering consuming life on the planet. Fear in this fiction bubbles up from springs far more difficult to dowse, flowing from motifs that lie deeper—envy, lust, and animal malevolence—than antagonists mechanistic or materialist. It is not drones and dogma and big data that dominate the landscape in Krasznahorkai country, but Cain and Abel. His demons—as with any demon worthy of the title—lurk within, not without.
In Satantango, this degeneration is incarnate in the gluttonous “doctor.” Bent on his own ruin, his home closed to all but the woman who keeps him supplied with drink and victuals, wallowing in filth, pickling in a seemingly exhaustible supply of tulip glasses of pálinka, he eventually nails his door shut so “no one would disturb him” in his work. Which work? Medicated, wrapped in blankets against the cold, peeking out his front window to monitor the movement on the street and chronicle in his journals in delectable detail the depravity of his neighbors, the denizens of this ruined town.
He woke at noon, drenched in sweat and angry, as always after a long sleep, cursing, turning his head this way and that, furious at the wasted time. He quickly put on his glasses, reread the last sentence in his journal…’They’re dead, the lot of them…or they’re sitting at the kitchen table leaning on their elbows. Not even a broken door and window can rouse the headmaster. Come winter he’ll freeze his ass off.’
And therein art meets life, capturing the appeal of towns like Gyula and Khust and Kapušany. As towns go, they tend to be compact and compartmental, designed on a human scale, lending themselves to leisurely walking, popping into hidden courtyards for a peek at what lies within. Places wonderfully accessible to the boundless speculations of a febrile imagination. And moving past these windows, it’s not difficult to imagine a dissolute physician; a plump and lusty butcher’s wife; or a didactic, alcoholic ex-state security agent within. Outside, the new paint job bought with European Bank for R&D money dries slowly as the town spirals into its inexorable, if unacknowledged, katabasis. In each one its own history of religious purges, mass executions, plague, pogrom.
It’s not just growing older, though I wish sometimes it was; that would make things simpler. No, my fascination with impending ruin moves beyond mere fetish, or morbidity. Here, in these places marked by decline, the geographic fag-end of the corpse of Austria-Hungary, there are stories lurking. Stories that resulted in the delectable stories of László Krasznahorkai. Grueling, painful, beautiful human stories. My own, perhaps, among them.