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The Sentence Goes On

Sam Caleb

 

László Krasznahorkai
The World Goes On
Translated by John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet and George Szirtes
New Directions
2017
311pp
£14.99 (hbk)

 

 

 

 

 

You can’t help but think you’ve reached some form of precipice when reading László Krasznahorkai. Like he’s taken you on a long, often rambling, undeniably circuitous walk with the promise of something you just have to see at the end of it. And once you’re there, what do you see? Some bleak vista: the stinking banks of the Ganges, Shanghai’s finance sector, a dead animal in the middle of the road. In getting there you’ve got shit on your shoes. You can see the maggots in that carcass. You’ve made clear your view on bankers before. There’s nothing uplifting to make up for the exhausting to and fro of the journey, only bewilderment at the anticlimax of it all.

But he’s taken you there nonetheless, and, for all the disappointment in the final spectacle, you have to admit that you’ve been borne along unquestioningly, almost joyously, in fact. It probably has something to do with his masterfully crafted run-on sentences, with the lack of full stops that might otherwise give pause for thought and the chance to bring this journey to a more timely halt.

One might read Krasznahorkai’s propensity for bleak vistas and anticlimax through the lens of tradition, or rather, of a very particular lineage within Western literary tradition: that of the Great White European Males of Apocalyptic Melancholy. There are Kafka’s labyrinthine wanderings, refigured in the stomping around Venice in search of art or the trek up to the Acropolis in Seiobo There Below. And Céline’s international hopscotching, the novels and short stories taking you from the old Eastern Bloc to Kyoto to New York and everywhere in between. There are Beckett’s odd couples, tramps, vagabonds, and talking heads, spouting unceasingly and as if from nowhere on everything from fugues to the Alhambra. And, of course, there’s Bernhard’s loathing of his country and compatriots, his Austropathy—to use Michael Hofmann’s coinage—transposed to Hungaropathy (see the miserable casts of charlatans and backstabbers in Satantango and The Melancholy of Resistance). Krasznahorkai certainly deserves a place in the veritable pantheon of literary giants to which he gestures, however queasy it might make us feel that Céline and his murderous anti-semitism features in that roll-call.

And yet, it’s difficult to shake the desire to undercut these savagely depressing outlooks on life, to protect oneself from being subsumed by melancholy. When a writer is so doggedly set on their totalising worldview, they open themselves up for easy satirisation. The Coen brothers’ laughable nihilists spouting “We believe in nothing Lebowski, nothing!” spring to mind. This urge to deflate and deflect might be unwarranted. After all, the works of the aforementioned writers contain plenty of humour. But it’s the sort that produces a squawking, throttled laugh, bursting out as the buildup of tension becomes too absurd to handle.

The World Goes On, the latest translation into English of Krasznahorkai’s work, presents itself as a short story collection in the vein of the earlier Seiobo There Below. In this respect, it contributes to a broader  formal shift away from earlier novels such as Satantango, Melancholy and War & War, towards shorter fragments. Both The World Goes On and Seiobo weave together a series of ostensibly disparate texts. The newest collection contains such gnomic subheadings as “One Time on 381” and “One Hundred People All Told”. Yet, whereas Seiobo, a much lengthier work, leaves the reader either to take each text as a discrete narrative to be read in isolation or to trace thematic threads—wandering travellers, Japanese religious and theatrical customs, Italian Renaissance painters and their works—running across them, The World Goes On would appear to suggest a narrative arc with chronological signposting, divided as it is into three distinct sections: “HE I. SPEAKS”, “II. NARRATES”, “III. BIDS FAREWELL”.

The second of these sections takes up the bulk of the book and consists of conventionally identifiable narratives, with some stark exceptions. In “Nine Dragon Crossing” a simultaneous interpreter longing for just one sight of a waterfall in his lifetime finds himself in Shanghai once again, drunk and lost. “Bankers” follows three investment bankers who are in Kiev for unclear professional purposes and end up in a fantastical brothel, before taking a trip to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. “A Drop of Water” features a traveller in Varanasi, accosted then captivated by an ancient old man wishing to enlighten him on the vast potentiality of meaning held within just a single drop of the Ganges. In “That Gagarin” a science historian becomes increasingly obsessed with Yuri Gagarin, whose life, quite literally, traced a narrative arc from stratospheric rise to tragic fall. “The Swan of Istanbul” stands out from the rest with its sixteen blank pages followed by endnotes.

The narrative ensemble is impressive. Krasznahorkai spins a dizzying array of settings, characters and themes into a text that, in other hands, might have turned out sloppy and incoherent. This is thanks to his mastery of long run-on sentences, which for Colm Tóibín create “a prose of breathtaking energy and beauty”. An excerpt from “Nine Dragon Crossing” is typical:

he of all people, who had this thing with waterfalls, one fine day, and for the umpteenth time, found himself in Shanghai again (the occasion was of no interest, he had to interpret for one of the usual series of business meetings), and he, for whom all his life waterfalls possessed such a special role, now in an utterly astounding manner precisely here in Shanghai had to realize the reason why all his life he had yearned to see the Angel, or the Victoria, or at the very least the Schaffhausen Falls, precisely here in Shanghai where it was common knowledge that there were no waterfalls […]

This isn’t the beginning of the sentence—that came one and a half pages ago. Nor is it anywhere near the end—that’s nine pages away. Clauses stack upon clauses, the majority connected by “and so”, “but then”, “that is why”, or “therefore”, the balancing act very rarely broken by the sleight of hand of a sentence splice or semicolon. Trains of thought are often interrupted by irrelevant asides: the fact he “rarely watched Chinese TV programs” in Europe; that the company would have paid for a taxi, having “a relatively liberal policy”, but instead he chose to take public transportation; that Nine Dragon Crossing is “a world-famous hub, a so-called metropolitan divided highway intersection”. Phrases and places recur like leitmotifs (“precisely here in Shanghai”, “so this is Shanghai”, “I am once again in Shanghai”; “I do simultaneous interpretation”, “I am a simultaneous interpreter”), signposts reminding the reader—however lost they might be—that they were going somewhere, or, at the very least, that they are somewhere. Great praise must be given to the translation team of John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet, and George Szirtes for rendering the original Hungarian into an English that, despite all this, flows seamlessly.

The length of Krasznahorkai’s sentences makes the humour with which his texts are often infused difficult to convey when quoted in brief. The reader is spectator to a virtuoso juggling act as ever more balls are thrown in to be kept aloft. This can, admittedly, all start to induce a pretty vertiginous feeling, and even become quite tiresome after a while. But then there are parts that are laugh-out-loud funny. Again, from “Nine Dragon Crossing”:

he had arrived in a place where a blurry awareness dawned that he hadn’t the faintest notion of how to find the bus, the 72, which was his only chance; he was now falling in love with the 72, he had always been very fond of it, and would always love it […]

Moments like this – the overblown personal attachment to a particular bus – come as a welcome reprieve from the manic feeling of dread that pervades the collection.

For melancholy is certainly the dominant mood. Or, as Krasznahorkai puts it in “On the Heraclitean Path”, “the devastating tenderness of melancholy”. But what makes it so devastatingly tender? What makes it worth writing about at such length? This question is all the more compelling given that the majority of these stories end so bleakly: the traveler in Varanasi imploring himself not to turn in the same direction four times out of fear he’ll end up back where he started, the science historian mentally preparing himself to jump out of a sixth-floor window, the simultaneous interpreter jetting through “the blindingly blue sky toward the hope that he would die some day”.

In the first section of The World Goes On, “HE I. SPEAKS”, Krasznahorkai hints at what impels him to write in such a way. One might reasonably infer from this section’s title that the narrators of these texts are vessels for an authorial voice, and thus provide a frame (or frames) within which to read what follows. Much meta-commentary is at play here. “Wandering-Standing”, the collection’s opener, reads as a capsule-narrative for the despairing situations in which so many of Krasznahorkai’s creations find themselves. It narrates an unnamed character’s urge to leave off from where they are. But when faced with multiple directions to take, each direction appearing as “correct” as any other, they are left standing as their mind wanders, propelled forward by the movement of words, yet remaining perfectly still. Elsewhere, “One Hundred People All Told” speaks of the need to

find a form, a brand new form, to embody this heartrending state of being touched, and not fling it down for so-called interpretation, not leave it at the mercy of the mind that could not help but destroy it immediately […]

And, in recounting the oft-told and highly dubious story of what brought about Nietzsche’s fall into madness, the speaker of “At the Latest, In Turin” reflects that in seeking the truth we find ourselves “navigating somewhat blindly, for the lighthouse keepers are asleep and cannot guide our maneuvers”.

Perhaps the most curious part of The World Goes On is the section titled “Universal Theseus” that doesn’t quite open the collection, although it has the feeling that it could have. A lecturer addresses an audience on the themes of melancholy, revolt and possessions. It is evident that he is a writer, as he speaks of the stories he has written. The stories featured in the lectures moreover seem to be offcuts of Krasznahorkai’s previous texts (the first one is another account of the travelling circus who tout the skeleton of the largest whale in the world in Melancholy), making it hard not to read the lecturer as a thinly veiled version of the author himself.

Only the set-up insinuates something rather more untoward than simply a writer delivering talks on his works. For starters, a strangely obsequious tone is deployed: “Esteemed Director General, esteemed audience”, “My dear Sir”. Then there are the references to bodyguards, the locked door of the auditorium, the lecturer being frog-marched into a basement. Combined, these elements create an image of an author held to account for their words, forced to explain their writing in the first person before an audience withholding some unspoken threat. The lecturer talks of his speeches as a means of “saying goodbye to the world”. However, after his designated three lectures have been delivered, there is no sense of hope, save for the two extra daily walks he has requested in exchange, owing to his need for “frequent airing”.

Krasznahorkai would appear to be questioning how far one can trust an author to explain their own texts to their readers, outside of the texts themselves. Why include this within the collection when it is such a critical truism? Is it simply a matter of warding off unwanted questions? And, if so, doesn’t that act intimate that the author may have something that they are defensive about and wish to hide? Framing the collection in a manner that could be interpreted as discouraging critique is odd, particularly from an author as widely feted as Krasznahorkai. Long-standing fans might appreciate the deterrant for its deliberate slipperiness, but if the collection is read as a stand-alone, it is somewhat perplexing, especially given that there are moments in The World Goes On as good as in any of Krasznahorkai’s previous works. However, it would be better to begin somewhere else in his back-catalogue if this is first-time reading.

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Sam Caleb [1] read English at Oxford and UCL. He lives and works in Berlin.