The surreal world that Krasznahorkai’s writing generates might serve as the best place from which to view our own, and to go about struggling to achieve a future that will, someday, arrive.
A potential reader might be forgiven for assuming that László Krasznahorkai, the novelist Susan Sontag dubbed “the contemporary Hungarian master of the apocalypse,” is a writer of humorless, grim fictions. After all Sátántangó, Krasznahorkai’s first novel, was adapted, with the help of his friend and collaborator Béla Tarr, into a stark, black and white film that runs over seven hours, a punishing length for even dedicated cinephiles. But this assumption would be wrong, and has wrongly deterred potential readers from approaching the work of one of our greatest living novelists.
An example: midway through his most recent novel, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming (published in Hungary in 2016, but reaching English readers only last year), the titular event transpires; the Baron returns to the Hungarian town where he was born after gambling away his wealth for 40 years in Argentina. The town, believing the Baron has come back at his advanced age to bestow his riches upon them and revitalize their tourist industry has arranged a grand reception wherein the local choir will sing “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” from Evita – the movie starring Madonna, they stress. Unbeknownst to this choir, the local neo-Nazi biker gang – which holds equally delusional ideas about what the Baron’s return signifies – have arranged their own welcome: a rendition of the same song played, in unison, by their modified motorcycle horns. The Baron steps off the train and the choir begins to sing, but they are thrown off by the motorcycle horns, which are blaring out of sync; the Baron turns around and gets back on the train.
This collision of the absurd, the pathetic and the grim is not unknown in literature. Krasznahorkai has been compared to Kafka and Beckett since his novels began appearing in English, slowly, over the past 20 years, and while the comparison does not hold up in the specifics, it does hold up in spirit. There is something of Godot in the way Krasznahorkai’s characters always seem to be anticipating some event that will inevitably disappoint. There is something Kafka-esque in the way Krasznahorkai’s characters are never able to firmly get a handle on the events that surround them. In Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming this is stated succinctly by the narrator, who says of a character that “he didn’t know what was going on, but something was happening.” This is an apt description of what it is like to read a Krasznahorkai novel.
Things do happen in Baron Wenckheim, a great many things, but synopsis fails to evoke what the text is like, as experienced. Still, the novel begins with a professor, an apparently world-renowned expert on mosses, hiding out in a shack outside of town as his daughter stages a protest outside to demand he recognize her rights, financial and legal, as his daughter. The Professor fires a few warning shots from a rifle of spurious procurement to scare this circus away. Meanwhile – if it is before or after or during these events it is both difficult to tell and of no particular relevance – a few stray words of the Professor’s catch the ear of the aforementioned neo-Nazi gang who mistakenly mark the Professor as a sympathizer. This, too, ends in violence, causing the Professor to go on the run. While he returns at various points throughout the novel, the Professor fades into the background as the Baron emerges. The truth behind the prodigal son’s return is that he desires to meet the woman whom he has long been in love with. In typical Krasznahorkai fashion, the Baron misremembers her name and, when he comes face to face with her, does not recognize her.
This may sound cruel, but Krasznahorkai juxtaposes his grim sense of irony not just with humor, but with sentiment, or, at least, moments where characters recognize the difficulty of sentiment, of connection, of love. As the novel wheels to its close, the Baron wonders: “. . . what kind of life is that in which nothing, and to such a degree, had happened beyond the fact that there is a world, and within it, there is a love, a love in the world, the illusory character of which only emerged at the end of his life, because that’s what it was, illusory, it didn’t exist, and perhaps it never existed, because it wasn’t real, because its object could never be real, because what had been, and what there was now in its place, was bleak and desolate and empty and fraudulent, what had been the point of all this, the Baron posed the question to the Good Lord as he strolled toward death.” Yet, still, the Baron resolves in that moment to return to his love, who he has only just now realized is the woman he sat across from, spoke to and failed to recognize. That what transpires in the following pages makes this connection impossible does not soften the impact of the Baron’s recognition. From a certain point of view, the resolution to love despite the impossibility of such an action might make it all the more romantic.
Surrounding the stories of the Baron and the Professor is a string of prose that leaps effortlessly between characters and events surrounding these two in the town and elsewhere. The effect is akin to viewing a Brueghel painting: the narrator’s “eye” roams the world of their creation, a world filled to the brim with story, and all of it happening simultaneously, even in the most distant corners of the frame. It is, finally, Krasznahorkai’s prose which make his novels worthwhile, even as the myriad characters and plots proliferate into cacophony. The typical Krasznahorkai-ian sentence extends over several pages, with little distinction between what characters think or say. Digressions appear only to reveal more digressions. Commas and em dashes and parentheses form a complex train of grammar. And while this might sound “difficult” to read, and has been often marked by critics as “difficult,” it is really quite the opposite. The text is a rushing river that carries the reader along and it is not unusual to find yourself utterly lost in time, having gulped down dozens of pages in what felt like seconds.
The late critic and writer Edmond Caldwell, in a scathing critique of The New Yorker’s James Wood, referred to Krasznahorkai’s novels as “writerly texts” as opposed to “readerly” ones. Caldwell’s critique focuses primarily on Wood’s approach to non-realist authors like Krasznahorkai, an approach whereby he bends these writers into the realm of realism, of “readerly” writing, through a psychological understanding of the text. That is to say, for Wood “it might be hard to know what the characters are thinking, what the ultimate effect of that thinking should be, but at least there are characters thinking, a mind turning over thoughts,” the presence of which conforms nicely to Wood’s proscribed view of – to steal the title of one of his books – How (good) Fiction Works. It is absurd to approach Krasznahorkai through this limited critical framework, and in contrast, Caldwell understands the Hungarian’s writing in a deeper, fuller way, positing that the characters in these books, as opposed to thinking, are “being ‘thought’ by those lava flows of language” that stretch for pages at a time.
In Krasznahorkai’s novels, and in Baron Wenckheim in particular, the “writing itself” is “primary and constitutive.” Take, for example, the way the novel begins – even before the copyright page – with a section titled “Warning,” a six-and-a-half page sentence wherein an “impresario” commands total control of his orchestra and confesses that he “is simply waiting for all of this to be over,” or take the table of contents, labeled “Dance Card,” or the list – labelled “Sheet Music Library” – that comes at the very end of the book, its two sections exhaustively cataloguing characters and ephemera from the novel that are either “missing” or “destroyed,” or take the invocation that serves as the novel’s final words; take all of it, and what you have is not a text generated by the psychology of its characters or by incidence of plot, but a text whose engine and generative force is the act of writing itself, the performance of the writer.
At several points in Baron Wenckheim, characters turn their gaze toward a television set that plays “The Real World,” ambiently, in the background. This contemporary intervention – there are more, characters use iPhones and other modern devices – unusual for Krasznahorkai’s novels, which often feel biblical in their timelessness, might scan only as a joke. Neo-Nazis sitting in a biker bar watching reality TV is at least absurd, anyway. But since the show is never described, only referenced, it leads one to wonder if what appears on the TV screen is the long-running MTV show or The Real World, that is to say, our own world, which is both within and without Krasznahorkai’s Surreal World, his world that is more-than-real: the world of writing.
Another surreal intervention that occurs in the text, twice actually, is the appearance of a long caravan of black cars, the arrival of which causes time to literally stop in the world of the novel. A man, never named, steps out of the official-seeming convoy and surveys the world around him as it begins to hurtle toward its violent end. It does not take too much guessing to surmise that the man is likely meant to be Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s “national conservative” (read: neo-fascist) prime minister. It is a grim omen, interrupting the story, breaking the flow of the novel; a piece not fully-integrated into its world because it comes from the outside. And if this is Krasznahorkai’s final novel, as he has suggested it might be, it will be a shame, for he has begun the work of stitching together the surrealist and political impulses of the novel that were so closely entwined in the interwar period of European literature. He combines, here, a Brecht-ian impulse for alienation with his propulsive “lava flows of language” to create a cracked-mirror version of our world under capitalist realism, where, to quote the novel, we “continually postpone” the present, “exchanging it for a future which will never arrive.”
But this makes it all seem grim again, and Krasznahorkai’s novels are less grim than grimoire – books of magic spells that, by their invocation, conjure worlds. It is a turn of great fortune to be alive and to have these novels that are filled to the brim with strange life. The surreal world that Krasznahorkai’s writing generates might serve as the best place from which to view our own, and to go about struggling to achieve a future that will, someday, arrive.