WHAT IS A literary taxonomist but a bilious book critic? And yet here I am attempting to critique — no — “respond” to a book that has left me in a state of utter aporia. Music critic Simon Reynolds’s definition of post-punk registers as this attempt to write about László Krasznahorkai’s latest work in translation, The World Goes On. As Reynolds states in his book Rip It Up and Start Again, post-punk is “less a genre of music than a space of possibility,” suggesting that “what unites all this activity is a set of open-ended imperatives: innovation; willful oddness; the willful jettisoning of all things precedented or ‘rock’n’roll.’”
Consider Krasznahorkai as such: willful jettisoning of all things precedented. Kafka. Beckett. The 70-page sentences. (James Wood’s New Yorker review summarizes it as such: “Reality examined to the point of madness.”)
First the facts:
- The World Goes On was originally written in Hungarian, an agglutinative language.
- Published in Hungarian in 2013.
- Translated into English by John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet, and George Szirtes (New Directions, 2017).
- Hungary: A landlocked country.
- Also behind the Soviet Bloc, a.k.a. Churchill’s Iron Curtain.
- a. mass or group formed by the union of separate elements.
- b. the formation of derivational or inflectional words by putting together constituents of which each expresses a single definite meaning.
But how then do we define agglutination through the lens of Krasznahorkai’s prose?
As translator Ottilie Mulzet explained in a 2014 Paris Review interview, the Hungarian language
has seemingly endless suffixes and amazing possibilities for compound words, and it has absolutely flexible word order, depending on what you want to emphasize in the sentence. And I would certainly mention the unbelievable elasticity of Hungarian — it’s like a rubber band. It can expand and expand, until you think, Well, this rubber band is going to break at any moment now, or it can shrink into just a few sparse words, where all the most important parts are left out and you just have to know.
As far as translating Krasznahorkai’s long sentences from Hungarian to English, she goes on to describe the author “deliberately exploiting the extraordinary elasticity of Hungarian grammar.”
To exploit one’s language to the degree that Krasznahorkai does is to triumph as a writer in a way that will outlive the Man Booker Prize or any further accolade. I sincerely believe Krasznahorkai has succeeded in changing the landscape of literature, and we’ve only just begun to read him in English.
In reading this collection of 21 stories, I must begin by saying the author did something utterly profound to me as a reader. Krasznahorkai made time stop. I admit that this is the kind of transcendentally stoned thing someone might say at a party after today’s weed and too much wine: he made time stop. But he did. Reading changed for me in reading this book. It’s as though he replaced stream of consciousness with something deeper. Stream of subconsciousness? Can there be such a thing? I do not know how he does it. I do not know if we need to know how he does it, only that it leaves me with a feeling of comfort — I can’t quite figure out what just happened, only that I loved it.
I’ve chosen to quote in full one of his shorter pieces, “Not on the Heraclitean Path” from the first of three sections of the book (I. Speaks, II. Narrates, III. Bids Farewell). I partially chose this piece because it begins with one of the shorter sentences in the collection, and partially because it felt wrong to “excerpt” his prose. So here goes “Not on the Heraclitean Path” in its entirety. I encourage you to read Krasznahorkai with no distraction. If you are on a train, do not look out the window mid-sentence. If you are on your computer, do not check your email. Do not take a bite of a sandwich. Ignore loved ones. And for god’s sake, turn off the news.
This is part of the experience — and joy — that is not only reading in the modern era, but reading Krasznahorkai, whom you’d do a disservice were you to interrupt his so-called “flow.” Though I do, later on in this review, extrapolate bits of his prose for the sake of giving you, the reader, a sense of his other stories, I do so with a sense of sacrilege. Mr. Krasznahorkai, for that, I am sorry.
“Not on the Heraclitean Path”
Memory is the art of forgetting.
It does not deal with reality, reality is not what engages it, it has no substantial relation whatsoever to that inexpressible, infinite complexity that is reality itself, in the same way and to the same extent that we ourselves are unable to reach the point where we can catch even a glimpse of this indescribable, infinite complexity (for reality and glimpsing it are one and the same); so the rememberer covers the same distance to the past about to be evoked as that covered when this past had been the present, thereby revealing that there had never been a connection to reality, and this connection had never been desired, since regardless of the horror or beauty that the memory evokes, the rememberer always works starting from the essence of the image about to be evoked, an essence that has no reality, and not even starting from a mistake, for he fails to recall reality not by making a mistake, but because he handles what is complex in the loosest and most arbitrary manner, by infinitely simplifying the infinitely complex to arrive at something relative to which he has a certain distance, and this is how memory is sweet, this is how memory is dazzling, and this is how memory comes to be heartrending and enchanting, for here you stand, in the midst of an infinite and inconceivable complexity, you stand here utterly dumbfounded, helpless, clueless, and lost, holding the infinite simplicity of the memory in your hand — plus of course the devastating tenderness of melancholy, for you sense, as you hold this memory, that its reality lies somewhere in the heartless, sober, ice-cold distance.
If we are “not” on the Heraclitean path, in which “the path up and down are one and the same,” then what? We’re on the Kraszahorkian path, in which reality, this indescribable, infinite complexity, is forever ungraspable, “for reality and glimpsing it are one and the same.”
In “Nine Dragon Crossing,” Krasznahorkai beautifully conflates the mental landscape of a drunk man to that same man trapped inside an expressway in Shanghai, the Nine Dragon Crossing. This man, a “simultaneous interpreter” is on a lifelong quest to visit one of three waterfalls: Angel Falls, Victoria Falls, or perhaps, the Schaffhausen Falls.
Metaphors can be nauseating, and I do not presume this sophisticated of an author to rely on such a novice literary tool. And yet, the waterfalls. It was probably the most memorable imagery in the book because of how unexpectedly it is worked into the prose. The man never visits the waterfalls and yet, as the story continues, the drunk man, now hungover, makes his way back to his hotel, “his head — that bowl of mush — against the pillow,” and that is when it happens. That is when the man on the television in an “ever vivid Cantonese dialect” speaks to the hungover man on the bed, and says:
the entirety of the whole is not a sum of the smaller wholes but simply exists, if it existed, except that it does not, therefore there is no sense in talking about it, which would be all right, except for one problem, that now the belief in it also has no sense, however without it our entire way of thinking collapses, for we cannot coexist with a whole that does not exist, that does not amount to the sum of its parts, we cannot bear the thought that there is something that does not exist, something we cannot conceive of, something in front of which all our thoughts, all our intuitions, all our ideas collapse into sheer meaninglessness, because the merest thought of it is false, wrong, misleading, stupid, but on the other hand, if this is how things stand, and there is no single ultimate Whole that contains all the other wholes, then there are no wholes that are the sum of their parts either, and this is how it could happen that it makes no sense to inquire about the meaning of the smaller wholes, even if, and especially if, we are unable to do without the casual-experimental, that is with the extraordinarily persuasive power of “if I drop it from above, it falls”, the extraordinarily persuasive power of which lies in its simplicity, in its so-called obviousness, this is what we are obsessed with, antecedents and consequences …
He drifts to sleep, the simultaneous interpreter, and when he awakes “as if jolted by electric shock,” the same man on the television is still speaking to him,
but without the sound of his voice, only the waterfall sound could be heard […] and he kept talking and talking without a voice, only the sound of the waterfall, which was exactly the same, oh my god, he clenched his fist in his lap, it was exactly the same as the sound of the waterfall that he had never been able to identify among those three, a nightmare, he thought, and pinched himself, but he was awake […] and then just kept staring, staring at that waterfall on the TV set, he saw no subtitles whatsoever that could have helped to identify which one it was, the Angel, the Victoria, or possibly the Schaffhausen, all they showed was the waterfall itself, the sound was a steady roar, and inside his head, obviously still powerfully dazed by the long time he had spent listening in his sleep or half-awake to the man with the glasses, a flurry of words began to whirl again, that the Whole exists in its wholeness, the Parts in their own particularity, and the Whole and the Parts cannot be lumped together, they don’t follow from one another, since after all the waterfall for example is not composed of its individual drops, for single drops would never constitute a waterfall, but drops nonetheless do exist, and how heartrendingly beautiful they can be when they sparkle in the sunlight, indeed how long do they exist, a flash, and they are gone, but they still have time in this almost timeless flash to sparkle, and in addition there is also the Whole, and how lovely that is, how fantastically beautiful, that this Whole, the waterfall as a Oneness can appear …
Back on the plane, happy, exuberant “like a kid who has at last received the gift he dreamed of” and though “it was impossible to speak about what he had learned in Shanghai,” he looked out the window and
it no longer mattered which waterfall it was, it no longer mattered if he didn’t see any of them, for it was all the same, it had been enough to hear that sound, and he streaked away at a speed of 900 km per hour, at an altitude of approximately ten thousand meters in a north by northwesterly direction, high above the clouds — in the blindingly blue sky toward the hope that he would die some day.
The author describes the fullness met at death, and the beauty therein, as a kind of apparition on the page, and yet, he is still very much alive in a kind of willful jettisoning that is post-punk Krasznahorkai.
I might now transition this review by again leaning on taxonomy. Perhaps, I might call this author’s prose a form of literary calisthenics. I often hear the phrase “a real writer’s writer,” undoubtedly a noxious construct from the world of MFAs, and most often, most all of the time, it is a male author referring to another male author. Women, it must be noted in this Weinsteinian mark in time, are characterized in this collection almost entirely as sexual objects, if they are mentioned at all. The absence of women, particularly in a collection where the author had numerous choices to include the other half of the world’s perspective, leaves a deafening sadness. Is it that a real “writer’s writer,” or white male, is too intellectually sophisticated to incorporate the “victim” thought processes, the mere “musings” of the female intellect in a true work of literary art? I do not presume Krasznahorkai’s intentions of omission as purposeful, per se, only that as a reader who respects his work, I do wonder: why leave women out?
Also be sure to read “Bankers,” which delves into the nuances of friendship over time, the continual breakdowns and re-buildings as we evolve and age. What remains, what is lost. Read “That Gagarin,” (think “Joe Gould’s Secret”) with one of the most epic crescendos to a short story I’ve read in a long while. We are in India, Italy, Berlin, Hungary, yet, in essence, we are nowhere and everywhere.
And after we and Krasznahorkai have left this planet, the title of this collection will remain true: the world goes on.