MAY 9, 2017
WHAT ONE CANNOT HELP noticing about László Krasznahorkai’s latest work is its form. The Last Wolf, the first and largest piece of the collection, is a single-sentence monologue in which a failed German academic recounts to an uninterested Hungarian barman in Hauptstrasse, Berlin, his excursion to Extremadura, where he had been invited by an ambiguous “foundation” to write something equally ambiguous “about the region.” With subtle sleight of hand, which almost goes unnoticed, the phrase “as he explained to the Hungarian bartender once he was back in Berlin” shifts the narrative in time from the narrator’s initial bamboozled receipt of the invitation to his retrospective account of the experience itself. While this is the first of Krasznahorkai’s large works consisting of a single sentence (that I am aware of), his translator George Szirtes has famously described his writing as “a slow lava-flow of narrative, a vast black river of type.” Szirtes isn’t alone in his admiration of this textual “lava-flow.” The Booker Prize judges who chose Krasznahorkai as their winner in 2015 praised his “extraordinary sentences, sentences of incredible length that go to incredible lengths […]; epic sentences that, like a lint roll, pick up all sorts of odd and unexpected things as they accumulate inexorably into paragraphs that are as monumental as they are scabrous and musical,” while the Times Literary Supplement has lauded “the rolling continuity of Krasznahorkai’s prose[,] resembling the flux of memory, which at any moment may be jolted into the present.”
“After many pages of being suspended in the unending,” the Times reviewer continued, “the approach of a full stop can bring a sense of dread, which Krasznahorkai most often justifies in his final phrase or two: the prose lifts us: then we drop.” All true. There is indeed something mesmeric, obsessive, brilliant, and awful about Krasznahorkai’s sentences. In an interview, Colm Tóibín — the founder of Tuskar Rock Press, which publishes Krasznahorkai’s work in the United Kingdom — described the sensation as something like walking a tight rope: exhilarating, mad, precarious, extreme. There are plenty more adjectives. More domestically, I think of it as trying to roll pastry to a filo-pitch fineness without tears or tears.
In the end, this mass of praise speaks to something more than just Krasznahorkai’s individual syntactic prowess. The modern European sentence has a history of transformation that’s as complex as it is long, but a shortened and sinfully simplistic, potted version might look something like this:
Departing from the serpentine textures of Renaissance stylists like Thomas Browne and Robert Burton, the sentence underwent a process of refinement, if not shortening, which culminated, via Jane Austen, in the famous watered silk of the late Henry James. James’s polish was glutted beyond recognition by Joyce and the famous Proustian sentence, and in response came Hemingway’s unadorned blood-and-dirt simplicity. The sentence retreated, Hemingway rediscovered the conjunction “and,” and a kind of crystalline clarity was sought. After World War II, there was no such thing as simplicity or clarity. With the rise of post-structuralism in the ’60s, language could no longer be relied upon to represent anything directly — even if there were anything to represent. And so the sentence retreated within itself, following Beckett, to a point of excruciating interiority. Rather than being a tool to capture something in the phenomenal world, the sentence was forced to bear the burden of unbridled subjectivity, and was beaten wafer thin, stretched, and distorted beyond recognition.
As James Wood of The New Yorker observed, “this is one reason that very long, breathing, unstopped sentences, at once literary and vocal, have been almost inseparable from the progress of experimental fiction since the nineteen-fifties.” He goes on to list “Claude Simon, Thomas Bernhard, José Saramago, W. G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño, David Foster Wallace, James Kelman, and László Krasznahorkai” as writers “at odds with a merely grammatical realism.” To this pantheon we might add Mathias Énard, whose 2008 Zone is a single 500-page-long sentence, and whose Compass, for which he was awarded the Prix Goncourt, is also home to some impressive syntactic specimens. It suffices to say that the long sentence is in vogue. This is not worrying in itself, but beginning The Last Wolf, shortly after reading Compass, it is impossible not to notice that the postmodern fetish for the long sentence goes hand in hand with an equally fetishized personality: the melancholic, probably sickly, probably mentally unwell university professor.
The Last Wolf recounts the impressions of one who has slipped down “the slope of futility and scorn these last few years, a descent from the height of an academic chair to the depths of impersonal dreariness at the Sparschwein,” and who has “been living here for years, here in the embattled wasteland of the Hauptsrasse, earning three hundred euros for one or two lectures, which was just enough to see him through on a day to day basis.” Not dissimilar to the narrator of Compass, Franz Ritter, a middle-aged Austrian musicologist who suffers from an unnamed, probably mortal illness. “I’m a poor, unsuccessful academic with a revolutionary thesis no one cares about,” moans Ritter. Not, indeed, unlike the narrator of The Last Wolf, the self-proclaimed author of “a series of books in fact […] that no one read.” Noticing these similarities, it is difficult not to think of W. G. Sebald, whose Austerlitz (2000), concluded one Guardian reviewer, was “the most powerful fiction,” although one couldn’t “really comprehend his prose style, so distinctive in the length of his sentences and the slight archaism of manner, the monotony of its cadences.” Of course, the narrator of those long sentences is a retired academic who, we are told in the first few lines of the novel, “travelled repeatedly from England to Belgium, partly for study purposes, partly for reasons which were never entirely clear to me,” and who, needless to say, suffers from severe anxiety, another unspecified illness, and boatloads of melancholia.
But this didn’t begin with Sebald. It is only in a late interview with Michael Silverblatt that the author of Austerlitz admits he inherited his style from Thomas Bernhard, whose Extinction (1986) is narrated by one Franz-Josef Murau, another miserable academic, and whose Correction (1975) is an obsessive account of the narrator’s struggle to compile the “literary papers” of his friend Roithamer after the latter’s suicide. Sebald only admitted this debt to Bernhard when he had achieved his own literary success, because, as he explains to Silverblatt, he didn’t want to be simply labeled a Bernhard impersonator. I should be clear, I do not seek to elide Bernhard with Sebald with Krasznahorkai with Énard; the total effects of their novels are mostly disparate. And yet the publications of The Last Wolf and Compass have come nearly half a century after Bernhard’s Correction — it must be asked: why do the meandering sentences of melancholy intellectuals still proliferate, snatching the top literary prizes and enthralling their readership?
I asked myself this question, perhaps even venturing to roll my eyes, as I read the first few pages of The Last Wolf. I was reminded of Thomas Schatz’s argument about commercial film genres: that they progress from the experimental, to the classic, and, finally, to the baroque, when the form becomes obtrusive, even parodic.
If the revenge play began with an experiment in 1587 — Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy — by 1606, it had progressed to the baroque. In The Revenger’s Tragedy, the none-too-subtly named Vindice calls on the stage-hand/God, who provides appropriately thundery accompaniment to dramatic acts of vengeance, and then responds appreciatively: “Mark, thunder. / Does know thy cue, thou big-voiced crier?” It’s hard to say whether this brazen formal self-awareness adds to or detracts from the work. The same thing takes place on page eight of The Last Wolf, when the narrator reflects (with depressing logic, in claustrophobic prose) on his:
few unreadable books full of ponderously negative sentences and depressing logic in claustrophobic prose, a series of books in fact, when it had long became obvious, almost immediately obvious, that no one read them of course, and, that being the case, he must long have been washed up as a philosopher, no one was making any serious attempt to understand him or what his sentences, his logic, his diction or prose might be about, and in the meantime he had practically no income, which made it impossible for him simply to give up …
What we find here is a self-conscious lament on, or paean to, the difficulty — perhaps the impossibility — of true communication between human beings. This is most powerfully felt when the narrator recounts listening, via an interpreter, to José Miguel’s tragic tale of the discovery of the region’s penultimate wolf dead in the road; as Miguel’s story approaches its climax, the interpreter loses her composure and breaks off:
at which point the interpreter dissolved in tears and José Miguel continued speaking piling one sentence on top of another, one Spanish sentence running into the next, the interpreter so full of tears that she couldn’t even speak let alone translate, at which point he, he pointed to himself in the Sparschwein, suddenly felt anything but empathy, rather rage, because he couldn’t understand why he was being left to his own devices at the most exciting moment of the story, for the narrative having been broken in this way it seemed there was no need for him in this jeep, that he was redundant, because his heart was not broken the way the interpreter’s clearly was, and all this made him utterly furious, furious with her, though he still didn’t know why, couldn’t know why, because he didn’t think of himself as someone who could look on another human being in tears without feeling part of their grief …
And when the narrator recalls José Miguel pulling him aside in an attempt to finish, in “broken English,” the end of the story, the narrative is again interrupted by the narrator’s having to wake up his audience, the Hungarian barman: “so what was it, grumbled the Hungarian barman and rubbed his eyes — well, it was precisely what I expected, he said, so I told him not to tell me, we simply embraced, and that is how I left him.” At this point, the character falls silent, and the story’s last few words are spoken by the omniscient narrator of the first few: “ever since then, day after day, he had been rewriting the end of José Miguel’s story in his head, and that’s exactly where he was now, at the end.”
I had to read the story twice. The first time mainly involved identifying by now familiar conjuring tricks. The second time involved noticing that none of that mattered. As I finish this review and lose some 30 minutes on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and a host of news outlets, while all the time shifting between Spotify playlists without listening to a single song all the way through, I realize that there is another reason to appreciate Krasznahorkai’s “slow lava-flow of narrative,” his “vast black river of type,” “his ponderously negative sentences and depressing logic in claustrophobic prose.”