Magazine March 5, 2018, Issue

The Struggle for Meaning

The World Goes On, by Laszlo Krasznahorkai (New Directions, 288 pp., $24.95)

The title of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s latest book to be translated into English doesn’t give much guidance as to what’s within. “The World Goes On” could be the declaration of an optimist or a pessimist, after all. It might serve as a comforting reminder of the resilience of the human being — and the entire human race — in the face of heartbreak and horror. Or it could be a commentary on the ultimate ephemerality of not just any but every human life. Indeed, it might be another way of expressing that old Persian proverb, a warning against both despair and hubris, “This too shall pass.”

You might think the book’s cover gives the game away: Title and author are superimposed on a rainbow, a cross-cultural symbol of peace and hope. But it doesn’t take many pages for Krasznahorkai to dash any such dream. Here is how the third story of the collection, “He Wants to Forget,” begins, on page 17:

We are in the midst of a cynical self-reckoning as the not-too-illustrious children of a not-too-illustrious epoch that will consider itself truly fulfilled only when every individual writhing in it — after languishing in one of the deepest shadows of human history — will finally attain the sad and temporarily self-evident goal: oblivion. This age wants to forget it has gambled away everything on its own, without outside help, and that it can’t blame alien powers, or fate, or some remote baleful influence; we did this ourselves: we have made away with gods and with ideals. We want to forget, for we cannot even muster the dignity to accept our bitter defeat: for infernal smoke and infernal alcohol have gnawed away whatever character we had, in fact smoke and cheap spirits are all that remains of the erstwhile metaphysical traveler’s yearning for angelic realms — the noxious smoke left by longing, and the nauseating spirits left over from the maddening potion of fanatical obsession.

There’s nothing so bracing as Eastern European existentialism, is there?

A 64-year-old novelist and screenwriter, Krasznahorkai has been acclaimed in his native Hungary for decades; winning the Man Booker International Prize in 2015 has brought him increasing attention in the English-speaking world. His fiction has been only sporadically translated into English, but the publisher New Directions is working on rectifying that. The World Goes On, a selection of 21 stories, was released in Hungary in 2013 and appears now in English, thanks to New Directions and a trio of translators.

It’s a curious collection, moving from philosophical tract to dystopian drama and back again — and sometimes it’s even both at the same time. It’s full of voices, including those of Buddha (“the world’s most original philosopher”); a pleasantly plump pseudo-scientist accosting tourists in the holy Indian city of Varanasi; a raging hobo on a soapbox of discarded coats in Budapest’s Nyugati railway station; and a teenaged quarry worker covered in marble dust and resignation in Portugal. Yet no matter what the setting — whether an uncomfortable car ride among friends and strangers to the exclusion zone in Chernobyl or the impenetrable studio of a famous but inscrutable painter in Renaissance Venice — Krasznahorkai’s stories all fit our present mood and moment. Those Man Booker judges were astutely prescient.

In awarding him their biennial prize, the Booker judges declared that “throughout Krasznahorkai’s work, what strikes the reader above all are the 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’s not exactly a winning image. But Krasznahorkai is certainly known for his long lines: His novel The Melancholy of Resistance — there’s a title that speaks to America right now — is a single paragraph spread out over 300 pages. Some — not all, let me assure you — stories here consist of just one sentence. Krasznahorkai once told a New York audience that the period “doesn’t belong to human beings, it belongs to God,” novelist Hari Kunzru reported in the Guardian. Perhaps; it might be one more reason the fiction writer can seem a lot like God.

Krasznahorkai’s sentences, then, invite comparisons to those of William Faulkner, James Joyce, even Henry James. He often uses them in a stream-of-consciousness style that owes much to Joyce and Virginia Woolf. This means these stories sometimes can be hard to follow. And it’s not clear any actual authenticity is the reward. Our own private streams of consciousness do not have a steady, even flow; we take breaks once in a while, to, say, ask ourselves a question. Man, that social animal, does like to engage in conversation — even if only with himself. (And really, isn’t a liberal sprinkling of semicolons in a sentence rather a cheat?)

It’s probably obvious by now that Krasznahorkai is not the sort of writer to apologize for anything, let alone his style. As he writes in “Universal Theseus,” a story, the longest and perhaps best of the book, told in three lectures by a man first invited and then forced to speak as the city degenerates into disorder outside the auditorium, “yes, one may try to put this in simpler terms, but the thing that needs to be said does not thereby become any simpler.” Don’t think that the book is a trudge because of it, though. Krasznahorkai inserts some sly humor into some of those sentences, as in this ending of one from the same story, a description of a couple of Berlin transit cops: “I could not make out their facial features, other than the greasy, shiny, pimply complexion and the regulation thin, merciless lips of both the old and the young one; no facial features therefore, because with facial features of this kind, even if you placed a thousand sheets of drawing paper in front of me, and after each spoiled drawing lashed me with a knout, still not one out of a thousand would turn out to be a true likeness.” And one story contains no sentences at all. In a subtitle, he describes “The Swan of Istanbul,” in memory of the Greek- Egyptian poet Cavafy, as “seventy-nine paragraphs on blank pages.” Those blank pages are followed by four pages of notes citing real references. And it’s probably not the oddest piece in the collection.

Yet it’s the meaning that really matters, isn’t it? That is finally the theme of the disparate stories of The World Goes On. Human beings desperately crave meaning — we want to believe that we mean something. We’d rather have that, Krasznahorkai paradoxically suggests, than existence itself. But, echoing Friedrich Nietzsche, the subject of one of these stories, Krasznahorkai coolly avers that everything has lost meaning, even what once served as the signifiers themselves: language. The most quoted description of Krasznahorkai in the English-language press is the late Susan Sontag’s pronouncement that he is “the contemporary Hungarian master of apocalypse.” That statement doesn’t seem accurate, though. Krasznahorkai is not an augur trying to warn us of a coming disaster; neither is he attempting to describe one in progress. It’s come and gone, and, like the Portuguese in the one-industry quarry town, Krasznahorkai is resigned to fate. He’s interested in what comes next. As his melancholic lecturer has it: “If you will pardon my arbitrary, presumptuous use of the first person plural, then allow me to put it this way: unable to find any ultimate meaning we feel crushed enough already to be fed up with a literature that pretends there is such a thing and keeps hinting at some ultimate meaning.”

And it is literature — even in this post-apocalyptic, nearly post-literate era — to which we always turn to make comprehensible the incomprehensible. (In the collection’s title story, Krasznahorkai offers a sterling example of the incomprehensible: the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.) As one of his obsessive narrators insists, “Well, I don’t agree with the idea that there are no stories, there are only stories, there are billions of stories, a thousand billion, a gazillion trillion stories, I won’t go on, but to say that there are no stories, well we are only made of stories.” The storyteller’s task might ultimately be impossible, but the nature of the materials with which he’s forced to work make it harder still. As another one of Krasznahorkai’s crazies says, “It’s of no interest which word is unable to express what he wants to say, this isn’t the first time he’s run up against this problem, for alas he can only repeat that this is the situation with words, that words are helpless, it’s always a merry-go-round, around the thing itself, never a bull’s-eye, that’s words for you.”

But “each thing possesses its own individual madness,” as yet a third idiot savant says. That endless variety of complication is compelling, and it’s why we remain mesmerized by the world and those who people it — despite our doubts, sometimes despairing, that there’s any real substance to be found in them. Even as clear-eyed a skeptic as Laszlo Krasznahorkai can’t resist the gravitational pull. And thank God, or goodness, or whatever you might find meaning in: Life unexamined by a poetic old soul like Krasznahorkai would be much less worth living.

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