Personal issues may take me away for a bit.
I said I’d been holding off reviewing this book, originally published in Hungarian in 1999 but only translated into English now, until I knew more of what to make of it, and I’m not sure if I’m quite there yet. But the past week has been personally rather lousy for me, and overlapping as it does with the conflagration in the Middle East between Israel and, well, nearly everyone else, War and War has been at the front of my mind in ways that I cannot totally quantify. The way it treats the amorphous yet concrete intersection of the personal and political is so convincingly evocative of my current admixture of petty personal woes and fatalistic political worries that I have to say that it is the book for now.
I thought Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance a fantastic book, a haunting and violent political allegory that had more to say than a hundred contemporary books. I wrestled with it as I do with Musil, Riding, Gass, and too few others. In its sweeping, uncanny world, it is the book J.M. Coetzee has tried to write several times, but never quite succeeded. (I think Waiting for the Barbarians comes closest.) So I looked forward to War and War, also translated by the poet George Szirtes, as the most promising book on the horizon this year.
War and War is a remarkable novel, and it is drastically different from Krasznahorkai’s previous novel. Stylistically, the huge sentences and paragraphs are there, as is the sheer bleakness and black humor, but this book is far more oblique. It is not an allegory, but neither is it a realistic narrative, nor a fantasy, and as unusual as his past work was, War and War is sui generis. It is intensely personal, and I think it works hard to defy easy analysis. Krasznahorkai was quite explicit about the narrative and thematic construction of The Melancholy of Resistance within the text; here he draws back whenever the text is about to be too conclusive.
The story is odd and spare. A Hungarian scholar, Korin, has located a historical manuscript of tremendous importance to him, and he wants to share it with all humanity. To do so, he goes to New York, the heart of the living world, makes acquaintances with some unpleasant characters, and purchases a computer and web site to post the manuscript. He describes the manuscript at length to everyone he encounters. Korin is quite touched (and out of touch), and by the time of his eventual suicide, one wonders how he made it so far.
The manuscript is something else entirely. We only hear about it through Korin’s descriptions, but it is one strange beast, placing four somewhat nebulous travelers in various historical times and places from Greece to Italy to Africa, usually just before some sort of catastrophe or war. Often their bete noir, the Mephistophelian Mastemann, makes an appearance. The manuscript becomes hazier and more chaotic, according to Korin, until he himself has no idea what to make of it, other than being convinced of its utter importance. His most explicit summary comes towards the end, speaking of the possible author Wlassich and the four men:
It was a way out that this Wlassich or whatever his name is, was seeking for them, but he could not find one that was wholly airy and fantastical so he sent them forth into the wholly real realm of history, into the reality of eternal war, and tried to settle them at a point that held the promise of peace, a promise that was never fulfilled, though he conjures this reality with ever more infernal power, with ever more devilish fidelity, even greater demonic sensitivity, and populates it with the products of his own imagination, in vain as it turns out, for their path leads but from war to war, and never from war to peace, and this Wlassich, or whoever it is, despairs ever more of his one-person, amateurish ritual, and eventually goes completely off his head, for there is no Way Out. (203)
Needless to say, Korin is living this nightmare himself, though in a rather abstruse manner. The severity with which he goes about his life, even the simple matter of traveling to New York and publishing the manuscript, is difficult to bear at times. It is this historical weight, the constant sense of grand war and a society that is too great and heavy with suffering for a person to contain, that is the heart of the book, as inexplicable as it may be. Korin suffers it constantly and acutely. Krasznahorkai does not give any simple explanation, or any real explanation at all, for Korin’s condition, in which the historical and personal have collapsed and are overwhelming him. But the “historical” is not quite what we read in the papers and in books; it is, as Korin says, “the version that has triumphed by stealth.”
As for the Way Out…Krasznahorkai leaves it somewhat open. The end uses a couple of metafictional conceits. One of them is quite a punchline, and the other is touchingly ingenuous. Both reinforce that Korin’s nightmare is meant to be shared, as it is Krasznahorkai’s and his readers’. In his online introduction, Krasznahorkai says:
…there was an unexpected, fierce, poignant vision: a couple of people running for life in timeless devastation and meanwhile taking stock of all that they have to say good-bye to.
The book I started to write in 1992 rests on this vision, and given the feeling I had while working on it that there were less and less people who would grasp the meaning of a vision like mine, from 1996 on I tried to get in touch with them. I had been writing messages for two years and dividing them into separate sentences I had them published in literary journals. Then in 1998 I sent a kind of a last message, a story forwarded as a letter and entitled MegjÃ¶tt Ã‰zsaiÃ¡s /Isaiah has come/ in which the future hero described the roots, origin and spirit of the novel announced to be published the following year.
Perhaps Krasznahorkai is trying to resituate Beckett and Kafka’s private mirrors of the self in known historical reality, a goal with which I am wholly sympathetic. His open conception of a narrow readership seems in line with this goal, and it matches the book’s concept as well, since Korin and the four travelers are such aberrant figures. I don’t know if I’m included in that readership, but for the last week I’ve felt like I am, felt shaken as Korin does.
The only other Czech “new wave” films of the 1960s I’ve seen are Jan Nemec‘s Diamonds of the Night and Jan Kadar’s The Shop on Main Street. Like The Fifth Horseman is Fear, they deal with the German occupation, and they specifically deal with the Jewish experience of that time. I don’t know how representative these three are of the entire period (The Shop on Main Street is certainly the best known here), but in that latter regard, they’re definitely ahead of the curve. I can’t think of another concentration of films in the 60s that deal so explicitly with the anti-Jewish practices of the Germans; it’s conspicuously absent from French films of the period.
They also share a commonality in that they are quite stylized and make no particular claim to hard realism, a trend that has unfortunately infected and limited so many recent Holocaust films (the straightforward but limp adaptation of Imre Kertesz’s Fateless being the most recent example). Even The Shop on Main Street, which is the least stylized of the three, has a strong impressionistic scene at the end when our hero encounters the finished German ziggurat in the town square. Diamonds leaves realism behind as it gives a subjective experience of the internal fantasies of two boys on the run from Nazi guards, intermixing them with reality without clear differentiation.
And then there is The Fifth Horseman is Fear, which minimizes the flow of its story–a simple tale of a Jewish ex-doctor who treats a resistance fighter who hides in his apartment building–to present the daily experience in unsettling and unsettled fashion. It’s here that the movie is strongest; the treatment of the everyday material is menacing and instills the anxiety present in the places during war and occupation where atrocities aren’t taking place. The straight up or straight down shots of stairwells; the program music score that blares car horns and piano tuning (especially impressive in the opening and ending); the whiter than white walls. All of these things are transformations of quotidian materials into something sinister without the addition of any other content. The plot seeps into the everyday without disturbing it, because there is already the sense that nothing was ever okay.
It’s tempting to think that the loudness and severity is a reflection of the ex-doctor’s mental state, but the movie drifts towards other characters for significant periods of time, and ultimately the stylized, nerve-wracking environment is clearly not one man’s experience, but everyone’s shared nightmare.
I started rereading this book while in the middle of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s far more difficult War and War, without consciously realizing the similarities between the two. Both concern rather addled men and manuscripts to which they are too close. Because I haven’t quite figured out what to say about the Krasznahorkai book just yet (other than that you should read it), I thought I would write on Priest’s, and maybe it would help me focus on the other. (There is irony in their relation.)
Priest is about to gain some notoriety since his later work The Prestige is the subject of Christopher Nolan’s next film. But even in his own right, Priest has done some major, underrated work around the science-fiction genre, from the surreal Inverted World (the famous first line: “I had reached the age of 650 miles”) to the proto-VR A Dream of Wessex. His later work makes heavy use of unreliable narrators, though unlike Gene Wolfe, the unreliability generally becomes explicit and is structural rather than narrative: the lies and revelations of such form the underlying architecture of the book. Nowhere moreso than in The Affirmation. It is among the most relentlessly self-referential books I have ever read, and it puts the self-conscious metafictions of Barth and Coover to shame.
The setup is simple: spurred by his girlfriend’s suicide attempt, Peter Sinclair runs away from her and London, holing up in a country house to write–or rewrite–the story of his life. He quickly announces, however, that he is making changes to the facts, altering names and moving the setting to an imaginary city called Jethra, intended to substitute for London. And his Jethra counterpart has just won a nationwide lottery for which the prize is immortality, though at the price of total retrograde amnesia.
It becomes apparent quickly, though, that the book itself is nothing more and nothing less than the manuscript Sinclair describes himself as writing, and that Sinclair’s actual state is as unstable as the narrative of the book/manuscript. This results in a series of disorienting figure-ground reversals, where the figure is the supposed narrative and characters and the ground is the text and physical manuscript itself…or vice versa. Priest piles on complications until one has no choice but to read parallel asynchronous narratives into the single text of the novel. It is useful to imagine the book as two funhouse mirrors facing one another.
With such a book whose goal, like that of Dick’s best work, is a psychological confusion in the reader, it is difficult to read into the text itself because it is so focused on a particular effect. But it’s a marvelous achievement in story, even if the book, like Sinclair, ultimately folds in on itself and collapses into a black hole.
What I didn’t think about when I first read The Affirmation ten years ago was how amnesia and immortality analogize one another in it, and I was shocked to realize on rereading how I had buried that theme, albeit in very different form, in the novel I’m currently writing. Never underestimate the resources of the unconscious.