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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: krasznahorkai (page 2 of 3)

Laszlo Krasznahorkai Interview

An interview with Tibor Keresztury and Judit Székely:

Is it not possible that the best minds of any given age have felt exactly the same way as you feel, since time immemorial? Is it not possible that the milieu is always like this, and it is only in retrospect that certain ages seem more attractive than others?

I am not saying that the past is brilliant – the recent past, for instance, almost killed me. But those people, living under oppression, had that something about them that gave you hope that the democratic ideals we envisaged at the time could build us a country which is more tolerable when measured by the moral and aesthetic expectations we held. But let me repeat – I would in no way like to idealise what we had at the time. How could I? I would much rather say that we have now lost by the wayside even what little we had – all that once prevented people from becoming blinded by their situation. We have lost whatever used to stop people from selling their dignity for a spoonful of gold or a spoonful of free soup – whatever they have in their spoons. And, to return to your question, I am sure it is true. I am sure all independent spirits felt in their own age that the society they had been granted was intolerable and that this could easily lead to the conclusion that all human societies are intolerable unless they exist by the highest moral and aesthetical standards. This seems true not only with regard to Western civilisations. It seems to hold true for Oriental cultures, too. Confucian himself repeatedly refers his readers to the early Zhou period, directly preceding his own, as an ideal age which his contemporaries should set their standards by. And Confucian, who created the poetic vision of the most elevated moral system in the world, lived in the sixth and fifth centuries before Christ.

In a situation like this, what do writing and literature give you? What do books mean? Obviously, not the way out. Nor does writing function as a form of personal salvation for you. Then, shall we say it is the gentlest form of rebellion? Or does it play the role of issuing certain signals?

Whenever I manage to state my view in its full extent, my partner in conversation, anywhere in the world, invariably reminds me, “If you paint such a gloomy picture of the world, then why write?” This is a subtle way of asking why I don’t shoot myself in the head right there and then, and indeed, why I hadn’t done so a long while ago. My critical remarks do not mean that I think or have ever thought that literature could directly interfere with the workings of the society it criticises or rejects. The impact that a writer can exert over his or her own society is far more subtle, almost indecipherably complex and indirect, working through a number of transformations. I even doubt whether at such a degree of remoteness you can still call this an impact and an influence. In Oriental cultures, this question has found an almost radical solution: art had absolutely nothing to do with the direct, palpable reality of its own age. On the contrary, real artists were not “members” of their own society, in the same way that saints never are. This way, the art they produced did not exist as an integrated, definable, graspable part of society. Instead, it found its place in an emphatically spiritual space which nonetheless was still perceived as a part of reality.

Attila Bartis: Tranquility

This book just won the Three Percent Best Translation of 2008 prize, and while I can’t speak to the translation (though I have it on good authority that it’s excellent–thanks GJ), I was happy to have it win, being a booster of Hungarian lit in general (and Laszlo Krasznahorkai in particular). Jeff Waxman describes a not-uncommon worldview of Hungarian literature when he says, “Tranquility is a book of unfathomable realism—by which, of course, I mean endless cruelty, depthless pain and emotional deadness.” Hungarian director Bela Tarr said it even better:

And back then I thought “Okay, we have some social problems in this political system – maybe we’ll just deal with the social question.” And afterwards when we made a second movie and a third we knew better that there are not only social problems. We have some ontological problems and now I think a whole pile of shit is coming from the cosmos. And there’s the reason. You know how we open out step by step, film by film. It’s very difficult to speak about the metaphysical and that. No. It’s just always listening to life. And we are thinking about what is happening around us…I just think about the quality of human life and when I say ‘shit’ I think I’m very close to it.

And it’s fair to say Bartis subscribes to something on the order of this view. What he brings to Tranquility that is very much his own is hysteria, at a level that is rarely encountered at such sustained length. Bernhard is a good contrast: while Bernhard’s narrators are obsessive, ranting, and irate, they are very rarely hysterical. Bartis’s breathless portrayal of unrelenting stress and compression owes the most, I’d say, to Celine and his spiritual disciple E.M Cioran, with a bit of Portnoy’s Complaint (namely, the end) mixed in.

And with a book that is pitched so consistently at the level of hysteria, Bartis has to keep the changes coming so that the tone does not become monotonous. The story of Andor, a middle-aged man, and his exceedingly unhealthy realationship with his mother and only slightly healthier relationships with several women careens around just as Andor careens between the three women in his life (and the one absent one, his sister), never settling in one place long enough to set up a sustained narrative. This is evidently intentional, as the plot necessarily cannot get started with such a tone at work. Any concession to traditional narrative dynamics would wreck the effect, and this book is all about effect.

Such a sustained howl can become numbing or exhausting; at times Bartis piles on so much pain that the book risks becoming a shaggy-dog story. It’s ultimately Andor’s relationship with his mother, and the sheer acuity and inexorability of it, that holds it all together. The other women are sweet relief in comparison. For Bartis, it seems that that level of hysteria, that sheer limit at which there is no appeal to reason and no possible escape, is fundamentally fostered in the mother-son bond.

Laszlo Krasznahorkai: War and War

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 Megj&#xc3&#xb6tt &#xc3&#x89zsai&#xc3&#xa1s /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.

Christopher Priest: The Affirmation

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.

Bela Tarr: Satantango [3]

(Also see Part 1 and Part 2.)

I just think about the quality of human life and when I say ‘shit’ I think I’m very close to it.

Bela Tarr in interview

Last time, I said that Tarr’s cinematic style deprivileged the characters humans from the center of the frame and put them with equal weight with the gray, surrounding scenery. Ultimately, I believe this makes Tarr’s style extremely compelling in the most physical sense of the word. But what does he say with it?

The plot of Satantango is very simple. Shocked by the suicide of a young girl, a group of townspeople in an impoverished Hungarian village choose to follow the manipulative “prophet” Irimias who, with promises of a bright new collective beginning, takes their money, leads them to an abandoned mansion, and then disperses them and sends them off to menial labor. This last task puts him right with the local authorities, who have been harassing him for being a petty criminal. With one slight exception, the townspeople are mostly sheep throughout the movie, something Tarr underscores in his long shots of cattle wandering through the streets early on in the film. Irimias too has contempt for them, though he is not above a bit of quasi-religious experience himself.

The center of the film is those two individuals, the girl and Irimias. The girl tortures her cat before poisoning it and herself. The obvious interpretation is that on the great ladder of being, she is taking out her frustration and impotence on the one creature lower than her. (She was earlier robbed by an older boy.) I’m not so certain. In one of the few points where Tarr quotes extensively from the novel, the narrator intones that the girl knows that even in death, she is still incontrovertibly connected to the entire town around her and its people. (Tarr’s shots of spiderwebs echo these words.) It is presented in a neutral manner, but one shouldn’t confuse neutral with benign. These people live together, act together, and are damned together. Irimias manipulates them as a whole, and ultimately there is little to distinguish them. I prefer to see the girl’s actions as a testing of the barriers between herself and an animal, as she wonders what other kinds of relations are even possible between beings. She poisons both the cat and herself alike, and does so, I think, in solidarity with the experience of “shit” of which Tarr speaks.

For Irimias, it’s best to consider another Tarr/Krasznahorkai creation: the Prince of The Melancholy of Resistance (book) and The Werckmeister Harmonies. The Prince is a creature of pure chaos who speaks in an unintelligible language interpreted by his “agent,” and accumulates a mass of followers that, at his command, go berserk and tear up the town, leading to martial law being imposed and a new regime. In contrast, Irimias does what the existing regime wants, but his own imprint is on the way in which he rips apart the community, thus proving the girl ultimately wrong.

Politically, the film is bleaker than Werckmeister. What I saw as a Burkean influence on that work shifts to the more absolutist perpsective of Hobbes in Satantango. Irimias serves as the sovereign: divested of their cattle and their happiness, they place their trust, their money, and their futures in Irimias’s hands. He offers them nothing in return but their lives, though here it is more metaphorical than in Hobbes. Their existing lives were poisoned and taken from them with the girl’s death, and in sending them on their way, Irimias does give them back some direction. It’s shit, of course, but the townspeople are not observably worse off at the end of the film, post-Irimias, than they were at the start. Like the Prince, Irimias is a chaotic force of change, shoving out the old and heralding the (no better) new.

I say absolute because Hobbes saw the power interchange between the people and the sovereign as the best possible choice to avoid a violent end. The liberal hope, from Locke to Rawls and onward, has been that better options can be created. Tarr’s position in Satantango is that such hopes are entirely false. (The Werckmeister Harmonies is more ambivalent and holds out the possibility of ephemeral beauty.) Beyond that, Tarr portrays this state of affairs as primoridally ontological: there is little sense given of how Irimias came to be or the inner minds of any of the characters. They act out their roles in the same way that the cattle, the spiders, and the scenery do theirs.

The overall effect is brutally powerful, but monochromatic. Tarr has put a grim Hobbesian view of the world on display in as visceral a manner as Godard and Antonioni used with their Marxism. Godard’s films succeed where Antonioni’s fail because Godard’s restless and relentless creativity causes the films to escape from their ideological straitjacket. Tarr is somewhere in between. In The Werckmeister Harmonies, the added element of fantasy provides a gateway out of the narrow political dynamics. The more mundane material of Satantango makes for a film that, for all its intensity and sheer length, cannot seem larger than the world in which it exists.

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