The Hungarian writer talks terror in fiction, the aesthetic of the long sentence, his love of contemporary music, and collaborating with Allen Ginsberg.
Image from Flickr via hermitosis
László Krasznahorkai is a Hungarian writer of international repute, though he has only recently gained readership among English-language readers, thanks to the efforts of New Directions Publishing. His two previous novels to have been translated, The Melancholy of Resistance (New Directions 2000) and War & War (New Directions 2006), were met largely with critical acclaim in the United States. James Wood, writing in The New Yorker, placed Krasznahorkai among writers such as Claude Simon, Thomas Bernhard, José Saramago, W. G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño, and David Foster Wallace, though “of all these novelists, Krasznahorkai is perhaps the strangest.” Krasznahorkai’s writing has been described as obsessive, maddening, and unsettling, though I think most have agreed that above all his fiction is best described as “intense.” He has been praised by many writers, including Susan Sontag, who described the apocalyptic vision of his writing as inviting comparisons to Melville and Gogol.
The novel which made Krasznahorkai a literary sensation in his home country, Satantango (infamously adapted into a seven-plus hour film by Hungarian director Béla Tarr), has finally been translated into English. On the occasion of the translation of this astonishing novel, Krasznahorkai illuminates just what makes his work so “strange.”
—Sebastian Castillo for Guernica
Guernica: As has been remarked on frequently (both in your book reviews and interviews), you seem to gravitate toward apocalyptic themes in your writing. Often, your characters seem to face an unknown or unknowable terror in liminal states—in the boundary between catastrophe and the possibility of catastrophe. Do you see this distinction as one of the main psychological modes by which human beings have dealt with the threat of terror? Do you think that the threat of this unknowable terror has in some ways replaced the terror itself?
László Krasznahorkai: Replaced? Oh, no, I don’t think so. The terror in a book, in a work of fiction, is not the same as the terror in reality, of course. There is a strong border between fiction and reality. But the terror I talk about in my books is very real for my characters, just as the boundary between terror and the possibility of terror is really very important for them. My books take place in the disciplined madness, and this disciplined madness is the natural space of these works. The disciplined madness has its own speed, and this speed leads my characters from the possibility of terror to the very edge of terror itself.
My so-called long sentences don’t come from any idea or personal theory, but from the spoken language.
Guernica: Aside from apocalyptic themes, the other thing that gets mentioned when your fiction is discussed is the length of your sentences. The long sentence has been somewhat revived recently, and I am specifically thinking of Bernhard, Sebald, Saramago, Marias, Wallace—though none of these writers write ‘the long sentence’ quite like you do. Where does the long sentence come from, for you? Do you see it as a part of a particular artistic lineage, or some altogether independent aesthetic project?
László Krasznahorkai: In my books somebody is talking behind the characters, but it is not me. This hidden person, who uses these books to talk about something through the characters, through these books, before fiction and before every articulated thought, speaks in a crazed, suggestive way, and this kind of speech never needs a period. He talks without pause, without interruption; he talks in that crazy speedy way—if you observe a daily real-life situation in a tense atmosphere, the people also talk with that crazed desire to convince each other, always without punctuation, right? My so-called long sentences don’t come from any idea or personal theory, but from the spoken language. You know, I think the short sentence seems to me like something artificial, affected. We are used to very seldom short sentences. When we speak, we speak fluent, unbroken sentences, and this kind of speech doesn’t need any periods. Only God needs the period—and at the end He will use one, I am sure.
Guernica: There is a scene in The Melancholy of Resistance which has always stuck with me. Valuska and Mr. Eszter are going for a walk. Valuska is enraptured by something he has witnessed earlier, which he believes was an experience with something magnificent, the embalmed whale. As Valuska is seemingly teetering on the brink of some ephemeral-mystical epiphany, Mr. Eszter is staring at the detritus on the ground as they walk. He is shocked by the amount of refuse littered everywhere, the overwhelming irredeemability of human waste. This scene seems to me like a vivid encapsulation of an important aspect of your work: your characters constantly waver between the possibility of experiencing something epiphanic yet are simultaneously repelled by the material vulgarity of the world. How does this distinction play within your conception of what you are attempting to convey within the varieties of drama present between the characters in your work? What I mean to further probe—is that kind of epiphany illusory? Is that mode of living sequestered to the past?
László Krasznahorkai: I don’t waver between the epiphanic side of the universe and the vulgarity of the human world. The vulgarity turns my stomach. That’s why I deal with the epiphany in beautiful things. You are right, my characters sometimes represent these two radical sides of a whole existence. I am afraid to answer the question that this raises: on which side is the hidden person who’s speaking in my books?
I needed a neutral city instead of the real one, a New York without colors, without the unexpectedness, without motion.
Guernica: How did you meet Allen Ginsberg? Did the two of you ever collaborate or help each other with your respective work? I am curious to hear about what your relationship with Allen was like.
László Krasznahorkai: When I was first in the U.S. and in New York, I was a guest of Mr. Ginsberg. He helped me find a technique, a way to build a neutral background for War and War, specifically a very neutral New York City. The hero is very eccentric and his story is, too, so I needed a neutral city instead of the real one, a New York without colors, without the unexpectedness, without motion. And because New York is not at all neutral, especially when you first see it, I had a problem making it neutral. I talked to Allen about this theme night after night during my visit, and he gave me very interesting advice. But it wasn’t only about War and War; Allen talked about philosophy, about Buddhism, of course, and about some of the important figures from the last four decades of American history. He was also very interested in my experiences in Eastern Europe. That time I spent with Allen and with his other friends was really great for me.
Guernica: Finally, in a previous interview you mentioned that you kept up with contemporary music culture quite a bit, and I heard through the grape vine that you recommended Barbara Epler a Beach House song! What are some of the artists or bands that currently interest you?
László Krasznahorkai: Oh, thousands. I very much love what is going on just now. Joan as Police Woman, for instance. The range is very wide. From Cat Power to Gillian Welch, from Karen Dalton to Sharon Van Etten—I love so much different music, you know. And since I’ve only mentioned women … I am thrilled that the day I will arrive in New York, in June, is the same day that the new album from The Walkmen will be released.
Sebastian Castillo is a young and obsessive reader of books, recent college graduate, and literary hopeful. He is an Editorial Intern at Guernica Magazine, and former Editorial Intern of New Directions Publishing.