Where Forty-Eight Avenue joins Petőfi Square
- Sátántango by László Krasznahorkai, translated by George Szirtes
Atlantic, 320 pp, £12.99, May 2012, ISBN 978 1 84887 764 1
For a Hungarian to call a novel The Melancholy of Resistance (Az ellenállás melankóliája) could be an exercise in truthtelling, a peeling away of illusions, or else a play on the national stereotype of Magyar dolefulness and gloom.[*] László Krasznahorkai seems to be trying to do both, though some of his most enthusiastic champions outside Hungary have seized on the grand themes of his work while paying little attention to the sly comedy that subverts any pretensions to grandeur. W.G. Sebald called The Melancholy of Resistance ‘a book about a world into which the Leviathan has returned’, and Susan Sontag saw it as ‘both an anatomy of desolation, desolation at its most appalling, and a stirring manual of resistance to desolation – through inwardness’. Such endorsements have about them the ring of good intentions, as well as truth, but the emphasis on lugubrious profundities (Sontag’s em-dashed pause only ups the earnest ante) makes it sound as if Krasznahorkai’s fiction takes itself as seriously as Sontag’s does.
James Wood, writing in the New Yorker last summer, began by placing him in the capacious context of such postwar avant-garde novelists as Thomas Bernhard, José Saramago and David Foster Wallace, only to acknowledge that, despite a shared affinity for ‘very long, breathing, unstopped sentences’, Krasznahorkai was ‘perhaps the strangest’ of them. The writer is ‘peculiar’; his work is ‘strange and beautiful’, with passages that are ‘strange, unstable’. Wood gives an outline of The Melancholy of Resistance but then admits that his summary ‘doesn’t do justice to the unfathomable strangeness’ of the book.
This strangeness has to do with the specifics of the Hungarian experience and the Hungarian language. Krasznahorkai’s heritage infuses his sentences and sensibility, even when he’s writing against it. His books concern people on the margins, at the edges of empire or of their sanity, and the great powers and promises that exert their centripetal pull. The text itself rarely resolves into a paragraph break; in his novel War and War, each section is a single sentence that sometimes coils over several pages. His translator George Szirtes has written of ‘the slow lava flow of narrative … the vast black river of type’, which beautifully describes the physical experience of reading Krasznahorkai’s work, the need to slow down in order to find its rhythm, the feeling that the narrative is oozing outward rather than converging on a neat conclusion.
‘It was no use struggling,’ a character realises:
he had to understand that his customary Eszterian mode of wit was of no help to him here, for the phrases he thought of failed abysmally to establish his proud superiority over the world; the meanings of words had faded like the light in a run-down flashlight, the objects words might have referred to had crumbled under the weight of fifty or so years that had passed and given way to the unlikely trappings of a Grand Guignol stage-set in the face of which every sober word and thought confusingly lost its meaning.
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[*] The Melancholy of Resistance, translated by George Szirtes, was published by New Directions in 2002; War and War, also translated by George Szirtes, and Animalinside, translated by Ottilie Mulzet, in 2006 and 2011 respectively.