Cover of book: The World Goes On

László Krasznahorkai
The World Goes On

László Krasznahorkai is one of those big-time contemporary talents for whom mighty claims are made. Early on, both Sontag and Sebald compared him to Gogol, that most romantic and cartoonish of 19th-century realists in whose work haunted and unearthly things come out from under the overcoat of a mundane and downtrodden world. And the most obvious affinity of this master of a histrionic, large-gestured, highly wrought and hectoring prose is Thomas Bernhard, the great Austrian master of dark hilarities who owed some fraction of his manner to Notes from Underground, that early work of the greatest of Gogol’s disciples, the man who said he came out from under that overcoat too, Dostoyevsky.

Krasznahorkai is less effortlessly dramatic than Bernhard (let alone Dostoyevsky) and his monologuing music sometimes sounds like an inimitable style in search of a mimetic object. He is mercilessly grand, gesticulatory and overreaching, yet the path not taken, then swerved down, can sometimes seem a domain where dogs are shaggy and dead ends meet.

All of this is heightened in The World Goes On because it is a collection of shorter pieces by the Hungarian writer, who won the Man Booker and whose work is published by Colm Tóibín’s Tuskar Rock Press. It’s not hard to lose yourself in the thickets of Krasznahorkai’s prose and not know where you are as if the only logic of this fiction were the lyrical and multitudinous impulses that drive the author into something compulsively verbal.

A simultaneous translator goes on and on about the waterfalls he would like to visit, which he cannot visit, which he will never forget the dream of, which becomes an idée fixe conveyed as a verbal tic. Then we’re in a traffic jam in Shanghai – is it? – where all roads meet and everything is jumbled and only the rhetoric tracing with endless iteration the geography of a lost mind seems to know where it’s going.

None of which is to deny that Krasznahorkai’s writing has a tremendous authority; we come to trust the wind on which its rhetoric is borne, even if the first thing that hits us about it is the soaring unashamed monotony that only the mightiest or the maddest talent – some Canettian or Murnanian solipsism – could have dared to monster language with.

At times, though, particularly as The World Goes On goes on and some of the pieces get tighter and shorter, the skeleton of storytelling starts to show. A writer who knows nothing about film is sent a film by a film director who admires him and professes the same ignorance. It depicts a man tried for murder who is, shockingly, first sentenced to death and then kills himself. We have heard early on that the director is now dead and the writer goes to his funeral where he sees all sorts of people who found the director special. Then, later, he says he sees many of them in the street looking as if they want to revisit the grave.

In another story a man called Fortinbras has to listen to an old friend and to an abrasive garrulous fellow as they travel towards Kiev and our main character wants to visit a zone enveloped in radiation fallout. Someone in the story is called Ficino, like the Renaissance Platonist, in a way that itself radiates though we’re not sure how or why or, except for the sinister lighting, to what purpose.

There is an Indian story full of the reek of the Ganges laden with shit and death and dreck, all of it described with an exhilarated and monumental anality, which is interrupted by a great fat man, some kind of mystic or sadhu who discourses endlessly about the properties of water with an exuberant, all but annihilating, mad erudition.

A dog is killed by someone on a road and a motorist looks back with regret to see another dog, its companion, sitting upright in endangered grief, but he keeps driving, with whatever misgiving, only to end up in a fatal accident himself. Which begs every question of how life is mapped and what mathematics can be brought to bear on it.

There is a longer story, what looks for a while like a discursive essayistic meditation – until we start to hear the hiss of madness in it – about Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. There is plenty of grisly detail about the animals who died before him and then there is a kind of monomaniacal meditation on the way he was phased out of the Soviet space story. Much talk of glimpses of paradise, much talk of vodka-sodden self-medication. This one comes with a photo, which highlights the fact that it is closer to the sombre curvature of Sebald’s elegiac fiction than most of these pieces.

Then there is a religious, densely Christian set of prayers from an imaginary bishop renouncing the consolations and sacraments of the church for a people who are unfit to have all tears wiped away and to behold a new heaven and a new Earth.

After which we get 29 paragraphs, so nominated, of blank pages on “The Swan of Istanbul”, followed by several pages of footnotes on subjects such as the mystical poetry of the great Persian poet Rumi, which may or may not be real but incorporate real translator’s names.

The translators here – John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet and George Szirtes – do Krasznahorkai proud so that The World Goes On belongs to the top level of contemporary translation and we do not doubt that the work of some distinction is being reproduced in all its rebarbative splendour, comparable in that respect to the greatest of Bernhard’s translators, David McLintock.

The oh-so-postmodern blank pages and the cod footnotes are followed by a final page in which the author takes a long farewell of all his greatness or, at any rate, whatever has given sweetness and savour to his sense of the Earth. “I would leave here the budding sprout, every birth and existence, I would leave here incantation, enigma, distances, the intoxication of inexhaustible eternities; for here I would leave this earth and these stars because I would take nothing with me, because I’ve looked into what’s coming, and I don’t need anything from here.”

Is this all a bit self-enthralled? Yes. Is it the work of one of the master spirits of the age? The charge seems hard to deny.  QSS

Tuskar Rock, 288pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 9, 2017 as "László Krasznahorkai, The World Goes On".

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