Wednesday, November 27, 2013

he had to endure the knowledge that he wasn’t finding out the clue to the strangeness. - a critical agenda for Seiobo There Below - Bernhard, Pynchon, and the Italian crossword puzzle

The first big joke, and it’s a good one, in László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below comes at the very beginning of Chapter 2, pp. 17-19, where the dismayed reader is presented with an entire crossword puzzle.  In Italian.  The humor comes from imagining the scowls and obscenities of prospective Krasznahorkai specialists, especially those without Italian.  If they are lucky the puzzle will turn out to be a red herring, for example a parodic gesture at the idea of a puzzle novel.

The translator Ottilie Mulzet, in interviews, and many reviewers have overgeneralized when describing Seiobo.  They perhaps have to.  Is Krasznahorkai writing about the presence or absence of the sacred in the world, whatever “the sacred” is, or the way the sense of the sacred affects a small and particular sort of person – prophets, visionaries, and martyrs.  Is he describing the way art works, or the way it works on a few sensitive seekers?  I have observed a temptation with Krasznahorkai to move to metaphysics too quickly, when the argument is more at the level of psychology.  Krasznahorkai himself may believe otherwise, but that is not relevant.

Take the architect and amateur expert on Baroque music who stars in the novel’s funniest chapter (377, “Private Passion”).  He is giving a lecture on Bach to eight innocent souls in a small town Hungarian library.  He is incoherent and threatening, his audience finds him incomprehensible, and he is a grotesque, obese and absurd (“because everyone sensed how these trousers were continuously, ceaselessly sliding downward across those three thick folds of fat, down toward the thighs,” etc., with these long sentences, always etc., 345), all of which is humorous in one way or the other.  Then there is this:

… it must be in that very moment when the Baroque resounds in music, because we should have ended there, at the pinnacle, and not have allowed everything to happen just as it might, and then to lie, to blurt out these morbid lies and learn how to enthuse over such music as this Mozart or that Beethoven or over whatever it was all those ever more modest talents, those ever more commonplace figures, were able to conjure up out of our hats…  not even to mention the most repulsive of all, this imperial criminal named Wagner and his zealous supporters, let’s not even mention it, because if I even just think about it – the lecturer shook his head, giving expression to his disbelief – it is not shame that overcomes me, nor the consciousness of degradation, but rather a dark desire for murder, because…  (355)

Well, we get the idea, and in fact at this point Krasznahorkai wanders over to the stunned audience (“completely drained, not daring to escape, their hopes that at one point there might be a normal end to this lecture long since extinguished”), none of whom realize that they are being treated to a perfect chapter-long parody of Thomas Bernhard.  Which is too bad for them, because it is hilarious.

The speaker is totally consumed by Baroque music to the point of derangement.  He finally leaves in tears, not singing but shouting the music of Bach.  The chapter is a comic triumph.

It comes fairly late in the book, where it left me with the terrible realization that if this chapter was a parody of another author, than any – or all – of the other chapters might also be parodies, perhaps of Hungarian authors I have never even heard of, or worse, of authors I know well but failed to recognize.  Which chapter is the Sebald parody?  The last chapter begins with a parody of the first sentence of Gravity’s Rainbow – is the whole chapter a Pynchon parody?  Pynchon appears in the epigraph, too, which mangles the Thelonious Monk quotation Pynchon used as the epigraph to his 2006 Against the Day.  The jokes gets tangled.

This is worse than the Italian crossword puzzle.  What really makes me suspicious is that in this novel that is about nothing but the power and intricacy of all sorts of art, there is no example of prose fiction.  What if Krasznahorkai somehow wove his argument about fiction into his own fiction?

Good luck to everyone toiling in the Krasznahorkai mine.  I am eager to see what you dig up.

The post’s title is on p. 116.  It is not especially out of context here.

Now, a holiday, when I need my skillet green bean casserole recipe.  Back to usual business – Dickens, Turgenev – starting Monday.


  1. Some interesting thoughts. I could not help but find all kinds of connections in the book, but I haven't thought of this aspect, i.e. that also the parody of other authors is on the agenda, interesting.

  2. parody seems too simple. i don't think that any one element in the text can be traced to any one origin. the character in "Private Passion," for instance, is remarkably Bernhardian, but even his perspective we leave. as the altered epigraphic quotation suggests, all we perceive is—thru innumerable lenses—distorted beyond mere parody or pastiche, refracted even, and, as you said, woven, into new arrangements composed of old elements. i doubt that there is a one-to-one relation as regards even the smallest detail, and the repetitions of certain gestures reinforce that when the reappearances of those gestures come to mean differently each time. i sense many ghosts, or memories, in Seiobo, but all are disassembled, then reconstituted, into new ones. Bernhard certainly lurks in various forms throughout the book as a whole, in different concentrates and different precipitates.

    certain phrases in Beckett's Malone Dies, e.g., recalled to me, almost verbatim, phrases that appeared in Celine's Death on the Installment Plan, but such similarities as these seemed churned, through and through, in the writer's mind, before they leapt onto the page, so that when i read them in Beckett they were not as parody of Celine so much as elements of him reconstituted.

    1. Yes. And not to forget that Bernhard lurks in all of Krasznahorkai's books.

  3. Parody is certainly too simple if offered as a complete explanation, but fortunately nobody is doing that. I am not making the book simpler - I am suggesting that it is even more complex than people have guessed.

    The odds are that the specific use of Bernhard in "Private Passions" is meant as a one-off tribute rather than as part of a bigger pattern, just as my guess is that the crossword puzzle is mostly a joke. But I wonder.

    Those chapter umber sequences - or that business about tuning in The Melancholy of Resistance - David Auerbach's article in Music and Literature 2 is almost frightening - we know that Kr. is interested in laying patterns on and under his fiction. It can make a reader paranoid.

    Another agenda for critics will be tracking down Kr.'s non-fiction sources. Where did he read about Perugino's workshop, for example. That could be interesting, too. It was interesting with Sebald.

  4. I was mostly speaking to the suggestion, no matter how lightheartedly made, that each chapter be a discrete parody of a different writer, which seems far too neat and orderly a schema to fit the book. even tho there are similarities to Bernahard, i am reluctant to call the chapter a one-off tribute to him. i see Bernhard in the cranky lecturer, yes, but it isn't just Bernhard, but a synthesis of several vestiges, including some characters from Krasznahorkai's other stories, the Nietzchean character in The Turin Horse comes to mind. if it were just Bernhard, why not write the character as Austrian not Hungarian, especially if there are plenty chapters whose main characters are specific and historical, so why would Bernhard be the one exception?

    there are plenty of games and puzzles throughout the novel, but they extend beyond it, they open up the text, they suggest that the text reads without bookends. the word to which the crossword puzzle alludes in the second chapter can no doubt be found if you exercise enough effort, and finding it would add further meaning to the text. that openness to me doesn't make me paranoid but actually makes me rejoice that a work of art need not end but continue, so long as i choose to pay attention to those connections for they are everywhere. Nicolas Melabranche: "Attention is the prayer of the soul." and Krasznahorkai has himself said, "“This is my recommendation: we must live more attentively.”"

    one moment that continues to give me shivers whenever i reread it the part from which this last line comes: “Seiobo is the emissary who arrives and says I am not the desire for peace, I am peace itself; Seiobo arrives and says do not be afraid, for the universe of peace is not the rainbow of yearning; the universe, the real universe — already exists.” could make me cry, actually. there is so much hope in the novel, but it isn't unearned, it struggles with the reader too.

    the structure of elements as interwoven continually in various permutations points to a "novel" that is open not a closed system, that allows for readings to grow in time. this reminds me of Adorno's idea of the essay (cf. Essay as Form), that an end is not sought, but new beginnings, straying ends and fraying threads.

    great posts, by the way, i'm enjoying reading them. little to no discussion of this book on the internet, which is a shame. the book isn't so difficult as some reviewers make it seem. Krasznahorkai is very generous in his writing, long sentences notwithstanding, the appositions he uses to remarkable effect, allowing him to start a thread, go back to it, continue it, restart it, etc., so a plurality of perspectives on a single point of interest. i greatly appreciate that a writer like K exists here and now.

    1. btw, the Nietzchean character in The Turin Horse IS basically Thomas Bernhard :)

    2. That's what I wanted to say with my comment before. Bernhard is a major, MAJOR influence on Krasznahorkai. He appears everywhere...

    3. ah, touché. thanks for posting this. i suppose that it isn't out of the question that K would let some characters of his, all across his oeuvre, embody Bernhard's legacy, incarnation after incarnation.

  5. also, the URL from the second chapter, here:

  6. also that isn't to say that it isn't fruitful to make connections, as you have here, not at all. i didn't mean to come across so callously or be so overbearing, i'm sorry.

  7. I see the source of the confusion. We often use an author's name as shorthand for his texts. I do it all the time, even though I know better.

    "Private Passions" is a parody not of Thomas Bernhard or of some ideas of Bernhard's or characteristics of Bernhard but of a specific text written by Bernhard, a passage of Old Masters. My gesture at support for this idea is in the post that I linked. Maybe hiding it in the link is another cause of confusion.

    The character (not Bernhard, but a creation of his) in Old Masters whose words about music are parodied is, in his own novel, in an art museum standing in front of a Venetian painting. So the allusion has another connection to Seiobo There Below.

    Then the question becomes, are other chapters or passages of Seiobo parodies of other texts? If I reread Gravity's Rainbow - it has sure been awhile - would I come across a passage that had a suspicious resemblance to some important part of that last chapter? Maybe not. Probably not. But as Kraszanorkai almost said, “This is my recommendation: we must read more attentively.”

    If I am right, I have actually expanded on "not here not now"s idea of an open system. Seiobo spills over into its artworks, its buildings - if I ever visit the Acropolis, I know that vivid nightmarish chapter will be on my mind - but also into a series of other texts, more "straying ends and fraying threads." Sebald's fiction does this, too.

    As far as callous and overbearing goes, eh. It was all within bounds of common internet courtesy, I say. Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

    I know you mean about discussion. The online literary magazines, as good as they are, seem to have the hardest time getting any conversation going. They have comments, but they are rarely used, and the author of the piece has little place in the discussion. It is too bad.

    1. I am not convinced that he parodies a specific book or even a specific passage from Bernhard. Bernhard wrote quite a bunch of texts where people rant about some art related topics, or where people talk about people who rant about some art related topics, or where people write about people who talk about people who...

      Anyway, the mentioned chapter certainly is a reference to Bernhard, but that by itself does not indicate anything as you will find references to Bernhard also at other places in Krasznahorkai's books. I need to keep your idea in mind for a reread of Seiobo, it is interesting. However, I don't even know if I would 'get' it if other chapters referenced other writers of fiction or non-fiction. I am not that well read...

  8. Honest question - I don't know the answer - how often are the Bernhardists ranting about Beethoven and Wagner?

    Now, as for not being that well read, that can be fixed, yet it is at the same time a permanent condition. A paradox.

    Kraszanhorkai's source material is at least focused enough to suggest a clear course of reading to anyone interested. All of those wonderful eastern and central European weirdos.