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.