Tuesday, November 26, 2013

who can say what is essential and what isn’t - Seiobo There Below - Krasznahorkai's defense of the picturesque

If it took me so long to read the latest László Krasznahorkai book, Seiobo There Below (2008), it was because the novel has, based on the numbering, 2,584 chapters.  Only seventeen of them are actually printed in the book, but I felt I should give the implied chapters their due.  I am actually still reading the novel, in theory, and feel that I am almost to chapter 4,181, which would be the next printed chapter if the book had one more.  The numbers are part of a Fibonacci sequence.  This is so important that every reviewer mentions it, as I have, although none of them do anything with it, like I did.

Seventeen chapters, each about a work of art, its creation or presence.  Five paintings, five sculptures, four structures, plus Noh acting, Baroque music, and, just once, writing, a memoir. Almost all religious art.  Probably all religious, actually.  As I have said so often, whenever writers want to deal with art in general they go to visual art fourteen times out of seventeen.  Another count: six stories about Japanese art, three about Italian Renaissance painting, two Classical works, etc.  Japan, Venice, Barcelona, Athens, Hungary, etc.  People trying to figure out this book will make lots of grids, or maybe diagrams with arrows pointing from chapter to chapter.

The basic idea of the book is that art in its sublime aspect is destructive.  It is an encounter with the gods.  Mere mortals will not emerge intact.  Creators come off better than viewers, since they apparently learn to channel most of the destructive forces away from themselves.

I have been browsing reviews.  There have been a lot of good ones, like the one in The American Reader by Jonathan Kyle Sturgeon which follows references to Hell into the Schopenhauer-like idea that these little glimpses through art of the sublime, however annihilating, are precious chances of an escape from the Hell that is my ordinary life.  Krasznahorkai makes the point subtly:  “HELL REALLY EXISTS” (Ch. 5, “Christo Morto,” p. 96).  Dostoevsky’s Idiot, Sturgeon notes, in a point I somehow feel he stole from me, also prominently features a Christo Morto painting.

… for there is a domain, that of death, the dreadful weight of the earth pressing in from all sides which has entombed them, and which in time shall  devour us as well, to close it in upon itself, to bury, to consume even our memories, beyond all that is eternal.  (last line, p. 451)

The three previous Krasznahorkai novels that have made it into English have all been nightmare novels, with rural Hungary or New York City turned into Hell, so it is no surprise that the nightmare exists wherever Krasznahorkai’s fiction wanders, in the Louvre or the Acropolis or anywhere.  Take water with when you visit the Acropolis in the summer.  And don’t go at noon.  In fact, maybe pick another season for Athens.  That is a good Krasznahorkai travel tip.  See Chapter 8, “Up on the Acropolis.”

Seiobo There Below can be taken as a strong defense of the picturesque and of aesthetic distance.  Art is dangerous.  Stay behind the yellow line.

There are important ways in which everything I said above is wrong, by which I mean that at least one story presents an exception to every point.  That will be require another diagram.

Seiobo There Below is a significant work of art in its own right, and if I have seemed to be mocking it, my excuse is that I have had trouble finding a reviewer who has noticed its ridiculous side, the inevitable partner of the sublime.  Krasznahorkai can be funny.  I am going to write about that tomorrow, in a post that will likely be of great aid to future Krasznahorkai scholars.

The translator, doing heroic work, is Ottilie Mulzet.  The post’s title is from Chapter 3, p. 86.

35 comments:

  1. The reviews I have seen really have been good. And then there's what I wrote.

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  2. I absolutely detested Satantango, I just don't get the adulation this writer gets. Between the pinched personalities of the characters and the unimaginative storyline; he tried to sell me the idea that Irimiás was this figure with such persuasive, manipulative powers and charisma that he could keep a whole town under his thumb, but he never said or did anything to convince me of his power over others. The whole novel was a dud to me.

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  3. Oh, not me. I have found K. to be the real thing. Personalities no more pinched than in his model, the other K.

    I do not believe K. was trying to sell you on that idea about Irimiás. You were meant to see through it, and you did.

    But I now remember that you have expressed the belief that novels ought to have stories.

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    1. It has considerably more story than The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, it's really Krasnahorkai's inability to do anything interesting with language other than describe movements and enact a handful of speeches that puts me off.

      And what a horrible thing to say about Kafka! Joseph K, Gregor Samsa, K and Karl Roßmann all come alive on the page and their inner lives are deeply explored, above all Samsa's. You really need to take that back, Tom, take it back, I won't have Kafka vituperated like that!

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  4. I'm usually surprised to see how influential Rilke remains. For example, my favorite Ernesto Sabato's moment, the one when he points out that the dragon is inside the princess, which makes rescuing her very difficult, can be traced back to :

    "Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love."

    Likewise, the idea that beauty in "art, in its sublime aspect is destructive" has an ancestor on this few lines:

    "For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror,
    which we are barely able to endure, and it amazes us so,
    because it serenely disdains to destroy us.
    Every angel is terrible."

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  5. Now there is a neat idea - Seiobo There Below is Krasznahorkai's New Poems.

    Krasznahorkai has said - it is so cliched it might even be true - that he became a writer because of Rilke's "You have to change your life" line.

    The book has a chapter about a Rublev painting (a copy, actually), in which the angels enter their representations and destroy a man's sanity. Terrible, terrible angels.

    The novel's title is more or less a Japanese equivalent.

    Krasznahorkai shares a love of Rilke with one of his sources, Pynchon. I hope to get to a bit of the Pynchon connection today.

    Where is the Ernesto Sabato quote from?

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  6. Oops, I meant to include a link to this Guardian article for that story about Rilke and Kr.

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  7. On Heroes and Tombs, part I: The Dragon and the Princess.

    As if a prince - he thought - having passed through vast and lonely regions, found himself at the grotto where she sleeps guarded by the dragon. And as if, moreover, the prince noticed that the dragon is not keeping a menacing watch by her side as we're told in fairy tales, but, what was most harrowing, the dragon resided within her own self: like a princess-dragon, an inconspicuous monster, innocent and fiery at once, candid and repulsive at the same time: as if a girl, clad only with her pure first communion dress, was having reptilian dreams or bat nightmares.

    But hadn't he (trying to sort out his chaos), hadn't he split love into dirty flesh and pure feelings, into purest sentiment and disgusting, sordid sex, to be rejected? ...

    And what was happening, my God, with Alejandra? What ambiguous feeling confused all his defenses now? Her flesh appeared to him suddenly as spirit, and his love for her, became flesh, turned into hot desire for her skin and her damp, dark dragon princess' cave.

    But, why God, why? Why did she seem to be defending her cave with flaming winds and angry cries of wounded dragons? And the strangest thing was that he loved his equivocal monster : Dragon and Princess, Mud and Rose, Girl and Bat ...

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    1. This Sabato sounds a lot more interesting than the one who wrote The Tunnel.

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    2. I didn't care much for The Tunnel, either. Borges and Bioy had a lot of fun with it when Sabato had them read the manuscript. After they had read it, Sabato came back "expecting praise for having written such a towering masterpiece and received instead his book marked with hundreds of corrections in red pencil", everything from orthographic mistakes to clumsy phrasing, highlighted.

      On the other hand, On Heroes and Tombs and Terminator Angel Abaddon (sounds like an Anime title, doesn't it?) are quite good.

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    3. After they had read it, Sabato came back "expecting praise for having written such a towering masterpiece and received instead his book marked with hundreds of corrections in red pencil", everything from orthographic mistakes to clumsy phrasing, highlighted.

      So I didn't imagine that story?! I knew I had read it somewhere, but I lost the source. Two people know it, so that means it's true!

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  8. That Sabato does sound good.

    I guess I don't know what "pinched" means. Forget Metamorphosis, think "In the Penal Colony."

    The language of Krasznahorkai in the Szirtes translation of Satantango seemed reasonably interesting. He ain't Nabokov, certainly.

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    1. I believe "In The Penal Colony" intends above all to describe and illustrate a bizarre idea, I don't think it's a character study.

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    2. Wait, you're telling me Satantango is a description of a bizarre idea and not a character study? You're going to have to sweat to convince me of that.

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  9. Sweat, no, I have to stay cool.

    Krasznahorkai creates characters much in the way that Hieronymus Bosch paints portraits.

    Adam Thirlwell's NYRB review of Satantango is pretty close to where I am.

    My heretical opinion in all this is that Seiobo There Below may prove to be a richer book than the earlier "Hungarian" novels. I am more interested in all the stuff about art, at least.

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  10. Concerning Satantango. That novel's setup is very good: a poor village is waiting for Godot/Quinn the Mighty Eskimo to come and save them. Then we see that the expected savior is only a small time crook trying to cheat the villagers. Sadly, the rest of the novel doesn't fully deliver on that promising start.

    I had a similar problem with The Idiot and Gide's The Counterfeiters, in the sense that their beginnings are very exciting, but then the novels change and become less enjoyable.

    On the other hand, Seibobo sounds like a very interesting book, so I'll probably read it next year.

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    1. I thought that when The Counterfeiters clearly became a novel about writing The Counterfeiters, it became more interesting. I even liked the abrupt ending. But I was disappointed that the promised conterfeit money plot was hardly developed.

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    2. Scott, very good point. Gide's novel was most likely way beyond what my limited faculties as as a reader could properly process when I read it (I was a teen at the time). As my occasional comments here should have proven by now, I'm a very amateurish reader (not Tom).

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    3. I guess I know which Gide novel I should read next.

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  11. So how does Bosch paint portraits?

    That review, by the way, is much better than the novel, and like a good review even makes the novel sound better than it is. I wish the interesting novel it's analyzing really existed, I'd love to read it.

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  12. There are people in "The Garden of Earthly Delights," but they are not what we value in Bosch, right? The guide at the Prado does not point out how wonderful his people are.

    I have not read The Counterfeiters. That is certainly how The Idiot works - an exciting first quarter but bumpy thereafter. The Idiot ends strongly.

    I would put the break in Satantango where Kr. puts it, after the 6th chapter, that crazy bar scene. Of course conceptually his stories are supposed to disintegrate. If they were not done in by entropy, it would defeat his aim.

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    1. I think painting is a false analogy: regardless of the physical beauty or ugliness of his figures, he was a consummate master of line, detail and colour. I certainly value his people, for instance the faces in "Christ Carrying the Cross," so unique, amongst other things, there are many to admire in him, including his imagination and ability to set a good scene, qualities missing in Krasznahorkai.

      But people is something that has to be valued in a book, if one is writing about people; otherwise just write about objects like Borges.

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  13. by the way, did any of the reviews actually mention that the first two chapters are actually missing? The sequence goes like this 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, ... right?

    This is interesting because also one of his other books skips the first chapter, which is actually the one that George Szirtes is going to translate next...

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  14. One review, I do not remember which, did mention that the sequence implied that the first two chapters were missing.

    Or maybe only Ch. 0 is missing and I should imagine Ch. 1 as included twice.

    I did not know Szirtes had another in the works. Good news.

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    1. Yeah, he mentioned on twitter some time ago that he started to work on that short novel with the very long title "From North a Hill, from...", which is a short poem in the original:
      http://www.krasznahorkai.hu/images/covers/eszakrol.jpg

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  15. I must admit I've found it difficult so far to get interested in Satantango; whereas I truly loved The Melancholy of Resistance, which I found a much richer, more doom-laden work. I think it's worth bearing in mind that we (English-speakers, at least) are reading these novels in the wrong order (or at least, they're being published in the wrong order), and Satantango was K's first novel.

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  16. I agree, Melancholy of Resistance is a richer book. Kr. had found his voice for his first book but later found more interesting things to do with it.

    Satantango is an odd example, since it came to English as a pre-set masterpiece because of the movie, which is a problem.

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  17. I was wondering if I should watch the movie to whet my appetite, but continue to put it off for some reason (I notice that the 2nd (or 1st, depending on your point of view) Star Wars trilogy I bought the other day is actually shorter). Melancholy of Resistance is much better than the film (imho).

    Sad to here The Tunnel is rubbish, since just bought it.

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    1. I didn't think much of it, a guy talks and talks about a woman he killed, and it goes nowhere. It bored me.

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  18. Sabato's Tunnel is certainly no rubbish. It is no masterwork either. It is a good book. In particular for me as a Bernhard lover it was fun.

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  19. How I wish I could suppress that Reply button.

    Luckily one can now watch Satantango in a civilized manner, in sensible increments. Those film festival showings must have been punishing. I suppose I should at least look at it someday.

    Cleanthess, look what you have done! Amazing how the ideas wander. And I am all for it. Now I wish I had read The Tunnel, just so I can join in.

    Now, to Miguel's point. Everyone should look at the Bosch painting he mentions. False analogy? Your example is way, way better than mine. That painting could be used as the cover of Satantango!

    You should write up your idea about the rich inner life of Kafka's characters, about Metamorphosis as a "character study." It goes against received ideas about Kafka (most of my own ideas are received ideas) so it would be very interesting. There is now a long tradition of literature that makes substantial use of Kafka without having much interest in his characterization. Krasznahorkai is in that tradition. He writes Novels of Ideas, not character studies.

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    1. Sounds like a plan, it's time for a Metamorphosis re-read.

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    2. The 'psychological interpretation' of Kafka's story is somehow related to this, right? The story is certainly not a traditional character study where you learn about someone's state of mind and his character traits explicitely, however indirectly you learn a lot about Samsa, right? In the sense that most of what is going on in the story reflects Samsa's state of mind. Of course, this is only one interpretation, one aspect, Kafka's works are never as simple as that.

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    3. Yes, that's the way I would think about it, but I would want to separate Kafka's characterization of Gregor Samsa from, for example, that of Woolf's Clarissa Dalloway, which is where I go when I think of an inner life that is deeply explored, to use Miguel's phrase.

      A story about Clarissa Dalloway waking up to find she had turned in to a vermin - but she has a party to organize so she just does it, in bug form - that is an idea.

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