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 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.