"Those that I ‘intend’ my books for are all kinds of people, but they are definitely not aristocratic, definitely not part of the social elite... they are the elite of the injured, the aristocracy of those who are helpless beyond recovery." - An interview with László Krasznahorkai on fire, evil and suffering.
We fixed this interview on the day when Krásna Hôrka Castle was badly damaged by fire. Needless to say, my first thought was that this could be no accident: this event had everything in it that could give a keynote for a conversation with László Krasznahorkai. I immediately thought of the sinister, mysterious, decaying world of your works; of helplessness, evil and the powers on high. Then I wondered how you felt about it, and if your name and family were related to this village in Slovakia. As far as I know, you have never talked about this.
Fire plays a terrible part in my life. I have been a victim of fire in one form or another six times altogether. Once, for example, my house in Szentendre burnt down, while I met Miklós Mészöly in Budapest for the first time. The burning down of Krásna Hôrka Castle is the seventh in this line of events, and there is no need to spell out to you what significance the number seven has in this story. And whether my name is related to this place in Slovakia—what other place do you think the name Krasznahorkai could be related to? But how exactly the story of my family is related to it—let this be covered gently by the musty, protective mist of secret. In any case, the song about this castle [‘Krasznahorka büszke vára’, ‘The proud castle of Krásna Hôrka’], and consequently the author of this song, Countess Zichy give me the creeps. Moreover, I begin to seriously consider committing an original Hungarian version of seppuku when I think that in the other world I will be forced to listen to this incredible, gloomy musical piece till eternity, which will obviously be my punishment.
In your recently published volume of interviews, the title of which is telling (or rather, taciturn: Doesn’t Ask, Doesn’t Answer), the conversation often veers to your search of the perfect form. You keep saying that you wanted to write one single novel, that you were looking for one single sentence. Moreover, when contemplating the advice of a Noh master in Kyoto, Inoue Kazuyuki, who had told you not to write any more, you arrive at the conclusion that hopefully one day you will be able to confine everything to just one word. Where are you now in this search for the one single word?
Well, to the extent that I am searching, and I am not, I can say that I am working on joining together two words, ‘yes’ and ‘no’, into an indissoluble, organic combination. The Hungarian language has an extremely rich twilight zone, so this is the space where I imagine I will find it.
Your texts—though this is not very obvious—are strongly related to your person and your life. You once said that you had worked as a night watchman at a milk farm, where you met the real-life Irimias of Satantango, who appeared in a trench-coat one night to castrate a piglet. You sometimes see your characters appear in real life, but it also happens that you consider verbal expression—the book form—insufficient, and you transplant the story into real life. Moreover, you claim that you are the only person who can read your works aloud well. So beyond giving a form to experience, it seems that you do not wish to create distance, but rather to weave life and text together. As if the work itself was identical with the person who creates it. What do you think about this?
First of all, I protest. My books are not related to my person, neither strongly nor weakly, because I am a prose writer and not a hidden or actual lyric poet. They are, however, related to the events of my life to the extent that if I had been born as a Hungarian in Mongolia, Japan or China, then the novels entitled The Prisoner of Urga; From the North by Hill, from the South by Lake, from the West by Roads, from the East by River; and Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens would have been written before Satantango and The Melancholy of Resistance; or in other words, whether one proceeds from the Mongolian-Japanese-Chinese unreal to the Hungarian unreal, or from the Hungarian unreal to the Mongolian-Japanese-Chinese unreal, the order can be inverted, I think. Does the order have a significance, if the subject is the same? I don’t know. I don’t think so. But surely the road is that of unavoidable accidentality, towards new unrealities.
You have been long preoccupied with evil. In AnimalInside you are more than preoccupied with it—you attempt to put it into words. Do you trust the magical, sacred power of words or of love when you endow evil with a body?
I have no idea how someone who understands my books so well as you do can ask such a thing… I do not and have never trusted anything ever. Not the magical power of words, and not the magical power of love… magical?! Oh my God! You will surely end up in hell. Never mind, I will accompany you, because, obviously, I must be responsible for the fact that you think and say such things. In any case, in AnimalInside it was not me who endowed evil with a body, as you put it—it was in my flat, on (or through) Max Neumann’s picture. What I did, or, to be more precise, what the two of us then did was to try to curb evil by making it visible. If we managed. But today I don’t think so any more. Evil is invisible: it manifests itself in our actions, in our subdued emotions, intentions, desires, characters, but it is an intangible dimension of an existence more immense than that of the human being. In fact, we have no idea about it, because it does not fit into the realm of our ideas. Even when we try to name ‘it’ or ‘he’, having to use a pronoun, we come up against confusing vaguenesses. Terrible constraints. To sum it all up: I am sure that I will never again attempt such a thing as I attempted in AnimalInside.
You feel like an outsider in literary life. How instinctive or how conscious is this decision, and how do you feel about it, especially as you have become one of the most significant figures of the contemporary Hungarian literary canon since Satantango? And a related question: isn’t it possible that being an outsider is something that reconstructs again and again the sense of defencelessness inherent in your personality?
I am sure that your sensitive soul is on the right track, but I can only repeat that—believe it or not— I am not preoccupied with the characteristics of my works or my person, insofar as it is related to my works; that is, I am not preoccupied with anything personal. If I can speak about anyone’s defencelessness, it is not mine, but that of those who are very far from being able to formulate this sense of defencelessness. If you feel that I am an outsider in any sense, this obviously comes from the fact that my heroes, or rather, the constant object of my train of thought, The One Who Is Always the Same Person, is indeed outside society, because my gaze works in such a way that I can see him and only him in a mass of people, it is only his eyes that meet mine, only his, whose glance betrays that no social force or fear or instinct can keep him inside—he is the expelled son, the one who was thrown away.
You abhor politics and regard it as a low function which has nothing to do with universal laws and truth. Lately political poetry and prose have been revived in Hungary. What do you think of these developments if you consider the responsibility of intellectuals?
This was a felicitous choice of words—intellectuals rather than artists. It goes without saying that the responsibility of intellectuals entails an active duty, an interference, when social justice is at stake. But the artist’s responsibility entails the fulfillment of his art, and nothing but that. Sometimes these two creatures inhabit one soul, sometimes they don’t. Attila József would be out on the barricades, I am almost sure. But I am equally sure that János Pilinszky would not. And there is nobody, you understand, nobody who could force Pilinszky to act differently. Nobody has the right to do so.
It may sound strange, but sometimes I think that in a sense László Krasznahorkai is the Hungarian Thomas Bernhard. You seem to consider Hungarians, European culture and humanity in general hopeless. Yet at the same time, just as you notice compassion on Bernhard’s face at a bullfight, love is not absent from your books, on the contrary. How is this?
You say mysterious things… It may sound strange that you sometimes think so? No, I think it doesn’t sound strange, I think you are simply wrong. Because what made Thomas Bernhard Thomas Bernhard was the fact that he considered all things human hopeless, yet he could not always hide his feelings perfectly from the public. Of course, this comparison flatters me, yet I must protest once again. I knew him only superficially, and we are completely different characters. As for the works, I think the differences may be even deeper than our characters. So no, I don’t think so. Bernhard is a giant peak in German-language literature. Only Hilbig can be compared to him. But even he does not get anywhere close to that peak. Hilbig’s world is sick and disgusting, incomprehensible and monochromous. Bernhard’s is rich and wonderful. Someone who scolds the world constantly and with such volcanic force as Bernhard may easily deceive us, but it gradually turns out what it is all about. Bernhard appreciated greatness, genius, the power of thought and the creative triumphs of the human spirit. He appreciated and adored them. Bernhard was an enthusiast. That is why he hated whatever was not great, whatever was not a work of genius. This might be the Bernhardian feature which makes you draw this comparison. But Hilbig also has a place in my soul. For me, it all depends on how the sun rises.
Wondering about the future in an interview, you ask the poetic question if humanity may return one day to thinking on its own. You ask this when you voice your opinion that the era of reading books is over. Yet the time may come when, as a result of disasters or of his own insight, man will start to think originally. How do you see the future—what do you think will happen to man in ten years or more?
While I fervently wish for the opposite, I am sure that the Gutenbergian book will disappear, whereas the Gutenbergian idea will not. Let me correct what I said before (today is Wednesday, then it was Monday): writing itself will not disappear. But it will also change radically, and so will the nature of reading. The human being cannot stop thinking, but he always changes the way he thinks and his channels of expression. Of course, these are not individual decisions; this is the nature of a chaos that we all spin together. We will formulate our ideas differently, and this will naturally determine the way we read. This is a great change. But my fear is not really sincere, because I will not live to see it.
Talking about War and War you once said that you were addressing the few "dear, lonesome, tired and sensitive readers" who speak the same language as you, and who are hiding in their rooms because they refuse to take part in the unacceptable. This statement is about chosen ones, and—however we read it—it betrays an elitist, aristocratic attitude. Is there an esoteric and exoteric knowledge today, and what is the role of the artist in transmitting it?
My books are for those who read them. Therefore the fact that I intend them for anyone at all is not so important. However, those that I ‘intend’ my books for are all kinds of people, but they are definitely not aristocratic, definitely not part of the social elite, you can take my word for that. On the contrary, those I have been thinking of are far from being chosen ones, but exactly the opposite: they are those who will not be chosen but rather expelled, because they are injured, defenceless, oversensitive; they are those who drop out of the great Stirring Machine at the first turn. Perhaps you could reformulate this by saying that those we are talking about are the elite of the injured, the aristocracy of those who are helpless beyond recovery… This sounds different, doesn’t it? And as for me offering my works to them—I would rather say that they are The Ones Who Are Always the Same Person, the constant subjects of my thinking. I am immensely grateful to them. Without them, readers would not even understand what I am doing. Without them, it would not occur to me to write anything. They are there partly, at least in a tiny fragment, in all of my readers.
We know that you are very much interested in philosophy. What about biology? Suffering, for example, which is reinterpreted from era to era, from culture to culture—can it gain a meaning at all?
I am reluctant to reflect on the biology of suffering, because, for the present, my moral sense is extremely troubled by the sheer possibility or the fact that suffering could have a biological definition. When I was in Bosnia in the last weeks of the war, I felt an unspeakable pain of suffering. It stirred up everything in me that is the holocaust. I thought I was going mad when I witnessed what was happening, and there was a strong chance that I would never get out of that horror. To talk about the biology of the terrible suffering of those who have seen hell, of Bosnian people?! We must immediately stop even thinking about this, but especially talking about it, so hereby I stop both. I prefer to summon the spirit of Dostoyevsky’s starets, and just sit with him in this beautiful spring sunshine, and we will not talk, we will just sit in silence, listening to the frantic singing of the birds.
(This interview was originally published in Hungarian on Könyvesblog )
Tags: László Krasznahorkai