12. 26. 2018. 21:06

Monoliths of Madness

A review of László Krasznahorkai’s The Manhattan Project and Aprómunka Egy Palotáért ('Spadework for a Palace')

In 2017 Sylph Editions published The Manhattan Project, a handsome volume of prose by László Krasznahorkai, translated into English by John Batki and accompanied by a beautiful photographic essay by photographer Ornan Rotem. Described as ‘a literary diary presented as twelve chance encounters or coincidences’, the volume is Krasznahorkai’s response to Rotem and relates to the author’s work during a year-long residency at the New York Public Library. During this time, Krasznahorkai was working on a novella, Aprómunka Egy Palotáért (Spadework for a Palace), which Krasznahorkai only refers to at the end of The Manhattan Project, and which was recently published in Hungarian by Magvető. Given that both works circle—in words and through the streets of New York—around the same individuals, themes and places, it is illuminating to read the two texts together.

Throughout The Manhattan Project, Krasznahorkai describes what has fascinated and disheartened him during his time in New York. His interest is mainly piqued by the lives and works of three artists with melancholic, even apocalyptic, imaginations: Herman Melville, Malcom Lowry, and the conceptual architect-artist Lebbeus Woods. All three artists traversed the Manhattan streets, which Krasznahorkai now finds himself wandering and following the traces of their former perambulations, which are documented in Rotem’s haunting photographs. Krasznahorkai is particularly intrigued by Lowry’s (a self-described worshipper of Melville’s) failed search for Melville’s Manhattan residence, a search that is referred to in his short masterpiece Lunar Caustic, which was based on Lowry’s experience of admitting himself into Manhattan’s Bellevue Hospital after an alcohol-induced breakdown. Just as Melville wandered the Manhattan streets, disregarded and impoverished by the end of his career, so Lowry, in a drunken stupor, meandered after him, and so Krasznahorkai, likewise disenchanted with the city he finds himself in, traipses after both of them. The Manhattan streets become palimpsests of the histories of literary outcasts.

Through this consideration of the life and work of these artists, a portrait of Manhattan emerges—remorseless, monolithic, a place where individual genius can be diminished and forgotten—and a kind of ars poetica. For Krasznahorkai, Melville, Lowry and Woods all reveal something about Manhattan, and about existence more generally, that is usually concealed: that catastrophe is the natural state of the world; decay and ruination reign. This point is forcefully conveyed by the narrator of Aprómunka in relation to Woods:

"he had the courage to think of the concept of catastrophe and ruin in brand new forms, about the idea…that catastrophes, and the ruins that are their products, are not actually the result of malevolent and anti-human elements that we should tidy away, that we must conceal as if they never occurred, but are dramatic points in a continuous natural and self-evidently satanic existence… (38-9)."

Readers are in familiar Krasznahorkai terrain here. Deterioration and disorder (the ‘satanic’) has always been a central concern of Krasznahorkai’s writing. Much like Beckett, the paradox of finding creative forms to capture failure and decadence (paradoxical because if the artistic form succeeds in doing this, then it is not failure but success) has always exercised Krasznahorkai’s imagination. In The Manhattan Project and in Aprómunka Egy Palotáért, Krasznahorkai examines other artists’ lives and their approaches to this problem in order to express his familiar aesthetic and philosophical concerns.

These loose connections and coincidences explored in the The Manhattan Project are brought together more closely in Aprómunka Egy Palotáért through the perspective of the novella’s obsessive narrator, a librarian at the New York Public Library who goes by the name of herman melvill. Despite bearing the same name as the great Herman Melville (without the last ‘e’) and living on the same street in Manhattan as the writer did, herman melvill is not initially all that interested in the writer’s work. However, the questioning and attention he receives due to these similarities cause him to eventually become obsessed with discovering what Hermann Melville was really like, and he begins to trace Herman Melville’s journeys on foot through the streets of Manhattan. Like Krasznahorkai in The Manhattan Project, the narrator also discovers the link with Lowry and also becomes fascinated by the dystopian, deconstructed visions of Lebbeus Woods, whose journeys in Manhattan intersected with those of Melville and Lowry.

However, the narrator of Aprómunka Egy Palotáért is a distortion and parody of Krasznahorkai’s beliefs and perspectives. The narrator’s monologue, directed at an absent reader and scribbled secretively in a series of notebooks, is repetitive, rambling, at points stuttering, and the narrator frequently apologises for his inability to accurately express himself. Furthermore, the narrator harbours a secret plan, the execution of which he becomes more and more obsessed with, namely, to create an Eternally Closed Library where everything relating to knowledge will be stored, never to be seen by anyone, with the narrator’s notebooks being the first items to be placed into this enormous perpetually closed vault. The narrator’s dream is thus the obliteration of his own lifework; his idea of the preservation of knowledge is also its annihilation. This silent, inaccessible endpoint that drives the narrator forward is at once absurd and futile, and a fitting goal for someone whose view of art is that it should express its own failure and the inability to find order to the world. Like Ahab’s white whale, the narrator’s dream of a vast monolith brings readers to the brink of the articulable and the narrator to the brink of sanity.

Aprómunka Egy Palotáért may seem like a minor work in Krasznahorkai’s oeuvre, but he has once again managed to find, like Lebbeus Woods, a new and compelling form for the destruction, failure and negation that are inextricably part of our existence.





Aprómunka Egy Palotáért (Spadework for a Palace)

Krasznahorkai László

Magvető, 2018



The Manhattan Project (A Manhattan Terv)

László Krasznahorkai and Ornan Rotem

Sylph Editions, 2017/Magvető, 2018

Available in Engish here

Rita Horányi