Interview – 15th January, 2007

"There isn't anything anywhere any more"

An interview with László Krasznahorkai

Interview–15th January, 2007


László Krasznahorkai is not a fashionable writer. He is marching directly against what the age is about: that literature should become part of the entertainment industry. He is failing to adapt smoothly to what is going on. This art is powerfully pitched against the intention to skim through life laughing or just sticking it out as best you can without taking any particular risk.

This has never happened before or after. In the first few days of September 1985, talk at the university cafeteria was not ruled by summer adventures, lakeside flirtations, or anything of the kind; it was dominated by a novel. “Have you read it?” the early birds asked latecomers in agitated tones. You could not ask for a cup of coffee without first facing the crucial question, and starting your term without it was out of the question... At 10 o'clock in the morning, with their standard hangovers and empty stomachs, growing young men and women were finding themselves in the middle of a literary conversation.

There are two things which are shocking, incredible, and unimaginable about this. One is that students at the arts faculty were still reading books. Out of mere interest. All by themselves, the proper way. They went out and bought books, started them at the beginning, turned the pages when necessary, and in most cases actually reached the end. This could never happen today – or only under serious threat. Students transform into sworn enemies in a flash when they sense the pressure to do so – really, what do teachers think? If, however, somebody reads a book voluntarily, out of their own free will, under no external pressure, they are bound to become PhD students that very instant. The other amazing thing is that nobody in this university cafeteria returned the question – everyone knew what was being referred to. It went without saying. People were talking about Satan Tango.
László Krasznahorkai burst through the front door of the Hungarian literary scene without bothering to knock first, and his powerful, autonomous entrée instantly raised the temperature of the literary public to feverish heights. His was the last first novel that was instantly placed among the top ranks of Hungarian literature within the dominant spheres of Hungarian criticism. Major studies mapped out very precisely that incomparable, unique landscape, set apart from all other domains, where his prose set up camp over the years, book by book. Compared in many ways to contemporary tendencies, it walked its own path alone.

Krasznahorkai's unfolding career inspired a monograph, volumes of criticism, and analytic papers. While, in Germany, his reception has been unanimous and evenly pitched; at home, the oeuvre still invites ambivalent attitudes. It is as though this milieu were unable to digest or integrate such writing. They can neither swallow it nor spit it out – the grandeur is clearly palpable, but people do not seem to know what to do with it. It is too big a bite. László Krasznahorkai is not a fashionable writer, this is for sure. He is marching directly against what the age is about, that literature should become part of the entertainment industry. He is failing to adapt smoothly to what is going on. In this sense, he is truly anachronistic. His art is powerfully pitted against any intention to skim through life laughing or just sticking it out as best you can without taking any particular risk. It goes against the idea that reading should be a light pleasure. Although his cult is living and his camp is large, his fans and readers feel like members of a secret brotherhood. Reveal that you value this writing, and you get smacked.

Krasznahorkai's heroes move according to different rhythms and different patterns. Lonely and doomed to failure, they are fanatics of tact, compassion, goodwill, empathy, humility, a perfect beauty never glimpsed. They are fanatics of unattainable harmony and inner peace. The only meaning of their existence is the search itself. Although everything around them says that there is no such thing, it is impossible, it is useless, they never doubt for a moment that the lost country still exists somewhere. This is why the dark tones, the gloomy world, and the classicist structure of these novels. Their solid, arched sentences have an elemental power to uphold what is “actually nothing more than the simple faith that the tradition still exists, that this tradition is based on observation, repetition, and respecting the inner order of nature and the way things are. That the meaning or purity of this tradition is above all doubt.”

Although this house in Pilisszentlászló [in the Pilis hills, close to Budapest] is eminently plausible, one keeps having the notion that you are not at home. I think this is metaphorically perfectly true of your position. I could even go so far as to say that your art is characterised by various degrees of not being at home. Is it possible to be inside something – let us call it Hungarian literature or existence – so that the person is not actually at home the whole time?

Naturally, Hungarian literature is not quite the same as existence; but to reply to your question, yes, it is possible. You have to produce works which allow you to do that. And that will guarantee that you are “there” in the literature, even if not in the mind of the literary public – this is what happened to Imre Kertész for decades, to mention just a handy example. But if you had the impression that I am often not at home, this may have to do with the fact that I am really and truly often not at home. This is not because I keep travelling all over the world with a huge Havana sticking out of the corner of my mouth. The reason is, to mention but one, that for my previous book, War and War, I had to study the possible settings. Partly, I had to find out what the ancient boundary of Europe was like and, secondly, what was in its place today. So I had to go to the premises. These were study trips, in the strictest sense of the word, which I covered from various grants, thanks to my Swiss publisher and a few well-meaning friends abroad. But there is another reason for not being at home. Other people must feel this about their own country, but I certainly cannot find my place in Hungary. I often go into exile wherever I can, from America to East Asia, just to make sure I am not here. Literally, I will go anywhere just to make sure I don't have to be at home. Of course, the end result is that when I go to a place like this, I usually return shattered, disappointed, and disillusioned. Because there is no place on earth from which a guy like me would not return shattered, disappointed, and disillusioned. What is worse, it means that our yearnings have no meaning anymore. Bit by bit, after many years of unwilling wanderings, I am getting to be convinced there is no place worth yearning for. There isn't anything anywhere anymore. So there is a negative attraction at home and a positive push of repulsion abroad.

And if all of this sounds like a recent development in my life, I must add instantly, it is not only now I cannot find my place at home. I never could, even before. I was born into a predicament and a country where a person accursed with a heightened aesthetic and moral sensitivity like me simply cannot survive. It is enough to have an oversensitive and vulnerable person on one side, and the brutality of the other side will instantly produce mortal danger. Naturally, there are various strategies to help you survive in some way. I used to drink myself quite drunk whenever I could. I went on doing this until my health suffered so much that I was at risk of becoming a dramatic hero in an age which does not give a shit about drama – in an age which thinks no more of a dramatic ending than the Great Bulldozer thinks about a particular shell as it grinds up tens and tens of thousands of shells while driving along the sea shore speckled with herons drowned in oil. Had it meant anything at all, had it drawn that lethargic attention to anything, had there been one single oversensitive youth to draw strength from such a dramatic ending, I admit I would not have hesitated for a moment to act this role. But it would not mean anything; it would not draw attention to anything and would not restore anybody's strength. After all, they have not even properly inhaled the smoke of the gunpowder from the shotgun that Márai used to kill himself at a safe distance.

It hasn't always been like this. During the years of the dictatorship, the general public would have shown more interest in that gunpowder-smoke. At any rate, I most certainly cannot find my place at the present time. Even the most brilliant of people today tend to take me by the arm and pull me into a quiet corner before they can start telling me that they really and truly appreciate what I am doing... they even give me a naughty wink... but you see, they add, with an even naughtier face, the world has changed and so “this kind of thing” cannot be given the space it really deserves. And then they list the arguments why not. And the awful thing is that in a country which has thrown itself so completely at the feet of the Great Moloch without a single question, so blindly and so willingly, there is no point in even asking the question. To be sure, art is still present in this country. Indeed, the quality is truly high at times. But it is always the kind of art which you can express in cash terms, and for which the artist needs money; because, you see, they are pursued, as if by fate, by the gas bill, the sewage bill, the electricity bill. It would be unfair to say that these artists never resent the way things are. After all, we are talking about some very talented people here. But the trouble is that, along with many others, they think that there is some invincible, unalterable, uncontrollable force at work here which you either submit to or... And at this point they all just stop and never think that they could stop and think. They never consider that perhaps you could paint without a brush, play music without an instrument, and write, not without a PC, but even without a pen, and so forth. Somehow, at a single wave of the devil's hand, everyone has come to believe that you cannot. But let us imagine RIGHT NOW that we find out about a world where there are artists who paint without brushes, make music without instruments, and write without pen and paper. The very thought makes me happy. That this world could be ours, right here and now.

Is it not possible that the best minds of any given age have felt exactly the same way as you feel, since time immemorial? Is it not possible that the milieu is always like this, and it is only in retrospect that certain ages seem more attractive than others?

I am not saying that the past is brilliant – the recent past, for instance, almost killed me. But those people, living under oppression, had that something about them that gave you hope that the democratic ideals we envisaged at the time could build us a country which is more tolerable when measured by the moral and aesthetic expectations we held. But let me repeat – I would in no way like to idealise what we had at the time. How could I? I would much rather say that we have now lost by the wayside even what little we had – all that once prevented people from becoming blinded by their situation. We have lost whatever used to stop people from selling their dignity for a spoonful of gold or a spoonful of free soup – whatever they have in their spoons. And, to return to your question, I am sure it is true. I am sure all independent spirits felt in their own age that the society they had been granted was intolerable and that this could easily lead to the conclusion that all human societies are intolerable unless they exist by the highest moral and aesthetical standards. This seems true not only with regard to Western civilisations. It seems to hold true for Oriental cultures, too. Confucian himself repeatedly refers his readers to the early Zhou period, directly preceding his own, as an ideal age which his contemporaries should set their standards by. And Confucian, who created the poetic vision of the most elevated moral system in the world, lived in the sixth and fifth centuries before Christ.

In a situation like this, what do writing and literature give you? What do books mean? Obviously, not the way out. Nor does writing function as a form of personal salvation for you. Then, shall we say it is the gentlest form of rebellion? Or does it play the role of issuing certain signals?

Whenever I manage to state my view in its full extent, my partner in conversation, anywhere in the world, invariably reminds me, “If you paint such a gloomy picture of the world, then why write?” This is a subtle way of asking why I don't shoot myself in the head right there and then, and indeed, why I hadn't done so a long while ago. My critical remarks do not mean that I think or have ever thought that literature could directly interfere with the workings of the society it criticises or rejects. The impact that a writer can exert over his or her own society is far more subtle, almost indecipherably complex and indirect, working through a number of transformations. I even doubt whether at such a degree of remoteness you can still call this an impact and an influence. In Oriental cultures, this question has found an almost radical solution: art had absolutely nothing to do with the direct, palpable reality of its own age. On the contrary, real artists were not “members” of their own society, in the same way that saints never are. This way, the art they produced did not exist as an integrated, definable, graspable part of society. Instead, it found its place in an emphatically spiritual space which nonetheless was still perceived as a part of reality.

I have the impression that your encounter with the East has radically changed your thoughts and your perception of the various values in the world, if not your life.

That's right. What people learn is a certain part of the knowledge that has been accumulated by the age in which they live, and they don't even notice that what they have learnt was presented to them as “universally valid”. This is what had happened to me, so I was all the more shocked when my good fortune took me to Asia, where I had to face up to something quite astounding. This was that they, too, had learnt, accepted, and internalised a body of knowledge and they, too, failed to suspect that it was given them with the claim that it was “universally valid”. What is astonishing and amazing is that the “two worlds” are not only not identical; they don't even look anything like each other. This way, while I was ever more deeply immersed in the perfectly amazing knowledge of this civilisation so different from my own, I had to learn that the statements people make regarding the world have no universal application, either here or there.

In the light of this, are your new books different from the previous ones?

I have always wanted to write a novel with no people in it. This book bears the title A Hill to the North, a Lake to the South, Roads to the West, a River to the East. I am happy to give you a banal description. It takes place in Japan, its hero is a monastery in Kyoto, and the picture it wishes to present is a flashing image of the total universe – within my own modest means, of course. Before writing this book, I spent three years studying the classic mathematical theory of sets, certain special branches of botany – including bryology, which is the study of mosses – as well as historical meteorology, the history of books in Japan, the history of monasteries in Japan, crystal physics and crystal morphology, mineralogy, and a number of other things – all in the blissful shadow of the great figures from these branches of science, from MIT to master temple builders in Kyoto.

I heard from filmmaking quarters that while you are isolated in the literary world and keep no contacts, you are a highly co-operative partner in filmmaking. There are legends circulating about your relationship with director Béla Tarr.

It is rather hard to imagine two people co-operating in writing a novel, but then literature works very differently from film. The majority of intellectuals of the normal Hungarian cast have done their utmost to turn us against each in the context of Werckmeister Harmonies [Béla Tarr's film based on Krasznahorkai's novel, The Melancholy of Resistance]. I think Tarr is one of the last great Hungarian film directors. People are always asking me whether I don't find it insulting that while I wrote the whole thing, he goes and collects the laurels for it. What on earth could I say to that? Partly, it is not true that I invented the whole thing. I delivered the novels and helped with whatever I could. But the film was made by Béla Tarr alone, even if he did have people to help him – excellent, brilliant, sensitive characters. Rather unfairly, I shall now just mention one of them, Mihály Vig. So, I am just one in the line next to Tarr – even if my role is rather important, to be sure.

The way you see things, the way you write, all that you state here really stems from one common root and points in one unified direction. In the midst of this, are you ever granted “moments of grace”?

Let me reply to that by telling you a story. Mihály Vig and I were walking along a street in Pécs together, and I was complaining to him that young people today are so terribly far removed from anything spiritual and intellectual. I said that when I was young, there was at least a handful of us who used to read, compose music, or paint pictures. In other words, we were thinking beings and were possessed by a search for something, which connected us. I was saying that this seems to have died out. To this, Mihály said to me that he thought I was wrong – the people I am thinking of still exist in the same numbers today, but they are not visible. And, pointing up at the windows there, that evening at Pécs, he asked me, “How do you know there is not one sitting up there right now? It is just that they don't want to meet you as an ‘author’. They are busy. They cannot bear this world and are in some way testing a different one. Perhaps by creating something. Perhaps they are just sad and that's why they can't come. And that sadness will lead to something. To another gap for seeing out of the intolerable through to the tolerable. Or,” said Mihály, “he or she is sitting up there alone, reading your book, of all people's.”

I was very deeply affected by what he said, because this meant that perhaps we were just looking at things from the wrong angle. Perhaps there really is a different perspective from which we can catch sight of what we want so much – all of us, the content and the desperate. We get to see a single person who is reading us, up there, behind the windows. And one is enough.

Tibor Keresztury and Judit Székely

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