Against the brutal, against the bad: An Interview with László Krasznahorkai
‘My voice is very frail,’ says László Krasznahorkai at the beginning of our two-hour meeting. ‘You will hear, perhaps, almost nothing.’
Of course, I heard every word uttered by this Hungarian sage, one of the greatest European writers of our era. Of any era. If you’ve read his three novels thus far available in English, you will know this is not an exaggeration.
In Satantango (originally published 1985, see my review here), The Melancholy of Resistance (1989), and War & War (1999, all New Directions publications with translations by George Szirtes), his long and lapping sentences create a mesmerising blend of prophecy and foreboding, of darker forces met by the fragile philosophies, mysticism or instinctive defensiveness of human beings. His work could not be more pertinent to our times.
As Krasznahorkai writes in The Melancholy of Resistance, faith is ‘believing that things can be different’.
But first I wanted to talk to him about another work of his, Animalinside, a beautifully published pamphlet (in The Cahiers Series) of a collaboration between the author and the German painter, Max Neumann.
What was the idea behind this work that alternates paintings of a black dog with your words?
‘I wanted to look at a picture so long until I could look at it no more and after that to write about what I saw in this picture and after that I would show this text to the painter, and the painter, perhaps, could make a new version of this painting, like a response, and after that I would write again, and so on, and so would come a dialogue, and perhaps from this material we could make something.’
‘To begin with, I wrote a short text about this picture, because this picture deals with the bad, and I couldn’t be free of this picture, because I understand that it is not a solution to drop out because something stays forever, so the best way was to write about it. I had a plan to write about the ‘new brutale’ and that’s why, the next day, I went to Max Neumann, the painter, and I made a small translation of my text into German, and Max was very satisfied, very excited, but he said absolutely nothing.’
‘A few days later, he called me: can you come to my atelier this afternoon? And he showed me the second version of his painting. It was unbelievable because I didn’t talk about this plan to him. So I wrote a text about the second picture and I translated it into German for him, and so on, for 14 pictures and 14 texts. Why 14? That’s so easy to explain. I had a feeling that 13 is not enough and 15 is too many.’
‘When it was finished, I had a problem with this project: is it possible to paint about the bad, to write about the bad – Will we pay for that? If yes, when? The texts, like the picture, were quite hard. Because I understood immediately from the beginning that to give a form to the bad is only possible when you are inside, from outside there is no chance, but from inside, it has some…it is a little bit dangerous, I felt. I kept thinking, or somebody or something kept speaking to me in only one sentence, ‘about the bad, people have to speak’, ‘about the bad, people have to speak.’
[And he utters this mantra two more times, his voice fading to a whisper until his lips are moving and there is no sound.]
‘That’s the story of AnimaIinside.’
Could you say something more about your idea of ‘the new Brutale’?
‘You know this kind of bad, in the form of brutality, always comes back and back in the pose of history, and this is such a time, and the brutal is on the street, and absolutely free on the street; the only thing I can do in our defence is to write.’
So writing becomes a form of resistance?
‘In this case, yes. Normally, I have never done anything like that. My other novels and short stories are absolutely different. Animalinside is a shout. And it is the first collaboration in my life. And perhaps the last. But very interesting.’
But you collaborate on films with Béla Tarr. [If you haven’t seen Werckmeister Harmonies, Tarr’s rendering of Krasznahorkai’s novel, The Melancholy of Resistance, I strongly recommend it.]
‘That’s different, because a movie has only one director, and he’s responsible for the film. Of course, I am not a scriptwriter. The films are almost always made from my books, except one. I draw for Béla the philosophical background of our question, day and night, day and night, that’s our method of collaboration. I never want a literary adaptation, never, because it is absolutely unnecessary for me. A book by me does not need an adaptation.’
‘It’s a nice thing that somebody, Béla Tarr, has a mania, a wish, always to make a movie from Krasznahorkai’s works and that’s why I think: ok I will try to understand why he thinks that this new movie is absolutely necessary. When I have understood that, my second question is: what kind of movie is he thinking about from my book? When I have understood that, my third and last question to myself is: how can I help Bela? My aim is to help his imaginative power.’
‘In Béla’s last movie, ‘The Turin Horse’, from my early essay about a day in Turin with Nietzsche, I had a different question: Ok, we know everything about Nietzsche, about the man, the owner of the horse, but nobody wondered what happened to the horse. Why not? I wrote about that.’
I have heard that the film is your last collaboration with Tarr – is that true?
‘Yes, Béla and I knew that this film would be our last. There were many other difficulties, forever: this fight for the money and, perhaps, other things as well.’
[Here, Krasznahorkai is alluding to the neo-fascist government in Hungary slashing if not completely removing arts funding in order to silence opposition voices within the country’s cultural scene.]
‘For me, this decision was very easy, I have never loved the film-makers’ world, movies are quite far from me, especially to make movies.’
So, with Béla Tarr, it’s also a dialogue, but unlike with Max Neumann, you won’t get to fourteen.
[He laughs.] ‘Humour! That’s the first time I’ve heard a joke today!’
‘We made, summa sumarum, 6 films. The Man from London is the only one that is not from my book. But I wrote the script and Béla made a film that is very far from the original text, and The Damnation (our first film), The Last Boat, Werckmeister Harmonies, Satantango, The Turin Horse, 6 films, that’s enough.’
So film does not offer enough opportunities for resistance?
‘A movie is a defence of nothing, defends nothing. The movies are absolutely light, easy, too soft. Against the brutal, against the bad, they are absolutely without power. The movie cannot be freed from the story, though we – Béla and I – have always tried to be as far from a story as possible, but we never have a chance to do that; it’s probably not possible to be free from the story.’
‘Animalinside is a different thing, there is no story, so it’s very difficult to say what is Animalinside’.
Without the conventions of linear plotting and action, Tarr’s films defy classification, doesn’t that explain their insidious beauty and power?
‘In the movies, you can only photograph concrete things, and concrete things have a story. If you make a film about this table, this table has a story; you cannot do any different things, and we wanted, with Béla, to find a new form.’
What Tarr offers is a vision of the circularity of time, of the small rituals we perform to protect ourselves, as well as a certain luminosity, flashes of light that show us another way.
‘That is true. Animalinside is very different, it is something else, different from my books, too. And I haven’t planned to carry on with that form. It was enough.’
Your novels, in fact, also seem very different from each other, in style, form, content…
‘Absolutely, absolutely. In my novels, in my short stories [a first collection in English, Seiobo There Below, is out this autumn], I use, actually, a language but a language about something. But with Animalinside, I used a language, and the painter used his language to evince the bad and only because the bad has no story.’
What are your thoughts about the short story as a form? You were included in Best European Fiction, 2011.
‘This is one piece from my new stories… The Bill, absolutely classical short story, but of course I use my language, my music, my ritual, the rich language I have used for the last ten years. I write in my head not in my laptop on the table. I make the sentences in my head. And if I am ready after that then I write into the laptop. I write into a centre of language and there are two directions which I choose: one direction is to write the most beautiful sentences imaginable; the other direction to write sentences that are very close to everyday language. And I have heard this every day language more and more over the last few years in bars and on the streets.’
‘It’s very interesting that a lot of people don’t use punctuation and if you want to say something to me you don’t actually use punctuation. And this kind of language use from the other direction leads me to a point, a very rich language that is at the same time very close to normal everyday language, but this short story is a classical short story.’
Do you write your short stories out of a European tradition?
‘No, my short stories are not from a European tradition but from my own tradition: how I write. This is slowly a tradition in my case. Like my second book that was all classical short stories … including ‘The Last Boat’, from which we made the film.’
When reading War & War (1999), which in many ways foresees 9/11 and the collapse of a shared humanity, I detected a few ideas of the Romanian philosopher, Mircea Eliade – his ideas of myth-repetition-return, of sacred time challenging monotonous linear time, of the eternal return – and the sense that we have lost touch with these and instead mired ourselves in profane time, if not in profanity itself. How much of an influence was Eliade on your book?
‘I know him well of course … He was for me a big shock, really important.’ [Long pause] ‘A big disillusionment … I thought Eliade very clever. But after reading his books, I had to conclude he’s not so clever. I thought his books could give me a new fix on a question. After his books, I concluded they were well formulated, there’s a richness, a richness of his life but his thoughts are so banal, that he was really a big disillusionment.’
So you were writing a pastiche/ critique of Eliade’s ideas in War & War then? That myth-ritual-repetition, perhaps represented by our daily rituals, does not, after all, offer any resistance to the relentless progress of profane time? That spirituality, and its extreme version – mysticism – won’t save us?
‘Everything I can say about Eliade is disillusionment … In the beginning, I was waiting for a new way … these questions of human spiritual life, I looked for, absolutely.’
Let’s move on to another Romanian thinker, E M Cioran, whose presence I also feel in your work. Do you know this quote from Cioran? ‘To keep the mind vigilant, there is only coffee, disease, insomnia, or the obsession of death.’
‘This is a very good joke. This is why I love him. Cioran means for me always a source of humour, many times he helps me … The whole work of Cioran is a big collection of humour, an absolutely fantastic collection of good jokes. He was a very clever man, a Romanian, and that means a spatial thinking. I like very much twentieth century Romanian literature and philosophy.’
And Cioran is very perceptive about melancholy.
‘Melancholy with this sarcasm. A very good combination for a Hungarian. And not only for a Hungarian of course! If I was very down, on the floor, it was enough to look at the titles by Cioran – ‘The Temptation to Exist’ – even the title is such a good joke, and I’m very grateful to Cioran.’
He also writes about the writer as demonic, and as secreting demons throughout their work.
‘Yes. The demon plays a very big role in War & War. There are many devils in this book. One is especially for the main character here. He tells Korin that he is absolutely unnecessary on earth and that the best thing he can do is commit suicide and this demon leads him far from his place and this demon tells him that before his death he should do a very important thing. Although he knew this before in a vision … The other demons play an important role in the manuscript inside the book – a novel within a novel – and in this manuscript there are four angelic figures with a person who has the name of the Hebraic version of Lucifer. And there is a third demon of this book, the demon who told me that I have to write this book about these different forms of demons.’
How did you manage to confront and describe so many demons?
‘It was not easy to write this book. But there were some people who helped me very much, especially Allen Ginsberg, who was a friend of mine in his last years. I was always at his home, and I worked on this novel, War & War, in New York, and he helped me very much to find a literary method to depict / describe / portray … if you are in New York, every artist wants a very original, spatial picture of New York, but I absolutely didn’t want that, I wanted the opposite: only streets, places, a hotel here, a flat there, a puritan picture of New York, so it was difficult to find a method to depict this neutral city of New York. Allen helped me very much.’
‘We spoke about many questions, literary methods: how to depict a thing, how can you find a solution if you have a feeling about a thing but you have an anti-power in you to use this personal feeling, how can people avoid the passion of the thing in writing. We spoke many nights about such questions. He was absolutely wise and helped me very much.’
Talking of big cities, don’t you spend some of your time in Berlin?
‘Yes, I divide my time between Berlin and the small mountains outside Budapest. Berlin is my city as well, like a friend, a strange friend. Between Berlin and this mountain atmosphere. When I live abroad, I always live in a big city. That’s why when I go back from this big city, I need such a place as this mountain in the Budapest area, which I love, where nature is very active. In front of my house is a mountain and a valley, not so heavenly, but human. In my valley, it is very human because you have a chance to be alone together with this nature, and I need this picture in front of my house, sometimes I need this absolute quiet, this small beauty.’
And this proximity to beauty helps your work?
‘When I am working, every curtain is closed. If I’m working, I’m only working. I must not enjoy looking at nature, the beauty of women etc. For working people need only a small or a big room and to concentrate only on the work … I need no inspiration.’
So you do your best writing in the valley?
‘I write not in Berlin and not in this house, but in my head. For six weeks, I have been writing a short story. When I am absolutely perfectly ready, I will write it down … ’
How does the language of another country affect your own if you are trying to write there?
‘Another language is still language. They are also human beings. I like very much an unknown language around me … In an Arab country, it’s wonderful.’
‘Ok, a short story for you. I don’t know how long but I spent many years on the road, trying to find architecture that a human being had built in defence against the bad, and that’s why I was in Denmark because of a certain city wall. At night, I couldn’t sleep so I listened to Danish radio between 1 and 2am. I found a programme in which sometimes a woman, sometimes a man read some wonderful poems, unbelievably beautiful and sad.’
‘After a few weeks I went back to Copenhagen to my girlfriend, and said what a wonderful kind of late night literary programme you have between 1 and 2am! But we don’t have such a programme, she said. But I’ve heard it, I said, it must be a literary programme. No, we haven’t one, she said, again, and slowly, she said, it’s almost 1am, please, show me. I found the station on the radio: listen, do you hear? But László, she said, this is the weather report!
As we have already discussed, your work – and not just The Melancholy of Resistance – is suffused with melancholy. But it’s not only about introspection and internal defiance. As Cioran wrote, there is also a ‘melancholy which moves mountains’.
‘I am a melancholic. I have an idea about melancholy. László Krasznahorkai told you that he is a melancholic. He has an idea what melancholy is. If you have loved a man or a woman, you can choose, in this case, you are absolutely deep in love, you have an idea what love is. But what can I say about melancholy?’
‘This is a normal state of intellectual life, because, in melancholy, people can find peace from some kind of wisdom and patience. A melancholic has time to sit only because of sitting, a melancholic in Europe is a little like the man in Japan who sits only because of the sitting, at this point here we can find a contact between European and Asiatic culture.’
‘For example, old Europe knew the very simple people in the province, the poor people alone with animals in the village, peasants – that was a tradition, a tradition of peasants, they always had time for everything. You know, Tolstoy explains somewhere that once he walked on his land and he saw a peasant and this peasant was standing there, not moving, and Tolstoy went to him and touched his shoulder and Tolstoy wrote, ‘before I touched him, he was nowhere’. Not outside of time, nowhere.’
‘As for the peasant, so for the melancholic. Melancholy allows us to be. Only to be. Because of being. Only to exist, to stay somewhere without a wish, without the knowledge that we are staying there.’
And this state of being, then, is the ultimate resistance?
Of course to be melancholic means also something against human work/world, and the nature of work, and changes always the activity, to the human and not-human being. The melancholic says something against this activity, so it would be detrimental to society if there were too many melancholics in the world!’
‘But we are lucky. They are not so numerous. We need the melancholic!’
© James Hopkin
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Laszlo Krasznahorkai by Gyula Czimbal