books, poetry, Reading, Short Stories, Works in Translation

“The World Goes On” by Laszlo Krasznahorkai (translated from the Hungarian by John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet, and Georges Szirtes

“because a life based on incomprehension and misinterpretation and erroneous ideas must end just as springtime must end, budding and greening must end, and everything will be just as incomprehensible as it has been since the beginning of time immemorial, with no help whatsoever along the way, and even this end brings no enlightenment, since the one who could have delivered it delivered it already, once upon a time, except that no one grasped what he had declared: away with reasoning and away with meaning, away with the thirst of desire and su ering; there was no one who truly grasped and embraced it” – from One Hundred People All Told

Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai writes in run on, hyper-punctuated but never-coming-to-a-34390242full-stop sentences, a style which connotes a franticness, a sense of anxiety and mania. Many stories in this new short story collection are one sentence; one five-page, frenetic sentence. I don’t want to belabor the point, but it seems essential to be able to prepare yourself mentally for this read. Sitting down to begin reading is akin to taking a deep breath and trying to swim the length of the pool underwater. This structure and style made this work slow reading for me, because I had to turn on my inner narrator, to read “aloud” in my head in order to follow the conversational, stream-of-consciousness pacing. It seems no wonder that translation took three sets of eyes, three brains to parse, punctuate, interpret.

In the titular story, The World Goes On, Krasznahorkai’s stumbling and Proustian language is fitting, communicating the stunned, visceral reaction many of us have to great tragedy.

“now feeling a long-absent sense of community with others, very obsolete, indeed speechless in the deepest possible sense of the word, because on September 11 I flashed on the fact, like a twinge of physical pain, that, good god, my language, the one I could use to speak out now, was so old, so godforsaken ancient, the way I strung it out, quibbling, twisting and turning, pushing and pulling it to move ahead, pestering it, advancing by stringing one ancient word after another, how useless, how helpless and crude this language is, this language of mine, and how splendid it had been formerly, how dazzling and supple and apt and deeply moving, but by now it has utterly lost all of its meaning, power, spaciousness, and precision, all gone, and then for days I pondered this, would I ever be able, would I ever be capable of suddenly learning some other language without which it would be completely hopeless; I knew at once, watching the flaming, tumbling Towers, and then envisioning them again and again, and I knew that without a brand-new language it was impossible to understand this brand-new era in which, along with everyone else, I suddenly found myself; I brooded and pondered, tormented myself for days on end, after which I had to admit that no, I had no chance of suddenly learning a new language, I was, along with the others, too much a prisoner of the old, and there was no recourse, I concluded, but to abandon all hope of ever understanding what was going on down here, so I sat in profound gloom, staring out the window, as again and again those giant Twin Towers kept falling and falling and falling, I sat there staring, and using these old words I began to describe what I saw, together with the others, in this new world, I began to write down what I felt, that I was unable to comprehend, and the old sun began to set in the old world, darkness began to fall in the old way in my old room as I sat by the window”

The story One Hundred People All Told (quoted in the opening of this review) was beautiful and heartbreaking. To me, it felt like a too-timely indictment of the abandonment of truth and fact, the full-bodied embrace of ignorance and fabrication, of full-throated lies.

I can see Krasznahorkai’s gift; he has a maniacal way with words, manipulating and entangling them in mesmerizing and sure-handed ways. Assuredly this book and this writing are “for” some readers, but I’m afraid “The World Goes On” as a whole is not for this reader. It was Joycean, Kafkaesque, inscrutable in a way that often felt more frustrating than transformative. I was more often lost by this book instead of in it. I am pleased that I stuck with it, despite urges to abandon throughout, and I think I can appreciate its essence, but I can’t say for sure that I was able to fully fathom it.

(in its entirety)

Memory is the art of forgetting. It doesn’t deal with reality, reality is not what engages it, it has no substantial relation whatsoever to that inexpressible, infinite

complexity that is reality itself, in the same way and to the same extent that we ourselves are unable to reach the point where we can catch even a glimpse of this indescribable, infinite complexity (for reality and glimpsing it are one and the same); so the rememberer covers the same distance to the past about to be evoked as that covered when this past had been present, thereby revealing that there had never been a connection to reality, and this connection had never been desired, since regardless of the horror or beauty that the memory evokes, the rememberer always works starting from the essence of the image about to be evoked, an essence that has no reality, and not even starting from a mistake, for he fails to recall reality not by making a mistake, but because he handles what is complex in the loosest and most arbitrary manner, by infinitely simplifying the infinitely complex to arrive at something relative to which he has a certain distance, and this is how memory is sweet, this is how memory is dazzling, and this is how memory comes to be heartrending and enchanting, for here you stand, in the midst of an in nite and inconceivable complexity, you stand here utterly dumbfounded, helpless, clueless, and lost, holding the infinite simplicity of the memory in your hand—plus of course the devastating tenderness of melancholy, for you sense, as you hold this memory, that its reality lies somewhere in the heartless, sober, ice-cold distance.

Thank you to New Directions for providing an Advance Reader’s Copy in exchange for a fair and honest review. “The World Goes On” was released in the United States on November 28, 2017.

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