The Way Life Comes at Us

‘Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming’
László Krasznahorkai at the Victoria & Albert Museum, 2015 (Wenn Rights LTD / Alamy Stock Photo)

László Krasznahorkai is a Hungarian writer born in 1954. His first novel, Satantango, published in 1985, established his reputation as a novelist with a uniquely idiosyncratic voice, a melancholic passion for sin and the apocalypse, and a compassionate interest in the minute details of both the human and the nonhuman world. He began to be translated into English in the late 1990s, and since then has received many prizes and awards, including, in 2015, the Man Booker International Prize. Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming is his latest novel, and Krasznahorkai has said it’s his last. First published in Hungarian in 2016, it is the end of a cycle that began with Satantango and includes The Melancholy of Resistance (1989) and War and War (1999). These four, Krasznahorkai says, constitute his one book. He’s written many others, in many genres; but these four are the things to read first if you want to know him, feel him—and it does feel like something to read him: you know at once who it is you’re reading, and if you read enough of him the world you live in will begin to seem like the one he writes about, in rather the same way that once you’ve read Bleak House every fog participates in that novel’s fogs. Each of these four books, however, can be read independently, and there’s a case to be made for starting with this latest one: it’s arguably the best.

The exile returns, bringing trouble. That’s one of the basic literary plots, and among the oldest, with Homer’s Odyssey as the paradigm for the West. Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming is a distinguished and fascinating instance. Except that it’s not one exile but two, the hometown to which they return isn’t merely troubled but destroyed, and it’s never entirely clear what their return has to do with the trouble. Are they its cause? Does it pursue them? Or has it nothing to do with them, occurring upon their return by happenstance, the town—and the world—gathering momentum toward their end?

The exiles are troubled men. The first is the Professor, never named, as many of the characters aren’t. He’s spent his life studying moss, and has become famous for it. But he’s become disillusioned with his fame and his career, turned his resources into cash, abandoned all the appurtenances of academic life, and come home to live alone in a jerry-built shack at the edge of town, constructed on wasteland largely out of abandoned piles of something called, delightfully, Hungarocell—a kind of styrofoam, it seems, or perhaps sheetrock. He hopes to see no one (he worries about windows and would prefer his shack without them) and think nothing (he practices “thought-immunization”). None of it works out.

The second is the Baron, who is given a name: he’s the Wenckheim of the title, with Béla as his first name. He belongs to the Hungarian branch of an Austrian aristocratic family, and has lived in Buenos Aires for most of his life, idling and gambling, amassing, in the end, such vast debts that imprisonment or worse threatens. His family, after deliberation, pays his debts on condition that he return to Hungary, live a quiet life, give up gambling, and provide the family no more bad publicity. He agrees to this, or at least he does it—he says little, seeming as concerned to immunize himself from speech as the Professor is to immunize himself from thought. His wealthy and shadowy family buy him new clothes, custom-tailored from Savile Row, give him some traveling money, and send him to his hometown, where, it seems, he intends to find a lost love from his adolescence who still lives there.

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The town the exiles return to isn’t named in the book but is presumably based on Gyula, close to the border between Hungary and Romania. That’s where Krasznahorkai is from. The town is said in the book to be between Sarkad and Békéscsaba on the railway, which is also true of Gyula. It’s a medium-sized town, big enough for a TV station and a hospital and a newspaper, but nothing like a metropolis. It’s described in circumstantial detail with street names and building names and detailed depictions of how to get from one place to another, with times and distances.

Its likeness to the actual Gyula is beyond my competence to assess, and that isn’t, in any case, important for the book. It’s a town of the mythic imagination as much as a real place in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. It’s bleak: nothing works well, the trains haven’t run on time for a while, gasoline and diesel are hard to get, there are beggars on the streets, the weather is bad, there’s not enough money for repairs of public facilities, local politics is corrupt, and so on. And it’s a place parochial enough to offer the returning Professor honorary citizenship, and to welcome the returning Baron as a savior because the locals have the wrong idea that his return means an injection of capital into the town—he’ll build hotels and schools, they think, when in fact he has only a few hundred euros to his name.

The damage caused by the exiles’ return begins with small, local events. The Professor’s abandoned adult daughter confronts him; a motorcycle gang gets involved; there’s shooting and murder and flight. The Baron’s civic welcome goes badly wrong; the reunion with the lost love goes worse (he at first doesn’t recognize her, thinking she’ll look as she did when she was twenty); he finds the town the same in externals and yet disturbingly not the same; and much accidental and deliberate violence ensues. Things escalate quickly. What’s set in motion by, or at least accompanies, the exiles’ return ends in apocalypse: things fall apart, and the town—perhaps also the world—is consumed by fire. By the end, almost everyone is dead and almost everything destroyed.

That sounds grim, and it is. But Krasznahorkai’s apocalypse is also funny. Among its culminating events is the invasion of the town by a fleet of fuel trucks that give no fuel: they occupy every street and then, as suddenly as they came, they’re gone. It’s surrealistically absurd, as is a good deal of the book. Krasznahorkai effectively holds together comedy and tragedy in a way that the zombie apocalypses so beloved of contemporary American literature and television and film don’t attempt. His apocalypse is serious and tragic, yes, but also absurd and funny, which makes it all the more horrifying. His apocalypse, in this and in earlier novels, is appropriate to creatures like us, who are also absurd and yet capable of tragedy. It isn’t something that merely happens to us; it’s the proper culmination of what we are. Krasznahorkai’s world falls apart along manmade fault lines.

 

The glory of Krasznahorkai’s writing doesn’t lie in plot or metafictional games. It’s in his long sentences.

Krasznahorkai has always been flamboyant in matters of literary technique, and that’s still true here. This book opens with a warning, not to readers but to the book’s characters, that they’d better do what they’ve no choice but to do, which is follow the score their impresario has provided for them. The impresario doesn’t even need to be saying this, he acknowledges, because he already knows everything, which includes everything the players might say or do. But, nevertheless, the players must tell him, and only him, everything. This demand, coupled with the claim to omniscience, might make him seem like the almighty, but he says he isn’t—no, he’s the impresario, and he’s contracted them for this one performance, with no joy and no solace for him or any of them. He is only waiting for it to be over, and five hundred or so pages later it is. This nine-page warning isn’t exactly part of the book’s text; it comes before the table of contents, and even before the title and copyright page. But the conceit of the musical impresario doesn’t end with the warning: the chapter titles all begin with a meaningless syllable or syllables that together make something like a tune: “TRRR…TRUM…DUM…RUM…”—and so on, until we’re told “da capo al fine”: from the beginning to the end. The book’s last seven pages are headed “Sheet Music Library” and contain a list not just of the dramatis personae but also of what one might call the dramatis res—the things of importance for the story, as well as the people.

One could read all this to mean that the author-of-this-text, László Krasznahorkai, is the warning’s impresario, and the people and things of the story of course dance to his tune because that’s the only tune there is or can be in the book. Or perhaps the framing device is meant to prompt the reader to think deeply about the extent of human freedom. Or perhaps it’s just an overflow of Krasznahorkai’s energy, of which he seems to have plenty, that found its way onto the page and stayed there because, for him, everything does. (In this respect, Krasznahorkai is like Melville, who is among his exemplars, as is evident in his hard-to-classify 2017 book The Manhattan Project.) This is the reading I prefer, perhaps because it’s a way of not having to think too much about what strikes me as an annoying efflorescence of technique such as John Barth or John Fowles might have been proud of in 1979, but which is surely passé by now. In any case, the book works perfectly well without these excrescences, and would have been better without them. But I’ll return to the sheet-music library, which may encapsulate something of importance to the book.

 

The glory of Krasznahorkai’s writing doesn’t lie in plot or metafictional games. It’s in the sentences, which are long, always hundreds of words and sometimes a thousand or two, rhythmically mesmerizing once you get used to them, and capable, mysteriously, of depicting character, place, and event in something very much like the way that life happens—not linearly but rather as a flood, excessive in every way until constrained and narrativized. Novels typically do the constraining with short sentences (Hemingway, Greene): they atomize and then connect, performing the literary magic of breaking complex wholes without obvious joints into sharply delineated events that seem incapable of further dissection, and then stringing these beads together on a plot-thread that forces the reader to follow it. Not Krasznahorkai. His sentences begin in the middle of some stream of events, and show you that stream gathering force, eddying, swirling, hitting a rapid, overspilling the banks, and then calming into a reflective pool with hungry fish eyeing you from the depths. As I read, I usually had no sense of where a sentence was headed even hundreds of words into it. I wanted to read more, not with the desire to find the next bead on the string but rather with the anxiety and exhilaration of a barely competent rider clinging to a galloping horse, not knowing whether the next turn brings a ditch or a tranquil, jonquil-studded plain. That is like being alive.

The effect is wonderful and troubling and technically dazzling. There have been adepts of the long sentence before Krasznahorkai, certainly. I think of the Portuguese writer José Saramago and the Spanish writer Javier Marías, for example. But they are more delicate and mannered than Krasznahorkai, as well as less musical. He is often brutal and discordant (I thought of Shostakovich’s symphonies as I read), and always ambitious to show everything there is to be seen in the radically excessive and often incoherent lives by which we’re all inundated. And perhaps it’s that ambition that lies at Krasznahorkai’s heart: he’s after everything—life as lived—and he needs a literary instrument that will permit him to show it. Hence the sentences that are excessive in the same way as the life that comes to us. Krasznahorkai alchemically transmutes what we are into prose. He exemplifies David Foster Wallace’s dictum that fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being. Again, it’s Melville who comes to mind as the best analogue—the Melville of Moby-Dick and “Bartleby, the Scrivener and Billy Budd, at least: he too was in the transmutation game, and with the same level of ambition.

But the sentence isn’t Krasznahorkai’s only instrument. There’s also what he does with points of view. There are dozens of these: the Baron and the Professor of course, but also the Professor’s daughter, the motorcycle-gang leader who’s at first his friend and then his foe, the Baron’s family, his old flame, the town’s mayor and police chief and librarian…and very many more minor characters. The world is shown as it shows itself to each of them, in long, musical sentences in which direct, reported, and free indirect speech are stirred together and spiced with internal monologue and thickly circumstantial descriptions of action and place. The boundaries among these different kinds of prose aren’t marked or separated. They flow seamlessly into and out of one another. But the shifts from one point of view to another are sudden and vertiginous. At one moment you’re living the world as the Professor or the librarian, and the next, with no indication other than a paragraph-break and what the words of the new sentence carry, you’re living it as Marika or the mayor. It’s a cinematic technique. The camera moves down the street, behind the eyes and in the mind of a character, and then, suddenly, it’s moving in a different direction, inside someone else. When a shift occurs, it can be a few sentences before you realize whose point of view you’re with now. The indications are always there, and they’re always enough, but they’re never of the editorial-explicit kind. There’s no “and then the Baron thought” or “and so it seemed to the Leader,” and the transitions are never flagged. You were there, and now you’re somewhere and someone else. This demands something of the reader: attention, mostly. It’s an effort I was happy and, after a few pages, eager to make.

 

To read Krasznahorkai is to be shown the world with us in it, as we are.

Krasznahorkai is at once a compassionate and merciless writer. His people are, variously, violent, stupid, ignorant, manipulative, angry, mendacious, and envious. They are also eager, puzzled, loving, regretful, frightened, hopeful, and intimate with the nonhuman world in which they find themselves. In short, they are human beings, and it’s a great strength of Krasznahorkai’s work that he doesn’t use his characters to give readers moral lessons. No: he shows them to you. And I suspect he loves his Baron, as well as the man with the prosthetic leg in the espresso bar, Marika as the obscure object of desire with her own occluded hopes, the woman who photographs children, and all the objects and artifacts (especially the trains: trains are an important part of this book) of the town. And yet Krasznahorkai kills almost all of them in an apocalyptic conflagration. That too, of course, is life. Pascal’s aphorism, that the last act is bloody no matter how fine the play, could serve as an epigraph for Krasznahorkai’s work—though Krasznahorkai extends it to the nonhuman, animate and inanimate, as well. The saving grace, if there is one, of the annoying framing device—the impresario with his score and materials—is that the sheet-music library at the book’s end, in which the impresario’s materials are listed, mentions more nonhumans than humans: plastic bags, the cooled-off ashes in the ditch in the Thorn Bush, the willow trees on the banks of the River Körös, and so on. This is a world, a world made by us and given to us, one that exceeds any pragmatic needs or purposes. To read Krasznahorkai is to be shown the world with us in it, as we are.

Krasznahorkai has been quoted as saying, “An artist has only one task—to continue a ritual. And ritual is a pure technique.” From a Catholic point of view, this makes writing a liturgical act, and reading too. Baron Wenckheim is high liturgy, beautiful technique, in which I’m grateful to have participated as a reader. And Baron, like liturgy, is a loop whose end is its beginning: Da capo, al fine.

Baron Wenckehim’s Homecoming
László Krasznahorkai
Translated by Ottilie Mulzet
New Directions, $29.95, 576 pp.

Published in the November 2019 issue: 
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Paul J. Griffiths, a longtime contributor to Commonweal, is the author of several books, including Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar, and, most recently, Christian Flesh (Stanford University Press).

Also by this author
The Theater of Desire

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