When he was young, the Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai often slept in pubs and at railway stations. Because he had nowhere to work, he would construct sentences in his head. Now Krasznahorkai is a writer of renown. His readings sell out; fans queue up for his autograph. Yet he still drafts his novels in the same way: “The text is in my mind for a long time before I actually compose the work. Only when it’s really ready do I write it down.” For Krasznahorkai, the whirls and eddies of language capture the reality of human thought and emotion. The snappy, short sentences we’re more used to reading in modern fiction are “artificial”, he says. When we say “I love you” it means not a terse statement of fact, “but an entire flow of words and feelings. And there’s no way just to put a dot at the end of it.”
In 2007 the Irish writer Colm Tóibín said that Krasznahorkai was the single biggest discovery he had made during two years of dedicated reading as a judge of the Man Booker international prize (the Hungarian won that award in 2015). Like the doomed driver in his short story, “Downhill on a Forest Road”, letting out the handbrake on a Krasznahorkai sentence often pitches the reader into blind corners, hairpin bends and dizzying vistas. A good example is his riff on the Alhambra in “Seiobo There Below”. It takes you on a mesmerising journey through the consolations of craftsmanship and ornamentation in the “dreadful, dry, scorching heat” accompanying many of the historians who have tried, through the ages, to explain the Alhambra’s magic. At the end, the author concludes that “not to know something is a complicated process, the story which takes place beneath the shadow of the truth.” You wait 22 pages for that full stop to come ambling over the horizon. Never once, though, do you want to stop reading.
Krasznahorkai bears a peculiar resemblance to another Hungarian maestro who held Europe’s capitals spellbound in the 19th century: the composer Franz Liszt. They share the same snowy mane and austere expression in photographs. When we meet in London, in a noisy hotel café, Krasznahorkai has little of this persona. He smiles and his eyes crinkle, bright with sunshine. He laughs often (at my questions and his own jokes). His translator Ottilie Mulzet interprets. Between answers the writer reaches into his jacket pocket and extracts a shiny slab. Devotees of the Hungarian novelist, acclaimed for the mournful, melancholy bleakness of his vision, might not expect his joyous pronouncement: “I do like iPhones.”
For readers in the many languages Krasznahorkai’s work has been translated into, he has come to occupy the literary space that Samuel Beckett or Franz Kafka once did. Tóibín, who in the past decade has become a friend, has saluted his “breathtaking style, a style that pulls you and holds and keeps you, so that somehow or other, you can’t resist whatever rhythm he catches”. Tóibín ranks Krasznahorkai “among the great European novelists”. British critic James Wood describes his writing as “reality examined to the point of madness”. His most recent translated work “The World Goes On” is a collection of 21 stories that together add up to a primer for novices – if not quite Krasznahorkai-lite, then Krasznahorkai fast.
Krasznahorkai was raised in a ruined Utopia. He was born in 1954, in the town of Gyula near Hungary’s border with Romania. The son of a lawyer and a civil servant, he grew up in a failing communist society that still respected the middle-class conventions of his parents’ home. Despite the Stalinist regime that ruled in Budapest, pre-war manners and morals, a love of music and an admiration for culture clung on in the becalmed province where he lived. “I came from a very bourgeois family, and so I had to rebel as a teenager,” he says. A young drifter, not so much an ideological dissident as a stroppy malcontent, he left home for a series of dead-end jobs – as a miner, and even a night-watchman for a herd of cows. “I went to the very lowest levels of Hungarian society. Everything else was just hypocritical. Only in the depths of society could you find honest and authentic relationships between people.” The nomad began writing about his experiences in Hungary’s lower depths in the mid-1970s; his first story was published in 1977. The police took an interest, despite the lack of any obvious political content. When interviewed by them his insolence prompted them to confiscate his passport.
The fall of communism in 1989 allowed Krasznahorkai to begin travelling. Berlin eventually became his second home. As a young man he’d often carry a copy of Dostoyevsky’s “White Nights” and Beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” in his pockets. In the 1990s Ginsberg became a real friend as well as a literary idol. Krasznahorkai stayed in the poet’s apartment in New York when he was finishing his 1999 novel “War and War”. Thanks to Ginsberg, he joined a group of musical friends that included David Byrne, Philip Glass and Patti Smith. He was signed up by New Directions, a house famous for publishing Boris Pasternak and Tennessee Williams. “Sátántangó”, his first novel, with its story of a charlatan saviour who arrives to overturn the decrepit status quo on a rain-sodden estate, won Amazon.com’s Best Translated Book Award in 2013. A cluster of other translations swiftly followed.
Writing is an isolating art, but for Krasznahorkai collaboration has always tempered his solitude. For two decades after 1989 he wrote screenplays for Hungarian film director Béla Tarr. With Krasznahorkai by his side, Tarr did not simply adapt his books – “the novels are complete in themselves,” the author says – he forged independent works of art. “It was a friendship. It remains a friendship,” Krasznahorkai says about their partnership. “My task was to understand what kind of film he wanted to make and to help him make it.” In Tarr’s 1994 film of “Sátántangó”, (all above) now recognised as an avant-garde classic, the long, hypnotic shots build into a sort of spider’s web of scenes set in a rain-drenched village. It feels purely cinematic, but at the same time, Krasznahorkai fans may detect in Tarr’s style a visual counterpart to the writer’s spiralling sentences.
For all the dark humour that fills those sentences on the page, melancholy, the feeling that one of his stories calls “the most enigmatic of attractions”, sets the emotional tone for much of Krasznahorkai’s work. The author believes that the West’s “melancholic age”, with its cult of false prophets, arrived with the collapse of our post-war dreams of a brave new world. “This era was distinctive because there was this huge influx of hope that we’re building an entire new era,” he explains. “And then it just completely fell to pieces. Then along comes the melancholy – or the rebellion!” Trapped in a stifling backwater, plagued by petty local tyrants, a character in “The Melancholy of Resistance” fears that “steady decay was the essence of the situation”.
Long periods of writing at his rural home in Hungary have been interspersed with travel, much of it in Asia, the inspiration for what is perhaps his strangest book, “Seiobo There Below”, which came out in English in 2013.
Krasznahorkai is “filled with admiration for Japanese artists and artisans”. In Ise, east of Osaka, he took part in the ritual rebuilding of a Shinto shrine. There he witnessed ancient tradition, and the toll it takes. For one disciple, “his job is to plane this piece of hinoki cypress, and he planes it all day. And the master comes at the end of the day and he throws it away. And he keeps on planing and planing it…until the master decides that it’s OK. That’s tradition. But there’s no nostalgia in that.”
Like the curmudgeonly lecturer in one of his stories, Krasznahorkai laments “the absence of beauteous meaning” in the contemporary world. But his books, like his heroes, never stop searching for it. He says his readers might be “sad, very sensitive people. Maybe they read me because they’re quite alone. But when they travel the world, they recognise each other as a strange kind of community.”
Mesmerised by the sweep of his imagination, the majesty of his prose, that reading community is growing all the time. Torn between creation and destruction, the human animal does not change, says Krasznahorkai. “There’s this two-faced aspect to human beings,” he says, “and we have to decide which one we’re going to accept. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I see the positive side, and on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturday I see the horrific side of human beings. And on Sunday I rest.” He laughs.