cover image Spadework for a Palace

Spadework for a Palace

László Krasznahorkai, trans from the Hungarian by John Batki. New Directions, $17.95 (96p) ISBN 978-0-8112-2840-4

Krasznahorkai (Chasing Homer) offers a delightfully deranged narrative of a present-day New York Public Library employee whose character recalls Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man and Melville’s Bartleby. The narrator’s name, in fact, is herman melvill, the lowercase styling perhaps meant to indicate his lowly self-regard compared to the classic author, whose work he reveres. The coincidence fuels his misanthropy—as a child, he endured taunts such as, “what’s up with your whale, herman, why didn’t you bring him along”; and now he’s hounded by the occasional reporter and grad student “spouting a flurry of empty words.” While Bartleby would prefer not to work, Krasznahorkai’s melvill would prefer not to loan out books. He’d rather libraries be appreciated from a distance. His ideas, which have no practical sense but generate their own captivating beauty in the author’s commitment to melvill’s outlook, reflect his obsession with Melville as well as Malcolm Lowry and the experimental architect Lebbeus Woods, and once a day he retraces Melville’s steps to the Hudson pier where Melville worked, as he imagined Lowry retraced them. As his employment status and sanity become increasingly tenuous, he finds meaning in Woods’s embrace of catastrophe as an inevitable force, which Krasznahorkai conveys with rigor and remarkable simplicity. Capital L literature fans will love this. (Aug.)