Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai is of that vanishingly rare breed of living writers whom it is astonishing to think of as contemporary. From his first novel, 1985’s Satantango, he has garnered comparisons not to the usual crop of popular novelists but to Beckett, Dostoyevsky, and Gogol. His books are echoic dirges that plumb the depths of human consciousness, taking place in downtrodden villages populated by madmen, charlatans, and recluses. Often the thoughts of a character will be rendered in a single sentence that can run on for pages, gathering definition and accruing implication like light passing through a crystal.
Krasznahorkai is well-known for his long-running collaboration with revered Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr, with whom he adapted Satantango and 1989’s The Melancholy of Resistance (as Werckmeister Harmonies), along with original screenplays Damnation, The Man from London, and The Turin Horse. But it is still as a novelist that Krasznahorkai is best known; many consider him a contender for the Nobel, and, in 2015, he became the first Hungarian to win the Man Booker International Prize. This was followed in 2016 by Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming, recently translated into English by Ottilie Mulzet and set to be published by New Directions in September.
Baron Wenckheim is another massive and masterly work set in the tragic, ridiculous pandemonium of a village far from Budapest, teetering on the brink of disaster—a novel that both breaks new ground and looks back to Krasznahorkai’s earliest work. It is also said to be his last.
Born in Gyula in 1954, Krasznahorkai had already completed Satantango in 1987, as Hungary’s Communist government began to allow its citizens to move abroad. He recalls that “under the Communist regimes, publication was difficult or sometimes impossible, but we all are in the same cage, for all the difficulty is the same: not to be able to see the other world, the world as a wholeness.” The sentiment, bridging the practical and the mystical, is typical. Titles are found, not chosen; he conceives of his work not in terms of plot or story, but of melody, rhythm, and tempo and treats his characters as independently existing entities: “They are behind me, in a space without existence, and they knock on my back telling me they want to show that our life needs them. My task is just to make places for them, that’s all.”
After leaving Hungary, Krasznahorkai travelled widely, going to Berlin, China, and New York City, even befriending Allen Ginsburg, who assisted in the construction of another early novel, 1999’s War and War. Its English translation brought renewed attention to Krasznahorkai’s output abroad, causing James Wood to gush in the New Yorker that “by the end of the novel, I felt that I had got as close as literature could possibly take me to the inhabiting of another person.” But Krasznahorkai remains charmingly elliptical, invested first and foremost in the interiority of his books rather than their wider literary standing (“Books haven’t any goal”) and comes across as playful.
When I asked if his was a Joyce situation‚—that of a cosmopolitan who left his heart in the land of his birth—Krasznahorkai replies, “I lost my heart somewhere, but I really don’t know where and when. That’s why I have to change my places from time to time with an ever-pale hope to find it.” On the subject of collaboration—besides Tarr, he has collaborated with artists such as Max Neumann in 2010’s Animalinside—he holds that “collaboration must be necessary,” adding, “If I feel that a creek is missing from existence I can bring just the water—but without creek stones and mosses a creek is not a creek. Not to mention the sky.”
The voice Krasznahorkai uses in conversation is strikingly of a piece with his prose. It’s easy to see a straight line from his wry erudition to something like 2008’s Seiobo There Below, which details the lives of Noh performers, Buddhist monks, maestros, Swiss landscape artists, and dragons (and a loving set piece where a lonely Louvre museum guard encounters Venus in the flesh). Or the story “A Drop of Water” from the collection The World Goes On, in which a man abroad in Varanasi meets a ranting, prophetic giant on the banks of the Ganges (with Krasznahorkai, the manic is almost always mingled with the sublime). Or the impecunious Baron Wenckheim himself, driven back home by his debts and prey to a chorus of bikers, con men, and the scheming town mayor.
It’s hard to think of another writer, past or present, who takes as his subjects art—as opposed to artist—and its mysterious power to transform and overwhelm experience. For Krasznahorkai, “all artists create a new reality, which we need, but don’t deserve.” Baron Wenckheim bears a curious resemblance to Prince Myshkin of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, and, pressed on the issue, Krasznahorkai replies that, “Prince Myshkin isn’t a fictive person, no! He is a real figure, and he lives among us forever.”
There’s no question that Eastern culture and thought have made their mark on Krasznahorkai, who has spent long periods of time in Kyoto. He is too reverent for the history of the Chinese empire not to be wary of its present policies (“There was always a ‘social credit system,’ and it was always terrifying”), and he’s equally disdainful of Western politics (“The fundamental tragedy of life has nothing to do with politics”). He is an avowed fan of pop music, particularly that of Mihály Víg, who scored the Tarr films and starred in the film adaptation of Satantango. His aesthetic finds inroads from the highest sense of art and history to a rural, post–Iron Curtain glop, and the result is as dazzling and comic as anything out of Kafka, whom he is hardly alone in reading as a kind of humorist.
Krasznahorkai maintains that he only ever wanted to write one novel, and describes the new novel as an attempt to return to the worlds of Satantango, The Melancholy of Resistance, and War and War and get something right at last. I take him at his word but, for his fans, he can hardly do any wrong. He sounds curiously vulnerable when he reflects, “I just hope I didn’t make any mistakes in this novel.”
As to whether Baron Wenckheim is his last, Krasznahorkai doubles down: “There is always a last novel without any explanation. But this really is my last novel.” It’s strange to hear, and his retirement is something he shares with Tarr, who retired as a filmmaker after the Nietzschean squalor of The Turin Horse. Both works do seem to take the Krasznahorkai/Tarr style to its limits, arriving by and by at a transcendence that finds the essence of things in a decayed little house or a potato. Where can one go after that?
However, even if Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming is the last novel he writes, it’s not the last we’ll read; at least two novellas, “Chasing Homer” and the Moby-Dick-inspired “Spadework for a Palace” are in the works in translation. It all seems of a piece with the sensibility Krasznahorkai has established over the past 35 years. “There aren’t any limitations of writing,” he says. But he adds, and it sounds like something of a lament, however cryptic, “The water does not run out of the stream.”
Recent work by J.W. McCormack appears in the Baffler, Bomb, Longreads and the New York Times.