Issue 225, Summer 2018
László Krasznahorkai was born in 1954 in Gyula, a provincial town in Hungary, in the Soviet era. He published his first novel, Satantango, in 1985, then The Melancholy of Resistance (1989), War and War (1999), and Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming (2016). These novels, with their giant accretions of language, global erudition (he’s as familiar with the classics of Buddhist philosophy as he is with the European intellectual tradition), obsessive characters, and rain-sodden landscapes, might give an impression of hardened late-modernist hauteur, but they are also pointillist, elegant, and delicately funny. His gravity has panache—a collision of tones visible in other works he has produced alongside the novels, which include short fictions such as Animalinside (2010) and geographically vaster texts like Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens (2004) and Seiobo There Below (2008).
Although Krasznahorkai still has a house in Hungary, he mainly lives in Berlin. The first time I tried to reach Berlin from London to begin this interview, in the winter of 2016, my plane was canceled due to fog. A few hours later, as my new flight was on the tarmac, we were told that technical difficulties would further delay our departure. Having at last arrived in Berlin and found a taxi—driving at unnervingly high speed because, the driver told me, he desperately needed to find a bathroom—I found Krasznahorkai in front of the U-Bahn entrance at Hermannplatz, twelve hours after I had left London. I might as well have met him in Beijing. This elongated contemporary travel farce, I thought, seemed incongruously comical. But then I reconsidered: Krasznahorkai’s art has always been hospitable to the absurd, to the ways the world will personify itself and become an implacable opponent.
Krasznahorkai speaks English with a seductive Mitteleuropean inflection and the occasional American accent, the result of his time in the nineties living in Allen Ginsberg’s New York apartment. Krasznahorkai is a large, gentle man, often laughing or smiling and full of creaturely care. He loaned me a sweater when I looked cold, bought me Durs Grünbein’s poetry collection Una Storia Vera as a present, and offered recommendations of György Kurtág recordings. With his long hair and mournful eyes, he looks like a benign saint. He is also a man of absolute privacy; he never, therefore, wanted to meet in his apartment. Instead, we conducted long sessions in its general environs, in various cafés and restaurants around Kreuzberg.
INTERVIEWERLet’s talk about your beginning as a writer.
KRASZNAHORKAII thought that real life, true life was elsewhere. Along with The Castle by Franz Kafka, my bible for a while was Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. This was the late sixties, early seventies. I didn’t want to accept the role of a writer. I wanted to write just one book—and after that, I wanted to do different things, especially with music. I wanted to live with the poorest people—I thought that was real life. I lived in very poor villages. I always had very bad jobs. I changed location very often, every three or four months, in an escape from mandatory military service.
And then, as soon as I started to publish some small things, I received an invitation from the police. I was maybe a little bit too impertinent, because after every question I said, “Please believe me, I don’t deal with politics.” “But we know some things about you.” “No, I don’t write about contemporary politics.” “We don’t believe you.” After a while, I became a little angry and said, “Could you really imagine that I’d write anything about people like you?” And that enraged them, of course, and one of the police officers, or someone from the secret police, wanted to confiscate my passport. In the Communist system in the Soviet era, we had two different passports, blue and red, and I only had the red one. The red wasn’t so interesting because with it you could only go to socialist countries, whereas the blue one meant freedom. So I said, You really want the red one? But they still took it away, and I didn’t have any passport until 1987.
That was the first story of my writing career—and could easily have been the last. Recently, in the documents of the secret police, I found notes where they discuss potential informers and spies. They had some chance with my brother, they wrote, but with László Krasznahorkai, it would be absolutely impossible because he was so anticommunist. This looks funny now, but at the time it wasn’t so funny. But I never made any political demonstrations. I just lived in small villages and towns and wrote my first novel.
INTERVIEWERHow did you publish it?
KRASZNAHORKAIThis was 1985. Nobody—myself included—could understand how it was possible to publish Satantango because it’s anything but an unproblematic novel for the Communist system. At that time, the director of one of the publishing houses for contemporary literature was a former secret-police chief, and maybe he wanted to prove that he still had power—power enough to show that he had the courage to publish this novel. I guess that was the only reason the book was published.
INTERVIEWERWhat kind of jobs were you doing?
KRASZNAHORKAII was a miner for a while. That was almost comical—the real miners had to cover for me. Then I became a director of various culture houses in villages far from Budapest. Every village had a culture house where people could read the classics. This library was all they had in their everyday lives. And on Fridays or Saturdays, the director of the culture house organized a music party, or something like it, which was very good for young people. I was the director for six very small villages, which meant I always moved between them. It was a great job. I loved it because I was very far from my bourgeois family.
What else? I was night watchman for three hundred cows. That was my favorite—a byre in no man’s land. There was no village, no city, no town nearby. I was a watchman for a few months, maybe. A poor life with Under the Volcano in one pocket and Dostoyevsky in the other.
And of course, in these Wanderjahre, I began to drink. There was a tradition in Hungarian literature that true geniuses were total drunks. And I was a crazed drunk, too. But then came a moment when I was sitting with a group of Hungarian writers who were sadly agreeing that this was inevitable, that any Hungarian genius had to be a crazed drunk. I refused to accept this and made a bet—for twelve bottles of champagne—that I would never drink again.
INTERVIEWERAnd you haven’t?
KRASZNAHORKAIAnd I haven’t. But still, at that time, among contemporary prose writers, there was one writer and drinker in particular—Péter Hajnóczy. He was a living legend and a total and profound alcoholic, like Malcolm Lowry. His death was the biggest event in Hungarian literature. He was very young, maybe forty. And that was the life I lived. I wasn’t worried about anything—it was a very adventurous life, always in transit between two cities, in train stations and bars at night, observing people, having small conversations with them. Slowly, I started to write the book in my head.
It was good to be working like that because I had a strong feeling that literature was a spiritual field—that elsewhere, in the same era, Hajnóczy, János Pilinszky, Sándor Weöres, and many other wonderful poets lived and wrote. Prose literature was less powerful. We loved poetry much more because it was more interesting, more secret. Prose was a little too close to reality. The idea of a genius in prose was someone who stayed very close to real life. That’s why, traditionally, Hungarian prose writers, like Zsigmond Móricz, composed in short sentences. But not Krúdy, my only beloved writer from the history of Hungarian prose literature. Gyula Krúdy. A wonderful writer. Surely untranslatable. In Hungary, he was a Don Giovanni—two meters high, a huge man, a phenomenal man. He was so seductive that no one could resist.
INTERVIEWERAnd his sentences?
KRASZNAHORKAIHe used sentences differently from any other prose writer. He always sounded like a slightly drunk man who is very melancholy, who has no illusions about life, who is very strong but whose strength is entirely unnecessary. But Krúdy wasn’t a literary ideal for me. Krúdy was a person for me, a legend who gave me some power when I decided I would write something. János Pilinszky was my other legend. In a literary sense, Pilinszky was much more important for me because of his language, his way of talking. I’ll try to imitate.
Dear Adam—we shouldn’t—wait—for an apocalypse, we are living—now—in an apocalypse.—My dear—Adam—please don’t go anywhere—anywhere . . .
Very high-pitched, slow, with all these pauses between words. And the last letters of every word were always expressed very clearly. Like a priest in a catacomb—without hope but with huge hope at the same time. But he was different from Gyula Krúdy. Pilinszky was like a lamb. Not a human being—a lamb.
INTERVIEWERWas there much available in translation?
KRASZNAHORKAIThere was a time, in the seventies, when we got a lot of Western literature. William Faulkner, Franz Kafka, Rilke, Arthur Miller, Joseph Heller, Marcel Proust, Samuel Beckett—almost every week there was a new masterwork. Because they couldn’t publish their own work under the Communist regime, the greatest writers and poets became translators. That’s why we had wonderful translations of Shakespeare, Dante, Homer, and of every great American writer, from Faulkner onward. The first translation of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow was really marvelous.
KRASZNAHORKAIYes. Dostoyevsky played a very important role for me—because of his heroes, not because of his style or his stories. Do you remember the narrator of “White Nights”? The main character is a little bit like Myshkin in The Idiot, a pre-Myshkin figure. I was a fanatical fan of this narrator and later of Myshkin—of their defenselessness. A defenseless, angelic figure. In every novel I’ve written you can find such a figure—like Estike in Satantango or Valuska in Melancholy, who are wounded by the world. They don’t deserve these wounds, and I love them because they believe in a universe where everything is wonderful, including human existence, and I honor very much the fact that they are believers. But their way of thinking about the universe, about the world, this belief in innocence, is not possible for me.
For me, we belong more to the world of animals. We are animals, we are just the animals who won. Yet we live in a highly anthropomorphic world—we believe we live in a human world in which there is a part for animals, for plants, for stones. This is not the truth.
INTERVIEWERSo you mean, your own philosophy would be pure materialism?
KRASZNAHORKAIOh no, Myshkin is also real. Sorry.
INTERVIEWERNo, tell me more.
KRASZNAHORKAIFranz Kafka is a person. He’s Franz Kafka, with his life story, with his books. But K. is there, in a heavenly space in the universe, and perhaps some characters from my novels live there, too. For example, Irimiás and the doctor from Satantango or Mr. Eszter and Valuska from Melancholy or, from my new novel, the Baron. They are absolute—they live. They exist in the eternal place.
Can you argue that Myshkin is only fictional? Of course. But it’s not the truth. Myshkin may have entered reality through someone else, through Dostoyevsky, but now, for us, he is a real person. Every character in so-called eternal fiction came through ordinary people. This is a secret process, but I’m entirely sure that it’s true. For example, a few years after I had written Satantango, I was in a bar, and somebody tapped my shoulder. It was Halics from Satantango. Really! I’m not joking! That’s why I’ve become more careful about what I write. For example, the original text of War and War was quite different from the version I published. The first hundred pages originally dealt with Korin’s self-destruction, but I was afraid that I would meet him in that condition later on and wouldn’t be able to help him. I was afraid of the possibility that he might never leave his small town. That’s why I chose to get him out of there—with his wish to go just once, at the end of his life, to the center of the world. I hadn’t decided that this would be New York, but that was how I freed myself of the story where he lived forever in this provincial place.
INTERVIEWERI’m just thinking about what you said about humans living in an anthropomorphic world. It sometimes occurs to me that novels are so blithely anthropocentric. Where are the octopi? Where are the algae? One of the things I love about your novels is that they’re trying not to be so, as it were, provincially human. But it also feels like an oxymoron. What else could they be?
KRASZNAHORKAIThis is very important. The frame of the novel may be too anthropocentric. Which is why the problem of the narrator is the first problem, and it remains that way forever. How can you remove the narrator from a novel? In my most recent novel, on every page there are just people talking to each other—and that’s one way to avoid the narrator, but this is just a technique. Because I agree with you—the frame of the novel and of the world is anthropocentric. But if I have to choose between the universe without a frame and mankind with a frame, I would choose mankind.
We don’t have any idea what the universe is. Wise people have always told us that this is proof you shouldn’t think, because thinking leads you nowhere. You just build over this huge construction of misunderstanding, which is culture. The history of culture is the history of the misunderstandings of great thinkers. So we always have to go back to zero and begin differently. And maybe in that way you have a chance not to understand but at least not to have further misunderstandings. Because this is the other side of this question—Am I really so brave to cancel all human culture? To stop admiring the beauty in human production? It’s very difficult to say no.
INTERVIEWERYou still write novels, though.
KRASZNAHORKAIYes, but maybe that’s a mistake. I respect our culture. I respect high human articulation in every form. But the root of this culture is false. And if we do nothing, everything continues anyway. And maybe this is the most important thing. Everything must go on without any thinking about essences, about what it is, and other such questions.
INTERVIEWERAs if writing, and every art form, should become a ritual without a theology?
KRASZNAHORKAIMaybe it’s possible to think of writing as a ritual to be performed—something repeated, word after word, sentence after sentence. Not in the sense of the classic avant-garde at the beginning of the twentieth century, like Dada, say, which led great artists nowhere because they neglected content and that was, poor geniuses, their mistake. But if you think of writing as a ritual you perform, and if you are able to see yourself at the same time, that you are down there on Earth and you write word after word after word . . . and then you have a book. You stop. You close the book. And you open another one, with empty pages. And you write again, write again, write again. Word after word. Sentence after sentence. Close the book. The next one . . . This is a ritual. Maybe it’s not how you think of your writing, but maybe it is what you do.
But this is the point at which we should remember our readers. Because readers need, I hope, our writings. And in this small space—where we write books, novels, poems—there is also a place for our readers. This sympathy, this feeling is very important—finding a common essence between writers, who create form, and readers, who need what we do. This also makes some sense of this small space, which from the higher level we see is absolute nonsense. So maybe the universe is full of small spaces—each with their own time, essence, characters, creation, events, and so on. Different ideas of time for different spaces. Just as we are here, in the universe, inside our small human space.
INTERVIEWERHow did you arrive at your style—these grand, vast sentences?
KRASZNAHORKAIFinding a style was never difficult for me because I never looked for it. I lived a secluded life. I always had friends, but just one at a time. And with each friend, I had a relationship in which we spoke to each other only in monologues. One day, one night, I spoke. The next day or night, he would speak. But the dialogue was different each time because we wanted to say something very important to the other person, and if you want to say something very important, and if you want to convince your partner that this is very important, you don’t need full stops or periods but breaths and rhythm—rhythm and tempo and melody. It isn’t a conscious choice. This kind of rhythm, melody, and sentence structure came rather from the wish to convince another person.
INTERVIEWERIt was never literary? Never related to other styles, like Proust’s or Beckett’s?
KRASZNAHORKAIMaybe when I was a teenager, but that was more an imitation of their lives, not their language, not their styles. I have a special relationship to Kafka because I started reading him very early, so early that I couldn’t understand what, say, The Castle was about. I was too young. I had an older brother, and I wanted to be like him, so I stole his books and read them. That’s why Kafka was my first writer—a writer I couldn’t understand, but also one I wondered about as a person. One of my favorite books when I was twelve or thirteen was Conversations with Kafka, by Gustav Janouch. With this book, I had a special channel to Kafka.
And maybe that’s why I studied law—to be like Kafka. My father was a little surprised. He wanted me to go to the law faculty but was sure I would say no because I was interested only in art—in literature, music, paintings, philosophy, everything except law. But I said okay partly, I think, because I wanted to deal with criminal psychology. At that time, the early seventies, it was a forbidden science in Hungary. It was Western and therefore suspect. But the main reason was, I think, Kafka. Of course, after three weeks I couldn’t bear the atmosphere, and I left—not just the law faculty but the city itself.
INTERVIEWERWhere was this?
KRASZNAHORKAIA town called Szeged. Because of the military-service system it wasn’t easy to leave. If I left, I had to go back into military service. Normally, military service was two years, but if you graduated, you only had to do one year. However, if you left university early, you had to go back for the second year. So I became a deferred student and lived for a while in Budapest, studying religion and philology. I continued my old Greek and Latin studies, but the exams were difficult because I wasn’t actually at university. Then finally, after four years, I had children. And with children, the military-service problem was solved, because if you had two children, you were free of this terrible obligation.
Military service, for me, was almost a death. In the whole year, I never got permission to leave the camp. I wasn’t a hero or a pacifist, but if you were at a watch post, you had to stay there with a gun and do nothing. Sometimes an officer came to observe me, and if I was reading Kafka, I couldn’t stop because Kafka was more interesting than an idiotic officer, so I always received punishments in the camp prison. That wasn’t so terrible, but it also meant I couldn’t get permission to leave the camp. And that was terrible—to be there, always.
The beginning of my service was the most difficult. When I went in on the night train, with other new military soldiers, I was completely destroyed. I couldn’t speak with anybody. Everybody wanted to make jokes, but me, no. I discovered another guy, a young guy, who was in the same state, so we spoke a little bit. We spoke about how, if we had the chance, we’d visit each other. And after about a week, when I got a little bit of free time, I went to the building where he worked and asked, Where can I find this guy? And somebody said, Third floor. At the third floor, I asked again, Where can I find this guy? And somebody said he was in the munitions store because of a punishment. He was cleaning the guns, and as I opened the door, he shot himself through the mouth. At exactly the same moment. I opened the door and my friend shot himself. I was a child. We were children. We were hardly eighteen years old.
What was your question?
INTERVIEWERI’m just trying to sort out a rough chronology. You were born in Gyula, then followed your military service, your studies in Szeged, your Wanderjahre, and the publication of Satantango. You came to Berlin in 1987 and were back in Hungary in 1989.
KRASZNAHORKAIAnd always back and back to Germany.
In the early nineties, I started War and War. Originally, I wanted to know what the border meant for the Roman Empire. I went, for instance, to Denmark, to Great Britain, to France, to Italy, to Spain, to Crete—trying to find ruins, traces of military defenses. I was always on the road. It wasn’t until 1996, I think, that I really started to write down War and War, while in New York, in Allen Ginsberg’s flat.
INTERVIEWERHow did you meet Ginsberg?
KRASZNAHORKAIWe had a mutual friend. And Allen was a very friendly guy. In his apartment, the door and its lock were completely unnecessary. People came and went, came and went. It was fantastic to be there but also very disturbing to be part of Ginsberg’s circle. During the day, I could work, and at night, which was when Allen really came alive, I could take part in the parties and conversation and music making. I never told them I came from Gyula, but I could never forget it, you know? That I was actually the same provincial boy, just without any hair, and with some teeth missing, who was in shock when he sat in the kitchen beside Allen and in came these musicians, poets, painters—immortal people.
INTERVIEWERI remember you once talking about the sense of timelessness you always feel and relating it to growing up under the Soviet empire, which had done away with history.
KRASZNAHORKAIIt was a timeless society because they wanted you to think that things would never change. Always the same gray sky and colorless trees and parks and streets and buildings and cities and towns, and the terrible drinks in the bars and the poverty and the things you were forbidden to say out loud. You were living in an eternity. It was very depressing. My generation was the first that not only didn’t believe in communist theory or Marxism but found it ridiculous, embarrassing. When I lived through the end of this political system, it was a wonder. I’ll never forget the taste of political freedom. That’s why I now have German citizenship, because for me the European Union means, above all, political freedom against the aggressive stupidity which is now the god of Eastern Europe.
I came from a bourgeois world, where communist theory never played any role. We were social democrats, my family. My father was a lawyer, and he helped poor people. That was the reality of my life—that two or three evenings a week poor people came to us, and my father helped them for no fee. And the next day, early in the morning, they came and left something outside our door—two chickens, I don’t know what.
INTERVIEWERAnd your parents were Jewish, yes?
KRASZNAHORKAIMy father had Jewish roots. But he only told us this secret when I was about eleven. Before that, I had no idea. In the socialist era, it was forbidden to mention it. Well, I am half Jewish, but if things carry on in Hungary as they seem likely to do, I’ll soon be entirely Jewish.
INTERVIEWERHow did your father survive the war?
KRASZNAHORKAIOur original name was Korin, a Jewish name. With this name, he would never have survived. My grandfather was very wise, and he changed our name to Krasznahorkai. Krasznahorkai was an irredentist name. After the First World War, Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory, and the main line of politics after the war, of the conservative nationalist government, was to restore these lost territories. There was a very famous song, an unbearably sentimental song, about the Krasznahorka Castle. After the war, it became part of Czechoslovakia. The essence of the song is that the Krasznahorka Castle is very sad and dark and everything is hopeless. Maybe that’s why my grandfather chose it. I don’t know. Nobody knows, because he was a very silent man. This was in 1931, before the first Hungarian Jewish laws.
INTERVIEWERLet’s talk about your writing more. One thing that intrigues me is that you seem very clear that you’ve only written four novels.
KRASZNAHORKAIThere is Satantango, The Melancholy of Resistance, War and War, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming.
INTERVIEWERWhere would you place, say, a text like Animalinside?
KRASZNAHORKAIAnimalinside is a novel, though not in the strict sense. But whether something is a novel or a short story doesn’t depend on the number of pages. I wrote some stories at the beginning of my career, in Relations of Grace (1986). These stories work in a very small space, in a very confined time span, in the middle of which is a single character. A novel contains a huge construction, like a bridge, an arch, from the beginning through to the end. In the case of a story, there is no need for an arch. Instead, a story is a black box, in which no one knows what happened.
INTERVIEWERAnd so what’s the new novel, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming, about? Is it a kind of odyssey?
KRASZNAHORKAIYes. For this main character, this is a homecoming at the end of his life. He is a very old man who lives in Buenos Aires. He’s a very sensitive, very tall man, like Gyula Krúdy. But very unlucky—he always makes mistakes.
INTERVIEWERSo he’s your Myshkin, your defenseless character?
KRASZNAHORKAIYes, like Estike. Because this novel is my summary, actually, of all my novels—you can find a lot of parallels with other characters, other stories. I make jokes about the word satantango and so on. This is my finest novel, I think.
KRASZNAHORKAIFunniest. The funniest book. It isn’t full of apocalyptic messages. Instead, this is the apocalypse. It’s already come.
INTERVIEWERBut then, I feel, in all of your books, that the apocalypse has already, secretly come. I wonder if there are two types of novelists. Those who see each novel as a separate object, and those who think they’ve written one novel, that all of their novels fit together.
KRASZNAHORKAII’ve said a thousand times that I always wanted to write just one book. I wasn’t satisfied with the first, and that’s why I wrote the second. I wasn’t satisfied with the second, so I wrote the third, and so on. Now, with Baron, I can close this story. With this novel I can prove that I really wrote just one book in my life. This is the book—Satantango, Melancholy, War and War, and Baron. This is my one book.
INTERVIEWERDo you ever long to write something completely outside the terms of these fictions?
KRASZNAHORKAINo. It doesn’t bother me if Johann Sebastian Bach stays the same his whole life.
INTERVIEWERYou often return to Bach—and other Baroque composers, like Rameau. What’s the importance of the Baroque to you?
KRASZNAHORKAIBach’s music is structurally complicated because of the harmony, which is why I can’t bear Romantic music. After the late Baroque, music became more and more vulgar, and the peak of this vulgarity was in the time of the Romantics. There are some exceptional composers, like Stravinsky or Shostakovich or Bartók or Kurtág, whom I love very much, but I think of them always as exceptions. For me, music history is a descent. And after two thousand years, this is also happening in literature. But it’s very difficult to analyze this process of vulgarization. The terrible revolution that was always going to happen in modern societies has in fact happened. Not that mass culture has won, but money. Occasionally a very high-level literary work happens to say something on the midrange level and reaches more readers—and maybe this is the fate of a lot of contemporary writers.
INTERVIEWERWhat about your novels?
KRASZNAHORKAINo, my novels absolutely don’t work on the middle level because I don’t ever compromise. Writing, for me, is a totally private act. I’m ashamed to speak about my literature—it’s the same as if you were to ask me about my most private secrets. I was never really part of literary life because I couldn’t accept being a writer in a social sense. No one can speak about literature with me—except you and a few other people. I’m not happy if I have to speak about literature, especially my literature. Literature is very private.
When I write a book, the book is ready in my head. Ever since I was young, I worked like that. In my childhood, my memory was quite abnormal. I had a photographic memory. And so I would find the exact form, a sentence, some sentences, in my head, and when I was ready, I wrote it down.
INTERVIEWERYou don’t revise?
KRASZNAHORKAII work almost every minute, like a mill that keeps on turning. If I’m sick, I can’t. And if I were drunk, I couldn’t. But with these exceptions, I work and work, because a sentence starts and next to that sentence a hundred thousand other sentences, like very fine threads from a spider. And one of them is somehow a little bit more important than every other, and I extract it, enough so that I can work with the sentence, correct it. And that’s why, although there are wonderful translations of my books, I wish you could read them in the original, because when I’m working, the first thing I do with a sentence in my head is to make the rhythmic element perfect. When I work, I use the same mechanism that is common to music composition and literary composition. Music and literature and visual art have a common root—structures of rhythm and tempo—and I work from this root. The content is absolutely different in the case of music and in the case of novels. But the essence, for me, is really similar.
INTERVIEWERYou were a kind of jazz prodigy, no? And played in jazz bands when you were young?
KRASZNAHORKAII was a professional musician from fourteen until I turned eighteen.
INTERVIEWERAnd Thelonious Monk was your great hero as a pianist. Why Monk?
KRASZNAHORKAII often ask myself the same question. Looking back, it’s difficult to explain why our taste in music under the Soviet system was so perfect. I’m trying not to sound vain. I played not just in a jazz group but also in a rock group, regularly. Our concerts were parties for working-class people. I recently found a piece of paper with titles of songs we played, and we had absolutely the best taste. Not my taste, but our generation’s taste. At that time, the sources of jazz or rock music were very small. There were two radio stations—the Radio Free Europe, from Munich, and Radio Luxembourg. Our recordings were very bad quality, since we recorded directly from the radio—in secret, of course, because it was forbidden. I had an acquaintance, a doctor in a hospital in Gyula, who had a huge LP collection, and he allowed me to make recordings from his collection. But how I chose the best music, I don’t know. We played Cream, Them, Blind Faith, Jimi Hendrix, Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield. The most conventional group was the Kinks. What else? Troggs, Animals, Eric Burdon. The Rolling Stones, of course. No Beatles. I don’t know why, but no Beatles. And a lot of blues.
In the jazz trio, I played with a drummer who was fifty and a bass player who was also maybe fifty. I was fourteen. We played everyone from Erroll Garner to Thelonious Monk. And I don’t have an explanation for why Monk was my favorite. Because I’m an old man now and I would still say the same thing.
INTERVIEWERAnd you sang, too?
KRASZNAHORKAIIn the rock group, yes. I had a very high voice, like a counter tenor. So I only sang songs by women—Dusty Springfield and Aretha Franklin.
INTERVIEWERWhat about the art scene? Were you listening to Bowie, the Velvet Underground?
KRASZNAHORKAII joined the Bowie fan club late, after I became friends with Béla Tarr. Béla lived in a wonderful small apartment in the middle of Budapest. He walked around in one room the whole day, always with music. David Bowie, Lou Reed, Nico . . .
INTERVIEWERYou began working with Tarr on the film Damnation shortly after publishing Satantango, in 1985—is that right? And then went on to make two adaptations of your novels, Satantango, in 1994, and Werckmeister Harmonies, which is a version of The Melancholy of Resistance, in 2000.
KRASZNAHORKAIAt the beginning, we made Damnation because, under the Communists, we were forbidden from making Satantango. This whole story began in 1985, after that novel was published. Béla, his wife, Ágnes, and I—we wanted to make a film of Satantango, but Béla was a hated man in the Hungarian film world. He went to one film company and another. Finally somebody told us that it was forbidden to do Satantango. And I told Béla, Okay, you go home, I go home, it’s over. Maybe two weeks later, Ágnes came to me and begged me to write a new script, because otherwise Béla would commit suicide. I know him, she said. He will commit suicide if he can’t make a film with you. Of course, that was a trap, a story to make me work with him.
INTERVIEWERIs Tarr the only director you’ve worked with?
KRASZNAHORKAII only ever worked with Béla. With him, it was more than a collaboration. I gave everything to him, and he took away the whole. We always worked together after I wrote the scripts, but they were his movies. Cinema is an art without justice. If you are a writer and a film director wants to adapt your work, you should accept that he is the director. This movie will be his. Otherwise, you’re making a mistake.
My scripts were always literary works. I used the form, I used dialogue, but when I wrote about a main character, “He thinks of a world without God,” Béla said, This isn’t a script. How can I show this? That’s why I was a little afraid during those projects. For example, when Estike goes up to heaven. Béla asked, How can I make a shot of that? In the end, the only possibility was to place the camera maybe eighty centimeters in front of Irimiás’s face. And if, in the movie, we could see on his face what happened to Estike, then okay, we win. If not, it’s a failure. Whereas, I can write it in a book and it’s interesting and has a philosophical background. What is reality? Is Estike’s ghost real? For the camera, no.
INTERVIEWERBut for language, yes.
KRASZNAHORKAIExactly. And it means that if you have a question about the universe, you always have a few possibilities—in particular through language. The power of the word is, for me, the only way to get closer to this hidden reality. Everyone is a fictional person and, at the same time, a real person. I belong to the fictive world and to the real world—I’m there in both empires. You too. And everyone in this restaurant. And also this object and everything we can perceive and also things we can’t perceive, because we know that with our five senses, some part of reality is imperceptible. I’m not being esoteric. Reality is so important to me that I always want to be aware of every possibility.
INTERVIEWERI wonder if this is why translation feels so uncanny. How can the reality invented by the Hungarian version of Satantango or Baron Wenckheim be the same as the reality invented by English or French words? There isn’t an equivalent problem for other art forms. Bach makes a cantata and it’s an attempt, for him, to express some kind of transcendent ideal—
KRASZNAHORKAINo, no. Bach is just a musician. When he started his career and began to make his own cantatas, he dealt only with musical questions—structure, the fugue form, the prelude, the falsobordone. We listen to his music and we have a picture of Bach as a holy man, always looking to heaven. But in fact, all geniuses are only interested in the physical, in technique. If you look at Thuringia, where Bach was from, Thuringia was full of Bachs—musicians, generation after generation. Bach was really a synonym for a good musician.
When I was in Japan, I went to a workshop where Buddha sculptures were being restored by specialists. They were incredible workers, geniuses, true artists, but they were entirely absorbed in the technical question—How can I repair this broken sculpture? Then, when the restored Buddha was returned to his location, he was now sacred, and someone could pray to him. You can say this is a contradiction, but there was no contradiction for them. The sculptor and the restorer are the same thing. And when someone is a true poet, it means they know that the word has power, and they can use words. If you have that ability, you only need to deal with technical questions.
INTERVIEWERSo you mean, the only true artistic questions are questions of technique?
KRASZNAHORKAIAn artist has only one task—to continue a ritual. And ritual is a pure technique.
INTERVIEWERI feel that we should single out one particular work for more technical analysis . . .
KRASZNAHORKAII think this relates to another question. If we talk about Homer or Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky or Stendhal or Kafka, they are all in this heavenly empire. And once someone crosses this border, it’s forbidden to say, The Idiot is wonderful, but “White Nights” isn’t so good. Or Thelonious Monk—we are not allowed to say that his playing isn’t so good in one place, or in another is too dissonant. These are holy people! We shouldn’t speak about details but about the wholeness of the work or of the person. If you proved once, just once, with a work that you are a genius, after that, in my eyes, you are free. You can make shit. You will still remain absolutely the same holy person, and that shit is sacred shit, because having crossed this border, this person is invulnerable.
I am convinced that Franz Kafka is a fact in an empire that I, from a distance, can only wonder at. I feel joy that this empire exists and that figures such as Dante and Goethe and Beckett and Homer existed, and exist now, for us. I’m sure that all thoughts about these figures, these holy figures, have something in common. My picture of Kafka won’t be so different from your picture of Kafka.
Does that answer your question?
INTERVIEWERWell, only in that it’s a refusal to answer my question! Can I put it differently? What you’re saying about Bach seems related to your idea that whatever meaning a work possesses will be reached through pure concentration on technique. You once wrote, “The world, should it exist, has to be in the details.” And maybe the work, should it exist, has to be in the details as well—as if they’re different aspects of the same thing?
KRASZNAHORKAIFor me, details are the most important, yes. The smallest details are a question of life and death. A mistake in a sentence kills me. That’s why I can’t bear to read my books, because it’s almost impossible to write a book, in three hundred pages, without one rhythmic mistake. And maybe this isn’t a question of perfection but a desire to care about the smallest details, because there’s no difference in importance between the smallest details and the whole. What’s the difference between one drop of the ocean, and the ocean as a whole? Nothing. Nothing.
INTERVIEWERIs it also related to what you were saying before—that you almost have the whole book in your mind before you begin the actual process of writing?
KRASZNAHORKAIYes, but there is something else. Who writes the books? If you have a feeling that you can decide something in the middle of the work, then you are not in the work—you are outside it. If you have the feeling that you are writing the book, you are outside the work itself.
INTERVIEWERAre there then implications for the interpretation of the work, for literary criticism? If I were to ask about the meaning of The Melancholy of Resistance, is that a stupid question?
KRASZNAHORKAIStupid? No. It depends on who is asking. Speaking with you is a different kind of conversation. I honor what you do. It’s not an accident that we are sitting here, because normally I don’t sit down two or three times, for two or three days, with somebody. And of course, my assumption is that you also have your own interest in the answer to your question—this question about meaning. It always comes back to the problem of a whole and details, of how details become a whole.
INTERVIEWERAre you saying that the two things—the details and the whole—are so interdependent that you can’t think of one without thinking of the other? So that, in a way, a work is a third thing, neither the details nor the whole?
KRASZNAHORKAIBuddha never allowed a person to speak about wholeness because it was an abstraction—because wholeness lacks reality. We have to be very careful using the word wholeness. For instance, we believe that the world, the universe,
is infinite. This is a fiasco, because if the world really were infinite, then this object [pointing to a glass of tea] couldn’t exist.
KRASZNAHORKAIBecause everything you can experience in existence is finite. In this glass, there are finite small parts, subatomic elements, and so on. Intangible to us but not infinite.
INTERVIEWERThere’s the moment at the end of Satantango where we realize that the novel is on a loop—that the last lines are also the novel’s first lines, as written by one of its characters. I think it’s the only metafictional moment in your novels, the only absolute regression. Was it obvious to you from the beginning that the book would have that circular structure?
KRASZNAHORKAINot at all. When I work, I begin from the beginning, and I never know more than my characters. At the beginning of Satantango, I had no idea that at the end, this whole construction, like a musical form, would come back and begin again from the beginning—but on another level, because when you read this book again, you read it with the knowledge that it was written by somebody who is a character in the book. No, I never worked with that conception.
INTERVIEWERBecause it makes the novel infinite.
KRASZNAHORKAIOh, no. No, I don’t think so. Only the uncountable finite can exist.
INTERVIEWERWhat I mean is, theoretically, it’s capable of being read infinitely, or endlessly, in a kind of circle.
KRASZNAHORKAIDo you remember what Buddha told us about the circle?
KRASZNAHORKAIIf you follow a circle, after a while you will understand that a circle doesn’t exist. It’s simply a point that doesn’t exist. There is a big difference between the infinite and the uncountable finite. After all, what do you think happens when the Sufi dancer dissolves into nothing?
INTERVIEWERBut then, to finish with this question of endings. You said that Baron Wenckheim would be your last novel. But I know you’re still writing. Does that mean that what you’re writing now isn’t a novel?
KRASZNAHORKAISmall things, not a big construction. I’ve already written three small books since the last novel. The first, The Manhattan Project (2017), is a prologue to the second work, my New York book. A provisional title could be something like “Spadework for a Palace.” And I also finished a book I’ve wanted to write from the very beginning, because I’ve adored Homer ever since my youth. I made a trip last autumn to Dalmatia, on the Adriatic Coast. This journey led me to an island in the Adriatic, and one myth of the Odyssey suddenly came back, and I wrote a book about it. A small book, like a novella.
INTERVIEWERYou really don’t think you’ll write another novel after Baron Wenckheim?
KRASZNAHORKAINovel? No. When you read it, you’ll understand. Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming must be the last