‘I tell you: one must still have chaos within oneself, to give birth to a dancing star’. Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra.
A decaying Hungarian town is reluctant host to a visiting circus offering the spectacle of ‘the biggest whale in the world.’ The circus’ arrival, accompanied by a gang of refractory hoodlums, catalyzes the town’s entropy and sparks a single, violent night of vandalism and murder.
The travelling circus is dominated by an enigmatic ‘Prince of darkness’ who foments the night of savagery. In a town characterised by its feckless or drunken civic leaders, emerges the indomitable Mrs. Eszter, who deserves to be remembered as one of literary history’s most unscrupulous villains, with plans to ‘spring-clean’ and restore pride to the degenerate town. Mrs. Eszter, in her cunning, recalls Stendhal’s brilliant Duchess Sanseverina. Beauvoir said of Stendhal,”[He] never describes his heroines as a function of his heroes: he provides them with their own destiny. He undertook something that no other novelist, I think, has ever done: he projected himself into a female character”.
Though the Prince and Mrs. Eszter, adversaries only in appearance, accelerate the story’s events, it is the misanthropic Mr. Eszter and his slow-witted disciple that are the main protagonists of Krasznahorkai’s story. Mr. Eszter withdraws to his drawing room, apparently in search of musical purity, but in fact to turn away from the dissolution of the town and its people.
The world, as Eszter established, consisted merely of ‘an indifferent power which offered disappointment at every turn’; its various concerns were incompatible and it was too full of noises of banging, screeching and crowing, noises that were simply, the discordant and refracted sounds of struggle, and that this was all there was to the world if we but realised it. But his ‘fellow human beings’, who also happened to find themselves in this draughty uninsulated barracks and could on no account bear their exclusion from some notion of a distant state of sweetness and light, were condemned to burn for ever in a fever of anticipation, waiting for something they couldn’t even begin to define, hoping for it despite the fact that all evidence, which every day continued to accumulate, pointed against its very existence, thereby demonstrating the utter pointlessness of their waiting.
Punctuating Mr. Eszter’s solitariness, Valuska, thought of as the town-idiot, delivers his freshly laundered clothes and meals. Valuska becomes embroiled with the gang of hoodlums and their orgy of violence; his subsequent disappearance awakens Mr. Eszter from his self-absorption.
I’ve seen Krasznahorkai’s style (first two sentences here) likened to Thomas Bernhard’s, although I am reading both in translation, but the similarities seem superficial. There is less humour in Krasznahorkai, at least in The Melancholy of Resistance, more ominousness, with the phantasmagorical terrain familiar to Kafka and Walser. Comparison to either of those writers may be puffery on the basis of a single book, but The Melancholy of Resistance is sublime.
James Wood writes, “His demanding novel “The Melancholy of Resistance” is a comedy of apocalypse, a book about a God that not only failed but didn’t even turn up for the exam. The pleasure of the book flows from its extraordinary, stretched, self-recoiling sentences, which are marvels of a loosely punctuated stream of consciousness”. My disagreement with Wood is that the novel is demanding; as László Krasznahorkai explains: “You know, the problem is that anything that’s the least bit serious gets bad PR. Kafka got bad PR, and so does the Bible. The Old Testament is a pretty hard text to read; anyone who finds my writing difficult must have trouble with the Bible, too”.
Krasnahorkai has written six novels, only two are in English translation (all translated so far by George Szirtes); I’ll be reading War & War soon, followed in March by Satantango.
Thank you! A great review! I know nothing about László Krasznahorkai and really appreciate your introduction to his writing.
Thanks, Sigrun, it is only a single book, but I haven’t been so excited about a new writer since I discovered Peter Handke.
I have just ordered it – looks to be an exceptional book. Also, am very curious to see what you think of Agota Kristof.
I’ll look forward to hearing your opinion, Michelle. Kristof is the next fiction after Krasznahorkai’s ‘War & War’.
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