Posts Tagged ‘Colm Tóibín’

Krasznahorkai on “bottomless idiocy, unbounded aggression.”

Monday, January 21st, 2013
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Justifiably nervous … and absolutely not normal.

Last month, I wrote about attending the László Krasznahorkai reading at the London Review of Books bookstore, with his translator George Szirtes and Irish novelist Colm Toíbín sharing the stage – it’s here.

On that evening, the Hungarian author read “a lyrical essay about the terrible meeting between boorishness and aggressiveness,” about the kind of guy who floods him with  “the deepest personal anxiety.” It began this way:

I’ve been living in complete silence for months, I might say for years, with just the usual dull sounds you hear at the outskirts of town, the occasional echo of steps in the corridor and, further off, in the stairwell, someone dragging a sack, a carpet, a package, or a corpse, God knows what, along the ground; or the sound of the elevator as it slows, stops, opens, then closes and starts to rise or descend. Every so often a dog barks briefly, someone laughs or shouts. But everything dies away, soon lost in the constant low-level murmur of the street outside. That is what complete silence is like round here.

There are of course times I put on a Zelenka mass  or listen to one of Schiff’s “Wohltemperiertes Klavier” interpretations, or take out Spoon, Karen Dalton or Vic Chesnutt, but after a few bars I turn it off so it may be quiet again, because I want to be ready and I don’t want anything disturbing going on when he arrives and finds me.

To be honest I wouldn’t have been surprised if he hadn’t knocked but beat at the door, or simply kicked the door in, but now that I hear the knocking, it’s clear there is no difference between his knocking and beating or kicking the door in, I mean really no difference, the point being that I am dead certain it is him, who else; he of whom I knew, and have always known would come.

The most tragic figure in history is the one in whom two terrible conditions meet. The two conditions that meet and combine in him are bottomless idiocy and unbounded aggression …

Now it’s in the New York Times.  Read the whole thing here.

László Krasznahorkai to Colm Tóibín: “I was absolutely not a normal child.”

Monday, December 10th, 2012
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A place for “Literary Friendships.”

It was not an easy interview, but Colm Tóibín did his gamely best to interview László Krasznahorkai at the London Review of Books inaugural event for “Literary Friendships” last week.

The event was sold out and crammed into the LRB bookshop on Bury Lane,  which were already with crammed with books.

Until recently, Krasznahorkai was better known by reputation than by output in the West.   Susan Sontag called him “the contemporary Hungarian master of apocalypse who inspires comparison with Gogol and Melville. W. G. Sebald said, “The universality of Krasznahorkai’s vision rivals that of Gogol’s Dead Souls and far surpasses all the lesser concerns of contemporary writing.”

Satantango, first published in Hungary in 1985 and now regarded as a classic, was finally published in English this year, translated by the Hungarian-born English poet and translator George Szirtes.

“I had to write only this book and no more.  You try to write only one book and put everything you want to say in one book, to create my own literary world with my sentences,” Krasznahorkai told last week’s audience.

The Irish Tóibín made a stab at describing Krasznahorkai’s style, which he saw as “removing the need for objects in novel and seeing whether a novel can live in a different space.”

Tóibín described the novel as “a secular space,” yet this one “deals with spiritual questions rather than material questions.” God “interferes” with the novel and its characters.

“Bringing God into the novel, it’s dynamite,” Tóibín said.  Comment?

The Hungarian Krasznahorkai demurred.  “Hmmmm,” he said.  Then again, “Hmmmm…”  Finally, he concluded, “The question is wonderful, but I couldn’t answer. It’s too difficult for me. I’m not that clever.”

Maybe Tóibín should have read last August’s Guardian article for a clearer, post-communist spiritual statement from Krasznahorkai:

He gestures to the computer sitting on the table at his elbow. “This is the result of 10,000 years? Really? We have microphone, laptop, this technical society – that’s all? This is sad, and very disappointing. After so many geniuses in the human story from Leonardo to Einstein, from the Buddha to Endre Szemerédi, these are fantastic figures, and their work is unbelievably important and we cannot do anything with it – why?”

According to the LRB website touting the event, he remains an optimist: “You will never go wrong anticipating doom in my books, anymore than you’ll go wrong in anticipating doom in ordinary life.”

Krasznahorkai was born in Gyula, close to the Romanian border.  Tóibín quoted Auden saying that a writer’s childhood should have as much neurosis as a child can take.  “I was absolutely not a normal child,” replied the Hungarian writer.

“I chose that.”

For awhile, he lived in a village in the countryside “very far from Budapest, very far from the next village,” a place that was filled with “houses with peasants and tiers,” he said, switching briefly to German to refer to the cows and livestock that cohabit the spaces.  “Rain and an absolutely hopeless sky. … no heaven, no questions about heaven.  Only how can I drink the next pálinka?  What can we eat?”

“I had the feeling that this kind of people only lived down below.  They were not 30 or 60 years old, but 6,000 years old, without names. Everyone was the same, every fate was the same – like rain.  A drop came down, and then another.”

“I chose that. I was 19 years old.” He compensated by reading Dostoevsky, Dante, and ancient Greek literature.

Before 1989, he said, “Hungary was an absolutely unreal, crazy country.  Abnormal and unbearable.  After 1989, it became normal and unbearable.” In what he called “Old Hungary,” there was “very big misery – the mood was unbelievably sad and hopeless.”

He’s not worried about finding readers.  “Most of us need only ten, maybe six on a bad day,” Tóibín agreed.

He knows his place.

George Szirtes was in attendance (in fact, it was the night before our talk at the British Academy), and the affable translator was invited up to the podium for a few words:

“It was slow. I had headaches regularly,” he said describing the process of translating Krasznahorkai’s work.  He thought it would take a year and a half.  It took four.  His first words on meeting Krasznahorkai were an apology.  Not to worry, said Krasznahorkai, “it took me six years to write.”

As he’s translating, Szirtes asks himself, “What is this sentence up to?  What is it looking for? … When you turn it into English, what kind of noise is it?”  The noise in translation is not the same as the noise in the original: “The noise is distinctly related, but transplanted.”

And, after four years of translation, he tackled Tóibín’s questions:  “I know that world more, but it’s a visionary world – a visionary world looking for order. The characters are not looking for God, but looking for their place.”

The session continued with questions from the audience, but Krasznahorkai made a plea to the audience as he asked for questions.

He put his hands together, prayer-like, “Only I beg you, nothing about God.”

 

Poet Eavan Boland bags PEN prize

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012
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A winner

I’m on the PEN mailing list, so I got this one hot off the presses last week: Eavan Boland, director of Stanford’s Creative Writing program and one of Ireland’s leading poets, has won a 2012 PEN award for creative nonfiction with her acclaimed collection of essays, A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet, published last year by W.W. Norton.

PEN Center USA will fete three honorees and give 11 awards in particular genres at its annual awards festival on Oct. 22 in Beverly Hills. Grove/Atlantic Press publisher (and Stanford alum) Morgan Entrekin will receive the Award of Honor; Joyce Carol Oates will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award and CBS correspondent Lara Logan will receive the Freedom to Write Award.

In addition to Boland’s award for creative nonfiction, the other genre awards are given for poetry, fiction, research nonfiction, children’s literature, graphic literature, journalism, translation, drama, teleplay and screenplay.

“I’m really honored to get the award. And especially from PEN, which is an institution that does so much to advocate for writers,” said Boland.

Boland has published 10 volumes of poetry – most recently New Collected Poems (2008) and Domestic Violence (2007) and an earlier collected volume, An Origin Like Water: Collected Poems 1967-87 (1996). She has received the Lannan Award for Poetry and an American Ireland Fund Literary Award. She has published a previous volume of prose, Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time.

Joyce Carol Oates at Stanford, with Anne Fadiman and Tracy Kidder

A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet traces Boland’s own development as a poet, and also offers insights into the work of Sylvia Plath, Gwendolyn Brooks, Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop and the German poet Elizabeth Langässer.

Irish author Colm Tóibín named it a “favorite book” in the Irish Times last year, calling it “urgent and wise.” Britain’s Poetry Review called her “one of the finest and boldest poets of the last half century.”

Boland balances two worlds: free-spirited California and Ireland, a land of historical persecution and occupation, with its “painful memory of a poetry whose archive was its audience,” she said in an Academy of American Poets interview.

“I sought out American poetry because of that powerful, inclusive diversity,” she said. “I always remember I’m an Irish poet there, but at the same time some part of my sense of poetry feels very confirmed by the American achievement.”

László Krasznahorkai: “So-called high literature”? Finito.

Saturday, July 7th, 2012
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Hungarian writers tend to be a lonely lot – the fruit of their labor is stranded out on the most inaccessible branch of the broad language tree.  Who speaks Hungarian, except those born to it?  Its closest antecedents are Turkish and Finnish, and they aren’t all that close.  Wisely,  László Krasznahorkai divides his time between New York and Berlin, as well as the cosy little village of  Pilisszentlászló,  about half an hour out of Budapest.  That, in addition to the skyrocketing  reputation of his work, has put him in the world’s literary epicenter.

More thoughts on "this rotten world we live in."

After all, Susan Sontag said he is “the contemporary Hungarian master of apocalypse who inspires comparison with Gogol and Melville. W. G. Sebald said, “The universality of Krasznahorkai’s vision rivals that of Gogol’s Dead Souls and far surpasses all the lesser concerns of contemporary writing.”

To my discredit, then, I discovered Krasznahorkai only this year when, in Paris, Daniel Medin shoved a Cahier into my hand.  The short, 39-page work,  Animalinside, was undertaken for the Cahiers Series as part of a collaboration with German painter Max Neumann (we’ve written about the Cahiers series here). For reasons to tedious to get into, the book wound up in a stack of backlogged reading, and I’d only got round to reading it after the interview in the current Quarterly Conversation.

The interview is republished from The Hungarian Review – a publication I regard with gratitude, as its editors allowed me to republish Czesław Miłoszs poem “Antigone,” translated by George Gömöri and Richard Berengarten – the poem, in English, exist only in the journal and An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz. It’s not the only reason I read the Q&A with interest, however; it’s lively stuff.

A few excerpts:

Ágnes Dömötör: Many people have the impression that your books are hard to read and to understand. That’s a myth, but don’t you think you’ve got some bad PR?

László Krasznahorkai: 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. Our consumer culture aims at putting your mind to sleep, and you’re not even aware of it. It costs a lot of money to keep this singular procedure going, and there’s an insane global operation in place for that very purpose. This state of lost awareness creates the illusion of stability in a constantly changing world, suggesting at least a hypothetical security that doesn’t exist. I see the role of the tabloid press somewhat differently. I can’t just shrug it off and say to hell with it. The tabloid press is there for a serious reason, and that reason is both tragic and delicate.

AD: Suppose someone who has never read anything by you picks up this interview and says: what an interesting guy, which one of your books would you recommend to them? What would be a point of entry to your life’s work?

LK: The Old Testament. The Book of Revelation. Let them choose from my books at random.

AD: How do you relate to your fellow Hungarian writers? Do you ever e-mail one another? Would you tell György Spiró, for instance,‟I liked your last book, Gyuri?” I’m asking because in an earlier interview you seemed to see yourself as an outsider on the literary scene.

Pilisszentlászló ... half an hour away from Budapest

LK: I don’t just see myself as an outsider, I am one. Which doesn’t mean I’m not happy to see colleagues I admire; after all, we share the same fate. But I also worry about them. I worry, for instance, because they’re in literature, something that you can still sell for awhile, but it’s getting harder and harder. This kind of communication is really over and done with. Its disappearance is a rather obvious process; it is happening faster at some points of the world than at others. I’m afraid this kind of literature is not sustainable.

AD: You mean it’s not just the authority of literature that’s finished but literature as such?

LK: The so-called high literature will disappear. I don’t trust such partial hopes that there will always be islands where literature will be important and survive. I would love to be able to say such pathos-filled things, but I don’t think they’re true.

On our tabloids: “The structure of vulgarity is very complex.”  He also talks about apocalypse, and “this rotten world we live in.”  And rock bands?  You can read about his favorite ones, along with the rest of the interview, here.

What does he think about bloggers, such as Humble Moi?  “Recently one blogger suggested that I should be hanged. I immediately put on my space suit, started the engine and went to the moon for a while.”  That puts me in my place.

Meanwhile, here’s what Irish novelist Colm Tóibín said about Animalinside:

Language for Krasznahorkai is a force struggling against the domination of cliché and easy consumption, offering small, well-organized revolts, plotting in upstairs rooms for plenitude and jagged rhythm, arming itself with clauses, sub-clauses and asides, preparing high-voltage assaults on the reader’s nervous system. … The world of his fiction is enclosed and stable, it must be taken on its own terms. … His work is full of menace, but it would be a mistake to read the menace either as political or as coming from nowhere. …

 

 

The Cahiers Series: “really, really beautiful” – and hand-stitched, even

Monday, September 26th, 2011
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In a world where everything is becoming faster, cheesier, and more functional – when books are no longer tactile, sensual objects, but characters on Kindle – it’s cheering to see anything swimming upstream.  Bonus points if it extols that most underrated of literary trades, translation.

Applause keeps mounting for the Cahiers Series, published by the Center for Writers & Translators at the American University of Paris and Sylph Editions. It’s hard to stay on top of it.  But Daniel Medin, one of my more charming correspondents, has been sending me updates from the American University.

The latest plug is in Friday’s New York Review of Books blog, where Colm Tóibín introduces László Krasznahorkai‘s Animalinside (with illustrations by Max Neumann):

The prose of Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai is full of menace, but it would be a mistake to read the menace either as political or as coming from nowhere. In novels such as The Melancholy of Resistance and War & War, his imagination feeds on real fear and real violence; he has a way of making fear and violence seem all the more real and present, however, by removing them from a familiar context.

Daniel, now an associate professor at the American University (after teaching at Stanford a year or two back), said this:

The allegorical tissue in that text [i.e., Animalinside] is very thick, the “animal inside” a literal and metaphorical thing at the same time – think Herbert‘s Report from the Besieged City, where “a rat became the unit of currency.” We’re in the realm of Kafka and Beckett here, and not just in approach: I believe that Krasznahorkai is a writer of nearly the same magnitude who has the mixed fortune of having been born Hungarian – mixed because of that country’s embarrassment of (literary, cultural) riches on one hand and its linguistic isolation on the other.

Quite a coup for a small series that lives more or less hand to mouth, on uncertain funding. Part of the problem is shipping, which makes U.S. distribution difficult, even for a downright modest price of, say, $15.  Distribution in France is a little problematic, too, since the language is English.  “Every penny goes toward quality of production and keeping down the price,” Daniel writes.

Via the Cahiers Series subscription page you can buy a boxed set of volumes 1-6 (or a boxed set of volumes 7-12) for £51 – “which is approximately $4,000, but like I said, these are really, really beautiful. (Kidding—£51 is only $75 and these are worth every dime),” according to the Three Percent blog.  (Sorry, the blogger got me going for a moment – so I had to try it on you.)

[New updated deal: In addition to having the option of ordering cahiers individually, readers can now select any 6 cahiers for £55 in Europe/£59.50 everywhere else. Check it out here.]

Last year Daniel  told the Three Percent blog: “There are two main justifications for the Cahiers Series. The first is that we publish material that cannot easily be published anywhere else; we can play with form in a way that commercial publishers cannot. The second justification is to make something where the parts, through their relation to each other, add up to more than just that.”

Much more.  Clearly, the project is gaining momentum and some very high-profile attention – for example, from James Wood in the New Yorker here.

Daniel – handsomer than this, really

Daniel also sent me a copy of George Craig‘s Writing Beckett’s Letters. Craig spent 15 years translating the thousands of letters Beckett wrote in French.  It’s chock full of impressive insights, and handsomely produced – hand-stitched, even. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but Rhys Tranter did, and said this in the Spectator Book Blog (it’s here and here):

Whilst George Craig’s book is neatly timed to anticipate the next volume of Beckett’s Letters, it is more than just a preview of things to come. To Beckett scholars and enthusiasts, the appeal of this book is obvious, tightly-woven with rare insight and beautiful reproductions. But it is also thoughtful and engaging introduction to the problems of translation, and a testament to the status of correspondence as a kind of art-form. To paraphrase Craig’s description of Beckett and Duthuit’s correspondence, this is a work that abounds in strange, unexpected things.

Prescient words. Daniel has been promoting literary translations in other ways: He’s proud that the first invitation he issued at the American University was to Adam Zagajewski, who read from his latest collection and chatted with his students about his first encounter with Kafka. “An incredibly lucky bunch, they were: Tomas Venclova dropped by the next week and shared his own stories about discovering The Metamorphosis – in Polish!”

We’ll be writing more on the exceptional Cahiers series in posts-to-come.