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Interview with László Krasznahorkai

László Krasznahorkai was born in Gyula, Hungary, in 1954, and has written five novels and several collections of essays and short stories. Until recently, at least in the English-speaking world, he was probably best known through the oeuvre of the film director Béla Tarr, with whom he has collaborated on several films over three decades, including the adaptation of several of his own novels.

 

In 2000, the Hungarian-born British poet George Szirtes – who conducted this interview in 2012 by email – translated Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance, the first of his books to appear in English. It was blurbed by Susan Sontag (‘the contemporary Hungarian master of the apocalypse’) and W. G. Sebald (‘The universality of Krasznahorkai’s vision rivals that of Gogol’s Dead Souls and far surpasses all the lesser concerns of contemporary writing.’). Krasznahorkai, who was awarded the 2015 Man Booker International Prize last Tuesday, is widely recognised as one of the very best and important novelists of our time.

 

So much so that on the occasion of the release of Sátántango, another Szirtes translation, in 2012, the author was mobbed by hipsters at Housing Works Bookstore in New York City, where the critic James Wood was interviewing him. ‘[T]he excitement of Krasznahorkai’s writing is that he has come up with his own original forms…’ writes the novelist Adam Thirlwell in the New York Review of Books. ‘There’s nothing else like it in contemporary literature.’

 

James Wood, writing in the New Yorker in 2012, placed Krasznahorkai alongside post-war greats such as Thomas Bernhard, Claude Simon and David Foster Wallace. Wood did qualify his comparison though – in spite of a common affinity for ‘very long, breathing, unstopped sentences’, Krasznahorkai is ‘perhaps the strangest’, his writing ‘peculiar … strange and beautiful’.

 

George Szirtes, who has now translated three of his books into English, calls Krasznahorkai’s work a ‘slow lava flow of narrative, a vast black river of type’. His sentences, he writes, take you down ‘loops and dark alleyways – like wandering in and out of cellars’.

 

In 2013 New Directions published László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below (translated by Ottilie Mulzet), the latest of his novels to be translated into English. The novel is published in the UK by Tuskar Rock this month. We are delighted to publish its first chapter, and this short interview with the author.

 

[The Editors]

*

Q

The White Review

— What do you think are the advantages, disadvantages or dangers of translation?

A

László Krasznahorkai

— I won’t say anything about advantages and disadvantages but I will address the question of dangers because they simply don’t exist. The translated work, in my opinion, is in no way to be identified with the original in a different language. That is an absurdity. The translated work is the work of the translator, not the author. The author’s work is that which comprises the story as written in the original language. The translated work is a new work in the language deployed by the translator, a work of which the translator is the composer, and resembles – more or less, as members of a family resemble each other – the original work. The author simply looks on and reads: the text is familiar, occasionally very familiar, to him and he is delighted when it looks good, and rages when it looks bad. I have only ever once raged, at the German translation of War and War which turned out a bad book. It was almost impossible to repair. Who would take on a new translation? That was very difficult. But apart from that every translation of my work has filled me with wonder. I have marvellous translators.

Q

The White Review

— Why did you choose to live in Berlin?

A

László Krasznahorkai

— Ever since I first spent a longer period in the city back in 1987 I have developed close ties with it. West Berlin, as it was then, was an asylum for wounded spirits. All kinds of artists, as well as those who hoped to be artists, were drawn there to do their work. It was really nice to know that I could sit in the same bar, and in fact at the same table, as great artists to whom I could relate as part of a family. This relationship continues today. Though I still spend most of my time in the city I no longer feel good about it. Nowadays it chiefly appeals to artists who want to sell their work rather than actually make it. And if that’s the case where’s the difference between here and there?

Q

The White Review

— What is your writing practice?

A

László Krasznahorkai

— I don’t sit at a work-station, meaning a writing desk, and I don’t stare at the laptop hoping to get an idea, but work in my head starting from the assumption that literature is my work. Putting aside personal reasons, the fact is that when I began to write I was living in very difficult circumstances: I had no writing desk and was never alone. So I got used to beginning sentences in my head, and if they were promising I kept adding to them until the sentence came to a natural end. It was at that point I wrote it down. That’s the way I do things even now, in the most unlikely places, at the most unlikely times – in other words I am continually at work. I write everything down at the end. I don’t correct in the normal way because I’ve done all that in my head.

Q

The White Review

— What do you read apart from the classics such as Kafka?

A

László Krasznahorkai

— When I am not reading Kafka I am thinking about Kafka. When I am not thinking about Kafka I miss thinking about him. Having missed thinking about him for a while, I take him out and read him again. That’s how it works. It’s precisely the same with Homer, Dante, Dostoevski, Proust, Ezra Pound, Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, Attila József, Sándor Weöres and Pilinszky…

Q

The White Review

— Why do you think Sátántangó has been so successful right now? Has something happened in the world, or in literature, that has opened doors for it?

A

László Krasznahorkai

— I think readers who already knew Sátántangó, the film by Béla Tarr and myself, and had read The Melancholy of Resistance, War and War and Animalinside were waiting to read this too. And it seems that at the time of publication, Sátántangó was the kind of book many people actually wanted. People who wanted to escape the middle ground of high-formal pyrotechnics and the exhaustingly new; those who were waiting for a book that says something about the world; those who want something other than entertainment, who don’t want to escape from life but to live it over again, to know that they have a life, that they have a part in it, and have a preference for the painfully beautiful. My explanation is that we have no great literature. But readers need it, not as medicine, not as delusion, but because they need someone to tell them there is no medicine.

Q

The White Review

— Why is it so important for you to map things so clearly? Why is it so important to specify precise location?

A

László Krasznahorkai

— Because it’s always important to know where things are. And a thing can only precisely be where it is.

Q

The White Review

— How far does the world where you began as a writer – maybe not entirely began but when Sátántangó first appeared – how far and in what respect does that world resemble that of 2013?
A

László Krasznahorkai

— The similarity is astounding. Everything seems to have changed and yet everything is essentially the same. Think of the surface of a fast-flowing gurgling stream, the way a single bubble within the foam breaks as it spins, breaks into tiny drops then joins again to form a tiny current and goes on its way. I watch the drops and try to concentrate on a single one. It’s impossible. There is no drop. Somehow there is only the whole that is at every instant different and yet the same. But the whole does not exist. Nor do the parts. So what is there? There is a changelessness that is always changing. It is beyond grasping.
 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


George Szirtes's many books of poetry have won various prizes including the T. S. Eliot Prize (2004), for which he is again shortlisted for Bad Machine (2013). His translation of László Krasznahorkai's Satantango (2013) was awarded the Best Translated Book Award in the US. The act of translation is, he thinks, bound to involve fidelity, ambiguity, confusion and betrayal.