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PEN World Voices -  Master/Class: László Krasznahorkai and Colm Tóibín

By Bud Parr

On my way to see Colm Tóibín interview László Krasznahorkai I read Will Self's Guardian article "The novel is dead (this time it's for real)." I can only conclude after listening to Mr. Krasznahorkai speak about his life and art that the novel is dead only in the mind of the author who thinks it so, for here on display was a lively literary mind non pareil who doesn't seem quite done with his chosen craft. 

Mr. Tóibín's questions began around matters of craft and then delved into Krasznahorkai's experience growing up in communist Hungary, his love of music and travel and his writing influences. The point here was not merely to share matters of craft and biography, but to uncover from what sort of environment such incredibly unique work could possibly emanate. Mr. Tóibín seemed at times incredulous about such humble beginnings. Mr. Krasznahorkai grew up in an isolated Hungarian village and didn't travel until his thirties, at which point he had already written several enduring works of literature and been declared a "genius" by his fellow Hungarian writer Péter Esterházy. 

Explaining that while the writers in communist Hungary were kept from writing they were able to translate, thus, even in his isolated village, Krasznahorkai had access to canonical books from the likes of Dostoyevsky and Faulkner. He loved Faulkner, but it was Kafka, Krasznahorkai exclaimed, who was responsible for his work. "Without Kafka, I would not exist." These were early influences, along with Hungary's communist environment where the ideology was practiced without the underpinnings of theory, leaving only absurd speeches and difficult conditions from which to inform his opinions.

Mr. Krasznahorkai is soft spoken and serene, seeming slightly uncomfortable in front of the crowd, at times struggling with his English, though usually more clear than he was giving himself credit for. Likewise, on translation, he avoids credit for any of the text that you and I read in English, saying—as he pointed to his latest novel to be translated, Seiobo There Below—that those words were the work of Ottille Mulzet, the translator, even while Mr. Tóibín insisted that Krasznahorkai's unique voice carried through all his books, no matter who has translated them. 

During the Q & A one reader asked about those long trademark sentences, which, from his reply, seem to be a mystery even to the writer. Early on in the conversation, Mr. Krasznahorkai claimed that he merely transcribes the "voices" he hears in his head. When he's writing, which is merely an act of refining what he hears, he doesn't quite know where they will end. It's as though he's a mystery to himself, living in the present and not reflecting too deeply on how it came to be. Explaining how he first found himself traveling to Asia, he said that he was enjoying a nice sunshiny day and he received a call with an invitation to go to Ulan Bator, so he went. "How could I not?"

I found one of the most interesting facts about Mr. Krasznahorkai is the way he combines his love of travel (or more likely, love of being in different places) with his love of music. He said that he plays several instruments and that while traveling he seeks out music, but will then, the very next day, try to find the instrument that he heard and play it himself. That insatiable curiousity and desire for empathy seem to me to be the hallmark of a great writer, living a life of curiosity rather than some notion of a writer's life.

Indeed, if his environment was constrained to books and his immediate surroundings as a youth, he more than made up for it once he was able to travel, spending a great deal of time in Asia and Europe, and traveling to New York, for instance, to research details for his novel War & War where he stayed with Alan Ginsberg. On Japan, Krasznahorkai claimed, he's yet to unlock the mystery, yet from a reader's point of view, that's hard to imagine. Upon declaring Seiobo There Below the winner of this year's Best Translated Book Award, the judges said that the novel "overwhelmed us with its range — this is a book that discusses in minute detail locations from all around the globe, including Japan, Spain, Italy, and Greece, as well as delving into the consciousnesses and practices of individuals from across 2,000 years of human history."

Few conclusions can be made about Laszlo Krasznahorkai for his work seems a mystery even to himself. To those of us there quietly protesting the death of the novel, we can only hope that novelists such as this one don't catch on to its demise.

Published May 5, 2014   Copyright 2014 Bud Parr

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