09 February 2013

The Melancholy of Resistance (László Krasznahorkai)

The Melancholy of Resistance by László Krasznahorkai, translated by George Szirtes (New Directions, 2000)

It was said that modern Mayans rolled their eyes at the suggestion of Armageddon on 12/21/12. But in László Krasznahorkai's novel, nobody is rolling his eyes as something wicked comes the way of a Hungarian village. The seriousness of the situation is evident from the ambiance of fear and foreboding as Mrs. Plauf travels by train to her home. She can't shake off the feeling that an infinitesimal change in the landscape brought something amiss to the relative peace of the village. That constricting feeling of impending apocalypse suffuses the novel's introductory chapter, titled "An Emergency".

After so much gossip, so much terrifying rumour-mongering, she could now see for herself that 'it was all going down the drain', for she understood that while her own particular immediate danger was over, in 'a world where such things happen' the collapse into anarchy would inevitably follow.

The anarchy comes later in the book, but it seems to be a logical, methodical anarchy for it happens after much paranoid and apocalyptic proselytizing by its parade of characters. Like the Argentinian novelist César Aira, Krasznahorkai is a proponent of spontaneous realism, where the narratives unfold in real time and almost any scene can be considered in medias res. The characters ride a literal "train of thought", not so much in streaming consciousness, but a branching out of consciousness to alternative mental routes. They think aloud and they follow no discernible script except what insights their "walking minds" alight on.

Quotations of stock phrases (as in the above passage: 'it was all going down the drain'; 'a world where such things happen') make this narrative of constant "scenario-building" somehow realistic, somehow not hackneyed. They anchor the narrative to certain familiar tropes and avoid being too precious despite the seriousness of "the threat of end of times". At times, they provoke a certain "war on idioms and clichés" in a world where every usable concept may already have been labeled and delimited as to be "set off" and "qualified". Yet again, the quotes can be literally literal, as for example, Mrs. Eszter in front of her ex-husband's dirty laundry ("... if Valuska was willing to keep it a secret, she would like to wash her husband's dirty laundry with 'her own two hands', explaining how, through all the preceding years, she had regarded the husband who had so coldly rejected her with such unconditional fidelity and respect that it saturated her entire being.") or "cherry picking" later in the novel with real cherries in front of her.

After Mrs. Plauf, the paranoid narration is passed on to another character in a manner of a relay race. But this is a relay where, due to the almost standstill pace of real time narration, the baton is almost grudgingly passed on. The snail-paced race is continued by Mrs. Eszter, the ambitious lady who plans on leading the town as a decorated political leader; by Valuska, the half-wit and son of Mrs. Plauf, whose naivety is a contrast to the other characters' worldly cares; by Mr. Eszter, the estranged husband of Mrs. Eszter, who seems to have renounced the world and retreats into his house a physically broken man; and in between by characters who launch into monologues. These major characters perform the race according to their own slow motion and spontaneous meandering. Murphy's law is at work but there is at least one certain thing in the story: apocalypse lies at the finish line of track and field

There is barely a plot in the story. A traveling circus is in town to showcase a very large whale and other circus oddities. It, along with some strange local occurrences, seems to have elicited the general fear of the town's "backward" populace. There's an undeniable apocalyptic flavor to the goings on behind the circus tent.

Krasznahorkai's whale seems to be a projection of all the uncertainties, pent-up anxieties, and random menace the world (or modern life or existence) is capable of inflicting on the human race. The ominous whale of monstrous proportions offends the sensibility of the provincial villagers. At the same time, the "fifty-metre truck-load" seems to have generated a cult following from the other villages it visited. These doomy attitudes ("an infection of the imagination") of the people ("spellbound mob") are bound to manifest a doomsday of their own. That doomsday is anything but joyful, except that the existential funk and angst of the characters are all too darkly and comically explored within a stylish, dense prose. Kilometric sentences within blocks of text not set off by paragraphs, a profusion of commas and dependent clauses: the tics of a handful of excellent European writers.

He recalled various stages in his frantic efforts and the fact that even then, in what was imposing itself as a general frame of mind, he had suspected that any eventual resolution would not be due entirely to taking rational thought in the matter, a suspicion that had in the meantime become a certainty, for in divorcing the heavy artillery of his intellect (so typical of him) as he was, metaphorically, edging forward, or, in his own words, divorcing the 'ostensible fire-power of a determined general' from 'the chain of practical action and reaction', he had achieved mastery not through the application of a logical experimental process but through constant, wholly involuntary adaptations to the moment-by-moment nature of necessity; a process that no doubt reflected his intellectual bent but took no cognition of it. To judge by appearances, he summarized, the clear lesson was that the serious issue underlying this apparently insignificant task had been resolved by a persistent assault embodying a flexible attitude to permutations, the passage from 'missing the point' to 'hitting the nail on the head' so to speak, owing nothing, absolutely nothing, to concentrated logic and everything to improvisation, to an ever new set of exploratory motions, or so he had thought as he set out on his tour of inspection of the house to check whether any loose boards needed more secure fixing; there was nothing to indicate that the body's command mechanism, that well-oiled part of the human organism focused on the reality principle (he entered the kitchen) had imposed itself between the legislating mind and the executive hand and remained so well hidden that it could only be discovered, as he put it, 'between, if such a thing were possible, the dazzling object of illusion and the eye that perceives that object, a position that entailed conscious recognition of the illusory nature of the object'. It seemed it was the very freedom of choice between the range of competing ideas that actually decided the angle, the height, and experimental path between the top of the arc [of the hammer] and the point of the nail ... [emphases added]

The character, Mr. Eszter, is here speaking literally of hammer and nails, as he learns again "to master the art of banging in nails". In the course of this intellectualizing of carpentry, he also shares some of the qualities of the narrative's spontaneous realism. This seamlessly bridging of "the legislating mind and the executive hand" is an appeal to the authenticity of fresh ideas being transcribed as they occur. It is quite similar to Aira's 'constant flight forward' method of writing, but here is more painstakingly expressed in longer form.

The effect seems to be an illusion that nothing is predetermined, that there is a higher intelligence at work governing the fate of plot and story. In the hands of a prose stylist, the extraordinary turns of phrase (and plot) can be pedantically funny and refreshing. It can lend playfulness to the anticipation and perception of events and a spontaneous beauty to seemingly random details "freely" selected from a "range of competing ideas".

There can be detected a creative component to this spontaneity that may yet make us believe that Reader can be Author himself and, for that matter, that the novel is not dead or stale. A good spontaneous realist novelist is one who can pretend that everything is not wholly up to him, that the story is not contingent on the whims of his created characters, and there is always room for the reader to "ghostwrite" the novel as he reads. Writer and reader lead the story to exciting directions and digressions, without loss of a texture of complex reality. "The novelist is all of us," says Fernando Pessoa, "and we narrate whenever we see, because seeing is complex like everything."

The Melancholy of Resistance may be a philosophical novel outlining its own state of nature ("the present state of the area") but not offering a social contract.

He had been wrong, he decided a few steps from his house, wrong in assuming that steady decay was the essence of the situation, for that was in effect to say that some element of good persisted in it while there was no evidence of that whatsoever, and this walk had convinced him that there never could have been, not because it had been lost but because 'the present state of the area' never had the slightest shred of meaning in the first place. It was not meant to have a point; if it was meant for anything at all it was expressely [sic] for the purpose of having no point ...

The speaker's stance is pessimistic and nihilistic and any resistance to this state of nature is predicted to fail. The failure is here dramatized as a thought experiment, with the novel's apocalyptic scenes leading to self-realization and epiphany of the characters yet nonetheless consuming them. The whale has been likened to Hobbes's Leviathan but Kafka's looming Castle may be the more appropriate template. It is more a symptom of one's inability to comprehend things at a glance. When the idiot Valuska sees the whale, he is at least aware that his perception of it will be hopelessly incomplete.

Seeing the whale did not mean he could grasp the full meaning of the sight, since to comprehend the enormous tail fin, the dried, cracked, steel-grey carapace and, halfway down the strangely bloated hulk, the top fin, which alone measured several metres, appeared a singularly hopeless task. It was just too big and too long, Valuska simply couldn't see it all at once, and failed even to get a proper look at its dead eyes.... [I]t was simply impossible to see the enormous head as an integral whole.

Perhaps there is something there about the danger of populist/mass thinking, its innate lack of foresight, and its consequent savagery arising from the inability to see the forest for the trees, the whole for the parts. Our yearning for the end of the world is but our failure to exact meaning from existence: our own enactment of intellectual mass suicide.

It's not surprising that W. G. Sebald contributes a blurb to the book which states that the novel's universal vision "rivals that of Gogol's Dead Souls and far surpasses all the lesser concerns of contemporary writing". He and Krasznahorkai are priests of a sort of European "literature of doom". Thomas Bernhard also belongs to that company. The Hungarian novelist seems to share in the Austrian's lamented topics. The former spells out the state of nature no less explicitly: "the whole of human history is no more ... than the histrionics of a stupid, bloody, miserable outcast in an obscure corner of a vast stage, a kind of tortured confession of error, a slow acknowledgement of the painful fact that this creation was not necessarily a brilliant success"; "he wanted to forget everything he had had to suffer during the decades of his so-called directorship of the academy of music: those grinding attacks of idiocy, the blank ignorant look in people's eyes, the utter lack of burgeoning intelligence in the young, the rotten smell of spiritual dullness and the oppressive power of pettiness, smugness and low expectation under the weight of which he himself had almost collapsed."

Anxiety at the impending end of the world and (by extension) the end of literature marks the terrain of the literature of doom. Only agents provocateurs flourish in this setting as they do damage to the established peace and order (and literary conventions). Who ever is prepared for catastrophes, apocalypses, terrorist acts, and other anticipated endings? Everyone dissembles in the end. But readers resist the idea as it appears the novelist himself is the agent provocateur. Our consolation is that the grand narrative may yet belong to the readers whom the novelist is forced to transact ideas with.


  1. This sounds really interesting. Krasznahorkai is another shouldering his way onto my TBR wish list.

  2. Happy hunting, Séamus. Hope you find a copy before Armageddon. haha.

  3. I bought this last year, it's next to my bed, under or above Nabokov, Fielding, Sterne, and some others. I have so much to read, but I'm planning to make this one of the reads for the European Reading Challenge.

    1. Oops, I got it wrong: actually I have Satantango.

    2. That's great, Miguel. It would be interesting to see the movie adaptations of these novels too.

  4. The movie of Melancholy of Resistance is - well - it is quite dull, but also quite interesting, especially to knock against the novel - it is a mix of fidelity and wild, meaning-changing differences. I believe K. himself wrote the screenplay!

    I have not dared Satantango, either the film or novel. War & War is easily worth reading, too.

  5. Tom, if K. wrote it then moviegoers won't be able to get out of the theater! hehe.

    I wonder which is the more unsettling. Watching a 7-hour movie or reading a book for 7 days (or 7 months).

  6. Very good review, some nice observations.