Books

Pulling back the curtain and finding nothing

Many American readers won’t have heard of the Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai, whose latest book, “The World Goes On,” has just been published by New Directions. If they have, then they’ll probably know two things about him: first, that Susan Sontag famously called him “the contemporary Hungarian master of apocalypse”; and second, that he writes daringly long sentences that go on for pages and pages, sometimes even for entire chapters.

Krasznahorkai’s fiction tends to be set in crumbling, strangely ahistorical Central Europe, in villages that look as if they’ve gone through the end times. But his work also is apocalyptic in the original sense: concerned with the time when ordinary, blinkered perception gives way to revelation, when the veil is rent and we see things in their true and terrifying form.

The characters in Krasznahorkai’s novels resemble Vladimir and Estragon from Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.’’ They endlessly anticipate a revelation — of the meaning of their lives, of the meaning of death — that is endlessly deferred. Krasznahorkai syntactically mirrors the endlessness of this anticipation with the seeming endlessness of his sentences. These aren’t of the Henry James variety, where the baroque subordination of clauses often makes the sense difficult to follow. Krasznahorkai’s sentences, by contrast, work through accretion, with clauses simply added to other clauses, like boxcars on a train. Insofar as a chapter-long sentence can be easy to follow, Krasznahorkai’s are. They offer us the sense of a mind in the ongoing rush of things, “quibbling, twisting and turning, pushing and pulling it to move ahead,” constantly thinking and hoping and waiting but never coming to much of a resolution.

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“The World Goes On,” a collection of 20 short stories plus a coda, serves as a wonderful primer to the “invisible gigasystem” that is the Krasznahorkai universe. Though it’s not as consistently excellent as some of Krasznahorkai’s novels — “Seiobo There Below’’ remains his best — the shorter, discrete offerings, many seeming less stories than fevered mini-essays and thought experiments, give readers the chance to take a sip of this weird brew before deciding to drain an entire novel.

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All of Krasznahorkai’s regular notes are present. “Universal Theseus,” maybe the book’s strongest story, is dedicated to Beckett and considers, among other things, the disappointment attendant upon “failing to discover the keys to the universe, while retaining this universe itself.” In the title story, the narrator considers how historical trauma — in this case, “the collapse of the Twin Towers and the caving in of the Pentagon” — might usher in a new language. In the middle of a four-page sentence, the narrator tells us that “on September 11 I flashed on the fact, like a twinge of physical pain, that, good god, my language, the one I could use to speak out now, was so old, so godforsaken ancient . . . how useless, how helpless and crude this language is, this language of mine, and how splendid it had been formerly, how dazzling and supple and apt and deeply moving, but by now it has utterly lost all of its meaning, power, spaciousness and precision, all gone.”

Many of the stories explore the necessarily impossible human longing to get outside our selves and our world in order to see both completely. In “How Lovely,” for instance, the narrator muses on an imagined “Lecture Series on Area Theory” that would, in his words, consider “the importance of the question, namely: can the undeniably limited nature of the human viewpoint possibly lead us to the weighty, if unprovable assertion — and according to another viewpoint besides the human it is conceivable — that there is no area.’’

We can only see ourselves and our world clearly, this book suggests again and again, from outside them — which is to say, from outside of life, from the vantage of death. As Krasznahorkai writes in the brilliant “Nine Dragon Crossing,” “the Whole had no aim, no meaning, since the Whole could not be enclosed within the causal web of goals and rationality, for then the Whole would of necessity become entangled in a narrative, whereas among other features a narrative has one characteristic, namely that it has to have an end.”

This is the fundamental predicament, Krasznahorkai suggests, not just for storytellers but for all of us. We can’t find meaning in our lives unless we see them in full, and we can only see them in full once they’re over, by which time meaning seems beside the point. What we’re left with, in this strange book’s strange final words, is a desire for escape that sounds a lot like a desire of obliteration: “for here I would leave this earth and these stars, because I would take nothing with me, because I’ve looked into what’s coming, and I don’t need anything from here.”

THE WORLD GOES ON

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By László Krasznahorkai

Translated from the Hungarian
by George Szirtes

New Directions, 288 pp., $24.95

Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY and the author of “Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period.”