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Make ’em laugh: ‘Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming’

By Adam Rivett
On surrendering to the altogether amusing madness of László Krasznahorkai’s prose

Literary criticism without quotation may well be, in the words of the late Clive James, little more than a supermarket monologue, but when faced with the novels of László Krasznahorkai, and in particular his latest novel, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming (translated by Ottilie Mulzet), filled as it is with sentences that regularly swallow entire pages whole, and which often hit double digits before the relief of a period, any quotation is likely to be a mangling of a carefully if maniacally achieved art, and a critic, when looking for material to support a potentially flimsy argument, might find themselves in the invidious position of asking a reader to, in so many words, take their word for it, as I am in effect asking you to do when I assert that despite Krasznahorkai’s reputation as a writer of dense and exhausting fictions predisposed to apocalyptic ruminations delivered in a frequently abstruse and roundabout fashion, he is also regularly, and quite profoundly, funny, and that in the place of supporting humorous quotations taken from the book in question – which, it should be said at the outset, is a unique, frustrating and altogether remarkable achievement, should you wish to skip all this and merely take from the review an unambiguous critical evaluation that might guide future reading – what might be possible instead is the quoting of three blurbs that regularly rear their heads whenever Krasznahorkai is discussed in English, which I will in turn gently dissent from in the hope of reaffirming my argument, without jokes, about the purported funniness of said author.

 

1. “The Hungarian master of the apocalypse” – Susan Sontag

All praise directed towards the novels of Krasznahorkai, frequently of a rather fulsome and po-faced nature, invariably mentions the end-times tilt of his writing, and runs downstream of this much reproduced line from Sontag. She is – and they in turn are – to a certain extent, far from wrong. His books are full of holy fools and madmen, grubby peasants and conniving tricksters, and nearly all of them are scored to the sound of tolling bells, often, in the case of Satantango, quite literally. One of his novels ends with a lengthy evocation of human decay mapped out with overwhelming, if oddly poetic, scientific rigour, while another annihilates itself in the act of bearing witness to a mind so wracked with madness that the often humdrum act of reading a novel feels legitimately destabilising. Nearly all of his work, and in particular the quartet of novels including Satantango, The Melancholy of Resistance, War & War, and now Baron, addresses finality: loss, death, dementia, fire, plague.

And yet, as one might say if one found oneself in a conference devoted to the work of Samuel Beckett, surrounded session after session with a particularly grim and earnest style of scholar, invariably male and somewhat domineering: you guys realise this stuff is supposed to be funny, right?

Just as Beckett’s tramps and shut-ins pursue hopeless aims to bitterly funny ends, so too the mud-stained gullibles and cynics of Krasznahorkai’s quartet operate at such perpetual extremes – mirrored in language that follows their every pronouncement and retraction, every doubling and inflection, every cheap bit of hyperbole and inflation painstakingly recorded – that the apocalyptic shading becomes, without ever sacrificing seriousness, darkly, even hopelessly funny, the sentences tracking these actions and speeches so open to the polyphony of the bar, the news room, the town square, or the broken mind, that to engage with them properly is to become every bit as obsessed and ridiculously longwinded as the novel’s characters. How would the exact nature of the humour on offer in this new book be characterised? A humour of exasperation.

 

2. “Difficult, peculiar, obsessive, visionary” – James Wood

There’s a curious paradox at the heart of this work, and the quartet more generally: enormous rhetorical force is expended on what could generously be termed a measly unit of dramatic action. The capaciousness of the prose is used on narrative material slim enough, in plain recollection, to fit neatly inside a traditional short story. This in part accounts for the success of filmmaker Béla Tarr’s numerous collaborations with Krasznahorkai, including his justly revered seven-and-a-half-hour adaptation of Satantango. So much of Tarr’s work is durational in the most painful manner possible, so much of its aesthetic thrill and grim humour derived from watching drunkards cutting agonising paths through mud and rain in search of a drink, each laborious step honoured in real time. Loosely speaking, given that the comparison of film and literature is too large a subject for a single passing paragraph, it’s the different between an artist of selection and refinement and an artist of deluge and chaos; or, perhaps, the difference is more fundamental between the forms. But where the attenuation between form and content in Tarr’s adaptations generates a space where time is truly felt, often in terrible emptiness, in Krasznahorkai the distance between the two mocks and upends expectations, guiding readers through truly unmanageable forms of genuine mania, expecting harmony and restraint and receiving instead exaggeration and inflation.

For some readers this perpetual maximalism might sound like an immediately off-putting approach, or at best a tragic case of misapplied style. It’s one thing to laugh at material shaped with the conscious aim of amusement, that glorified distraction. But to be pushed and dared to relent in the face of a novel like Baron, to be so gloriously bullied and denied? What’s the correct response to Andy Warhol’s Empire, the hour-long rendition of “My Favorite Things” that closes John Coltrane’s Live in Japan, or the gloriously boozy indulgent shapelessness of John Cassavetes’ Husbands? At a crucial point in Baron, as what might generously be called narrative lines converged, I came close to leaning into the book, feeling something like closure was about to take place. And it was here, where a more traditional writer might push for resolution, that Krasznahorkai instead gave the floor over to a truly lengthy monologue about the deficient moral character of Hungarians, a gloriously splenetic Bernhardian rant seemingly without end. In the right frame of mind something deeper than the cheap response of laughter emerges, something closer in spirit to surrender.

There is of course the question of how to convince someone to submit themselves to such extended and arguably unnecessary longueurs, but this question itself, wrapped up in the oily language of marketing and finance (worth your time, a wise investment, a solid return etc.) is a fundamentally disgusting one, as arguably anyone who is reading these days already feels it’s worth their time, and people who need to be convinced they are “getting something” from the commitment required to pay attention to a rectangle of sliced paper bound in glue and board are likely already finding other things to do to delay the realisation that they too will one day die. Is it worth our time? What else are you going to do with it? Do you have somewhere else to be? By every metric created and insisted upon by the overlords of this ridiculous and doomed country, literature is the domain of unproductive losers. A brutal and unfair fate to be sure, but you’ll never win them back insisting otherwise. Might as well lean into your own doom. It’s a good life if you don’t weaken.

 

3. “A slow lava flow of narrative, a vast black river of type” – George Szirtes

Oh, the plot. If synopsis is the banal burden of all criticism, it might be done away with here entirely. Refusing even the effort of paraphrasing, I will now retype what can be found on the left dust jacket fold, which, per argument above, both captures the basic events of the novel and laughably misrepresents the book.

Nearing the end of his life, Baron Bela Wenckheim decides to return to the provincial Hungarian town of his birth. Having escaped from his many casino debts in Buenos Aires, where he was living in exile, he wishes to be reunited with his high-school sweetheart Marika. What follows is an endless storm of gossip, con men and local politicians, vividly evoking the small town’s alternately drab and absurd existence.

 

Meanwhile, the Professor – a world-famous natural scientist who studies mosses and inhabits a bizarre Zen-like shack in a desolate area outside of town – offers long rants and disquisitions on his own attempts to immunise himself from thought. Spectacular actions are staged while death and the abyss loom, until finally doom is brought down on the unsuspecting residents of the town.

Would it be of interest to you to mention that the titular Baron is not introduced until page 81 of the book, and that extended periods of time are given over to his clothing and the conditions of his travel before he takes his sweet near-Godotian time arriving back home? Should I mention the Nazi bikers, the pitiful orchestra, the hack Mayor? The Pynchonian echoes? The presence in the novel of not only Facebook but, unless I’ve missed them elsewhere, Krasznahorkai’s first mentions of Twitter and LinkedIn? Truly shocking for a writer so removed from the banalities of the modern era to have such common words stain his prose! It’s always a challenge to give the flavour of any book in a review, yes, but it’s truly impossible here. Szirtes – poet and regular translator of much Krasznahorkai, including The Last Wolf, a novella of near-perfection – had it right: a black river of type.

Yet there’s another way to see it, a way to navigate the river. The ponderousness that threatens to gather around these words – Krasznahorkai’s as much as mine – can be dispelled with a change of focus. I can see Szirtes now, moving across sentences in the original Hungarian and converting them into English of its own strange, broken beauty. His eyes toggle between the two facing texts – Háború és háború, War & War – as he slowly loses himself in the unwinding madness of the sentences. Are you even looking for the bon mot, or jó szó, at this point? The totality overwhelms the particular. It’s lava, yes, but not black, and the river no longer threatens. A kind of baffled amusement has found him. Walking sentence to sentence with Korin, mad protagonist of the novel, and feeling himself, out of duty, drawn inwards, does he not, at the conception and execution of the original work, and at his own duty of translation, perhaps not crack something like a smile? Perhaps inwardly, or even outwardly, laugh?

Adam Rivett

Adam Rivett is a Melbourne-based writer. He has written for The Lifted Brow, The Age, The Australian, Island, Fireflies and Seizure.

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