In Read This or Kill Yourself, we get tough with you about your bookshelf and what had damn well better be on it.
If you haven’t heard of Laszlo Krasznahorkai, you’re not in the minority. To be completely honest, the only reason I’m aware of him (and this book) is that I was trying to impress the book reviewer at The Washington Post so he’d help me get a better job (look how well that worked out).
Cool story, huh?
Anyway, Krasznahorkai is Hungarian, super allusive, and has only had a handful of books translated into English over the last decade or so. To us readers of English literature (even us grad school pricks), he’s pretty fucking remote. But, as with many things we’ve never heard of (or are just starting to see creeping up on our cultural radar screens), this guy is really, really good. Just read this excerpt. Can you believe how. fucking. good. this. guy. is?
Let me start again.
It might help to describe the basics of this book first. It’s hard to say whether Seiobo There Below (henceforth STB) is a novel or a collection of stories, but I’m not sure that the distinction between the two would be, in any way, meaningful to the understanding of the book. It’s definitely divided into sections (that are numbered using primes to imply a kind of “golden spiral” relationship between the sections [hence the impossibility of determining whether to read it as a whole or as discrete stories]), none of which are connected in any way but by theme. All of these pieces, in their own ways, are obsessed with the moment of transcendence through art, following various makers, protégés, and tourists through strange times, places, and works of art.
For example, in STB, you’ll read incredibly thorough accounts of a character consumed by the process of crafting a mask for the Japanese Noh Theater, another wandering through Italy to stare at an artwork he’s seen before, another exploring the Alhambra trying to make sense of the impossibility of knowing what the architectural masterpiece could have possibly been intended for, and another watching a bird standing in the middle of a river. Even as I’m writing this, I’m thinking to myself, it’s impossible that this book isn’t the most boring, most pretentious thing in town, but it’s not! It just isn’t. And I think I know why.
While some people love a good plot, some love great characters, and some (academic assholes) get off on meaning or cultural implication or philosophical value, I find that (and it seems like others agree) what really matters in the creation of great, meaningful literature—what really sets it apart from journalism, grocery-store fiction, bad genre fiction, etc.—is the sentence. That’s it. Now, perhaps it’s because I’ve thought about ways to aggrandize my life as a poet for a bit too long (because, shit, I still have to explain that to myself each morning), but for me (and a lot of other people much smarter and less pretentious than me) the sentence is what separates the good from the bad, what can create empathy with the reader or destroy the possibility of it. Think about it.
Sentences comprise our entire material experience of any book; sure, they are the units of thinking used to build meaning, understanding, and communication, but, left at that, all you have is really good journalism or a really meaningfully essay. Great sentences, on the other hand, call attention to themselves as sentences. Yes, they carry logic and information, but they have rhythms, they pause strategically, they themselves (as opposed to the content they carry) create ironies with what you expect sentences to be. Sentences are the basic units of organization, and organization in art is what allows us to experience it, to feel it rather than just read it. Sentences are fucking cool, y’all, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Krasznahorkai is one of our living masters of such.
I’d really like to show you one, but the average sentence in this book is easily 15-20 pages long, so I’ll spare you (and my genius editors here [ed note: thanks). If you’d like to see one, check out the link above. In a nutshell, these sentences are long (lol), difficult, and unlike anything I’ve seen in American literature. They are different (and difficult) because, unlike Faulkner’s, or Foster Wallace’s, or even our old ex-friend Frank Bidart’s, contrary to the basic logic of a sentence, they don’t build forward momentum. Let me say that another way (so you don’t kill yourself with boredom): the average sentence (even the more wonderful, more artful one) operates like a car rolling down a hill toward a brick wall; the speed increases and the overall tone gets more dire, an expectation is created (i.e. that the car will hit the wall) and, in some ways, you’re waiting for and preparing yourself for the full stop, the experience of collision with meaning.
Krasznahorkai’s sentences in STB, on the other hand, are a bit more like taking a tour bus around an unfamiliar city. You get on, somewhat oriented, and go and go and go, and there’s a tour guide saying look here and did you know about this; things feel assembled piecemeal, there’s chatter, honking horns, you stop briefly at stoplights (ahhh, the semicolon) and, yes, there’s a destination, but that seems less important, or, rather, distantly important; you’re here to get lost in the miscellany one piece at a time so that when you finally arrive at the conclusion, you know that you’ve had a meaningful experience that had more to do with the sum of the tour, all of the little meaningful (or not so much) pieces of your experience, than it did where you ended up.
But where you end up is important too; after the tour, after you get to know the texture and contours and history of the place, winding up in the Upper West Side can be pretty revelatory, despite the fact that you only started a few blocks away in Times Square.
These are not the sentences of a beach read (unless you like to inflict this kind of work on yourself while on vacation); these are the sentences of a major artwork that you will feel working on you, changing you, bending you around its purpose. You will get tired of them; you will beg the sentences to end, the paragraphs to end, the sections to end, because my God I just wanted something to read on the subway, let me out of your fucking world, but, in a way, I think that’s the point. Just as there’s the ambiguity between short-story collection and novel at play, so too is there a sense that these sentences could be shorter, should be shorter, but, because they’re all joined, some larger book-length, sentence-length ritual is being enacted, something vital you could miss if you don’t stick around. And that’s the pleasure of this book: it wraps you up meaningfully; it makes you work meaningfully. It’s written, sentence by sentence, section by section, in such a way that you can’t help but see the structure, feel its constraints, and experience the pleasures of the each section’s yield as the result. This book is a full-scale interrogation of art as holy and will force you into the repetitions, the rituals, and the cramped spaces of the makers; you will see and feel what is so large, so vital, in objects so small.
Image source: NPR