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Dust to Dust

The oddly soothing apocalypses of László Krasznahorkai

Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming by László Krasznahorkai, translated by Ottilie Mulzet. New Directions, 576 pages.

A lot of us are feeling bad lately. We’re reading the news and it’s not looking good. We’ve skimmed the climate science. We’re feeling anxious at work, staving off the void by ironically posting about it. We can’t put our finger on exactly why or when this all started, but we’d be fooling ourselves if we said 2016. Perhaps it’s been going on longer than we first thought. We’ve lost track of time. When and where did the world we’re living in go so wrong? And when will this terrible spell end? Is this what an apocalypse feels like?

The slow drip of malaise is formless, resistant to narrative. Just when it seems like the ship is going down, it somehow rights itself. But as Frank Kermode writes in The Sense of an Ending, “Apocalypse can be disconfirmed without being discredited. This is part of its extraordinary resilience.” The specifics of our ill-feeling change, and time goes on, even as some of us can’t help but feel that it shouldn’t. In the words of the epigraph to László Krasznahorkai’s Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming, his latest, longest, strangest, and possibly greatest novel, “Eternity—will last as long as it lasts.”

Krasznahorkai is a perplexing figure in today’s literary landscape: he is, in internet parlance, committed to his bit. The Hungarian author cultivates an air of mystery (he “lives in reclusiveness,” according to one biographical note) and has been known to give cryptic answers in his occasional interviews (“Wherever I happen to disappear, it is neither into silence nor into darkness,” he told Asymptote Journal). A literary heir to Kafka, Beckett, and Dostoyevsky, for him the existence of God and the nature of infinity are subjects that are not too large. Krasznahorkai is known for long, labyrinthine sentences that painstakingly excavate every fleck of a subject’s consciousness, rolling across multiple pages with precious little white space. In the tradition of Mallarmé, he has said that he always wanted to write one unified book, and Wenckheim, reportedly the author’s last, seeks to tie together three previous novels: Satantango, The Melancholy of Resistance, and War & War, unifying them into one great work. Accordingly, Wenckheim takes up the ideas of these earlier books and enlarges them: the absurd is more absurd, the incomprehensible more incomprehensible than ever.

Krasznahorkai’s writing has been widely praised by critics, but it’s anathema for those who want to escape into literature. His work is often described as “bleak,” “haunting,” “grim,” “pessimistic”; the author as “the poet of the Apocalypse,” etc. The tetralogy that, with Wenckheim, he has retroactively built takes place in a landscape of rain, mud, and crushed dreams, loosely based on the small towns and countryside of his youth in eastern Hungary. Throughout, petty officials and swindlers scheme to seize power; secret police surveil citizens; peasants drink away their sorrows at the bar. One of his best-known novels involves a long sequence in which a neglected child kills a cat and then herself with rat poison. You may feel you’ve already got enough going on in your life—why travel down the path to doom and nothingness? You could call this the Sullivan’s Travels school of thought, after Preston Sturges’s film, in which an ambitious director tries to make a masterpiece of social realism by “slumming it.” Later, he’s accidentally imprisoned, and the time in a work camp grants him an epiphany: prisoners don’t want to watch films about their misery. They want “Playful Pluto.”

The absurd is more absurd, the incomprehensible more incomprehensible than ever.

And yet, though it has its confrontations with despair and nihilism, Wenckheim is the funniest of Krasznahorkai’s novels. Among the usual caricatures of provincial incompetence and bureaucratic bizarre (for instance, the organization of a “Chicken Backs Tossing Competition”), there are gravediggers who wear “special formal tracksuits,” a chaotic scene involving neo-Nazi bikers programming their electric horns to blast “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” en masse, and a meeting with a future pope. Comedy is appropriate in a landscape where there’s a sense that things are rapidly spiraling out of anyone’s control, possibly even the author’s.

Accordingly, the cast of characters has also grown considerably, from the addition of a mayor and chief of police to two orphans who try to skip town without a train ticket. Another modification is the novel’s rapid movement, switching between perspectives far more disjunctively, suggesting a world of destabilized narratives, where truth is always filtered through layers of hearsay and distortion. At the same time, the novel is studded with marks of continuity, from cameo appearances of characters from the previous novels to a winking allusion to Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies, itself an adaptation of Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance (“the formerly renowned director of our music school, who—just imagine, Lord Baron—was even the chief protagonist in a feature film”).

Two threads hold the latest novel together. The first is the story of the Professor, a former renowned biologist who has abandoned society to live a hermetic existence on the town’s desolate outskirts, where he practices “thought-immunization exercises” in order to “put the brakes on the sick compulsion of thought.” One day, his renunciations are disturbed by the appearance of his daughter, whose existence he has nearly forgotten. She insists that he owes her something for his neglect, and his trigger-happy method of chasing her away gets him involved with a fascist motorcycle gang, the so-called “Local Force,” who first idolize the Professor but later end up hunting him—a riff on the co-optation of intellectuals whose allegedly objective thought experiments are deployed to nefarious ends.

The second, larger thread of the novel involves the titular Baron, very last of the Baronial Wenckheim branch who have left only their names to the town (Wenckheim Castle is a destination in Satantango, and characters walk down Wenckheim Boulevard in The Melancholy of Resistance). The Baron has lived most of his life in Argentina (the family’s connections there having been “nurtured ever since 1944,”), gambling away his fortune at the casino until he is bailed out of trouble by a lesser branch of the family. Lanky, withered, and afraid of human touch, the Baron seems to not care much for the world where he would be king. But he decides to return back to the place of his youth anyway, perhaps because he has nothing better to do, perhaps in order to rekindle an ancient flame with a woman named Marika. Rumor of the Baron’s return soon spreads, leading to a chaotic piling-up of local preparations for the moment in which he will arrive and set things right in a stagnant city.

Krasznahorkai is a writer who often returns to ideas and situations, re-elaborating them, turning them over to find a new angle. If the goal is to capture all of eternity in a book, novelty for its own sake becomes less urgent. Types recur frequently: the Professor is one in a series of intellectuals who would quarantine themselves from the world to live in pure thought. There are also holy fools, who find beauty in the stars, a sacred text, or in a single bare acacia tree. And there are false prophets, who work to sell the hopeless a transcendence that is almost always snake oil.

The desire for a messiah is at the center of Wenckheim. Perhaps the Baron is unique among Krasznahorkai’s prophets insofar as he isn’t even aware that he is one: as one relative muses, he’s “genuinely an idiot, just another idiot in the family,” who has come home simply because there’s no alternative. His promise as a restorer of bygone elegance or pride is imposed on him from afar by desperate people. And it’s quickly apparent that the Baron’s pursuit of Marika is as senseless and illusory as the dreams of the town’s residents: when he finally arrives, he doesn’t even recognize the long-lost subject of his attachment—an unintentional act of cruelty. His romance is as sentimentally mildewed as all fantasies of restoration. When the Baron’s fragile shell is shattered, more insidious forces swoop in to fill the vacuum.

In his Paris Review Art of Fiction interview, Krasznahorkai remarks on living through the transition from the seeming endlessness of Communist Hungary into something new:

It was a timeless society because they wanted you to think that things would never change. Always the same gray sky and colorless trees and parks and streets . . . You were living in an eternity. It was very depressing. My generation was the first that not only didn’t believe in communist theory or Marxism but found it ridiculous, embarrassing. When I lived through the end of this political system, it was a wonder.

As Hungary underwent its fitful transition into a market democracy, Krasznahorkai’s fiction mirrored its shifts. Satantango and The Melancholy of Resistance chronicle, however obliquely, the late phase of Communism before the Iron Curtain’s fall, while War & War, written in the 1990s, is the story of a journey out from Hungary to the “center of the world,” which turns out to be New York City.

Wenckheim gives you the sense that whatever opening might have been available during this period has now been slammed shut: the Hungarian landscape is as bleak as ever, with the hyperconnectivity of global capitalism superimposed above it. Part of Krasznahorkai’s genius has been his ability to absorb the tectonic changes of politics and culture into his singular style: his challenge of despair is applicable under any economic system. Wenckheim’s world and its evils are both completely up-to-date (the Professor’s “iPhone—with Twitter, Facebook, his email, and of course LinkedIn” is one of the things he must first discard) and as ancient as the fields—the novel does not privilege one time over the other.

Those looking for positive visions of the future will find few in Wenckheim. The warped Hungary it chronicles seems headed in a dark direction, echoing authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s tightening grip on real-world Hungary and the erosion of its democracy. During the Baron’s homecoming celebration, a school headmaster gives a speech in which he pathetically apologizes for having lectured on Marx’s “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,” insisting that he’s always secretly been a “member of the minor nobility.” Revanchism may be idiotic, but it comes on strong. Throughout the novel, the homeless, Roma people, and masses of refugees exist huddled on the city’s streets like an unanswered question—one the novel’s grotesque figures are unable to face. In this updated form, Krasznahorkai’s work remains a powerful and pessimistic challenge to all forms of received thought, particularly intellectual laziness and the vain overestimation of our own goodness.

Krasznahorkai invites us to consider more deeply the disorder that’s always lurked inside.

Near the center of the novel, the Professor’s interior monologue unspools as he conducts one of his “thought-immunization exercises.” In it, he lays out the case for the utter meaninglessness of the world, reflecting that “there is no such thing as a valid thought,” that we don’t understand our own history, that infinity is incomprehensible to us, and that the belief that there’s something beyond our own reality has been our fundamental error. Ultimately, “it doesn’t matter . . . human existence is the same, with thought, or without”—all that’s left, after endless misapprehensions have been cleared away, is to simply give the world a final “YES.” The relentless flow of these vast, complicated sentences drives us toward, in Marx’s words, a “ruthless criticism of everything existing.” It’s a stark, alienated philosophy, spoken by a character whose sanity could be questioned, but it’s also a test. Can we find a way to instead say no to this insistent voice that tells us that really, it’s all—all of it—bullshit? After we’re truly honest with ourselves, what’s left?

Still, there are glimmers of possibility, if not hope. The Professor’s speech offers another axiom: “fear is what defines human existence [. . .] the fear that is within us and the joy of life that is within us, well, these two things are one and the same.” We can’t escape our fear, but we can understand that it’s the origin of culture. The speech also nods to an effect of its own style, as the Professor remarks that these questions should be “deaccelerated to the greatest possible degree of which the thinking mind is capable . . . in this way we won’t make the mistake of missing a step, or of failing, in the meantime, to take notice of something.”

Slowing down and taking notice becomes a kind of lifeline, even as the novel’s events seem to accelerate. Wenckheim repels easy interpretation, as the seemingly authoritative reading always recedes back into a shifting chorus of voices. Is the Professor’s daughter’s grudge against her father, for example, just generational entitlement, or a recognition of what those who have made this world owe to the future? Later on, an anonymous invective against the Hungarian people (“never has this earth carried on its back such a repulsive people as you”) is published that shocks and offends the petty ruling class. At the same time, larger and more mysterious cataclysms begin. Does this letter trigger these events? Or is it also meaningless, as enormous changes throw the world into disarray regardless of anyone’s intent?

Paradox is at the heart of Krasznahorkai: even as his books seem to affirm meaninglessness, the music of those long, spiraling sentences reflects a great care. Equally, it’s an act of will and of care to read a novel like Wenckheim, the opposite of consuming “content.” Krasznahorkai’s novels are not something that you halfheartedly acquiesce to after thirty minutes of Netflix scrolling. Content is the killing of time; literature like Krasznahorkai’s helps confront the way meaning and value keep leaking out of that time. He calls the now ubiquitous aphorism that “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” into question. Maybe it is actually quite difficult to imagine the end of the world when we’re bombarded with so many false images of it. Figuring out who will get their face bitten off by a zombie on next week’s The Walking Dead (now entering its tenth season) isn’t a representation of the end of the world: it’s a franchisable facsimile of the world we can’t understand and maybe never could. Krasznahorkai invites us to consider more deeply the disorder that’s always lurked inside.

In a crucial moment near the end of the novel, the Baron’s Savile Row tailoring is thrown onto the street for the dispossessed who have remained in the margins throughout. But his peculiar proportions ensure that the clothes, finely made as they are, are unwearable by anyone else and therefore worthless. The homeless burn the clothes for warmth. At the same moment, time stops: we are briefly presented with the image of another character who has no name. He supersedes the Professor and the Baron, and his ghostly passing through the city streets feels like a kind of culmination:

Everything that until that moment had been flowing unimpeded was now shut down, everything that had been free was no longer free, because it was exactly the free course of things and beings, the possibility of free initiations and free impulses that had suddenly become impossible; the possible and the real were possible and real no longer, the Great Flow was over, finished—because that infinite-seeming convoy had appeared, and once again, he was in this convoy, and before him were innumerable black Mercedes and BMWs and Rolls-Royces and Bentleys, and behind him were innumerable Mercedes and BMWs and Rolls-Royces and Bentleys, and they practically glided across the city.

Maybe you could read this completely insulated, black car-borne figure as some manifestation of global capital. Maybe he is yet another force beyond our faculties, darker than we can know. But sitting for a while with your earthly meaninglessness in the face of these unanswerable questions is oddly sobering, even calming. Whatever anxiety is taking you away from your desires, it’s all right. Soon it will be dust, along with everything else that exists.