Given that Hungarian writer Laszlo Krasznahorkai has just won his second straight Best Translated Book Award, I’m starting to see the re-emergence of a question that I’ve answered a bunch of times previously. So, instead of trying to respond to this question a bunch of times in a bunch of different places, I’m going to say it here for once and for all.
And this is the question: Where do I start with Laszlo Krasznahorkai?
It seems to me that a lot of people are fascinated by Krasznahorkai and want a way in to his work, but they don’t know where to start. So, a few ground rules.
1. I will never tell a person not to read Krasznahorkai for any reason. Regardless of everything I say here, do whatever you feel is best, dive in, and read the books.
Seiobo There Below
2. Seiobo There Below is the book that just won the Best Translated Book Award. In addition to being Krasznahorkai’s most recently translated book, it is also his most recent novel, published in Hungarian in 2008. It comes 20 years into Krasznahorkai’s career, and it is, in many ways a culminating work, a book that brings together a number of strands of inquiry that Krasznahorkai has pursued over his career.
It’s my opinion that anyone can pick up Seiobo There Below without knowing anything else about Krasznahorkai and have a fantastic experience. There is nothing about his work that precludes this from being the first of his books that you read. But, if you have a little more knowledge of Krasznahorkai before you start, you will have a different (and probably better) experience with it.
So to sum up: an incredible book and a fine place to start. But to fully appreciate just how far Krasznahorkai has come as a writer, you might want to start elsewhere.
3. This brings us to Satantango, Krasznahorkai’s first novel. This is his second-to-last novel to be translated (the one immediately before Seiobo), and it won the Best Translated Book Award last year.
Since this is his first novel, it’s obviously going to be the book that readers need the very last amount of knowledge about Krasznahorkai to start reading. I would say that this book is at times a demanding read. Krasznahorkai is quite amazing in that he emerged into the literary world with a fully formed, very developed style, and that style is fully on display here. However, it is my opinion that as time went on Krasznahorkai refined some of his more baroque touches into books that weren’t quite excessive, but that punched all the harder for it.
Bottom line: Satantango is an amazing read. It’s a great place to start with Krasznahorkai. It is the first expression of his core themes of decay and civilization’s unending swing from order to chaos and back.
The Melancholy of Resistance
4. The Melancholy of Resistance was Krasznahorkai’s first book to be translated into English, back in 2000 (Hungarian original in 1989). It received, among other plaudits, a rave from Susan Sontag (the much-referenced “master of the apocalypse” line) that I’ve never been able to find a source for, try as I might. This is also the film that Bela Tarr adapted very successfully into Werckmeister Harmonies.
This is probably my second-favorite of the novels that have been translated, after Seiobo There Below. The sentences are still very lengthy and at times baroque, but they’ve obtained a sort of lapidary clarity that makes this book (believe it or not) a surprisingly fast read, and a pretty easy book to follow.
If I were just starting out with Krasznahorkai and I, say, had a summer to devote to him, I’d either start here or with Satantango, and I would read these two first.
War & War
5. Then we get to War & War, the second of Krasznahorkai’s novels to be translated, (and the only remaining one that I haven’t already covered here). This is probably, personally, my least favorite of the novels that have been translated so far, although this is still Krasznahorkai, so it’s a pretty damn good book and way above the standards of most contemporary fiction.
This one has a very weird structure, being about this European named Korin, who goes to New York City and tries to upload this weird book to the Internet (this being 1999, the Web is quite different). It alternates with scenes from his life and these weird quasi-excerpts from the book. It can at times be a rather disorientating and strange read.
If you’re just the casual Krasznahorkai reader, this is probably going to be the least-necessary novel. But, it does broaden out Krasznahorkai’s core obsession with decay and civilization’s lunges between order and anarchy in ways that I have not seen in any of his other books thus far. So, if you want to get the full Krasznahorkai, I would consider it essential.
5a. I’m also going to mention here Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens, which Ottilie Mulzet is currently translating, and which will eventually be published by Seagull Books. This book comes in between Krasznahorkai’s “East European works” (Satantango, Melancholy, War & War) and his “Asian” books (of which Seiobo is the ultimate), so it forms an important part of his life’s work.
6. Now we get into the non-novel books. King among these is AnimalInside, which Krasznahorkai originally wrote for the Cahiers series, and which was subsequently picked up by New Directions. This is a chapbook that Krasznahorkai made in collaboration with the German artist Max Neumann. It all started from a painting of Neumann’s that Krasznahorkai began writing in response to. Then Newmann made another painting, and Krasznahorkai responded to that. Pretty soon, they were creating for one another.
AnimalInside is a beautiful, beautiful object to hold in your hands. If you can get a copy, you should do so! It’s also an extraordinary piece to read.
7. There is a second Krasznahorkai chapbook, and it is The Bill: For Palma Vecchio, at Venice. This is a sentence-long, 15-page story, and it was originally published in English in Best European Fiction 2011. Here it gets a deluxe treatment, and the chapbook features some rather beautiful reproductions of sixteenth-century Venetian painter Palma Vecchio’s work (his paintings are central to the story).
This is a very good story. It explores some terrain I haven’t really seen elsewhere in Krasznahorkai’s work.
“El último Lobo”
From the comments. A lengthy, one-sentence story first published in English translation at Words Without Borders.
There Goes Valzer
Published in English translation at the London Review of Books on March 20, 2014, Krasznahorkai writes from the perspective of “Róbert Valzer.”
8. That does it for the work itself that has been translated into English. There are a couple of partner works that I would recommend in tandem with Krasznahorkai:
First among these is Music & Literature Issue 2. This issue has essays on all Krasznahorkai’s major works (translated or not), original writings by Krasznahorkai (which have not appeared in English anywhere else), paintings by Neumann, and my interview with Ottilie Mulzet (who translated Seiobo There Below). An essential piece for the Krasznahorkai devotee, and brimming with insight into Krasznahorkai.
Then there is Damnation by Janice Lee, which is her book-length artist’s response to the work of Krasznahorkai and Tarr.
9. And now some resources: