Speaking Volumes: Slow Reading

From 'Animalinside'; artwork by Max Neumann
From ‘Animalinside’; artwork by Max Neumann

For years Laszlo Krasznahorkai has been explaining that he does not use long sentences. Every second review of his work mentions those long sentences, but he would not agree. He writes the way people speak (or think, or imagine).

The full stop – “the dot”, he says dismissively – is an artificial convention, like apostrophes, commas. Call his lines real sentences instead, accumulated slow phrase by slow phrase from the voices he hears in his head.

The Man Booker International prize, awarded to Krasznahorkai last week, is, like the Nobel, one way for a great writer to be honoured among his peers. The other writers shortlisted for the Man Booker this year included Amitav Ghosh, Alain Mabanckou, César Aira and Hoda Barakat, all towering figures in their own right.

[The complete Man Booker International shortlist, in The Guardian.]

Krasznahorkai’s work, familiar and cherished in Hungary and Germany for years, appeared in imperceptible stages to the English-speaking world. The gradual discovery of his books, first from Bela Tarr’s films, then from the translations, has been like watching the raising of an iceberg stage by stage: you catch glimpses of alien forms of astounding beauty and black ice as the great mass of it comes up from the depths.

The general misconception about Krasznahorkai is that his books are “difficult” writing, a loose description employed on everything from the truly impenetrable, cerebral novel, to anything more ambitious than Coelho bestsellers.

But that doesn’t convey what it’s like to read him. His long sentences, unspooling on the pages, are neither dense nor incomprehensible. They require you to slow down, but they are composed by a skilled writer who pays careful attention both to the world he lives in and the fictional worlds he creates.

[Read the first chapter of Seiobo There Below]
Satantango begins, famously: “One morning near the end of October not long before the first drops of the mercilessly long autumn rains began to fall on the cracked and saline soil on the western side of the estate (later the stinking yellow sea of mud would render footpaths impassable and put the town too beyond reach) Futaki woke to hear bells.” Kamo-Hunter, the first chapter of Seiobo There Below is made up of evocative, spiralling sentences that track a snow-white heron in the middle of the Kamo River, near Kyoto (“the City of Endless Allusions”).

[The Millions interviews Krasznahorkai after Satantango was translated, 27 years after its first publication.]
As a writer, he believes that living in the world, you must pay attention to all that it contains, not skimming its violence and ugliness but also holding on to the idea that something beautiful may exist, elsewhere. Krasznahorkai makes me want to start a Slow Reading movement, in praise of books that are strange, rich, rooted in fertile soil, redolent of flavour, that reward you for spending time with them.

One of his favourite translators, Ottilie Mulzet, said in an interview: “I would never insert a full stop where there isn’t one in the original, because for me these sentences are like rivers, and if you place a full stop where there isn’t one in the original text, it’s like you’re damming up the river.”

From 1988 to 2011, he and Bela Tarr collaborated on six films, each a classic (Damnation, Satantango, Werckmeister Harmonies, The Man From London, The Turin Horse). Satantango is the most celebrated, remembered for Tarr’s legendary long tracking shots and for its seven-hour length.

[Bela Tarr on his films and the collaboration with Krasznahorkai]

Satantango begins with the return of Irimias and Petrina to a failed village collective; the villagers don’t know that the two are also the eyes of the totalitarian state. “We kept the structure of the book,” Tarr said, “Like the tango, it’s six steps forward, six steps back.” The Turin Horse picks up on a key incident from Nietzsche’s life – his breakdown after he witnesses the whipping of a horse by a hansom cab driver. What happened to Nietzsche has been thoroughly chronicled. Krazsnahorkai, typically drawn to the porous border between human and non-human experiences, asks what happened to the horse and its driver.

It was only in 2000 that the first of his books, The Melancholy of Resistance, was translated, in 2010 that George Szirtes’ striking and faithful translation of Satantango came out, in 2013 that Seiobo Down Below was released in English. From 1990, Krasznahorkai had begun travelling in parts of Asia, starting with Mongolia and then moving on to China and Japan – his second wife, Dóra Kopcsányi, is a sinologist of some note.

His Asian books are startling and unusual. The Prisoner of Urga (1992) was his first travelogue from China. From the North by Hill, From the South by Lake, From the West by Roads, From the East by River (2003) pulls off the trick of capturing some of the wabi-sabi principles of Japanese art and calligraphy in literary form. Its chief protagonist is the fictional grandson of Genji. Destruction and Sorrow Beneath The Heavens, his 2005 memoir of travelling in China, is out in a new translation in January 2016 – he compares past and present, recording what feels irredeemably lost.

“…it turns out that all the buildings here are brand new and fake, that all the Lohans and so-called Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are brand new and fake, that every groove and every pillar and every inch of gold paint is brand new and fake, that everything is a fraud…”

The more I read of Krazsnahorkai’s books, the more I am drawn back to his readings. He often starts without preamble, pulls his readers into the world of his book in just a few sentences, ends without speaking further of what has just been read, and he is usually mesmerising. Over the years, his readers have grown in number and loyalty; he was famous for them long before the Man Booker.

Krasznahorkai, reading from Animalinside with Forrest Gander:

On one occasion, he reads in a dark room with light falling only on the pages. At a reading in the US, asked about war, he gives a stirring speech about peace as one of humanity’s most surprising achievements. To the astonishment of the organisers, the audience breaks out into an impromptu rendition of Lennon’s Imagine. In Berlin, he steps out onto a balcony, reading an apocalyptic section to the startled street as the image of a dog in silhouette is projected on the window of the balcony below. “With no warning,” Adam Thirlwell writes, “he disappeared. Simultaneously, the lights went dark.”

I think of what Krazsnahorkai said he aimed to find through writing. He said this in an interview, in two uncharacteristically short sentences: “Beauty in language. Fun in hell.”

 (Published in the Business Standard, May 26, 2015)

— More: James Wood’s definitive profile: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/07/04/madness-and-civilization

Krasznahorkai, George Szirtes and James Wood:


– Dancing in the Pub, Satantango





3 responses to “Speaking Volumes: Slow Reading”

  1. Gurpreet Singh Avatar
    Gurpreet Singh

    Pre-ordered Satantango today itself. Slated release is July 1st (paperback). He was my favourite for this year’s prize. Now that he has been ticked off I really Amitav gets it next.

    1. Gurpreet Singh Avatar
      Gurpreet Singh


  2. vishalbheeroo Avatar

    I am looking forward to read Satantango.

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