Like many Americans—or at least many among the exceedingly small tribe of us who have been bewitched by the humor, audacity and unrelenting bleakness of László Krasznahorkai’s prose—I first encountered the Hungarian novelist by way of his compatriot and longtime collaborator, the filmmaker Béla Tarr. This was in 2000, when, although the bookstore business had not yet fallen into protracted death spasms, gloomy and dense Mitteleuropean films were nonetheless easier to come by here than gloomy and dense Mitteleuropean novels. Still, if Tarr’s films were more talked about than seen in the United States—Sátántangó (1994), his acknowledged masterpiece, is seldom screened because it stretches to seven and a half hours—my few attempts to speak Krasznahorkai’s name aloud in public only ever provoked confused and slightly worried glances, as if I had choked on a bit of my tongue, or spat out something nasty.
Krasznahorkai co-wrote the screenplay for Sátántangó—which was based on his 1985 novel of the same name—but like most of his ten books of fiction, it had not yet been translated into English. The Germans might treasure Krasznahorkai (who spends most of his time in Berlin), the Hungarians too; but we were too busy with our own nastiness—building prisons, robotic weaponry and free trade agreements—and thus, until this year, only two of his books appeared in the United States. I found him through Tarr’s gorgeous The Werckmeister Harmonies, from 2000, which quickly led me to Krasznahorkai’s novel The Melancholy of Resistance (1989), on which that film was based.
The world it introduced was in flashes almost familiar. In its whimsy, its metaphysical longings and its provincial claustrophobia, the novel felt haunted here and there by the ghost of the Polish writer Bruno Schulz. It was possessed as well, though, by something far more sinister, a violence that was not circumstantial but ontological—something Schulz, bless him, did not evoke in his work. The plot of Melancholy is fairly simple: a carnival arrives in a small Hungarian town towing “the Biggest Whale in the World,” led by a mysterious demagogue intent on sowing chaos. The local forces of order are equally monstrous, but Krasznahorkai devotes most of his attention to two dreamy outsiders: the Schulzian Valuska, who wanders the streets contemplating “the mind-bending vastness of the universe,” and one Mr. Eszter, who is obsessed with tuning his piano to recapture the “pure tonalities” excluded by standardized modern harmonics.
Plot, as in all of Krasznahorkai’s work, is not what matters most. The life of his fiction resides directly in the labyrinthine paths taken by his sentences. Except in their length, which can be epic, they share little with those of other modern masters of the deferred stop. They aren’t fueled by the breathlessness and harshness that prolong Thomas Bernhard’s, or by the grinding “gotcha!” vertigo of David Foster Wallace’s. Krasznahorkai’s sentences are snaky, circuitous things, near-endless strings of clauses and commas that through reversals, hesitations, hard turns and meandering asides come to embody time itself, to stretch it and condense it, to reveal its cruel materiality, the way it at once traps us and offers, always deceptively, to release us from its grasp, somewhere out there after the last comma and the final period: after syntax, after words.