Forming the Rant

László Krasznahorkai, The Last Wolf and Herman

Tuskar Rock, 128pp, £12.99, ISBN 9780811226080

reviewed by Leonid Bilmes

Literary criticism really does call for a sub-genre in the history of the novel: the genre of the modern rant. As with much else in modern literature, the dawn of this mode of literary expression of angst already glimmers in Hamlet’s monologues, but the one text that inaugurates the specifically modern rant is Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground. If you have read it, you will probably recall its splenetic opening: ‘I am a sick man . . . I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased.’ Dostoevsky’s narrative of a man’s refusal to submit to any and all restrictions on his life might be seen as a kind of discursive blueprint for vexed consciousness seeking to vent its rage. His most distinguished descendant in the twentieth century is surely the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, whose narrators – typically disgruntled males in the throes of oppressed consciousness, often coupled to severe bodily ailments – are known for their lack of decorum and general predisposition to be both insulted and insulting, as well as injured and injuring. More on Bernhard later.

The Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai is the contemporary inheritor of this intemperate genre of prose fiction, a claim made manifest by the slim edition of two novellas, The Last Wolf and Herman. This volume, because of its brevity and representative themes, is the perfect introduction to the work of a living master craftsman of the long, mind-entrancing sentence. Krasznahorkai is known for his collaborations with the auteur Hungarian director Bela Tarr – most notably through Tarr’s adaptations of his novels Satantango and The Melancholy of Resistance (the film of which is called The Werkmeister Harmonies). He is certainly an enigmatic writer. As James Wood has written in the New Yorker:

In Krasznahorkai, we often have no idea what is motivating the fictions. Reading him is a little like seeing a group of people standing in a circle in a town square, apparently warming their hands at a fire, only to discover, as one gets closer, that there is no fire, and that they are gathered around nothing at all.

The metaphor’s bleakness is appropriate, but I would argue that what Krasznahorkai’s fictions are warming themselves with is not nothing. In fact, they generate a kind of frictional warmth by their refusal to submit willy-nilly to the drudgery, treachery and contingency of the world, to the dictates of dumb existence itself. These off-kilter fictions are not warmed by the mechanics of plot, but by the heat produced by their narrators’ spleen. Spleen is humanity’s way of penetrating the obscurity of things in Krasznahorkai’s difficult prose world, a world which one of his translators, the Hungarian poet George Szirtes, has memorably described as ‘a slow lava flow of narrative.’ A simpler but perhaps subtler metaphor than Wood’s: just as lava is much too hot for warming your hands over, so intrepid readers are well advised to keep a little distance from this ‘nothing’ pulsing at the heart of Krasznahorkai’s fiction.

What makes these two novellas distinctive in Krasznahorkai’s oeuvre is their larger share of the comic, as well as their stylistic experimentation with the representation of the rant. The rant has always been a distinctive feature of Krasznahorkai’s writing, despite its (typically) third-person style of narration. In fact, his singularity as a prose stylist might be said to lie precisely in his adaptation of the rant – surely the most immediate of all narrative modes – to third-person narrative discourse. The spleen is thus often humming in the background of his narratives, giving the thought behind his prose the pleasant twang of a perfectly tuned bass string.

The Last Wolf is ‘about’ a disgruntled philosopher who, as he sits in a shoddy bar in Hamburg, tests the patience of a bored barman by painstakingly recounting the story of his misadventures in Spain, where he was invited, implausibly enough, to write about the eradication of an unheard-of region’s last living wolf. I place ‘about’ in scare quotes here to indicate that this narrative is really about much more than the recitation of these events for their own sake. It is about the very struggle to make known to another what ails and assails the self in its attempts to position itself meaningfully within the meaning-deflecting shell of contemporary existence. It is also about language itself, and how beauty might be created out of the most implausible of themes, such as an obscure philosophy professor’s trip to a place in Spain called Extremadura, to write about a wolf who may or who may not have been the last wolf of this region. It is difficult to articulate what it is exactly about Krasznahorkai’s writing that assails the reader with its beauty, especially in the inevitably clumsy anecdotal account of his plot. To grasp it you have to read it. The long sentences seem to depict thought and, always comically, the failure of thought to grasp significance, to fully understand thought’s object of attention. The object of Krasznahorkai’s writing, that which it seeks to illuminate and that which makes it turn back upon itself, like a snail receding into its spirally shell, is life itself, or at least life as we always fail to completely grasp it.

The comedy of Krasznahorkai’s work, like Beckett’s and Kafka’s, is the comedy of failure. ‘Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,’ says a character in Beckett’s Endgame, and this kind of sentiment would feel quite at home in The Last Wolf and Herman. The philosopher of The Last Wolf proclaims himself the embodiment of failure, even going so far as to say that language itself has failed him, or more likely that he has failed it, in his philosophical writings. He bewails the fact that his few books were written in ‘claustrophobic prose’ and according to a ‘depressing logic’ (as if logic could have mood swings), and that no one wants to read ‘his sentences, his logic, his diction or prose’ anymore, if they ever did. Is the author setting his reader up here? After all, an uncommitted reader might use precisely these adjectives to describe Krasznahorkai’s own prose. Within the text, the bartender gives voice to the reader’s frustration by means of the questions with which he punctuates and punctures the philosopher’s downbeat, meandering account. These interruptions signal Krasznahorkai’s subtle, self-mocking ironisation of the artificiality of the narrative act, and are a central feature of his distinctively black humour:

. . . they were heading from Caceres to Valencia, that’s about fifty kilometers out, so that they might find the entrance to the finca named Cantillana de Vieja – that what? the barman gave him an angry look because he had forgotten what he had been told about what the word meant – the word finca, you know, he [the philosopher] explained, a plot or estate guarded by gamekeepers or private security people, the whole mountain, the whole of the Sierra de San Pedro, since that was the name of the mountain, being entirely fenced round like a large estate, you understand – yes of course I understand the barman retorted furiously slapping the counter with his wiping-up cloth – so that it wasn’t long before they reached the finca. . .

The second novella is thematically tied to the first, but with a dark reversal. Herman is divided into two parts: ‘The Game Warden’ and ‘The Death of a Craft.’ The first recounts the story of the eponymous protagonist, a master trapper charged by the authorities with eradicating the animals of the Remete woodland area, in Hungary. After killing scores of rabbit, fox and deer, Herman is suddenly sickened, after a visceral nightmare, by his actions and decides to set traps for the authorities and residents of the nearby town, the whole grisly matter culminating in a hail of bullets. The second part concerns the same affair, but is narrated by a hedonist in search of thrills along with his party of young women and officer friends. They learn of the ‘Herman affair’ from their anxious hotel manager, himself prone to panicked rants, and the story concludes with these libertines joining in with the angry townsfolk, all armed, in their quest for this spectral trapper. The figure of Herman is indeed a ghostly one in the second story, and one has the feeling of an earlier fiction haunting the present one, in the same way that the themes of hunting and the destruction of life from The Last Wolf haunt the story of ‘The Game Warden.’

Both novellas read fluently and with a sense of this writer’s unique idiom and peculiar sentence construction preserved. George Szirtes proves as reliable as ever in his translation of the The Last Wolf. John Batki, meanwhile – whose translation of Herman is his first engagement with Krasznahorkai’s work to date – feels a little looser. Batki generally preserves Krasznahorkai’s prose signature, but indulges in occasional bursts of alliterative ornamentation that suggest a little more free handed play. For example, phrases rendered as ‘all of us were in a stifling funk following the fiasco,’ or ‘their fellatious amours sent the flabbergasted conductor fleeing when he opened the door’; for readers accustomed to Szirtes’s work, these Nabokovianisms seem somewhat uncharacteristic of what we’ve come to expect of Krasznahorkai’s writing. Readers who speak Hungarian are encouraged to lend their insight to this variation.

Of all the writers to have honed the ranty sentence since Dostoevsky, it is Thomas Bernhard whose style shares most with Krasznahorkai’s. Their narratives are stylistic cousins in the way that both writers tame the waywardness of the rant to a finely tuned formal elegance. Yet they do so in quite distinct ways. One key strategy Bernhard adopts is the repetition of certain words and phrases that both refer to and resurrect the source of his narrators’ distress. For instance, in a great Bernhard text, The Loser, a formal tidiness is created by constant repetition of keywords, such as ‘loser’, ‘deadly’, ‘word’ and ‘destroy’, creating what James Wood has called Bernhard’s ‘elegant, even oddly formal rants.’ In Krasznahorkai, on the other hand, the line of thought feels more meandering, not as bound up by the dictates of Bernhard’s mantra-prone style. In Krasznahorkai’s prose, style instead functions to represent the difficulty of being precise in what one means and how one means it: his style emerges from the narrative claustrophobia of a tireless attempt at an accurate exposition of experience. A Bernhard novel often has a formal symmetry, through repetition, that somehow assuages its narrator’s overwhelming distress. This is evident especially in his use of obsessive-compulsive mantras intended as a balm for the sores of consciousness; sores that nonetheless keep rupturing. A Krasznahorkai novel, on the other hand, seeks to depict the formal precision a ranting consciousness is made to assume when it is subjected to the logic of expositional argument.

As one reads, Krasznahorkai’s sentences do things few writers can, or even seek to attempt, carrying the mind’s gaze to the very limit of language’s reach. When this ‘limit’ is reached, however, the horizon of meaningful possibility is displaced to yet another vanishing point – another sentence pointing to ever-receding horizons of language converging on the real. As one fragment of a sentence goes,

. . . he had finished with thinking, and either he was being obliged to reach back to a time before thinking stopped, though that was a time beyond expressing now, or was expected to employ such remnants of thought as remained, remained, that is, after the thinking ended which necessarily meant silence again since the language at his disposal was no longer capable of giving form to subjects that could not be fixed because it had gone full circle, had articulated all it could possibly articulate and had reached the point from which it started and was completely exhausted by the circular journey. . .

Here we can observe the rant spiralling its way through logic’s formal arrangement of thought. Yet we can also see that language is never done with, or never satisfied by exposition, by logic. A remainder always remains to be added. Such sentences are like an icy dip into waters of prosaic rejuvenation, and are the very substance of Krasznahorkai’s style. They seem to come full circle as we read them, as happens quite literally in his novel Satantango, where the last sentence is the first sentence, differently repeated. At the same time, they push outwards into an elusive spiral of meaning that always seems to point to a something not quite said, something still hidden, but pulsing with sense. And so one keeps returning to them. And is this not what literature is all about: a return to a familiar place, but one that never can be quite mastered?