This interview was originally published in issue number 204 of The Hungarian Quarterly and is reprinted here with the joint permission of the editor and the interviewer.
Ágnes Dömötör: Many people have the impression that your books are hard to read and to understand. That’s a myth, but don’t you think you’ve got some bad PR?
László Krasznahorkai: You know, the problem is that anything that’s the least bit serious gets bad PR. Kafka got bad PR, and so does the Bible. The Old Testament is a pretty hard text to read; anyone who finds my writing difficult must have trouble with the Bible, too. Our consumer culture aims at putting your mind to sleep, and you’re not even aware of it. It costs a lot of money to keep this singular procedure going, and there’s an insane global operation in place for that very purpose. This state of lost awareness creates the illusion of stability in a constantly changing world, suggesting at least a hypothetical security that doesn’t exist. I see the role of the tabloid press somewhat differently. I can’t just shrug it off and say to hell with it. The tabloid press is there for a serious reason, and that reason is both tragic and delicate.
AD: The tabloids satisfy our primal hunger for gossip, like old peasant women sitting on village benches long ago.
LK: The old peasant women gossiped on a level that the modern, industrialized gossip factories of the tabloid press miss by several orders of magnitude. An old woman in the village will stir up shit in a human space that she can take the measure of. It’s not the same story when you’re dealing with ten million people. The tabloid press doesn’t necessarily work from the premise that people don’t need anything else or couldn’t understand anything else. The structure of vulgarity is very complex.
AD: Does pop culture reach you in any form?
LK: Absolutely. I’m sure I could name ten new rock groups from 2011 that you haven’t even heard of.
AD: So you go to record stores and concerts?
LK: When I was staying with Allen Ginsberg in New York, the studio of David Byrne, the former leader of Talking Heads, was very close by. Byrne would often come over to Ginsberg’s place. Sometimes we would make music together in the kitchen, and I became part of this polygon with Byrne, Philip Glass, Patti Smith and Ginsberg, where artists would give their CDs to one another. They still do that, to this day. For instance, I never heard of Vic Chesnutt while he was alive; and yet I think he is one of the best in this whole rock culture. An American friend sent me Chesnutt’s entire life’s work. But I go to concerts less and less. The last thing I saw was a fantastic show in Berlin: it was Joan Wasser and her orchestra, billed as “Joan as Police Woman.” It was insane. But I’ve got a bad leg and I can’t stand for four or five hours at a concert.
AD: Are you interested in TV and movies?
LK: I can’t watch movies, but I’ve got a TV set and I mostly watch documentaries. I don’t watch much Hungarian TV, but rather English, American, German, French or Spanish channels.
AD: How do you divide your time between New York, Berlin and Pilisszentlászló?
LK: I’ll go to New York again in 2012. I live mostly in Berlin, but I’ve been spending a lot of time in Pilisszentlászló, and I would like to spend as much time there as possible. I love that place.
AD: Many of your works deal allegorically with the end of the world or the demise of civilization. In what other era do you think people might have felt similarly: ‟that’s it, one kind of civilization has failed?”
LK: I thought you’d ask at the end of which era people did not feel that way. There have been many eras like ours when people not only thought an era was over but that the whole world had come to an end. We know little about the end of the earliest golden ages, the Incas, the Egyptians, the Minoans, the Zhou Dynasty in China. Much better known is the decline of the Roman Empire, because the end game lasted for several centuries, and it is very well documented. And it is clear that to a citizen of ancient Rome, when Rome fell, it wasn’t just the end of his world but the end of the world as such. What had been round till then, an image of perfection, suddenly became a triangle. Yet for the Christians, this became the starting point—on the way to their own failures and grave crises. European and non-European history is nothing but a series of failures and crises. It’s a terrible cliché, but it’s true: crisis is the default state of history.
AD: Our age differs from the ends of earlier eras in that we live in a global culture, and furthermore, we are not fighting enemy ideologies. Can you imagine how our time will be seen 200 years from now?
LK: If there will be such a thing as “200 years from now,” then they will find us very amusing. Humor will play a more significant role in their judgments about the past. Because if we survive another 200 years, which I doubt, then we will have good reason to be cheerful as we look either ahead or back to the past. I have the feeling that if someone reads this conversation 200 years from now, they’ll have a lot of fun. They will be surprised that anything has survived, you know, anything at all.
AD: In other words, you don’t see our era as particularly apocalyptic. But then, why do you write about destruction so often in your books?
LK: I’m personally involved in the apocalypse… It’s interesting how your relationship to that changes in the course of your life. You think about it most when you’re young, particularly in connection with death, because you still have a certain courage that you’re going to lose when your own death is getting closer. Later you’re just afraid. When I was young, I didn’t feel the sanctity of birth. I tended to consider birth as the starting point of a journey toward failure, and I’d sadly look out the window for days on end into this grey light that was all that had been given to me. Anything that could arouse compassion had a great impact on me. I was particularly responsive to those aspects of reality and the arts that reflected sadness, the unbearable, the tragic. And I didn’t know what to do with anything positive or joyful. Happiness bothered me.
AD: And when did that change?
LK: There is no single moment we can name, not because such moments don’t exist but because we never know in which particular moment the transformation occurs.
Q; One of your most conspicuous trademarks as a writer, since your very first work, have been your long sentences. It seems to me that these long sentences fit your most recent works, which deal with Oriental themes, better than the older ones. Their slow pace reflects an Oriental concept of time. They’re in no hurry, just like a monk working on a mandala. Did this different concept of time in Oriental cultures really influence you?
LK: What would reflect an Oriental concept of time would be not long or short sentences, but silence. The sentence structures that I use result, rather, from an internal process. I generally spend my days alone, I don’t talk much; but when I do, then I talk a lot and continuously, never ending a sentence. Many people are like that. You may notice that the majority of people talk the way I write.
AD: Do you ever look up on the Internet what readers have to say about your work? There are online reading groups where your books are discussed; other sites make comments on your interviews.
LK: If you mean Hungarian sites, I don’t know too many of those. Recently one blogger suggested that I should be hanged. I immediately put on my space suit, started the engine and went to the moon for a while.
AD: I notice that your greatest fans are not intellectual types wearing fashionable shoulder bags; they’re mostly average young people.
LK: That’s reassuring but, as a matter of fact, not too surprising. Perhaps young people are the hardest to influence; perhaps they like to be seen as free, and they like it even more if they see someone confronting anything and anyone for their sake. For them, nothing has been decided yet. I think we’re talking about those who haven’t yet decided how to deal with their forebodings, or where to hide their imagination, their desires and their dignity in this rotten world we live in. We’re talking about those for whom a book is not just a book; they know that while we hold on to the book forcefully, there is something before the book and something after the book, and that’s what the book is for.
AD: How do you relate to your fellow Hungarian writers? Do you ever e-mail one another? Would you tell György Spiró, for instance,‟I liked your last book, Gyuri?” I’m asking because in an earlier interview you seemed to see yourself as an outsider on the literary scene.
LK: I don’t just see myself as an outsider, I am one. Which doesn’t mean I’m not happy to see colleagues I admire; after all, we share the same fate. But I also worry about them. I worry, for instance, because they’re in literature, something that you can still sell for awhile, but it’s getting harder and harder. This kind of communication is really over and done with. Its disappearance is a rather obvious process; it is happening faster at some points of the world than at others. I’m afraid this kind of literature is not sustainable.
AD: You mean it’s not just the authority of literature that’s finished but literature as such?
LK: The so-called high literature will disappear. I don’t trust such partial hopes that there will always be islands where literature will be important and survive. I would love to be able to say such pathos-filled things, but I don’t think they’re true.
AD: And those who are still reading today, what will they do then?
LK: They probably won’t read. Could it be that people will once again begin to think for themselves? By thinking, I mean original thinking, without someone holding their hand. If I read the works of thinking people, they inspire me to think, but at the same time they give me categories and don’t set me free. Between them and Heraclitus’s rippling stream, they interpose a book. Maybe at some point in the future, there will be nothing between them and the rippling stream. And they’ll get nice and soaked.
AD: You mean we’ll lose the habit of reading because we’re too lazy. But it takes more energy to think than it does to read.
LK: You’re forgetting that human history is full of catastrophes, and it’s the catastrophes that force people to think. But I have another suggestion: we will return to a post-post-postmodern kind of sacrality. The spoken word will once again have a sacred force, which the written word will serve to record. I don’t mean some kind of archaic world, where we’re going to moon about by Stonehenge; on the contrary: the circumstances having changed, a completely transformed view of the world will be considered natural. I can imagine many possible scenarios, except that things will go on the way they are.
AD: Your works were praised by W. G. Sebald and Susan Sontag; Allen Ginsberg was a friend of yours. Whose recognition has meant the most to you in your life?
LK: Those I received as an adolescent. That’s the time when one is really at the mercy of what others think. One recognition came from my classroom teacher in high school, József Banner, who helped me by continually encouraging me. He always put me on display in Hungarian class: this is how it should be done. I was incredibly proud, because we feared and venerated him, and praise coming from a man like him meant more than one can express in words. Then, when my first piece was published, it became part of a literary network that I hadn’t known existed. To me, literature meant Sándor Weöres, János Pilinszky, Péter Hajnóczy. When I was first introduced to Miklós Mészöly, and he told me how much one of my short stories had influenced him, you can’t imagine what that meant to me. Maybe if that hadn’t happened, my whole life would have been different.
AD: Suppose someone who has never read anything by you picks up this interview and says: what an interesting guy, which one of your books would you recommend to them? What would be a point of entry to your life’s work?
LK: The Old Testament. The Book of Revelation. Let them choose from my books at random.
AD: When was the last time you laughed and when was the last time you wept?
LK: Aside from the fact that I have a daughter I have practically not been allowed to see since she was five, which makes me cry, internally, all the time—I really cried last when we were shooting the pub scene from Sátántangó with Béla Tarr. One of the characters was singing a song, drunk out of his mind, with accordion accompaniment. That song, and the way he sang it, was so moving that, as I was sitting there, I suddenly felt tears pouring down my face. My left leg fell completely asleep. Then it was over, I realized where I was, sitting there with Béla and watching the monitor. And that’s when I realised that Tarr, who was also misty-eyed, had been squeezing my left leg with enormous force the whole time. In order to hold on to this wonderful moment. So that nothing would happen and we got the scene right. And we did.
When did I laugh last? When I saw and heard you, I laughed for joy. Because of the way you ask questions. Because you care. And because I again have someone to talk to. Someone I can tell these things to.
Ágnes Dömötör writes for the Arts & Leisure pages of [origo], the most frequently visited Hungarian news site. She lives in Budapest. This interview was translated by Péter Laki.
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