Artists, Eccentrics, Solitaries, and Saints:

On László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below

 

Translated from the German by Michael Hulse
Excerpts from Seiobo There Below translated by Ottilie Mulzet

 

This article on László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below, a novel just released from New Directions Publishing, originally appeared in German in Die Zeit on September 2, 2010, and its translation was commissioned and published by Music & Literature Magazine on the occasion of their second issue, devoted entirely to the creative cosmos of Mr. Krasznahorkai. This special issue is available for purchase through their website. You can also read an interview with M&L editor-in-chief Taylor Davis-Van Atta here. Follow the editors of Music & Literature on Twitter at @musiclitmag and @CWTParis.

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These stories are about the sacred. Their high artistic character is not in question for a single moment: the flow of the sentences, frequently continuing over pages and broken up only by commas, is captivating; the stories’ forceful progression toward the moment when the sacred appears is masterly; the connection of the separate sections by a half-concealed group of motifs and their arrangement into a Fibonacci sequence are irresistible.

As if this achievement were not enough, after two or three stories an unnameable, haunting quality, beyond all the beauty of mere appearance, emerges from the aesthetic pleasures offered by Krasznahorkai’s unusual prose. We sense how the stories challenge us as readers; we begin to argue and debate with them. Are they right, or are we? “They” are the Russian Orthodox monks under the spell of icons, the Japanese Buddhists under the spell of a Buddha statue, the despairing Westerner unexpectedly under the spell of a Renaissance Christ. With Krasznahorkai, something has returned to art that was taken for granted and considered essential by Dostoevsky, and that has since then become more than a little diluted: the question leading toward the truthfulness of life.

Krasznahorkai brings his enlightened, relativist present-day Westerners, alienated to a greater or lesser degree, face-to-face with the absolute demands that the sacred makes of existence. The medium through which the sacred speaks in his work is the sacred art of the past, approached in stories that, by the author’s account, often have an autobiographical basis. Readers who may themselves be indifferent to religion will not find themselves repelled by this book, with its breathtaking diagnosis of the times. For Krasznahorkai is no preacher: the dimension in which he works is one of questing, inquiring, doubting. Any overweening earnestness is undercut with the irony that accompanies his often eccentric seekers on their path. And he evades the greatest danger of all, inflated pathos, with the most surprising of his stratagems: while he writes of art purely as an expression of the sacred, he does so in the unemotional key of a scholarly expert discoursing on the technical aspects of art history. Hence the Russian icons are, on the one hand, windows through which there shines a world beyond this one, and through which we may gain visions of the hereafter, yet, on the other hand, the religious narrative is directly confronted with a strikingly well-informed art-historical essay on the traditions and techniques of icon painting.

The luminous inner view and the profane external perspective of the holy are assigned a particularly convincing opposition in the story “He Rises at Dawn.” It describes the work of mask-carver Ito Ryosuke over a period of almost two months completing a Hannya mask for the Noh play Aoi no Ue. We witness every one of the minute steps in this procedure, in great detail and with atmospheric intensity, from the transfer of the stencil lines onto a piece of hinoki cypress wood until the completion of the masterpiece, which marks “[that] his hands have brought a demon into the world, and that it will do harm.” For his work, the carver withdraws into a wooden box he has made, to have perfect silence and seclusion. And yet it is not altogether certain who exactly is performing the work. For the carver does not think or plan anything; “within him there is no desire for the exquisite”; “his head is as empty as if he had been stunned by something, only his hand knows, the chisel knows why this must happen.” Only his hand—and his eyes. Again and again, he holds the mask-in-progress at arm’s length, comparing it with the stencil and with two photographs inside his work box: “this is the model, the ideal to be sought, this is what he must, in his own way, be equal to.” A time comes when his hand and eyes are no longer equal to the task unaided, and he lends support to his eyes with a “system of mirrors,” tilting and revolving mirrors which he installs around the box.

This gaze is contrasted with the external, intellectualized perspective of Western visitors, who pester the carver with “dreadfully tactless questions.” The Westerners want to know “what is the Noh, and what is the meaning of the hannya-mask, and how can there be ‘something sacred’ from a simple hinoki tree.” To the carver, their interrogation is a confusing tangle of questions, to which he can only stammer the briefest of replies: “…he does not occupy himself with such questions as what is the Noh, and what makes a mask ‘spell-binding,’ he merely occupies himself with doing the very best he can within the limits of his abilities, and with the aid of prayers recited secretly in shrines, he only knows movements, methods of work, chiseling, carving, polishing, that is to say, the method, the entire practical order of operations of tradition, but not the so-called ‘big questions.’”

In this way, the story reflects a certain polarity of East and West, at once steeped in the ethnographic nature of a craft and at the same time religious. The hand and its unconscious actions appear in opposition to the head and its questions about meaning; we find here the contrast of intellectual reflection and the external reflection from the system of mirrors. Indeed, most of these stories revolve around fundamental issues in philosophy. One of Krasznahorkai’s protagonists, at loose ends, attempts by a superhuman effort of the will to see the Acropolis on a hot summer’s day. But he sees nothing at all, blinded by the glaring sunlight and his own sweat, and at the end of the story he decides to return to a group of Athenian friends who have renounced all strivings of willpower and individual endeavor and simply do nothing all day.

The key philosophical motifs in these stories are of being overwhelmed, beaten down. Of one character’s response to an angel in an icon we read: “almost immediately at the sight he collapsed.” Of Baroque music: “it subdues one, breaks one’s heart to bits, knocks one to the ground.” A visitor to the Alhambra is “is so stunned by the beauty, by this beauty that is so, but so unbelievably beautiful that he thinks he is struck by vertigo,” where “a truth never before manifested reveals itself.” And a museum attendant who has been devoting his entire attention for decades to the Venus de Milo is “mesmerized,” “feet rooted to the ground.”

Krasznahorkai does not shy away from superlatives when he aims to convey the presence of the “celestial realm.” But, despite the philosophical appurtenances and the essayistic appearance, these stories are not sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought. For the concepts and superlatives are no more than buoys bobbing on the mighty current of Krasznahorkai’s prose. This musical river of language is the true event of this book, and is overpowering in itself. The current lifts up the reader, drags him down, catches him in whirlpools, is caught still, races across rapids, and with all of these qualities generates an experience that bars us from any distanced reading of the stories but forces us to live at the most intense pitch. It is impossible not to identify with these lonely, despairing, tired-of-life or just plain eccentric characters led by Krasznahorkai toward their moment of truth. We are drawn so close to them that it continually astonishes us when we realize that the stories are told not in the first but in the third person.

Of course, what we see here is yet one more balancing act by the great storyteller, László Krasznahorkai: just as he can be essayistic without slipping into didacticism, and emotional without turning bathetic, so too he remains wary of assigning the central position to his solitary and despairing characters, reserving that place to the current that tears everything with it—in one moment narrative, in the next meditative and interpretative—to the current of his prose.

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Andreas Isenschmid has been editorial director at Schweizer Rundfunk, head of Literaturchef der Weltwoche, literary editor at the Tage-Anzeiger, among other distinctions. He now writes for the Hamburg ZEIT and is a critic on the program Kulturzeit.

Interview with Taylor Davis-Van Atta, Editor-in-Chief of Music & Literature

20130128_M&L Issue 2 - Final Draft.0I was recently introduced to the fantastic journal Music & Literature via their 2nd issue focusing on Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai and filmmaker Béla Tarr, both obsessions of mine. I was excited to have the opportunity to ask Editor-in-Chief Taylor Davis-Van Atta about the project.

(From their website:

Music & Literature is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization dedicated to publishing excellent new literature on and by under-represented artists from around the world. Each issue of Music & Literature assembles an international group of critics and writers in celebration of three featured artists whose work has yet to reach its deserved audience. Through in-depth essays, appreciations, interviews, and previously unpublished work by the featured artists, Music & Literature offers readers comprehensive coverage of each artist’s entire career while actively promoting their work to other editors and publishers around the world. Published as print editions (and soon to be offered as digital editions as well), issues of Music & Literature are designed to meet the immediate needs of modern readers while enduring and becoming permanent resources for future generations of readers, scholars, and artists.)

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Janice Lee: Music & Literature is an exciting new project. Can you talk a bit about its inception and inspiration? I’m curious too about the very simple but semi-mysterious title? (For example, Issue 2 doesn’t seem to have very much music but a bit on film and photography.)

Taylor Davis-Van Atta: I sometimes think of Music & Literature as an act of frustration. It’s certainly a response to the longstanding shortage of high-quality arts coverage in English and, more recently, the austerity and cutting-back of coverage in our so-called traditional media. A lot of the arts review activity cut from newspapers has migrated online and proliferated there, and I often hear people say what a great thing this digital groundswell is, but I have to admit I find myself on the other side of this one… For the moment I’ll speak strictly about books and book coverage: while I can appreciate the benefits of a vast online book culture (broad coverage in terms of numbers of books, plenty of opportunity for young critics to strengthen their skills, etc.), the overall effect, it seems to me, is that a lot of attention may be drawn to the fact that a new book exists, but very little of quality and depth is actually written about the book. Add to this that discerning book and arts criticism has, for some time, been increasingly sequestered to the realm of academic journals—which are written and edited by academics, for academics—and I would argue that there is a missing class of accessible, smart, enjoyable critical literature available today to people who really love and wish to engage deeply with contemporary art.

All of this is just general talk, but maybe what I’m driving at (if anything) is this: if we agree that great art is inexhaustible, I think we need a class of literature that meaningfully engages that art, that offers new in-roads and allows us to explore the dark, recessed chambers of a book or symphony or film so we might see and experience it anew—or that simply provides the opportunity for us to discover an artist or piece of art we haven’t encountered before. This is the need we’re trying to address with Music & Literature. None of this is to say there aren’t venues—print and online—providing high-quality critical literature (I’ll not name names, since I’m bound to forget a few), but none that I’m aware of focus so intently as Music & Literature on providing art lovers with comprehensive, deep, and creative coverage of artists’ entire careers.

Since its inception, I have considered Music & Literature to be an arts magazine, broadly defined; that is to say, I’m interested in publishing all forms of art (and work about all forms of art)—and the more cross-pollination the better. While Issue 1 features two writers (Micheline Aharonian Marcom and Hubert Selby, Jr.) and a composer (Arvo Pärt), and Issue 2 features two giants of Hungarian art (writer László Krasznahorkai and filmmaker Béla Tarr) and a painter (Max Neumann), in each issue (and in future issues) readers will find, say, Noh theatre being discussed alongside the architectural nature of graphic scores, the musicality of an author’s prose discussed alongside the literary implications of a painting, and so forth. Though we chose not to feature a composer in Issue 2, the volume nonetheless contains quite a lot of musical material, including one of Krasznahorkai’s translators, George Szirtes, on the musical complexities of Krasznahorkai’s prose and the difficult pleasures of rendering them into English, as well as a discussion of opera and the nature of evil between Krasznahorkai and composer Péter Eötvös, and more… All forms of art are in constant dialogue with one another, and, for the individual, the experience of great art is the same regardless of the form that art takes: pleasure. For example, we marvel at the ingenuity of architects who reinvent space and encounter, but wither in buildings and structures that create anxiety. It doesn’t take much to intuit the parallels between uninspired architecture and uncreative music, for instance, because all art forms exercise our critical faculties. We enjoy it when our intellects are stretched and challenged: it’s the same part of us that revels in a great musical performance that is awakened by an architectural space that recognizes the human condition and works to incorporate and engage the individual.

As you know, I was first introduced to Music & Literature via Issue 2 (Krasznahorkai / Tarr / Neumann) when a friend of mine brought my attention to it. I was so excited to see both László Krasznahorkai and Béla Tarr as the focal points of a journal, as I’m working through these two figures in both my creative and critical work. What brought you to focus on these three figures for this issue? I’m especially curious since your website states your dedication to publishing work “on and by under-represented artists.” Do you feel these three are still “under-represented” as artists today?

As I suggest above, even the books that dominate chatter in the literary realm receive such little quality critical attention, much less resonate out into the broader culture. Despite some modest attention recently, I do think that Krasznahorkai and Tarr remain very much under-represented. Even if their names are recognized, their art remains largely obscured. This can be said, I believe, of all the artists we feature in Music & Literature. Micheline Aharonian Marcom, Max Neumann, Vladimír Godár, and Maya Homburger are known by very few, and their art resides in virtual anonymity.

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