by Scott Esposito
The World Goes On
translated by George Szirtes, Ottilie Mulzet, John Bakti
The World Goes On
(New Directions, 2017)
The best writers endure regardless of when or why their work is written. Unerringly honing in on the core of our human condition, these writers’ instincts lead them toward this unshakeable truth again and again, regardless of their subject-matter.
Were there not already enough evidence that László Krasznahorkai is such a writer, his latest book in translation, his 2013 prose collection The World Goes On, proves it. Here you will find writing made over three decades carefully selected and arranged to form a whole so fresh and new that its ink might still be wet. Regardless of whether these pieces are early, mid, or late career, or if he is writing about Europe, Asia, Renaissance Italy, outer space, or entirely imaginary places, Krasznahorkai always employs his talents to inspect what is most unchanging about the human condition.
This is not to say that Krasznahorkai is only a writer of parable and allegory; though he does both with consummate skill, this book also offers rich portraits of contemporary China, Russia, India, and Portugal, and there is even one lengthy Beckettian monologue that will certainly outlive everything placed before us in 2017. Yet as diverse as this work is, it also feels completely unified, both by Krasznahorkai’s singularity of vision and his unmistakable prose. There are his trademark single-sentence stories that snake on for a dozen pages, moving forward with the resolute ongoingness of the present as clause after clause after clause accumulates into a distinctive realism. There are also his philosophical insights: unassuming, almost colorless statements that nonetheless prove surprisingly heavy when you try to pick them up: “the Whole had no purpose, because there was nothing outside of the Whole from where anything could lead to here.” And most of all, there is his obsessive circling of themes: the chaos and decay always lurking beneath our sense of order; the law that becomes perverse as it attempts to maintain that order and shape our lives; the economic, social, and animal forces that do battle with our concepts of freedom; and, ultimately, the frustration, desperation, and assurance that comes with knowing that our humanity is inescapable.
The World Goes On makes a demure start with a suite of six warm-ups. These prose fragments set the terms of engagement by addressing the impossible yet insatiable desire to escape our world, these conflicting forces finding their historical embodiment in a Nietzsche who falls mad one afternoon in Turin, as well as two catastrophic passenger airliners that “unleashed upon the world, the thing that we humans forever and repeatedly insist on calling the new, the unprecedented, even though it surely cannot be called new or unprecedented, after all it has been here ever since the creation of the world.”
Limbered up, our eyes now adjusted to Krasznahorkai’s dim light, we are prepared to absorb the greatness that is “Universal Theseus.” This, the book’s longest and most remarkable text, consists of three lectures that are forced from a man who knows not whom he addresses, or why—and who professes that he is “not a lecturer”—three speeches that are made under circumstances of increasing desperation and compulsion. Theseus’s monologues trade very much in absurdism; they are of the literature that speaks a great deal by seeming to speak of only the incidental and the happenstance. The web of strange connections, odd suggestions, and bizarre references that Krasznahorkai constructs in these seventy pages cannot possibly be summed up or otherwise interpreted in a brief review. However, I would like to mention the Japanese bird that the third lecture concludes with—an island avian that evolved flightlessness as a protection from the periodic storms that swept its island, and thus entrapped itself there and condemned itself to a life of constant predation. That bird, I feel, resembles us in some meaningful way.
I bring up this creature in part to share a flavor of the things one finds in The World Goes On, as well as to demonstrate how precise Krasznahorkai is with his details and his manner of revealing information. Krasznahorkai’s prose is ancient in the way it communicates through anecdote, and it is modernistic in the sense of disbursing key details subtly and incidentally. All the more reason, then, to appreciate how precisely these words are honed. The deeper one moves through this collection, the more this prose feels carefully scraped of any blister that might mar its perfect unity; every little word here feels necessary—every little obscure reference. Regardless of how ridiculous or tangential any given piece of information seems, one feels safe in the assumption that it has been painstakingly weighed and holds some larger purpose.
Though The World Goes On was written and assembled long before the shocking madness that has swept the Western political world since summer 2016, it feels entirely predictive of the energies that were channeled toward these human disasters. Whether or not Krasznahorkai knowingly intuited the way the wind was blowing, this book is redolent with the types of things that now look like key pieces of the present mess: exploited laborers in southern Europe, the destitute in India, transnational bankers in Russia, a mind-bogglingly intricate freeway interchange in China, the destruction of the Twin Towers, the abandonment of faith, the breakdown of law. With work this prescient, unerring, and precise, the correct word to apply to it is “prophecy.” May we take heed of what Krasznahorkai writes, and may he continue to grant us his vision.
SCOTT ESPOSITO is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.