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Living in exile from Viktor Orbán-run Hungary in Trieste for the past few years, László Krasznahorkai has come to love the notorious Bora wind whose unpredictable, violent gusts protect the city from the mass tourism that would otherwise – thanks to the reserved, well-preserved beauty of the city with its mostly neoclassical facades – ruin the peace, so elusive for centuries. From the balcony of his apartment, Krasznahorkai can see a slice of the Adriatic Sea; the Grand Synagogue with its now tiny congregation is only a few steps away, as is the Caffè San Marco with its tall, wood-panelled walls, huge mirrors, and etageres with fancy pastries. When it opened in 1914, pro-Italian activists hung out there, as did Italo Svevo, James Joyce, and ragtime musicians, all of them favourite company for Krasznahorkai, who is at home in the past with Herman Melville and Malcolm Lowry, and his soulmate Kafka, of course. It is here that we met for a chat about infinity, eternity, and quite a bit in between.

Interview by Claudia SteinbergPhotography by Leonardo Scotti

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CLAUDIA STEINBERG It’s been a few years since you told me about your research in the former GDR – about a forgotten small town and the struggling people stranded there, about the good citizens and the rebels. As a young man, you were determined to live among the poorest, and you took on physical labour, even in the mines. Kafka wrote that he never desired to be around the victors, and you also seem to avoid them, hanging out with the losers who play leading roles in your novels. How did you go about your research into that forgotten zone of the town you call Kana, not too distant from the real medieval town of Kahla, right next to the Autobahn? Did you meet people in bars or at the snack stand? How did you engage with them, and how did they respond to you?
LÁSZLÓ KRASZNAHORKAI It all began when I said to myself: forget about literature, especially “serious” literature – serious readers have been deserting us in droves, it’s all pointless – it’s time I accomplish something sensible before my life is over: I must, at last, write a book about Johann Sebastian Bach. Ever since my boyhood he has been part of my every day and my feast days; I have never encountered art more sublime than his. This sublime greatness, this vast, varied oeuvre, this ethereal music that casts light – retroactively, as well as prospectively – upon the place we arrive when art reaches its limits, has always made me think about just what these limits of art are, and whether there is anything beyond these limits. I was prepared to compose a personal, yet thoroughly documented and accurate account of Bach’s life, and therefore I researched every scene, every locus, and then I set off to travel and survey each locale, because above all I wanted to get to know the places where he lived; I wished to walk where he had walked, go-sitstand- sleep-eat-and-drink where he had. I started out in Thuringia. I sojourned for some time at his birthplace at the former mill that had belonged to one of his ancestors, at the places where he received his schooling, at the various way stations of his career. I still did not know what shape my planned book about him would take when, one day in a small town, a young man of gigantic stature appeared by my side, as if he had been waiting in some corner for a long time for my arrival, so that he could establish contact with me at last. I have had similar encounters in my life before, and I’m not the least bit surprised that I am the only one who seems to see these characters. They will tell me about a life-changing event, and they will say the one sentence that, as it were, has been bequeathed to them. And they in turn confide it to me, on the basis of a trust that I still find inexplicable. That was what happened in this small town in Thuringia: this young man turned up by my side, and that was the end of the Johann Sebastian Bach book I had been planning. Because the particular fate narrated to me by that young man – after he had introduced me to his local haunts, to his favourite byways, to the weird characters in his life – the fate that he revealed to me via a single sentence was so significant that I at once felt it was too important not to be written. It would be more precise if I were to say that this was what I ended up writing down. Because the words came by themselves, as if they had already been composed in advance, and my task was simply, as it turned out, to merely set them down. That was how Herscht 07769 was born.

CS Your research in Thuringia has turned into the collective, unstoppable stream of consciousness of Kana on the side of the Autobahn. Your 400-page novel Herscht 07769 glides uninterruptedly, without being stopped by a paragraph or even a period, as an endless, winding, polyphonic sentence, weaving seamlessly from the silent or spoken thoughts of one person to the next, from physicist to housewife to neo-Nazi. Your multi-voiced strand of words has an almost documentary quality – how do these snippets of other people’s mental processes come to you with such authenticity? As a transmission, in a trance? Are you a medium? Or listening like a cat?
LK Yes, it is like a trance but that doesn’t not mean I am unaware of myself. Because within my trance state, there is an order, a severe discipline: I am writing a sentence. Although it is true that the text rushes onward, uninterrupted by periods, it is not a “lava flow,” as one English poet tried to characterize it. No, lava is slow, and my text is more like a creature running headlong, breathless, bearing a certain destiny in its soul, away from something and at the same time toward something else. One doesn’t need periods but breath and rhythm, tempo and melody. And it is not true that I don’t use periods; I do use a period just once and only once – and the reason for that is that periods are so very important for me. I rush along with the text, the text rushes on, and all of a sudden, the end arrives, and Someone Far Mightier than I am, or we are, whispers in my ear, “Hey, this is where you will put that period.”

CS How did those sentences of the locals in Thuringia stay with you? Do you take notes? As a child you had a photographic memory – is there an auditory counterpart? “Memory is the art of forgetting”, you say, so is the art of remembering only what is important, even if what is said is a torrential flow of the everyday? In Herscht 07769, you reproduce the many, different tones in which the inhabitants of Kana express themselves, the way they think, the voices inside their heads, with great precision – as if you were listening like an actor, and then speaking in all their voices. How does the spoken word relate to the written word in that process?

LK As I said, there must be order within the trance state; this is an insane order, of course, an insane discipline. What comes from the spaces of non-being, from these characters slamming into me from somewhere behind my brain, is the absolute demand that I register their condition, not so much their story as their situation, thereby raising their reality, their being, to the level of ours – yes, they’re jabbering nonstop at a frightful pace, telling me to write it down, write it all down! It is up to me to find the right words, and the words must be in the right order, even if the content is delirious. I must force this mad prattle into sentences with a discipline like that of Latin. As Shakespeare had it, there is – there must be – method in the madness.

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CS The tragic hero of your small-town drama is the lovable Florian Herscht, gifted with extraordinary physical strength, a great deal of patience, a certain intelligence, humility and holy naiveté. A lamb who mutates into an avenger and yet remains innocent, protected by an eagle. How did you get from your highly accurate sociogram of an increasingly desolate backwater to the level of myth?

LK There’s no difference there. Everyday life is its own myth. How we think about it is only a matter of emphasis: as everyday life – or as myth.

CS In every novel you say that you have a character like Myshkin in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot: a defenceless, innocent figure. Florian possesses this quality, but he finally defends himself violently – is he still Prince Myshkin?

LK Very briefly stated, yes, he is. Or to put it more exactly: we are dealing with a manifestation of the angelic here; the angelic is also a part of existence. Of course, there is a huge difference between Dostoyevsky’s and my own depiction of the angel: he tends to perceive the defenceless victim in his sinners, sinners who can see their own situation clearly and yet are clueless, whereas I, additionally, register the judgement as well and the message it conveys. In my case, this is what provides the dual face of the angel. The angel is a messenger, and the message may be either grace or annihilation. And then it may also happen, as in the case of Herscht 07769, that one and the same angel – that is, the angelic – delivers the message of grace as well as the judgement meted out to the one who has committed an unforgivable sin.

CS Florian misunderstands the remarks of his mentor, a kindly physics teacher, about the some-day all-extinguishing antimatter as an acute threat. As a child, I had heard that the end of the world would come just when no one was thinking about it, and so I spent many nights thinking hard about the end, because I might be the only one. Florian similarly takes on the great responsibility of saving the world and writes urgent letters to Chancellor Angela Merkel, a physicist, who does not answer. To you, the apocalypse is never far away. Is Florian more right than ever, since we are finally watching the demise of our world with open eyes and doing very little about it?

LK I have endeavoured on more than one occasion to convey that I take the original meaning of the word apocalypse to be the most relevant: that is, apocalypse is not some end-of-the-world event that threatens us but is yet to come. No, apocalypse is the form of existence right now. Each and every moment is apocalyptic. Let’s be aware of that when we refer to so-called everyday life! Returning to your question: the main character, Florian, does all that he is capable of doing; he senses that in an apocalyptic space and time some Great Big Catastrophe is approaching, and where he locates it actually doesn’t matter; he calls on the Mighty Ones to help avert it. Perhaps Angela Merkel does not reply, and does not read the book which has, by the way, been sent to her, because she, as one of the Mighty Ones, happens to be in the position of already knowing that the apocalypse is the present continuous itself, impossible to avert. Avert the present? That is the artist’s task, not the politician’s.

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CS Thomas Bernhard is one of your companions in the genre of exuberant despair, with the difference that his prose shimmers with sarcasm. He is an accuser, even turning against himself. You seem more sympathetic to our plight – or not?

LK If you are referring to my novel Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming, or to Herscht 07769 itself, in these novels you will surely find practically every variety of sarcasm, from painful mockery all the way to sympathetically pestilential humour, but you are right, there’s something that is radically different from the Bernhardian stance, and that is the obvious compassion in the depiction of every single character in my works, especially in Herscht 07769. By the way, Thomas Bernhard – the saviour of post-War German-language prose literature – may have been pitiless in his works and public statements, that’s true enough, but Bernhard himself cannot be said to have been devoid of compassion. There is a memorable documentary about Bernhard attending a bullfight, on a trip to Spain. The camera is glued to his face throughout, that face is all you see, with the sounds of the audience in the background, and when at the end the death-dealing thrust takes place, you can observe how this face goes to pieces. I looked at this devastated face, and saw it was full of compassion for the bull. Ah, Herr Bernhard, I said to myself, all is well after all.

CS I think especially of the neo-Nazi called The Boss who is driven by a murderous rage and who exploits and mistreats Florian, his gentle giant “protégé”. The two ride around the province in a shabby car – the ordinary German Opel brand – and remove increasingly frequent, ominous graffiti of wolves that deface the facades of proud historic buildings, a desecration the Boss takes personally. He has a great passion for Bach, born of national pride for the Thuringian composer. The Boss rehearses regularly with the local Bach orchestra, but everyone – and he in particular – lacks skill, discipline and talent, to his great frustration. Yet, at some point, the reader gets the feeling that Bach’s light is penetrating even into this black soul, that the Boss actually loves him, not just in the blinkered nativist way, as a famous compatriot. Is that so? Is there a glimmer of hope that perhaps sublime art can help us after all?

LK No, there is no hope of that, nor of anything else. You are correct in saying that the Boss feels the tremendous greatness of Bach in a musical sense, but that said, he still remains what he has been all along, a neo-Nazi with horrendous phantasmagorias in his brain on top of the horrendous contents of his soul. Alas, we are perfectly capable of harbouring adulation for Bach along with hatred in our heart. Bach cannot eradicate our obtuseness. Nothing can help that.

CS As for compassion – in your work, animals are always stoic bearers of feeling: the dying dog that brings real time back from suspension to the present in an Edenic Japanese garden or the wolves that move into Kana and are hunted as messengers of evil. In the novella Herman, a trapper is so successful in his mission to kill the wolves and other predators that the now undisturbed vegetation takes revenge. The Last Wolf tells of the futile search for the last wolf in the arid landscape of Extremadura – we have killed them all, as well as most of the other large creatures we consider our competitors. As in AnimalInside, your book created with the artist Max Neumann, your compassion is for the animal, but also for the creature that we are. You often return to the creaturely – why?

LK It is not that I return to it; I have never left it. The creaturely is there in the inferno of our existence and there it remains. You see, I perceive all of the terrestrial world in its entirety at once – nothing is missing, everything is here simultaneously, there is no time for this thing or that one, because there is no such thing as time if we think of everything at the same time.

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CS The subject of war appears again and again in your work: “This most malignant of all demons is not the same as the angel of death, because he is not the spirit of peace but the demon of war, the joy that everything that exists can be ruined.” Nothing and nobody is exempt from his power. In which incarnation did you encounter this demon in the past?
LK I would prefer not to answer this question, and I am able to avoid the answer, which would be deeply personal, by saying: the Angel of Life and the Angel of War are one and the same. You may be able to approach them better by imagining the two as one being, that is what I do, as do my characters, but in actuality they are not beings but forces of being, and they are simultaneously present in every moment, that is to say in the single moment that actually exists, but exists only if you glimpse it.

CS Now you spend a lot of time away from Orbán’s Hungary and have found refuge in quiet, stately Trieste, where a Russian oligarch yacht designed by Philippe Starck is now parked. International ships that used to call at other ports before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine are docked in that ancient, storied harbour. War is not far away. How is it present to you?

LK There is not much I can do about it. At times I stroll along the water in that neighbourhood, where these yachts are parked, and spit in their direction. This is not much, I know, it is ridiculous, and not right, but I do feel better afterwards. They should leave Trieste alone! As others like to say: “Yachts, get the fuck out of here!”

CS In 2018, Idra Novey wrote in the New York Times about your short-story collection The World Goes On that your stories, ranging all over the world, from Kiev to Shanghai, describe lonely, desperate men who are lost and seem condemned to be standing still at the same time. Is this a specifically male kind of despair, just as war-making seems to be primarily a male affair? Although there are some violent women in Kana as well!

LK I don’t see any difference between men and women, especially in this regard. It so happens that men are physically stronger, they have bigger muscles, but as far as the measure of evil, why should there be a difference between men and women? If you are referring to physical brutality, in that respect they indeed differ – but merely because of their natural endowments. Why would it be less brutal to provide ideas and motivation for brutality? Lady Macbeth is not alone.

CS Author Jared Marcel Pollen writes of your books that everything is withheld and nothing is revealed. Your recent novella Spadework for a Palace seems to sum up his assertion: a librarian named Herman Melvill not only wanders Manhattan in the footsteps of his famous almost-namesake, but he is obsessed with the idea of locking up the entire contents of the New York Public Library in a windowless skyscraper in downtown Manhattan – where in reality immeasurable amounts of surveillance data are now stored sky-high – to keep it from what he sees as an unworthy and destructive public. Is there nothing left for us but to save the good and the beautiful we can create, save it from ourselves, even knowing that it cannot save us, as we always hoped?

LK Your increasingly recondite queries make my replies briefer. Yes, saving things is the only thing we can do. I must add, while indeed this is the sole thing we can do, we can also stop hoping. Because what is tragic, too, about this selection of values is that the things we now deem worth saving will, within moments, lose all their significance. In reality, we know nothing about the past, after all we are famously incapable of objectively describing even a street accident we have just witnessed. Or, to use [US historian] Hayden White’s formulation, we create the past, and that is, each and every future selects its own past. We, too, have selected ours, and meanwhile the future is here as well, but it is not ours; it belongs to others who will create another past for themselves, not the one we see as ours at this moment. As for the good and the beautiful that you mention: this, as at all times in world history, exclusively belongs to the good and the beautiful, it is not communal property, so in no way can it redeem those who remain strangers to the good and the beautiful. It does not even concern them.

CS The actual function of the former ATT tower as an electronic data archive has probably already caught up with gathering at least the volume of information in the New York Public Library’s entire collection. Your daughter Kata Krasznahorkai recently mounted an exhibition in Germany on the prodigious amounts of intelligence reports that spies in Eastern Bloc countries had produced on local performance artists; an art movement, imported from the decadent West, considered particularly subversive and dangerous. Thanks to this paranoia, there are now plenty of documents about this ephemeral art genre. But it also shows the now-explosive data production, which already grew exponentially before the electronic revolution – often on the side of governments. Now we have the studious chatbots, already masters of lies and passable school essays. Has AI entered your dystopian worldview already?

LK Yes, it has. By now, anything whatsoever can scare me. Having gone through one war, I may be incapable of fear, exactly – however, I can still get scared by anything, any time. Right now, it happens to be AI that terrifies me. I have no time to marvel at AI, even though we would have every reason to do so, because as soon as I began to admire it, it immediately occurred to me that, good Lord, this AI is not only a fantastic technological achievement brought about by humans, but it also happens to be in the hands of humans! And whatever falls into human hands is bound to be turned to evil uses. Horrendous uses. You may point out, and what about trains? Or what about the wheel? Or electricity? Well, trains took us to Auschwitz. Wheels move tanks to the Bakhmut battlefield. As for electricity – it is dreadful to see what it does to the condemned in the electric chair. That single pair of train tracks leading to Auschwitz renders insignificant the fact that every day trains carry millions to their workplaces in cities. They were invented to do good but wrought evil. And to backtrack for a moment to the future-past revisions mentioned earlier: because of AI, the immediate future will be far briefer than all previous futures. Our brilliant evil is being deified via AI.

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CS “Disaster is the language of reality.” I quote you, and you evade this disaster – at least temporarily – in your book A Mountain to the North, a Lake to the South, Paths to the West, a River to the East, just published in the USA, which describes a garden laid out according to the principles of a thousand-year-deep Buddhist tradition. The journey into timelessness is led by a young, tender, ailing man of exquisite beauty: he imagines himself as the grandson of Prince Genji, the hero of the 11th-century novel written by a lady of the Imperial Japanese court. The self-declared noble descendant in your novel begins and ends his time-travelling adventure on a train journey, interspersed with his wandering through a temple complex built with immeasurable care from the finest materials, set in an enclave of exquisitely planned nature, tended with great botanical knowledge. Your reverent description of every detail emulates the infinitely elaborate production process of the objects in that compound. Here, too, the reader enters a hermetic world – even nature is enclosed and tamed according to the concept of its optimal beauty. Apart from the admiration for this artful natural structure, how did you feel in that place?

LK I felt enchanted, spellbound. That small garden was so beautiful that when I first stumbled upon it, I stood stock still for quite some time. I stood outside of existence, in the beyond, in a realm that was surpassing the limits of reality. Now I have divulged that, somehow, this garden exists. The grandson of Genji, appearing in my book, does not find it, yet it does exist – somehow. I wrote A Mountain to the North, a Lake to the South, Paths to the West, a River to the East because I wanted to show that if such beauty is possible, it is only possible because of us, and therefore beauty needs us – each and every one of us!

CS When you’re thinking of Japan in Trieste, what do you miss, with an ache?

LK Japan. I miss Japan. That illusion of having been there, having lived in Japan. The illusion that Japan is an extraterrestrial part of the world. I miss the certitude of the illusion that, observing the magnificent manifestations of their imperial art, I was in fact participating in the perception of their beauty, that is in the “in spite of it all” existence of their beauty, and in its survival. But to mention something less elevated: there are plenty of other things missing here in Trieste when I think of Japan, namely, that Japan is clean.

CS Is it dangerous to write about beauty? In your book you disrupt the sublime atmosphere you evoked in so many details with the shocking discovery of messy, unkempt places close by, as if they were the inevitable underbelly of so much aesthetic discipline.

LK Yes, it is perilous to write about beauty, because it transports you to a boundlessness, and, looking over that borderline, your assumption that there must be something beyond it is no longer a mere hypothesis. Writing about horror is dangerous, too, because if you describe it too well, it comes true. In fact, if you are able to handle words that way, then writing about anything may be dangerous because you might bring into existence something that is incompatible with our existence. But at the same time I cannot help doing just that. I do not know why I have this compulsion. Do I wish to do good, but instead wreak havoc? Of course, at this point, immediately, an apple drops on my head from above, and I become enlightened. What kind of blindness compels me to say such things? Who the hell is interested in what I say here or have said previously? Literature in terms of prose is finished, and it is washed away by exactly the same repulsive forces that had brought it into being. Remember? Literature first showed up in the form of chapbooks displayed in marketplace stalls, as pulp fiction placed upon the tarp laid out by the side of the booth. By now even the best writers are waiting in line, their books in hand, hoping for permission to put them on display. Prose literature? It’s a market! “Come on in!” the vendors say. Only poetry remains – because poetry always survives. Poetry always finds a way to manifest itself. Of course, we are mere mortals. I wonder what will happen when the snail or the rat launch into our funeral dirge and sing of us.

CS Korin, the manic hero of War & War who despairs of his own ignorance, also has your full sympathy – the failure of his project doesn’t diminish your affection at all. Your fascination with single-minded passion makes me think of the films of Werner Herzog, whose real and fictional heroes pursue their respective goals all the way to their doom. Does this extreme side of the human condition call out to you for compassion?

LK The answer is easy: yes. There are so many non-entities striving to worm their way into our existence that only the truly great maniacs affect me powerfully enough to give them priority. They always have a certain gentleness somehow, and their gentleness elicits in me an immediate, reflexive empathy. I fear for them; I follow them; I am with them. But to help them? They do not need my assistance. Their path leads to failure and therefore elicits my compassion, but they do not require my sympathy. They are busy doing the impossible.

CS You said that 9/11 “destroyed the meaning, power, spaciousness, precision of language”. Haven’t there been other catastrophes of equal magnitude, and has this terrible event actually had an impact on your writing?

LK I am simply incapable of processing the onslaught of horrors that take place; 9/11 touched me personally, and possibly this explains why I felt it to be so fundamental. What is horrifying is that as soon as you say something like that, as I did at the time, you at once realise that no, nothing has changed, everything remains the same. The end of an era does not depend on the actual occurrence of certain events; the end of an era is the result of imperceptible processes. So that one simply cannot be prepared for it. You may raise the alarm, and keep sounding it, you may deliver indictments, you may desperately snatch after straws in the Old Testament, but it’s no use. The cause of it all lies in what has already taken place, and what will happen is inevitably fortuitous – and that is the ultimate horror.

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CS Our planet swims in an endless ocean of dark matter that is incomprehensible to our senses and imagination – we just know, with a shudder, that it must exist. I have always been afraid of eternity and infinity and preferred not to believe in heaven, getting no comfort from the thought of floating in the clouds forever. At the same time, I found your statement that “Heaven is sad” surprisingly disheartening. Can you explain your vision of the world above?

LK Well, I would like to say something heartening to those from whom I may have taken away by that statement. It is this: believe in whatever you feel is right. Do not trouble yourself about whether the contents of this belief or its psychology fit into this or that experience of yours, never mind anything else, just make sure the ashes of Jesus, the stern lamb, are well preserved and kept dry, and keep believing that, someday, you will have need for it. ◉