Hungary Magazine

László Krasznahorkai and Hungarian literature’s fear of isolation

Although Central and Eastern European literature and authors are not as widely known as their French, English, German or even Russian counterparts, they are an integral part of Europe’s literary landscape. Central Europeans take pride in their great writers, such as Gombrowicz, Kundera, Márai or Kosztolányi. But today, particular emphasis will be put on Hungarian literature, a country with an incredibly rich, diverse albeit lesser-known literary heritage, still well alive today.

Hungary has many reasons to celebrate its contemporary authors, who are obtaining more and more recognition over the years. László Krasznahorkai is one of them.

One of the most prominent voices of contemporary Hungarian literature

László Krasznahorkai was born in Gyula, in southern Hungary, near the Romanian border, in 1954. Ever since his first short story Tebenned hittem was published in the journal “Mozgó Világ” in 1977, Krasznahorkai developed a unique writing style. His most notable and celebrated publications include War and War – the story of Korin, a modest Hungarian who discovered an unknown novel he thinks contains an ultimate truth, and decides to deliver it to the world by going to New York and publishing it on the Internet – The Melancholy of Resistance, which describes society through a dystopian lens in the life of a small city in the south-eastern part of Hungary, and Seiobo There Below – drawing throughout its seventeen chapters a story and reflection about art and beauty.

László Krasznahorkai has also collaborated with Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr to adapt some of his novels on the big screen, such as Sátántangó. The eponymous film, lasting more than seven hours, depicts the end of communism from the perspective of a small village in the Hungarian countryside.

Krasznahorkai’s works, beautifully and disturbingly written, made him a certain celebrity and earned him an undeniable recognition in the literary world, to such an extent that he won the prestigious Man Booker International Prize in 2015. The judges lauded his writing style: “What strikes the reader above all are the extraordinary sentences, sentences of incredible length that go to incredible lengths, their tone switching from solemn to madcap to quizzical to desolate as they go their wayward way”. During the ceremony, the chairing writer of the occasion declared that “Laszlo Krasznahorkai is a visionary writer of extraordinary intensity and vocal range who captures the texture of present-day existence in scenes that are terrifying, strange, appallingly comic, and often shatteringly beautiful”.

The Man Booker prize’s judges rightfully highlighted the uniqueness of Krasznahorkai’s writing, and more specifically, his use of sentences; the ‘length’ they speak of is hardly conceivable for someone who never read Krasznahorkai. His stories are told through sentences which seem to have neither end nor shore, everlasting, sometimes running through entire pages.

In 2015, Laszlo Krasznahorkai received the Man Booker International Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious literary awards

A unique style and use of endless sentences

War and War, if it begins with a sentence of relatively normal length, is flooded with endless sentences, like the second one, that immediately follows. Just to give you an idea of what we’re talking about, here it is.

“Seven children squatted in a semi-circle surrounding him in the middle of the railway footbridge, almost pressing him against the barrier, just as they had done some half an hour earlier when they first attacked him in order to rob him, exactly so in fact, except that by now none of them thought it worthwhile either to attack or to rob him, since it was obvious that, on account of certain unpredictable factors, robbing or attacking him was possible but pointless because he really didn’t seem to have anything worth taking, the only thing he did have appearing to be some mysterious burden, the existence of which, gradually, at a certain point in Korin’s madly rambling monologue – which “to tell you the truth,” as they said, “was boring as shit” – became apparent, most acutely apparent in fact, when he started talking about the loss of his head, at which point they did not stand up and leave him babbling like some halfwit, but remained where they were, in the positions they had originally intended to adopt, squatting immobile in a semi-circle, because the evening had darkened around them, because the gloom descending silently on them in the industrial twilight numbed them, and because this frozen dumb condition had drawn their most intense attention, not to the figure of Korin which had swum beyond them, but to the one object remaining: the rails below.’

This play with language is one of the characteristics of Krasznahorkai’s writing. Like many Hungarian authors, his work was influenced a great deal by the language itself. Hungarian, one if not the most isolated and unique languages in Europe, mired in its linguistic loneliness, appears to convey, at least in the national literature, the fear of a whole country, the fear that Hungary, culturally isolated, might disappear. And to counter this fear, writers busy themselves in the study of their national idiom – making of Hungarian the testimony of the fate of a small nation.

The influence of the Hungarian language itself

Krasznahorkai, in his everlasting sentences, mimics the tendency of agglutination of his mother tongue, which creates words of unbearable length; he breaks the limits of language in order to reinvent it. As Ferenc Karinthy, who in his novel Épépé depicts the fate of a linguist lost in a city speaking a language he cannot understand – and even more, lost in this unknown language itself – Laszlo Krasznahorkai shows us in War and War a man unable to spread the truth he wanted to spread, because he only speaks Hungarian and cannot be understood. As Karinthy, through his novel, Krasznahorkai displays the fear of miscommunication. And even worse: the impossibility of communication. As Dezső Kosztolányi in one of his Kornél Esti short stories, where he tells the story of a Hungarian man in a train, deciding, without speaking a word of Bulgarian, to persuade the Bulgarian conductor that he is Bulgarian, Krasznahorkai depicts us a world where Hungarian isn’t enough.

By his clever play with language, Krasznahorkai breaks the traditional borders of writing as much as he reinvents the topic of Hungarian idiom in national literature; he depicts the modern world through his unique style and his cautious, exhaustive descriptions. Krasznahorkai introduces us to a world of loss, of loss of communication, of truth, filled with horrors and despairs – but adorned and enhanced by a breath-taking language.

Written by Louise Ostermann Twardowski

A French student of Polish descent, Louise studies languages (Polish, Hungarian, Russian), linguistics and literature in Strasbourg. Passionate about Central European history, culture and literature, she joined the team of Kafkadesk contributors in April 2019. Feel free to check out Louise’s other articles here!

Coordinated by Ábel Bede, Kafkadesk's Budapest office is made up of a growing team of freelance journalists, editors and fact-checkers passionate about Hungarian affairs and dedicated to bringing you all the latest news, events and insights from Hungary.

2 comments on “László Krasznahorkai and Hungarian literature’s fear of isolation

  1. Pingback: Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai wins prestigious National Book Award – Kafkadesk

  2. I love the way you put it. I have been an ardent enthusiast for Krasznahorkai’s writing for some years. He was influenced with the Romanian school of pessimism, mostly Cioran when he was young, and this can be seen in his writings. Satantango is a textbook for a passive nihilist. My friend who introduced me to Krasznahorkai told me that he “believed in him”, his nihilistic long sentences and ideas presented, but that with his popularity, he has become a writer read by businessmen and literature lovers alike. His sentences are destructive, horrific, but as you said, beutiful. This shows that passive nihilism always ends up in aestheticism, and then you become a prey to the bourgeois sentiment (if we read Bourdieu’s and his understanding of the bourgeois appropriation of “beautiful in art” to legitimize their class position). Just to say, I am not a Marxist, but I detest the enjoyment of literature without no heart in it. Krasznahorkai has, sadly, become an author who has fallen prey to that sentiment.

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