László Krasznahorkai was born in 1954 in Gyula, a provincial town in Hungary, in the Soviet era. He published his first novel, Satantango, in 1985, then The Melancholy of Resistance (1989), War and War (1999), and Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming (2016). These novels, with their giant accretions of language, global erudition (he’s as familiar with the classics of Buddhist philosophy as he is with the European intellectual tradition), obsessive characters, and rain-sodden landscapes, might give an impression of hardened late-modernist hauteur, but they are also pointillist, elegant, and delicately funny. His gravity has panache—a collision of tones visible in other works he has produced alongside the novels, which include short fictions such as Animalinside (2010) and geographically vaster texts like Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens (2004) and Seiobo There Below (2008).
Although Krasznahorkai still has a house in Hungary, he mainly lives in Berlin. The first time I tried to reach Berlin from London to begin this interview, in the winter of 2016, my plane was canceled due to fog. A few hours later, as my new flight was on the tarmac, we were told that technical difficulties would further delay our departure. Having at last arrived in Berlin and found a taxi—driving at unnervingly high speed because, the driver told me, he desperately needed to find a bathroom—I found Krasznahorkai in front of the U-Bahn entrance at Hermannplatz, twelve hours after I had left London. I might as well have met him in Beijing. This elongated contemporary travel farce, I thought, seemed incongruously comical. But then I reconsidered: Krasznahorkai’s art has always been hospitable to the absurd, to the ways the world will personify itself and become an implacable opponent.
Krasznahorkai speaks English with a seductive Mitteleuropean inflection and the occasional American accent, the result of his time in the nineties living in Allen Ginsberg’s New York apartment. Krasznahorkai is a large, gentle man, often laughing or smiling and full of creaturely care. He loaned me a sweater when I looked cold, bought me Durs Grünbein’s poetry collection Una Storia Vera as a present, and offered recommendations of György Kurtág recordings. With his long hair and mournful eyes, he looks like a benign saint. He is also a man of absolute privacy; he never, therefore, wanted to meet in his apartment. Instead, we conducted long sessions in its general environs, in various cafés and restaurants around Kreuzberg.
Let’s talk about your beginning as a writer.
I thought that real life, true life was elsewhere. Along with The Castle by Franz Kafka, my bible for a while was Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. This was the late sixties, early seventies. I didn’t want to accept the role of a writer. I wanted to write just one book—and after that, I wanted to do different things, especially with music. I wanted to live with the poorest people—I thought that was real life. I lived in very poor villages. I always had very bad jobs. I changed location very often, every three or four months, in an escape from mandatory military service.
And then, as soon as I started to publish some small things, I received an invitation from the police. I was maybe a little bit too impertinent, because after every question I said, “Please believe me, I don’t deal with politics.” “But we know some things about you.” “No, I don’t write about contemporary politics.” “We don’t believe you.” After a while, I became a little angry and said, “Could you really imagine that I’d write anything about people like you?” And that enraged them, of course, and one of the police officers, or someone from the secret police, wanted to confiscate my passport. In the Communist system in the Soviet era, we had two different passports, blue and red, and I only had the red one. The red wasn’t so interesting because with it you could only go to socialist countries, whereas the blue one meant freedom. So I said, You really want the red one? But they still took it away, and I didn’t have any passport until 1987.
That was the first story of my writing career—and could easily have been the last. Recently, in the documents of the secret police, I found notes where they discuss potential informers and spies. They had some chance with my brother, they wrote, but with László Krasznahorkai, it would be absolutely impossible because he was so anticommunist. This looks funny now, but at the time it wasn’t so funny. But I never made any political demonstrations. I just lived in small villages and towns and wrote my first novel.
How did you publish it?
This was 1985. Nobody—myself included—could understand how it was possible to publish Satantango because it’s anything but an unproblematic novel for the Communist system. At that time, the director of one of the publishing houses for contemporary literature was a former secret-police chief, and maybe he wanted to prove that he still had power—power enough to show that he had the courage to publish this novel. I guess that was the only reason the book was published.
What kind of jobs were you doing?
I was a miner for a while. That was almost comical—the real miners had to cover for me. Then I became a director of various culture houses in villages far from Budapest. Every village had a culture house where people could read the classics. This library was all they had in their everyday lives. And on Fridays or Saturdays, the director of the culture house organized a music party, or something like it, which was very good for young people. I was the director for six very small villages, which meant I always moved between them. It was a great job. I loved it because I was very far from my bourgeois family.
What else? I was night watchman for three hundred cows. That was my favorite—a byre in no man’s land. There was no village, no city, no town nearby. I was a watchman for a few months, maybe. A poor life with Under the Volcano in one pocket and Dostoyevsky in the other.
And of course, in these Wanderjahre, I began to drink. There was a tradition in Hungarian literature that true geniuses were total drunks. And I was a crazed drunk, too. But then came a moment when I was sitting with a group of Hungarian writers who were sadly agreeing that this was inevitable, that any Hungarian genius had to be a crazed drunk. I refused to accept this and made a bet—for twelve bottles of champagne—that I would never drink again.
And you haven’t?
And I haven’t. But still, at that time, among contemporary prose writers, there was one writer and drinker in particular—Péter Hajnóczy. He was a living legend and a total and profound alcoholic, like Malcolm Lowry. His death was the biggest event in Hungarian literature. He was very young, maybe forty. And that was the life I lived. I wasn’t worried about anything—it was a very adventurous life, always in transit between two cities, in train stations and bars at night, observing people, having small conversations with them. Slowly, I started to write the book in my head.
It was good to be working like that because I had a strong feeling that literature was a spiritual field—that elsewhere, in the same era, Hajnóczy, János Pilinszky, Sándor Weöres, and many other wonderful poets lived and wrote. Prose literature was less powerful. We loved poetry much more because it was more interesting, more secret. Prose was a little too close to reality. The idea of a genius in prose was someone who stayed very close to real life. That’s why, traditionally, Hungarian prose writers, like Zsigmond Móricz, composed in short sentences. But not Krúdy, my only beloved writer from the history of Hungarian prose literature. Gyula Krúdy. A wonderful writer. Surely untranslatable. In Hungary, he was a Don Giovanni—two meters high, a huge man, a phenomenal man. He was so seductive that no one could resist.
And his sentences?
He used sentences differently from any other prose writer. He always sounded like a slightly drunk man who is very melancholy, who has no illusions about life, who is very strong but whose strength is entirely unnecessary. But Krúdy wasn’t a literary ideal for me. Krúdy was a person for me, a legend who gave me some power when I decided I would write something. János Pilinszky was my other legend. In a literary sense, Pilinszky was much more important for me because of his language, his way of talking. I’ll try to imitate.
Dear Adam—we shouldn’t—wait—for an apocalypse, we are living—now—in an apocalypse.—My dear—Adam—please don’t go anywhere—anywhere . . .
Very high-pitched, slow, with all these pauses between words. And the last letters of every word were always expressed very clearly. Like a priest in a catacomb—without hope but with huge hope at the same time. But he was different from Gyula Krúdy. Pilinszky was like a lamb. Not a human being—a lamb.