Interview With László Krasznahorka

LÁSZLÓ KRASZNAHORKAI WAS BORN IN GYULA, HUNGARY, IN 1954, AND has written five novels and several collections of essays and short stories. Until recently, at least in the English-speaking world, he was probably best known through the oeuvre of the film director Béla Tarr, with whom he has collaborated on several films over three decades, including the adaptation of several of his own novels.

In 2000, the Hungarian-born British poet George Szirtes – who conducted this interview last year by email – translated Krasznahorkai’s THE MELANCHOLY OF RESISTANCE, the first of his books to appear in English. It was blurbed by Susan Sontag (‘the contemporary Hungarian master of the apocalypse’) and W. G. Sebald (‘The universality of Krasznahorkai’s vision rivals that of Gogol’s DEAD SOULS and far surpasses all the lesser concerns of contemporary writing.’). Now Krasznahorkai is widely recognised as one of the very best and important novelists of our time.

So much so that on the occasion of the release of SÁTÁNTANGO, another Szirtes translation, in 2012, the author was mobbed by hipsters at Housing Works Bookstore in New York City, where the critic James Wood was interviewing him. ‘[T]he excitement of Krasznahorkai’s writing is that he has come up with his own original forms…’ writes the novelist Adam Thirlwell in the NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS. ‘There’s nothing else like it in contemporary literature.’

James Wood, writing in the NEW YORKER in 2012, placed Krasznahorkai alongside post-war greats such as Thomas Bernhard, Claude Simon and David Foster Wallace. Wood did qualify his comparison though – in spite of a common affinity for ‘very long, breathing, unstopped sentences’, Krasznahorkai is ‘perhaps the strangest’, his writing ‘peculiar … strange and beautiful’.

George Szirtes, who has now translated three of his books into English, calls Krasznahorkai’s work a ‘slow lava flow of narrative, a vast black river of type’. His sentences, he writes, take you down ‘loops and dark alleyways – like wandering in and out of cellars’.

This month, New Directions publishes László Krasznahorkai’s SEIOBO THERE BELOW (translated by Ottilie Mulzet), the latest of his novels to be translated into English. We are delighted to be publishing its first chapter, and this short interview with the author.


THE WHITE REVIEW — What do you think are the advantages, disadvantages or dangers of translation?

LÁSZLÓ KRASZNAHORKAI — I won’t say anything about advantages and disadvantages but I will address the question of dangers because they simply don’t exist. The translated work, in my opinion, is in no way to be identified with the original in a different language. That is an absurdity. The translated work is the work of the translator, not the author. The author’s work is that which comprises the story as written in the original language. The translated work is a new work in the language deployed by the translator, a work of which the translator is the composer, and resembles – more or less, as members of a family resemble each other – the original work. The author simply looks on and reads: the text is familiar, occasionally very familiar, to him and he is delighted when it looks good, and rages when it looks bad. I have only ever once raged, at the German translation of WAR AND WAR which turned out a bad book. It was almost impossible to repair. Who would take on a new translation? That was very difficult. But apart from that every translation of my work has filled me with wonder. I have marvellous translators.

THE WHITE REVIEW — Why did you choose to live in Berlin?

LÁSZLÓ KRASZNAHORKAI — Ever since I first spent a longer period in the city back in 1987 I have developed close ties with it. West Berlin, as it was then, was an asylum for wounded spirits. All kinds of artists, as well as those who hoped to be artists, were drawn there to do their work. It was really nice to know that I could sit in the same bar, and in fact at the same table, as great artists to whom I could relate as part of a family. This relationship continues today. Though I still spend most of my time in the city I no longer feel good about it. Nowadays it chiefly appeals to artists who want to sell their work rather than actually make it. And if that’s the case where’s the difference between here and there?

THE WHITE REVIEW — What is your writing practice?

LÁSZLÓ KRASZNAHORKAI — I don’t sit at a work-station, meaning a writing desk, and I don’t stare at the laptop hoping to get an idea, but work in my head starting from the assumption that literature is my work. Putting aside personal reasons, the fact is that when I began to write I was living in very difficult circumstances: I had no writing desk and was never alone. So I got used to beginning sentences in my head, and if they were promising I kept adding to them until the sentence came to a natural end. It was at that point I wrote it down. That’s the way I do things even now, in the most unlikely places, at the most unlikely times – in other words I am continually at work. I write everything down at the end. I don’t correct in the normal way because I’ve done all that in my head.

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