by Michael O'Connor
Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming
László Krasznahorkai, New Directions, 2019
A man with hooded eyes, a little mischievous smile, a thick white beard and shoulder-length hair that grows only from the back of his head takes up the microphone and begins to speak. His name is Laszlo Krasznahorkai, he is a Hungarian novelist and he has just been asked a question by his interlocutor, a librarian at the Library of Congress (where our scene is set). The reply goes like this:
First of all, good afternoon ladies and gentlemen – and I am very happy to come here – as for Satantango, 1985, that was the year of publishing this book, but I wrote the book in late seventies – do you hear me? – more than six year, actually, because I wanted to write only one book. Perhaps it happens with many writers the same: But I wanted only one book because I thought, if the book is really good, one book is enough.
Only, one book was not enough. Since the 1970s, Krasznahorkai has produced four melancholy, absurd, oddball novels, as well as several short story collections and a few works that exist somewhere on the boundary between fiction and non-fiction. His fifth novel, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming, has just been published by New Directions. In Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming, he believes that he has written a work that encapsulates his world-view, perfects his prose style, marks the peak of his craftsmanship and the fullest externalization of his imagination. Indeed, Krasznahorkai has publically announced that it is the novel that he has been trying to write for his entire life and that, consequently, it is to be his last. We will see.
Krasznahorkai was born in Hungary in 1954, two years before Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest to crush the dissident regime of Imre Nagy. After studying law, he chose to do a higher degree in literature. He then spent several years doing odd-jobs in odd places, working as a miner and as a night watchman for cows. Later, he was the director of a group of ‘cultural houses’ in rural Hungary that were supposed to provide cultural education to the peasantry. At some point during these years of aimlessness, Krasznahorkai started writing a novel called Satantango, published in 1985. This was followed by another novel in 1989, and then by another, until somehow he became a novelist. He is clear in an interview with the Paris Review that this was never his intention: He wanted to be ‘nothing’, to be a nobody, but couldn’t manage it. Something pushed him towards literature and he started writing compulsively and constantly, composing sentences in his head and writing them down later. In his early years, he did this because he didn’t have access to pen and paper. But it became a habit: all of his novels are constructed mentally, sentence by sentence, and written down only when Krasznahorkai runs out of space in his head.
This method of composition contributes to the most distinctive feature of his writing: Its sheer sentential abundance. His sentences go on forever, comma building on comma, sub- clause on sub-clause, until they screech to a breathless halt after as many as fifty lines. Consider the following fragment of a sentence, which describes a train journey that occurs early in Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming:
this infinite paralysis everywhere, was sweet to him, everything came back, all of his memories of this landscape, the fissured memories of childhood journeys, the familiarity of the summer heat waves and the winter snows, he clung to the glass of the train window as if by magnetic attraction, and he gaped at the desolate view out there because it was dear to him and touching, and as the train went forward, deeper and deeper into this bleak, cold, desolate nothing, he said to himself, good Lord, I’m here again here on the way to what was informally known as the “Stormland,” in Békés County, on the way home where behold, everything was just the same as it had been in the old days, because here, essentially, nothing had changed.
The quoted passage is 130 words long in English. It slips from one mode into another, now precise, now abstract, now formal, now casual, returning on several occasions to the same words (‘here’, ‘every-’, ‘desolate’, ‘deeper and deeper’) in an attempt to establish the right tone and ending with a carefully qualified conclusion: ‘here, essentially, nothing had changed.’ Everything is all over the place and yet the sentence somehow pulls itself into coherence and holds its own.
Like Satantango and The Melancholy of Resistance, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming centres on an unexpected arrival. In this case, the arrival is that of Baron Belá Wenckheim, a Hungarian aristocrat who has been living in Buenos Aires and has decided to return to his hometown in Orbán’s Hungary. Wenckheim’s arrival is heralded by newspapers across the nation. He comes from a wealthy family and it is expected that he will lavish money on his hometown and his native country. In fact, he has very little money, having gambled it all away, and owes even the clothes on his back to the kindness of wealthier family members. His aim is simply to return to the places of his childhood at the end of his life, ‘to cut across, for one last time, the beautiful park on Maróti Square’, and to rekindle an old love affair with a woman called Marietta.
In one sense, the Baron is a comedic figure: his sheer cluelessness is laughable. Yet Wenckheim is also a tragic character. He is entirely out of place in the real world, incapable of handling the day-to-day necessities of ordinary existence. He proceeds through life in a haze, jumbling up his words, ignoring the effects of his actions and failing to grasp even the most basic rules governing human behaviour. In Buenos Aires, he lived out of a hotel. In Hungary, he communicates as little as possible and recoils from human contact. There is, I think, a little of Wenckheim in all of us. Certainly, there are times when our lives seem small and indefinite in comparison to the outside world, times when the complexity of human convention seems too great for us to grasp. Wenckheim is like a walking amalgam of all our disabilities and insecurities. But what makes him truly tragic is the fact that he clearly has a rich imaginative life. He has read Turgenev and Dostoyevsky. He cries easily and feels deeply. And yet he is unable to put any of this into practice, to communicate it to anybody else, to work out why he is alive and present in the world. Wenckheim, like Prince Myshkin in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, is a tragic figure because he is a creature of the imagination in a world made for flesh and blood.
The Baron’s cluelessness means that he is entirely oblivious to the effect that his arrival has on his home town. He fails to notice the ways in which his arrival disrupts the town’s political fabric, upsetting the delicate balance of power that exists between the Mayor and the Chief of Police. The Mayor hopes to persuade the Baron to donate his money to the town, which would strengthen his own political position. To this end, he throws a lavish but disastrous welcome party for Wenckheim, refurbishes the Almásy chateau for his comfort, and also re-names the chateau in his honour. Meanwhile, the Chief of Police uses his knowledge of Wenckheim’s movements to establish leverage over the Mayor. In turn, much of this knowledge is gained from a biker gang boss known only as ‘the Leader’, an embryonic fascist who reminds one by turns of Viktor Orbán, Wodehouse’s Roderick Spode and the various bikers depicted by Hunter S Thompson in Hell’s Angels. This increases the importance of the Leader to the Chief of Police, and allows the former to demand a degree of independence. The ins and outs of these political struggles are mapped in microscopic detail. Although Krasznahorkai claims not to be a political novelist, he has an intuitive grasp for power and a Kafkaesque taste for bureaucratic absurdism. Nothing is too small to escape his eye.
Eventually, the authority figures in the town come to suspect that the Baron does not have any money. The Mayor realises that he has essentially bankrupted the town for no purpose in refurbishing the chateau. The Chief of Police tries to cover his back. The different parties come into conflict, blame each other and when the Baron himself is removed from the scene by unexpected circumstances, find themselves under threat. The Chief Editor publishes a damning editorial that excoriates the town’s political figures, exposing their vices, sins and misdemeanours. After the publication of the article, things take a turn for the absurd. Cattle are found with their heads smashed open. Women are raped in broad daylight. People stop going out on the streets. Communications halt. One day the entire centre of the city fills with transport trucks: hundreds and hundreds of trucks standing in silence in the middle of the city, mute and unmoveable. Shortly after, the city burns to the ground in a firestorm of biblical proportions.
The sequence of events leading up to the burning down of the town do not make sense. There is no clear narrative flow, no chain of causation, no forewarning or foreshadowing. Things just happen, one after another, without any clear reasons or cogent explanations. The townsfolk expect that ‘some kind of explanation’ will present itself because there is ‘no such thing as ghost stories’. The events will turn out to be perfectly rational occurrences or at least the product of some definite misunderstanding. The reader, too, expects that some sort of explanation will be provided or that the events will take on a clear allegorical character. No explanation is provided and the allegory remains obscure.
In general, Krasznahorkai does not traffic in clarity or narrative coherence. Even episodic narratives are usually threaded together, but Krasznahorkai is quite happy to run several linear or non-linear digressions in parallel. For example, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming doesn’t actually begin with Baron Wenckheim’s homecoming. Instead, it begins with a stand- off between a character called The Professor, described as ‘one of the three foremost moss experts in the world’, and his daughter. The stand-off takes place outside the town at a place called the Thorn Bush; the daughter has some unknown grievance concerning her father and is accompanied by a number of journalists. It is resolved when The Professor opens fire on his daughter and the journalists. The novel then essentially re-starts: we cut to the Baron, who is just setting out from Vienna for Hungary. The Professor appears again at intervals as part of a sub-plot and delivers rambling, existential monologues. The daughter drops out of the narrative entirely. She appears on a list of ‘utilized elements – missing’ at the very end of the novel. This list is basically a joke at the reader's expense. I can almost hear Krasznahorkai laughing at us for expecting a coherent, clear and satisfyingly complete narrative that ties up all the threads in an incoherent, unclear and incomplete world.
The Professor’s monologues dwell at length on the lack of clear causal relations between events, the sense that things do not quite hang together. At one point, he declares that ‘the world is nothing more than an event-lunacy, a lunacy of billions and billions of events, and nothing is fixed, nothing is confined, nothing graspable, everything slips away if we want to clutch onto it’. At another, he strikes on a line by the Hungarian poet Attila József: ‘like a pile of hewn timber / the world lies heaped upon itself.’
What worries the Professor is a nagging sense of disarray, a frustration at the lack of any discernable plan, cosmic schema, or organizing principle. The fear is that there is not any order at all and, consequently, there is no underlying meaning. The Professor cannot decide whether this is the case, or whether we just lack the conceptual resources to grasp it. Either way, he is caught in a bind, in a recursive series of thoughts that loop back on themselves, eating their own tails, running on and on in ever expanding sentences that asymptotically approach their conclusions but never reach them. They are put to bed by full stops just before the moment of revelation.
The Professor and Wenckheim are both examples of a general type of character who recurs again and again in Krasznahorkai’s novels. The archetype is Korin, who appears in Krasznahorkai’s third novel, War & War (1999). Korin is depressed, manic, suicidal, obsessive, given to monologues and occasionally incoherent. He discovers an ‘incomprehensible and beautiful’ manuscript in a Hungarian archive, which he believes holds the key to life and the universe. We are told a little about the contents of the manuscript, which contains episodes set in Rome and others in Crete, but not very much. However, Krasznahorkai tells us a great deal about its style:
it was as if – all the sentences – each sentence was of vital importance, a matter of life and death, the whole developing and moving at a dizzy rate, and that which it relates, that which it constructs and supports and conjures is so complicated that, quite honestly, it becomes perfectly incomprehensible.
This could almost serve as a description of Krasznahorkai's own style. I won’t pretend that reading Krasznahorkai is easy. The first fifty or so pages of Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming felt like kneading a very wet dough that would not quite come together. I could not adjust to the cadences of his sentences. The characters felt like authorial puppets rather than actual people. But the novel became easier to read once I had adjusted to Krasznahorkai’s sentential amplitudes and narrative quirks. Once one accepts that not everything will make sense, that the whole is sometimes best studied by paying attention to its parts, one can begin to appreciate the novel for its beauty.
If you stick with him, Krasznahorkai will plunge you into the depths of his mind, into the swirling eddies and the melancholic abysses, and let you talk to all the people who lurk in its nooks and crannies – from the sensitive, socially incompetent Baron Wenckheim to the librarian who owns the 1981–88 editions of Fix It Like This! by Dr. Hans-Rüdiger Etzold. Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming is the closest that you’ll ever get to being inside another person’s head. It is weird, incoherent, absurd, occasionally almost unbearable and often perfectly incomprehensible. But what riches are on offer!
Krasznahorkai has publicly declared that Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming will be his last novel. But it is hard to believe that a man such as Krasznahorkai is capable of turning off the linguistic tap in his head. In a story about a writer called Robert Valser, published in the London Review of Books, Krasznahorkai puts words in Valser’s mouth: ‘I will go on because I can’t stop, because it is impossible to stop, walking being a passion with me, and what is more in my case, a passionate form of curiosity, not a matter of madness but of passionate curiosity.’ Robert Valser is a thinly disguised version of Robert Walser, a Swiss writer who was committed to a sanatorium late in life and was found dead in a field of snow. He is also, one feels, a thinly disguised version of Krasznahorkai. One need only substitute ‘writing’ for ‘walking’ in the sentence above. Krasznahorkai’s writing is shot through with passionate curiosity and inflected with more than a touch of madness; it is sublimely flawed. And I do not think that writing novels is, for Krasznahorkai, something that he can choose to stop. One cannot help but feel that the urge to write novels – to bring worlds into being, to carry words out of the depths – will strike him again. Either that, or he’ll end up in a sanatorium.
Michael O'Connor reads PPE at Balliol College. He alternates between blue and red chinos. Today is a blue chino day.
Art by Alex Haveron-Jones