'The World Goes On' by László Krasznahorkai
'... I have resoled, and resoled again, boots are needed, a good pair of boots ...'—Review #188
I don’t know what I was thinking. I had planned to review an entirely different book this week, but I was overtaken by an urge not to read that book. I put it aside, looked at my bedside book pile and scanned all the way to the bottom, where ‘The World Goes On’ by László Krasznahorkai had been languishing since 2018. I knew nothing about the book when I picked it up in the store. I bought it because I loved its design and construction. The rainbow cover (and a black interior). The title morphing into the author’s name. The robust folios of acid-free paper that feel sturdy enough to survive the apocalypse. (Kudos to designer Erik Rieselbach. Well done!) I had to have it.
Here’s the cover:
But, as I was saying, I don’t know now what I was thinking two weeks ago when I decided it was time to end the four-year delay and read ‘The World Goes On.’ I tried to recall something I heard, or saw on Twitter, about Krasznahorkai, a Hungarian author who won a 2015 Man Booker International Prize: Was his writing bleak? Since I was feeling gloomy amid all the recent bad news, perhaps my subconscious wanted to invite catharsis by leaning into that mood, like listening to Portishead in the dark after a date has stood you up. Whatever the reason, I started reading, and before I stopped, I was 40 pages in. I thought, OK, this will be a quick and good experience. But:
‘The World Goes On’ could be called a short-story collection, but that doesn’t completely capture it. According to the back-page description, ‘a narrator first speaks directly, then narrates a number of unforgettable stories, and then bids farewell.’ In one story, a worker wanders off from a marble quarry to see where an unused highway goes. In another, a banker takes a business trip to Kyiv to visit colleagues, a brothel and to swing by Chernobyl. In a triptych of stories, a man delivers lectures (one includes an interesting aside about a flightless bird, the Okinawa rail) to a sinister audience. In another, a Hungarian interpreter battles intoxication, an oncoming hangover and a highway interchange to get back to his Shanghai hotel. Most of the stories are composed of extremely long sentences—save for a John Cage-esque one that’s billed as 75 paragraphs worth of blank pages, followed by notes. Some stories are just one prodigious sentence that goes on for pages and pages and pages. Instead of the inviting literary journey I anticipated, with compelling characters and provoking plots, ‘The World Goes On’ feels like a forced march through a jungle of words and punctuation. Whole pages of words, words and more words without a break had me like:
I skimmed a lot of the later stories—there was one about Yuri Gagarin and another I’ve completely forgotten—and I’m annoyed that I turned every single one of those blank pages. Even so, I’ve seen the unbroken text style work elsewhere. Hanif Abdurraqib used it, sparingly, in ‘A Little Devil in America,’ and so did Fernanda Melchor in ‘Hurricane Season.’ But Krasznahorkai’s use of chapter-long sentence after chapter-long sentence reminded me of a critique Christopher Lehmann-Haupt offered of my writing in grad school. Back then, I liked to write. In sentence fragments. And he wrote, in marginalia to something I turned in, words to the effect of:
Still, I like to speculate about what Krasznahorkai was going for. Perhaps the long sentences reflect how life is a continuum, a stream of prose where the only conclusive punctuation is death. Perhaps his refusal to conform to standard paragraphs and sentence structure is a way to say there are no gods and no masters. That’s all fine, and you could say that from a technical perspective ‘The World Goes On’ is a staggering literary achievement pulled off by a genius. I won’t argue with you. It is a marvel of construction. But reading it was as enjoyable as an afternoon at the DMV.
How it ends:
This is the concluding piece, ‘I Don’t Need Anything From Here.’ I think it’s beautiful. Please read it at my memorial service.
I would leave everything here: the valleys, the hills, the paths, and the jaybirds from the gardens, I would leave here the peacocks and the priests, heaven and earth, spring and fall, I would leave here the exit routes, the evenings in the kitchen, the last amorous gaze, and all of the city-bound directions that make you shudder: I would leave here the thick twilight falling upon the land, gravity, hope, enchantment, and tranquility, I would leave here those beloved and those close to me, everything that touched me, everything that shocked me, everything that fascinated and uplifted me, I would leave here the noble, the benevolent, the pleasant, and the demonically beautiful, I would leave here the budding sprout, every birth and existence, I would leave here incantation, enigma, distances, the intoxication of inexhaustible eternities; for here I would leave this earth and these stars, because I would take nothing with me, because I’ve looked into what’s coming, and I don’t need anything from here.
‘The World Goes On’ by László Krasznahorkai was published by New Directions Books in 2017. Translated from the Hungarian by John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet and George Szirtes. 311 pages. $24.95 at Bookshop.org.
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ICYMI: Review #187
Read this: The New York Times assembled a panel that includes two novelists, a book seller, a playwright and a journalist to list ‘The 25 Most Significant New York City Novels From the Last 100 Years.’ The list includes ‘Passing’ by Nella Larsen, which I loved and highly recommend, and ‘The Fortress of Solitude’ by Jonathan Letham, which I couldn’t get through. But there were so many more books that I hadn’t read that I’m looking forward to reading. Check it out!
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