where to start with his literature – the Calvert Journal
László Krasznahorkai is probably the best-known contemporary Hungarian author. Her work received the International Booker Prize in 2015, the National Book Award for Translated Literature in 2019, and the America Award for Lifetime Contribution to International Writing in 2014, among many others. Known for his breathtaking and demanding prose and his traveling life, Krasznahorkai’s career spans three decades and three continents.
Susan Sontag called him “the Hungarian master of the apocalypse”, but that might not be how he would describe himself. “We are not prepared for reality,” he said in an interview, when asked about his fictional universe which often appears to be a tilted and shattered version of the world we share. He insisted that many things remain invisible or invisible, and what we call realism in literature is little more than a convention of confined and narrow optics and thematic restrictions. Reality, for him, is more overwhelming and inescapable, resistant to sober attempts that would hope to exclude the poor as dystopian, or pushed like crazy. He insists his characters are real and vehemently denies that this is meant figuratively.
He began as a chronicler in the marginal and remote corners of Hungary, exploring broken communities and the grotesque hopes they harbor. After the Iron Curtain fell, he led a wandering life with extended spells in China, Japan, the United States, and Germany. His fiction has turned into a global, often metaphysical exploration of escape routes: through engagement with art and the sublime, towards the hinterland of society, towards madness. His characters stutter or obsessively document their impression of being thrown into a shattered universe, moving, making room. They include Noh mask makers, obsessed archivists and librarians, wandering translators, paranoia-stricken doctors and workers abandoning their shifts.
Krasznahorkai’s coiled sentences are the most feared aspect of his prose: although his diction is punctuated with commas, entire chapters or even books tend to consist of a single sentence. However, it is not difficult to adapt to the rhythm of these endless waves: the reader is rushed until the effect softens in an organic monotony, like that of waves or breathing. The text invades you, intended not to be interrupted. Krasznahorkai says it is to bring the written text closer to the spoken word. It allows the reader’s mind to pull away and re-absorb itself, sometimes letting it all in, but other times resisting. Madness meets prayer in its rehearsals, whether in its Eastern European novels, its Chinese reports or its short fiction films set around the world.
Here is a selection that presents a range of his work across forms and genres.