Slow Reading for the Summer


The Bill coverBy Jeff Bursey

László Krasznahorkai is a Hungarian writer (b. 1954) whose long and dense works are abundantly furnished with allusions and experiences drawn from the author’s exposure to many cultures through reading or travel. The worldview presented stems from a long, painful, at times bloody national history, and from a particular linguistic context. In a 2012 review of his novel Satantango (originally published in 1985; made into a film in 1994) Jennifer Szalai wrote on the seemingly peculiar nature of his work:

This strangeness has to do with the specifics of the Hungarian experience and the Hungarian language. Krasznahorkai’s heritage infuses his sentences and sensibility, even when he’s writing against it. His books concern people on the margins, at the edges of empire or of their sanity, and the great powers and promises that exert their centripetal pull. The text itself rarely resolves into a paragraph break; in his novel War and War, each section is a single sentence that sometimes coils over several pages. His translator George Szirtes has written of ‘the slow lava flow of narrative … the vast black river of type’, which beautifully describes the physical experience of reading Krasznahorkai’s work, the need to slow down in order to find its rhythm, the feeling that the narrative is oozing outward rather than converging on a neat conclusion.

Satantango won the Best Translated Award for fiction in 2013, and Seiobo There Below (originally published in 2008), won the same award in 2014, thanks in part to Satantango’s translator, Ottilie Mulzet: “‘out of a shortlist of ten contenders that did not lack for ambition, Seiobo There Below truly overwhelmed us with its range—this is a book that discusses in minute detail locations from all around the globe, including Japan, Spain, Italy, and Greece, as well as delving into the consciousnesses and practices of individuals from across 2,000 years of human history.’” Only recently has Krasznahorkai’s fiction been translated into English.

Apart from being much shorter than most of his other works (including the under-40 page Animalinside [2010], another Sylph Editions production, with artwork by Max Neumann), The Bill appears lighter in mood than his other works. It addresses the creation of art works by the sixteenth-century Venetian painter Palma Vecchio (c. 1480-1528; he is also known as Iacopo Negretti), four of which are reproduced in part, with wry humour and suspicion, in one long sentence that, complete with the occasional semi-colon, colon and ellipsis or exclamation and question mark, runs the length of the work. Its content is a fusion of fiction, biography, and art history dealing with Vecchio and the women who were paid to be his models.

In this, it bears comparison to both the truths and the tales found in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Italian Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, from Cimabue to Our Times (1550), wherein Vecchio is described:

This master, although not very eminent, nor remarkable for perfection of painting, was nevertheless so careful and diligent, and subjected himself so zealously to the labors of art, that a certain proportion of his works, if not all, have something good in them, in that they are close imitations of life and of the natural appearance of men.

The zealousness Vasari found admirable finds a counterpart in the foreword to The Bill by Ornan Rotem, as he asks us to entertain the notion that the models in Vecchio’s paintings are “peering out of their frame as [Krasznahorkai] walks into the room from Berlin’s snow or London’s drizzle.” Their communication is instant and mutual. However, there is the troubling matter of fidelity to fact, and, towards the end, a hovering inconclusiveness that, first heard on the level of gossipy musings around motivations for choosing such ample models, is elevated from that lower plane of talk into a discourse on reality, changing the tenor of the piece significantly.

From the first words, where the narrator states

You sent for us and we knew what you wanted so we sent Lucretia and Flora, sent Leonora, sent Elena, followed by Cornelia, then Diana, and so it went on from January through to June, then from October through to December we sent Ophelia, sent Veronica, sent Adriana, sent Danaë, then Venus, and, little by little, every plump, sweet whore and courtesan on our books turned up at your place, the important thing, as for every male Venetian, being that their brows should be clear and high, that the shoulders be broad and round, the chest wide and deep, that the body should open out, the way it opens out under a deep cut chemise, and that the eyes should be able to dive, as from a cliff, from the tempting face down to the fresh, sweet, desirable bosom, just as you described to Federico who brought us your order…

we are at a disadvantage, for the speaker is not identified, and looks to be unstoppable. What we glean, in a limited fashion, from this direct address to Vecchio is that the speaker is a businessman who sells women’s bodies (and, one assumes, is also involved in the procurement of same) for modelling and other purposes. What vexes the narrator is not knowing, for sure, the system underlying Vecchio’s selections, but Federico has an “idea” that a portion of these women’s bodies “reminded you of the horizon above your village in that deep valley, the valley of Seriana…”; that’s Federico’s idea, one he “didn’t explain” to the narrator. So how is it able to be talked about, and who presents it? Or is it revealed to the narrator later?

Three pages into this slender work and already we are unsure. It should be a simple read, but there are gaps in knowledge, there is material from the future set alongside what has happened in the past and what exists in the historical present, and there is a constantly returned-to puzzle over the lack of sex, with the narrator wondering why Vecchio would dismiss the models “without even a bunch of grapes, never allowing those enormous women to take you to bed…” The painter “was not in the least interested in fucking, and wouldn’t even touch, merely instructing the model in his quiet polite way… because you weren’t like that, the girls told us, that was not why you hired them…” We are racing through the clauses and we might not quite catch the moment when ‘you’ became ‘he’ and then reverted to ‘you,’ but when it occurs we are smoothly pushed off balance, thrown into a kind of confusion that mirrors what the models may have felt in dealing with a cipher.

What is not left out here is the emotional reaction of the whores. At one point Vecchio’s look is referred to as “filthy,” a description that might be at odds with the apparent discretion shown to the models, but it fits in with how he wants them to look at him, “straight in the eye, though otherwise you treated them well enough”—and what greater intimacy is there than a mutual direct look between the sexes in a master-servant dynamic? The women were “astonished at this idiotic and pointless game of you-look-at-me-I-look-at-you, because what after all are we, they complained, raising their voices, looking really angry, child-virgins from the lace factory?”

Yet whether relieved or disappointed that sex didn’t occur—both options are mentioned—the models clearly were bothered by their depictions, for they

couldn’t understand why you turned them into such vast mountains of flesh, since, said Danaë, my shoulder is nowhere near as enormous as that, nor am I anywhere near as fat as that, said Flora pointing to her waist, and, to tell the truth, there was, after all, something incomprehensible about these disproportionate figures because, despite the exaggerations, they remained lovely and attractive, and no one could understand how you did it, nor, more importantly, why…

Disproportionate, enormous, mountainous; one can’t help but think that Krasznahorkai is having a bit of fun with his method of loosening up narrative at the sentence level. The Bill is one of those delightful fictions, like Thomas Bernhard’s novels, that expect your attention and ask you to trust in the strength of the lines to hold up its content.

As this short narrative moves along, the terms used by the narrator to describe Vecchio become disparaging, like “filthy reprobate,” and this seems prompted by the painter’s refrain from sexual congress and his repeated request for the same physical attributes in his models, “that valley in Seriana” found in “the valley between a whore’s shoulders and her breasts…” The painter is “an unusual man” who aims “to perfect the most scandalously refined, devilish sensation” in his paintings.

It is when the search for perfection enters the story that the tale moves from Vecchio to painting generally. Well-grounded in theory and abstraction for a whoremonger (if this is the same voice as we heard at the beginning; it might be another that has slid into his place momentarily) who looks ahead to an eventual end to the supplying of women and a final accounting of debts, the narrator discusses the impossibility of finishing “this painting you so desire to paint” since that would be “about something else that no one could ever paint…”

The awareness that desire and anticipation speak of an imagined, unreachable future, that memory leads us treacherously back to an imagined past, that the “real object… doesn’t exist,” that no art work can be fully realized—these are thematic concerns found, on a larger scale, here and there in Krasznahorkai’s large body of fiction.

As George Szirtes put it in the journal Music & Literature, in an issue devoted to the Hungarian writer: “But nothing in Krasznahorkai is about plot. Instead of plot we have system” (“Foreign Laughter: Foreign Music”). We must keep in mind the context the populace of Hungary has grown up in or, if you prefer, inherited: lingering after-effects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s dismemberment, two world wars, USSR occupation following WWII, and the hectic post-1989 era.

These sharp and brutal events involved many deaths, loss of liberty, exile, severe restrictions, along with much else, and may have instigated a possible near-complete distrust of systems that offer solid answers and certainties. A Venetian painter’s attachment to a certain body type invites an interpretation that grows hostile over the short span of pages, innuendo mixed with ad hominem attacks; this is in keeping with how governments all over the world isolate individuals before deciding, as the narrator here does, that, in good time, “there will be no more Palma Vecchio, no more Iacopo Negretti, then it will be over and we’ll send you the bill, you can be sure of that.” The lightness present in the opening lines of The Bill descends into a meanness that prepares us for the threat at the end.

In the Preface to Animalinside, Colm Tóibín has this to say about Krasznahorkai’s style:

For him, the sentence is an act of pure performance—a tense high-wire act, a piece of grave and ambitious vaudeville performed with energy both comic and ironic. But there is also a compacted edge to his prose; he is not interested in language merely for its own sake.

With The Bill readers in English can get a view of the vast Krasznahorkai forest that teems with the at times disturbing life forms that populate it. As we head into the months of leisurely summer reading, those looking for rich works might think about the somewhat new phenomenon of slow reading, and choose to walk slowly through the unfolding landscape of translated books by László Krasznahorkai.

The Bill: For Palma Vecchio, at Venice, by László Krasznahorkai, Trans. George Szirtes | Sylph Editions | 32 pages |  $16.43 | paper | ISBN #978-0956992093


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Offshore Drilling: Reviews In Translation

Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey is the author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015) and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His latest book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (Zero Books, 2016), is a collection of literary criticism that has appeared in various publications.