Skip to content

Always a new failure. Why internationally lauded writer László Krasznahorkai experiences all his work as a failure

Great international recognition notwithstanding, Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai himself considers every novel a failure. 'I strain my brain to the limit, but it never becomes the book it should be. So I start again. And again.'

Hope of redemption lost

Filming adaptations of his novels and winning the prestigious Man Booker International Prize with Satanstango (1985) gave Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai (68) international fame. Since then, his books have been increasingly translated. War and war, the novel that recently appeared in Dutch translation, he published in his homeland back in 1999. It is a typical Krasznahorkai: a book about hope for redemption being lost, wrapped in long, meandering sentences; as cleverly written as it is translated by Mari Alföldy.

Archivist György Korin, living in a small provincial town, concludes halfway through his life that he is worth nothing. He has achieved nothing; although he has done no harm to anyone, he has also added nothing to the world for good.

Just after he decides to end his useless life then, he discovers in the archives a manuscript that had fallen between two shelves and was therefore never registered in the system. The text is about four angels looking for peace in the various crevices of world history, but find only war and war everywhere. Korin thinks it is a masterpiece, a book that will change the world. He therefore decides, before ending his life, to preserve this work for future generations and has heard of the internet, which would preserve everything indestructible for eternity. He travels to New York, in his eyes the centre of the world, to make the manuscript public.

Four versions of one novel

Your novels Satanstango (1985), The melancholy of resistance (1989), War and war (1999) and Baron Wenckheim returns (2016) are called a four-part series. Do you see it that way yourself?

'From a publisher's perspective, it is indeed easier to call it that, but in reality, those four novels are four different versions of a single novel. I always write the same thing. The same characters, the same life stories, the same conditions. What seems new is just a renewed attempt at the same thing and its failure. This is why literary history is so ironic and sad at the same time. Since Homer and the Bible, there have been no new stories under the sun or the moon.

The heroes of my books know - deep down, we all know - that a single story has been entrusted to them, and that they should realise or express it.

Their stories - our stories! - follow from man's character, and since man does not change as far as his essence is concerned, they cannot possibly tell anything new. But deep in his heart, every character, like all of us, carries something enigmatic within him. That is what everyone wants to know: what that enigma in us is.

Art tries to express the secret of the human soul, to find answers to the question of what man is meant to be. That is why we take up books, why we look at paintings, sculptures and theatre, why we listen to music. But the riddle cannot be solved. I too cannot solve the riddle, only indicate that it exists. That is why I experience my works as failures. And that is why I cannot stop writing books, i.e. putting my heroes into reality: because, like my characters, I cannot free myself from the urge to try again and again.'

Voices in the head

You once told us that your characters knock on your door to be allowed to exist, and that your job is to listen to them. How and when did György Korin come forward?

'That was on the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin, at night, in the early 1990s. Everything was deserted, it was about three in the morning, the illuminated shop windows glittered horribly, they seemed to be on fire. Suddenly my heart started beating harder and I heard an unfamiliar voice speaking in my head, that of György Korin. He talked on and on, I could not stop listening to him, I could only listen to him, and this meant that someone wanted to enter our reality through me.

For a long time, I heard two consecutive sentences very sharply: the first was, "I don't care if I die anymore." Then I saw a figure standing on a bridge, surrounded by children, pointing at something, saying, "Are those swans?" This moved me so much, those two sentences together, it was so beautiful that it decided everything.

The power of the sentences is mind-boggling, but they did not come from me. I did nothing but write down to the best of my ability his clashing, accumulating lava flow of words. The characters of my novels urgently want to tell us something. We move through their life stories at a chilling speed. Standing still is not possible here, only commas fit here, not dots.'

We are like trees

Your novels are set in the environment of your childhood. What influence did that environment have on you?

'I grew up in a middle-class family in Guyla, in southeastern Hungary. When I was 19, my mother attempted suicide. Then I left my family, I left those people and went to live among the most exploited people, because I was outraged that they were being exploited precisely in the name of communism. The communists said to them: you have the power, but they, the so-called ordinary people, had nothing at all, let alone power. I lived among them for years.

But even though I have moved out into the world, in reality I have not moved a millimetre away from the environment of my childhood. This is not a matter of wanting, it is because we are like trees: we stay where we are born. Near my house in Hungary stands a giant hundreds of years old, but I cannot look at it for long: I feel deeply the pain it must feel because it just stands there - it would like to be somewhere else, but that is impossible.'


A tan

How did your come to write your first novel, Satanstango?

'I never had the plan to become a writer. I didn't want to become anything. During my wandering existence during communism, I did all kinds of simple work. Once, for instance, I was a night watchman at a cowshed and lived on a farm.

Once, when I came home from work in the morning, the farmer told me not to go to bed yet because Irimiás would come from one of the neighbouring farms to castrate the piglets. I had to grab them by their front legs, the farmer held their hind legs, and Irimiás, a tall, skinny man with a fearsome face who threw back his long coat and knelt down in front of the piglets' hind legs, cut away the balls of the screaming animals with a scalpel in deadly silence.

I could neither listen to it nor look at it, so I looked up at the top point of the roof of the house in the yard. Then the sun came up over the roof. And that sun was brown. At that moment, I decided to write a book. And that became Satanstango.

I didn't want to write more than that, but I didn't know that you can't just start doing that: you end up on a slippery slope and you can't stop, you keep going down. I strain my brain to the limit, but it never becomes the book it should be. So I start again. And again. A new novel, a new fiasco. War and war. That's how it goes. I am a stumbling spent soldier of a genre that has lost its power. So I hope I die in time before I go completely mad. My tombstone will read: L. Basta. In Hungarian, written phonologically as Elbaszta, it means: he fucked up.'

Good to know Good to know

László Krasznahorkai, War and war, translated by Mari Alföldy, 368 p., World Library.


Appreciate this article!

Happy with this story? Show your appreciation with a small contribution! That's how you help keep independent cultural journalism alive. (If you don't see a button below, use this link: donation!)

Donate smoothly

Why donate?

We are convinced that good investigative journalism and expert background information are essential for a healthy cultural sector. There is not always space and time for that. Culture Press does want to provide that space and time, and keep it accessible to everyone for FREE! Whether you are rich, or poor. Thanks to donations From readers like you, we can continue to exist. This is how Culture Press has existed since 2009!

You can also become a member, then turn your one-off donation into lasting support!

Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

Private Membership (month)
5 / Maand
For natural persons and self-employed persons.
No annoying banners
A special newsletter
Own mastodon account
Access to our archives
Small Membership (month)
18 / Maand
For cultural institutions with a turnover/subsidy of less than €250,000 per year
No annoying banners
A premium newsletter
All our podcasts
Your own Mastodon account
Access to archives
Posting press releases yourself
Extra attention in news coverage
Large Membership (month)
36 / Maand
For cultural institutions with a turnover/subsidy of more than €250,000 per year.
No annoying banners
A special newsletter
Your own Mastodon account
Access to archives
Share press releases with our audience
Extra attention in news coverage
Premium Newsletter (substack)
5 trial subscriptions
All our podcasts

Payments are made via iDeal, Paypal, Credit Card, Bancontact or Direct Debit. If you prefer to pay manually, based on an invoice in advance, we charge a 10€ administration fee

*Only for annual membership or after 12 monthly payments

en_GBEnglish (UK)