James Wood may not practice the sexy theoretical criticism of the academy, but for all his critical conservatism, he’s an animal which may soon become extinct: a Critic. Unafraid to draw attention to an emperor’s nudity (his review of David Mitchell’s Bone Clocks in the New Yorker a few weeks ago was laudatory but notably cool), he offers a critical opinion I’m inclined to trust. Wood has become a barometer, as the best critics are, rather than a salesman. Thanks to Wood, I’ve been put onto Jenny Offill (Dept of Speculation), and Wood’s essay on Lázsló Kraznahorkai in 2011 alerted me to the Hungarian writer’s work. I’ve finally read Kraznahoraki’s first novel, Sátántango, first published in 1985 and translated by the British-Hungarian poet George Szirtes in 2012.
A still from Bela Tarr's 1994 adaptation of Kraznahorkai's novel
Sátántango is a maniac’s rain-sodden rant: powerful and nightmarish and dull. Beckett meets Kafka: difficult and alienating, mythic and vague. A dead cat you hug. In the novel, a group of individuals living on a run-down Hungarian estate barely survive the dripping continuity of their sordid, decaying lives. The news that two men long thought dead have been resurrected stirs them up. Irimiás, one of the two men, however, has plans for the villagers.
The whole novel is the scribblings of an obese, alcoholic, obsessive doctor. The fictional instinct is one that proceeds out of terminal solitude and disease: fiction happens when there is no one to observe but the itch to record continues.
When the novel is over, you are glad to be rid of it. Then again, by the time you have read it through, you get the sneaking suspicion that it should be read from the beginning again. The novel itself demands it.
One could write essays on Sátántango. (I imagine someone has/will.) But for the moment, I’m going to chew on its grimy apocalypse before committing myself. Revelation comes with rereading.