I sometimes wonder if developing an interest in Marxism ruined novels for me. Treating contemporary fiction as part of a broader totality of commodity production rather than a generational turnover of competing styles or dispositions means that when reading recently published novels, I become frustrated and rarely make it much further beyond the halfway point. Some of the reasons for this include i) valorising individual action, ii) making the point that nothing essential ever changes iii) not in some way emphasising that we’re twenty years into a century we won’t be coming out of. I can sometimes give a bit longer to writing which is more wry or playful because I can fool myself into thinking the elision of fundamentals might be self-conscious or deliberate, but even then it begins to grate more intensely, playing games with a failure to clarify is one of those devices I’ve seen operationalised so many, so many times times it’s become impossible for me to care about a novel postulating that there is no ultimate truth without even having the decency to be funny. To come to the point, László Krasznahorkai’s The World Goes On was the most recent book that annoyed me.
The World Goes On is a collection of short stories, but it contains within it a certain number of tropes and recurring voices that had me thinking at first that it was a fragmentary novel, even though the blurb had told me it was a collection of short stories and I had read this blurb many times. Someone said to me recently that all short story writers are very good at doing one thing and do that same thing over and over again and I think that Krasznahorkai in fact does up to two and a half things over and over again. I’m not going to itemise those things, so much as talk about the deeper tropes or attitudes that I think they point towards, though I did skip a few of them, one in particular was an especially egregious instance of that tweet — the precise wording and authorship of which escapes me at the moment — about how male writers are prone to representing women ‘her enormous breasts bounced boobily’ etc.
Krasznahorkai is perhaps especially irritating in this respect because he intuits that there are things about modern life which are bad and that there are persisting remnants within it which have the potential of being good. There is a stable basis for proceeding here. Unfortunately, what has the potential of being good is a languid Paterian awe in the face of Art and The World. Of course this would all be a bit naff in the present conjuncture, so Krasznahorkai has it taking on a slightly sharper edge or valency, where it partakes more of a disaffection with yearning characteristics. ‘Bankers’ is one story which consists of a man named Fortinbras meeting Paul and his friend in Kiev and overhearing their conversations regarding financial transactions/their co-workers. The stories these men share are purposefully aimless and either impossible to, or not worth, following. Fortinbras spends some time in a hotel room and groans internally about the incongruous and irregularly laid out buildings in the area. A friend of mine complained to me recently of the persistence with which irregularly laid out architecture will be criticised in contemporary fiction, as if the aesthetics were the foremost problem and not that no-one can afford to live in them. I would agree with this critique, and locate its origins in the works of J.G. Ballard. I think much of Ballard’s persisting influence resides in the fungibility of his analysis and its capacity to encompass critiques of the Soviet model, the British welfare state and private capital, as if the problem with post-modernity was that it’s a bit weirdly laid out.
The title of the collection originates in a short story of the same name which, along with ‘Universal Theseus’, presents the thesis that effectively nothing ever changes, to exist in the world is to exist in a state of slavery and what change there is can never be understood let alone challenged because everything is too complex. The former story also contains a rather bizarre digression on 9/11 and how it was without precedent, shattered all our illusions about the world that existed before, created a wholly new one and all other kinds of cod-analysis which denies its material and historical origins, consequencies. In line with this, the aforementioned ‘Bankers’ contains a paragraph which lists names of banks, ruminates on the interminable and inscrutable nature of their internal structures and the oligarchic fiefdoms they ultimately generate, variously attributed to or associated with the old communist regime, #Putin, anything other than globalised capital. In this way, Krasznahorkai abides by a very nineties understanding of politics, where the loss of older modes of kinship or cohesion in favour of a vacuous private consumption comes to be regarded as the primary issue rather than a symptom. Fortinbras then visits St. Sophia’s Cathedral and mourns that the spiritual values that the saints used to represent no longer do so. Rather than going to visit the Bulgakov house, Fortinbras’ hosts insists they sit in a kitschy café and gossip, and how Kiev is the only place where someone without a university degree can get a management job, all of which Paul, his name taking on at that stage an increasingly symbolic valency, to what end I’m not sure, insists is ‘much more interesting’. There is an acute sense of ‘the horror, the horror’ overlying all this, as if it makes a jot of difference to anything if we were all to sit around in tasteful cafés taking turns to swoon over Bulgakov or St. Sofia’s Cathedral. Fortinbras is then brought to a brothel where sex workers ply him with a drug that brings him into touch with the cosmos and I can only agree with Krasznahorkai that the problem with modern life these days is that sex workers in luxury hotels are always trying to give me drugs that allow me to experience a universal and fundamental happiness, albeit one slightly compromised and undergirded by a banal ennui.
There’s another story about Yuri Gagarin unable to express the wonder of the cosmos in a Soviet system, which is not treated in any historical specificity, rather used interchangeably with a rationalised bureaucracy of ultimate and inhuman evil because it cannot accommodate Gagarin’s visionary religiosity and contentless humanism. In the story ‘György Fehér’s Henrik Molnar’, we read an extensive excerpt from a screenplay the narrator wrote, which effectively re-enacts Kafka’s The Trial. The screenplay’s apparent moral is that the worst thing about a man being prosecuted for no reason and no recourse is that his judges do not ‘understand’ him. What we see in Krasznahorkai then is a long and remorseful howl right from the confused heart of the weltanschauung of a liberal literatus. No wonder it was shortlisted for the booker.