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Book Review

The World Goes On

by on February 8, 2018

The World Goes On, by Laszlo Krasznahorkai
Translated by John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet, and Georges Szirtes

The animated science fiction comedy show Futurama has an episode in which the character Professor Hubert Farnsworth discovers the “missing link” between humans and apes and attempts to use it to prove the theory of evolution, only for his discovery to be co-opted by a group of creationists who attempt to use it to disprove the theory of evolution. When the alleged disproof is applauded, Farnsworth utters a line that has left an indelible mark on the internet and its memes: “I don’t want to live on this planet anymore.” That sentence and the sentiment that it represents have become quite popular as of late. In a world where the most publicly powerful individual is an open bigot and rapist, where racist nationalist movements are surging in popularity thanks to the internet and fear-mongering, where a great many people have been shaken from their cozy collective dream, it is easy to understand a decent number of us are looking to borders and horizons, to simply get away from the stress and the stupidity. But it seems the implications and consequences of that impulse are much more difficult to appreciate.

The onset of catastrophe is not signaled by the sense of falling through the dark to an accidental death: everything, including a catastrophe has a moment-by-moment structure – a structure that is beyond measurement or comprehension,

Laszlo Krasznahorkai is an author you can trust to never shy away from the consequences of actions. In his latest book, The World Goes On, Krasznahorkai presents us with a series of stories, told by an unnamed narrator, in which people from all walks of life are in various states of transition – a man in his truck passes a pair of dogs in the street, a homeless person takes a swig from a bottle, a child leaves his job and his frame of reference behind. All twenty-one of these stories, on some level, present individuals who have experienced or are experiencing a paradigm-shift, the kind of perspective expansion that is thrilling and terrifying in equal measure. This is a book that uses both the magical and the mundane to explore profound and fundamentally disturbing questions such as the relationship between determinism and responsibility, the metaphysical implications of free will, and the warring suspicions that the universe is either completely uncaring or possessed by an incomprehensible will. The ground-level application of these questions is not lost in the fray either; for all the philosophical roiling, The World Goes On is a book that manages to make you give a damn about your reality.

I talk to him every Wednesday starting at nine am, but nothing, he doesn’t even budge, this isn’t just about anything at all though, I think many times he’s not really there, it’s not that he’s not paying attention, because all the same if I were to say to him what’s going on with you, Shitbrain, I tried it once, he immediately says: May I ask to whom you are referring?

If you are familiar with Krasznahorkai’s other work, then it will come as little surprise to you that his signature style of extremely long sentences is at play here. If you are not familiar with his work, then prepare yourself – I know it is becoming cliche to say this in literary circles, but Krasznahorkai writes for writers. He loves playing with language, dancing with it and toying out its intricacies as he and his sentences move to a tune that is meant to feel whimsical and impulsive but which clearly has no small amount of craft woven throughout. And given the subject matter of the book itself, that style is both fitting and welcome. Moments are meant to feel stretched out into infinity as the narrator’s thought process becomes increasingly aware of all the myriad ideas and tangents that even the most inconsequential notion can spark. Some stories possess Virginia Woolf levels of plot advancement, determined to plant their feet and make you realize the beauty and impossibility that you would otherwise miss in your haste. Somehow the style also fits the exact opposite speed, where moments in time rush by you in a blinding blur as the words in the sentence fall into place like the pavers of a path that forms beneath your feet as you race down it. This book feels almost immune to diminishing returns upon rereading – the stories are the kind of things you want to keep wading into, just to feel them running through your fingers and toes.

I must duly consider, while your face is constantly before my eyes, and while your story is gradually assembled in my mind, that this is the fate reserved by the world for one who is sufficiently sensitive and “intelligent” (in the special sense that you use this word) to embody the essentials about the reality of human society and his own inevitable death at its hands.

The level of craft on display here feels strangely necessary given the enormity of what the book is attempting. Krasznahorkai is not only addressing the questions and ideas I mentioned before but doing so from multiple perspectives, in ways that almost demand we empathize. While the text does have an arguably singular narrator, that narrator watches with such detail and intimacy that the narrator seems to disappear into the vicarious experiences. That impulse to flee, to leave a place because you have woken up to its disfigurement, is shown not only to be a real and often valid thing, but a thing so real and so valid that it calls into question the comparatively flippant nature of wanting to flee much easier circumstances. What does it mean to joke as an American about wanting to move to Canada because of Donald Trump when there are Syrians who are forced to flee in the name of survival toward a number of countries that see them as parasites? By the same token, the book also shows demands for action and characters who would chastise those who give in to fear and flee rather than fight for human decency. And that is by no means the end of it. The book, itself almost overwhelmed with perspective, cannot help but wonder whether any of this means anything; not merely in the postmodern sense of definition, but on a terrifyingly existential level. Are our fights and retreats going to amount to anything or is the world just going to go on, spinning in the void, its surface machinery grinding its gears past obstruction? Or does the very nature of our universe mean that those same fights and withdrawals are having immense, irrevocable effects on literally everything else?

Everyone has that piece or those pieces of art that they keep in their collection not only for their own enjoyment but so that they can show their friends or family in the hopes that those other people can understand what art is capable of. The World Goes On is quickly becoming one of those pieces for me. It is a book that can tell compelling stories, sculpt with language, broaden perspective, and break the rules with brilliant purpose. It is a book that will make you feel empowered and guilty, beautiful and horrified, angry and depthlessly empathetic. A good deal of the credit for this achievement should be given to John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet, and Georges Szirtes, translators who have managed to reconstruct Krasznahorkai’s literary voice in a way that leaves you speechless if you take any real time to think about it. To not only have to translate but to do so in an effort to faithfully rebuild these long, flowing, intensely personal sentences is a feat and a half. If you consider yourself a student of literature, you owe it to yourself to tangle with The World Goes On.


The World Goes On is available now through New Directions Publishing.

Book Review


by on September 28, 2017

Novel by Dasa Drndic
Translation by Celia Hawkesworth
Review by John Venegas


It is seductively easy to view humanity’s forward trek in time as story of progress. We look at the history of our species and construct narratives that make us feel good about ourselves, about our lot in life and the cost to get us there. By “we”, of course, I mean those of us in positions of privilege – those of us standing on the ashes of others. We pick and choose elements from stories of history that were already curated for the purpose of comfort, further rendering the delicious fat into something we can use to make everything else more palatable. But, worse than this, we violently reject anything that might disrupt our gluttonous meal, aggressively dismissing the bitter taste at best, even destroying the nuisance if we become sufficiently afraid.

As a person of privilege, I found Belladonna hard to swallow. It is a novel by Croatian author Dasa Drndic and it tells the story of Andreas Ban, a psychologist and author who seeks, above all else, escape. More than that, Belladonna is a withering, merciless examination of humanity’s existential relationship with history, one in which the burnt and bleeding remains of the victims are lain at our feet. Andreas, the novel’s protagonist, is a man dealing with partial dislocation – not a result of his circumstances but a thing of his own doing. Through his work, he has come to see the side of humanity that most of us like to pretend is not there or is only present in “bad” people, and he seeks comfort in the past. This fails, of course, because his eye, having been opened, cannot completely shut again.

That outer landscape, for Andreas a falsely real landscape, has sucked up, demolished, devoured his internal world,

This novel is not difficult because of its language, its structure, or its tone. As a matter of fact, all three of these facets, and several more besides, are incredibly beautiful. No, Belladonna is one of those rare novels that is truly demanding. The story is presented in such a way that it pulls you back to vigilance. The text is awash with details and minutia that, on a surface level, add an intense vividness to the immersion, but which also grab your chin and hold your gaze. It is a constant reminder that you are too easily distracted, that you cannot pretend your way to innocence, and that ignorance is no excuse. Moreover, the novel makes you aware that there are, and always will be, things that you do not know. There is always more information to discover, another perspective yet unaccounted for. The delivery of Andreas’ story and the stories that he sifts through are delivered in pieces, in fragments, all rich in detail but by their very existence and definition incomplete. The effect of reading this is dramatically potent, a reminder that the seeking of truth is an obligation without end.

Those others, those who had and still have a single-track life and a present without creases, arranged in drawers stupidly named “life”, in which there are neither wars nor displacements, in which weddings are all alike, just as funerals are, in which in fact there is no life, those people could not invite because they floated in their safe hatars where the lawns are soft and one’s steps springy, while he had fallen out of frame, hanging and swaying from a rusty hook and creating disorder. What would they talk about? What would they touch upon?

The flow of Belladonna is something in which you will lose yourself. Much of the novel is straightforward, matter of fact delivery that is trusting enough of its reader to infer the commentary being delivered in the description of events. But all the while this style builds in subtle intensity until the text can no longer stand the pressure and releases in amazing climaxes in which Drndic waxes poetic and unleashes sensations of long, elegant sentences that appeal to anyone with a taste for language. Further still, Drndic is beholden to no one in the path she takes to tell this story. The text does not care if you are impatient. In yet another beautiful echo of the novel’s message, the text will drag out the care and concern from you, if there is any to truly give. Belladonna is not a book for those of us with short attention spans or the inability to invest beyond a superficial level. This flow and style feel very important to the novel on multiple levels. First, they seem to be the one (perhaps unintentional) concession the text makes to the difficulty of its subject matter. There is an argument to be made that an uncomfortable truth finds better purchase when beautifully delivered. Second, they feel inherently respectful to the voices they help advocate for. Belladonna interrupts its prose in multiple instances to deliver extensive lists of the murdered, letters between characters, and pictures that provide yet more of the fragments of those that we have tried to forget. The care that was put into the construction of Belladonna is as much a tribute as any other memorial.

I do not speak Croatian, but given the masterclass in English on display, special acknowledgement should be given to Celia Hawkesworth, who has translated works from Drndic before. My understanding is that Drndic has an expert grasp of English and English literature, so to me it says something significant that Hawkesworth was asked to translate this work. The end product is a joy to read and seems to sacrifice none of Drndic’s characteristic visceral empathy.

It would be hard to find a novel more topically relevant today than Belladonna. We are surrounded by and tied to a rising tide of sexist, racist, fascist nationalism, whether we call the United States, Britain, Myanmar, or Palestine home. In an interview with the Paris Review, Drndic says that “Art cannot change the world, but it can change us. Art should shock, hurt, offend, intrigue, be a merciless critic of the merciless times we are not only witnessing but whose victims we have become. In this domain, the so-called intellectuals have enormously failed—by being silent, by committing treason,”. Belladonna is call to action, a blaring alarm to those of us who have been patting ourselves on the back because we supposedly dealt with the problem, to those of us who lie to ourselves and blame a few bad apples. It is the kind of novel that finds itself unfortunately essential, and brilliantly unquiet.


Belladonna will be available in October, thanks to New Directions.

Book Review

These Possible Lives

by on August 10, 2017

Essays by Fleur Jaeggy
Translated by Minna Zallman Proctor
Review by John Venegas

I imagine that most of us are worried, on some level, how we will be remembered. A lot of that is the standard issue fear of mortality that helps keep us alive. Some of it is philosophical and existential, the kind of question that you only arrive at when you get some hint of the scale of what is around you. Will your life fit into a book? How about sixty pages? How about ten? I hold no pretense that I will be deserving of such a thing, but I can’t lie: I now want Fleur Jaeggy to write of me when I am dead. Her short essay collection, These Possible Lives, explores the lives, deaths, and worlds of Thomas De Quincey, John Keats, and Marcel Schwob. At less than sixty pages that are maybe three and a half by five inches, this was the kind of book that, as a reviewer, I immediately assume I will have to pair with something else to write a review of decent length. I enjoy being wrong. Jaeggy’s minimalist style and ethereal technique crafted such depth that I feel like I have stepped into an ocean of time.

On the most basic level, These Possible Lives is an examination of the personalities of writers and the toll the art can take. The essays render the lives of the ahead-of-his-time De Quincey, the vibrant Keats, and melancholic Schwob into impressionistic paintings. They standard historical fare – the circumstances of births, marriages, addictions, and deaths – but with such precisely wrought language that you could be forgiven for wondering whether or not you’d strayed far from the history itself. There is a whimsy here, not driven by lack of curiosity or impulsiveness, but by the currents of time. We can only experience fragments of the lives on display, through our mutual connection to the zeitgeist, so we are compelled to fill the unoccupied sections with our own perspectives. Jaeggy is our guide through this process, eloquently and elegantly rendering the fragments in such a way the authors of which she speaks can only be human. Jaeggy becomes a ghost of literature’s past, to borrow from Dickens, showing us only what we need to see.

This process starts with the trimming of the fat. Think about what Jaeggy is trying to do. She is encompassing the lives of three authors in less than sixty pages, in a manner that is both true to history and artistically creative. Most of us would consider such a thing impossible, and rightly so, because most of us can’t do it, or do it well. The trick, it seems, is in parsing out what it is that truly matters, not just in a text, but in a life. This is carving a statue out from within another statue, with the end result being more meaningful and engrossing than the original.

It would be necessary to reassure him of the identity of objects in the room. At times he discerned the ‘footprints of angels’ and would address himself to the deceased.

A simple, beautifully efficient way to reminisce about a touched mind. There is no wasted space, no hyperbole to lionize or demonize how De Quincey’s mind worked. And yet it is like a match to the kindling in our imaginations, leaving us to see what we will, be it actual angels in conversation with a poet or a slow, burgeoning freedom from sanity. And every possibility between.

His face colored slightly, turning into a mask of gold. His eyes stayed open imperiously. No one could close his eyelids. The room smoked of grief.

Here we are presented with the death mask of Marcel Schwob, one of the most influential and (here in the United States) criminally under-recognized writers of the late nineteenth century. Assuming that a piece of literature exists in conversation with itself, what does the quote above have to say to Dickinson’s depictions of death? Or Shelley’s fallen pharaoh? Jaeggy has painted Schwob as a man whose resolve could not be broken in the end, who passed in a manner that kings of old could only emulate at great expense.

But the text, for all its hidden depth and intensity, does not pretend to be above a soul of wit and charm. There are moments of quiet levity and delicious word play, especially when the text is fleshing out the world these artists lived in. Henry Fuseli is described as having eaten “raw meat in order to obtain splendid dreams”. Wordsworth is described as using a “buttery knife to cut the pages of a first-edition Burke”. It comes across as an acknowledgment that, for all our seriousness and for all the dramatic consequences of our actions, the lives of writers are strange and, at times, nonsensical. We are a weird folk, neither the demi-gods that history would make of us nor the vagrants our cultures often accuse us of being, but shamans with our fungi and tin-foil hats, never quite sure to whom we are speaking.

A special note must be made for the other major voice at play here: translator Minna Zallman Proctor. I do not speak Italian, but what has been presented here in English is nothing short of truly beautiful, and Parker’s work is no small part of that. I can only imagine the difficulty of translating something that so acutely focuses on brevity and efficiency. To pour over the proper word choice, to capture the essence of something so precise – it is awe-inspiring, a worthy tribute to the original text and its author simply by existing as it does.

In case you cannot tell, I highly recommend this book. I have soft spots for the most efficient uses of language (even if I don’t even come close to managing it myself) and deceptively deep work that challenges our assumptions of fact and fiction, and I struggle to think of a better example of either than These Possible Lives.


These Possible Lives is available now through New Directions Publishing Company.

Book Review

The Last Wolf & Herman

by on September 8, 2016

unnamedThe Last Wolf, by Laszlo Krasznahorkai

Herman, by Laszlo Krasznahorkai

At the outset of this review, I must admit to a bias: I am predisposed in favor of audacity and the blending of chaos and symmetry.  This is not a perspective that all potential readers will share with me and I can say, quite objectively, that the writing of Laszlo Krasznahorkai is not for all potential readers.  But for those of you that enjoy brilliant use of language, clever re-purposing of convention, and seamless immersion into vivid perspectives, I dare you to find better than The Last Wolf and Herman, two novellas written by Laszlo Krasznahorkai and translated by George Szirtes and John Batki, respectively.

The Last Wolf is the sentence of a man who, through a case of mistaken identity, is invited to write the story of the last wolf of Extremadura, a region in Spain.  You read that line correctly.  This is the sentence of that man.  The entire work, spanning seventy pages, is written as a single, unbroken, grammatically correct sentence.  In creative writing classes and workshops, authors are perpetually warned against ridiculousness such as this.  They are told that readers do not want to devote the thought and energy required to follow, much less unpack, a work that so thoroughly contradicts traditional narrative structure.  To hell with that.  The Last Wolf is a work of true art, operating under its constraint with such a rigor and life that it seems hardly bound to any rules at all.  The contours of this sentence are shaped in such a way that an experienced reader and writer can actually see the craft as it unfolds, as if watching Krasznahorkai mold everything into its proper place.  And despite there being only one sentence, the narrative and the manner in which it is delivered never feels incomplete.  Pace changes, social commentary, and all of the necessary pieces of the plot’s mosaic are presented as if the story were a mystery, asking the reader to truly participate in the creation of this work.  In the moments where the text slows and looms toward a possible break in thought or an “appropriate” period, it suddenly rushes off again on a new train of ideas, bound in almost perpetual motion.  Which, incidentally, keeps the read from ever being boring.  Of course, the constraint is not merely there for its own sake – it helps to wonderfully encapsulate the perspective of the narrator, who is caught on some seemingly inevitable and relentless descent in perspective, lost in his own melancholy and frustration, so desperate to escape it that he seeks to live someone else’s lie.  He knows that his story, and his part of this story, must come to an end, and so he drags it out to such a length that you wonder if he might not have died after that first and only period.

By contrast, Herman is, on the surface, a more traditional pair of stories.  It consists of “The Game Warden” and “The Death of a Craft”, two short stories so wildly different that I would have believed anyone who had told me they were written by different authors.  It is as if Krasznahorkai, after writing The Last Wolf, then set out to show his grasp of familiar narrative, as if to retroactively justify his previous boldness.  And I can genuinely say I enjoyed these stories even more than the larger novella.  Both stories provide a wealth of commentary on human excess and existential motivation, but they approach the topics from entirely separate angles.  “The Game Warden” could almost be classified as a satirical take on the hero’s journey, if not for its profoundly serious conclusion.  A simple story about a hunter and groundskeeper, the titular Herman, trying to hold back the advance of nature quickly and systematically devolves into a visceral, brutal examination of human arrogance, self-righteousness, and willful ignorance.  “The Death of Craft” is one of the finest examples of atmospheric writing I have ever read, with the use of language and narrative tone so perfectly encapsulating a hedonistic mindset that I found myself feeling wanton and unclean as I read.  The story involves the same general setting and chronology of events as “The Game Warden”, but it does so through the eyes of a traveling group of sensationalist dilettantes, with perspectives about as far from Herman’s as it is possible to have.  Krasznahorkai’s chameleonic skill in writing such vastly different narrations is incredible, immersive, and engrossing.

Do yourself a favor and pick up these companion pieces.  They are not long, but they are so well written that they hold up and present fascinating value whether they are read in a quick sitting or whether they are deliberately unpacked and interpreted.  I could not be more impressed by my introduction to Mr. Krasznahorkai’s work, and I cannot wait to read more.


The Last Wolf and Herman are available for preorder now from New Directions.

Book Review

On The Edge

by on September 1, 2016

41p6CV9+ABL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_On the Edge, by Rafael Chirbes

Translated by Margaret Jull Costa


It is perhaps easier to see the beauty in art when that art deals with a subject that is, for lack of a better term, beautiful.  On the Edge, by Rafael Chirbes, does not deal in what most of us would consider beautiful.  But there is no denying the skill, emotive eloquence, and resonant power of this book.  It openly attacks youth-worshiping culture and sentimental idealism in a way that demands the reader listen, laying down the gauntlet after having slapped the face of naïve ignorance.  It manages to be both allegorical and extremely direct, doggedly rejecting subtlety but somehow rife with commentary and implications that take multiple reads to fully process.  This is the kind of book that, given its density and tone, you will want to reward yourself for having finished, and yet that same reward may very well be another crack at the text.

One of the best things about truly skilled authors is that, when they break “the rules” of writing, they do so in ruthlessly effective fashion, making their violations serve a purpose and enhance the atmosphere of the work.  Chirbes’ version of this is his mercilessly long paragraphs.  Whole sections of pages, whole pages, and even multiple pages can be taken up by the same interconnected, unbroken thought process.  Even to an experienced reader, this can be intimidating.  But the way to make this style work to the author’s advantage is to make excellent use of language and make the block feel authentic to the speaker.  Esteban, the novel’s protagonist, is bitter and desperate and intelligent and utterly lost.  His sentences are rarely complicated but they are delivered one after the other in otherwise unbroken litanies expressing his grievances and observations.  These paragraphs possess a deceptive and clever flow that both speed the process of reading them and immediately convey to the reader that Esteban has had enough time to carefully hone his thoughts in a highly organized and extensive essay on society.

Those thoughts are rarely unclear.  A reader can turn to any page of the text and pull something biting and poignant – “If money serves any purpose at all, it at least buys innocence for your descendants”.  But the lack of ambiguity is not a hindrance in the novel.  If anything, it assists the reader’s digestion.  The point is made, and the text moves on.  But that is not to say that there is not room for interpretation.  Moreover, while the novel gives us ample amounts of Esteban’s perspective, it doesn’t seem entirely settled on the idea that he is “right”.  For example, consider the following quote: “The easiest way to attract attention is to do extravagant, stupid things.  Standing out from the crowd because of your work is a lot harder.”  On the surface, the point is simple and particularly relevant in an age where Kim Kardashian and Farrah Abraham get more attention than most genuine, supremely talented artists.  But is this quote the resulting point of view of a bitter old man who watches as wealth and culture have left him behind?  Or is it the voice of someone who has suffered greatly from a system that extends far beyond his control?  An argument can be made for both, or neither.

Special note should be given for one of the most powerful and difficult moments in the book, in which Esteban gives his elderly, disabled father a bath.  The experience is described in intimate, uncomfortable detail that would be familiar to any who have dealt with such a situation before.  This is the book’s crescendo, where the sum total of its philosophy and perspective can be found in a multi-layered event.  And while it is perhaps the most strenuous part of the book to read, it deserves the utmost care while reading.  The relationship between generations of families and of nations, the human needs for understanding and respect, and the visceral, grimy nature of the book’s perspective on the world are all addressed as part of an intense metaphor.  It many ways, it leaves the strongest and most lasting impression.

Mr. Chirbes has written many stellar novels, and this definitely deserves to be counted among them.  On The Edge presents a demanding critique of modern Western society, including culture and economics, in such a way that it avoids the common pitfalls of soapbox preaching and not trusting the reader to common to their own conclusions.  The book is not for those who do not value a challenge, but, in all honesty, why wouldn’t we?


On The Edge is available now through New Directions Publishing Company.