I think the summarising of a novel or a collection of stories in one or more short paragraphs is as much an art as the writing of the whole book itself. A clumsy description for even a well-crafted volume can seriously kill the prospect of sales.
The distillation of big narratives can be especially challenging if there are philosophical or political elements at play. Here’s an excellent description that I encountered a few days ago for a very unusual novel that contains both. The tightness, the suspense, the sheer weight of the content jumped out at me at once:
The Melancholy of Resistance, László Krasznahorkai’s magisterial, surreal novel, depicts a chain of mysterious events in a small Hungarian town. A circus, promising to display the stuffed body of the largest whale in the world, arrives in the dead of winter, prompting bizarre rumors. Word spreads that the circus folk have a sinister purpose in mind, and the frightened citizens cling to any manifestation of order they can find — music, cosmology, fascism. The novel’s characters are unforgettable: the evil Mrs. Eszter, plotting her takeover of the town; her weakling husband; and Valuska, our hapless hero with his head in the clouds, who is the tender center of the book, the only pure and noble soul to be found. Compact, powerful and intense, The Melancholy of Resistance, as its enormously gifted translator George Szirtes puts it, “is a slow lava flow of narrative, a vast black river of type.” And yet, miraculously, the novel, in the words of The Guardian, “lifts the reader along in lunar leaps and bounds.”
László Krasznahorkai (born 1954, website, Facebook) is an acclaimed Hungarian writer known for his dystopian themes; he won the Man Booker International Prize in 2015 for his entire body of work (the rules were revised in 2016 and the prize is now awarded yearly to a single work of translated fiction in English).
Apart from The Melancholy of Resistance (1989), Krasznahorkai is the author of books such as Satantango (1985), War and War (1999), Seiobo There Below (2008) and The Last Wolf (2009). The American writer Susan Sontag called him “the contemporary Hungarian master of the apocalypse who inspires comparison with Gogol and Melville.”
I first mentioned Krasznahorkai on this blog on December 13, 2016 while reviewing the novel The Sleep of the Righteous (2002) by the German writer Wolfgang Hilbig (1941-2007), for which he had penned a brilliant introduction.
The Melancholy of Resistance is a very, very difficult book made up of extremely long and dense sentences and I cannot recommend it to everyone. I was myself tempted to keep it away several times but what ultimately had me immersed in the plot and the prose was Krasznahorkai’s extraordinary ability to poetically articulate centuries of European thought – its faith and its skepticism – in the most concise of terms.
The story is an intellectual and spiritual tug of war, a constant push and pull between worldviews of wonder and disillusionment. There is both humour and a great sadness at the heart of it.
Consider this line – a thought from the sickly musician Mr. Eszter, husband of the fascist Mrs. Eszter. It reminds one of Thomas Hobbes’s ideas of competition and selfishness and the Darwinian concept of the survival of the fittest:
The world, as Eszter established, consisted merely of ‘an indifferent power which offered disappointment at every turn’; its various concerns were incompatible and it was too full of noises of banging, screeching and crowing, noises that were simply the discordant and refracted sounds of struggle, and this was all there was to the world if we but realized it.
And here is Valuska – who originally marvelled at the beauty of the starry skies above, who felt that existence was orchestrated by a motor of enchantment – in a grim moment:
…how naïve and childlike his assumptions had been, consoling himself with the illusion that, though the cosmos was vast and the earth merely a tiny speck within it, the force that drove the cosmos was, ultimately, joy: joy that ‘from the dawn of time had saturated every planet, every star’…
Once a believer in a cosmos driven by grace and love and goodness (stuff of late ancient and medieval Christian theology/Augustine, Dante, etc.), Valuska suddenly finds himself confronting a naked and shabby universe where “no element of the landscape is capable of transcending itself” (carries echoes of Jean Paul Sartre’s Nausea), where the only law is blind and mute and absolute strength.
The Hungarian town of the novel is suffused with pessimism and anarchy. Education and bureaucracy have broken down, there is no coal to heat one’s home, telephone lines have gone bad, bus and car journeys are impossible. The climax and the conclusion of the story are definitely entropic. Krasznahorkai presents the processes of decay, disintegration and decomposition in a language that is startling in its details.
Amid the chaos and the bleakness, what remains is the whale. I keep going back to it, wondering what all it might mean and symbolise. It is dead and rotten – and this certainly signifies decline – psychological, social, natural and celestial. But again, the mere fact and presence and knowledge of such a wondrous creature leaves an ethereal strand of mystery and magic that persists long after the book has been completed and closed.
To learn more about the writer and his work, check out this essay “Madness and Civilization” by the English-American literary critic James Wood on The New Yorker and this Guardian feature by Marta Bausells.
Two videos of László Krasznahorkai:
In 2000, the Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr made a movie called Werckmeister Harmonies based on The Melancholy of Resistance. I haven’t watched the film but found this fan-made trailer (soundtrack by Mihály Víg):
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