László Krasznahorkai after receiving the Man Booker International Award. Photo: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images
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Man Booker winner László Krasznahorkai is not “difficult” – only defiant

Seiobo There Below, translated by Ottilie Mulzet, is László Krasznahorkai's most recent novel in English.

Seiobo There Below
László Krasznahorkai. Translated by Ottilie Mulzet
Tuskar Rock, 464pp, £16.99

In bookish anglophone circles, the awarding of a major literary prize to an author who writes in a language other than English usually provokes a sort of guilty classroom shuffling. The swotty few seize the opportunity to parade their recondite expertise, while everybody else tries desperately to catch up. Last month, the Man Booker ­International Prize, awarded biennially for a body of work in English or English translation, was given to the Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai, whose considerable oeuvre is currently represented in English by just five titles (further translations are in progress).

Asked which of his books he would recommend to new readers, Krasznahorkai replied with wry forbearance that he wouldn’t recommend a particular title; instead, he advised anyone who hadn’t read his work to go out, “sit . . . by the side of a brook, with nothing to do . . . They will eventually meet someone who has already read my books.”

Most people who have read his fiction invoke the names of Gogol, Thomas Bernhard and Samuel Beckett. Krasznahorkai has said that his literary hero is Kafka. The word “difficult” often recurs in discussions of his writing – generally as a term of approbation.

A page of text by Krasznahorkai undoubtedly has an alarming aspect. Commas and semicolons abound but full stops are rare, as are paragraphs. His translator, the poet George Szirtes, refers to the novelist’s “slow lava flow of  narrative, a vast black river of type”. The relentless, almost maniacal quality of page upon page of uninterrupted print reflects the insistent quality of the narrative, in which frantic internal monologue hints at imminent revelations both banal and abysmal.

Krasznahorkai’s first novel, Satantango (1985), is set in a decaying village visited by a charismatic apparition whom the villagers believed to be dead. The Melancholy of Resistance (1989) concerns the appearance in a provincial Hungarian town of a mysterious travelling circus, whose only attraction is a vast preserved whale. In War and War (1999), written while Krasznahorkai was staying in New York with the poet Allen Ginsberg, a middle-aged Hungarian archivist discovers a manuscript of, he believes, transcendent significance. Its peculiar quality – ­“reality reflected to the point of madness . . . the engraving by sheer manic repetition of the matter into the imagination” – echoes the lambent iterations of Krasznahorkai’s own strange and beautiful prose.

The epigraph of Seiobo There Below – “Either it’s night, or we don’t need light” – comes, approximately, from Thelonious Monk via Thomas Pynchon, who used a variant of the line as the epigraph for his novel Against the Day (2006). Light as a source of torment as well as illumination, both practical and metaphorical, is a constant in the volume’s 17 linked stories, which are numbered according to the mathematical Fibonacci sequence connected with the natural world (the cover design is an illustration of H Vogel’s 1979 model for the pattern of florets in a sunflower), and the golden ratio in geometry and art.

Krasznahorkai has lived in both Japan and China, and their landscapes and artistic sensibility haunt this fiction, beautifully translated by Ottilie Mulzet. The first ­story, “Kamo-Hunter”, is an incantatory account of a white stork fishing in the Kamo River, which runs through Kyoto, “the City of Infinite Demeanour, the Tribunal of those Condemned to Correct Behaviour”. The disjunctions between the painstaking ­practice of those who make art and the tense aspiration and avid yearning of its consumers are delineated here with a bleak comic tenderness.

In every narrative, a gaze predominates. It might be the “infinite suggestion of one immortal gaze”, captured by a sculptor in the figure of a Buddha removed for restoration from a Zen monastery. It might be the flickering eyelids of a painting of the dead Christ sought by a troubled tourist in Venice, who regards the picture under the suspicious scrutiny of a museum guard without knowing “that for him there would never be any exit from this building, not ever”. It might be the sun-bedazzled eyes of a visitor to the Acropolis who cannot see the wonder he has come to admire, or the burning eyes of a mysterious, shabby visitor to a Romanian artistic colony who secretly works on a subterranean vision of hell.

The idea of hell roils beneath exquisitely detailed accounts of artistic endeavour: the sizing of panels in Perugino’s workshop; a Noh actor’s preparation for his role; the ­felling of cypress trees for a Shinto shrine. The beleaguered Venetian tourist opens a newspaper to read a headline reporting that Pope Benedict has announced that hell is a physical place, not “a kind of metaphor”.

Krasznahorkai’s final story, a dark counterpoint to the pale serenity of the stork in the Kamo, describes the screaming bronze creatures with bulging, clouded eyes that guard the millennia-old graves of the Shang emperors, reminding us of the “dreadful weight of the earth pressing in from all sides which has entombed them, and which in time shall devour us as well”. Yet the fine detail of these captivating pages (not “difficult” to read at all, merely requiring a certain concentrated submission to their rhythms) contains not the vulgar promise of redemption but the defiant flicker of art that endures. 

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the future?

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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.