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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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times