Excerpt from “Anticipate Doom: The Millions Interviews László Krasznahorkai”
TM: Your contemporary Péter Esterházy writes, “The nineteenth-century sentence was long-winded, the meaning wandering through long periodic structures, and in any case the Hungarian long sentence is a dubious formation because the words do not have genders and the subordinate clauses are more uncertainly connected to the main clauses than in the reassuring rigor of a Satzbau (German sentence construction). Such sentences totter along, uncertain even of themselves, stammer a little; in short are extremely lovable.” Does Esterházy’s description fit your own conception of your long ecstatic sentences?
LK: No, I don’t think that means anything to me. Esterházy is probably thinking of certain 19th-century Hungarian writers, or of a particular kind of writer, I can’t tell, but what he says certainly doesn’t apply to Hungarian literature as a whole and not at all to the Hungarian language in general: it is particularly untrue of my own way with sentences. It seems to me that this definition reflects his own literary practice and that the generalization that follows from it is only natural. If I go on to consider my “ecstatically long sentences,” at first nothing particular comes to mind. Then, on reconsideration, I suspect that these long ecstatic sentences have no relation to theory or to any idea I might have about the Hungarian language, or indeed any language, but are the direct products of the “ecstatic” heroes of my books, that they proceed directly from them. It is not me but they who serve as narrators behind the book. I myself am silent, utterly silent in fact. And since that is the case I can hear what these heroic figures are saying, my task then being simply to transcribe them. So the sentences in question are really not mine but are uttered by those in whom some wild desire is working, the desire being that those to whom they address their sentences should understand them correctly and unconditionally. That desire lends their speeches a mad urgency. The urgency is the style. And one more thing: the speeches these heroes are so desperate to rattle off are not the book, not in the least! The book is a medium, a vehicle for their speeches. They are so convinced of the overwhelming importance of what they have to say, that their language is intended to produce a magical effect without necessarily carrying a concrete meaning: it is an embodiment of the ecstasy of persuasion by magic, the momentum of the desire for understanding.
George Lang’s history and recipe book of Hungarian cuisine has managed to surpass all my expectations. Here’s an excerpt:
At the height of coffeehouse culture, many cafés contained a group of little kingdoms—each literary luminary held court at his own table. Somehow amidst the noise, thick smoke, chatter and distraction, magazines were edited; and poems, stories, plays, and novels were written. Against a running counterpoint of arguments, incredibly elaborate word games and refined verbal warfare, journalists, poets and playwrights turned out an astonishing amount of enduring work.
[…] Karinthy [Frigyes], the great Hungarian humorist, once defined the coffeehouse succinctly as a “place where writers go to drink coffee and eat each other.”
The first two parts of the book provide a concise history of Hungarian cuisine from early to modern times, and it includes a variety of illustrations, photographs, and six of Berda's poems (e.g., an ode to a fattened goose). Best of all, Lang continually shares stories about Hungarian cultural icons and their gourmandism. Here's two excerpts that feature the writer Gyula Krúdy:
Krúdy was on the way home when, remembering a little restaurant in a town forty miles away, he made the driver turn onto the highway toward the heavenly dining room which served—for him—the perfect version [of Újházi tyúkleves (Fowl Soup, Újházi Style)].
[…] Krúdy, who was especially fond of pörkölt, mused: “Onion, the apple of the earth, is able to emit such scents as women meeting their lovers do. Hot bacon dripping, the lover of the onion, keeps asking sizzlingly from the top of the stove: why was I born?—The onion, then, passionately explains everything.”
Over 300 recipes make up the last part of the book, including the soup that Krúdy just had to have, so don’t hesitate to ask me for any.
(Image: cover art by Seymour Chwast)
That was the time in my life when I was happiest. Why, you ask? It’s a puzzle I leave to you analysts of the psyche. I have little time for notions of repression and sublimation, for symbols of the unconscious or the subconscious. I have no wish to be autopsied while I am still alive. Let what I am remain private, whole, and mysterious. Let it continue to yield sufferings and joys uncomprehended. And when I die may it all be destroyed, like an unopened letter.