My second encounter with László Krasznahorkai took place on a sidewalk in London. Forty paces too far in front of me, on a street corner in Bloomsbury, appeared the novelist’s signature straight silver strands of hair. I knew that hair, and I recognized that coat, but I hesitated until I saw that face. As he stepped from the curb and crossed the street, in a moment all too brief and unexpected, it was also too late.
Later that night, Krasznahorkai would be presented the Man Booker International Prize in a ceremony at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Later that night, I would regret—I still regret—not speaking the words, “Hello, Professor,” when I saw him on the corner.
Mid-step through the denouement of Krasznahorkai’s latest novel, “Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming,” Marika, a 60-something retired travel agent recently beset by personal tragedy, has just decamped to Budapest. She is finally far from her diminutive Hungarian village and the oppressive gazes of the townsfolk that gossip at her misfortunes. Marika is “struck dumb” when she instantly recognizes the Professor, another resident of her village, ambling through the capital city.
A moss specialist of international renown, the Professor has experienced his own share of tragedy: a domestic scandal viciously covered by the local press corps, a murder that has centralized upon him the total wrath of a Nazi motorcycle gang and the slow slip of his intellect into some unspecified form of manic derangement. In the city square where Marika unexpectedly discerns the Professor’s coat among the hordes of anonymous city dwellers, she feels an equally unexpected sense of tranquility and relief. She and someone she knows have managed to escape their former village where, meanwhile, the residents remain in their houses, fearful of some impending unknown and unnameable catastrophe, which everyone is certain, at least, will deliver violence.
This fated village is also the hometown of the work’s namesake, the Baron Béla Wenckheim. It is a city in physical, financial and spiritual disrepair, a place left behind to toil in modernity’s wake. The townspeople believe the Baron’s arrival augurs a guarantee of their collective future. Rumors fly that the Baron possesses unfathomable wealth, which the contemptible village administration believes he will bequeath to the town. As readers, we know these desperate hopes are destined to be dashed. We have met the Baron on his train ride to Hungary from Vienna, where he has been forced to retreat from his life in Buenos Aires due to accrued gambling debts. We are privy to the fact that the Baron possesses neither the riches nor the presence of mind or spirit to save anyone. At 64 years old and in the last season of his life, the Baron has returned to his Hungarian hometown heartbroken, only to seek out his youth’s true love, Marika.
Externally, the Baron cuts a bizarrely imposing figure, which the villagers just assume is consonant with the Baron’s nobility. He is of such height and proportions that, in an act of figurative dismemberment near the end of the novel, several characters remark about the Baron’s bespoke Savile Row attire that no one could wear such clothes because “there’s no human being like that.” But we know how, internally, the Baron is mentally deteriorated, agoraphobic, nothing more than a mere shell of being. Indeed, “Homecoming” is a novel where the reader consistently knows more than Krasznahorkai’s characters. The author’s copious use of this device invites many palm-to-forehead moments throughout reading, summoning feelings of scorn for the town’s inhabitants, while providing refreshing helpings of dark humor at a level unmatched in any of Krasznahorkai’s prior works.
Krasznahorkai contrasts the Baron’s veritable degeneration with the stereotypical yet (somehow) three-dimensional molds in which his other characters are formed. This is exemplified in the names of his cast. For instance, there is Leader, Police Chief, Police Cadet, Headmaster, Library Director, Chief Editor, Priest, Mayor, Forester. Even among the novel’s major characters, select few are given proper names (the con artist who doubles as the Baron’s guide, Dante of Szolnok, is one memorable attribution). This makes it hard, therefore, not to notice the frequency with which the author’s given name, László, is invoked. For a writer who has staked his artistic legacy for three-and-a-half decades on coaxing out the language that lies within language, one is left wondering whether this is a manifestation of a singular artist compelled to live by one of the most common first names in Hungary; one is left wondering whether this remains a disappointment to him.
While Krasznahorkai’s characters hold fast to their faith that the Baron’s homecoming is the spark to set off the chain of events that will either raise their fortunes or raze their town, the reader gets the sense that the town’s ruination has been long in the making. To be sure, “Homecoming” has been touted as the conclusion of a novelistic cycle that began with “Satantango” (1985), followed by “The Melancholy of Resistance” (1989) and “War & War” (1999). Instead of a cycle, though, I view these novels as variations about a theme. In this respect, it has become almost ritualistic for reviews like these to reference Susan Sontag’s inimitable description of Krasznahorkai as “the Hungarian master of the apocalypse.” So, it is fitting that with the concluding novel of Krasznahorkai’s cycle, the author also certifies himself as one who can afford his readers glimpses of Genesis, even if what we see are only the gardens of paradise subjected to scorched-earth policy.
My first encounter with László Krasznahorkai was as his student in a seminar at Columbia University. During those sessions I was privileged to inspect this literary titan close-up. He is an aspirant to the divine in literature, an artist given to utterances glazed over with mystery (discussing the baroque, multi-page-length sentences for which he is known, he would declare, “the full stop is reserved for God”). From my experiences, I can see how Krasznahorkai endows the characters in his novels with his own traits. Like the Baron Wenckheim, Krasznahorkai is ill at ease with the fame that he commands. Perhaps he is insecure whether he deserves our attention. I can assure you, reader: he does.
“Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming” by László Krasznahorkai and translated by Ottilie Mulzet was published this September by New Directions.
Ethan Perets | firstname.lastname@example.org