Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Melancholy of Resistance II

I'm about halfway through the book and at this point have a fairly good idea what it's about. One of the main characters, Eszter, who had formerly been the director of the town orchestra and so far seems to be the only well-educated resident there, became completely disillusioned with the town and the people, retired early and lives as a recluse. He suffers from spinal arthritis and rarely goes out. His days are spent experimenting on his piano with the harmonic theories of Andreas Werckmeister. On the threat of moving back in with him, his wife, from whom he is separated, manages to recruit him to support her rather vague crusade for "moral rearmament" in the town. The town streets are littered with trash, the atmosphere is depressing, and a strange exhibition of a whale has just arrived; visitors pay to see it inside the large wagon in which it has been towed. For unknown reasons, a number of criminally-minded men have begun to amble about in the streets since the arrival of the whale. Another major character, Valuska, is seen by most as the village idiot, but he has an enthusiastic side that appeals to Eszter, and he becomes Eszter's assistant. At a local bar, Valuska recruits patrons to act as the sun, the moon and the earth in order to demonstrate conjunction, and, as you might imagine, this doesn't work very well with drunks.

The planetary alignment theme seems to represent aesthetic harmony, which both Eszter and Valuska are seeking. In her own way, Mrs. Eszter is also trying to bring harmony to the town, albeit in a mechanical, political way. The main theme therefore seems to be how people combat the inevitable entropy that they encounter in their lives. The title seems to indicate that the protagonists are futilely resisting the inevitable, but it is still possible that there will be other developments further along in the novel. In any case, the value of Krasznahorkai's writing lies more in his ability to represent the psychic states of his characters. The whirl of his words comes closer to simulating what actually goes on in a person's mind than is expressed in ordinary prose. In this regard, James Wood, commenting on Krasznahorkai's novel War and War, says "By the end of the novel, I felt that I had got as close as literature could possibly take me to the inhabiting of another person...." This is the way I have felt too, and though I can't say that Krasznahorkai's characters are the kinds of people that I like to inhabit, one can only marvel at his talent, which puts most writers to shame.

Another aspect of the novel that interests me is how to go about contextualizing it. The question is whether Krasznahorkai's bleak and depressing settings are exaggerated stylistic inventions or roughly accurate representations of the rural, economically depressed communist Hungary in which he grew up. Although he obviously draws from the traditions of Kafka, Beckett and others, I am inclined to think that the conditions in his novels aren't that far-fetched. I am often reminded of my long stay in Dixon, Illinois, and I don't think that the people there were all that different from those in Krasznahorkai's fictional world. Fortunately, I was able to move away, but that seems to have been less of an option for Krasznahorkai's people. While I was there, like Eszter I inhabited my own world and usually avoided what little the town had to offer.

I am finding The Melancholy of Resistance enjoyable to read, but would not generally recommend it to others. It is an exotic literary production more suitable for literary aesthetes than for general readers, and I only like Krasznahorkai in small doses. I prefer him to American literary writers, because even though he tends to produce claustrophobic environments inhabited by mentally unhealthy characters, he convincingly portrays the inner lives of actual people who fall outside the narrow range one encounters in works produced by the unimaginative, upper-middle-class conformists who dominate literary fiction here. Despite the fanciful veneer of his writing, he is able to impart a form of psychological realism that is almost completely absent from most fiction these days.

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