Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Melancholy of Resistance I

I'm gradually getting back to reading and still have a long way to go in this novel by László Krasznahorkai. It is somewhat different from Satantango in that it concerns events in a town rather than in the country, has a broader range of characters and is written in long, flamboyant sentences. It also exhibits more psychological realism by showing how each character thinks, highlighting discontinuities in perspective that very few writers even notice, let alone capture in their work. As in Satantango the narrative is driven by forebodings and signs, always hinting at some mystery yet to be revealed.

My attitude to fiction is quite jaded at this point, and I am inclined not to read it at all, so whenever I do make the effort I can only tolerate works of the highest quality. In this respect Krasznahorkai doesn't disappoint, and I think he must be one of the best novelists ever. To compare him to Alice Munro or Philip Roth or Marilynne Robinson would be a joke. I find him more interesting than Dostoevsky, Proust, Kafka or Joyce. If you take the novel seriously as a form of art, there probably aren't many other living authors worth reading today.

The thought that is preoccupying me at the moment is Krasznahorkai's use of peasant characters, which ties in with some of my lifelong meditations. One of the reasons why I like him is that he doesn't hesitate to reveal weaknesses in peasants, something that not only does not occur in American fiction but is specifically banned in the era of political correctness. Broadly speaking, the concept of a peasant does not exist in American culture, because it has been replaced by the immigrant and melting pot narrative, in which everyone becomes equal. The melting pot narrative has caused cognitive dissonance in me from the moment I set foot here in 1957, because I immediately noticed differences in people through an intuitive understanding of peasant and non-peasant mentalities. As my life unfolded I became more acutely aware that I didn't care in the least whether I made a lot of money or achieved high social status, and that this put me at odds with the dominant currents in American society.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I was put off by the Italian immigrants who lived in the town where I grew up. Later, when I lived in Illinois, I noticed that it was hard for me to relate to the second or third generation Polish immigrants whom I ran into at work. In the workforce, the absence of intellectual curiosity in others became a permanent barrier separating me from them. A similar barrier existed between me and my ex-wife's family. Prior to World War II they had been farmers and grain elevator operators in western Ohio, and after the war the men turned to law, geology and business. The women married similarly and never lived on a farm again. In one generation they went from agrarian lives to professional lives, which reflected their drive for financial and social advancement. As with the Italians and the Poles, I found them unimaginative and incapable of engaging in discussion of subjects which were not part of their limited backgrounds. This prompted me to look into my own background in search of something that might help explain the origin of my different perspective.

Part of that difference is simply a matter of life experience. I was born into a middle class family in England, where I lived until the age of 7. From the ages of 7 to 18 I lived in a suburb of New York City. After that I lived for several years in Indiana and Illinois, with short stays in Connecticut, Ohio, Oregon and Kentucky. Although my experience was hardly cosmopolitan, it was certainly broader than that of my in-laws. Another part of the difference, I've decided, is family history. In my family, the agrarian roots are further back than most. In England my ancestors were tailors and furriers by the early nineteenth century, and in Turkey they were engaged in international trade by the early twentieth century. My grandfather was importing pianos to Greece and his sister was studying music in Paris while my ex-wife's illiterate grandfather was in a field plowing behind a horse in Ohio. Thus, even though education did not play much of a role in my family until the late twentieth century, on my mother's side there was significant multiculturalism by 1920, with my grandfather speaking seven languages and my grandmother having German and Armenian parents.

There is a special beauty for me in writers like Krasznahorkai, who aren't afraid to call a peasant a peasant. In his case there isn't necessarily any heroism involved, because the environment in which he writes has different cultural references from those in the U.S. Even so, it is encouraging to me to know that there is a writer of fiction out there who has a brain. That is important to me as a resident of a country that suppresses all derogatory discussion of its peasant constituency and elects crypto-peasants such as George W. Bush and Donald Trump to its highest office.

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