Welcome to Babbel Book Club! For our very first pick of the month, we’ve chosen László Krasznahorkai’s The World Goes On. Here’s some information about the book to get you started. And if you’re not already a member of our Facebook group, you should be.
The World Goes On is best described as a short-story collection, but that doesn’t quite capture the reading experience. One of Krasznahorkai’s defining traits is the use of long, long, very long sentences. Like, pages and pages long. Often, a whole story is a single sentence. By building clause on top of clause, Krasznahorkai fully immerses you in his world.
The stories — all about men, strangely — tend to deal with minutiae in a way that reveals deeper truths. In one story, a man gives lectures on topics like “revolt” and “melancholy” based on small anecdotes, while in another a man becomes obsessed with Soviet astronaut Yuri Gagarin and what happened to him after his spaceflight. There is a seemingly unnecessary amount of detail, but the whole point is that the stories unfold in moments. A few seconds may fill several pages, as Krasznahorkai explodes the mundane to make it meaningful.
The book is not exactly a whimsical read, and perhaps one of the best adjectives to describe it is “Kafkaesque.” Krasznahorkai is a suspense writer, and this is, in its way, a kind of suspense book. Except, instead of waiting for a murderer to appear, you’re waiting to figure out what exactly is going on. Information is routinely withheld from the reader, and it’s easy to lose your footing in the stories. Yet, it’s this experience that makes the book worth reading. It is a far cry from most modern Western novels, and The World Goes On provides a worldview that is very different from the ordinary.
László Krasznahorkai is an acclaimed Hungarian writer who has published five novels. His most famous is Satantango, which was also his first. Krasznahorkai won the Man Booker International prize in 2015, and The World Goes On made it to the Man Booker shortlist this year. He has gained many famous fans, with Susan Sontag describing Krasznahorkai as “the contemporary Hungarian master of the apocalypse.” The end of the world is a common theme in his writing, though not so much in The World Goes On. It can’t be the end of the world if the world is going on.
Krasznahorkai’s most distinctive feature is his experimental style, particularly his endless sentences. Asked to describe his writing, he said: “Letters; then from letters, words; then from these words, some short sentences; then more sentences that are longer, and in the main very long sentences, for the duration of 35 years. Beauty in language. Fun in hell.” Which is pretty accurate. And while he’s far from being a household name in the United States, Krasznahorkai has a large following in both English and Hungarian.
The World Goes On was translated by three people: John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet and George Szirtes. All three were born in Hungary and are accomplished translators. All three have translated books by László Krasznahorkai before, but this is the first one that all three have worked on together.
The Hungarian language is spoken by 14 million people, pretty much all in the country of Hungary. It is noted for being a complex language for English speakers to learn, but really it is just difficult because it comes from a separate language family. While most European languages descend from a proto-Indo-European language, Hungarian comes from Uralic, a protolanguage named after the Ural Mountains in western Russia, where it’s suspected to have originated. Other languages from this family are Finnish and Estonian.
To date, there are not a ton of Hungarian writers that have been translated into English. There is no specific reason for this, but it’s possibly because the Hungarian writing reads so differently from other European novels. That makes reading The World Goes On an all the more rewarding experience, because it exposes you to a world that is pretty unexplored in English literature. László Krasznahorkai is hardly representative of every writer from Hungary, but his work is a good entry point.
Stay tuned for the rest of the month to join discussions about the book and the Hungarian language. Want to learn more about Babbel Book Club? Click here.