International Man Booker 2018 Review #5: ‘The World Goes On’ by László Krasznahorkai – It really does go on

When should you read this book? When you’ve got a lot of time on your hands, as you will have to read most of it twice.

Oh, László Krasznahorkai. We meet again. A few years ago, I picked up your International Man Booker prize-winning novel Sátántangó. I was completely bewildered by it and its enormous sentence structure. I vowed to never read anything of yours again.

And now, having renounced you forever, I find you again completely by accident, back on the Man Booker shortlist!

The World Goes on is a collection of what I will loosely call ‘short stories’; some are more or less without a story at all (try ‘Wandering-standing’ at the beginning of the book) and some have a story which is deliberately and grindingly mundane (for example ‘Nine Dragons Crossing’ which tells of a drunken interpreter falling asleep near a busy intersection).

I’m quite proud of myself for having made my way through two books by this great master of Hungarian literature – and I say this without irony, as László Krasznahorkai is without doubt a much-revered figure both in Hungary and outside.

However, if you’re looking for an easy read you’d best start looking elsewhere.

The World Goes On…on and on and on

Here’s an example of a sentence from one of the stories in ‘The World Goes On’ – it’s actually the first sentence from a story called ‘How Lovely’ (hats off to the translator, George Szirtes):

How lovely it would be, a world that we could end by organizing a series of lectures – anywhere in this departing world – and give it the general subtitle, “Lecture Series on Area Theory”, where one after another, as in a circus arena, lecturers from all parts of the world would talk about “area theory”: a physicist, followed by an art historian, a poet, a geographer, a biologist, a musicologist, an architect, a philosopher, an anarchist, a mathematician, an astronomer, an so on, and where in front of a permanent, never varying audience, that physicist, that art historian, that poet, that geographer, that biologist, that musicologist, that architect, that philosopher, that anarchist, that mathematician, that astronomer, and so on, would relate his thougts about area from his own respective point of view, keeping in mind the overall title for the lecture series, “There Is No Area,” pointing out the peculiar relation between this title and the subject, so that the artist or the scientist would speak about this, approaching it from his respective perspective of poetry, music, mathematics, archiecture, fine art, geography, biology, the language of poetics and physics, philosophy, anarchy, telling us what he thinks, and what he recommends we should think about area – and all this under the aegis of a summary statement denying that this subject, area, exists at all.

This is just one single, solitary sentence. On my Kindle it took up just over a page, and I had to search for quite a while to find a “short” example.

Frequently when reading this book, I got to the end of one of these epic sentences (during which period I aged by five years) and had to go back to the start to check what it had said at the beginning.

This, therefore, ensures that you read most of it twice, making it surprisingly time-consuming for such a normal-sized book.

Mundane and marvellous

I’m not sure I truly got over the frustration I felt at Krasznahorkai’s epic sentence structure, but if you are more forgiving than I am and can look past it, you will find an extraordinarily grand scale of ideas.

His talent is essentially to take quite dull moments of life and use them as a lens through which to view life’s great questions.

So ‘Wandering-standing’, which is essentially a piece about not knowing which direction to go in from any given point, becomes quite a bleak picture how we lack purpose, and actually our attempts at progress turn out to be nothing more than a mirage.

Ostensibly it’s about the narrator’s choice to go left or right from a static position, but in case you were wondering, absolutely nothing whatsoever happens in this story. The entire narrative is created out of contemplations of what might have been but isn’t.

This is more or less what you can expect from the book as a whole.

Is there anyone out there?

I felt a need to prove to myself that I wasn’t alone in being able to admire this epic piece of work whilst also wanting to bang my head against the wall whilst reading it.

Here’s a quote I found on the Guardian which summarises my feelings nicely: The grandeur is clearly palpable, but people do not seem to know what to do with it.”

He was talking about ‘Sátántangó’, but it could easily apply to ‘The World Goes On’.

In short, reading ‘The World Goes On’ was something of a struggle. I don’t think there’s much doubt that it’s a seriously impressive piece of literature, touching on huge existential themes – something I’ve noticed in all of the shortlisters – however, I just couldn’t get on with the style. I am too much a slave to the full stop.

I suspect that given more time and a couple of re-readings I’d be in a better position to give you all an in-depth analysis of Krasznahorkai’s commentary on the bleak outlook of our existence, but sadly I’ve got another novel to get through before the 22nd.

However, I ask you also: if this entire blog post were one meandering, mile-long sentence, would you have a fierce desire to read it again?

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If you really, really must read The World Goes On, you can buy a copy from Amazon on this link.

Next up: Like a Fading Shadow, by Antonio Muñoz Molina

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