László Krasznahorkai: Spadework for a Palace
Jan. 13. 2019.
Krasznahorkai is no stranger to the depiction of seclusion and solitude as the necessary (and sometimes almost sufficient) component of creative work, and to the bitter romanticism of how extremely lonesome everyone is in this world. A REVIEW BY JÓZSEF NAGYGÉCI KOVÁCS.
It is ironic that after the book called the Manhattan project, in which we basically get to know the background story of this current one, the newest volume bears the title Spadework for a Palace. Spadework, we get it, and of course, palace, we get that as well. But the fate of the artist is also emphasised, to the peculiarities of which Krasznahorkai is no stranger. Seclusion and solitude as the necessary (and sometimes almost sufficient) component of creative work, and the bitter romanticism of how extremely lonesome everyone is in this world. Just like Tom Waits sings it in the sailor song, Shiver me Timbers (in which even the key figure of Moby Dick, Captain Ahab is evoked). This „solitude” is, however, not entirely true, or not in the way this book suggests. It is enough to refer back to the previous volume of the author, the Manhattan project, a book made complete by the photos of Ornan Rotem, which is practically an advance of this current one.
The book is full of tension-creating dichotomies: spadework can be done for things beside the palace, and our protagonist is the namesake of the great writer, Melville (save one letter), and he does live where the writer did. The work as a librarian and a customs inspector is mentioned, and so is one of the favourite paradoxes of literary work: madness, the normal world and the tension in between. The difference between them (if any) is no more than the perception and formulation of reality. As a result the suspense is maintained throughout the time of the novel, which is in fact a huge single sentence of more than eighty pages with a few interjections, and through the depiction of all of that, it is the work of art itself that makes the burden of reception heavy but bearable at the same time.
From the first pages on we have a hunch that we witness the monologue of a mind that is disturbed in the traditional sense. Some sort of notes are being jotted down in secret, we do not learn immediately the place and the circumstances, but it becomes clear pretty quickly that we see the end of a process, even if the fact that the author of the notes is writing the lines in a lunatic asylum is only revealed at the end of the book. Therefore all that does not stop us from finding the content of the notes worthy of attention and agreeable. Be it about the life of librarians, questions of architecture or – as a micro-homage – Bartók and the Concerto. As a bonus we get humour, and not only situationally, like is Krasznahorkai’s wont, and not necessarily as a comic relief. The light-heartedness is sinister, but it is by all means good to read. For instance, Melvill wearing the librarian’s hat writes that „we do not particularly like the reader, and that’s putting it mildly”, and as an explanation, he adds „we definitely do not want to give them (i.e. the readers) the books”, what’s more, „we would much rather chase them out of the library”. For this very reason he would like, and this is actually the origin of the obsession, if „there would be an undisturbed Paradise of knowledge, and of everything related to knowledge, which of course is not created by us, librarians, but which we would maintain.”
Melvill is driven mad by the pains caused by his childhood illness, and is left on his own as a result of his madness. He laconically reports about his wife leaving him, his environment becoming hostile and him losing his job. This is a personal story of decline, against which an illusionary world is built: Melvill develops his idea into a system, studies great predecessors, primarily Melville, the writer of Moby Dick. He even quotes him.
„God, where do I begin to make it clear?”, this too is Melvill’s sentence, his honest cry. „Architecture and all the other arts, sciences and thoughts” – no matter how much he jots down, how can one cram so much into even the entire life of one man? One obviously cannot, unless in this novella we witness the same thing that has already come to pass in thousands of ways in the Krasznahorkai universe. An in-depth explanation about how the enlightenment has come to an end for good. There is no more room for development, man has reached the end without learning much more about himself and his environment than what had already been available in the writings of writers long gone. (Plus the two world wars as a „crown” on the glorious head of modernity.) There is no hope, evil rules, and those who raise their voices are suspicious and nobody understands them. According to Melvill „our image of reality has deteriorated, because we have created a deteriorated image of reality, and a blind society in its track, in which men think they know the sort of reality they live in, while they are totally misled”. And should this argument be insufficient, it is enough to ponder the fact, that if someone now closed the New York Public Library as the unified entirety of existing knowledge, no matter how many volumes there are in its collection, nothing new could enter it from this moment on. It follows that there is nothing new under the sun, nor will there be.
At the end of the obsession Melvill finds a building (sees it by chance), where he could imagine the perfect library to which he would carry the entire collection of the NYPL all by himself, and wall it in, so that nobody ever would be able to access it. There he will place his volumes of notes as well. But this is not actually a topic of the book, the topic is the cognitive journey until that point, and the emotional and mental experiences, impressions, wounds gathered during the trip. As these gradually close down a valuable human life, placing it behind boundaries, isolating it. And thus prepares the lonesome artist to create the great artwork, which then is never finished, or it is finished, but is seemingly useless. In this space-cold loneliness everyone is included, there is no encouragement, no hope. The created artworks can convey some hope, but the point of Spadework for a Palace is that books, the carriers of universal knowledge, have to be locked away from the world, so the result and therefore the goal of solitude, the suffering of the outcast artist, which is the work of art itself, cannot remain in the world, cannot work. Thinking all this through I can safely say one thing: it is fortunate that the library does not exist, and Spadework for a Palace for instance can be picked up and read. ​
Translated by Péter Papolczy