The Spiderweb and the Abyss

 

Men build their cultures by huddling together, nervously loquacious, at the edge of an abyss.

Kenneth Burke

László Krasznahorkai’s massive, intimidating, and disturbing novel arrives with a specific statement of intent from its author:

With this novel I can prove that I really wrote just one book in my life. This is the book—Satantango, Melancholy, War and War, and Baron. This is my one book.

Krasznahorkai has written other novels besides these four. They do not, at first glance, proclaim themselves siblings. Yet having now read Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming twice, once before re-reading the other three and once after, I can say that it does stand atop its predecessors as a unifying lintel of Krasznahorkai’s work—and that knowledge of its predecessors greatly enriches the finale.

Why these four? Most concretely, there is a geographical and historical unity to them, alluded to in the title. The Wenckheim name is a famous one in Hungary. Baron Béla Wenckheim was briefly Prime Minister of Hungary in 1875. In the 1930s, Patrick Leigh Fermor visited the mansions and castles of the Wenckheim and Almásy nobility along the Körös river in Southeast Hungary. “The charms of this place and its inhabitants sound unrelievedly and improbably perfect,” he wrote in Between the Woods and the Water, noting the impeccably aristocratic atmosphere of the family and its environs, as well as the game of bicycle polo he played at the castle of Józsi Wenckheim, near Békéscsaba, entirely oblivious to Hitler’s growing reach.

Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming  by  László Krasznahorkai  tr.  Ottilie Mulzet  (New Directions, September 2019)  Reviewed by  David Auerbach

Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming
by László Krasznahorkai
tr. Ottilie Mulzet
(New Directions, September 2019)

Reviewed by David Auerbach

If you follow the Körös further, you will come to Gyula, near the Romanian border, where another Almásy manor sits. László Krasznahorkai was born in Gyula, and a fictionalized, never-named setting of Gyula is what most obviously unites Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming with those three works that Krasznahorkai now deems its predecessors. Satantango’s fools moved into the manor of Almásy-kastély, much of Melancholy’s story took place around Gyula’s Komló Hotel, and Korin discovers the manuscript central to War & War in a small Hungarian town 220 km southeast of Budapest. Gyula is 220 km southeast of Budapest.

Krasznahorkai’s Gyula adds and subtracts from the real Gyula; 36 Béla Wenckheim Avenue, where György Eszter and later Tünde Eszter live in Melancholy, does not exist as far as I can tell. But for our purposes, the important thing is that in all of these books, it is the same, unnamed city, sitting near the Romanian border on the Southern Great Plain of Hungary.

The Baron Béla Wenckheim of this book is an undistinguished cousin of the Prime Minister. The Baron returns to Hungary in disgrace after amassing huge gambling debts in Argentina. He is in his mid-60s, but his mind has been organically degenerating for several decades. He is a tall, pale specter who has difficulty even putting himself forth in the world. His unsympathetic family permits him to return to his hometown (the unnamed Gyula) with his clothes and some money, demanding that he disappear and no longer embarrass them. Still, the Baron is grateful:

…he was perfectly aware that he was an idiot, but even so he could understand what was being said to him, so how could he not understand this warning, especially from those to whom he owed his life, or, to put it more succinctly, a more dignified death…

The townspeople, however, know nothing of this, and on hearing of his imminent return, assume that the Baron has descended from the noble heavens in order to renew and elevate their small city. Celebrations are planned, hopes are raised, the future is deemed to be bright—not just bright, but transcendent. The Baron in turn knows nothing of their expectations, and only hopes to reunite with his childhood sweetheart Marika.

Far more than Krasznahorkai’s other novels, this is a book in which things fail to happen, in which characters fail to understand each other, in which causation fails to manifest, in which explanation is impossible. It resists coherence and interpretation as much as anything by Beckett or Tzara (albeit more subtly), and so it vexes attempts at analysis. A reviewer must settle, then, for providing an incomplete roadmap to Krasznahorkai’s labyrinths and abysses, marking the bottomless potholes while avoiding them.

Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming begins, before even the title page and copyright, with a “Warning” from a conductor to an orchestra, speaking as though the novel itself is a piece of music—a music now available in English through Ottilie Mulzet’s work in translating it from the Hungarian. And I read Homecoming less as a conclusion to a four-book series than as the final movement of a symphony. I thought of Alfred Schnittke’s staggering First Symphony in particular, alongside Galina Ustvolskaya, Witold Lutosławski, Francisco Guerrero, Francis Dhomont, and Toru Takemitsu. All of these composers obscure the line between music and noise, between heavenly and demoniacal, and between order and chaos—all while remaining estranged from familiar forms, no matter how close they may come to mimicking them.

So before we go deeper, it is best to return to the beginning—da capo al fine, as Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming puts it in its table of contents (labeled “Dance Card”)—and retrace the steps that the reader and Krasznahorkai have made to get here.

 

1. Satantango: You Are (Not) Alone

Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming shares its closest ties (some of which should be left a surprise to readers) with the first book of the quartet. In both, an ensemble cast of predominantly unsympathetic losers see their salvation in the near-messianic arrival of a figure long thought lost: Irimiás in Satantango, and the Baron in Homecoming. That the figures themselves are almost polar opposites, a satanic trickster and a holy fool respectively, belies the shared delusion that overtakes the townspeople and their desperate adherence to it.

Other reversals come into play. The ruined Almásy Manor, which Irimiás proposed as the new communal home for the pathetic estate residents of Satantango, has become Almásy Chateau in Homecoming, home to an orphanage which is quickly relocated so that the Baron may be fêted and his favor won. While Irimiás promised some sort of spiritual-communal uplift, the officials and citizens of Homecoming are far more vulgar in their hopes, wishing for the Baron to raise their town to prosperity and restore their long-lost national (and ethnic) pride. While Krasznahorkai avoids any specific reference to contemporary political events, web sites and cell phones indicate that Homecoming is taking place very much in the age of Fidesz and Jobbik, much as Satantango bore the marks of the Communist era. 

Yet Satantango’s chain of cause and effect is lost in Homecoming. The Baron does not offer anything, nor do the townspeople think to question their dreams. There is no triggering crisis in Homecoming as there was in Satantango when young Esti Horgos killed herself, only the pervasive stench of petty corruption and civic atrophy.

Satantango also introduced Krasznahorkai’s ongoing concern with the infinite—the numerical infinite in particular. This concern reached its most explicit portrayal in From the North by Hill, From the South by Lake, From the West by Roads, From the East by River, still unavailable in English, which describes a book by “Sir Wilford Stanley Gilmore of the Gilmore-Grothendieck-Nelson Research Institute of Mathematics,” who tries to prove that infinity does not exist:

reality knows no infinite number, an infinite quantity does not exist for reality, because reality exists solely in finite domains otherwise existence itself, reality itself, would be impossible …

Sir Wilford then descends into a torrent of profanity directed at mathematician Georg Cantor, the discoverer of transfinite numbers. The infinite is an emotional and metaphysical matter—often a torturous one—in Krasznahorkai, but it has rarely taken center stage. In Satantango, infinity only manifests briefly in the fourth chapter, “The Work of the Spider (∞),” where the local bar’s landlord rants about Irimiás while tallying up his accounts:

Fully absorbed, he gazed at the column of numbers sloping right to left with pride while feeling an infinite hatred for the world that made it possible for filthy scoundrels to target people like him for their latest outrage … So now, as so often before, he took refuge in numbers. Because there is in numbers a mysterious evidentiary quality, a stupidly undervalued “grave simplicity” and, as a product of the tension between these two ideas a spine-tingling concept might arise, one that proclaimed: “Perspectives do exist.” But did there exist a series of numbers that might defeat this bony, gray-haired, lifeless-looking, horse-faced heap of trash — that piece of shit, that parasite who belonged in a cesspit, known as Irimiás? What number could possibly vanquish that infinitely treacherous scoundrel straight from hell? Treacherous? Unfathomable? There weren’t words for him! No description could do him justice. Words wouldn’t do it — it wasn’t a matter of words. Sheer strength was required. That’s what was needed to put paid to him! Strength, not a lot of feeble chatter! He drew a line through what he had written but the numbers behind the lines remained legible, sparkling with significance. It was no longer just a matter of the beer, soft drinks and wine to be found in various cases, as far as the landlord was concerned. Far from it! The numbers were becoming ever more significant. He couldn’t help noticing that as the importance of the numbers grew, so did he. He was positively swelling. The greater the significance of the numbers the “greater my own significance.” For a couple of years now the consciousness of his own extraordinary grandeur had constrained him. [emphasis mine]

It’s no good; in enticing the locals into his scheme and away from the landlord’s bar, Irimiás ruins the landlord’s livelihood. Irimiás promises them, with total insincerity, a new world: “feeling elated by their ‘brilliant future prospects,’ they trusted the new would not only replace the old but utterly erase it.” So to, do a later generation expect the same from Baron Wenckheim.

Satantango plays around with this sort of millenarism: fools want it, tricksters promise it, nobody gets it. And yet there are glimpses of something that reaches beyond the ordinary. Most strikingly, there is Irimiás’s surreal vision of Esti’s body, which he quickly is at pains to denounce as being false. But the landlord’s tentative encounter with infinity is one as well.

All Irimiás delivers, by his own admission, is “that enormous spiderweb, as woven and patented by me, Irimiás.” In contrast to the infinite, Satantango presents the recurrent image of a spider’s web, trapping all of life and enclosing it in a manmade labyrinth in which we all struggle to find the way out. The infinite, at least hypothetically, is the way out. The infinite, which itself stands in for many other ineffable concepts, is “real” in that it is not an imaginary chimera (despite Sir Wilford Stanley Gilmore’s protestations), but infinity cannot be made to work for us. Bear that in mind.

 

2. The Melancholy of Resistance: You Can (Not) Advance

The word “apocalypse” is perhaps more associated with Krasznahorkai than any other, and yet the word is, at least etymologically, as inappropriate as could be imagined. “Apocalypse” derives from the Greek apokaluptein, where apo- is a negating prefix and kaluptein means “to cover or hide.” kaluptein is the source of Calypso’s name in the Odyssey, for she enchants Odysseus’s mind and hides him from the world for seven years before Zeus has Hermes demand that Calypso set him free. kaluptein itself likely derives from the Proto-Indo-European root kel-, from which we also get “hell,” literally meaning “covered or concealed place.”

An apocalypse, then, is an uncovering, an extrication from the labyrinth and spider’s web, an un-hell-ing. Yet very little is ever uncovered in Krasznahorkai’s novels; any momentary revelation is negated, revealed to be fake, or forgotten. The Melancholy of Resistance presents a seeming apocalypse, and yet it ends with more or less the same elements with which it began, violently shaken, stirred, and reshuffled.

The sympathetic shut-in György Eszter comes to a similar conclusion while speaking to the awe-struck naïf Valuska:

“people are talking about apocalypse and the last judgement, because they do not know that there will be neither apocalypse nor last judgement … such things would serve no purpose since the world will quite happily fall apart by itself and go to wrack and ruin so that everything may begin again, and so proceed ad infinitum, and this is as perfectly clear,” he raised his eyes to the ceiling, “as our helpless orbiting in space: once started it cannot be stopped.”

What we see as apocalypse is, rather, a very partial and limited glimpse of infinite, chaotic Heraclitan flux. There are those who seek to control and leverage this chaos, namely Eszter’s estranged wife Tünde, who hopes that a local state of emergency will enable her to enact “sweeping changes leading to something new, something of infinite promise.” This infinite promise is as vacuous as any of Irimiás’s rhetoric in Satantango; Mrs. Eszter is, much like Irimiás, entirely a creature of our mundane world. Yet this emergency is handily provided by the monstrous Prince, a chattering demagogue who arrives with a traveling circus. Through his factotum, he proclaims the meaningless of all that is finite and demands the destruction of all things:

[The Prince] says, he is always free in himself. His position is between things. And in between things he sees that he is himself the sum of things. And what things add up to is ruin, nothing but ruin. … Only he can see the whole, he says, because he can see there is no whole. … His followers will wreak havoc because they understand his vision perfectly. His followers understand that all things are false pride, but don’t know why.

When the Prince speaks, the string is untuned and discord follows. One follower describes the Prince’s magnetic hold on his followers:

we saw that nothing was impossible now, convinced that all common everyday knowledge was useless, understood that what we did was meaningless since we were only a moment’s victims in an infinitely vast arena, that from such an ephemeral position there was no way of estimating the precise magnitude of that vastness, for the force of sheer velocity can know nothing of the nature of a speck of drifting dust, for motion and object can have no consciousness of each other.

But this abyssal force dissipates. The pseudo-apocalyptic riot in the night collapses and shatters its psychotic participants:

the cohesive force of uncontrollable disgust had vanished to leave behind some twenty to thirty crumpled, introspective individuals who half suspected, half knew, but did not care what was to happen next because they had entered some empty, infinitely empty, terrain which not only had trapped them but was preventing them even forming the desire to escape.

What’s uncovered is covered again, and we are back in hell, in the labyrinth we have constructed.

At the end of Melancholy, Mrs. Eszter is the tyrannical new Mayor. By the time of Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming, the Mayor of this fictional Gyula is a pompous would-be oligarch, high on his own self-inflation and his fantasy that the Baron will be his vehicle to real power. Where Mrs. Eszter toyed with crisis and infinity, the new Mayor is entirely oblivious to them, the epitome of an empty suit.  

Krasznahorkai invokes the term “infinite” very selectively. It nearly always signals a realm other than that of the human, which Krasznahorkai has described in an interview:

Sometimes, in my case, if I see, for example, in the Louvre a small picture by Fra Angelico of three small angels—it’s so unbelievably beautiful and there’s a border, and beyond this border comes a kind of ecstasy. Ecstasy is not a normal state, of course, in ecstasy you can weep. Because there’s a border, and beyond this border the beauty is almost unbearable. … [Beauty can take us to] Our limit and absolute infinite space, which really exists. And the way, the direction of this beauty, greatness, is the same, beyond this border, and we can never cross this border. We can only stay on this side of the border.

In the novel’s central metaphor, Eszter incites a musical apocalypse by searching for this infinite space. He seeks to rediscover a higher form of harmony in which Bach’s music can be played with wholly pure intervals, instead of the imperfectly tempered ones which inform Western music to this day. He fails, as it is an impossible task, and only creates horrible dissonance. (I have discussed how tuning theory informs Melancholy in “The Pythagorean Comma and the Howl of the Wolf.”) In short, it is a metaphor indicating the impossibility and danger of going beyond the limits of human, which is to say, the limits of reality and the finite. Valuska is infatuated with the harmony of the celestial spheres, but his sheer sensitivity to the infinite renders him an inevitable casualty of the forces of our world.

We readers are given one last beautiful and sublime moment of infinity in Melancholy, in a stunning description of the decomposition of a corpse which remains one of Krasznahorkai’s greatest passages. But by this point we have well left the rest of the novel, its people, and its places, behind.

To gain knowledge of this other side is profound, but it is also torture. Prolonged exposure may cause madness, and it inevitably draws one away from our mundane world. Eszter and particularly Valuska suffer great damage from their sensitivity to this other side—this infinity we cannot quite reach. The next novel in the sequence, like much of Krasznahorkai’s mid-period work, makes this sensitivity its primary concern.

 

3. War & War: You Can (Not) Redo

War & War is a novel of many apocalypses, which is to say, of none at all, since each only returns us to where we started. It is an elusive book, the scherzo in the sequence, an unexpected departure in several contrasting parts. It begins with the story of the researcher György Korin, who after a near-breakdown discovers a strange manuscript in a Gyula archive which he is determined to publish online from the center of the world: New York City.

The manuscript is a surreal travelogue in which four travelers appear, non-chronologically, at various fulcrum points in history, from the destruction of Bronze Age Crete to Columbus’s discovery of the Americas and beyond. Throughout they are trailed and plagued by the sulfuric figure of Mastemann, who always heralds the arrival of “this new world, a world born diseased,” even though he promises one born of reason and progress. The four gentle figures themselves, whom Krasznahorkai has termed angels, have a great appreciation for natural and manmade beauty, and an increasingly pained awareness of the costs demanded by such beauty. As the traveler Falke says of the great Cologne Cathedral,

weak and feeble man was capable of creating a universe that far exceeded himself, since ultimately it was this that was great and entrancing here, this tower man raised to soar way beyond himself, and that man was capable of raising something so much greater than his own petty being, said Falke, the way he grasped the vastness he himself created, the way he defended himself by producing this brilliant, beautiful and unforgettable, yet moving, poignant, thing, because of course he was not capable of governing such grandeur, unable to handle something so enormous, and it would collapse and the edifice he had created would tumble about his ears so the whole thing would have to start all over again, and so it would go on ad infìnitum, said Falke, the systematic preparation for failure changing nothing in the desire to create ever greater and greater monuments that collapsed, it being a natural product of an eternal desire to resolve an all-consuming, overwhelming tension between the creator of vast and tiny things.

A landlord of the Cologne inn insists that he recognizes the four as heroes of the bloody Battle of Königgrätz three years earlier, in 1866, where 43,000 men had died in a single day. The four know nothing of it, but a look at the four’s preoccupations points to a certain duality in them:                     


  Traveler
  

  Preoccupations
  

  Opposition
  

  Falke
  

  Health and Wholeness
  

  Death
  

  Toót
  

  Food and
  Growth
  

  Famine
  

  Bengazza
  

  Peace
  

  War
  

  Kasser
  

  Love and
  Beauty
  

  Conquest
  

As I read it, the four are, unwittingly, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Their arrival at a locale, and their appreciation of its beauty, heralds the very collapse from which they constantly run. And yet every time, whatever is uncovered—beauty or destruction—is covered up once again so that the process can repeat at some other place and time in history.

Korin in turn treasures the manuscript for its relentless focus on goodness and beauty, at least until the manuscript itself falls into chaos, Kasser falls sick, and Korin abandons the search for what these moments of beauty seem to promise: the “Way Out.” The four travelers “have, as you might say, no Way Out, for there is only war and war everywhere, even within himself.”

The real herald of the book is Hermes. Early on, Korin attributes his divorce and breakdown to Hermes. For Korin, it is Hermes in his most shadowy and malevolent aspect, closer to Loki or Tezcatlipoca than the playful scamp. To Korin, Hermes is

not a god who led but one who misled, swept him off course, destabilized him, called him, drew him aside, seduced him from below, whispered to him from the wings … knowledge of Hermes, said Korin, entails the loss of one’s sense of being at home in this world, of the sense of belonging, of dependence, of certainty, and this means that suddenly there is an uncertainty factor in the totality of things, because, just as suddenly, it becomes clear that this uncertainty is the only, the sole factor, for Hermes signifies the provisional and relative nature of the laws of being, and Hermes brings and Hermes takes such laws away, or rather allows them liberty, for that is the whole point of Hermes.

Korin is not wrong. Korin alludes to Walter F. Otto’s interpretation of Hermes as a god of night, concealment, and mystery, sometimes benevolent but often dangerous and always inscrutable. He only reliably guides humans to one place, which is Hades, in his form as Hermes psychopompus. Even the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, after some light-hearted tales of baby Hermes, ends ominously, describing Hermes as a diabolical shepherd of men:

“To some men I will bring harm and to others benefit
as I herd the wretched tribes of men about.” …
Little is the profit he brings, and he beguiles endlessly
the tribes of mortal men throughout the night.
          Homeric Hymn to Hermes (tr. Apostolos N. Athanassakis)

Mastemann, who trails the four travelers wherever they go, is an avatar of this Hermes. Mercurial, Stygian, and magnetic, Mastemann repeatedly herds humanity toward war and destruction. (What follows the Four Horsemen, after all, is Hell itself.) As a fisherman says, “wherever Mastemann’s shadow falls it remains forever.” Recall, in Satantango, what Irimiás said of the townspeople:

“Then, wherever the shadow falls they follow, like a flock of sheep, because they can’t do without a shadow…”

Shadows and flocks: it is Hermes, again. War & War leaves Mastemann as a Roman lord of roads and transport, “contained in the central image of Bengazza, Falke and Toót standing by the shrine to Mercury” (Kasser having succumbed to illness). Still, Korin never quite figures out who Mastemann is.

Korin’s Hermetic revelation sensitizes him so greatly to the presence of night, of mystery, of the infinite, of the abyss, that he can hardly function in “our” mundane world of day, a world which he elsewhere claims “they” (the authorities, ruling powers, you name it) have increasingly co-opted and ruined. The difficulty is that in order to so much as glimpse the infinite, one must give oneself over to the Hermetic destabilization to which Korin has fallen prey.

Korin himself is granted an ironic sort of deliverance at the end of the novel, in keeping with the theme of Hermes’s caprice. A scherzo is a “joke,” and War & War delivers several punchlines. Yet it leaves open the matter of the sporadic experiences of beauty given to the four travelers and to Korin himself.

Krasznahorkai developed this epiphanic approach further in Seiobo There Below, which is, more or less, a disconnected series of encounters with the infinite and the transcendent, frequently with disastrous or arbitrary consequences. While War & War downplays narrative, Seiobo abandons it altogether. The message of both books, as I read it, is a variation of Kafka’s famous epigram. In Krasznahorkai, “Es gibt unendlich viel Hoffnung, nur nicht für uns” (There is an infinite amount of hope, but not for us) becomes “Es gibt Unendlichkeit, nur nicht für uns” (There is infinity, but not for us). Think of the infinity of doorkeepers in “Before the Law” as Cantor’s infinite cardinals (or alephs). There are an infinite number of these infinities, but like the poor countryman before the law, we can’t even get past the first one.

In light of the move away from narrative, the idea of a capstone and conclusion to his three most narrative works seems daunting. Could a Hermetic sort of acausal non-logic be integrated with the stories that filled Satantango and Melancholy?

As the final movement in the composition, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming attempts just that.

 

3 + 1. Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming 𝄇 

We return to Krasznahorkai’s Gyula, one final time.

Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming begins with yet another intellectual madman, the Professor (few characters in this novel are named), who has given up his prestigious research into mosses in order to move into a ramshackle hut in the middle of the “Thorn Bush,” an overgrown thicket in the middle of Krasznahorkai’s Gyula. But he lacks sympathetic features given Eszter and Korin. His 19-year-old daughter, whom he has never met and for whom he feels nothing, has tracked him down with a TV crew in tow in order to demand the money she believes she is owed. The Professor buys an assault rifle and drives off the crews and his daughter with a burst of gunfire, an act that unintentionally endears him to a local gang of neo-Nazi bikers, who mistake him for some sort of nativist reactionary. The daughter, in turn, is prominent in SMBD (“Something Must Be Done,” possibly an analogue of Hungary’s Green-Left Lehet Más a Politika—Politics Can Be Different”), because “nothing worked anywhere in this country anymore, because everything everywhere had rotted away.”

Few  of these narrative threads develop or resolve linearly, if at all, partly because news of the Baron’s return sweeps away this minor drama, but also because the novel portrays a world in which causality is subjectively hypothetical rather than anything objectively real. The characters do not understand the scenarios into which they have been placed, but the reader often knows little more.

Krasznahorkai’s designs are intentionally drained of stature. In place of Mrs. Eszter, we have the fatuous Mayor. In place of Irimiás, we have his poor epigone “Dante of Szolnok,” (after the soccer player, not the writer), who appoints himself the Baron’s secretary in the vain hope of scamming a huge payout. Beauty and wonder have drained out of this town, replaced by brute violence and noise. Human aspirations have been reduced to nationalistic fervor and financial patronage. The sublime has disappeared as well. Only the Nazi bikers, the so-called “Local Force,” carry with them any sense of menace, but solely because of their capacity for raw violence.

The Baron himself has an uncanny perception that something fundamental has changed:

The city was so small and dark, the streets were so narrow, the houses were so low-built and run-down, and the sky above them was also so low, that he would be fully inclined to state that this was not the same town, and yet it was exactly the same, but it was as if somehow it had become a copy, as if he could only remember — but with hair’s breadth accuracy — the original, this, however, was just a copy, not the real town, and he could only hope the real one would be coming along soon …

The Gyula of Homecoming is an etiolated town and population, a veritable Potemkin village, all surface and no substance, less a disenchanted world than a depleted one. It is the world left after Korin’s “they” have completed their work of assimilating everything into crushing mundanity. Unlike Satantango and Melancholy, this Gyula appears to have sealed itself off entirely from the very idea of the infinite, of the Way Out.

Except not quite. Experience of the “other side” has been localized into isolated moments of total horror, immediately forgotten. Well into the novel, an infernal, terrifying figure abruptly appears (and disappears) with all the signifiers of the infinite about him, arriving and departing with a “stupefying automobile convoy”:

his infinite number of vehicles, glimpsed from a closer perspective, seemed to belong to some kind of otherworldly army than any actual procession of cars, and they moved across the city with extraordinary speed, but nobody said this, everyone kept it to themselves … it wasn’t any mere evil projecting itself, but instead a kind of horror in which beings and objects under the effect of this horror were instead seized by wonder, a kind of ecstatic but degrading amazement toward him standing in the center of everything, because whoever saw him there on the main square, or whoever was able to sense that he was there, could do nothing else but be amazed and be amazed by him … when he got out of the car in the main square, with his own deadened gaze and with glacial boredom, he looked around in the end like someone who was in a hurry, and got back into the car quickly, because he wasn’t interested in this town and in these stories, he was evil — evil, sick, and omnipotent.

This figure is characterized in very similar terms to War & War’s Mastemann, but here he is even more remote, more compelling, and more anomalous, acting in violation of all continuity and causality. No one who sees him remembers him. He is an avatar of Hermes (the traveler, the beguiler, the shepherd), seen not from Korin’s point of view, not from the point of view of someone sensitive to the infinite, but from a terminally mundane point of view. And Gyula does not even merit his interest, at least for now.

The only possible sensitives in the novel, the only two who evince any trace of horror vacui, are the Baron and the Professor, and both are mentally impaired and disconnected from the world. Contemplating “the real problem with all of human history, namely, why don’t we understand it,” the Professor invokes Cantor and infinity, recalling From the North by Hill’s indictment of Cantor’s infinity, but the Professor has a different plan of attack. Rather than rebutting infinity, he will simply shut down thought altogether:

the mere appearance of a thought hauntingly reminds us that the way a person thinks is but one concept of infinity, and of course it’s just one among many, but this is what truly should give rise to suspicion … so it’s precisely the infinite that casts light upon how the brain thinks, and how clever it is in showing us something that seems real when it’s merely an abstraction, namely that brain introduced or employed to great effect those methods of distortion …

The only possible victory, to him, lies in total abdication, which he pursues through “thought-immunization exercises.” It will not surprise to say that the Professor does not gain immunity, but he does, in spite of himself, lay out the principles of Krasznahorkai’s cosmos with a sweep that successfully conjoins Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming with its three predecessors.

The development of the novel, inasmuch as there is any development, lies in what will happen when the infinite and this horribly, horribly mundane incarnation of Gyula finally make contact, after being almost wholly estranged. What will be the “new world” of Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming, after the false promises of Irimiás, Mrs. Eszter, and Mastemann in the previous novels? What sort of “apocalypse” is in the offing? I will not spoil it. Hermes prefers surprises.

Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming is not a conclusion to Krasznahorkai’s quartet, but it is a completion. It is his longest book by some measure, his funniest, and probably his darkest. It draws together and illuminates its predecessors, and I confess I can’t imagine reading it apart from them. The vision is complete, even as its constituent pieces fall apart. The da capo al fine given at the end of its table of contents is ultimately ironic: there will never be a fine, not even after the sun engulfs the Earth.  As a vision of our world (and beyond), the four novels taken together rank among the greatest literature of our age. Read them and leave behind the Potemkin village for a moment.

[Excerpts from Satantango, The Melancholy of Resistance, and War & War translated by George Szirtes. Excerpts from From North by Hill translated by Tim Wilkinson.]

David Auerbach is the author of Bitwise: A Life in Code (Pantheon). His writing has appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, MIT Technology Review, Tablet, The Nation, The Daily Beast, n+1, and Bookforum, among many other publications. He previously worked as a software engineer at Google and Microsoft. He has lectured around the world on technology, literature, philosophy, and stupidity. He lives in New York City.