László Krasznahorkai on Allen Ginsberg

László Krasznahorkai, the internationally-renowned Hungarian novelist and screenwriter, whose recent novel, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming (the conclusion of a tetralogy consisting of Santantango ,The Melancholy of Resistance, & War & War) was awarded the 2019 National Book Award for Translated Literature, has often spoken warmly of Allen and the assistance he gave him with his work.

This, from a 2012 interview in Guernica magazine

Guernica: How did you meet Allen Ginsberg? Did the two of you ever collaborate or help each other with your respective work? I am curious to hear about what your relationship with Allen was like.

László Krasznahorkai: When I was first in the U.S. and in New York, I was a guest of Mr. Ginsberg. He helped me find a technique, a way to build a neutral background for War and War, specifically a very neutral New York City. The hero is very eccentric and his story is, too, so I needed a neutral city instead of the real one, a New York without colors, without the unexpectedness, without motion. And because New York is not at all neutral, especially when you first see it, I had a problem making it neutral. I talked to Allen about this theme night after night during my visit, and he gave me very interesting advice. But it wasn’t only about War and War; Allen talked about philosophy, about Buddhism, of course, and about some of the important figures from the last four decades of American history. He was also very interested in my experiences in Eastern Europe. That time I spent with Allen and with his other friends was really great for me.

He makes a similar point in a subsequent interview

‘It was not easy to write this book. But there were some people who helped me very much, especially Allen Ginsberg, who was a friend of mine in his last years. I was always at his home, and I worked on this novel, War & War, in New York, and he helped me very much to find a literary method to depict / describe / portray … if you are in New York, every artist wants a very original, spatial picture of New York, but I absolutely didn’t want that, I wanted the opposite: only streets, places, a hotel here, a flat there, a puritan picture of New York, so it was difficult to find a method to depict this neutral city of New York. Allen helped me very much.’

‘We spoke about many questions, literary methods: how to depict a thing, how can you find a solution if you have a feeling about a thing but you have an anti-power in you to use this personal feeling, how can people avoid the passion of the thing in  writing. We spoke many nights about such questions. He was absolutely wise and helped me very much.’

Krasznahorkai goes on camera with these thoughts in a recent interview conducted by the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark. Here’s a transcript of his observations:

“A mutual friend introduced me to Allen and I met him in the early.. no, mid 1990s, the last three or four years before his death. Allen and I got to be good friends soon. It was easy to be friends with him. In a sense, he was still the same man he had always been. Very open, very communicative. Maybe one aspect was gone, maybe it was superfluous by then – and that was the alleged exhibitionism of his youth, but I didn’t know him then. When he told me that if I was ever in New York I could stay with him he said it as if it was self-evident. It wasn’t just me, he said that to lots of people. Allen’s place was very small, it had these tiny rooms and this kitchen. The only other time I’d seen one like that was in Poland in the early 1970s. I even asked Allen, “How did you manage to find potty-green cabinets in New York? I can’t believe it! I feel like I’m I Potsdam in the late 1960s!” He said, “Yes! they’re from the Poles at the flea market.” He lived very modestly. He was very puritanical all his life. But his door was always open. Just like in the 1950s. People coming and going. If you stayed there for any amount of time you’d inevitably meet his friends, people from the Beat Generation and from the NYC scene of the time. David Byrne, yes, and lots of others. When I first met Allen and stayed at his place there was a show on at the Whitney Museum called “The Beat Generation” . So everyone still alive and mobile came to New York and stayed with him. So all the Beat greats, at least those that were still alive, were there in his kitchen having coffee with us. Seen from a distance, it’s incredible. This is how I see it now. But then, it was quite natural. And then, when I was writing War & War, I had this minor, or not-so-minor, problem. The protagonist of the novel is rather eccentric. So I had to portray him against a neutral background. New York, however, was everything but neutral. Especially for me, as I was just getting to know the city. So I didn’t know how to solve that. Allen asked me, “What’s wrong?” – “Nothing, I don’t know what to do”.  We then spent entire nights talking about it. In the end, it was thanks to his advice that I figured it out. It’s very simple – you have to focus on a smaller point and concentrate on depicting that and the rest takes care of itself, so you don’t have to worry about the background. A lot of things become unnecessary, that you consider, as having the same value in connection with the concentrated fact and its background. So I am very grateful to him for this personal advice, and otherwise too. In the years before his death, when he had already realized that his life was pretty much over, he just gave continuously. To some he gave a few words of wisdom. To others, something else. I remember one thing, Once, David Byrne invited a new Indian music group over to introduce them to the famous Allen Ginsberg. So we sat down in the kitchen facing the potty-green cabinets. Everything was the same, the table was tipping, the chairs too, and the guys were sitting like this (sic) at Allen Ginsberg’s. They didn’t really dare to speak, only after a while.  In the end we played some music together. I used Allen’s little harmonium, Allen sang, David drummed on the table, I don’t remember… But the main thing is that after an hour or so, they were getting up to leave and Allen reached for a tape-player on a stool under the table, pulled out a cassette and offered it to them as a gift. He’d recorded the whole conversation! He knew that to preserve this conversation for them was the best gift he could give. So he was like that. That was the Allen Ginsberg I knew.”

For the rest of the Louisiana Channel‘s  Krasznahorkai interview (a fascinating document) – see here 

Here’s a primer on Krasznahorkai from 2015, subsequent to him being awarded the esteemed 2015 Man Booker International Prize

For further (indeed, extensive) information on Krasznahorkai – check out his web-site – here

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