László Krasznahorkai’s ‘Chasing Homer’ Is Preoccupied with Its Own Madness

The latest experimental thriller from the Booker Prize winner propagates its subjects’ paranoia within the reader’s mind

BY Will Fenstermaker in Books , Opinion | 19 NOV 21

When the Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai releases a new short work, you can immediately infer a few things: it will be mad (ravingly so) and preoccupied with its own madness; it will consist of fewer sentences than pages; it’s likely to include works of art; and it will be far, far denser than its length seems to allow. Krasznahorkai’s new book, Chasing Homer (2021), is a cacophonous, confounding work with 19 brief chapters – only a few consisting of more than a single long sentence – each accompanied by a painting by the German artist Max Neumann and a percussive score by the Hungarian jazz musician Szilveszter Miklós (accessible via QR codes).

It would be inaccurate to call Neumann’s paintings ‘illustrations’ or Miklós’s tracks an ‘accompaniment’. Krasznahorkai excels at opening an otherwise impenetrable dialogue between image, word and sound. This book marks Krasznahorkai’s second collaboration with Neumann, continuing a process they began in Animalinside (2010), wherein the language and images alternatively disrupt each other and threaten the book’s coherence. Neumann’s paintings – influenced by expressionist cinema, doppelgängers and a uniquely East German brand of paranoia – present doubles and silhouettes, planes that overlap but do not cohere. Miklós’s music adds a further destabilizing dimension: at times, the score provides a steady drum cadence, but mostly it syncopates against the rhythmic tempo sustaining Krasznahorkai’s long sentences. The lengths of the tracks and the chapters seem to be uncorrelated; one song continued as if a cymbal had fallen on the floor and rolled away just as I reached the chapter’s final words: ‘No, I won’t stop there, that’s for sure, to gawk at the cliff dropping away down to the water, where the south comes abruptly to an end.’

László Krasznahorkai, Chasing Homer, 2021, book cover. Courtesy: New Directions, New York

Though Chasing Homer is described as a ‘chase thriller’ by publisher New Directions, the action is mostly internal. Krasznahorkai, who was awarded the Booker Prize in 2015, is a writer of pathologies rather than plots. Yes, the narrator is being hunted – Krasznahorkai’s characters often are, or believe they are, or are hunting something themselves – but the unnerving power of his prose is how it propagates its subject’s paranoia within the reader’s mind. Reading Krasznahorkai is an unnerving experience, never more so than in his experimental works. Each sentence in Chasing Homer unspools like a ball of yarn, its tightly woven form (the sentences are grammatically sound despite their length) moving irregularly towards a singular conclusion. Mysteriously pursued, the narrator determines that ‘an existence concentrated in such a frantic manner, with your attention focused so exclusively upon a single point, carries the risk of, if not actually inviting, insanity […] and so your relation to your own insanity is best characterized by a perpetual ambiguity wherein you yourself, as well as your insanity, exist in a permanent, billowing state of potentiality’.

In 2018, prior to the publication in English of his final novel, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming (2016), Krasznahorkai told the Paris Review: ‘If you have a question about the universe, you always have a few possibilities – in particular through language. The power of the word is, for me, the only way to get closer to this hidden reality […] Reality is so important to me that I always want to be aware of every possibility.’ Krasznahorkai embeds his suspicion of reality in the level of the sentence and, in Chasing Homer, this paranoia – if it can be abbreviated as such – reaches the level of ontology. He writes: ‘Sheltered spots tend to increase your fear, the fear of unknown perils outside, a fear that simply regenerates and reinforces itself until it becomes overwhelming, making you incapable of drawing conclusions, or rather making you draw mistaken conclusions about what’s really taking place outside, therefore these sheltered places are a suicidal strategy.’

Max Neumann, Untitled, 2017, mixed media, 23 × 22 cm. Courtesy: the artist and New Directions, New York

This plight leads our narrator south through Eastern Europe, down the Dalmatian coast by boat, from Split to Dubrovnik to Korčula and, ultimately, to the Croatian island of Mljet. The island is known for its national park – the earliest established in the Mediterranean and the site of one of several grottos purported to be Ogygia, where the nymph Calypso seduced Odysseus and kept him enthralled for seven years. (In a characteristic stroke of Krasznahorkai’s humour, the Odyssey is orated by a boisterous tour guide.) While the pursuit’s mystery is revealed at the end of the book, here Krasznahorkai clues the reader into the metaphysical nature of his chase. It’s possible to think of his prose as an attempt to grasp a pre-Platonic poetic form of consciousness: the Homeric imagination. He claims to craft each of his sentences mentally, perfecting their sound in his mind before putting them to paper. Krasznahorkai’s interest in ekphrasis, together with the setting of his recitations to music, suggest that literature is a secondary art compared to the rituals of poetic oration.

Main image: Max Neumann, Untitled (detail), 2017, mixed media, 23 × 22 cm. Courtesy: the artist and New Directions, New York

Will Fenstermaker is a writer and art critic in New York.