László Krasznahorkai: Animalinside

When Animalinside (2010; tr. from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet, 2010) arrived in the mail, I didn’t know what to make of it.  It’s a beautiful book, even though it’s staple-bound (this was published by New Directions in collaboration with Sylph Editions for Sylph Editions Cahier Series — see an example here), it is still one of the most beautifully produced books I’ve seen this year (nicely following New Direction’s releases of Robert Walser’s The Microscripts and Anne Carson’s Nox last year).  When you open the matte cover, inside are a series of wonderfully textured pieces of art by Max Neumann (the back of the book says that they used “a deluxe seven-stage printing process . . . to reproduce the stunning Neumann images”).  Accompanying the images are 14 short texts by Krasznahorkai.  This book (or booklet, if you like) came about when Krasznahorkai wrote a response to one of Max Neumann’s paintings that Krasznahorkai had hanging up.  This, in turn, inspired Neumann to create more art pieces, each using the armless, lunging hound-like creature you see below.  Krasznahorkai then wrote short segments for each of those pictures, and we are fortunate to benefit with their end product.

Review copy courtesy of New Directions.

Two of Krasznahorkai’s books are available in English from New Directions, and another is due out later this year.  However, I haven’t read them yet.  That’s a big yet there; so much did I enjoy what I found in Animalinside that I’m sure I’ll be reading The Melancholy of Resistance and War & Warvery soon.  Still, I’m writing this post as a reader who has, on the one hand, no experience with Krasznahorkai I can use to engage with this little book; on the other hand, I also no preconceptions about Krasznahorkai’s work and can say that, if you haven’t read him either, that shouldn’t stop you from reading this one.

On the topic of reading Animalinside: this is a limited edition.  Only 2,000 copies are out there.  I’m sorry; I will be keeping mine and keeping it safe.

Back to when this book arrived in the mail and I didn’t know what to make of it.  After the short preface by Colm Tóibín I find a strange picture of a simple three-dimensional space.  Hulking there is a solid black, two-dimensional beast (it’s not the armless one above yet); it stands in the room at some strange angle that is all wrong.  Under the image is the first section, and I give the first few lines a skim:

He wants to break free, attempts to stretch open the walls, but he has been tautened there by them, and there he remains in this tautening, in this constraint, and there is nothing else to do but howl, and now and forever he shall be nothing but his own tautening and his own howling, everything he was is no more, everything that could shall never be, so that for him there is not even anything that is.

I was certainly intrigued, but also a bit wary.  Is it going to be a bit too artsy for my tastes?  Would this abstract text accompanying the (fantastic) abstract images open up for me?  Is this going to be a run-on rant? 

Quickly, though — very quickly, despite a bit of wariness — I was taken in, propelled forward by the text and the images on the page.  It’s a beautiful nightmare; a very unique experience.

Before I had any idea what was really going on (and I admit, it’s not necessarily all clear to me even now), I was simply enjoying the imagery and the prowling menance that, at first, is locked up in that room.  The first section is told in the third person, but soon the beast is speaking, and he’s speaking to the reader, speaking right to the reader’s disorientation.

[. . .] you know nothing, nothing, but nothing, about anything, because you don’t even know that you’re thinking about me, because you don’t even know if you should be afraid now or not, or if you should be terrified or if you should be anxious [. . .]

It’s important to remember that all of this is accompanied by images that are themselves disorienting.  There’s a calm surface, but details and just the strangeness of the images subvert any calm to build up, initially (before it gets downright terrifying in its imagery), a slight anxiety.  We don’t hear the creature howling, whether in mourning or to threaten, but how can we look at the image and not imagine it.

Krasznahorkai’s text does not necessarily remain abstract.  This beast is threatening absolute destruction, and not just physical: “no verb at all shall ever be heard again[ . . .]”

But that’s just the narrative.  It’s how Krasznahorkai (with Neumann) gets to that ultimate destruction and what we see there when we get there that makes this book a work of art and not just an accomplished post-apocalyptic image.  The short segments are filled with repetitions, in the best sense.  Apparently Krasznahorkai told his translator, “There are many repetitions in the text, and this is very important; repeat everything exactly as it is in the original regardless of what the English language WANTS.”  I’d say it was successful; even in translation, there’s a rhythm throughout that intensifies or retreats slightly, depending on the moment. 

Animalinside is also filled with contradictions, and these supply what to me is the most interesting and worthwhile substance here.  At first the beast is ranting because he’s imprisoned somehow, in the next he covers infinite space — and he’s coming!  And in one moment he’s coming from the outside, in the next he’s already inside us.  There, he’s predicting the end of all things and then here he is lamenting infinity.  Finally, we get that last section when “no verb at all shall ever be heard again.”  Of course, he’s speaking and we are listening, so what has really been lost?  What is the significance?  And that is the frightening answer.

I don’t believe Animalinside will be for everybody, though I think it’s one of the more interesting books I’ve read (and looked at) this year, and I’d certainly recommend it even to those wary of it.

10 thoughts on “László Krasznahorkai: Animalinside

  1. Glad to read your impressions. I suspect that reading his other work, especially Melancholy, will provide a great deal of context for analyzing Animalinside. I’m not sure if I would have had *any* idea what to make of it had I approached it cold. Since I’ve lived with LK’s work for many many years, it’s hard for me to even imagine my reaction, so I’m glad to see others detailing their responses to it.

  2. Lisa Hill says:

    Wow, this sounds really intriguing. Weird and strange and very, very interesting like B S Johnson is (which I think I also discovered via your blog? Or was that Kevin?)

  3. Trevor says:

    David, thanks for the visit. I have to say that one of the reasons I was wary about starting this book is because I didn’t know if I would have anything to say about it. I loved Nox and The Microscripts, but in the end didn’t (well, haven’t yet) reviewed them here because, well, I guess I’m more comfortable laying out a plot! But I really wanted to get some thoughts out on Animalinside, and I was happy to see your comment.

    On the topic of reading more LK (nice short form, thanks!), it is going to happen very soon. I haven’t been able to get Animalinside out of my head. As much as I’m enjoying the book I’m currently reading, I find myself wanting to finish it so I can read more LK.

    Also, I was happy to see when I woke up this morning that James Wood wrote a nice large-ish piece on LK in the new issue of The New Yorker. Some highlights:

    For all these reasons, this is one of the most profoundly unsettling experiences I have had as a reader. By the end of the novel [War and War], I felt that I had got as close as literature could possibly take me to the inhabiting of a mind in the grip of “war and war” — a mind not without visions of beauty but also one that is utterly lost in its own boiling, incommunicable fictions, its own grotesquely fertile pain (“Heaven is sad”).

    And, a plug for New Directions:

    So readers of English await more of Krasznahorkai’s fiction, and are, seemingly, reliant on Szirtes, his translator, and on the enlightened largesse — for that is what it is — of New Directions.

    The article is available only to subscribers, but click here for the abstract.

    Lisa, it is intriguing! And I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    On the matter of hearing thoughts on this book, I’m not sure how much of an influence the James Wood article will have on sales of Animalinside, but I’d say it’s that much more likely the 2000 copies will run out . . .

  4. Trevor says:

    Scott Esposito says he’s been informed that the print run of 2000 copies has already sold out . . . it’s only been out for a month! So good news for New Directions; bad news for those still in need of a copy.

    But there may still be hope: the book’s original publisher, Sylph Editions, apparently still has some copies for sale.

  5. Rosa Friend says:

    Not only do the book’s original publisher have copies left, the design is far superior. It isn’t staple-bound, it is three-hole sewn and the cover is beautifully designed.

  6. Stewart says:

    I have the two New Directions novels – War & War and The Melancholy Of Resistance – and really do want to read them, but until I get my reading mojo back, it’s not likely to happen. I do hope to read Satantango when it comes out as I’m the sort of person who likes, where possible, to read the book before viewing a film, and I’ve had the DVD on the shelf for a number of years, waiting for the day this translation would come. (The film is seven-and-a-half hours long, which is another reason I ‘m waiting.)

  7. Trevor says:

    I had both of those on my shelf for a while, too, Stewart, but after Animalinside I really had the urge to start The Melancholy of Resistance. I’m almost done and it is quite the experience. It’s a tough read, but it has been great so far. I’m looking forward, after reading, to watch the movie based on it. Is it called The Werkmeister Harmonies? At any rate, I’m glad I’ve started reading Krasznahorkai. Hope you get your mojo back! I’ve missed it!

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