The Manhattan Project
by László Krasznahorkai (2017)
translated from the Hungarian by John Batki (2017)
Sylph Editions (2017)
96 pp

The Manhattan Project is László Krasznahorkai’s third work produced with Sylph Editions, where his text appears in close relationship with a visual artist’s work. Previously we had “The Bill: For Palma Vecchio, at Venice,” “a single, vertiginous, 14-page sentence addressing Palma Vecchio, a 16th-century Venetian painter,” and Animalinside, a collaborative effort, where Krasznahorkai “responds with 14 texts to 14 depictions of a strange and ill-formed creature made by the renowned German painter Max Neumann” (Trevor also reviewed this one here). The quotes from the publisher don’t really do the latter justice, since Neumann’s paintings, in turn, respond to Krasznahorkai’s text.

This piece, which Krasznahorkai playfully describes as a sort of take on Chekhov’s On the Harmful Effect of Tobacco,” takes the form of a literary diary of the author’s time in New York around 2014 – 2016, undertaking a fellowship at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, combined with photos, and commentary, from Ornam Rotem.

The tale that the book tells is one of literary coincidences. Krasznahorkai wryly observes that Readers of The Melancholy of Resistance in America, and perhaps everywhere else in the world, like to believe that I am some kind of specialist on whales, and by extension, naturally, an expert on Herman Melville.” On his arrival both a friend and his publisher fall into this trap.

Meanwhile, before coming to the United States he had visited his U.K. publisher who gave him and his wife a gift of Malcolm Lowry’s Lunar Caustic, a semi-autobiographical tale of Bill Plantagenet, suffering from an alcohol-induced nervous breakdown in New York, and obsessed with Melville. Krasznahorkai wonders if “both [Lowry] and his protagonist (Plantagenet) had tried to track down where Herman Melville had lived.”

For with another part of his mind he felt the encroachment of a chilling fear, eclipsing all other feelings, that the thing they wanted was coming for him alone, before he was ready for it; it was a fear worse than the fear that when money was low one would have to stop drinking; it was compounded of harrowed longing and hatred, fathomless compunctions, and of a paradoxical remorse, for his failure to attempt finally something he was not going to have time for, to face the world honestly; it was the shadow of a city of dreadful night without splendour that fell on his soul.”

—Malcolm Lowry, Lunar Caustic

On arrival in New York Krasznahorkai originally set out to find the now deceased Allen Ginsberg’s flat where Krasznahorkai had written part of his wonderful novel War & War, based in a New York rather unlike the real city. But thwarted in this quest he instead decides to take up the trail of Herman Melville’s presence in New York, walking the streets he would have walked, visiting where he lived, but also retracing Lowry’s searches.

And in turn Rotem follows Krasznahorkai, recording, in the beautiful photos that illustrate the book, the author’s progress. As he told the Guardian: “I wasn’t the only one following in an author’s footsteps. László himself was retracing Malcolm Lowry’s quests for Melville.”

A third “genius drunk, each of whom had his own route in Manhattan” comes, when persuaded to take a break from his academic studies and his Melville obsession, Krasznahorkai visits an art museum and discovers the works of Lebbeus Woods.

I had never heard of him. An architect.

Died three years ago.

I look up his works online.

They are truly stunning, I have no other word for them.

And if I did have a few, how would I describe what I am seeing?

Rising behind devastated buildings loom architecture-monstrosities, their frighteningly beautiful, broken surfaces and jagged, agitated inner essences compounded into a species of ferocious planes. A factory building, its centre collapsed, what a monster, its bulging panels snarling at each other, squatting on the façade. Other buildings, ensembles of extraordinarily complicated structures that refuse to reveal their secrets: what are they? Who are they? What crazed brain, working for what monumental and incomprehensible cause, created them? Objects of an architectural madness, constructed upon slightly bent stems growing out of a block of conventional buildings. Godless, abandoned, stridently military structures of unknown purpose, assembled as if out of broken laminae by a deranged mind. At times they appear to be gigantic weapons, burdened with an utterly incomprehensible logic. And at times they seem to be victims of a fanatical architectural insanity, as if we were glimpsing them at the last moment before their collapse, when it is certain that the next feeble breeze will topple them into dust. Looking at them, you get the feeling that it is impossible that such an imagination could exist.

The words are no help.

A particular Woods image of Lower Manhattan, with (in Rotem’s words) its embracing rivers dammed and drained, exposing the island’s granite base,” informs Rotem’s own photography:

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And Rotem himself returns on a number of occasions to rocks and stones in Manhattan, notably Umpire Rock in Central Park (photo from the Central Park website, not Rotem’s):

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In Woods’ own writing it is not hard to see echoes of the apocalyptic prose of War & WarSatantango, and The Melancholy of Resistance:

Architecture and war are not incompatible. Architecture is war. War is architecture. I am at war with my time, with history, with all authority that resides in fixed and frightened forms. I am one of millions who do not fit in, who have no home, no family, no doctrine, no firm place to call my own, no known beginning or end, no “sacred and primordial site.” I declare war on all icons and finalities, on all histories that would chain me with my own falseness, my own pitiful fears. I know only moments, and lifetimes that are as moments, and forms that appear with infinite strength, then “melt into air.” I am an architect, a constructor of worlds, a sensualist who worships the flesh, the melody, a silhouette against the darkening sky. I cannot know your name. Nor you can know mine. Tomorrow, we begin together the construction of a city.

—Lebbeus Woods, from War and Architecture

The highlight of The Manhattan Project is Rotem’s photo essay: the pictures are excellent, and his four-page written explanation of what lay behind them highly illuminating. For those for whom the price tag, for what is admittedly beautifully produced work of art, is off-putting, The Guardian website contains a condensed version which captures much of the flavor (see here).

But ultimately I bought this because of Krasznahorkai’s name on the front cover, and his contribution is inconsistent. At times his prose soars, particularly in response to Woods’ architectural art (albeit the link to Melville/Lowry seems non-existent). But at other times it is rather flat, most notably in a unnecessary moan about his time at the New York Public Library, where he criticizes the Kafkaesque bureaucracy (but rather unconvincingly) and ends with the rather unworthy complaint that “even their biographical note about me failed to mention my post significant prize, namely the International Booker Prize.”

And one can’t but feel the concept has been better done by others — Sebald, obviously; but, for New York, Teju Cole’s Open City; and, for following in an author’s footsteps, An Overcoat: Scenes from the Afterlife of H.B. by Jack Robinson.

At the end of the piece Krasznahorkai reveals that his research also inspired a planned novella, Spadework for a Palace, which I suspect will be more worthwhile, albeit I don’t believe this has yet been published even in the original Hungarian.

Krasznahorkai’s prose here has been translated by John Batki, known for his translations of Gyula Krúdy, but who has recently started sharing the mantle of Krasznahorkai translation with Ottilie Mulzet and George Szirtes. Hopefully that means we won’t have too much longer to wait for translations of From North a Hill, from South a Lake, from West Roads, from East a River and Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming.

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