Whoever Hid Away (Wenckheim XI)

The last chapter of László Krasznahorkai’s last (?—?) novel Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming provides the musically inclined reader with a very loud finale. 

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The entire town is paralyzed in fear:

… what had been happening these past days, all of them were already living deep inside the fear that if they went outside they’d be the next to be murdered, raped, harassed, and disappeared without a single trace,…

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And they are wondering about the gasoline tanks and their drivers:

… but unanimously, they agreed that these drivers were waiting for something, and that’s why they didn’t get out of their trucks, they just sat behind the steering wheel, not even eating anything, they just all kept their hands on the steering wheel, as if waiting for some sign that could arrive at any moment,…

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As the reader expects, things get more ominous: The trucks disappear again, all animals leave the city, and knots of toads arrive from nowhere, signaling the imminent apocalypse.

… these lunatic toads had come forth from beneath the earth, as there below, in the bountiful darkness, they had all gone mad, and they had wrenched themselves out of the earth and emerged, at first they began to jump back and forth, who the hell would have thought that so many hideous toads existed beneath the earth ,…

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…then he took out a cigarette from the Egyptian pack, and he lit up, and in that moment, as he clicked the flame of the lighter, and he was already about to take a drag on his cigarette,… … … 

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A town has come to its end, a book has come to its end, and, simultaneously with me finishing reading it, here an era of an eerily similar nature has come to its end, too. 

Multiple Exposure (Wenckheim X)

The chapter To the Hungarians begins with newspaper editors discussing whether a certain tract they have received should be published. This tract is a hate sermon against the Hungarians, and some excerpts are read to us:

… and you’re spineless and two-faced, perfidious and contemptible, lying and rootless, because after you’ve exploited somebody, you do the same thing, namely you throw them away, you spit into their eyes, if they’re not good for anything else, because you’re primitive,…

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The text culminates in a generalizing damnation of all of humanity.

… moreover this true monstrosity, while he has his bad moments, at times stumbles across a good intention within himself, but he quickly forgets about that, and it remains a mere memory, but he builds upon it later, as this sort of monstrosity is convinced that fate has selected him for good, or at the very least as the representative of truth, his own truth, …

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In the meantime, violence is erupting in the city, a first to statues,

unknown assailants knocked over the bust of Countess Krisztina Wenckheim, but not only that, they completely smashed apart her face with a hatchet,

then to animals,

…on Wednesday at midnight he found two cattle frozen in their own blood, their heads were also smashed apart,…

and finally to humans

…Irén’s horrific death — as they found her on the sidewalk, having to see that beloved human face now smashed into fragments…

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This is a chapter about fear, incited by propaganda, and backed by the actions of a nameless mob.

… she had a bad premonition about things, but what was so bad wasn’t even that people had forgotten the events of the past few days, but that the speed of all these events was like that of some kind of flood when it breaks across a dam, the events occurring and occurring one after the other,…

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What we fear is not the singular incident but it becoming the daily routine. Krasznahorkai invokes this mechanism by using repeating patterns at the level of the narrative as well as that of language itself:

… because they came down Csabai Road, and they came down Dobozi Road, and they came from the Romanian border, they came from the direction of Eleki Road, from every single direction they came, rumbling, the pneumatic brakes screeching, then the engines revved, then the pneumatic brakes again, they came in a line, one after the other, and within the space of barely an hour the entire city was full of these gigantically enormous fuel carriers, and the whole thing was as if they’d ended up here by mistake, as if they wanted to go someplace completely different,…

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All this, the threats, the violence, the feeling of foreboding, the arrival of an enormous number of gasoline tanks, is only preparation:

… and then suddenly — as if the entire thing were dependent on a single switch — the entire city was plunged into total darkness,…

Memory Eternal (Wenckheim IX)

…they didn’t need any prayers, because they had their own…

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The two images I am using today were taken in 1992 in Budapest with 35mm film, scanned at 9600 dpi (which is a silly thing), and cut apart.

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In László Krasznahorkai’s Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming, the chapter Losers carries out a similar dissection. We revisit most of the previous characters in separate paragraphs (in fact, sentences), which are dedicated to memory in one way or another.

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In the time of film, the detail of a printed image was determined by many physical factors — the format of the film, its quality, its grain, the quality of the equipment, lighting conditions, magnification, and the skill of the photographer. Today, grain has been replaced by noise, which has a different character, but the problem remains the same: outrageous enlargement will result in artifacts.

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He was out by the train stop at Bicere and trying to dissect what he was seeing down to the minutest elements,
because while he thought the bikers’ suspicions were exaggerated, he still couldn’t completely let the matter rest, because that’s how he was — …

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Does this frighten us? I think so, as the megapixel wars between smartphone makers indicate. We believe to be safer with more megapixels.

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… this matter, then, had no meaning, cause, or goal, and this in fact might have been the essence of that matter, if words themselves hadn’t given up the ghost in the mind of an eyewitness (one, moreover, not even present at the scene), because words would have come to a dead halt in this brain, …

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Is it the fear that our reality itself is like this, too, that if we look too closely, it will dissolve?

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The people who met the Baron now want to forget him. The city photographer gets busy in an unusual way:

… for the naive ones, I just delete the pictures they want me to, the pics from the train station or the entertainment events, I do it in front of them, I look for the memory card, put in the camera, and together we look for the pictures they want me to erase, and I delete the pictures in front of them; then they ask me, and I tell them that no one will ever see these pictures again, well of course, no one ever will see them, never again, rest assured, and this is all so much work that I can’t keep up with it …

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I think this is what Krasznahorkai tries to accomplish in his books: slowing down time and thus expanding the monologues of his protagonists, while they are desperately trying to remain themselves.

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Reporters and politicians deny that certain events have happened:

…and now he was volunteering to completely erase the speeches in question from the offices’ computers and destroy every such trace of any one of these speeches…

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We insist that reality is more than that, but in trying to prove it, we follow always the same process of dissolution. Can we find an answer if we just zoom in a bit further?

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Finally, there is the Baron’s funeral, the cheapest available.

…but still, as he stood behind the coffin, about to commence the service, he felt the cold sinking into him, what should he do now, he reflected, while — his head lowered — he recited Psalm 119 to himself, should he go back for another layer,…

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Watch Out For – (Wenckheim VIII)

It’s not that I don’t understand why a person has to die, but rather, I don’t understand why a person has to live, Baron Béla Wenckheim pondered,…

So begins this short chapter in Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming. It is a chapter about disruptions.

First, there is the disruption of space by time:

…where the train station used to be, there still stood a train station; […] — it’s just that these were not the same train stations, main roads, hospitals, castles, or chateaus, they just happened to stand in exactly the same spot where the old ones used to be; they weren’t the old ones, they were new, they were different, they were strange, and they — now that the scales had fallen from his eyes — they left him completely cold,…

How one experiences the return to one’s birth place after years of exile can vary. I have felt Wenckheim’s coldness, but also the opposite, and yet another, rather strange sensation of duplicity in which the exile becomes a second layer over the older home, so that one has the feeling to be at two different places at the same time.

So Wenckheim plots his own death, insists to be taken to the forest, follows the rails to the train station from where he wants to return by train, has carefully memorized the train schedule, and looks for a suitable curve that would make it impossible for the train to stop in time.

While waling between he tracks and waiting and pondering his question from the beginning, Wenckheim is disrupted by a flock of deer – their unquestioned existence proves his own question meaningless. But maybe too late.

Infinite Difficulties (Wenckheim VII)

The Professor, international expert on mosses, is back at Thornbush, and busy with thought-immunization exercises.

… not a single moment can be left to the brain to find some pretext in order to escape from the questioning gaze, namely, the brain is looking at itself, and this looking must be comprised of sheer mistrust …

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Facing deathly revenge from the bikers, he acquires an insane amount of gasoline and stages his own death in the flames, re-creating a Burning Thornbush. We are led to expect that he will escape.

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While busy with preparations, the Professor ponders the meaning of life and death in a long monologue (speaking to his dog Little Mutt), beginning with questioning the infinite, and accusing the mathematician Georg Cantor for thinking the infinite is real, which the professor refutes, based on the lack of empirical evidence:

…namely, no one has ever wished genuinely to confront the deeply problematic nature of empirical verification as such, because whoever did this went mad…

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The denial of the infinite leads the Professor further — thinking itself becomes suspect:

…the mere appearance of a thought hauntingly reminds us that the way a person thinks is but one concept of infinity,…

Existence beyond being extant in time and space is questioned:

…there’s only that which takes place…

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The denial of the infinite and with it anything transcendent however causes a problem: our universal fear of being finite, that is, our fear of death: 

… what we must deal with here is, namely, Cantor and his god — because if we’re dealing with this, then at least we’re dealing with something, namely we’re dealing with fear, and we have to deal with that if Cantor and his god are interesting — and they are interesting — and that’s why, at this point, we must refocus our attention on this, as fear is what defines human existence, …

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The Professor’s monologue culminates in what I would call his theology of fear:

… fear, if we regard it as a creationary force, a general power center, from where the gods evaporate, and finally God emerges, and yes, the God of Cantor too, because the fear of the cessation of existence is a force field which we can’t even measure, … 

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Strikingly, the Professor comes to the realization that fearing death and loving to live are identical:


… the fear that is within us and the joy of life that is within us, well, these two things are one and the same, two sides of one fact, because we are a web of events that seeks to sustain one thing and one thing only, namely continuity, … 

So he can, simultaneously, affirm life as a process that aims to constitute infinity, and deny the existence of anything infinite, including God.

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The simplest infinite set in mathematics, the set of natural numbers, is postulated to have the property that for every number there is a successor. Within mathematics, it is not stated what it means that such a set exists — but most of mathematics is based on the firm belief that there always is a number that’s by one bigger than the previous one, that there always is one more step, just as in life. 


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Has the poor Professor not understood yet that if you have lived you don’t fear death?

He Will Arrive, Because He Said So (Wenckheim VI)

What could possibly go wrong? Baron Wenckheim has returned, and his main desire is to meet the love of his youth, who is eagerly expecting him.

In Photography, we typically expect what’s important to be in focus.

Krasznahorkai’s prose, however, has a shallow depth of field, and often the blurry part is where we should look.

Right at his arrival at the train station, Baron Wenckheim walks right beside her, himself a victim of this looking elsewhere: … he just went beside her like a sleepwalker,…

When Wenckheim finally meets Marika (or Marietta, as he remembers her name), the misfocus becomes extreme: He doesn’t grasp that she has aged, too, and takes her for her mother or aunt: …yes, he thought there is a resemblance there, he wouldn’t say that Marietta had completely inherited the traits of this lady, still, though, there were in her face and in her bearing a few minor characteristics that connected them,

Dialogue between the two becomes impossible, but Wenckheim’s more and more devastating monologue is not without effect: …and she wasn’t trembling, although she knew that soon she would be, but for the time being she was still in that state in which a person simultaneously grasps and refutes what has just happened,…

In photography, the object in front of the lens can be so much out of focus that it becomes part of the optical system through which everything else is perceived. Focus becomes secondary.

Upset about Marika’s absence, Wenckheim talks to her about his deep love to her, and she listens with growing desperation. — he saw no other way than to speak to her, in the most sincere way possible, of his most sacred feelings;… 

… and he reached into the inner pocket of his jacket and pulled out the photograph from an envelope, he handed it to her saying, please have a look, Madame, and see how beautiful she is, and Marika bowed her head and she looked at the photograph, she looked and she looked, then she couldn’t bear to look anymore, …

He Wrote To Me (Wenckheim IV)

Old Baron Wenckheim is returning. Hidden behind the noisy preparations of his home town to welcome him and his expected fortune, the third chapter of Krasznahorkai’s novel includes a more delicate dialogue in form of a letter Wenckheim wrote to Marika, the love of his youth, and her brief but intense reply.

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… she was an old lady, there was no embellishing that, so that what could they expect, she just sat there bent over the postcard, she looked at the three words, and tears came to her eyes, and somehow her back became even more hunched, her two shoulders fell forward,…

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How do we communicate across time? How do we talk to someone whom we have long forgotten, or maybe even never met? I keep quoting Paul Celan, who compared poems to messages in a bottle, sent off with the hope that they will eventually be washed ashore at heartland.

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Marika’s emotional breakdown while responding to Wenckheim is contrasted with the nervous breakdown of the entire city that is afraid of making costly mistakes:

…because that moment, everywhere in the town, had somehow shattered apart, everything came to a halt, from fear, to a dead stop because of the fear which had swept across the city,…

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The dialogue between a town and its visitors is not necessarily doomed. New Harmony manages to talk to the visitors to various works of public art, some immensely popular like its labyrinths or the Roofless Church, others well hidden like the installation of 20 tableaus of writing from the Kcymaerxthaere project, which are slowly eroding away.

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But it’s not enough that words are being written, they also need to be read.

Pale, Much too Pale (Wenckheim III – Quarries II)

…it was only the sky that surprised him, because a few strips of this enormous, dark, heavy, and interconnected mass had broken open, so that the light broke through here and there across a few narrow bands, and the rays of light reached down from the heavens to the earth, innumerable thick shimmering rays of light gently spreading out — like an intricate aureole…

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The second chapter in László Krasznahorkai’s Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming fulfills the title’s promise: Baron Wenckheim returns, by train, through the gloomy Hungarian plains.

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It is not particularly difficult to substitute the (for me currently inaccessible) Hungarian gloominess with what I have at hand, and I chose to seek out an elusive quarry, the Empire Quarry, to obtain appropriate illustration.

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The darkness of this second chapter is broken with the occasional appearance of light, as in the introductory quote, leading eventually to recognition:

…and he just watched as the streaks of light played across the landscape, he just watched, and he couldn’t get enough of this sight, he was happy that he could see what he had never dared hope to see again, he was happy that he could be happy again, he stared and he wondered, his eyes filled with tears, and he thought that indeed now he had come home.

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Then, near the end of the chapter, light takes the center stage with a photographer seeking out the perfect conditions for a photo shoot at the Kelety railway station in Budapest where Wenckheim is about to arrive.

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So there is, like here, a convergence of lines, railway lines, light rays, paths, a promise of more to come…

Thorn Bush (Wenckheim II)

… and then the thorn and the acacia bushes and a thousand kinds of weeds grew over them, and the Thorn Bush came into being — that’s what the residents of the city called it — as if it were some kind of proper neighborhood or something, …


The first chapter of László Krasznahorkai’s novel Wenckheim takes place in Thorn Bush, a derelict district, where the Professor has taken residence, amidst huge piles of styrofoam panels, … that if anyone should come along and pester him, let all and sundry be warned that whomever dared to approach his hut in the Thorn Bush would be shot immediately and without warning.


This chapter is about rejection — the city rejects one of its districts, the Professor reality, his daughter him as her father.


… but even then its reputation was enhanced not by the spice of juicy murders or sexual violence, but rather by being a no-man’s-land in the city, completely left to its own fate, an ownerless piece of land, needed by no one, and about which no one even debated who might need it and how it might be used; it was, accordingly, completely left to itself, …



Places like this give an opportunity for isolation, but the Professors needs go further:

…the basic problem with a window wasn’t a question of this or that practical advantage or disadvantage, but it was the principle of the window that troubled him greatly, and namely not because a window could be gazed into, but because that window could always be gazed out of — …


In the book, this leads to violent escalation, maybe because nobody truly can lock oneself in.


Has every city its own Thorn Bush, has everybody a place of self-abandonment?


The pictures here are from my city, taken 10 years ago, near a defunct railroad line that had been converted into a trail. Since then this area has changed, but this is another story.



Warning (Wenckheim I)

because there could be no mistakes…


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When almost four years ago I congratulated You-Know-Who to his inauguration, I used pictures from the spectacular Tulip Trestle near Solesbury as an illustration. These days I have revisited this place, and it is as imposing as four years ago.

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In the last two years, I have found in László Krasznahorkai’s books consolation for the state of the world and the human soul, and with the imminent beginning of winter, I decided to read his latest (and maybe last) novel Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming.

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I also decided to do this as an excruciatingly slow read, and I will occasionally accompany my postings here with quotes from this book.

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It begins with a brief chapter titled Warning, where an orchestra conductor imposes himself on his orchestra:

… because there’s only one method of performance here which can be executed in only one way, and the harmonization of those two elements will be decided by me …

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But there is not just pure control, there also is purpose…

… because in reality what awaited them now was suffering, bitter, exhausting, and torturous work, when shortly (as the one single accomplishment of their cooperation, albeit an involuntary one), they would insert into Creation that for which they had been summoned; …

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This brief chapter sums up  how a human being usurps what is not his to claim.

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… because I am the one who, by the truth of God, is simply waiting for all of this to be over.