László Krasznahorkai: Aprómunka egy palotaért (Spadework for a Palace)
Our narrator is herman melvill. No, that is not a typo. His name is in lower case and there is no e at the end of his surname. He has been a librarian at the New York City Library for forty-one years. He is now writing a secret notebook, all in one glorious madcap sentence. It is a secret because one of his ideas, if it got out, could result in him losing his job. This idea is very simple. He believes libraries are sacred and only librarians should have access to them, certainly not normal library patrons, who dirty them, do not put the books away or put them back on the wrong shelf and generally are a nuisance. The Permanently Closed Library is his dream butt obviously may not be shared by others, at least by the other group he despises – management and so on – directors, deputy directors, chairpersons and vice-chairpersons, advisors and secretaries, the entire gang of these directors, vice-chairpersons, advisors and secretaries, yes, and the foul hucksters on the boards, those donors and sponsors reeking of untold millions, as well as more sponsors who shuffle around in their board meetings, all of whom in my opinion are of course in bed with the real estate people.
This may be the least madcap of his various obsessions. Surprisingly, he is not very keen on literature or, at least, was not, so had paid little attention to his quasi-namesake. However, because of the similarities in name, he has started taking an interest and, as seems to be his modus operandi, soon became obsessed with Herman Melville, including reading all the biographies, some of which were very long, memoirs, reference works and, of course Melville’s work. However, despite all this study, he is disappointed that none of them seem to elucidate exactly what Melville was like. He knows about his physical appearance, about his house in some detail and other pertinent biographical facts but not what Melville the man was really like.
The name similarity causes him some problems as he is tracked down by Melville enthusiasts, Ph. D. students and the like. Being cantankerous, this annoys him, not least because, as he says, he does not want to be the subject of some student’s seminar paper. As well as the name, there are other similarities, he claims, such as the fact both lived in more or less the same area of New York and our herman had briefly worked at the Customs House, where Melville spent his career.
This leads him to a question: did Melville walk from his home to the office? He decides to retrace Melville’s steps as he knows where Melville lived and worked and, though New York has changed a lot since Melville’s day, he is able to work out the route.
But he is not alone in his journey. He is joined by English novelist Malcolm Lowry who, in his work Lunar Caustic wandered around this area and he soon has a mild obsession with Lowry. Our herman attends an exhibition at MoMA PS1 with his wife. who is an art lover. She goes, he says, to show off her new outfit. He is disgusted by the quality of the modern art on display (a deadly boring exhibition) but they do have display of work by the architect Lebbeus Woods and herman is very impressed with it. Lebbeus, who like Lowry, is deceased, joins them on the walk as he lived and worked in the area. Finally, we get the Hungarian connection. Though he knows little about classical music, he does know that Hungarian composer Béla Bartók lived in the area as well, not least because someone left some detailed notes on the composer in herman’s library, which he read.
After the exhibition, herman gets something of an obsession with the work of Lebbeus Woods, in particular his Lower Manhattan. One of herman’s obsessions is the idea of the interconnectedness of humans and nature and he applies this to New York. Manhattan lies on top of a rock. And this rock is a giant whose size, mass and weight bring about the most intricate interconnectedness between us and the monumental forces of nature. Herman feels that modern architecture, particularly the high-rise buildings of New York, have destroyed this interconnectedness and that Woods may be the only one who has seen and tried to reconstitute it. However, Melville also gets some credit in this area – as long as I am connected to the universal, he said, why on earth should I be concerned with anything else?
He starts going further: all three of them were fully aware that catastrophe is the natural language of reality, and that catastrophe may originate in nature, but it may also follow from human evil. His obsession increases. His wife has left him and his boss is concerned he is spending more time on his obsession than on his day job.
This is only short but really is an excellent story, from the obsessed librarian, both as regards his employers to his obsession with Melville, Lowry and Woods to his idea of interconnectedness and how we are losing it. Yes, by our standards he may be considered approaching madness but he is not the first literary madman whose madness is both interesting and may also contain a grain of truth.
First published in 2018 by Magvető Kiadó
First English translation in 2022 by New Directions
Translated by John Batki