Ten Tangents for SATANTANGO (Talking around a novel and a film)

Drew Johnson



In March, The New York Times Book Review review of Laszlo Krasznahorkai's Satantango—a book that was published in Hungary in 1985 but was only recently published in English translation, twenty-seven years later—failed to mention the 1994 film version, even though, for the last eighteen years, Satantango has existed in the United States only in its seven-hour film version, directed by similarly fiery Hungarian Bela Tarr and scripted by Krasznahorkai himself.

That the review does not mention the film seems willful, like failing to mention a seven-hour conflict of interest. This gets to me a little because it matters how we come to things. Not always because it shapes us, but because if we are aware of the delay, we can recognize that there is a delay.

That, although literature is news that stays news, our habits and priorities mean that in Satantango we are getting news that has had to stay news for quite some time.

The are many odd delays marking the history of literature in translation. Chekhov's slow, muddled path is typical: slender volumes coming along in the confusion, staking his fame to only his earliest comic sketches or, as Edmund Wilson complained, comic sketches from the beginning of his career undated and interspersed with the long, tragic stories of the late.

Roberto Bolaño's torrent was preceded by some delay. Before any part of By Night in Chile or The Savage Detectives or 2666 had found their way into English—and aside from a few stories published in the grand but now-defunct Grand Street—the author himself walked abroad as a character in Javier Cercas's novel, Soldiers of Salamis.

In the narrative, a historical detective story regarding the Spanish Civil War, "Bolaño" and Cercas's narrator exchange confidences, converse a bit about what is afoot—this was Bolaño in his caretaker-of-a-Spanish-campground phase. In the course of the book, Bolaño recommends a movie, Fat City, of which I had never heard, starring—among others—a very young Jeff Bridges, the newly-late, Oscar-nominated Susan Tyrell, an incredible Stacy Keach, and Coach (from Cheers). Directed by John Huston, consciously aping and sometimes surpassing the new Hollywood directors half his age. From Leonard Gardner's proto-minimalist novel. From his script.

And no one tells me about this movie in my own country. I have to wait for it on the long end of the Spanish intersections of Cercas and Bolaño.

The world is an interesting place.


Hungarian writers being rather thin on the ground here in the States, I hoped Laszlo Krasznahorkai—author of the newly translated Satantango—would make it through Boston. No, New York got him twice, DC, and San Francisco. I didn't go to the first reading in New York and, a month later, I didn't get to the second. My friend Will made it to the reading at City Lights in San Francisco (fitting, Ginsberg took Krasznahorkai under his wing for a time).

My unscientific take on the readings in Boston and Cambridge sometimes renders me glum. There's still a few dazzling events, but lately I mostly see the calendar filling with the stratospherically famous yet inert, as well as a never-ending queue of single-issue books unpacking some bit of political or societal nonsense and serving little save to nominate yet another pundit.

Whyever Krasznahorkai didn't make it, I've been reading his work for a little more than a year, loving it, loving to write to it. He's great to write to. Like Melville doing shots of Shakespeare and the King James, then turning back toward his window and Mt. Greylock. Take a gulp of Krasz, then turn back to the keyboard.

I've been trying to box him in a little—for my health—to relate his work to these tangents—for lack of a better word—so that I have a better sense of him in the end.


In March, I was able to see the film version of Satantango, which is not so much an adaptation as a built-to-scale model. If I were talking more about the plot of the book or the novel, I might offer some summary here. Suffice it to say there is a thirty-minute drunken tango in the shack that serves as a dying communist collective farm's only bar. You could say that it's a fairly silent movie with many long takes. You'd be right, but it's also a movie with a great deal of conversation and character and plot. The way I think about it is that there are enough of those elements for a three-hour movie, stretched to seven hours. And better for the stretch.

As you might guess looking at the slow march of the film vs. the hell-for-leather quality of the prose, looking on the one hand at the silence in a Bela Tarr film and the rushing prose of a Krasznahorkai novel, this is the sort of adaptation where, while watching a movie that is a meditative vessel—shaping but not supplying that missing liquid prose—the viewer is obliged to step up and supply the torrent of words that are not onscreen.

If there has ever been so faithful an adaptation that produced two more dissimilar end products, I'd be curious to know them.

I saw the movie on the big screen. They gave us a fifteen-minute break at two hours, an hour dinner break at four, and the last three hours we had to do at a run. I admit that I probably annoyed my companion-in-arms during intermission by my harping on the death of the cat that dominates the film (though strangely, not the novel). The cat's murder scene is so jarring, I think, because although the cat was apparently not harmed, the cat is also not acting.

The agricultural commune is, in the movie, a blasted nearly-industrial wasteland that Tarkovsky could've used for a Stalker sequel, and the long, long shots test the viewer's patience in a manner that makes you generate the ruminations that in the novel are supplied by Krasznahorkai. And yet he was the screenwriter: he has a lot of nerve—and it takes a lot of nerve—to sign over that role to us, to only employ voiceover rarely, to leave all that the long, slow shots could not bring from the page on the page.

What do the movie and the book share, then? They share Beckett, who, on stage and page, when read without regard to chronology, can move between so many words and so much silence. And the grind of Beckett, the humor, and the grim spaces all are somehow borrowed from the Irish.

And yet: Tarr's most recent film (and supposedly his last) The Turin Horse is another collaboration with Krasznahorkai—from an untranslated short story—and takes for its subject a few days of mainly routine farm-doings of a farmer and daughter during a wind-storm. This film makes Satantango seem as manic and busy as Moulin Rouge.

Watching The Turin Horse and still supplying the torrent of thought to fill the empty pages the long shots implied, my own ruminations ran to how modernism and agriculture and rural life battled it out. How Faulkner, certainly someone for whom Krasznahorkai could be mistaken, found it to be a haunt of long waits and damaged minds. An agony of solitudes unrelieved by other people. And yet, and yet.


It's easy to take the elaborate machinations of Beckett's characters as inner or other or irreal or something freighted with a second meaning and maybe they are all these things, too. But mostly they're a sort of tedium that has been an essential part of narrative from at least as far back as the routines of Robinson Crusoe.

One of the pleasing and persistent oddities of narrative is how much we still enjoy the simple how of things. Whole genres are built this way: the heist, the police procedural, and so on. Building an oil well in There Will Be Blood. Doing to a whale everything that can be done to a whale in Moby Dick. Unfamiliar routines, but sometimes as simple as explaining how you proceeded through the day, this day.

Back to this impulse, the Robinson Crusoe impulse: Go to the shipwreck, dig in the dugout canoe, work on the perimeter fence, raise the goats. At the limits of routine, we find ritual and repetition and games and intractable dilemmas best represented in circular flow-charts. Beckett, not early on, as in Murphy, but later, as with Winnie's routines in Happy Days or Krapp's devolving circular on-stage habits in Krapp's Last Tape. Or even much later on, as in "The Lost Ones"—where the fiction consists of an account of the habits and routines of a number of beings living in a cylinder.

The great documentarian Frederick Wiseman does this in a movie like Belfast, Maine where he gives you ten minutes of workers on an assembly line and tests your negative capability as you realize you can and cannot imagine what this would be like over a much, much larger amount of time.


Time is the big-ticket item in any discussion of tedium and endurance in art. We're used to time being made strange for us in much art—and I mean that: we're used to it. So sometimes the strangeness and extremity are more clearly felt not in the company of the avant-garde, but in the hands of a painter like Andrew Wyeth. If Krasznahorkai's American itinerary were in my hands at all, I'd like to add some Wyeth stops along the way. I'd drive the author from mid-town Manhattan (we'd stop first at the Museum of Modern Art, our first Wyeth stop) up the Hudson across Connecticut and—passing Boston as quickly as possible—strike deep into Maine until we reached the town of Cushing.

It's a drive I think he might even like, certainly what we could find at either end would be worth the time, possibly for the contrast, possibly for the dismissal, possibly even because he might like what one painter, Andrew Wyeth, did when he came across a domestic arrangement that sounds like Laura Ingalls Wilder by way of Beckett.

But yes, before we leave Manhattan, we'd stop off to see one of MOMA's least popular, most popular pieces of art. The museum keeps it in an elevator link, outside their narrative, living on in internal exile. Stop by some day when the place is crowded and marvel at the number of European tourists the painting attracts. If you don't know you're supposed to hate it, the painting has a lot of power.

This painting:

In Cushing, Maine, I could still drive the Hungarian to the large house on the ridgeline where the Olsons lived, Christina and Alvaro, brother and sister. The house sits above a field stretching down to a cove off of Muscongus Bay. If the view could shift at all, water would seem to surround the girl in the grass and hang in the air, too. The absence of water in the painting--despite its omnipresence in the landscape--is a profound cheat on the part of the artist.

Christina, subject to a wasting disease, kept house much as Winnie in Happy Days, by struggling from stove to kitchen table, hitching a chair across layers of worn linoleum, layers of newspaper on the chair absorbing the urine she could not control. Later, the Wyeths gave her a wheeled ottoman, which she preferred.

Wyeth is lovably out of place in any discussion of human tedium, desperation, and extremity in art, yet in the Olsons his claim to the subject is instantly larger—as if he had found an abandoned Hungarian collective farm in mid-coast Maine. He will never be given credit for tackling this subject, but he was, in his way, a kind of proto-David Lynch: sentimental, conservative and admired by conservatives, but also more in touch with a recognizable, everyday ugliness than this or that artist of the palatable, academic darknesses.

If you've never looked at the work he wrought from this little world, take the time to do so. If you have, look again. All the hundreds of sketches and paintings Wyeth produced from the lives and home of the Olsons, taken together, give off more of a Satantango vibe than you'd think. There is, above all, the Hungarian preoccupation with awesome physiognomy. The cast of Satantango is, with the exception of the con man Irimias, graced with faces that even in their long silences and near-expressionless longeurs, are fascinating to watch.

The Hungarian Visage: Futaki (Miklós B. Székely), Mrs. Schmidt (Éva Almási Albert), & Schmidt (László feLugossy)

Sure, in the most famous painting, Christina Olson's face is missing. Wait on that. But their well loved but dying Maine farmhouse, palatial by communist Hungarian collective's standards, is present in the iconic painting and explored throughout the series—much as the camera roams in the "estate sequence" of Satantango. The empty rooms, the abandoned and semi-abandoned domestic articles alongside fishnets drying in an empty room. Decrepitude both through heavy-use combined with total neglect. A perfect setting for a joint Hungarian American film, adapted from some Krasznahorkai novel about the Olsons with a Wyeth on the cover. Okay, I go too far.

If we could not drive to Cushing, I could still show Krasznahorkai Christina's World, the big coffee table book Houghton Mifflin brought out in 1978, in a format that belies any association with the subject matter's implicit darkness. I think of it as a children's book for adults: Through sketches to finished paintings, all the other ins-and-outs of this little American outpost are delineated. The face that is withheld in the famous painting is treated many times, but never so fully as in Anna Christina, a painting she herself preferred. Bela Tarr and Krasznahorkai please note:


Grosz and Klee, and but not, under any circumstances, Chagall.

Definitely James Ensor (on the cover, after all, of the NDP edition of Krasznahorkai's The Melancholy of Resistance) and I'd like to say Balthus, but I'd be wrong. Some, but not very much, of Max Ernst. Also Max Neumann, who collaborated with Krasznahorkai on the briefest of his translated works: words and pictures: AnimalInside.


Few translators attain anything like stature, but George Szirtes is a Twitter daemon, the kind of man who uses Twitter best by using it against the grain, typing in poems (at a dozen tweets apiece) just to get things going in the morning. Who you'd unfollow if it weren't worth watching the perversity unfold.


Far from Twitter, I have a bound ledger that records the transactions between two of my paternal grandfather's brothers—C.D. and Raymond—and, it appears, the company store (Lampkin & Birch). They did a day's worth of work and received a certain amount of money, which was debited when they bought a sack of flour, etc. Only a few pages are written upon, but those few pages represent a great deal of labor that took place in Virginia in 1930:

I thought about the ledger when I went to see Bela Tarr and Krasznahorkai's most recent collaboration, The Turin Horse, which amounts to a dark-Robinson Crusoe account of a father and a daughter and horse on a farm. Think wind where Satantango uses rain. Anything that left the path of farm routine was presented as an unintelligible sign from malignant gods—a book given by gypsies, a nasty neighbor's visit, a dying horse. I didn't wonder why the filmmakers felt it necessary to leave everything so unresolved so much as I wondered why they seemed so terrified of the faintest hint of the possibility of mitigation—not to say redemption—creeping into their film.

Watching the routines of this beaten down farm life, I kept recalling my grandfather, who escaped sharecropping (not to mention coal mining) in southwestern Virginia by joining the Army Air Corps, and his occasional observation that, "Every day in the army was like Sunday on the farm."

Representing work and the procedural passage of time in novels and films is always an exercise in begging the question: done poorly, it can easily turn back on itself, proving nothing. The ecstatic agony of watching the blow-by-blow labor of hitching or unhitching the unfortunate Turin horse occupies a lot of time in the film. The daughter's farm-routines, food preparation (nothing more elaborate than potatoes) takes up a shocking portion of the two-hours plus of the film.

And, as I said before, when you watch people work in a Frederick Wiseman documentary the tedium of ten minutes of an assembly line must be extrapolated out into days and hours and years, if you can go that far and keep a handle on yourself. Despair must be present, but for all that, The Turin Horse lapses out of life and into something unimpressively monochromatic, desperation only very rarely being anything like the whole story.


Maybe that's what I most worry about in more than a few of the great modernist works and their successors—the whole tradition of despair. I have this fear that they cannot reconcile the implacable nature of what they see with the fact that most people are not apparently or appropriately desperate. "Lives of quiet desperation" has never been very useful shorthand on several levels but not least because most people, however desperate, aren't quiet enough. They don't say the things they're supposed to say. Not all the time.

Tarr's filmmaking seems to lapse into an the extremity that makes his films negatively sentimental. This amounts to lying in an attempt at truth—and not a lie about how bad things are, but about how bad they appear to be. They sell very short the endurance our invented comforts—the great humanist comforts among them—can provide: All of what would seem to make people desperate makes them instead capable of something like the grace of Christina and Alvaro Olson, Vladimir and Estragon.

But even if you will not allow that grace, even if you insist that it is sentiment, you must watch and then allow what Frederick Wiseman shows us in his long takes of routine and drudgery in his long, varied, gloriously monotonous documentaries. That people endlessly endure. When they don't, we make much of their failures because we know what to call those failures—suicide, murder—a whole host of named events, all of which instantly give us a sense of relief. A that's-what-I-do-feeling. Whereas the much more common and prosaic endurance? Defies us. Goes so far past the vocabulary of suffering and endurance, sentiment and defeat and grace and despair that it is difficult to apply a useful label or, for that matter, any label at all. I never feel like Tarr's suffering evades the labels or even seeks to. Should it seek to?

Why do I feel the negative capability kick on like an air compressor when I read Krasznahorkai, but not in Tarr's adaptations? So that I am helplessly free to take what I can from the wreckage, without even being able to be certain it is wreckage?

So yes, the best of Krasznahorkai and Andrew Wyeth are with the best of Beckett, who, admiringly accused of "not giving a fuck about people," protested that he did indeed give a fuck about people. And he did. And this shows and matters. Which is why I bring up Christina's World and how it both holds its own and commands a crowd in the elevator link of the MOMA's dour temple.


A final, time-bound consideration: Susan Sontag, a vocal fan of Krasznahorkai and the 1994 film, lived 19 years after the book was first published, but didn't live to read Satantango. You have lived that long. You've made it all the way here from 1985, through your own particular blend of Beckett and Wyeth, hitching your chair along the linoleum to publication day. You can read it. That's news, too.