Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Wednesday, 4 May 2016




The poem came back today.

"Why won't you write me?"
it asked.

"What use am I in your head?

"They won't start to like you
even if you hide me, besides,
I'll glare out of your eyes
at them.

"And what'll you do then?

"I will be born.
One way or another.
And you will love me."


Finally I gave in
and wrote the poem too soon
and it lay on the page
twisted and malformed.

"Dad – help me," it cried
and I went to tear it up.

But I couldn't do it.


"What sex am I?"
the poem asked.

"You are a boy."

"Then there is life in me.
I shall go and sleep
with a virgin mind."


My poem came home today.

"Dad – nobody understands me.
I don't think they even like me."

"Don't worry, son –
they don't understand me either."

30 March 1989

Most people like me once they get to know me. I remember a guy called Stephen or Steven (hell, it might’ve been Bert for all I can remember) approaching F. to see if she could introduce us which I’d no problems with but when I asked her why he hadn’t just come up to me she said, “You intimidate him.” He was not the first. But once we sat down and talked we got on like a house on fire and he couldn’t imagine why he’d hesitated. In 1989 I had a lot of friends and with a few I’d take a risk and bring out the poems. The response was almost always the same. I’d give them a wee collection which they’d take away and the subject would never raise its ugly head again. Which genuinely puzzled me because the last thing I’d call my poetry would be intimidating but what can you do? Online you’d think it’d be different but not as much as you’d expect and that has disappointed me but I suspect the problem there’s me. What do you expect people to say when they’ve read a poem? The poem, if it’s any good, should’ve said it all and left little room for anything else. I suppose the best I could hope for with the above piece is, “I know where you’re coming from” but it would be nice if they could then add, “In fact let me tell you about the time…”

Sunday, 1 May 2016



(for B.)

It's always harder
when it's somebody else's cross
you're carrying.

I told you you were beautiful
and I did not lie
but I questioned my motives.

I need to show I love you
because I fear he doesn't
but what can I give you:

There is no light under my door:
I am at home,
but not to callers.

What will you take
to take the pain away?

25 March 1989
In geometric terms, the eternal triangle can be represented as comprising three points—a jealous male (A) in a relationship with an unfaithful partner (B) who has a lover (C). To use a mnemonic device, A feels abandoned, B is between two mates, and C is a catalyst for crisis in union A–B. Leigh (1985) preferred a nomenclature describing the principles as “victim,” “cheater,” and “cheatee,” whereas Pittman (1987) utilised “cuckold,” “infidel,” and “affairee,” but such terminology strikes us as judgemental to all parties. – Alvin Pam, Judith Pearson, ‘The Geometry of the Eternal Triangle’, Splitting Up: Enmeshment and Estrangement in the Process of Divorce, pp.148.149
F. observed once than every time B. visited we had sex that night. She wondered if it was more than a coincidence. I denied it—I really had no strong desires that way—but, at the same time, I couldn’t deny that B. made me feel… I’m going to use the word ‘good’ here because she did but she also made me feel bad as well; in my experience most things in this life that make us feel good come with a rider. I never thought about having sex with B. when I was in bed with F. and especially not whilst having sex with F. but I did think about B. constantly; that I can’t deny.

I’ve had a work wife before. I’ve even had a work daughter. I understand these relationships. But how exactly do you describe the relationship between an artist and his muse?
A secretive model for realist painter Andrew Wyeth, the Prussian-born Helga Testorf became the captivating subject of her Maine neighbour’s studies for 15 years without the knowledge of her husband or his wife. Obsessively portrayed in 247 brooding portraits where she is with and without clothing, Helga became an American icon when one of Wyeth portraits of his muse made the cover of Time magazine on August 18, 1986. – The 10 Most Influential Artist’s Muses, Flavorwire
Did they ever have sex? It’s not beyond the realms of possibility but his wife thought not: “If there is this sexual thing,” she told The New York Times, “if he went over the bounds it wouldn't be a painting. He would lose the magic. It would go.” Sex isn’t everything. You get a rush with sex—endorphins are released by your brain—but you can get a rush when you exercise—endorphins first, adrenalin if you push yourself—but there are other chemicals our bodies use to reward us like serotonin and especially dopamine. Whenever we do something that our brain/body thinks is ‘positive’ (winning the lottery, eating a cake, finishing a poem) we’ll experience a rush of dopamine which serves to reinforce that behaviour/stimulus. Do you see where I’m coming from?

Dorothy Parker famously said, “I hate writing, I love having written.” Why? Because you don’t get your reward until the job’s done. For a novelist that can mean long waits but when you write poems with a couple of dozen words in them then getting a semi-regular fix isn’t so hard which is why over the next few months I rattled off so many poems that weren’t that great. But we’re not there yet.

The “he” in the poem (and the reason the title is in the plural) is a chap called S. by the way. B. was in love with him so even if I had been in love with or lusting after her she wouldn’t have seen it. In the end he chose E. and then dumped her for the most androgynous-looking woman I’ve ever met and moved to Canada but that’s another story.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016


Marital Row No. 693

The Batman would never
stand for this.

The Batman would never
have been caught like this.

Not The Batman.

We have a lot in common –
The Batman and I.

We both wear masks
but I don't have his strength.

25 March 1989

I don’t think I’ve ever had even three rows in my life that weren’t with my parents, “shouting matches” as my dad called them—good expression. So this is fictitious. I don’t think F. and I even rowed once in all the years we were together. We had disagreements but they never escalated into fights. I used to work with a woman called Donna who said she and her husband rowed all the time and she thought that was a good thing; she clearly enjoyed the make-up sex.

As for Batman, yes, he’s probably by favourite comic book hero. I haven’t seen Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice yet but I will get round to it. I feel like I’ve been reading about it for years. Last I heard the trailers when spliced together amounted to fifteen minutes of the actual film. I watched the very first trailer once and that’s been it. I just don’t get the film companies. They’re talking about films just now that won’t see the light of day until 2020 (Cyborg and Green Lantern Corps). By the time they hit the big screen—let alone the small screen—who’ll care any more? I remember this all started with Tim Burton’s Batman. I devoured anything I could to do with the film and so, when I finally did sit down to watch it, I was, predictably, disappointed; nothing—and I do mean NOTHING—could live up to the hype. Nowadays I read very little. Mostly I look at the pictures and skip the words.

‘Marital Row No. 693’ was first published in Psychopoetica #17; I keep forgetting to check before I upload these poems. There is precedence for the use of the definite article by the way. Detective Comics #567—the famous Harlan Ellison issue where Batman has the most uneventful night of his life—is subtitled Presents The Batman. There was also a tie-in to the Warner Bros animated series called The Batman Strikes.

Sunday, 24 April 2016



(for B.)

So I am a port in a storm?
Who will come into me,
into my arms?

They're tearing me down
but my arms are still there.

Who will come into them?

I held you in Greenock station
until you went away
then I walked the empty jetties
and watched the ebbing tide.

23 March 1989

Greenock is a historic industrial town by the Firth of Clyde, 25 miles west of Glasgow. It thrived in the post-war years but as the heavy industries declined in the 1970s and 1980s unemployment became a major problem, and it’s only been in the last ten years with reinvestment and the redevelopment of large sections of the town the local economy’s started to revive. 

I only hugged B. in Greenock station—she had a migraine and decided to get the train home—although how I contrived to be the one to walk her there I’ve no idea. So it’s a bit of an exaggeration, a bit of wish fulfillment. She got on the train but rather than go back to the rest of the group I took myself off down the docks which at the time had seen better days. That's where the idea for the poem came and I'm pretty sure I wrote it then and there. I wouldn’t swear on it but this might’ve been the last time I was ever in Greenock. Carrie took the train to Gourock, which is just down the coast, when she first came over here and she also came away from the place inspired which is odd because, as best I can remember, Gourock was an even more miserable place than Greenock back then.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016


Coming Out

"So you are a
practicing poet?"
she asked,
and I felt unclean
and wanted my closet back.

23 March 1989
When did you know you were… you know… that way inclined? I wonder how many gays have been asked that question. No one’s ever asked me when I knew I was straight. No one’s ever asked me when I knew I was a poet either. Was I born one? Since I regard myself as a natural poet I guess I must’ve been. I was poetry-curious in my early teens—I guess a lot of us are and for many it’s a phase we go through—but once I reached my twenties it was impossible to deny: I was a poet. I didn’t know any other poets and it was a lonely time. I wasn’t even sure if I was doing it right. Was there even a right way? Occasionally I’d let someone in but most of them didn’t know what to do with the information. I’d make up wee collections for my friends who were polite but never said what they really thought. It was hard.

This was all pre-Internet. Now it’s so different. A few keystrokes and you can find like-minded individuals no matter what your persuasion or inclination or preference or kink. You’d think that’d be a good thing.

Sunday, 17 April 2016


He is what we call a ‘manipulator,’ Miss Flinn, a man who will use everyone and everything to his own ends. – Nurse Ratched referring to McMurphy in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest


To my mind, like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Satantango exists in two states, the 1985 novel by László Krasznahorkai and the seven hour long film adaptation by Béla Tarr from 1992 (arguably the 2012 English translation by George Szirtes is a third state but let’s not be pedantic). Film adaptation is a difficult process. In a recent interview for The Telegraph Andrew Davies, commenting on his own adaptation of War and Peace, said he would’ve preferred eight hours rather than the six he ended up with and that’s not unreasonable considering the fact Tolstoy’s novel clocks in at some 993 pages. The English translation of Satantango is a mere 288 pages by comparison meaning Tarr gets to devote 2 minutes to every page only the maths doesn’t work out quite like that. The reason I mentioned One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and not, for example, Watchmen which is an incredibly faithful adaptation, is that Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest although faithful to the spirit of the novel is not a slavish translation of Ken Kesey’s book which, despite the good intentions of all those involved, Watchmen is and, ironically, suffers because of it.

A film is not a book and a book is not a film. I state the obvious but it needs to be stated. “A moving picture,” said William Faulkner, “is by its nature collaboration, and any collaboration is compromise, because that is what the word means—to give and take.” Of course in all four instances mentioned above there would’ve been no film without the book but there are things a film does that a book does not and the main thing is that it contributes a second imagination to the job of interpreting the text. There are those who criticise film adaptations for this precise reason because with a book you have to use your imagination and films make you lazy; I, personally, think two imaginations are better than one. But let’s say that some films do do too much of the thinking for you—and these films do exist—it’s not the case with every film and certainly not when it comes to the films of Béla Tarr; in addition to Satantango I’ve seen Damnation, Werckmeister Harmonies and The Turin Horse, all of which he worked on with Krasznahorkai. Both share screenwriter credits but they don't come up with conventional scripts. Rather, Krasznahorkai serves as a kind of literary consultant. “When we make films from his stories,” Tarr once told the critic Jonathan Romney, “we usually take the novel and we somehow in a terrible manner ruin it, and often what remains is just dialogues and situations.” Then, he says, “we have to rediscover everything in reality that has already been discovered when he wrote the novel.” The beauty in Krasznahorkai’s writing is in its descriptive language—a prime example is the girl Esti who hardly says a word on the page—but onscreen you can’t take your eyes off her; one kind of beauty (I use the term reservedly because there’s little beauty in her world) is replaced by another.

Tarr does some of the work for you—if, like me, you have no knowledge of agricultural collectivization in the Hungarian People's Republic then it does help to see “the estate” as Krasznahorkai imagined it realised for you—but there’s much left unsaid and unexplained and in some cases the book is clearer than the film, in fact; in the novel, for example, Esti remembers the doctor sitting with her when she was ill but as the film has no flashbacks we, sadly (because it reveals a side to the doctor that’s now vanished), lose this. It’s a trade-off. If you have the chance I’d try to see the film and read the book; they complement each other. This is true, too, of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In the novel we’re inside Chief Bromden’s head; on screen we can only watch helplessly. The same goes for Satantango. Let’s take a simple sentence from the book:

They walked the length of the path, then for a long time down the road to Postelek without speaking, avoiding the ankle-deep puddles, and the closer they approached the old road that led straight as a die to the southeastern corner of town, the more Petrina worried about Irimiás’s condition.

In the film we see them walk the length of the path, the whole length of the path. If someone walks anywhere in a Béla Tarr film we either watch them until they’re completely out of sight or nothing but specks or follow them step by step on their journey. A lot of time is spent watching people trudge through the mud, the dark, the wind and the rain; it’s an effort to get anywhere even “the hundred and seven steps or so to the bar”; that’s how far Mrs. Halics has to travel from her home to the bar.

Actually One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Satantango have something else in common now I think about it: both books revolve around the coming of a saviour and both “messiahs” are, to be fair, a little on the dodgy side although Irimiás is a far dodgier character than McMurphy. (To this end Raven D. A. Moot’s essay ‘Christian Symbolism in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is well worth a read.) The little band left on the Hungarian estate—Futaki, Kerekes, the Kráners, the Halicses, the Schmidts, Mrs. Horgos and her children, the landlord of the bar, the schoolmaster and the doctor—are not prisoners any more than most of the mental patients McMurphy encounters; in fact he’s shocked when Harding reveals, “As a matter of fact, there are only a few men on the ward who are committed. Only Scanlon and—well, I guess some of the Chronics. And you. Not many commitments in the whole hospital. No, not many at all.” Why would any of them need a saviour? They could just pack their bags and leave any time they wanted. The same with the villagers, in fact Satantango opens with Futaki learning that Schmidt and Kráner plan to abscond with all the villagers’ money which the pair have just picked up on behalf of the collective. They don’t because, as they’re hatching their plans, news comes that Irimiás and Petrina are on their way back to the estate:

“Should it be true . . .” Schmidt turned on [his wife], impatient: “But they’re dead!” “If it should be true . . . ,” Futaki repeated quietly as if completing Mrs. Schmidt’s line of thought, “then the Horgos kid was simply lying . . .” Mrs. Schmidt suddenly raised her head to look at Futaki. “And we had only his word for it,” she said.

So, a resurrection then, of sorts. Not, admittedly, after three days but after eighteen months some of which we readers learn was spent in prison. Why the villagers are in thrall to Irimiás, what he has done for them in the past is unclear but, like McMurphy, he is certainly charismatic. In the book he wears bright yellow pointy shoes, a loud red tie, and a houndstooth jacket. He has long, thin fingers, a sharp chin, and a hooknose. I was reminded a little of Beckett’s Murphy and Krapp, the former with his “perfectly plain lemon made-up bow tie”, the latter with his “[s]urprising pair of dirty white boots, size ten at least, very narrow and pointed”. More on Beckett later.

The unnamed bar landlord seems to be the only one who can see Irimiás and Petrina for who they truly are:

As far as he was concerned nothing was too strange to be believed about that lousy vagrant, because it was perfectly clear that he and his companion were a pair of filthy scoundrels. He resolved that whenever and however they arrived he would stand quite firm: the wine had to be paid for. In the long run it wasn’t his problem — they might be ghosts for all he knew — but anyone that wants to drink here has to pay up.

The landlord’s an avaricious man and after being cheated by them in the past he’s wary of being duped again but if the others want to be conned then it was up to them; he is loyal only to himself and in the end he goes his own way. Most of the others listen to what Irimiás has to say on his return—it’s no sermon on the mount by any manner or means—and are persuaded by him to buy into his plans for their future. An unexpected and tragic death just prior to his arrival leaves the group more susceptible to persuasion than ever and Irimiás uses their communal guilt to masterfully manipulate them:

We know each other well, my friends. I am an open book to you. You know how I have moved about the world for years, for decades, and have bitter experience of the fact that, despite every promise, despite all pretence, despite the thick veil of lying words, nothing has really changed . . . Poverty remains poverty and those two extra spoonfuls of food we receive are nothing but thin air. And in these last eighteen months I have discovered that all I have done so far also counts for nothing — I should not have been wasting my time on tiny details, I have to find a much more thoroughgoing solution if I am to help . . . And that’s why I have finally decided to seize the opportunity: I want now to gather together a few people in order to establish a model economy that offers a secure existence and binds together a small band of the dispossessed, that is to say . . . Do you begin to understand me? . . . What I want is to establish a small island for a few people with nothing left to lose, a small island free of exploitation, where people work for, not against each other, where everyone has plenty and peace and security and can go to sleep at night like a proper human being.

Since the mill closed down haven’t the villagers been freed already? On one level, yes, but freedom can be a surprisingly hard concept for slaves to grasp which is, perhaps, why they’ve hung around waiting for the mill to reopen so that things can go back to what they’re familiar and comfortable with. It’s like the Captain, their boss, says to Irimias and Petrina (in the film), “People don’t like freedom, they are afraid of it.” In his review of the novel Scott Morris hits it on the head when he says of Krasznahorkai, “His characters are goats who would like to think of themselves as sheep.” They don’t have the gumption to decide what to do and so do nothing bar drink, screw, plot and dream. They don’t even have a Godot to wait for but when the possibility of a saviour is presented to them they jump at it and buy in to what Irimias has to offer with the faith of the blind.

At one point Irimias talks about “the mission with which God has entrusted me” and how many times have people in positions of power co-opted God? I’m reminded of Jeremiah 42:11: “Do not fear the king of Babylon, of whom you are afraid. Do not fear him, declares the LORD, for I am with you, to save you and to deliver you from his hand.” The name Irimiás evokes Jeremiah (Irimias is the Irish version of Jeremiah) who, some would argue, prefigures the Messiah. Indeed there are many Biblical or at least quasi-biblical references throughout the text.

As with Beckett—and this is especially true in the case of Waiting for Godot—it’s tempting to take a religious interpretation of Satantango—both book and film begin with tolling bells which in itself would not be odd were it not for the fact there is, as far as they are aware, no church with a functioning bell within earshot—but the religious are mocked and just as Beckett stated outright that Godot was not God (“If by Godot I had meant God I would have said God, and not Godot”) even Irimiás tells Petrina he doesn’t believe in God. This does not automatically make him the devil despite him being devilish in the broadest sense; remember Satan has met God besides if there’s no God who exactly is he resisting? No, Irimiás can just as easily be compared to Spartacus or Gandhi or Neo in The Matrix. Or, perhaps, a better choice would be Chichikov from Gogol’s Dead Souls. Irimias markets himself as the chosen one and displays appropriate mock humility to seal the deal. On one level he’s nothing more than an informant but perhaps there’s more:

“I know boss, but guns and explosives . . . really?! . . .” “We just do!” Irimiás shouted at him. “You really want to blow up the world and us with it . . . ?” Petrina spluttered with a terrified look: “You just want rid of things, don’t you?” Irimiás didn’t answer.

Maybe there’s more to him after all. What is he planning?

George Szirtes has described Krasznahorkai’s prose—specifically The Melancholy of Resistance—as “a slow, lava flow of narrative, a vast black river of type” although, frankly, he could’ve said it about any of his books. Page upon page of unbroken text looks intimidating and yet, once you get used to its ebbs and flows, it’s less of a hard read than one might imagine bearing in mind that each of the twelve chapters consists of a single paragraph and many of the individual sentences contained within those paragraphs are hundreds of words long. If you’ve ever read Molloy or The Unnamable then you’ll have some idea what that can feel like. The text requires attention—that goes without saying—and I personally found a chapter or two a day was quite enough even after watching the film and having a good idea what’s going on because, I admit it, the chronology of the book can be confusing. In Chapter III—the first Chapter III; there are two—we meet the doctor and follow him for a few hours during which he observes the events in the opening chapter from the outside and runs into Esti whose side of the story we get to hear in Chapter V, the first Chapter V. Some of the events described in the first Chapter VI also overlap with the doctor’s and Esti’s stories. In the film what is happening is much more obvious. The book’s chapters are numbered I – VI and VI – I and, without giving too much away, we literally end at the beginning in much the same way as James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake goes round and round although Krasznahorkai does it a little differently and it’s not quite the same beginning. Maybe. I don’t know.

Just before I started writing this review I came across some photographs by Lori Nix showing derelict buildings. I saved the link and wrote underneath it, “Why is dereliction so beautiful?” It’s a good question. The week before I’d watched Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials and, again, was struck by how impressive some of the scenes of destruction were. In the introduction to her book Beckett and Decay Kathryn White says, “Beckett’s language is … a language of poetic beauty and linguistic innovation. Hence, the theme of decay is illustrated through a language that is aesthetically beautiful; and it is here that the paradox lies.” You could say exactly the same about Krasznahorkai. The setting of Satantango is not post-apocalyptic in the general sense we’ve come to understand the term but Susan Sontag didn’t describe Krasznahorkai as “the Hungarian master of apocalypse” for nothing. Indeed, as Mrs. Halics is gathering her thoughts before entering the bar to announce the “RESURRECTION” of Irimiás and Petrina she thinks to herself “we are living in apocalyptic times!” There is much that is ending in this book but little actually ends.

The doctor describes the state of the place in one of Krasznahorkai’s long, meandering sentences:

So, doing nothing, he simply remained on the alert, careful to preserve his failing memory against the decay that consumed everything around him, much as he had done from the moment that he — once the closing of the estate had been announced and he personally had decided to stay behind and survive on what remained until “the decision to reverse the closure should be taken” — had gone up to the mill with the elder Horgos girl to observe the terrible racket of the abandonment of the place, with everyone rushing round and shouting, the trucks in the distance like refugees fleeing the scene, when it seemed to him that the mill’s death-sentence had brought the whole estate to a condition of near collapse, and from that day on he felt too weak to halt by himself the triumphal progress of the wrecking process, however he might try, there being nothing he could do in the face of the power that ruined houses, walls, trees and fields, the birds that dived from their high stations, the beasts that scurried forth, and all human bodies, desires and hopes, knowing he wouldn’t, in any case, have the strength, however he tried, to resist this treacherous assault on humanity; and, knowing this, he understood, just in time, that the best he could do was to use his memory to fend off the sinister, underhanded process of decay, trusting in the fact that since all that mason might build, carpenter might construct, woman might stitch, indeed all that men and women had brought forth with bitter tears was bound to turn to an undifferentiated, runny, underground, mysteriously ordained mush, his memory would remain lively and clear, right until his organs surrendered and “conformed to the contract whereby their business affairs were wound up,” that is to say until his bones and flesh fell prey to the vultures hovering over death and decay.

The decay is not simply of the small world they inhabit. Inevitably the people themselves have started to deteriorate both physically, mentally and I’m going to add spiritually in that their spirits are broken. Any one of them could be plucked from the pages of Satantango and dropped into a text by Beckett—I’m thinking in particular of the characters crawling through the mud in How It Is—but although Irimiás and Petrina do remind us of Vladimir and Estragon from time to time especially in this exchange

“Let’s hang ourselves, you fool,” Irimiás sadly advised him: “At least it’s over quicker. It’s the same either way, whether we hang ourselves or not. So OK, let’s not hang ourselves.” “Look friend, I just can’t understand you! Stop it now before I burst into tears . . .” They walked on quietly for a while, but Petrina couldn’t let it rest. “You know what’s the matter with you, boss? You haven’t been christened. “That’s as may be.”

I would have to say that the sickly, obese, misanthropic doctor is the most Beckettian of characters. He has long given up seeing patients or interacting with anyone if he can avoid it. All he does now is sit at his desk, quaff pálinka, watch his neighbours come and go and record those comings and goings in his journals. Unlike Irimiás, who reports his findings to the authorities, the doctor’s records are for him and him alone.

Up until now Mrs. Kráner has been bringing the doctor his essentials—“ he still, alas, depended on others for his supplies of food, spirits, cigarettes and other invaluable items”—but she quits at the start of the book and he has to go on; there is no suggestion that he give up despite living in squalor. As Beckett says in Molloy, “To decompose is to live too.” Rotting is not death, dying, yes, but dying can take an interminably long time.

The doctor — quite contrary, some believed, to his perhaps exaggerated and probably pathological love of order — did nothing to remedy this intolerable situation; he was convinced that his small corner of the estate was part of the hostile outside world and this was all the evidence he needed to justify his fear, anxiety, restlessness and uncertainty, for there was only a single “defensive wall” to protect him, the rest being “vulnerable.” The room opened on to a dark corridor where weeds grew, this being the way to the toilet whose cistern had not worked for years, its absence being remedied by a bucket that Mrs. Kráner was obliged to refill three days a week. At one end of the corridor were two doors with great rusty locks hanging from them; the other end led outside. Mrs. Kráner, who had her own keys to the place, could always smell the strong sour stench as soon as she entered: it got into her clothes and, as she always insisted, it settled in her skin as well so it was no use trying to wash it off, even washing twice, on the days when she was “visiting the doctor”: her efforts were pointless. That was the reason she gave Mrs. Halics and Mrs. Schmidt for the brief time she spent indoors: she was simply incapable of enduring the stench for more than two minutes at a time, because “I tell you, that smell is unbearable, simply unbearable, I don’t even know how it is possible to live with such a terrible smell. He is after all an educated man and can see . . .” The doctor ignored the unbearable smell as he did everything else that did not directly impinge on his observation post, and the more he ignored such things the more attention and expertise he devoted to maintaining the order around him — the food, the cutlery, the cigarettes, the matches and the book — all with the correct distance between them on the table, the windowsill, the area round the armchair and the fiercely aggressive rot on the already ruined floorboards, and at dusk he would feel a warm glow, a degree of contentment, on surveying the suddenly darkening room, recognizing that everything was under his firm, omnipotent control.

He is obsessive and delusional. The word “omnipotent” is an odd one to describe him though; “impotent”, in the broadest sense, would seem far more appropriate. He has no control, no influence and the villagers don’t even notice he’s not with them until they’re well on their trek to Irimiás’s “small island” but it’s a word you want to keep in mind when you get to the final pages of the book, the circle begins again and the doctor discovers what he calls his “mesmerizing power”.

In a conversation with Tom F. Driver in 1961, Beckett said:

What I am saying does not mean that there will henceforth be no form in art. It only means that there will be new form, and that this form will be of such a type that it admits the chaos and does not try to say that the chaos is really something else. The form and the chaos remain separate. The latter is not reduced to the former. That is why the form itself becomes a preoccupation, because it exists as a problem separate from the material it accommodates. To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now. – Tom F. Driver, 'Beckett by the Madeleine' in Columbia University Forum IV (Summer 1961) reprinted in Drama in the Modern World: Plays & Essays, p.506

A number of dances can get broken down into six steps, the waltz, for example, and the salsa. The structure of Satantango mimics a tango, which takes six steps forward and then six steps back, essentially taking us right back where we began. The characters are drawn together and then as the book progresses, gradually, disband. No real progress is been made; misery simply gets relocated. Very Beckettian and reminiscent of his mime Act Without Words II or, indeed, the two acts of Waiting for Godot. But, of course, there has been change—one of the characters dies for starters—and a number end up being dispersed throughout the country to surveil on Irimiás’s behalf. In his review of the book for The Independent James Hopkin writes the following:

Some choose vigilance to counteract the threat of vanishing: the local doctor, the author's surrogate, records everything he sees. Does surveillance mean survival?

That last sentence reminded me of Beckett’s Film. At the beginning of the work, Beckett quotes the Irish philosopher and idealist Bishop Berkeley: “esse est percipi” (to be is to be perceived). The role of the doctor is watcher, yes, but if he doesn’t “see” his neighbours, if only in his mind’s eye, do they exist? I said that there are times Irimiás and Petrina remind us of Vladimir and Estragon. There are also times they remind us of Hamm and Clov (from Endgame). This particular exchange from the book jumps out:

“God is not made manifest in language, you dope. He’s not manifest in anything. He doesn’t exist.” “Well, I believe in God!” Petrina cut in outraged. “Have some consideration for me at least, you damn atheist!” “God was a mistake. I’ve long understood there is zero difference between me and a bug, or a bug and a river, or a river and voice shouting above it. There’s no sense or meaning in anything. It’s nothing but a network of dependency under enormous fluctuating pressure. It’s only our imaginations, not our senses, that continually confront us with failure and the false belief that we can raise ourselves by our own bootstraps from the miserable pulp of decay.”

The power of the imagination drives the book because, as is often the case with poor people, they glean comfort from the possibility of better times to come. Little Esti dreams of being “given a clean room to sleep in, one with a big bed with a really big eiderdown” once the secret money tree bears fruit, her brother dreams of Mrs. Schmidt’s enormous breasts—apparently eighteen months back Irimiás had promised to fix him up with Mrs. Schmidt if he told everyone Petrina and he were dead and he’s not forgotten—although he says he’d settle for the pub landlord’s wife (several of the men also have designs on the sensual Mrs. Schmitt), the two older Horgos girls—who whore at the now disused mill—dream of “going into town and leaving this filthy hole” but it’s all talk, Mrs. Schmidt dreams “of disentangling herself from Schmidt’s ‘filthy paws’ and” of a future with Irimiás, Mrs. Halics dreams there might “be a quiet corner of heaven prepared for her”, Futaki dreams of a job as “a night watchman in a chocolate factory” and it’s dreams that ultimately tempts all the villagers to follow Irimiás wherever he leads them.

There are a number of ensemble shows on TV at the moment and in each one there’s at least one character that stands out a little from the crowd, maybe not a hero per se but someone whose fate matters to us. Probably a good example would be Arya Stark in Game of Thrones; she’s definitely a fan favourite. In the preface to his short story collection Bagombo Snuff Box Kurt Vonnegut provides eight pointers which he labels “Creative Writing 101”, the second of which is, “Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.” I’m not sure which one of Krasznahorkai ‘s motley crew could fit the bill here especially since when we see the doctor carted off after collapsing early on in the book you tend to forget about him and it’s a bit of a surprise to see him waddle into the last chapter but he is one of the few who escape Irimiás’s clutches; the others are the three remaining Horgos women, blind Kerekes and the pub landlord (and, presumably, his wife).

In his review of Satantago Scott Beauchamp notes that these are “the worst sort of people. There are cheating spouses and self-righteous religious fanatics. There are hermits, thieves, liars, and violent brutes. There is vanity, pettiness, delusion, and callousness. It’s a bestiary of pathetic individuals worthy of Chaucer [or] Dickens,” and this got me thinking: Are there any bad men or women in Beckett? Many have had hard lives, some are lazy, indolent in the extreme even, but there are no villains per se. Maybe Joe in Eh Joe. If there’s any bad guy in Beckett it’s probably Father Time. But Beauchamp is right and it’s hard to warm to any of these people without knowing how they got to where they are. This is why the section in the book with Esti describes the doctor who once “spent the whole night at her bedside, wiping the perspiration from her brow” is important because it add another layer to his character. Some even hold him up as the hero of the piece. Jared Woodland & Janice Lee, for example, write:

The doctor is a Nietzschean hero: He says yes to fate, to what is necessary in things. He is also ob-everything: He’s an obscene, obdurate, obese, obsessive observer. He’s obvious—an archetype, or at least a type. His presence oblongates the narrative’s circularity. – Notes on Satantango (the Book and the Film) – Part 1/3

I’m not sure I agree or understand. He’s certainly not a classic—if you like a Homeric—hero (in that respect the little girl is far braver even if her actions are questionable) and finding a simple (or even simplified) definition of what a Nietzschean hero is is not easy but if I understand what I’ve read then a Nietzschean hero’s struggles are internal as opposed to facing down Fate or some fire-breathing dragon:

In part, what distinguishes the Nietzschean hero from his coarser brother is that he never finishes his labours. Because his victories are self-overcomings, his opposition is never vanquished. Release from his task could only be found in release from consciousness. For consciousness is always conscious of its limitations. – Leslie Paul Thiele, Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of the Soul: A Study of Heroic Individualism, p.22

It’s interesting that Woodland and Lee use the term “archetype” to describe the doctor. In an interview Ottilie Mulzet, the translator of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s most recent novel, Seiobo There Below, notes there are archetypal figures that recur in every book: for example, the Prophet, the Seeker and the Archivist. In Satantango it’s easy enough to identify the Prophet and the Archivit but who’s the Seeker? Archetypes are not necessarily stereotypes it should be pointed out and there’s hardly a character in the book—apart from the pub landlord’s wife who I could only see mentioned in passing three times—who isn’t fleshed out to the point of caricature.

On one level this can certainly be seen as a dark and depressing book but, again, in her book Beckett and Decay, Kathryn White writes, “[T]o describe his work as depressing is to fail to appreciate the truthfulness of his message, the moving quality of his words and, of course, the comic element in his work.” You can say exactly the same about Krasznahorkai. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny but that doesn’t stop it being funny. The chapter at the end of the book where the two clerks struggle to “bring some clarity, some fitting intelligible order to [Irimiás’s] ‘depressingly crude scrawl’” definitely has its moments.

Few readers would pretend this book isn’t hard work but when did hard work become such a bad thing? Hard work is supposed to be character building if nothing else. I enjoyed both book and film immensely. If I was allowed to keep only one of them I would be hard pressed to choose. I will read Krasznahorkai again, probably The Melancholy of Resistance next (which formed the basis for the film Werckmeister Harmonies).


László Krasznahorkai was born in in Gyula, Hungary in 1954. He gained considerable recognition in 1985 when he published Sátántangó which he later adapted for the cinema in collaboration with the filmmaker Béla Tarr. In 1993, he received the German Bestenliste Prize for the best literary work of the year for The Melancholy of Resistance and has since been honoured with numerous literary prizes, amongst them the highest award of the Hungarian state, the Kossuth Prize.

Krasznahorkai and his translator George Szirtes were longlisted for the 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for Satantango and Krasznahorkai has won the Best Translated Book Award in the US two years in a row, in 2013 for Satantango and in 2014 for Seiobo Down Below, both published by New Directions.

In May 2015 he was awarded the Man Booker International Prize.

Further Reading

Notes on Satantango (the Book and the Film) – Part 1/3
Structure and detail of the film Satantango
Circulus Vitiosus Diabolus: Nietzschean Thematics in Sátántangó
Sátántangó (Film and Novel) as Faulknerian Reverie
Interview with Krasznahorkai
Towards new unrealities. An interview with László Krasznahorkai

Wednesday, 13 April 2016



When I visited William
he had a tray of buttons.

"I like these," he said.
"They open things –
and you don't need keys."

And he counted
the buttons on my dress
and asked me to tell him a secret.

23 March 1989

So we’ve had Stiletto, Hot Stuff, Looker and Honey, the lady doctor. Now it’s the turn of Cinders. I’ve always had a fondness for this little poem. It’s not about anyone in particular, just the next in the ongoing sequence of Sweet William poems, but every time I read it I feel a bit pleased with myself. If you look up the synonyms for “pleased with oneself” you get a wonderful list: complacent, egotistical, pompous, self-righteous, self-satisfied, conceited, egoistic, holier-than-thou, hotshot, priggish, puffed-up, self-contented, snobbish, stuck on oneself, stuck-up, stuffy, superior. It’s all very much on the negative side, isn’t it? and I think that’s a terrible shame because it suggests that being pleased with oneself should be seen as a bad thing and it shouldn’t be, not automatically. Like many writers I suspect I’m extremely self-critical and pretty much hate everything I write; it’s never perfect. And this poem isn’t perfect—what would a perfect poem even look like?—but it pleases me and that’s quite an accomplishment. It happens every now and then and I notice it especially when editing a novel; I’ll be reading along and then a sentence will pass in front of my eyes that’s just wonderful and I go to myself, “Yes!” Doesn’t happen a lot but I don’t think it’s something to get bent out of shape about when it does happen.

The other reason I’m fond of this poem is that someone read it, loved it and turned it into a song and that doesn’t happen every day. The song’s called ‘Buttons’; the songwriter, William Robertson; the band, Kingfishers Catch Fire. The line-up’s changes a bit since then—this was back in 2009—but William’s still going strong. You can read about the band in a blog I wrote at the time here and you can hear the song on my website; it’s track 8 on their album River Wakes. And now you’ll forgive me if I allow myself a moment of smuggitudiousness.

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