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BARON WENCKHEIM'S HOMECOMING

A challenge for readers unused to endless sentences and unbroken paragraphs but worth the slog for its wealth of ideas.

A daunting experimental novel by Hungarian writer Krasznahorkai (The World Goes On, 2017, etc.), who blends his trademark interests in philosophy and apocalypse.

The baron of the title is an “unspeakably elegant” member of the erstwhile Habsburg nobility of Hungary who has been living in exile in Argentina until, finally, his debts at the casino catch up to him. Nostalgic and elderly, though still given to dandyish ways, he returns to the countryside haunts of his youth, hoping along the way to rekindle a long-ago romance with a woman whom, late in the story, a factotum likens to Cervantes’ Dulcinea del Toboso. The baron is no Quixote, though the Hungary to which he returns has no end of windmills against which to tilt—including oil derricks everywhere. Krasznahorkai fills his pages with knowing nods to European nationalism: An Austrian train conductor, for instance, sniffs that “even they”—the Hungarians on the other side of the border—“had been trying to conform to European standards” when it came to safety, schedule, and other things train conductors are supposed to worry about. The baron cuts a memorable figure, but the real star of Krasznahorkai’s story is a philosopher who has cut himself off from society and lives in hermitage in a forest park, concerned with problems of being and nonbeing: “Everything is a kind of philosophical boxing match that leads only to non-existence, and this is, in all likelihood, the greatest error of existence.” Even the erstwhile professor has his prejudices, grumbling along with the townsfolk about the gypsies who have dared pitch their own camp nearby. Krasznahorkai tends to long, digressive passages that build on and allude to other pieces, and the word “non-existence" turns up often enough to suggest a theme. But no matter: In the end, the worlds the philosopher, the baron, and other characters inhabit are slated to disappear in a wall of flame, an apocalypse that, as Krasznahorkai assures, is not just physical and actual, but also existential.

A challenge for readers unused to endless sentences and unbroken paragraphs but worth the slog for its wealth of ideas.

Pub Date: Sept. 23, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-8112-2664-6

Page Count: 576

Publisher: New Directions

Review Posted Online: June 30, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

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HOUSE OF LEAVES

The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and...

An amazingly intricate and ambitious first novel - ten years in the making - that puts an engrossing new spin on the traditional haunted-house tale.

Texts within texts, preceded by intriguing introductory material and followed by 150 pages of appendices and related "documents" and photographs, tell the story of a mysterious old house in a Virginia suburb inhabited by esteemed photographer-filmmaker Will Navidson, his companion Karen Green (an ex-fashion model), and their young children Daisy and Chad.  The record of their experiences therein is preserved in Will's film The Davidson Record - which is the subject of an unpublished manuscript left behind by a (possibly insane) old man, Frank Zampano - which falls into the possession of Johnny Truant, a drifter who has survived an abusive childhood and the perverse possessiveness of his mad mother (who is institutionalized).  As Johnny reads Zampano's manuscript, he adds his own (autobiographical) annotations to the scholarly ones that already adorn and clutter the text (a trick perhaps influenced by David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest) - and begins experiencing panic attacks and episodes of disorientation that echo with ominous precision the content of Davidson's film (their house's interior proves, "impossibly," to be larger than its exterior; previously unnoticed doors and corridors extend inward inexplicably, and swallow up or traumatize all who dare to "explore" their recesses).  Danielewski skillfully manipulates the reader's expectations and fears, employing ingeniously skewed typography, and throwing out hints that the house's apparent malevolence may be related to the history of the Jamestown colony, or to Davidson's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a dying Vietnamese child stalked by a waiting vulture.  Or, as "some critics [have suggested,] the house's mutations reflect the psychology of anyone who enters it."

The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and cinema-derived rhetoric up the ante continuously, and stunningly.  One of the most impressive excursions into the supernatural in many a year.

Pub Date: March 6, 2000

ISBN: 0-375-70376-4

Page Count: 704

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2000

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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