A few days ago, my friend Michael Silverblatt, the astounding host of KCRW’s Bookworm, invited me to tag along as he interviewed a man who may well be my favorite living writer, Laszlo Krasznahorkai. Why Michael asked, I don’t know. It could have been out of thanks for putting him on to Krasznahorkai’s novels (The Melancholy of Resistance, War & War, and, most recently, Satantango, all published by New Directions), or maybe it was just because both my parents were Hungarian and I helped Michael pronounce the author’s name (Kras-na-hor-kai-e). Krasznahorkai is known not only for his novels but also for being a long-time collaborator with the great Hungarian film director Bela Tarr, who made Satantango, using the writer’s script, into the classic seven-hour film.
Anyway, the idea was that we would fly from Los Angeles to San Francisco and back again the same day. In San Francisco, at the studios of KQED, Michael would first interview Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose new book, Time of Useful Consciousness, is due out this fall from New Directions. Then I would sit in on the Krasznahorkai interview. At first, everything went as expected. But then, to our surprise, Ferlinghetti hung around during the second interview (during which Krasznahorkai and I traded sad Hungarianisms) and afterward invited everyone to lunch at a restaurant down the street from his bookstore, City Lights.
What do Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Laszlo Krasznahorkai have in common?— this, I think, is the point of this note—plenty. Having lived in Hungary under Soviet occupation, and not even in a big city, but a small one, Gyula, Krasznahorkai has said that the only thing that sustained him—other than his love for beautiful sentences—was to carry in one pocket poems by Allen Ginsberg and, in the other, either The Beat Reader or On the Road (sorry—the garlic antipasto was flying around distractingly at that moment and I can’t be sure which it was). Together, he said, the two books represented a way out amid the hopeless dullness of those awful years. Then, later, when he did get to New York, he began his novel War & War while staying in Ginsberg’s apartment. And for those who may be too young to know the history here, it is Ferlinghetti’s press, City Lights Books, that was largely responsible for the published presence of the Beats.
It was a wonderful lunch. The four of us and Dorka, Krasznahorkai’s wise and funny wife, who happens to be a Sinologist, traded stories about both the old and the not-so-old days. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who is ninety-three, was completely amazing: more alert and full of life than many twenty-year-olds I know, and with a better memory than mine.
The takeaway? That it’s possible to grow old and retain the play of imagination and a love of life. Also that though the voice of writing is quiet, often a whisper, in a way it’s that very quality that allows it to rest, like a seed in the corner of a pocket of a jacket worn by some unknown brilliant kid living in a small town in Eastern Europe, until years later it comes to fruition to produce a great literary bloom of its own, which, in turn, finds its way to a writer from Los Angeles, and drops one petal onto his plate, to be consumed in a marvelous and unexpected lunch.
Keep the faith.
Jim Krusoe is the author of the novels Toward You, Erased, Girl Factory, and Iceland; two collections of stories; and five books of poetry. His stories and poems have appeared in the Antioch Review, Bomb, the Chicago Review, the Denver Quarterly, the American Poetry Review, and other publications. He is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund.
photograph by cactusbeetroot