Spadework for a Palace
László Krasznahorkai, trans. John Batki
New Directions, $17.95 (cloth)
At 33 Thomas Street in Lower Manhattan, there is a building that looks like nothing else in New York City: it rises 550 feet above the street, and its brutalist facade is nearly invisible on a dark night, a cliff of concrete with no windows and only a single small door. Built in 1974, 33 Thomas Street was originally an AT&T telecommunications interchange. On paper, AT&T still owns the building, but the Intercept used Edward Snowden’s leaks to identify it as the likely location of TITANPOINTE, a massive repository for NSA surveillance data. None of us donated our papers to this archive, and no scholars can access what’s stored there—yet 33 Thomas Street is an archive nonetheless, part of a massive governmental and corporate network that stores the electronic traces produced each time we make a phone call, send an email, or browse the Internet.
In a way, repositories like this one represent a return to the archive’s state origins. Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever (1995) begins with a study of how the word “archive” emerged from the ancient Greek institution of the arkheion, a secure record-keeping building only magistrates could enter. For Derrida, these roots suggested a connection between political power and what the archive excludes: Which materials do we consider archivable? Who is allowed to enter and interpret the archive? And how do these decisions limit what political and historical narratives can claim archival authority?
However, as secretive repositories like 33 Thomas Street proliferate in governmental and corporate offices across the country, they also mount a challenge to this theorization of archives and politics. Because these digital archives potentially include everything, from your text messages to your purchasing history, to the fact that you’re reading this article right now, historians of the future might miss the exclusive archives of conventional nation-states. The problem with these archives isn’t that they tell too few stories. On the contrary, these expansive servers contain evidence for every potential narrative—or, said differently, no narrative at all.
To his credit, Derrida anticipated this transformation, writing that the “quasi-instantaneous” production and recording of email constitutes an “archival earthquake.” The director of the RAND Corporation’s Center for Global Risk and Security, certainly less prone to esoteric pronouncements than Derrida, concurred. He has admitted that “the sheer volume of the data . . . just from intelligence’s own sources, threaten to overwhelm the processing of it.”
The slipperiness of archives has also been an important theme for twentieth-century experimental authors. In The Name of the Rose (1980), Umberto Eco examined the deadly power of forbidden books by making a lost Aristotle treatise the murder weapon in a medieval mystery. In “The Library of Babel” (1941), Jorge Luis Borges offered an eerie precursor of today’s sprawling archives, an infinite library of randomly generated texts in which every possible book can be found. But the twentieth-century author most associated with archive fiction may be W. G. Sebald, whose protagonists are often academics struggling to unearth and document past violence. Sebald’s Austerlitz (2001) takes us into archives across Europe, following an architectural historian in his attempt to discover evidence of his parents’ fate during the Holocaust. For much of the novel, the protagonist finds few traces of his family in the archives, or in his memory. When he uncovers a possible video of his mother, he’s unsure whether it’s really her, since he has no source for what she looked like—a classic Derridean predicament. Our memory limits what stories we see in the archive, and the archive limits what information is available to our memory.
In the 1990s many critics considered Sebald the greatest living European writer, but Sebald himself reserved that honor for a lesser-known Hungarian novelist, László Krasznahorkai. “The universality of Krasznahorkai’s vision . . . far surpasses all the lesser concerns of contemporary writing,” Sebald said of The Melancholy of Resistance (1989), a darkly comic and nearly unpunctuated novel about a desolate Hungarian town upended by the arrival of a mysterious circus.
Krasznahorkai’s latest novella, Spadework for a Palace, arrived from New Directions in the summer of 2022, in an English translation by John Batki. The novel is a single eighty-page-long sentence, scrawled in the journal of a “gray little librarian” who is named “herman melvill,” and who is losing his mind. By choosing this difficult form and this metafictional name, Krasznahorkai comes dangerously close to replicating the brainy but predictable tropes of deconstructionist archive fiction. Yet Spadework for a Palace also attempts to diagnose a fresh variant of archive fever—a kind of repulsion, native to an age of incomprehensible databases and sublime technology, that drives its sufferer to give up the task of archival interpretation altogether.
Krasznahorkai has not found a wide readership outside of Hungary, despite his international critical acclaim. He is the only author to win two Best Translated Book Awards, for Satantango in 2013 and Seiobo There Below in 2014. The latter also received the 2015 Man Booker International Prize, and the former was adapted by Béla Tarr into an unremittingly bleak seven-hour film that Susan Sontag said she’d rewatch “every year for the rest of [her] life.”
Sontag described Krasznahorkai himself as the “contemporary Hungarian master of the apocalypse.” In his work, this apocalypse takes both modern and traditional forms—it is both the death of God examined by many twentieth-century novelists, and the expectation of revelation held by Christians for millennia. A typical Krasznahorkai protagonist is a rural Hungarian or marginal intellectual whose life has been stripped of meaning, and who descends into insanity as he latches onto a pseudo-messianic object: a rotting whale carcass in The Melancholy of Resistance, a conman in Satantango, and a forgotten epic manuscript in War and War.
For Krasznahorkai, the pursuit of revelation and the struggle to remain sane are equally doomed and irresistible activities. “Reality is like God,” he said in an interview with Asymptote Journal: “The more honest among us try again and again to get closer to it. But that is like trying to see your own eyes.” Krasznahorkai thinks of his writing in similar terms. In 2018 he told Paris Review that he “always wanted to write just one book,” and that each of his works represents a small step toward this ideal text.
Spadework for a Palace most obviously builds on War and War, a 1999 novel about a Hungarian archivist named György Korin who believes he has discovered a manuscript with the mystical power to restore “dignity and meaning” to the universe; he has a forceful sense that he can only transcribe and publish this text from New York City, “the very center of the world.” As Korin careens toward his eventual suicide, the manuscript’s language unspools into “a single monstrous, infernal, all-absorbing sentence,” and the reader realizes that it was always a creation of the archivist’s insanity.
The protagonist of Spadework for a Palace also works in a library, also lives in New York City, and also becomes obsessed with a messianic textual project. In an attempt to achieve an unmediated understanding of Herman Melville, he repeatedly retraces the route Melville walked six mornings a week for nineteen years, from his home on East Twenty-sixth Street in Manhattan to the dock where he worked as a customs officer. The initial motivation for this unusual form of research was another uncanny resemblance: Krasznahorkai’s narrator lives on East Twenty-sixth, was once a customs officer, and his name is herman melvill—all lowercase, no final “e”. Along the way, the protagonist begins to feel that he is really following English writer Malcolm Lowry, who searched for Melville’s traces along the same route at a time when he was estranged from his wife and on the verge of checking into Bellevue for alcoholism. For the increasingly delusional librarian, the streets become a palimpsest, dense with signs of Lowry and Melville’s esoteric “ties to the universal.”
The lowercase melvill’s other dream is to build a Permanently Closed Library Palace and to appoint himself its “keeper.” Disgusted with the patrons he encounters in his job at the New York Public Library, he hopes to shut all books up in an edifice with no doors or windows, which one can only “admire from a distance,” and which stands as a “memorial” to the Platonic ideal of knowledge inevitably corrupted by actual, imperfect texts. He sees his pursuit of Lowry and Melville as “spadework” for this palace, in that it is an attempt to pursue this ideal knowledge through a direct, non-textual encounter with the “plainly palpable essence” of these authors’ lives. Following these authors is also spadework because, during one of his compulsive attempts to find their footprints in Lower Manhattan, melvill comes upon the natural home for his palace: the sinister gray skyscraper at 33 Thomas Street. The building is “the Ideal itself here on Earth,” he writes, minus the “temporary mistake” of the entrance, which “could be made to disappear quite easily.”
Both of melvill’s obsessions have connections to Derridean archive theory. Just as Krasznahorkai removed the “e” from “Melville,” Derrida did so from “différence,” creating “différance,” a term that means both “to differ” and “to defer.” Derrida intended this unvoiced imperfection to draw our attention to the frailty of language in general—the way in which the meaning of any individual word depends on its place in a socially constructed and unstable linguistic structure, an ornate architecture with no external foundation. When we attempt to define a word, we just reach for more words within this tangle of language, each of which differs subtly from the original. A final meaning never arrives. By naming his protagonist after the author of Moby Dick, Krasznahorkai suggests that his narrator’s search for unmediated contact with the past also twists back on itself, arriving at a worn-out copy drained of its genius, a melvill rather than a Melville. Or, as melvill himself puts it, no matter how many documents he examined or books he read, “Melville was not there.”
Derrida also offers a psychoanalytic account of what attracts us to archives in the first place, regardless of their political and philosophical shortcomings. Because our Freudian death drive tends to erase the past, we rely on the archive as a form of prosthetic memory, toward which we run when we are overcome with “irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia.” This self-defeating desire is what Derrida calls “archive fever.” An intense archive fever drives melvill’s search for Lowry and Melville’s origins, and it burns through Krasznahorkai’s ravenous, spiraling prose. Yet melvill’s desire is for a permanently closed archive, one whose lack of doors and windows rebuffs any attempt to seek a home within it. In this contradiction, the religious side of Krasznahorkai’s apocalyptic sensibility emerges. His protagonist says that the palace “must exist,” as a library “dedicated to all that refers to Knowledge.” It’s Thomistic logic: melvill’s archive might sooth our fever as a God would, with faith that knowledge has an origin somewhere, in a non-place we are blissfully unable to access or comprehend.
Complicating this messianic desire is the fact that melvill never picks up on 33 Thomas Street’s current purpose, too dazzled with its beauty to linger over “a reference to some database” he comes across in his research. He has no idea that the building to which he dreams of personally moving the contents of the New York Public Library is already full of data collected by the security state, some of them likely pertaining to himself. Willful or not, this ignorance has a parallel in our own attitudes toward these digital archives. They are creepy, but they also manifest what theorist Russ Castronovo calls the “informational sublime,” a combination of awe and terror at the scale of their data and the processing power of their technology. Unlike a sublime landscape, the informational sublime leaves the viewer with an unromantic despair: “More profound and soul-crushing than the discovery of a specific plot or conspiracy,” Castronovo writes, “the terror of intelligence gathering lies precisely in the inability to imagine all the information that may be captured, not to mention the incalculable connections it creates.”
For the subject to take pleasure in either the natural or informational sublime, there must be some insulation between the viewer and the spectacle: we can savor the beauty of overlooking Niagara Falls only if there are guardrails, and we can appreciate a perfect recommendation from Amazon only if we don’t think too much about how it arrived. Accommodating ourselves to the informational sublime depends on something like melvill’s view of the archive as a repository of pre-interpreted truth, with no masters and only keepers. It also depends, crucially, on the fact that these digital archives remain permanently closed to us.
In his unstable way, melvill embraces the dream of the god-like archive for many of the same reasons we submit to the informational sublime. He feels that “total reality can only be seen as continual destruction, permanent catastrophe,” and that to build the library palace is the only “fitting response in acknowledgement of the actual makeup of reality.” This is a sort of epistemic shock doctrine, intimately tied to its political counterpart. The recognition that orderly knowledge cannot exist in a world of catastrophe only deepens melvill’s investment in an institution dedicated to that order, just as the apparent vulnerability of U.S. empire in the wake of 9/11 licensed the expansion of that empire. It is also a logic of exception popular today among Silicon Valley futurist types, who use the “crisis” of human mortality as a justification for research into life extension and artificial intelligence that would not normally stand up to ethical or scientific scrutiny. Because melvill is so far from this type of person, his encounter with the contemporary archive and the informational sublime lets Krasznahorkai isolate the fundamental features of its overwhelming, deifying logic.
Literary scholar J. J. Long describes the protagonist of Sebald’s Austerlitz, an architectural historian researching the Holocaust, as an extreme example of an “archival subject,” someone who compensates “for his lack of memory by substituting the archive for interiority.” Krasznahorkai’s melvill is the same sort of subject, only he lives at a time when the archive has expanded to the point of unintelligibility. This explains why he craves an unmediated encounter with his namesake, why he yearns for the grounding of a Permanently Closed Library Palace, and why he ultimately gets committed to the same psychiatric hospital as his idol, Malcolm Lowry.
melvill is the classic neurotic middle-aged intellectual protagonist, and his denouement takes place through the formal stunt of the Very Long Sentence. On one level, these choices give Spadework for a Palace an interesting sense of anachronism, as if melvill were Dostoyevsky’s underground man transported to the twenty-first century and given Internet access. But they feel slightly uninspired when set alongside Krasznahorkai’s account of how he wrote the novel, which turns out in certain respects to be autofiction. In 2017 Krasznahorkai and photographer Ornan Rotem released a book called The Manhattan Project. Accompanying Rotem’s photos is an autobiographical text by Krasznahorkai, in which he describes feeling frustrated with a fellowship at the New York Public Library, retracing the steps of Melville and Lowry in Lower Manhattan, and being drawn to an unsettling skyscraper at 33 Thomas Street. At the end of this text, Krasznahorkai promises to turn his experience into a novel.
With Spadework for a Palace, he has done so, and the result is almost identical in substance to The Manhattan Project. All he has added are a deluded protagonist and an ostentatious form, both of which will be familiar to readers of postmodern fiction—or, for that matter, Krasznahorkai’s other books. Krasznahorkai told Rotem that the presence of Lowry and Melville in Lower Manhattan felt like “a heavy gravitational force” pulling him, but not toward any ground. It left him “toppling headlong down the slope, in a state of free fall.” For better or for worse, this is an apt summary of how it feels to read Spadework for a Palace. We plummet through a single, endlessly unraveling sentence, written in the intoxicating style that Krasznahorkai’s translator George Szirtes describes as a “lava flow of narrative, a vast black river of type.” We land face-to-face with our guilty desire to deify the digital archive, and to flee from the crisis of narrative by entrusting the responsibility of interpretation to a black-box repository like 33 Thomas Street. We follow melvill, who is following Krasznahorkai, who is following Lowry, who is following Melville. They lead us to epistemic humiliation and to madness.
The political theorist Achille Mbembe has written that “the archive has neither status nor power without an architectural dimension.” Early in Spadework for a Palace, melvill visits a MoMA PS1 exhibition that includes the work of Lebbeus Woods, an experimental architect with whom melvill becomes obsessed. Standing in front of Woods’s plan for a structure that is impossible to construct in practice, melville sees a “building in the process of collapsing,” captured at the exact moment when it becomes “no longer a building, but a being, a distressed being.” Spadework for a Palace is a frustrating text. But perhaps this is because it attempts to capture the archive at this same moment, when its old architecture of columns and filing cabinets is mid-collapse. From the rubble a being is emerging—all through Krasznahorkai’s novel, we wait for it to open its mouth and speak.