BEF 2011/25 – The Bill [Hungary]
A Google image search of Palma Vecchio soon reveals to the uninitiated the Venetian painter’s preoccupation: many of his works are of golden-haired women, solid of build, broad-shouldered and pale, air of the coquette, negligent dressers. Time and again his work shows this figure with slight variations in posture or dress, sometimes baring a nipple, sometimes two, often a hand touching – not covering – the breast. The neck and gentle slope down to the breasts occupy the centre of many of the paintings. One in particular is striking: “A Portrait of the Young Bride as Flora,” depicting Vecchio’s broad archetype, blonde head turned to expose light to the right side of her head and throat and falling across her chest, beneath which there hangs in a white chemise a breast, like a moon from behind a cloud, from which all the light radiates. In her right hand Flora, Roman fertility goddess, holds a small bouquet of coloured clover and leaves, and her left hand is holding a green mantle, whether to cover her nakedness or reveal more is not certain. Her eyes are opened but not widely and her lips curve slightly upward above an unassuming chin, her right ear is exposed. She is an open figure: ear, eyes, neck, breast: she is willing and waiting, a portrait of anticipation.
Anticipation is at the heart of László Krasznahorkai’s story ‘The Bill,’ an address by the proprietor of a Venetian bordello to Palma Vecchio, sixteenth-century painter and, briefly, student to the master Titian. As was common practice among artists of the time, Vecchio hired courtesans to sit for him, only to sit, guarded as he was against the “dark ways of the flesh.” His purpose is a mystery to the proprietor. Many portraits share similarities, among them a characteristic exaggeration of the physique of his model confounds not only the sitters but their employer who knows their bodies well. He (Vecchio) is searching for something, the narrator believes, approaching his subject from all angles. His technique is that of the lapidary who cuts and polishes to present the jewel with the greatest possible clarity and beauty. Vecchio is searching for the face of desire, and for that he must paint the impossible, the essence of desire: anticipation, the image of which he locates in the eye, a certain look, a natural glance, an “animal” gaze, at once alert, alluring and wounded.
…it’s not at all the way they peel off their clothes that drives men crazy, oh no, quite the opposite, the way a breast pops out, the revelation of a belly or a lap or an ass or pair of thighs, because any such revelation means the end of unfettered illusion, no, it’s the moment when the faint flickering candlelight reveals the animal in their eyes, because it’s this look that drives us crazy, crazy for that beautiful animal, this animal that is nothing but a body, that’s what people die for, for the moment, that splinter of time, when the animal appears, beautiful beyond comprehension…
“The end of unfettered illusion.” Our imaginations paint for us the prettiest picture and while our desire yet remains unconsummated there is the possibility, always the possibility, that the object of desire might yet meet, or even, dare we dream, exceed our dreamed Venus. But the picture is scoured and scrubbed clean by reality and even as we taste her bruised fruits, we are painting new mental pictures, dipping our brush in other pots.
This deferral of pleasure is a feature of Krasznahorkai’s prose, of which the following passage provides a good definition:
…there was, after all, something incomprehensible about these disproportionate figures because, despite the exaggerations, they remained lovely and attractive…
Like Vecchio, Krasznahorkai practices the art of inflation: ‘The Bill’ is composed of a single sentence. Because it is a single sentence it is a single paragraph too. In more conventionally structured prose, a new paragraph begins with an indentation, and that indentation provides the reader with a ledge on which they might catch their breath before continuing. Krasznahorkai’s work forces the reader to scale it in a single ascent with no possible pause. One might expect a nine-page sentence to clot and become confused, turgid and bloated, to drift aimlessly and dither. But Krasznahorkai keeps a his sentence focused while allowing it to inhabit different voices. It is a tightly controlled freedom that possesses all the beauty and strength of silk, and for which translator George Szirtes is to be applauded.
There are a number of ways that Krasznahorkai keeps from exhausting the reader. Firstly, frequent repetition gives to the sentence a flow, a current that will carry the reader forward rather than requiring them to struggle through it. Furthermore, by forging the sentence from a long chain of short clauses, Krasznahorkai keeps a steady rhythm to the prose that gives to it a propulsive inevitability. Secondly, there is a variety of prose techniques at play that prevent the sentence from becoming staid and rigid, including indirect speech, fluctuating register (whorehouse vulgarity gives way to studio thoughtfulness) and even touches of comedy:
…one of us figured it out, meaning me, figured out that what you wanted, beyond any doubt, was precisely the same thing each time, which is to say, that valley in Seriana, you filthy reprobate, that is to say the valley between a whore’s shoulders and her breasts, that is, the valley where you were born and which might perhaps remind you of your mother’s breasts…
What Krasznahorkai and Szirtes have given us in ‘The Bill’ is a lapidary display of the suppleness of language and a meditation, folded among the thoughts of a sixteenth-century bordello operator, of the essence of desire – anticipation – and the difficulty of its representation in art.
‘The Bill’ is translated from Hungarian by George Szirtes.
This is a review of a story from Best European Fiction 2011, an anthology edited by Aleksandar Hemon and published by Dalkey Archive Press. There will appear on this website each Friday just such a review until the entire book is done.