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Seiobo There Below
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2015 Book Discussions > Seiobo There Below - Whole Book, Spoilers Allowed (May 2015)

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Marc (monkeelino) | 2631 comments Mod
Spoilers allowed on this thread. A few questions to get started (feel free to answer or steer the conversation in a direction that interests you):

1) What recurring themes did you notice throughout the book and how did these shape your reading (in parts or in whole)?

2) Which chapters/characters stood out to you the most and why?

3) Krasznahorkai frequently writes about the human condition--how would you characterize what this book says about the human condition?

4) What role do art and artists play in this book?


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Casceil | 1692 comments Mod
I'm still only about 80 pages into the book, and I'm finding it kind of slow going. Right now I'm in Chapter 4, all about preserving the Buddha. There seems to be a real tension between art and perfection, like perfectionism may be the enemy of art.


Marc (monkeelino) | 2631 comments Mod
Casceil wrote: "There seems to be a real tension between art and perfection, like perfectionism may be the enemy of art."

I think you definitely feel that tension (or, maybe, "striving") toward perfectionism in art throughout this book. I'll be curious if you see it as an adversarial relationship throughout the book (or even when you're finished Chapter 4). This was the first chapter that really pulled me into the book. Kind of a wonderful parallel between the striving/discipline of the monks and the striving/discipline of the restoration team. How did you see their efforts in relation to one another and what do you think this chapter says about the role of objects/art in life?


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Casceil | 1692 comments Mod
Actually, I realized when I went back to the book, I was discussing chapter 3, the last chapter before 5. There is no 4, since the chapters are numbered in the Fibonacci sequence.


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Casceil | 1692 comments Mod
I have finished the chapters about the Acropolis and the Japanese mask. Clearly, striving for perfect art is a theme. So many of the characters in this book seem so driven. And "eyes" is another recurring theme. I'm not sure I see yet how the pieces of this book fit together.


message 6: by Whitney (last edited May 02, 2015 11:59PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Whitney | 2102 comments Mod
I think the uniting theme of the sections is simply human confrontation with art. A striving that occasionally results in glimpses of the transcendent, but more often meets with failure or even worse; largely due to the essential baseness of existence. Those themes are telegraphed in the first chapter. The heron is a work of art in itself, but is a product of “a world of hunger”. After saying how the bird will not be appreciated, the narrator ends the chapter by exhorting it to “hide away now in the grass, sink down, fall onto your side, let your eyes slowly close, and die, for there is no point in the sublimity that you bear…”


message 7: by Whitney (last edited May 02, 2015 11:59PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Whitney | 2102 comments Mod
Casceil wrote: "So many of the characters in this book seem so driven..."

Definitely. The uninterrupted sentences work well in contributing to that sense of the manic energy of his characters.


Marc (monkeelino) | 2631 comments Mod
I think structurally the pieces do build upon one another (or certainly reinforce the uniting theme Whitney articulated so well), but they also function kind of interestingly as self-contained short stories.

I always feel like those "walls" of text each page presents are like life, or Krasznahorkai's view of life--this kind of unending onslaught that rarely takes a break.

How about Seiobo's role in all this? Personally, it felt like waiting for Seiobo was the bigger role than any actual appearances (most of which I think I didn't even notice until I read one of the book reviews), but I think this ties in with the sense of lost spiritual connection. I'm still ruminating on whether I think art is supposed to fill this spiritual loss or even how to frame that issue.


Whitney | 2102 comments Mod
I assume Seiobo represents the sacred and transcendent, and 'there below' the interaction of the human with that sacred. In the KCRW Bookworm interview, Krasznahorkai said that the most important thing about Seiobo is that she grants immortality, which I interpreted as being represented by art and religion in these stories. The one chapter (34) where Seiobo does make a direct appearance inhabiting the Noh actor was the one where this human and sacred came together most successfully, unlike most of the other chapters.

In the more modern stories, it seemed the ones involving the Japanese characters represented the more successful experiences of the sacred. The Noh actor, or the mask carver (13) or the wood carvers of the Ise Shrine (987) hone their art through apprenticeship and years of practice, while the westerners tend to barge in demanding instant gratification, such as those visiting the mask carver and pestering him with questions he can’t answer, the boorish tourists in the Louvre, or the architect who unintentionally mortifies his Japanese host.


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Marc (monkeelino) | 2631 comments Mod
Whitney, how did you interpret the different ways the book approaches Eastern vs Western practices/beliefs? I'm in agreement with your characterization of where the human and sacred came together most successfully in this book (which was primarily the Eastern practices/art, especially the Noh actor), but the Western passages seemed different (feeling that "time had passed [Christ] by" in the Christo Morto Chapter [#5], and the pope making headlines by saying "Hell Really Exists"). In my head, I wanted to tie this to the chapter on the Acropolis, which brings us back to Casceil's point about "eyes" or vision--the attempt to see what once was, a pinnacle of Western culture is impossible. All of this is taken in, or attempted to be taken in visually through the eyes.


Whitney | 2102 comments Mod
Since my above post, I've realized an important difference in the sections I mentioned. The Japanese who are presented (aside from the hapless host in the Ise Shrine chapter) are all artists, while the westerners are mostly tourists. Maybe the commentary is more in the nature of how an immersive experience is needed to really touch the sacred essence of art, while cursory attempts at interrogating a work for its meaning are doomed. The impossibility of communicating the experience are demonstrated in a few chapters, especially "Private Passion", where the lecturer's attempt to convey his deep feelings for music comes out as incomprehensible raving in front of a group of bemused pensioners.

I hadn't noticed all the focus on eyes until Casceil pointed it out. The chapters you mention, and of course in the restoration of the Buddha where so much is made of his gaze. I'm also not sure how it all fits together. I did read in an interview (I'm good at quoting stuff when I have nothing original to offer) that the chapter taking place at the acropolis was Krashnorhakai's exact experience (except for the punch-line at end, of course). Blinded and in pain, unable to experience one of the most amazing works of architecture in history for lack of a pair of cheap sunglasses.


Whitney | 2102 comments Mod
I’ve already commented on the will towards the transcendent, which I still as the main theme of the book, but I think there’s a lot more about art and it’s perception and production. In both “The Exiled Queen” an “A Murderer is Born”, there are artworks with questionable history. In one case, the question of whether it was made by the master or his apprentice, and in the other a known forgery but nevertheless a work considered a masterpiece. There are also chapters dealing with restoration. Does bringing into question the authorship of a piece change it’s intrinsic value? Is a restoration still an original? Is it relevant that the murderer was inspired by a forgery?

Since it came up in the “open pick” thread, I’ll mention the Italian crossword, also from “The Exiled Queen” chapter. I’m wondering if it’s intended as further commentary on the way we approach the sacred in current times. We have the story of Vashti inspiring in the Renaissance artists a laborious work of art; although Krasznahorkai doesn’t gloss over the fact that it’s a commercial endeavor. In modern contrast, we have the story reduced to a clue in a newspaper crossword in one case, and a skin care product in the other.


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Marc (monkeelino) | 2631 comments Mod
With regards to the Eastern/Western split in this book, in addition to the parallel artists/tourists split, did it feel to you like art and spirituality were alive and being practiced in the Eastern world, but mostly in the past in the Western world? Which made it feel like religion in art or spirituality in general is sort of dead in the West--a cultural artifact to be studied by specialists or appreciated through museum pieces, but no longer an active practice. The authenticity of the piece seems to matter a great deal to academia/researchers, but doesn't seem to impact the actual power of the art in any way. Authorship is superfluous--is that the message? If so,it's certainly a postmodern one, which brings us to Chapter 2 (The Exiled Queen)... (thank for bringing this up in this thread!)

There's a lot going on here. She is immortalized historically in the painting (below) and appropriated for entertainment and marketing purposes in current times--are these modern-day uses/abuses another form of exile? Or are they simply an example of how the transcendent becomes replicated into disposability. Beauty, as ideal, now simply commodified to a beauty product? (BTW, the crossword answer is from Ester 1:16 and speaks to Vashti's "wrongdoing" toward the king and royalty by refusing to show up naked.)

This chapter also opens up the question of authenticity of story--Vashti not so much exiled as sentenced to death, and Botticelli being credited for Filippino's work (who himself has to hide his own story of being born in sin to a priest and nun; only passing by with the nobles for his ability to mimic/exceed the master artist).


Queen Vashti Leaving the Royal Palace


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Marc (monkeelino) | 2631 comments Mod
Another often unmentioned characteristic of LK's work is his humor. It's kind of offbeat, but I think there's a lot of darkly comical parts in this book (a Vashti line of skin cream, the tourist who thinks someone in a pink shirt is following him, not being able to see the Acropolis because one has forgotten sunglasses--and the ultimate demise of this character, an architect whose never had a single design built, bumbling tourists, etc.). Any parts you found particularly humorous? And how did this impact your reading (if, at all)?


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Casceil | 1692 comments Mod
The demise of the architect who visited the Acropolis was the point when I decided I needed a break from this book. I will get back to it, but that chapter, and the end of that chapter, made me wonder why I was making such an effort to read this book.


Whitney | 2102 comments Mod
That chapter definitely has its own tone. I suspect the rather deprecating attitude it has towards its hapless main character is due to its being based on Krasznahorkai's own experience. I initially agreed with a reviewer who called the end of the chapter a bad punchline, but I've since reconsidered. In a chapter involving a very unsatisfactory encounter with art, was there maybe a deliberate intent to end things with the character in a very unsatisfactory way?

Or maybe the melancholic Hungarian just couldn't resist making himself a bad punchline.


message 17: by Marc (last edited May 13, 2015 06:49PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Marc (monkeelino) | 2631 comments Mod
Casceil wrote: "...and the end of that chapter, made me wonder why I was making such an effort to read this book. "

What was your reaction at the end of this chapter (annoyance, frustration, confusion, etc.)?

Anyone care to share an interpretation as to why LK kills off the Acropolis tourist who never gets to see the Acropolis?


Jessica Izaguirre (sweetji) | 120 comments I really enjoyed the Acropolis chapter, I believe the ending was very fitting for the character's day and life. I feel that he went to Greece to die to begin with, he had nothing left. The way he dies does feel a little comical in a dark way. I also enjoyed how LK dimished the grandour of the Acropolis just by adding a painful experience like noontime with no shade. Let's just say I haven't forgotten my sunglasses since I read this chapter! hehe.
I am not done with the book, I just finished chapter 34 which I think is one of my favotires. The more direct mention of Seiobo and the beauty of her power through Master Inoue were great.


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Casceil | 1692 comments Mod
Jessica wrote: "I really enjoyed the Acropolis chapter, I believe the ending was very fitting for the character's day and life. I feel that he went to Greece to die to begin with, he had nothing left. The way he d..."

I'm interested in your comment that you felt he went to Greece to die to begin with. I hadn't thought of it in that light, but it sounds right now that you mention it. I did feel like, for this character, going to see the Acropolis had become something he felt like he had to do, more a chore than a pleasure, even before he got there with no sunglasses. I should get back to reading this book. I've been reading Gilead instead, but I seem to be having trouble getting interested in it, as well. Maybe I'm just having an off month for reading.


Jessica Izaguirre (sweetji) | 120 comments Casceil wrote: "Jessica wrote: "I really enjoyed the Acropolis chapter, I believe the ending was very fitting for the character's day and life. I feel that he went to Greece to die to begin with, he had nothing le..."

This is what I felt when I first read this chapter, I have to look back and find the exact part that made me think this, but I also think the same thing, that he was a chore for him, it was not going to bring him pleasure.


Peter Aronson (peteraronson) | 516 comments So I finished this. Finally. It was an interesting read, if a somewhat annoying one. Despite flashes of humor Krasznahorkai takes himself too seriously for me to take him entirely seriously. And I got tired of what felt like its uncritical japonophillia -- like there had been no art or craftsmanship in the West since the Renaissance. I'm wondering if I'm seeing the author's self-loathing being projected onto the culture he comes from. He does not seem to like people much.

I've been wondering if this book is a novel or not. I suspect not: if it had ended sooner or had continued further, I do not believe it would have changed its nature. A novel, I believe, requires some structure. This book, while it has themes, does not depend on, or really provide much of, a structure.

While I am glad that I read it, I do not think I will likely ever feel a need to read any of his other work.


Nutmegger Linda (lindanutmegger) | 103 comments Peter wrote: "So I finished this. Finally. It was an interesting read, if a somewhat annoying one. Despite flashes of humor Krasznahorkai takes himself too seriously for me to take him entirely seriously. An..."

Basically I agree with Peter. I didn't even try to finish the book


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Casceil | 1692 comments Mod
I'm with Linda. I may read more of the book. Peter tells me there is a chapter about baroque music I would enjoy. But I seriously doubt that I will attempt to finish the whole thing. There are just too many things I would rather read.


message 24: by Marc (last edited May 26, 2015 11:34AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Marc (monkeelino) | 2631 comments Mod
I think more than a few readers have described this as more a collection of related short stories. The author does seem to take himself pretty seriously. There does seem to be a bias toward the East as still creating/practicing/striving for beauty.

It may or may not make you appreciate the parts you read more, but there's an interesting audio interview with the author about this book here (KCRW Bookworm): http://www.kcrw.com/news-culture/shows/bookworm/laszlo-krasznahorkai-seiobo-there-below

And, if you don't have time/interest in listening, some scattered notes I made while listening:
- Seiobo is the goddess of immortality & was imported from China by Japan (Chinese goddess meaning Queen of the West?); Taoist Goddess
- The Thelonious Monk epigraph was a quote fabricated by Thomas Pynchon--apocraphal!
- LK wanted to write a book where the beauty was so far/at the higher level of existence because that has disappeared (higher level of human articulation of people); yearning for manifestation… for immortality is the yearning through art;
- 17 chapters--each w/ its own way of descrribing the yearning for beauty in a different time and country (1st chapter is above Seiobo looking at nature; last chapter is seen from below; human life as seen from heaven and hell… KCRW quote: Not even art is immortal in our time)
- LK speaks of lunching with artist who created Noh mask… to take a lunch as art (everything is ritual); almost every chapter is almost about ritual (me: ritual plays a bigger role in contemporary eastern life)
- LK method for writing (paraphrased): "I live in a space and I feel hurt and pain and hear sentences (people & objects speak to me)... maybe the universe is one huge sentence and I try to find one part and then I go to a lectern (most writing held in his memory)
- KCRW: melancholic sadness of pitiable human condition--anger not really part of the novel’s equation (could pity & beauty create a novel?)
- LK says this is the only book that was not “suffering” for him


Nutmegger Linda (lindanutmegger) | 103 comments My Name is Red by Pamuk and The Glass Bead Game by Hesse are two of the challenging books I've read that I was willing to work my way through. They at least held my attention and I felt that I was gaining something from reading them.
I wasn't the long sentences that threw me in Seiobo (Norman Mailer used to do that)but more the feeling that there really was no point to the book. Some of the authors descriptions were beautiful, but to what point?


Jessica Izaguirre (sweetji) | 120 comments I would like to say that I am very much enjoying this book. Finally almost done with it, only a couple of chapters left. I am for one very thankful that I read this book, I found it very beautiful and inspiring. I may be very biased because it speaks of all the things I love: art (I am an artist), Japanese culture (I am currently learning Japanese) and travel. For me the turning point in the book was the restoration of the Buddha chapter, I realized that the book wasn't about waiting for the story to develop but that it was already developing as I read it. The beauty of each art piece, each art monument, each artist life, described in such a poetic way was what enchanted me, I want to be these people and live life as beautifully. Even the museum guard in the Louvre was beautiful to me, how he can have his life connected to a piece of art and feel his life is complete.

Marc, thanks for the link of the interview, I just listened to it and it enforces what I feel about the book. I also think it is a happy book for the most part and so beautiful. About LK's bias of the Eastern Culture, I just think he is enamored with Japan and how different their culture is to us westerners, I haven't been in Japan myself but have been in contact with several Japanese people and I can totally understand what he is feeling, even if Japan is not a very religious country it seems to be very spiritual, and they enforce this in every part of their lives.


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Marc (monkeelino) | 2631 comments Mod
Linda wrote: "My Name is Red by Pamuk and The Glass Bead Game by Hesse are two of the challenging books I've read that I was willing to work my way through. They at least held my attention and I felt that I was..."

I haven't read either of those, but it seemed that the difficulty of this book is that it is all about point (the search for beauty) with no plot. But if an author is unable to hold the reader's attention in some fashion, than it's hard to appreciate or care about much else. I suffered my way through The Tin Drum and felt I'd gained nothing but a growing hatred for the book...

I might be going off on a bit of a tangent here, but I felt like the Alhambra (chapter 89, Distant Mandate) was a bit of a metaphor for this book itself:
... the Alhambra itself, in his view, is a singular attempt at the art of disguise... this scholar... is hardly capable of conceiving that something could exist without a story, circumstance, cause, or goal



message 28: by Marc (new) - rated it 4 stars

Marc (monkeelino) | 2631 comments Mod
I'm glad you enjoyed the book so much, Jessica!

It's fascinating to see which chapters spoke to which readers. And you definitely get a sense from that interview that for the author, that ability to reach or touch beauty is the meaning of human existence.


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