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  • The Manhattan Project: A Literary Diary Presented as Twelve Chance Encounters or Coincidences Alongside a Photographic Essay by Ornan Rotem
  • Kevin J. Hayes
The Manhattan Project: A Literary Diary Presented as Twelve Chance Encounters or Coincidences Alongside a Photographic Essay by Ornan Rotem
London: Sylph Editions, 2017. 92 pp.

Speaking with the interviewer for the Paris Review, William Faulkner said that he never applied for any grants to finance his writing. When the interviewer asked why not, Faulkner replied (I am paraphrasing here), "I don't have time to write grants: I'm too busy writing books!" Faulkner's situation is not unusual among writers. Sometimes it is difficult to break concentration on a book-in-progress to pursue such mundane tasks as writing proposals, filling in application forms, and soliciting letters of recommendation. Writers who can somehow manage to break their concentration and apply for grants or fellowships may discover that rewarding experiences await them. Some prestigious fellowships last the length of a school year, requiring recipients to remain in residence for the duration. The resident fellowships that the New York Public Library offers at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers are among the most prestigious.

By the time Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai applied for a Cull-man Center fellowship, he had established a notable career and won numerous literary awards, including the Man Booker International Prize for "an achievement in fiction on the world stage." In his fellowship application, Krasznahorkai proposed to use his year at the Cullman Center to write a biographical novel, "Melville after the Death of Moby-Dick." The fellowship committee liked the idea and awarded him the fellowship. He was a resident fellow during the 2015–16 academic year. The Manhattan Project: A Literary Diary Presented as Twelve-Chance Encounters or Coincidences Alongside a Photographic Essay by Ornan Rotem is the book that has resulted from his residence at the Cullman Center. It is a book the fellowship committee may not like as much as the one he proposed.

A collaboration between Krasznahorkai and Ornan Rotem, the founder of Sylph Editions, a specialist publisher and design studio, The Manhattan [End Page 167] Project is a beautiful book. Krasznahorkai supplies the text; Rotem supplies the images, which complement the text quite well. The work begins with a letter to Rotem. Explaining what he wishes to create, Krasznahorkai suggests something similar to On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco, Chekhov's one-act, one-character drama ostensibly about the dangers of smoking, which is more a profile of middle-aged melancholia than a public service announcement. Krasznahorkai suggests several possible titles without committing to any of them, saying only that the book will be "something about Melville, for he and New York are closely intertwined" (7). Ultimately titling his work The Manhattan Project after the US military research program that created the first atomic bombs, Krasznahorkai gives his book an apocalyptic tone.

The Melancholy of Resistance, Krasznahorkai's most well-known novel among English readers, reflects his longstanding interest in Melville. The novel originally appeared in Hungarian in 1989 and then in English translation in 1998. A circus that comes to town features an oversized tractor-trailer containing what is puffed as the biggest whale ever put on display. Valuska, the novel's central character, is fascinated with the heavens, the world of stars and planets. He initially shuns the idea of a great whale on display but once he witnesses the exhibit, Valuska, like Melville before him, realizes he can see the universe in the eye of a whale.

Though The Melancholy of Resistance and The Manhattan Project both reflect Krasznahorkai's fascination with Melville and Moby-Dick, his writing style has undergone a metamorphosis in the three decades between the two books, which, comparatively speaking, parallels the difference between Balzac and Baudelaire. The Melancholy of Resistance shows a Balzacian fascination with things, the material objects that go into the creation of modern urban life, no matter how decrepit that life may be. Alternatively, the twelve episodes—the "chance encounters" of the subtitle—that comprise The Manhattan Project read like Baudelairean prose...


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