Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Ezra Pound's Literary Essays, or "the science of being discontented"

Literary Essays of Ezra Pound (1954) is a selection of Pound’s critical, scholarly, and ranting writings from say 1914 through 1934, heavily weighted to a glorious period from say 1916 through 1922 when Pound was reading everything, old and new, and writing about it with the greatest possible energy.  T. S. Eliot selected the essays, and while Pound’s criticism is no more insightful than Eliot’s – might be less, even – it is more fun to read.

So maybe sometimes Pound sounds like a crackpot.  Not that often, and Eliot protects him from his worst side.  By crackpot, I mean something like the sudden appearance, in a long, complex essay on Guido Cavalcanti, of Gabriele D’Annunzio, who is “[t]he only living author who has ever taken a city or held up the diplomatic crapule at the point of machine-guns, he is in a position to speak with more authority [about poetry!] than a batch of neurasthenic incompetents…” (192).

This is a late essay, from 1934, when Pound’s cracks are more visible.  Yet the very next page is full of insights about translating Cavalcanti, his own translations and D. G. Rossetti’s.  About poetic translation in general, really:

What obfuscated me was not the Italian but the crust of dead English, the sediment present in my own available vocabulary – which I, let us hope, got rid of a few years later.  You can’t go round this sort of thing.  It takes six or eight years to get educated in one’s art, and another ten to get rid of that education.

… Rossetti made his own language.  I hadn’t in 1910 made a language, I don’t mean a language to use, but even a language to think in.

It is stupid to overlook the lingual inventions of precurrent authors, even when they are fools or flapdoodles or Tennysons.  (193-4)

He is usually this casual, almost as if he is speaking.  He is naturally aphoristic.  “Beauty is a brief gasp between one cliché and another” (“Notes on Elizabethan Classicists,” 241) is one I like.  He means, he explains a bit later, historically.  “For every ‘great age’ a few poets have written a few beautiful lines, or found a few exquisite melodies, and ten thousand people have copied them, until each strand of music is planed down to a dullness” (243-4).

Pound’s demand to “make it new” is really to “make it great,” but with the assumption that who are we kidding the retreads of the old stuff, however skilled, will not end up in that “great” category.  In an early essay, “The Renaissance,” Pound lists “his own spectrum or table” of the greats, beginning with “Homer, Sappho, Ibycus, Theocritus’ idyl of the woman spinning with charmed wheel” (215), then moving on through the Romans and so on.  Catullus, “[n]ot Virgil,” a handful of his beloved Provençal poems, Dante and “The Seafarer” and Villon.

But not too much, really.  “A sound poetic training is nothing more than the science of being discontented,”  (“The Renaissance,” 216).  The poems that make us discontented with other poems, those are the great ones.  Different poems for each of us, of course.

Quite a collection.  Full of surprises, at the level of word, line, subject, and idea.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Northrop Frye's Fables of Identity - the conventions of literature contain the experience

The latest book in my reading of classics of literary criticism is Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology (1963) by Northrop Frye, a collection of magazine writing and so on from the 1950s and early 1960s that serves as a sequel to another Frye classic, one that I have not read, Anatomy of Criticism (1957).  “That very theoretical book stated in its preface that a work of practical criticism was needed to complement it” (p. 1), and this is in effect that.  This, a different “this,” the quotation, explains why I wanted to read Fables of Identity more than Anatomy.

The essays take as their subjects Spenser (specifically The Faerie Queene), Shakespeare (the sonnets, The Winter’s Tale), Milton (“Lycidas”), Blake, Byron, Dickinson, Yeats, Stevens, and Joyce (Finnegans Wake).  They are full on useful insights.  I “tested” some of them, re-reading the Shakespeare play and the Milton poem, as well as quite a lot of Wallace Stevens.  It was a good experiment.  Well, I did not really follow the argument in the Stevens piece, which constructs a metaphysics from single lines pulled from thirty years of poems.  I think I followed the rest.  They are magazine pieces, or talks.  They are meant to be followed.

To jump back to my little project, compared to Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending Frye is a model of clarity and compared to Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations his ideas have not been so thoroughly sponged up.  It also does not hurt that Frye occasionally uses humor:

Many readers tend to assume that Spenser wrote [The Faerie Queene] in the same way that they read it, starting at the beginning and keeping on until he collapsed with exhaustion.  (69)

Mild, but a relief from the weight of Spenser.

The “fables” and “mythology” in the title are meant broadly.  They can be taken to mean something like the elements that are common among works of literature rather than those that are individual to the text.  The epic form, the pastoral elegy, the hero quest, stories structured around seasonal change.  That sort of thing.  Some of it explicitly uses existing mythic stories, some of it – like Blake’s big poems – tries to turn old myths into new, and some is unconscious.  To the extent that texts fall completely outside of this framework, Frye ignores them.  Maybe everything fits.  I don’t know.

In “Nature and Homer,” Frye generously suggest that everything fits, that the study of Shakespeare and comic strips is just “exploring different literary conventions” (50), that “[w]herever he goes in his imaginative verbal experience, the conventions of literature contain the experience” (51).  Fables of Identity is for readers who enjoy literature itself, literature as such.

OK, come back in a couple of months for Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, or however much of it I have read at that point.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Rise of David Levinsky - nothing short of a miracle - devoid of significance

Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky (1917) is an immigrant rags-to-riches novel.  Levinsky comes to America “with four cents in my pocket,” an orphan, and by the end is “worth more than two  million dollars and recognized as one of the two or three leading men in the cloak-and-suit trade in the United States.”  His memoir, though, is about his “inner identity,” which has not changed.  On the one hand, he has gone through changes that are “nothing short of a miracle;” on the other they are “devoid of significance.”  All of these quotations are from the novel’s first paragraph.  I have never read a Horatio Alger novel, but I assume that Cahan differentiates himself from one in a few lines.

Cahan’s novel is dated in a couple of ways.  His character explains a lot about Judaism and his culture:

A Talmudic education was until recent years practically the only kind of  education a Jewish boy of old-fashioned parents received.  I spent seven  years at it, not counting the several years of Talmud which I had had at the  various cheders.

What is the Talmud?  (Book II, “Enter Satan,” Ch. 1)

And then he explains what the Talmud is.  Not that we do not still need novels, or whatever, that tell gentiles what the Talmud is, but I think there are many more books with this educational aspect than were available in 1917.

Second, there are a number of scenes, especially early in the novel when Levinsky arrives in America, describing Jewish New York, mostly the Lower East Side, that are a delight but are in some sense now historical.  There are now many descriptions of the time and place.  We have translations from Yiddish writers now, for example, the plays of Jacob Gordin or Sholem Aleichem’s Motl the Cantor’s Son or poets like Moishe Leib Halpern – or literary histories like Ruth Wisse’s Little Love in Big Manhattan, about those poets – making Cahan’s Jewish New York more familiar.

The art of the novel lies in its voice, which curiously means in its simulation of artlessness.  Cahan’s short stories from twenty years earlier, the AmericanizedChekhov of The Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories of Yiddish New York (1898) were more artful in their language, detail, and imagery.  But why would David Levinsky, who runs a garment factory, write as well as Abraham Cahan?  Levinsky is intelligent and educated, however narrowly, but he does not write as if he has made his living by writing for forty years.

A late section set in the Catskills is an exception, with Levinsky finding a more poetic, metaphorical style, but that is because he is in love.  His tone when writing about his business is entirely different.  Much of the art of the novel is in how Cahan matches Levinsky’s rhetorical mode to his psychological state at any given time.

Levinsky is not exactly an unreliable narrator, in that he is never dishonest and never seems to deliberately hide anything, but there are plenty of times where he seems to have trouble hearing himself.  The novel is a clever exercise in readerly sympathy.  In his business practices,  especially, Levinsky is pretty ruthless, without much investigation of his own ethics.  In business, in sales, in relations with his employees, anything goes.  He can be self-pitying, a braggart, a bit of a schlemiel with women.  He is kind of annoying.  He is an artful character, but some of that artfulness is conceptual.

Readers like me will enjoy how his life is ruined, or saved, or anyways permanently changed when he is given a copy of Dombey and Son and has to rearrange his job, his life, everything, so that he has time to read it.

D. G. Myers’s review fills in some of my gaps.

Monday, January 28, 2019

sometimes life makes its own books - they do if you're Langston Hughes - his memoir The Big Sea

Another memoir, The Big Sea (1940) by Langston Hughes.  It covers his childhood, his time as a sailor and in Europe, and the Harlem Renaissance, to break it into rough thirds.  These are interesting subjects.  If Hughes had never written a poem, but somehow had still written some version of this book, a version with fewer poems, it would still be a good book.  Hughes lived an interesting life.

Hughes’s mode is conversational and humorous.  Not exactly plain; not fancy.  Here is Hughes in Paris, where he is finally doing alright, working as a busboy in a black nightclub:

That room was right out of a book, and I began to say to myself that I guess dreams do come true, and sometimes life makes its own books, because here I am living in a Paris garret, writing poems and having champagne for breakfast (because champagne is what we had with our breakfast at the Grand Duc from the half-empty bottles left by unsuspecting guests, in their ice buckets – thanks to their fleet removal by the waiters). (II, “Paris in the Spring,” 136)

I am trying to learn something about the 1920s, so this book was perfect, maybe even essential.  “At the height of the Negro Renaissance I was a student at Lincoln University, spending my week-ends and holidays in New York” (III, “Lincoln University,” 212), meaning that Hughes has some healthy distance from whatever is going on in Harlem, yet he gets a good dose of everything – the personalities, the music, the parties, the eventual collapse along with the stock market and the economy.

But that is always his position, the writer’s position.  He is not quite in the middle of things.  Maybe just one step away.  He is always aware of what is going on around him, or so he makes it appear in retrospect, but I will bet it was true.

Hughes’s work as a sailor, up and down the western coast of Africa and in the Atlantic, was never as bad as what was portrayed in B. Traven’s crazy novel The Death Ship (1926), but it was definitely in the same general world.  That Traven novel, now there is another interesting book about the 1920s.  Do not lose your passport!  Hughes has enough trouble when his is stolen in Italy – “I got as hungry in Genoa as I’ve ever been in my life (except in Madrid, years later, during the Civil War)” (II, “Beachcomber,” 155).  But at least he does not end up on a death ship.

I will have to read the sequel, I Wonder as I Wander (1956), to see what Hughes does in Spain.

Page numbers are from The Collected Works of Langston Hughes, Volume 13.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

This last thought completely stunned me. - the last volume of the Education of Maxim Gorky

My Universities (1923) is the third volume of The Education of Maxim Gorky, my title for the trilogy, not Gorky's, but it fits.  Young Gorky, age 15, orphaned, with no resources he does not carry with him, moves to Kazan with the hope – utterly futile – that he can attend college.  Kazan is a change, though, identifiable as a “college town.”  It is full of student radicals, Tolstoyans, oddballs, and most importantly for Gorky, the future Gorky, ideas and books.  There is a thick, yeasty ferment of ideas, good, bad, and crazy.

Sometimes it is as if Gorky had moved to, I don’t know, Haight-Ashbury in 1966. It is not the Summer of Love yet, but there is a strong hippie haze.  I mean like this:

The fat lecturer, who was blind drunk, was sitting on the floor in his underwear with a guitar in his hands amidst a chaos of furniture, beer bottles, and discarded clothes.  There he sat, rocking himself and growling: ‘Mer-cy…’ (88, ellipses in original)

Gorky worked in a radical bakery.  With one eye on the police, he was able to include to include objects besides bread in his deliveries – messages, pamphlets, books.  He becomes friends with the grocer who “possessed the best collection of banned and rare books in the town,” a library for the student radicals kept “in a secret storeroom”:

Some of the books had been copied in ink into thick notebooks, for example Lavrov’s Historical Letters, Chernyshevsky’s What is to be done?, a few articles by Pisarev, Tsar Hunger, and Crafty Tricks.  All of these manuscripts were well thumbed and had been read again and again.  (36)

The secret police spent a fair amount of their time searching for illicit printing presses; this is the result, a living system of circulating manuscripts.

There is a joke about the kind of well-meaning reformer who loves humanity but hates people, with Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House as the great fictional example.  Gorky is the opposite.  He has the lowest opinion of humanity, of any hint of a mob.  He loves people, though, and the book is about the people who were his great teachers, even when they were wrong, or nuts, or both.

‘People seek oblivion, comfort, but not knowledge!’

This last thought completely stunned me.  (53)

I wish I had read Gorky’s autobiography a long time ago.  It’s view of Russia, or part of it, from the bottom, from a writer of such intelligence and energy, is unique.

Page numbers are from the Penguin edition, the Roland Wilks translation.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus, a philosophical war fantasy stained with ulfire

David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) is some kind of “good bad book,” I suppose, in the ambitious rather than escapist category.  It is an exploration of modern philosophical ideas by means of a fantastic journey on another planet.  Characters have names like Maskull and Nightspore and grow and lose third arms and eighth eyes as they move around.  They debate the meaning of all things, often with paradoxes:

“You think you are thoroughly disillusioned, don’t you?  Well, that may prove to be the last and strongest illusion of all.”  (Ch. 20, “Barey”)

That line is said to Maskull, near the end of the novel, by Krag, who is the devil, or god, or, given the gnosticism of the novel, both.

If this sort of thing sounds too awful to read, then it will be.  I like it pretty well.  I understand the philosophy a lot better than when I read it twenty-five years ago.  I had thought of the ethos of the novel as generally gnostic, which it is, but now I saw more specific investigations of specific philosophical ideas.

There is the Nietzschean side.  Maskull, as he moves from one nearly uninhabited landscape to another, has trouble not murdering almost everyone he meets.  “’So you’ve been trying to find Surtur [god, maybe] on your own account, during the intervals between killing and fondling?’”  That’s Krag, again, on the same page, one of the few lines that suggests Lindsay has a sense of humor, or at least a sense of how ludicrous his story is.

Then there is Schopenhauer, lots of Schopenhauer.  The real story, roughly, is that Maskull is, like David Lindsay, a disillusioned war veteran who believes his, our, world is merely a representation of some more “real” world.  By means of Will, I guess, he penetrates the veil and travels to Arcturus, only to discover that there is likely an even more “real” world behind this one.  “’Side by side with it [this world] another world exists, and that other world is the true one, and this one is all false and deceitful, to the very core’” (Ch. 14, “Polecrab”).  The novel describes his search for the real real world, which involves walking, climbing, and sailing due north, and murdering people.

Myself, I value the novel for its invention.  It is a fantasy of the purest quality, freed from almost all constraints of sense.  Arcturus has five primary colors, ours plus jale and ulfire, and this is not a throwaway gag, but used throughout the book (“It was an intense jale-blue. The whole northern atmosphere was stained with ulfire,” Ch. 20).  There is a mountain range that is in constant upheaval, with mountains rising and sinking with no warning.  There is a lake that can be played like a musical instrument, except the “music” is – this is the craziest thing in the book – an artillery attack:

When he came to his senses again, he saw everything.  Teargeld was gleaming brilliantly.  He was lying by the side of the old lake, but it was now a crater, to the bottom of which his eyes could not penetrate.  The hills encircling it were torn, as if by heavy gunfire.  A few thunderclouds were floating in the air at no great height, from which branched lightning descended to the earth incessantly, accompanied by alarming and singular crashes.  (Ch. 15, “Swaylone’s Island”)

I do not think that Lindsay is inventing here.  I will omit the description, a couple of paragraphs later, of a mangled corpse, a victim of the “music.”  For at least this one scene, A Voyage to Arcturus is a novel about the war.

Monday, January 14, 2019

falling to pieces, disintegrating - The Radetzky March

I have not been writing but I have been reading good books.  The best was The Radetzky March (1932).  The best novel.  There, I have set aside Yeats and The Tower.  The best novel.  Great novel.

Joseph Roth’s book would have fit in well several years ago when I spent a year or so reading a lot of Austrian literature.  His story of three generations of the Trotta family, military men or civil servants, and I mean “men” since the mothers sadly all die early, is in many ways a summation of earlier Austrian literature.  I thought the dialogue with Arthur Schnitzler was particularly explicit.  Roth will have his young officer work his way through most of the idiocy Schnitzler inflicts on his young officers – duels, gambling debts, destructive affairs.

The timing is central, though.  Roth begins his novel at the Battle of Solferino in 1859, but soon enough the pace and page count make it obvious that the novel will end with World War I.  All of the ideas of glory and honor, along with the duels and suicides, will be blown up, along with everything else, in the war.  It is an immense, blatant irony that the narrator openly mentions on occasion, noting that soon the officers in some scene will all be killed.

I know; Roth knows; every one of his readers knows.  “The country of the Trottas was falling to pieces, disintegrating” (Ch. 19, 288).  The Austrian Empire, a great culture in so many ways, could find nothing better to do with its young men than park them on the border in anticipation of war.  So of course war came.

The second great irony for Roth: in 1932, are we Austrians so sure that the break, before the war and after, is so clean?  Historical irony is the worst irony.

If I were to write more about The Radetzky March, I would write a post about Ch. 15, which is from the perspective of Emperor Franz Joseph I.  “Better far to seem simple than wise” (208).  The irony here is that he is present in the first scene – in the novel’s third paragraph – and alive for the entire fifty-seven years of the novel, dying two pages from the end.  “’I wish I’d been killed at Solferino,’ he said.  They did not hear” (317).  But what was he supposed to do?  What choice did he have?

Another post would have been about the big party scene at the end.  The announcement of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the spark of a war that will massacre the officers at the party, coincides with a massive thunderstorm.  It is a literal crashing irony.  Roth is a bold writer.

I think my favorite piece is Chapter  9, a description of a swampy borderland in Galicia, right in the middle of what I know will become a horrific bloodland, and not much fun for an army officer before that.

No one was as strong as the swamp.  No one could hold out against the borderland…  The isolation and swampy boredom of the garrison sometimes drove an officer to despair, to gambling, to debt, and into the company of sinister men.  The cemeteries of the frontier garrisons concealed many young corpses of weak men. (122-3)

Not that it would be much better, soon enough, to be strong.

The title page of the Overlook edition says “Translated by Eva Tucker based on an earlier translation by Geoffrey Dunlop.”  That original translation was from 1933.  This was a popular novel in some sense.  Well done, readers of 1933.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The most famous books I had not read but now have, 2018 edition, Cather and Wharton and Tintin

Ten years ago I assembled a little post about my 19th century Humiliations, the term, from a David Lodge novel I have not read, meaning the books it would be most shameful not to have read - if one were an English professor.  Which one is not.  It is just a game.  “Your bloody Hamlet” is the winner, I believe.  For non-professionals, it is in no way humiliating not to have read Hamlet.

Still, in a moment when I feel that I somehow know less than ever, it is nice to glance at that post.  I’ve read ‘em all, now.  Not bad.  Not so bad.

Based on a vague sense of prestige and imperfect memories of how often I see them mentioned in good literary writing, here are the Top Ten Humiliations I knocked off my list this year.  I had not, but now have, read:

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), Rainer Maria Rilke
The Custom of the Country (1913), Edith Wharton
My Ántonia (1918), Willa Cather
Winesburg, Ohio (1919), Sherwood Anderson
R.U.R. (1921), Karel Čapek
Red Cavalry (1926), Isaac Babel
The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), Thornton Wilder
La nausée (Nausea, 1938), Jean-Paul Sartre
Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Country, 1939), Aimé Césaire
Illuminations (1966, but really most from the 1930s), Walter Benjamin

Some are more famous.  Those last two are more on the prestige end.  I am probably overrating the status of the Čapek play, but c’mon, the word “robot,” right?  I am probably overrating the status of the Sartre novel at this moment.  It was still a super-high status art object when I was in college.

The only one of those I would put on my Top Ten Best of the Year list would be Red Cavalry.  For the little that is worth.

My perspective about prestige and fame is United Statesian, with some sense that the rest of the world exists.  From the French perspective, though, I could add some books that are much-read in France but have made much less impression here:

“L’attaque du moulin” (“The Attack on the Mill,” 1880), Émile Zola
La Gloire de mon père (The Glory of My Father, 1957), Marcel Pagnol
Le Lion (The Lion, 1958), Joseph Kessel

These are all books the French read when young.  School stuff, sometimes.  The charming Pagnol memoir is read in the U.S. by real Francophiles.  Kessel was a journalist and travel writer who also wrote fiction.  This particular novel, about an English girl whose best friend is a lion, was on the shelves of every bookstore, along with a less predictable selection of other Kessel books.  It was translated long ago, but seems to have vanished in English.  It seemed good to me.  Not a thriller as we use the word now, but tense and frightening.

Really, from the French perspective, the most famous books I read this year, the most universal books, were:

Tintin, volume 4 (Cigars of the Pharaoh, 1934) through volume 9 (The Crab with the Golden Claws, 1941), Hergé
Blake and Mortimer, the first six volumes, meaning The Secret of the Swordfish (1950-3), The Mystery of the Great Pyramid (1954-5), and The Yellow “M” (1956), Edgar P. Jacobs
Asterix, volume 1 (Asterix the Gaul, 1961) through volume 3 (Asterix and the Goths, 1963), René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo

The first two are Belgian.  All three are on the curious Le Monde100 Books of the Century” list, alongside Camus and Proust and The Little Prince.

The Asterix volumes were the hardest to find at the library – meaning, always checked out – which is why I read so few.  I became fascinated by the Blake and Mortimer books because they are, in many ways, quite terrible.  Nuclear war as envisaged by an eight-year-old obsessed with model airplanes, just to kick things off.  Barely a woman in sight, even in the backgrounds, in any of these books.

It would not be true to say that everyone in France has read the first volume of Asterix and, say, Tintin’s The Blue Lotus.  But it must be pretty close.  I am not exactly sure what I learned about French culture reading these comics, but I certainly felt I had joined in.

So this was my continuing Education, 2018.

Monday, December 17, 2018

The best French books of my year - Flaubert, Baudelaire, Sophocles, the usual stuff

My study of French has shifted my reading.  The point of reading in French is to learn French, so it hardly matters what I am reading as long as it is hard enough, yet the point – a point – of learning French is to read in French, so I sometimes indulge.  Meaning, gimme the good stuff.

I had wanted to get to the point where I could read Ubu Roi (1896).  And I did.  Similarly, Flaubert.  And thus Alfred Jarry’s muck-smeared puppet travesty and Flaubert’s Trois Contes (1877) – especially, of course, “A Simple Heart” – are among the best things I read all year.

My reading in French is poor, full of errors in understanding that would bother me if I only knew what they were.  Ubu Roi is built out of all kinds of abuses of language, while “A Simple Heart” is an example of something close to perfection.  Was reading them in the original language better than reading a translation?  I don’t know.  Different.  But how well did I read them, really?

Sometimes my eyes were bigger than my stomach, so to speak.  Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Country, 1939), the poet’s angry poetic investigation of his experiences when he returned to Martinique from Paris, founding text of Négritude, would likely be one of the best books I read this year, but it was too hard for me.  I suspect it is not so easy in translation, either.  All right, next time.

Another special case was Oedipe roi by Sophocle, or as I would normally say, Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, except that I read it in French, in the translation of Didier Lamaison.  I also read Oedipe roi by Didier Lamaison (1994), a transformation of the play into a detective novel, a polar.  It does not take much transforming.  King Oedipus is not what you would call a great detective, but he sure gets his man.

Any year I read a Sophocles play it will go on my Best of the Year list.  The detective novel was pretty good, too.

I should include Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil, 1857), Paul Verlaine’s Romances sans Paroles (Songs without Words, very funny, 1874), some but not all of the Molière plays I read – maybe Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (The Bourgeois Gentleman, 1670) – keeping in mind that I have not quite dared the really good ones.

Jacques Prévert’s Paroles (1946) was at times like the Césaire book, and otherwise the opposite.  Prévert wrote a spray of playful little lyric poems many of which are readable and enjoyable by people with elementary French.  I knew about those.  I was looking for those.  His famous first book has scores of them.  But they surround giant blocks of prosy, slangy satirical poems that made me work.  Well, this is how we learn.

I read several short Louis Aragon books, Feu de joie (Fire of Joy, 1920) from the early days of Surrealism and a couple of later volumes with some wartime poems, Le Crève-Cœur (The Heartbreak, 1941) and Le Nouveau Crève-Cœur (The New Heartbreak, 1948), the former so playful, the latter so sad.  Some of the war poems are available in English in the Poetry magazine archive.  Not much else, though.  Maybe I should try to write a bit about Aragon next year.

I have an idea that next year I might write something about a number of the books I have read in French.  I read all kinds of surprising things, most of which were not among the best books of the year.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Bruno Schulz's Collected Stories - transformations into ever more artistic configurations

This is not Bruno Schulz describing himself, but it is close:

It is a characteristic of my existence that I parasitize metaphors; I am so easily carried away by the first fine metaphor.  Having gone too far with this I must now withdraw with difficulty, returning slowly to reason.  (“Loneliness,” 232)

The difference is that Schulz is carried away by not just the first metaphor, but the second and third and on to the end of his inventive powers, which are substantial.  His two little books of stories, Cinnamon Shops (1934) and The Sanatorium under the Hourglass (1937), are treasure houses of metaphor.

The girl languidly sinks her hands into the dough of the bedclothes, still warm and yeasty from sleep.  Finally, with an inner shudder, with eyes filled with the night, she shakes out a large, ample feather bed through the window and fluffs of down float onto the city, tiny down stars, a lazy sowing of nighttime dreams.  (“The Pensioner,” 221)

Someone should count the references to stars in Schulz’s books, stars compared to things and things compared to stars.

There was no end to the transformations of the sky, the metamorphoses of its multiple vaults into ever more artistic configurations.  Like a silver astrolabe the sky opened its inner mechanism on this magical night and revealed in endless evolutions the golden mathematics of its wheels and cogs.  (“Cinnamon Shops,” 53)

One word in that quotation reminds me that Schulz is commonly compared to Kafka, and boy are there some weird correspondences: many father-son stories, transformations into a cockroach or a fly or a bird (although it is the father that is always transforming or dying or returning to life, not the son), and an unstable and uncannily shifting geography.  But Schulz’s flow of imagery, the images turning into images, is unthinkable in Kafka.  In Schulz, everything metamorphosizes, and is constantly metamorphosizing.  It is exhausting.

In Cinnamon Shops, the abundance of imagery exists within or atop a small Polish town and an ordinary family.  Or maybe the imagery creates the town and the family, the father and the common-sensical maid Adela and their strange adventures collecting rare birds or fighting an invasion of cockroaches.  The perspective is always that of the son, and there is the possibility that the magic of the town and the strange fates of his father are all in his imagination.  I find this book to be a beautiful rush.

Some of the stories in Sanatorium are more of the same – the continuing adventures of the father are unmissable – but in others Schulz pushes towards a purely poetic form of prose, where I wonder if there is anything left but metaphor.  The pieces function more as prose poems, but at such length that I find them quite difficult to follow, the novella-length “Spring” being the most extreme example.  Sections of that piece feel like they are made of nothing but Schulz’s beloved stars.

The page numbers above are from the new (2018) Collected Stories of Schulz, translated by Madeline G. Levine.  She is working from a corrected text, a plus, puts everything under one cover, and the old translations by Celina Wieniewska are known to have problems, beginning with a change in Schulz’s title, but when I did some spot-checking, comparing the new Cinnamon Shops with the old The Street of Crocodiles, I did not find anything that did not look like the usual differences between translators.  Levine uses more repetition and lets the sentences get a little more long and tangled, so the new translation is less “smooth” than the old one, but if you have an old copy of Crocodiles I would not recommend throwing it in the fireplace.  I guess I do not know how cold you are.  And maybe the differences between the two versions of Sanatorium are larger?

Cinnamon Shops was among the very best books I read this year. Parts of Sanatorium, too.  Not just this year; also, ever.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Max Beerbohm's Zuleika Dobson - I collect ferns.

The title character of Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson (1911) is a femme fatale who descends upon Oxford, the university, I mean, and wreaks havoc among the students, in particular the young Duke of Dorset, although not all that much “in particular.”  Beerbohm spends most of his time with the Duke, is what I mean.

The novel may have some particular meaning to people familiar with, or even graduates of, Oxford, but to me it is a land as fantastic as Hobbiton.  It may also have some specific satirical meaning which is now desiccated, as weightless as the prose of Beerbohm’s fantasy, a quite pure fantasy the way I read it.

A moment later, a certain old don emerged from Blackwell’s, where he had been buying books. Looking across the road, he saw, to his amazement, great beads of perspiration glistening on the brows of those Emperors. He trembled, and hurried away.  (Ch. 1)

The sweat on the brow of the stone busts of the Emperors, well-known to Oxonians, I presume, is literal.  They are trying to warn Oxford of “the evil that was to befall the city of their penance.”

Zuleika and the Duke are gods who walk the earth.  Their meeting invokes some peculiar god-rules and god-magic.  Woe for the mere mortals who gaze upon them.

For the men, at least.  Up in the header of Wuthering Expectations I have plopped a quotation from Zuleika Dobson that is all-too-appropriate: “I’ve read twenty-seven of the Hundred Best Books.”  Now, at this point I have actually read, I don’t know, seventy-seven of the Hundred Best Books, but the character who says this, the daughter of the Duke’s landlady, is in her early twenties and I am almost thirty years older.  So, twenty-seven, not bad, right?

The landlady’s daughter is making her case to the Duke.  It is an injection of normality into the craziness of the novel.  Why should he pursue Dobson, the destructive – fatal! – celebrity when he could have someone devoted, sensible, and well-qualified to be the wife of a Duke:

“And I’ve gone on learning since then,” she continued eagerly. “I utilise all my spare moments.  I’ve read twenty-seven of the Hundred Best Books.  I collect ferns.  I play the piano, whenever...” She broke off, for she remembered that her music was always interrupted by the ringing of the Duke’s bell and a polite request that it should cease.   (Ch. 17)

How I identify.  How I enjoy Zuleika Dobson.  It is unique, or almost so.  I suppose to many readers it is an anchovy, inedible.

I am beginning to write about the best books I read in 2018.  Zuleika Dobson was one of them.

Friday, November 30, 2018

A riffle through Illuminations - “This is how one pictures the angel of history”

Thinking about a more ideal Walter Benjamin collection, I imagine dropping “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), which is perverse but the problem is that is like a building that has been completely dismantled, its materials used as the structure of a hundred other, newer buildings.  I can imagine its explosive force – now I am imagining it as a bomb – in English in 1968, when so many people were ready to not just write about but theorize about television, rock music, comic books, and so on.

Benjamin, who mostly sticks to film and photography, keeps brushing up against the concept of pop art.

Mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses toward art.  The reactionary attitude toward a Picasso painting changes into the progressive reaction toward a Chaplin movie. (227)

May the Village Voice and a million pop culture blogs bloom.  Every art – the creators, the audience – has had to wrestle with Benjamin’s notion that the individual art object has some kind of “aura” that is dimmed or destroyed by mass reproduction, by technology.  He is not against this, but he is a creature of literature, which had long accommodated itself to the printing press – heck, the scriptorium – rather than of visual art, where the response has been to everything possible to keep the aura, so that the original embodiment is worth a fortune and the exact reproduction is kitsch.  Theater and dance have made their own less insistent, less neurotic negotiations with film.

Benjamin thinks about the case of literature in “The Storyteller” (1936), nominally about Nikolai Leskov but more about the modes of literature:

The earliest symptom of a process whose end is the decline of storytelling is the rise of the novel at the beginning of modern times…  What can be handed on orally, the wealth of the epic, is of a different kind from what constitutes the stock in trade of the novel. (87)

He takes Leskov as an example of the epic or storyteller type, even within the form of modern fiction.  He mentions Poe and Stevenson as other examples.  I am not sure this is true; Benjamin’s Leskov only distantly resembled the one I remember.  I wonder if he had read Sholem Aleichem.  Now that is an imaginary Benjamin essay I would like to read.

The essays on individual authors that he did write, on Baudelaire, Proust, Brecht (a close friend), and Kafka, are outstanding and accessible, by which I mean, as we all mean, written at or just above my head.  Like “Unpacking My Library,” these essays remind me that Benjamin is an unusual creature, a philosopher who is a true literary critic.  I mean that he deals with literature as literature, with Kafka and Baudelaire as artists, creative people, with whom he has personal affinities.

I have some doubts about, because I did not understand, the final piece, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940), which has to be retained because of the single paragraph in which a Paul Klee angel takes on cosmic, apocalyptic meaning – “This is how one pictures the angel of history” (249) – one being you, Walter, but the “one single catastrophe” he sees the angel seeing is upon him, so what do I know.  With these few lines Benjamin willed into being Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987) and Laurie Anderson’s Strange Angels and I assume much many more unusual works of art.

I was planning to write about Illuminations, to the extent that it can be said that I have written about it, in December, but then I thought I would tack it onto GermanLiterature Month, why not.

In early February, I will continue my reading of classic literary criticism with Northrop Frye’s Fables of Identity, which should be something different than Kermode or Benjamin.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Walter Benjamin in New York with Antonio Muñoz Molina - Insofar as the past has been transmitted as tradition, it possesses authority

Antonio Muñoz Molina, the Spanish novelist, has an 85-page chunk of memoir in the latest Hudson Review (Autumn 2018).  He is writing about a walk, or maybe blending a number of walks, from the southern tip of Manhattan Island all the way to the Bronx, where he is “now,” meaning next to my bookmark (I haven’t finished the piece).  The piece, the walk, is in part inspired by Walter Benjamin, a classic flaneur, who is mentioned occasionally and at one point even encountered on the sidewalk, in Muñoz Molina’s imagination.

Muñoz Molina, up near Columbia University, has been noticing the honorary street names.  Duke Ellington, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and so on.  He imagines Federico García Lorca walking the same streets in 1929.  He remembers that Hannah Arendt lived nearby, and realizes that this is, more or less, where Benjamin would have lived if he had made it out of Spain.

Toward the end, his will and his imagination were focused on New York.  He had started learning English.  He was fond of American films and read Faulkner, Light in August, but found it so hard that he helped himself along with a French translation.  (410)

He read Poe’s “The Man in the Crowd,” which I find it hard to believe such a devotee of Baudelaire had not read, The Turn of the Screw, lots of Melville, The Postman Always Rings Twice.  This was to prepare for living in America, in New York.  He falls in love with Katharine Hepburn.  I am just taking Muñoz Molina’s word for all of this.

But it is true that if he had reached New York, he would have found a city as suited for his signature method – walking, looking, thinking – as Paris or Berlin, enjoying or at least absorbing

the noise, the rush, the general air of commercial vulgarity, the people speaking German or Yiddish or English with a German accent, the Jewish smells and flavors of the delis, the joy and guilt of having fled the apocalypse in Europe. (411)

It is hard to imagine Benjamin ending up in Los Angeles like Schoenberg and Mann, easy to imagine him finding some kind of tenuous university appointment like Nabokov.

So we are missing not only a New York Arcades Project, but full-length essays on Faulkner, Melville’s Pierre, the New York City Poe, and who knows what else.

I have been wondering, reading Illuminations, why this particular configuration of Benjamin has been so powerful.  There is a four-volume Selected Writings in English now, for example, so a different collection would be feasible.  But

Insofar as the past has been transmitted as tradition, it possesses authority; insofar as authority presents itself historically, it becomes tradition.  (Arendt, Introduction, p. 43)

And Illuminations has it from both ends now, authority and tradition.  Plus, poking around in the first two volumes of Selected Writings, I now realize that as far as complete, literary essays, Illuminations has almost everything Benjamin published.  But there are more book reviews, more excerpts from letters and fragments of notebooks.  Some other anthology could work.  I don’t know.  For a critic of this stature, there is just not that much.  What exists is extraordinary and makes me deeply regret that imaginary Faulkner essay.

The Muñoz Molina is titled “Mr. Nobody” and is a chunk of the untranslated Un andar solitario entre la gente (2018).

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Walter Benjamin's funny, depressing "Unpacking My Library" - Only in extinction is the collector comprehended.

There are other ways to read Walter Benjamin now, maybe better ways, but people are still reading the book that introduced him in English, Illuminations (1968, tr. Harry Zorn), carefully assembled by Hannah Arendt.  So I read it, too.

The collection begins, after Arendt’s long introduction, with one of the most depressing essays I have ever read, “Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting” (1931), which is also charming and funny and the perfect way to meet a Benjamin who is not an intimidating theorist.

The conceit of the essay is in the title.  Benjamin is a real collector.  The essay is about the collector, a bit of light theorizing about the nature of book collectors filled out with a couple of pages on his greatest triumphs.  He is unpacking his books, which have been in storage for two years, lovingly handling each of his treasures, while somehow simultaneously writing an essay about his love.  Or let’s say dictating the essay.  Talking out loud.

The depressing part is all in the future.  A year later, Benjamin flees Germany for, eventually, Paris.  I do not know what happened to his “several thousand volumes.”  They could not have gone with him.

Nine years after the essay is published, Benjamin has to flee again, from Paris to Spain.  This journey, a fiasco, ends in suicide.

Only in extinction is the collector comprehended.

Ah, what a line.  Just brutal.  In context, Benjamin is arguing about public versus private collections, that “the phenomenon of collecting loses it meaning as it loses its personal owner,” which is surely true since the meaning of the collection is entirely personal.  Or there exists a meaning that is entirely personal.  Earlier in this paragraph Benjamin opens a box containing his mother’s scrapbooks – talk about personal – “booklike creations from fringe areas” which are a central part of any “living library,” and which Benjamin calls the “seeds” of his substantial collection of children’s books.

I wonder what happened to that copy of Balzac’s The Wild Ass’s Skin that he bought at auction when he was a student, that he treasured so much.  Someone could write a novel following the book around.  Or a history, maybe.

“Unpacking My Library” turns out to be about the fragility of civilization.

I am not much of a collector at this point, but I recognize this line: “For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?”  But this is true for every reader, even the one who depends entirely on the public library.  The true collection of every reader, the only one that is always there when I need it, is the one in my head.  Is it ever a mess.

Benjamin himself is quite funny in this essay.  “Of all the ways of acquiring books, writing them oneself is regarded as the most praiseworthy method.”  And the second-best way is to borrow books and never return them!  I did not notice so many jokes in the rest of Illuminations.  Oh well.  I will keep writing about it for a couple of days.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

who needs context - novels by Gyula Krúdy and Ilf & Petrov - drink to the irrigation of Uzbekistan!

Two novels that seem like they should depend heavily on their context, but really do not.

The Twelve Chairs by Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov (1928), tr. Anne O. Fisher, a serialized comic Soviet picaresque that transcends it genre, as they say.  By “transcends,” I mean it is better than almost everything like it, Soviet or not.  It must be, right?  It is still funny, the characters make sense as people and are at the same time completely ridiculous, and the blatantly episodic satirical chunks are essentially universal while keeping their amusing specificity.

For example:

Ostap continually proclaimed speeches, addresses, and toasts.  Everyone drank to popular education and to the irrigation of Uzbekistan.  (186)

I do not have to know too much about early Soviet culture to think that these toasts are pretty funny, a sign about what has gone wrong.  Eh, if it’s not funny, read something else.

The story is a comic classic: a former nobleman learns from his mother-in-law, on her deathbed, that in the Revolution she hid her jewels in one of his chairs.  Which one?  There are twelve possibilities, and the Revolution scattered some, and the events of the novel scatter the rest.  The nobleman takes a con artist as a partner, Ostap in the above quote, and they’re off after the jewels.

I was impressed by Ilf and Petrov’s true sense of comedy, by which I mean that they systematically, gleefully, grind their characters to powder.  They push the joke to its logical conclusion.  The comedy gets a little dark, as they say.

Big targets beyond the greed at the novel’s core include journalism, corruption, the theater, priests, and the craze for chess, the latter being maybe a little Soviet-specific, but what time and place does not have an equivalent.

Sunflower by Gyula Krúdy (1918), tr. John Bátki.  Another big hit, this time from Hungary, where readers apparently enjoyed wallowing in their nostalgia for a lost Romantic pre-war sense of something or another.  This is probably lost on non-Hungarian readers, who will take it as ironic, and hilarious:

Mr Pistoli spent his days perfecting his ennui.  (140)

Pistoli is an over-the-hill Casanova.  The last third of the novel chronicles his last days, his final meetings with old flames, his death and dramatic funeral.  Maybe he is more of a Don Juan.  Krúdy, one of the most prolific writers in history, wanders among characters in the first part of the novel until for some reason he settles on this one as suitable for a longer story.  I have seen reviewers online complain about this choice – they wish Krudy had picked one of the headstrong beauties of earlier chapters, not this old goat, but come on, look at this guy:

That night, with its besotted, harried ghosts and bulgy-eyed goblins, dragged on interminably, like a midnight train wreck, the morning after which the survivor takes stock of his remaining limbs.

The whiplash’s sting sent Mr Pistoli to seek refuge in one of his favourite activities: composing his will, perhaps for the twentieth time.  He apportioned his extant and nonexistent belongings among women he had known or would have liked to know.  (159)

The novel is a parody of Romanticism and the yearning for it.

Edwin Frank, editor of NYRB Classics, compares Sunflower to the work of Bruno Schulz and P. G. Wodehouse, and in both cases I think: almost.  Krúdy, like Schulz, piles on the metaphors – see those goblins above, that train crash – and they are great fun, but where Schulz uses them to create something new, Krúdy is merely rearranging the tropes, as they say.

And instead of Wodehouse, substitute the odder, more baroque Ronald Firbank.  I should write something about Firbank sometime.  He is an extreme case.

One fine day  Mr. Álmos-Dreamer up and died.

He did this every year after spending some time in Miss Eveline’s company, at times when love, the torments of lone wolves and the howling winds assailed him.  At times like these,  he started to play the violin in the house on this island frequented by the wind and storm-tossed birds.  At such times his servant, with his brass buttons, shabby white gloves and antique spats, would retreat into a cubbyhole. (36)

Like Firbank – not like Schulz! – Krúdy is a writer who needs just a few sentences to sort his readers from everyone else.  Those wolves, those spats – more of this?  There is more.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Demanding novels from Vladimir Sharov and Theodor Storm - This exchange reconciled nobody.

Two novels that depend heavily on context, maybe on outside knowledge.  What novel doesn’t.  More than usual, I guess I mean.  These were difficult books, I know I mean.

Before & During by Vladimir Sharov, 1993, tr. Oliver Ready.  Ready translated the zippy recent Crime and Punishment.  He must like texts that make him work.

Sharov’s novel at first appears to be about a man who is having memory problems.  He enters a mental hospital in the first sentence.  He is writing a Memorial Book, portraits of people he has known, or has thought about a lot, given that the third memorial is for Leo Tolstoy, who is from long before his time.

The first two memorials took odd turns, but the Tolstoy portion turns out to be largely about Tolstoy’s son, who is also Tolstoy himself, let’s say for simplicity a clone, and writes counter-novels arguing against his father.  So, a fantasy novel in some way.  Fantasy stories, at least.

The conversation had come back to Tolstoy.  Clearly, this was an inexhaustible topic for them, one that, for whatever reason, had long been troubling them, to no avail.  This latest exchange, like the previous one, reconciled nobody.  (93)

The patients at the hospital are arguing about Tolstoyism.  This passage is a kind of trick.  I was about a quarter of the way into the book, ready for a series of “memorials” hooked to the hospital.  But no, there is really just one more, that lasts a couple hundred pages and is about Germaine de Staël, the Swiss writer who died in 1817, and her direct involvement in Russian history up to and past the 1917 Revolution.  She occasionally gives birth to herself, which grants her effective immortality.

She also gives birth to Joseph Stalin, and then later becomes his lover.  It is that kind of novel.

There is a section where Lenin transcribes the mystical ranting of Scriabin about how his symphony of smells has the method to overthrow the Russian government encoded within it.  Lenin then uses the symphony to overthrow the government.  This was the only section where I was thinking “Please let’s move on.”  But it is far from the only part where I thought “What exactly is going on here?”

Weird, fascinating, and beyond me.  Sharov is a major post-Soviet writer.  He died recently.  Lizok knew him and wrote him a nice obituary.

Grieshuus: The Chronicle of a Family by Theodor Storm, 1884, tr. Denis Jackson.   Storm is an intensely local writer, and Grieshuus – just “Gray House,” really – is another Frisian story, set a few miles north of his familiar Husum.  But it is also set much earlier than usual, in the late 17th and early 18th century, amidst the so-called Northern Wars, when the Swedish Empire was dissipating its might throughout northern Europe.  The Second Northern War, the Scanian War, the Great Northern War.

I suppose it would be possible to read the book like a fantasy novel, a tragic fairy tale about the son who destroys his old noble family through a single horrible violent act, and take the shifting wars and troops and kings as background noise.  I thought the history was woven into the story pretty tightly, though.  This was a book that earned its extensive notes.

Denis Jackson has done heroic work with Storm, and is happy to annotate everything to the point of exhaustion.  I believe this is Jackson’s last Storm translation.  There is, surprisingly, an old translation, which Jackson calls “wildly inappropriate” (20).  This translation is an act of justice.

It is an exciting and sad story, with murders and wolves, so many wolves.  I was never actually baffled, as I was with Sharov.  But it felt like a text for the more devoted readers of Theodor Storm.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Kafka's creativity - everything written down bit by bit is inferior

Kafka wrote little paradoxical parables, and he wrote longer stories built on big, blatant symbols, and he wrote numerous scenes in those stories about interpretation.  He resists interpretation, but he also demands it.  The impulse to allegorize has the drawback of making any story, especially the longer ones, about anything.  The Castle is God; start there and start shoving the various pieces into place.

I was surprised, on this long visit with Kafka, how much writing there was in his stories, how many of them were directly about writing in some way.  His diaries make it clear enough that the stories are often about his own writing, his own creativity.  This is my totalizing allegorical contribution to the interpretation of Kafka.

I think there is only one late story, “Eleven Sons,” which Kafka actually declared to be about his writing.  “The eleven sons are quite simply eleven stories I am working on this very moment” (The Complete Stories, pp. 474-5).  Normal practice for Kafka.  From his diaries, January 18, 1915:

Headache, slept badly.  Incapable of sustained, concentrated work.  Also have been in the open air too little.  In spite of that began a new story; I was afraid I should spoil the old ones.  Four or five stories now stand on their hindlegs in front of me like the horses in front of Schumann, the circus ringmaster, at the beginning of the performance.

Kafka struggled to enter a state of uninterrupted concentration in which he could write for hours on end.  This rarely happened, but when it did he felt creatively satisfied.  It is at these moments that he gets a glimpse of the world beyond the veil.

Again I realized that everything written down bit by bit rather than all at once in the course of the larger part (or even the whole) of one night is inferior, and that the circumstances of my life condemn me to this inferiority.  (Dec. 8, 1914)

The struggles of the protagonists of The Trial and The Castle have some resemblance to Kafka’s creative agony.  The character in The Trial even spends the middle of the novel thinking about but not writing the “memorial” that will save him; of course it is never written.  In The Castle, it is his “plea.”  See “In the Penal Colony,” where writing is literally torture – the metaphor made literal.

Much of the last writing of Kafka’s life was directly about creativity – “The Hunger Artist,” “Investigations of a Dog,” “The Burrow,” and “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk.”  Curiously, they are all from the point of view of animals, giving the Hunger Artist, in his circus cage, honorary animal status.  He is the greatest faster in the history of the art, but never allowed to do anything really great, meaning to fast until he disappears, at least not until no one cares.  The burrowing animal has built his masterpiece – Kafka is showing us The Castle from the inside – but it is never perfect, always threatened, and the snuffling artist’s life is full of fear and second-guessing.  Then, finally, “Josephine,” almost too sad to quote.

Kafka was preoccupied, at the end of his life, with the purpose of what he was doing.  He did not seem to doubt it, exactly, but wanted to understand it.  Soon enough he, like Josephine the singer, “will happily lose herself in the numberless throng of the heroes of our people, and soon, since we are no historians, will rise to the heights of redemption and be forgotten like all her brothers.”

I will now go register this post with German Literature Month, now in its eighth year, which is something.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

How to Read Franz Kafka - with help from Roberto Calasso - The simple story had lost its clear outline

However you want, of course.  I read him literally, mostly, as a fantasy writer.   Gregor turns into a bug; that is what Metamorphosis is about, first.  I think of great fantasy writers as people who make metaphors literal.  Thus reading literally is also reading metaphorically, poetically.

Many enthusiastic readers have wanted Kafka to be allegorical.  They break his code and find that he is a religious writer, Jewish or possibly something else, some kind of gnostic.  Or everything is psychological, really about Kafka’s father, or about his frustrations with or fear of women.  Kafka has attracted totalizers.  He is so complex that they never seem entirely wrong to me.  Only the totalizing tendency is wrong.

It is always a pleasure to find people smarter than me who agree with me.  Robert Calasso’s K. (2002, tr. Geoffrey Brock) is a three hundred page rearrangement of Kafka.  The early chapters mostly put episodes of The Castle in different order.  Eventually other Kafka texts are pulled in, all of the major ones.  Another great temptation with Kafka is to dissolve his individual works, not just his fiction but the fragments, diaries, letters, offhand comments reported by Max Brod, everything, into one omni-text.  I understand completely.  The key to any given text may be somewhere in that other text.  It feels like it should be.  It never is, not quite.

Anyway, this is Calasso, who like me is not really looking for a key:

Kafka can’t be understood if he isn’t taken literally.  But the literal must be grasped in all its powers and in the vastness of its implications.  (25)

You tell ‘em.  Maybe that second sentence moves towards meaninglessness.  The rest of the paragraph is not much help.

It’s awkward to speak of symbols in Kafka, because Kafka experienced everything as symbol.  It wasn’t a choice – if anything, it was a sentence.  (118)

For Kafka, the metaphorical and the literal had the same weight.  The passage from one to the other was smooth.    The metaphorical could take the place of the literal and transform the literal into metaphor.  (119)

Knowledge leads to the evocation of an image.  And that image is immediately recognized as “only an image.”  To move beyond it, it will have to be replaced – with another image.  The process is never-ending.  (122-3)

That last one, that is merely a definition of literature, right?

I am not sure of the source of Kafka’s metaphysics, but it is something like Schopenhauer’s.  Kafka did not merely believe in the existence of a real reality behind the representation of reality in which he lived, he believed that he occasionally experienced that real reality.  It was accessible, occasionally, by means of writing fiction.  Or maybe it was just an image of the real reality, that’s fine too.

Tomorrow I will interpret Kafka a bit myself.  He invites it.  The climax of The Trial, the astounding “In the Cathedral” chapter, is mostly a piece of literary criticism, where Josef K. and the priest close-read and interpret the “Before the Law” parable to exhaustion.

K. said that with finality, but it was not his final judgment.  He was too tired to survey all the conclusions arising from the story…  The simple story had lost its clear outline…  (The Trial, tr. Willa and Edwin Muir, rev. E. M. Butler)

But maybe the characters missed the one true interpretation.  If they had only tried harder, or had access to Kafka’s diaries and letters.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

It’s not at all like me! - I love Kafka

I don’t know why I am drawing up this summary, it’s not at all like me!

Franz Kafka, Diaries, Dec. 31, 1914, tr. Martin Greenberg

Much of this book blog website consists of literary criticism and quotation of great writers I do not even especially like that much when we get right down to it, thus 103 posts tagged "JAMES Henry" at this moment, although who cares what I like.  And if we do care, what I like is literature, and is Henry James ever literature.  He’s endlessly interesting.

I am looking at a stack of books by or about Franz Kafka, ten books that I read recently – and the stack is missing a couple that went back to the library.  Some I had read a long time ago, some not until now, and a few I had visited somewhere in between.  I find that I do not particularly want to write about them.  I love Kafka.  Talk about endlessly interesting.  It has been like an old friend dropped by and stayed for a couple of months.  A brilliant, hilarious, exasperating old friend.

I am glad he did not actually drop by.  We have had an issue with a neighbor’s barking dog.  How Kafka hated noise.  Keep an ear out for references to noise and silence in the works of Kafka.

How much have I read about Kafka in the last thirty years, without making any kind of a study of him?  Literary magazines are full of Kafka, whether in the ongoing flow of books about him or in references to him.  My impression is that he has always been there, while references to, reviews of, books about Proust have exploded.  Henry James, he was always there, too.  I have never grown tired about reading about any of them.  Some kind of citation count in major American literary magazines would likely prove that I am wrong about all of this.  What I am trying to say is that even though it has been almost thirty years since I read The Castle (1926), I feel that I have been reading Kafka all along, that I am always reading Kafka.

That last phrase is not true, but it sounds like something Italo Calvino would turn into a story.  “My author is Kafka, and my favourite novel is Amerika.”  Is that a real Calvino quotation?  Not phony internet nonsense?  I had not read Amerika until recently, and there were parts that were so Calvino-like.  But Amerika is, in Kafka’s compressed career, an earlier work, when he was still susceptible to the influence of unborn writers.  They have a similarly clear prose.  “Pure” is Walter Benjamin’s word for Kafka’s German.

The two authors had a similar sense of the absurd, a sense of humor.  I share the sense of humor, but not Kafka’s numerous and varied neuroses, nor his worldview, as far as I can make it out – there are books on this subject.  Though I am more of a creature of the Enlightenment than Kafka, I agree with his powerful psychological critique of reason to the extent that I understand it.

Kafka’s prose, his jokes, his arguments such as they are.  His imagination – as a pure fantasy writer, he is among the greats.  What pleasures there are in Kafka.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Sjón's trilogy of stories, CoDex 1962 - making it resonate with world literature

Sjón’s CoDex 1962 (2018, in English) looks like one novel but is really three, a trilogy:

Thine Eyes Did See My Substance – a love story (1994)
Iceland’s Thousand Years – a crime story (2001)
I’m a Sleeping Door – a science fiction story (2016)

Sjón personally told me, and everyone else in the audience at the book festival, that he was born in 1962, and that everyone in Iceland would immediately recognize “CoDex” as a bookish parody of a genetic-testing company that advertises on television.  Yet the novels are not about the author, not particularly, but about his birth cohort, Icelanders born in 1962.  Or, as the subtitles of the novels suggest, stories about Sjón and his peers, especially one boy who is born in Iceland in unusual circumstances.

The stories include such characters as the golem of Prague, a werewolf, angels, and so on.  Saga heroes, of course.  Stories ancient and modern, for example from Fritz Lang’s M and Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.  Sjón is writing fiction that almost seems old-fashioned.  Remember postmodernism, or the aspect of it that was about story-telling?  When authors would enjoy themselves by mashing all kinds of stories together?  Readers, too, readers like me.


One morning when Jósef L. woke up at home in bed after troubled dreams, he found himself transformed into a giant baby.  [A couple more sentences of this story, before it is interrupted.]

‘Not more stories!’

‘But this is a literary allusion.’

‘So what?’

‘It adds depth to the story of Marie-Sophie and my father, the invalid, making it resonate with world literature.’

‘I don’t care.  Tell me about the child, tell me about you.’  (Thine Eyes, pp. 64-5)

I guess there were, and are, many readers who share this exasperation.  They are likely also the ones who hate self-conscious postmodern screwing around like this.  I, by contrast, enjoy the self-aware playfulness.  Sjón piles on the tricks – dreams, poems, chapters in dialogue, a pageant of the dead.

The first novel in the trilogy is in some limited sense a Holocaust novel.  I have had doubts about the ethics of an author pumping up the significance of, say, his novel about adult literacy by attaching it to World War II atrocities, or writing about one’s love of Italian opera in the context of Maoist terrorism.  Sjón had me a little concerned early on.  But he has thought this through; later in the trilogy he addresses the issue directly.  Stories are in and of themselves powerful things.

Victoria Cribb is Sjón’s translator.  He could not  have said nicer things about her.