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.