Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Glancing at Kafka

I don't know what it is. But unlike Jonathan Derbyshire, I can't see what's extraordinarily rich about Roberto Calasso’s K. Last year, I couldn’t understand why John Banville called Pietro Citati's Kafka "the greatest of all books on Kafka". Neither book seemed to be about the Kafka I know. Maybe it's because I find Kafka's novels unreadable in comparison to the stories, letters and diaries. Each book spends a lot of time on the novels. I found it difficult to retain interest. The individual words and sentences were read, the pages turned, yet only the odd glance was noted. Adam Mars-Jones picks up on this. His review of K is spot on.

I'm disappointed as both Calasso's and Citati's are non-academic critical engagements with Kafka published in the mainstream. What's more, neither relies on the subject's biography! An English edition of Blanchot’s De Kafka à Kafka would go a long way to easing my regret.

4 comments:

  1. Personally, I enjoy so much reading Kafka's stories, and his three unfinished novels, that I never read essays on Kafka. I avoid them entirely, along with the movies about him or his stories, the plays or the comics. All the Kafka cliche, the lunatic, paranoid, sad Kafka cliche is against him and his, as Kundera would say, "humor".

    So I haven't read Calasso and Citati, even though they both are very popular critics and writers in Italy (Calasso is also the head of the publisher Adelphi, which is one of our best publishers).

    That said, the fact that they do not relay on the subject's biography sounds as really good news to me.
    As Proust in his essay against Saint-Beuve clearly stated, (and as all the great novelists, including Kafka, endlessly repeated) the author's biography has nothing to do with the opera.
    The opera lives its own life.

    Since all our criteria always relays on bioraphy, the fact that now and then someone would try to avoid the topic, trying to understand the opera without talking about author's life, is actually something new, and an important effort.
    Who cares about Kafka's private life? About his problems? As long as we have his opera? The fact that we have his diaries, because Max Brod kept them instead of burning them, doesn't authorize us to consider them important as his novels or stories. They are private diaries.

    I don't understand also what's the problem with them both being non-academic... If the public is driven to read more Kafka in the end, this is just what's needed, and their efforts are to be considered worthwhile! :)

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  2. Mr C, I didn't mean to say there was a problem with them being non-academics. Quite the opposite. I want non-academic critical writings to be encouraged by publishers. I was disappointed that these didn't fulfil my hopes.

    You know you're missing out by not reading essays (except, presumably, the one on Kafka by Kundera, which would be a good example of what you're missing out on). Blanchot's are not to be missed.

    And I have to say, I'm fascinated by Kafka's life. I'm not ashamed of it. Some of his diary writings might not be as important as the stories, but they are important to me.

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  3. Charlotte Mandell7:03 pm

    An excellent suggestion re Blanchot's From Kafka to Kafka.

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  4. I guess you have your point... I blamed the essays on Kafka but I quoted Kundera's one! oops!
    Anyway I partially trust Kundera because he's a novelist himself. But I normally have a hard time reading essays about novelists I love.
    All the essays I read on Svevo, including those few pages by Philip Roth, parse his biography back and forth, and as it turns out everytime, his life is just not illuminating at all... It may be interesting in itself (even though quite average), but not illuminating on his opera.

    All the great novelists, beginning with Cervantes, Flaubert, Proust, Hemingway, Tolstoj etc certanly played with their own biographies, scattering elements of their private lives around in their texts.
    But going to put the pieces back in place (who the real wife of Svevo was; who madame Schesinger was; who was Albertine; why Kafka fighted his father; who Hemingway left his first wife for and so forth) it's wrong because this is not what a novel is about... A novel should be about everyone's life, or some typical life; not about this single person life, that once was and will never be again.
    More or less.

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