Friday, August 14, 2009

Two unwritten books

Like George Steiner in My Unwritten Books, I want to describe two (and a half) books that I would like to exist but that, for want of dedication, talent and a private income, I cannot write.

Book 1: Kafka's Animal
For a writer with such an extensive catalogue of secondary texts, there seems to be no full length study of the animals in Kafka's writings. Yet their centrality to his work needs no scholarly excavation; it's there for all to see. Dogs, horses, mice, jackals and apes populate his greatest stories, and there are many more elsewhere. Less obvious examples could include the creature Odradek in The Cares of a Family Man and even perhaps the flight of stairs in an aphorism. This latter non-animal will take me to the vermin in Metamorphosis as the ambiguity of Gregor Samsa's species provides the angle of my imaginary book: the ambiguous distance between human and animal, or, more accurately, between the human and non-human. It's something I saw in the songs and cover designs of Will Oldham ten years ago (when he was still worth listening to). In tracing the theme's intellectual lineage, I would shepherd Nietzsche into my book encampment with this Kafkaesque opening of his 1874 essay: On the Use and Abuse of History for Life:
Observe the herd which is grazing beside you. It does not know what yesterday or today is. It springs around, eats, rests, digests, jumps up again, and so from morning to night and from day to day, with its likes and dislikes closely tied to the peg of the moment, and thus neither melancholy nor weary. To witness this is hard for man, because he boasts to himself that his human race is better than the beast and yet looks with jealousy at its happiness. For he wishes only to live like the beast, neither weary nor amid pains, and he wants it in vain, because he does not will it as the animal does. One day the man demands of the beast: "Why do you not talk to me about your happiness and only gaze at me?" The beast wants to answer, too, and say: "That comes about because I always immediately forget what I wanted to say." But by then the beast has already forgotten this reply and remains silent, so that the man wonders on once more.
In fact, Kafka's Animal would be a detail of a larger study begun by my MA dissertation "The Stillness of Midnight: experience and literary distance", a title itself derived from Kafka.

Book 2: Sunday: a novel
Imagine a novel like Dante's Inferno in which a liberal novelist is guided through the hell enabled and at the same time obliterated by his "buttoned-up, over-wrought, mannered prose" (quote from Ellis Sharp). It would be a road-movie introducing the fêted writer to those who died off-camera, in the absence of "his dismayingly bad book" (quote from John Banville). Again then, the theme of distance.


  1. I love the Nietzsche quote. I was just thinking this morning 'Too bad my dog and cat can't talk to me.' We're awfully accepting of silence when it comes to them.

    And what you said about "for want of dedication, talent and a private income, I cannot write," that's nice. I can relate.

    I'm a 'follower' of you at Twitter, called "grandmaslump." Thanks for this link.

  2. A wonderful quote.

    I am quite haunted by animal silence, a frequent subject in my private journals and on my blog.

  3. Aphorism: Of animals there is but one species... sphinx.

    Aphorism: Hysteria is often mistaken for empathy.



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