Sunday, June 23, 2024

Kafka's great fire

The centenary of Kafka's death was marked twelve years late. His diary records it in September 1912:

This story, The Judgment, I wrote at one sitting during the night of the 22nd-23rd, from ten o'clock at night to six o'clock in the morning. I was hardly able to pull my legs out from under the desk, they had got so stiff from sitting. The fearful strain and joy, how the story developed before me, as if I were advancing over water. Several times during this night I heaved my own weight on my back. How everything can be said, how for everything, for the strangest fancies, there waits a great fire in which they perish and rise up again. How it turned blue outside the window. A wagon rolled by. Two men walked across the bridge. At two I looked at the clock for the last time. As the maid walked through the anteroom for the first time I wrote the last sentence. Turning out the light and the light of day. The slight pains around my heart. The weariness that disappeared in the middle of the night. The trembling entrance into my sisters' room. Reading aloud. Before that, stretching in the presence of the maid and saying, I've been writing until now. The appearance of the undisturbed bed, as though it had just been brought in. The conviction verified that with my novel-writing I am in the shameful lowlands of writing. Only in this way can writing be done, only with such coherence, with such a complete opening out of the body and the soul.   [Translated by Joseph Kresh]

The story and its importance for Kafka has always intrigued me because its mundane setting and the petty concerns of the protagonists are hardly earth shattering, with the Freudian red flags, the extremity of the father's sentence and Georg's immediate self-execution suggesting a drama overdetermined in its compression: social realism and absurdity squash up and cancel each other out. What is left?

Gabriel Josipovici's review of the recent book collecting Kafka's drawings offers an understanding of what distinguishes The Judgment from what came before. He shows that the drawings are in keeping with his writing of the time such as in Betrachtung/Contemplation in which "what happens is governed not by the conventions of fin-de-siècle storytelling but simply by the feelings of the protagonist". In the drawings it takes for the form of "ludicrously tall or squat people stretching, twisting, leaning from or away from one another". What's notable for Josipovici is that Kafka more or less stopped drawing after that September night. Until then both writing and drawing came relatively easily, but it was precisely such ease that was the problem: 

Writing [dependent on feelings] may initially feel promising, but it soon palls. If I have simply to write something down to summon it into being, if everything depends entirely on my mood as I write, then what is the point of writing anything at all?

The point of writing for many is to win the world's favour, to be admired, fêted at literary festivals. Kafka had recognised it himself when as a child he tried to impress his family by writing a story in front of them, which, after some overt attention seeking, was dismissed by an uncle as "the usual stuff".

It is one of the clichés of our time that we all have our stories to tell. But Kafka tells us here that such stories are always self-serving, created by us to protect ourselves from reality and out of the desire to "shine"...
Kafka wanted something less tangible, as his reticence to follow the paths of his celebrated writers among his friends suggests:

What he is after in his writing, he notes in January 1911, is "a description in which every word would be linked to my life, which I would draw to my heart and which would transport me out of myself."

If Kafka was "made of literature" as he told Felice, then the story and Georg's suicide is Kafka's transport out of literature:

He has discovered that while words are far more recalcitrant than drawing, it is only in the art of words that narrative can be produced and can then turn against itself and uncover its corrupt origins and motivations. By so doing it reveals its beneficent and healing power: the power to speak the truth about our desires and the world of others. By writing stories that dramatize writing and the fantasies of the imagination and then dramatizing their destruction, he escapes the realm of fantasy, of solipsism.

The final sentence here compresses a question that has preoccupied me for a long time: how does one escape genre? In Kafka's terms, how does one turn out the light of the self for the light of day?

Four years ago I wrote that JM Coetzee's The Death of Jesus might be characterised as the last novel, as it took form and content into a limbo of indeterminate clarity. It dramatises the fantasties of genre fiction in which otherwise we find freedom and safety, and does so to the point of sabotaging both, hence the consternation of professional critics. Could it be in its own way a three-volume decompression of The Judgment? The trilogy leaves us exposed to the open much as Kafka's story does; a kind of metaphysical exile, as Robert Pippin's calls it. It may also follow Josipovici's description of The Judgment as "a ritual of exorcism", reinforced by the name in each title. This potential to strip literature of its layers of protection from the outside is invariably missed, repressed or misunderstood because it is soon absorbed into the process of literary evaluation. We can see it in the celebrations of the belated centenary in collections such as this one subtitled Ten Kafkaesque Stories.

What happens when some of the most original literary minds of today take an idea, a mood or a line from his work and use it to spark something new?

How about a great fire for the vanities of fiction in a complete opening out of body and soul?

From a future society who ask their AI servants to construct a giant tower to reach God; to a flat hunt that descends into a comically absurd bureaucratic nightmare; to a population experiencing a wave of unbearable, contagious panic attacks, these ten specially commissioned stories are by turns mind-bending, funny, unsettling and haunting.

Oh right, the usual stuff.

Sunday, June 02, 2024

39 Books in one

For anyone interested (you there in the phone box), here's a PDF of the 39 Books series.

As the introduction explained, the books were chosen from those on my books-read lists that I hadn't written about before. I thought it might be instructive to contrast the books I did write about for each year. Before 2007, I wrote elsewhere and almost all reviews are now behind paywalls or offline due to webzines becoming defunct. After 2006, I wrote exclusively on this blog, barring Tao Lin's first novel which I found on Wayback Machine; included because I like the review's title. 

JM Coetzee – Diary of a Bad Year
Tao Lin – Eeeee Eee Eeee

Jeanette Winterson – The Stone Gods
Thomas Glavinic – Night Work

Dag Solstad – Novel 11, Book 18
Jonathan Littel – The Kindly Ones
Jean Echenoz – Ravel
Nick Cave – The Death of Bunny Munro
JM Coetzee – Summertime

Gabriel Josipovici – What Ever Happened to Modernism?
Paul Celan / Ingeborg Bachmann – Correspondence
Mathias Énard – Zone
Thomas Bernhard – My Prizes

Peter Handke – Across, Repetition, and The Afternoon of a Writer
Judith Hermann – Alice
Pascal Quignard – The Roving Shadows
Geoff Nicholson – The Lost Art of Walking
Jeffrey Lewis – The Meritocracy Quartet
Thomas Bernhard – Victor Halfwit
Samuel Beckett – Letters 1941-1956

Lars Iyer – Dogma
Gabriel Josipovici – Infinity
Edouard Levé – Suicide
Karl Ove Knausgaard – My Struggle vol. 1
Sinéad Murphy – The Art Kettle
Enrique Vila-Matas – Dublinesque
Karl Ove Knausgaard – A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven
Nicolas Cauwe – Easter Island: The Great Taboo
Paul Auster – Winter Journal

Lars Iyer – Exodus
Karl Ove Knausgaard – My Struggle vol. 2
Miguel de Beistegui – Proust as Philosopher
Michel Laub – Diary of the Fall
Reiner Stach – Kafka: The Years of Insight

Ágota Kristóf – The illiterate
Karl Ove Knausgaard – My Struggle vol. 3
Lars Iyer – Wittgenstein Jr
Tao Lin – Taipai
Georges Bataille – Prehistoric Painting: Lascaux or the Birth of Art

Jen Craig – Panthers and the Museum of Fire
Jeff Fort – The Imperative to Write
Gabriel Josipovici – Migrations
Ellis Sharp – Lamees Najim
Jill Stauffer – Ethical Loneliness

Thomas Bernhard – Goethe Dies
Charlie Hill – Stuff
Karl Ove Knausgaard – My Struggle vol. 5

Enrique Vila-Matas – Vampire in Love
Mathias Énard – Compass
Gabriel Josipovici – In a Hotel Garden
Rainer J. Hanshe and Federico Gori – Shattering the Muses
Karl Ove Knausgaard – Autumn
Peter Handke – To Duration

JM Coetzee – The Childhood and Schooldays of Jesus
Sarah Kofman – Smothered Words
Gabriel Josipovici – The Cemetery in Barnes
Dante – Vita Nuova
TJ Clark – Heaven on Earth: Painting and the Life to Come

Josef Czapski – Lost Time: Lectures on Proust
Kirsty Gunn – Caroline's Bikini
Ágota Kristóf – Yesterday
Mary Costello – The River Capture
Lars Iyer – Nietzsche and the Burbs

JM Coetzee – The Death of Jesus
Sam Pink – The Ice Cream Man and other stories
Gert Hofmann – Veilchenfeld
Willem Styfhals – No Spiritual Investment in the World

Peter Holm Jensen – The Moment
Sam Riviere – Dead Souls
Darren Allen – Drowning is Fine
Karl Ove Knausgaard – The Morning Star

Jerry Z. Muller – Professor of Apocalypse
Jean-Luc Champerret – The Lascaux Notebooks
Franz Kafka – The Aphorisms

Ellis Sharp – Month of the Drowned Dog
Lars Iyer – My Weil
Jen Craig – Wall
Kevin Hart – Maurice Blanchot on Poetry and Narrative
Richard Ford – Be Mine

Saturday, June 01, 2024

39 Books: 2023

This is the 39th and final post of this series. As the introduction explains, I began seeking a return to the short-form of the early days of blogging. And it started off well, with each entry written in no time, sometimes stirring up the sediment of initial enchantment. As I got to the later stages, however, questions arose, answers were inadequate, and freedom became confinement. In effect, 39 Books compresses twenty years of this blog into five weeks. There was also a secret hope that on completion I could put an end to this kind of writing, to escape the fortress that became a prison cell. Into what?

"Perhaps there are other forms of writing," writes Kafka to Max Brod, "but I know only this kind."

Except Kafka was talking about night writing:

This descent to the dark powers, this unshackling of spirits bound by nature, these dubious embraces and whatever else may take place in the nether parts which the higher parts no longer know, when one writes one’s stories in the sunshine.

The letter was written after a night in which Kafka had lain sleepless in the spa town of Planá during which he says it became clear to him "on what frail ground or rather altogether nonexistent ground I live". 

In 2023 I read Kari Hukkila's One Thousand and One translated from the Finnish by David Hackston, a novel written over such frail or nonexistent ground. The narrator is also in a spa. The cabin in the countryside in which he planned to escape finally to write what he needs to write had been damaged by fallen trees, so he sleeps in the sauna. What he writes from an uncertain elsewhere is patterned by such interruption. There are several in the first quarter of the book only: he visits Mara, a philosopher friend who has interrupted his life in Helsinki to live in Rome and who shares his ideas about Wittgenstein's life and work, itself full of self-imposed interruptions, a discourse interrupted by an irrational quest to find an Ethiopian illegal immigrant who had introduced lice into his bed after a one-night stand, both of which lead to a discussion of the poet Gunnar Björling who lost his life's work in a wartime bombing raid.

Readers may recognise that meandering between diverse and often melancholic stories of outsiders is a key technique of WG Sebald's novels, especially in The Rings of Saturn, as is the telescopic framing of the telling, notably in Austerlitz, itself a key technique of Thomas Bernhard's novels, as Sebald admitted with some concern, as is the displaced writer, such as Franz-Josef Murau also in Rome, so for those who revere Sebald's novels and reflect on what might have been had his life not been interrupted, One Thousand and One may provide the consolation of continuity. 

But for all of the pleasure of reading this novel and admiring Hukkila's weaving of the narrative strands, I couldn't help wonder what might interrupt the elegant spirals of the novel, or indeed if anything could.

Mara's talk of Wittgenstein reminds the narrator of how for the latter "the ideal and the self-destructive are irreparably intertwined". During his composition of the Tractatus, he deliberately put himself in extreme danger on the eastern front during the first world war:

And it was over the course of those days and nights, Mara believed, that the Tractatus started to change, though its exact wording only burst onto the page a month or two later. As though it had a life of its own, Wittgenstein's work had expanded from the foundations of logic to the very essence of the world...As if the foundation of logic itself had been the target of nocturnal enemy fire and was transfigured by something that helped it survive. There were things in the world that simply made themselves manifest, they could not be put into words. Life is the world, and the meaning of life is the meaning of the world.

A novel is neither life nor world, so what does it make manifest? Perhaps an ideal that, despite the descent to the dark powers, despite the many violent stories and stories of violence, can neither interrupt nor destroy itself. What helps it to survive?


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