Getting to Know Professor Kein

Professor Peter Kien: tall, emaciated and deliciosuly antisocial sinologist, the primary protagonist of Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fé is a brilliant achievement. I am only fifty pages into the book but delighted to have met such a unique character.

Sometimes Kien would meet, either in the street or in a bookshop, a barbarous fellow who amazed him by uttering a reasonable sentiment. In order to obliterate any impression which contradicted his contempt for the mass of mankind he would in such cases perform a small arithmetic calculation. How many words does this fellow speak in a single day? At a conservative reckoning ten thousand. Three of them are not without sense. By chance I overheard those three. The other words which whirl through his head at a rate of several hundred thousand per day, which he thinks but does not speak – one imbecility after another – are to be guessed merely by looking at his features; fortunately one does not have to listen to them.

Perfect.

Under the Sign of Saturn by Susan Sontag

Rare are those artists whose incandescence stretches to both writing fiction and literary essays: Coetzee, Woolf, Kundera. Though she preferred to be thought a novelist Susan Sontag’s fiction is grandiloquent, best avoided or as she says of Antonin Artaud “rewarding to … read bits of, but who overpower and exhaust if read in large quantities.” Sontag’s form was the essay where her mastery of language, erudition and pedagogic skill achieved its apotheosis. Whatever topic, Sontag’s essays are a joy to read, an adroitness she shares with Geoff Dyer and Gabriel Josipovici.

Under the Sign of Saturn includes a diverse selection of topics. My favourite is the essay on cultural extremist Antonin Artaud, of whom I knew little before. His attempt to create “total art,” an environment that was “magical, paroxysmic, purgative, and, finally opaque” was fascinating and sadly foredoomed, but what a noble ambition. I cannot decide whether I wish to go down the Artaud rathole, tempted though I am.

Artaud offers the greatest quantity of suffering in the history of literature. So drastic and pitiable are the numerous descriptions he gives of his pain that readers, overwhelmed, may be tempted to distance themselves by remembering that Artaud was crazy.

In other essays, Sontag unforgivingly, but necessarily, refutes the attempt to whitewash Leni Riefenstahl’s history as chief Nazi propagandist film-maker, and unpicks how fascist regalia was adopted for sexual theatre. She writes brilliantly of Walter Benjamin’s attraction to astrology and subjects him to a Saturnine  analysis. There are shorter, but illuminating, pieces on Barthes and Canetti.

The latter essay spurred me to follow these essays with Canetti’s only novel Auto-da-Fé (1946).

The Insufficiency of Literature

Consciousness as given can never wholly constitute itself in art but must strain to transform its own boundaries and to alter the boundaries of art. Thus, any single “work” has a dual status. It is both a unique and specific and already enacted literary gesture, and a meta-literary declaration (often strident, sometimes ironic) about the insufficiency of literature with respect to an ideal condition of consciousness and art. Consciousness conceived of as a project creates a standard that inevitably condemns the “work” to be incomplete. On the model of heroic consciousness that aims at nothing less than total self-appropriation, literature will aim at the “total book.” Measured against the idea of the total book, all writing, in practise, consists of fragments.The standard of beginnings, middles, and ends no longer applies. Incompleteness becomes the reigning modality of art and thought, giving rise to anti-genres-work that is deliberately fragmentary or self-cancelling, thought that undoes itself. But the successful overthrow of old standards does not require denying the failure of such art. As Cocteau says, “the only work which succeeds is that which fails.”

Susan Sontag – Approaching Artaud (1972)

Mercier and Camier by Beckett

Two old drifters, one tall, one short, a highly intrusive narrator and a cameo appearance by Watt. Beside the acerbic narrator the book consists mostly of dialogue and is often very funny.

In a meditation of Mercier and Camier Keith Ridgeway (@kthrdgwy on Twitter) wrote:

Perhaps it is this that is greatest about Mercier and Camier – its timing, its place in the chronology, the knowledge on the part of the reader, and hinted at by the author, of what’s about to follow. It’s ungainly, but probably not inaccurate, to describe it as a practice piece. In it, Beckett rules out, once and for all, the idea that he can achieve what he wants to achieve in prose with anything other than a monologue. And in doing so, he bids a kind of farewell to what had gone before.

If you’ve read Murphy and Watt you’ll be familiar with both the milieu and characters. Though the protagonists are vastly different, in the banter I kept hearing echoes of Spurious.

We didn’t leave anything in the pockets by any chance? said Mercier.
Punched tickets of all sorts, said Camier, spent matches, scraps of newspaper bearing in their margins the obliterated traces of irrevocable rendezvous, the classic last tenth of pointless pencil, crumples of soiled bumpf, a few porous condoms, dust. Life in short.
Nothing we’ll be needing? said Mercier.
Did you not hear what I said? said Camier. Life.

Inner Workings by J. M. Coetzee

Literary essays by novelists are rarely worth reading. Coetzee, like Woolf and Kundera, is an exception. Inner Workings is compiled from five introductions by Coetzee to contemporary editions of works by Graham Greene, Arthur Miller, Robert Musil, Samuel Beckett and Hugo Claus, together with 15 essays for The New York Review of Books.

Two-thirds of the book deals with the literary achievement of the generation of cultured Jewish writers that emerged from the wreckage of the House of Hapsburg (with Walser, Musil and Celan my high-points). The last third is primarily post Second World War British and American writers, and a few contemporaries.

Unlike some novelist-turned-critics, Martin Amis leaps to mind, Coetzee’s reviews are courteous and balanced, no histrionic name calling, but with the wit to place a writer firmly under scrutiny. I mostly concur with his implication that Walter Benjamin was a political poseur who frequently reached beyond his ability to sustain a project, but I cannot claim any deep reading of Benjamin.

To add depth to his criticism, Coetzee provides historical context. As an adept in the English, Afrikaans, Dutch and German languages he is also uniquely able to comment on the translators’ craft. Although praising Michael Hofmann for the expression, poise and precision of his English, he has concerns about his translations of Joseph Roth.

A rewarding set of essays from one of the major writers of our day – I’ve already ordered the set of essays that precedes this collection.

An Infinite Amount of Hope

Odd figures recur in the tales of Kafka and Walser, childlike yet with the potential for duplicity. That the assistants in The Castle have their prototype in Walser’s Jakob Von Gunten did not escape Coetzee’s attention.

In Illuminations Walter Benjamin likens these resolute figures to the gandharvas of Indian mythology: “celestial creatures, beings in an unfinished state.”

Benjamin retells Brod’s account of a conversation with Kafka:

‘I remember,’ Brod writes, ‘ a conversation with Kafka which began with present-day Europe and the decline of the human race. “We are nihilistic thoughts, suicidal thoughts that come into God’s head,” Kafka said. This reminded me at first of the Gnostic view of life: God as the evil demiurge, the world as his Fall. “Oh no,” said Kafka, “our world is only a bad mood of God, a bad day of his.” “Then there is hope outside this manifestation of the world that we know.” He smiled. “Oh, plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope – but not for us.”

Benjamin adds, ‘These words provide a bridge to those extremely strange figures in Kafka, the only ones who have escaped from the family circle, and for whom there may be hope.’

Tuesday Links

Possibly a one-off but some links below to web sites that inspired me this week, all of which I wish to come back to in the near future:

Interpolation’s reasoning for reading good literature.

The Millions’ consideration of Harold Bloom.

The freshly minted Why Not Burn Books?

I am excited about Geoff Dyer’s next book, a study of one of my favourite films.

A Geoff Dyer  (But Beautiful) Spotify playlist.

A Haruki Murakami Spotify playlist.

Spotify writers’ playlists.

Hans Henny Jahnn, an intriguing writer, sadly very little in English translation.

Kafka: A Bibliography of Criticism (updated 24 Aug 2011)

Type “Kafka” into Google and you can choose from more than 14,000,000 English language sites-twice as many as for James Joyce. In Kafka: The Decisive Years Reiner Stach writes of ‘ well worn “complete interpretations” from the 1950s and 1960s, handbooks and tomes that explicate specific passages, essay collections, dreadfully hefty but nonetheless outdated bibliographies, and finally an immense array of academic monographs on the structure of fragment x, the influence of author y, or the concept of z “in Kafka.” As a reader of many of these volumes I agree with Stach’s conclusion of their value:

Disillusionment soon follows. Most of this material consists of unsupported speculation or academic verbiage. No Theory is too far-fetched to have been advocated somewhere by someone; there is no methodological approach that has not been used to interpret Kafka’s work. Some monographs resemble autistic games; it is impossible to imagine a reader who might reasonably benefit from them.

Although it is possible to revel in Kafka’s artistry without reading a single word of criticism, it is natural after reading the short stories and the three incomplete novels to dip into the diaries and letters. From there a curious mind is drawn to biography and interpretation. Disillusion swiftly follows.

I could use some help to compile a short list of essential Kafka criticism. What are the genuinely enlightening essays or books? After suggestions from Steve Mitchelmore and Flowerville I have updated the bibliography:

  1. Kafka: The Decisive Years – Reiner Stach
  2. The I Without a Self (The Dyer’s Hand) – W. H. Auden
  3. Lambent Traces: Kafka – Stanley Corngold
  4. A Bird Was In The Room (Writing and the Body) – Gabriel Josipovici
  5. Kafka’s Children (Singer on the Shore) – Gabriel Josipovici
  6. Kafka’s Other Trial: The Letters to Felice – Elias Canetti
  7. The Castrating Shadow of Saint Garta (Testaments Betrayed) – Milan Kundera
  8. Reading Kafka and Kafka & Literature (The Work of Fire) – Maurice Blanchot
  9. Franz Kafka: The Necessity of Form - Stanley Corngold
  10. Kafka: An Art for the Wilderness (The Lessons of Modernism) - Gabriel Josipovici
  11. Notes on Kafka (Prisms) – Adorno
  12. K. - Roberto Calasso
  13. Conversations With Kafka – Gustav Janouch
  14. Kafka: A Collection of Critical Essays – Ronald Gray, ed.
  15. The Metamorphosis (Lectures on Literature) – Vladimir Nabokov
  16. Kafka, Rilke and Rumpelstiltskin (Speak, Silence) – Idris Parry
  17. Kafka and the Work’s Demand  (The Space of Literature) – Maurice Blanchot
Excluded from this list because I consider them inferior are Brod’s biography (interesting but unreliable), Pietro Citati’s hagiography and Deleuze and Guattari’s showiness.
[21 Aug: Added a second Blanchot, Gray, Parry and Nabokov; deleted Pawel's biography due to speculation and inaccuracies. 24 Aug: Removed Benjamin's two Kafka essays (Illuminations)]

The Girl, the Lady, and the Woman

Felice Bauer

Biographers choke in the attempt to breathe life into Felice Bauer. During her five-year relationship with Kafka, the pair wrote to each other often daily. What remains is a one-sided correspondence: 511 letters, postcards and letter fragments from young Franz to Felice. After their permanent separation Kafka burnt Felice’s letters. “The whole corpus of letters,” writes Reiner Stach, “[has] the character of a monstrous monologue.”

The common notion that Felice Bauer was a kind of blank canvas that Kafka filled with all kinds of projections comes from this unavoidably one-sided reading matter.

In Kafka: The Decisive Years Reiner Stach through careful reading of Kafka’s letters learns a great deal about Felice. Kafka’s encouragement to Felice for vivid details of her life, often diarised, which he paraphrased and quoted back to her provides a rich source for an attentive biographer.

Stach’s is the only Kafka biography I’ve read that successfully resuscitates Felice Bauer, restoring to us the woman who obsessed Kafka during their epistolary relationship. Daughter of a highly conservative family, hard-working and over-achieving career woman, scared of the dark and prone to crying jags. “Two images of femininity, the woman who protects and the woman who is protected.”

What is Kafkaesque?

Is there any writer whose works and person has generated as much secondary literature as Kafka? For a writer that “left about forty complete prose texts [...] nine [of which] can be called stories” the secondary outweighs the primary literature. As Reiner Stach says in the first volume of his work Kafka: The Decisive Years, “Indeed, it appears unlikely that if Kafka were to rise from the dead, he would be able to tell us something that has not already been discussed.”

Unlike so many of the speculative contributions to the cult of Kafka, Stach’s book (so far) has a different heft. Stach explains, “My biography of Franz Kafka does not fill in the gaps. All the details, even occurrences that are self-evident, are documented; nothing has been invented.”

Any reader of Kafka’s diaries or Brod’s biography of Kafka knows the importance to Kafka of his story The Judgement. Stach detects this as the text where Kafka’s dominant themes came together for the first time.

Suddenly-without guide or precedent, it seemed-the Kafka cosmos was at hand, fully equipped with the “Kafkaesque” inventory that now gives his work its distinctive character: the father figure who is both overpowering and dirty, the hollow rationality of the narrator, the juridical structures imposed on life, the dream logic of the plot, and last but not least, the flow of the story perpetually at odds with the hopes and expectations of the hero. Reinhard Baumgart has correctly noted that by comparison the short pieces in Meditation seem like “probationary prose,” writing that is still tentative in its radicalism and just manages to steer clear of struggle and catastrophe. Indeed, if we take literally Kafka’s famous sentence from the “Letter to His Father-”My writing was about you”-this writing dodged its central subject for a good fifteen years, which explains Kafka’s shock of recognition when he contemplated “The Judgement.” For the first time he had linked theme, imagery, and plot to ignite a spark between literature and life. He called the brightness of this spark “indubitability.”

This volume is the first of three written by Reiner Stach. Translated by Shelley Frisch, who is working on translating the second volume from German to English.

[Coincidentally Tales from the Reading Room is also thinking of Kafka today.]