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.


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.’

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.]

Invoking the Sanity Clause

Fiorello: Hey, wait, wait. What does this say here, this thing here?
Driftwood: Oh, that? Oh, that’s the usual clause that’s in every contract. That just says, uh, it says, uh, if any of the parties participating in this contract are shown not to be in their right mind, the entire agreement is automatically nullified.
Fiorello: Well, I don’t know…
Driftwood: It’s all right. That’s, that’s in every contract. That’s, that’s what they call a sanity clause.
Fiorello: Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! You can’t fool me. There ain’t no Sanity Clause!

The first film that the Marx Brothers made for MGM, A Night at the Opera is on my list of top-5 films. The scene above never fails to brighten my mood.

I am invoking the Sanity Clause on my participation in the Art of the Novella Reading Challenge. Thirteen books down, I am beyond Passionate. With the last novella, I reached my delight ceiling and this challenge began to feel less like fun and more like hard slog. For the rest of the month I’ll be cheerleading Frances in her continued attempt to read all 42 novellas in the series.

The thirteen books I read for the Art of the Novella Reading Challenge were:

  1. Benito Cereno by Herman Melville
  2. First Love by Ivan Turgenev
  3. The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg by Mark Twain
  4. The Duel by Joseph Conrad
  5. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
  6. My Life by Chekhov
  7. Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia by Samuel Johnson
  8. Stempenyu: A Jewish Romance by Sholem Aleichem
  9. The Devil by Tolstoy
  10. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  11. The Death of Ivan Ilych by Tolstoy
  12. The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl by Italo Svevo
  13. Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley
Two of the thirteen I disliked, and two I thought first-rate. The others brought pleasure. There are some brilliant stories in the remaining twenty-nine novellas, which I look forward to reading at a more leisurely pace. For now, having digested thirteen new stories and many more memorable characters, I have binged on fiction. It is time for a little poetry, some diaries perhaps and non-fiction.


I am travelling all week on “planes, trains and automobiles.” Instead of reading novellas, I am distracted by James Wood’s article in the latest New Yorker on ‘Secularism and it’s discontents.’ In the article Wood cites Max Weber’s reference to “disenchantment,” central to Josipovici’s position on modernism.

Since the nineteenth century, the disappearance of God has often been considered elegiacally, as a loss or a lack. A century ago, the German sociologist Max Weber asserted that the modern, Godless age, was characterised by a sense of “disenchantment.” Weber seems to have meant that without God or religion modern man moves in a rational, scientific world, without appeal to the supernatural and salvific, and is perhaps condemned to search fruitlessly for a meaning that was once vouchsafed for religious believers.

Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley

A screenwriter makes a pitch:

Parnassus on Wheels is the story of itinerant book sellers wrapped around a romance between an overweight domestic goddess and a pugnacious leprechaun. We’re thinking Hattie Jacques:

And Robin Cook as the book-peddler:

We’ve got George Roy Hill to direct. Who? He did Garp, he does great sweet and cutesy.

Apologies for my lack of romance, but I found this story mawkish (a splendid Norse word, with its origins in the obsolete mawk ‘maggot’). In other circumstances I’d have thrown the book aside, twenty pages in, once the curiosity about the book wagon was satisfied.

Please read Frances’s sensible post about this book.

[Read as part of Frances’s and Melville House’s The Art of the Novella Reading Challenge.]

The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl by Italo Svevo

Hogarth Edition

One of those writers I keep meaning to get around to, Italo Svevo’s best known work is The Confessions of Zeno. Svevo was tutored by James Joyce, then an English teacher at the Berlitz school in Trieste. Joyce reputedly used Svevo as his model for Leopold Bloom. This English edition of The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl was translated by the Woolf’s Hogarth Press. Translated by Lacy Collison-Morley, the translation was criticised in the TLS review (1931): ” … important qualities of the Italian edition [are] missing from the English translation.”

In common with Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan IlychSvevo deals with mortality and sexual obsession. Tonally the two books could not be more different, instead of Tolstoy’s lacerating prose The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl has a toothsome, ironic tone. The theme is the perennial morality of old men desiring young women, and the consequences of taking action. My expectations for the book were greater than my enjoyment, but I found pleasure in the depiction of the old man and his moral vacillations.

The Death of Ivan Ilych by Tolstoy

Opisthotonus by Charles Bell

Mortality is the theme of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, an unrelenting story, after which you will pray that when your time comes, the ending is quick.

The novella opens with Ivan Ilych’s funeral, clear is the self-interest of his widow and colleagues. This same self-interest is at the heart of Ivan Ilych’s life. Bullied by his wife, Ilych indulges his authority as a judge. Tolstoy’s description of the loneliness of the failed marriage is dazzling.

There were still occasional stirrings of affection, but they didn’t last long; they were islets where the couple might anchor for awhile, knowing they’d nonetheless have to set out again on a sea of veiled enmity that was expressed in their alienation from each other.

His preoccupation with power and status comes to an abrupt end when Ilych falls ill. Though he soon learns his illness is terminal, doctors debate the precise diagnosis. With the clarity of those in excruciating pain, Ilych sees the disinterest and disregard of those around him. As he approaches death Ilych sees the futility of his life; in the midst of a harrowing death, he discovers selflessness.

Unlike The Devil, this is a fully developed, outstanding novella. Tolstoy’s depiction of a terminal illness is shredding in its power. A scene in which Ilych’s family stand beside his sick-bed, ready for a night at the opera, is every bit as potent as the closing scene in Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

With Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, my tenth book read as part of the Art of the Novella Reading Challenge, I pass Passionate level. Thus far, this tenth novella is my favourite.

Both author and book are new to me. Published in 1899, I am dazzled that Chopin wrote so courageously, prefiguring Virginia Woolf and second-wave feminists like Doris Lessing. (Perhaps Emily or someone who knows more of Chopin can tell me whether Woolf read and found inspiration in The Awakening, which shares some of Woolf’s lyricism and heavy use of symbolism.)

The story is of the growing self-awareness, and need for independence, of a New Orleans housewife, no longer able to suffer the confines of her conventional marriage or societal etiquette.

It sometimes entered Mr. Pontellier’s mind to wonder if his wife were not growing a little unbalanced mentally. He could plainly see that she was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world.

Edna, the story’s protagonist, casts aside her fictitious self, rejecting the proscribed model of wife and mother. In the end, this proves too challenging even for the man she loves. His departure catalyzes Edna’s inability to live independently in the society of her day.

Emily wrote essays on The Awakening at school; Frances wrote: “You either already know or can imagine where Edna is headed, but if you have not already, you should read this.” I could not agree more.