“I have no literary interests, but am made of literature. I am nothing else and cannot be anything else,” wrote Kafka in one of the five-hundred letters saved by his on-off fiancée Felice Bauer, a condition further exemplified in his short story In the Penal Settlement, in which a prisoner is punished by needles inscribing a text onto his skin, doubly punished by being forced to simultaneously read the inscription in a glass refractor.
In Montano’s Malady, Enrique Vila-Matas’ narrator invokes Ital Calvino as, “one of the first friends to open Tutankhamen’s tomb, by which I mean Pavese’s diary, a dangerous diary because it might infect whoever reads it with despair.” Vila-Matas’ narrator is afflicted by being “literature-sick”, so saturated with literature that it permeates every sphere of his life.
Montano’s Malady, like the other books of his I’ve read, is composed as a form of autobiography of questionable factual accuracy. His fictional universe is one of depths, leading a reader on a quest for core truths about origin and identity, a search that is never quite satisfied. It is reminiscent of Nabokov’s later fiction, a precarious dance of seven veils that I got bored with eventually, feeling overly manipulated. Persist through the manipulations of the first eponymous chapter and the reward is a story that combines structural complexity with a lightness of touch.
“made of literature” – that’s wonderful, and true of many readers I think…
So true, there is a lot that resonated in Montano’s Malady too.
I remember the title as “In the Penal Colony.” “Settlement” might better connote the law aspect of the story.
I might be wrong, but “settlement” is from the Muir’s first translation from German, Secker and Warburg edition from late 1940s.
I’ve a copy of “The Penal Colony: Stories and Short Pieces” (First Schocken Paperback edition, 1961, Eighteenth Printing, 1972; Copyright 1948 by Schocken Books, Library of Congress No. 48-9742; Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir). The story t here is titled “In the Penal Colony.” It’s no big deal, but I find different translation changes interesting. For example, my copy shows, at the opening to “The Metamorphosis,” “uneasy dreams,” and “a gigantic insect.” Susan Bernofsky has “troubled dreams,” and “monstrous insect.” She has a good explanation in TNY: https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/on-translating-kafkas-the-metamorphosis where she says Kafka’s friends called it his “bug story.”
It is fascinating how translations change over time. In the 1949 (and later editions) S&W “The Metamophosis” is “The Transformation; and what is later translated as “The Verdict” is “The Judgement”. The S&W edition is limited to just those stories that were published in Kafka’s lifetime.