Joanna Walsh’s Worlds From the Word’s End

Every four hours I tested my temperature. Sanity slips away on that threshold between high fever and very high fever; in the spaces I read. What else? Reading was a clear but dense broth; examined more closely: a complex refinement of Kafka’s and Lydia Davis’s short stories dusted with a little Calvino, known for its nutrient qualities. When the fever ended, the dreams remained, as did the stories of Joanna Walsh in Worlds From the Word’s End.

When the fever was over, I read these stories again and found them possessed by the spectral figures that I recognised from the fiction-induced vivid dreams of my high fever. Walsh lulls us calmly in with apparently simple wordplay but there are horrors here you may not want to possess your waking and sleeping thoughts: that demon who has read all  those neglected books on your bookshelves, or that wonder-awful-place where words go out of fashion.

Like a film director or a painter, for these are stories with high visual depth, Walsh invites us to escape reality for a few hours, or at least acknowledge the possibility that reality is not as we may perceive. On both readings, I found it important to give these stories room to space their shapes, colours and textures, to balance philosophical tendencies, to develop often banal situations. What excited me most were the ideas that exhibit a fine, skilful query into the nature of being in the world.

Reiner Stach: Kafka Biography

A Kafka industry exists. Yet, of the two guides I spoke to in Prague this year, the first informed me that Kafka had never been published, the second that Kafka lived most of his life in Paris. Why of all writers does Kafka return to us in so many different ways? Do the contradictions and ambiguities of his extraordinary stories somehow feed a Kafka mythology that turns him into an allegorical figure living on the threshold between life and death? “Life is a state of being, not an activity,” writes Reiner Stach, “You find out only at the end whether you had a life.”

This year provided the third and final volume of Reiner Stach’s biography of Franz Kafka, chronologically the first. The order of publication was dictated by legal wrangling, availability of sources and doesn’t particularly matter. Stach’s achievement is to have written, eventually, the only definitive biography of Kafka. This is an odd assertion, and there are indeed some attempts at biography. As a Kafka completist, I’ve read all those in print in English language. Stach would possibly argue with the term ‘definitive”. He writes, “The real life of Franz Kafka? Certainly not. But a fleeting glance at it, or an extended look, yes, perhaps that is possible.”

Stach’s book is strange in wonderful ways. There are some magnificent literary biographies, of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, Samuel Johnson, and Jacques Derrida. Stach does something different and in doing so raises the bar for how biographers can give readers a sense of where a writer’s sense of vision emerges from. By presenting Kafka’s life as a succession of forces–historic, literary, places, personal encounters–and setting these collisions within a context of time, environment, social milieu and class, Stach brings readers closer to understanding how these forces impacted and shaped his thoughts and writing.

Like any capable biographer, Stach uses Kafka’s extensive literary legacy of letters, diaries and primary works, but also, especially for this newly published Early Years edition reads against the grain and interrogates material found in school friends’ diaries, educational and employment records, and newspapers of the day. Often the literary biography of a favourite writer reflects our desire to continue our acquaintance with a writer after exhausting their primary work. Stach’s biography is more interesting and provides another centre of gravity to understanding Kafka’s sensibility. Although there are always the texts a biographer cannot alter, the very best literary biographies allow us to return to a writer’s work with greater sensitivity and reflectiveness. With Stach’s biography of Kafka, the more reductive linear inventory of facts that claims to constitute a biography is now exhausted as a sub-genre.

Of course, of paramount importance in bringing this colossal biography to the English-speaking world is the work of translator Shelley Frisch. Her close collaboration with Stach over almost two decades makes it possible for readers to now read a life of Kafka from the Early Years, to the end of his forty or so years of life. In his closing words, Stach thanks Frisch for her translation that he says is, “without any loss of textual precision and in a marvellously elegant linguistic form”. Michael Hofmann once described the translator as a conduit, writing “It is an urgent, interior, invisible and, if things are going well, (in detail) unnoticed activity …” Frisch’s sensitive and intelligent work demonstrates that great translation is not only invisible but indivisible: great translation is great literature.

A Key to Unfamiliar Rooms

Valerio ADAMI, Excelsior, 2009

Turning back to Stach’s Kafka, some resonances and reverberations:

“Kafka had a strong preference for deep conversations with a small group of friends, and if confronted with too many faces and voice, he tended to sink into daydreams–and look almost apathetic–or slip into the role of an intent and smiling but silent observer. Both reactions were perceived as aloofness, and Kafka’s prim and proper clothing, only heightened this impression, and so it too patience and empathy not to misread his appearance as an affectation.”

“Nevertheless, this friendship [Kafka and Felix Weltsch] never developed the intensity of Kafka’s bond with Brod–even Weltsch’s written recollections of Kafka are oddly bland–most likely because Weltsch did not look to writing for existential expression and was therefore shielded from the torments of literary productivity. Both were after the truth. For Kafka, this pursuit remained a problem of linguistic and visual expression, burdened with a great many subjective reservations and the profound skepticism about language that was quite widespread at the turn of the century, while Weltsch’s approach to philosophical problems was based on his view that education and precise thinking were the best routes to solutions.”

“Many a book,” he wrote to Oskar Pollak, “seems like a key to unfamiliar rooms in one’s own castle.”

“Instead, Kafka pursued these perplexing trains of thought as a reader of literature, keenly observing the waves of mutually enhancing associations that emanated from them. If they welled up with particular intensity, he concluded that he had touched on an inner, subjective truth of which he had been unaware until that moment–a process he was able to grasp only on imagery.”

My Year of Reading: 2016

I bear no guilt for reading fewer books this year than any other in recent memory – I regret only my morbid fascination with the sulphurous news, as the worst aspects of human nature become manifest. My natural refuge in literature has proved insufficient distraction to the horrifying potency of watching vultures tearing at a creature’s entrails, gripped and subdued by the grisly pantomime. I don’t wish to drown in the spectacle. I must find balance and some self-discipline, though only imagine that this year is merely grisly prelude to further gross stupidity and narcissism next year.

It is Jorge Semprún’s writing that proved most alluring this year. In writing Literature or Life, he chose to end a “long cure of aphasia, of voluntary amnesia” to write this lightly fictionalised memoir, controlling and channeling his complex memories of the evil exerted during his incarceration in Buchenwald. I read backwards to the lyrical reticence of The Long Voyage, an almost dispassionate account of the cattle train journey to the concentration camp”. Semprún reassures that it is possible to both write poetically and read about barbarism. Literature or Life is one of those books that sit on one’s shelves for years before one is compelled to read even a sentence. The image that lingers most intensely from Literature or Life is his consideration of which books to take on a return to Buchenwald to film a documentary about the camp. In the end he opts for Mann’s The Beloved Returns and a volume of Celan, who perhaps has written the greatest poems about the Holocaust. Semprún quotes a verse from Celan, “hoping, today/ for a thinking man’s/ future word/ in my heart.”

Another book that languished unread on my shelves was a fine first edition of Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai. Greatness resides in this wonderfully singular story of a mother and son obsessed with Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai. I was swept helplessly along by the the torrent of DeWitt’s thought who brings into her novel not only Kurosawa but Ptolemaic Alexandria, Ancient Greek and Fourier analysis. There is a curious quality to the work –stark, lonely, even sadistic– it is one of the most original novels of our time, original as regards sensibility.

I discovered Max Frisch’s work this year. Frisch’s novels offer up a world where no-one is allowed to rest easy; self is thrown back upon uneasy self. There is no escape. Not that Frisch is without hope; his novels unfold the twisted and often darkly comic search for a way out. It is Homo Faber that made the deepest impression, its melancholy cadences contrasting with the ice burn revelation of an incestuous relationship with his daughter.

This year also gave me Anna Kavan’s haunting imagery. The stories in Julie and the Bazooka and I am Lazarus read like a heightened version of Burroughs’s fantasies. Kavan can be gruesomely funny, but with a richness that lies in her proximity to the sensory and the unconscious. It is the chilling tales of narcosis wards that remain, months after reading these stories, the struggle to awaken from speechless unconsciousness. Kavan’s writing, though piercingly clear, is best taken in small doses for its horror and loneliness weighs numbly on the heart.

I’ve read Christopher Logue’s Homer in part during its long evolution but War Music collects all the parts of his adaption of the Iliad into a single edition. This is Homer channelled through Logue’s erudition and the jarring of modern technology. It is a creative ‘translation that shouldn’t work but Logue invigorates an epic that always appears modern.

As the year approaches its end, Reiner Stach’s Kafka: The Early Years is casting a very strong spell over me, This first volume is the last of three to be published due to an overhanging lawsuit. Auden wrote, “Biographies of writers are always superfluous and usually in bad taste”, but there are a few brilliant, definitive biographies that count as essential. This and Stach’s companion piece Is that Kafka? restore Kafka from cliché so we might return to his writing anew.

Here is a list of the 55 books I’ve read so far this year.

Reiner Stach’s Is That Kafka? 99 Finds

Certain ghosts appear and vanish while wandering around Prague, none more so than Kafka. Little of the city Kafka knew remains but he looms in the background, now enthusiastically adopted by his native city, or at least its tourist board. Kafka is now considered a Prague writer, though plays no part in the Czech educational curriculum and is subject to gross simplifications and frequent misinformation by tour guides and locals.

A less obvious ghost was Roth’s Zuckerman, perpetually anxious about the relationship between art and life. Zuckerman meets a character who “administers the culture of Czechoslovakia, whose job is to bring the aims of literature into line with the aims of society, to make literature inefficient, from a social point of view”, which seemed  apt.

While in Prague this week, I read Reiner Stach’s Is That Kafka? 99 Finds. Any aspiring or present Prague tour guide ought to be obliged to read this fascinating book, hopefully acting as a gateway drug to Stach’s magnificent three-volume life of Kafka, translated into English, a decade’s work, by Shelley Frisch. (The third and final volume is due next month.)

Despite the lucidity of Kafka’s writing and the ordinariness of his life, he is perhaps more misunderstood than any other writer and subject to easy generalisation. Thanks to the letters, diaries, aphorisms, fragments, parables, and traces we find of Kafka in his extraordinary fiction, we know as much about Kafka as we need. In Is That Kafka? 99 Finds, Stach normalises Kafka, destabilising the Franz Kafka that has become an adjective for an existential condition. Stach delivers 99 facts that could have been relegated to footnotes in his biography but stand alone to give a more colourful picture of Kafka’s preoccupations, and how he wove these as motifs into his stories.

Forgotten Writers, Anna Kavan and Denton Welch

Why is it that certain writers get forgotten or as Jeremy Reed puts it of Anna Kavan, discovered anew by each successive generation? Often these are writers that belong to no particular sect or school of writers. They are literary exiles, needles in a haystack that are rarely found. Why is it that Kafka, Woolf and Ballard are stocked on the shelves of any bookshop worth a diversion, but the peculiar delights of Anna Kavan and Denton Welch require dedication and perseverance.

In his Anna Kavan biography, A Stranger on Earth, Jeremy Reed writes, “If the author does not network or promote a book, it is as good as dead. Unless they are in the know, how does anyone differentiate the good from the bad? How do you find Anna Kavan?” I’ve known of Anna Kavan’s existence for some time but it was a Twitter comment from @FarSouthProject that drew an analogy between Julia and the Bazooka and Denton Welch’s A Voice Through a Cloud that compelled me to urgently explore Anna Kavan’s work.

As I read Julia and the Bazooka, I laughed grimly. The analogy is perfect in some ways, not for the books’ subject matter but for their supersensitive and singular way of interpreting the world. I am too accustomed to that strange and formative concoction of a parent that dies in early childhood, followed by neglect, and being passed from household to household until old enough for boarding school. I come to Denton Welch and Anna Kavan as a familiar and can promise little objectivity. I recognise the emotional numbness and dissociative state that continually compromises social relationships. I recognise also the tendency to fantasy but unlike Denton Welch and Anna Kavan have been unable to turn that world of imagination into beautiful stories. Instead of writing I have a pleasant supply of rich books to distract me, and now and then I jot down here or in my notebooks some thoughts about them. I am a dabbler that wrestles between dreams and realities.

I have dropped my mask a moment because it is precisely what Anna Kavan does in the fifteen stories in Julia and the Bazooka. These, like Denton Welch’s stories, are deeply personal considerations that deal in different ways with the alienation of self and otherness. It is a mode of fiction that directly engages the imagination to unravel the influence of the unconscious on the writer’s conscious behaviour. It is influenced not only by Anna Kavan’s history, memory and trauma but also by collective and shared memories. Unlike Kafka, Woolf and Ballard, Anna Kavan and Denton Welch are not first and foremost storytellers, but writers that use fiction to try to understand how psychological projections and inflated identifications drive or drain psychic energy and underpin our deceptions.

Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co.

After spending most of November with the resolute voice of Brigid Brophy, my inclination was for something more wavering. Enrique Vila-Matas’s Barleby & Co., eighty-six footnotes commenting on an invisible text, satisfied this urge despite a sense that it doesn’t quite succeed as a novel.

Has everything been written? Can language and fiction capture life in any meaningful way? The works of writers like Beckett, Kafka, Musil, Celan, Walser, Duras circle around these questions. In Bartleby & Co., Vila-Matas’s narrator asks “What is writing and where is it?”

For some time now I have been investigating the frequent examples of Bartleby’s syndrome in literature, for some time I have studied the illness, the disease endemic to contemporary letters, the native impulse or attraction towards nothingness that means that certain creators, while possessing a very demanding literary conscience (or perhaps precisely because of this), never manage to write; either they write one or two books and then stop altogether or, working on a project, seemingly without problems, one day they become literally paralysed for good.

Had this introduction been to a work of literary criticism by a particularly perceptive critic, I can imagine few more exciting themes for scrutiny. As a work of fiction and limited to some extent by choosing to structure the novel as a series of footnotes, generally marked by brevity and concision, the investigation of Bartleby’s syndrome is comprised of a superficial recounting, mostly anecdotal, of what Vilas-Matas calls ‘writers of the No’.

For the most part this is quite satisfying to someone absorbed by stories of writers and their milieu but by the time the footnotes hit the high sixties I was craving more depth. Of course, Vilas-Matas is sufficiently astute to recognise the potential fatigue.

. . . I am going to have to fall sooner or later, like it or not, since it would be naive of me to ignore the fact that these footnotes are beginning to look more and more like Mondrian’s surfaces, full of squares which give the viewer the impression that they extend beyond the canvas and see – of course! – to encapsulate infinity, and, if this is the way I am heading, as I think I am, I shall be forced into the paradox of eclipsing myself by a single gesture.

This of course is a novel and not to be judged as a work of literary criticism. The difficulty is that the shadow of the narrator is so muted that it is all to easy to forget it is a fictional treatment. It has precisely the wavering quality I hungered for after so much Brigid Brophy but like Never Any End to Paris the overall impression is of something slight. In the end I shall treat it more like a work of non-fiction and follow some of the very many literary trails that Vila-Matas lays down in pursuit of his Bartlebys.