The Real Question

This passage from Gabriel Josipovici’s introduction to his The Mirror of Criticism seems to me to pin down the most real but least well understood question and challenge of literature, any writing that aspires to be literary:

“. . . confirms Kafka in his feelings that the well-written work [Gerhard Hauptmann’s Anna], however well it is written, holds no interest for him. It makes him realise once more (the remark comes in a letter written towards the end of his life) that for him the real question has never been: How can I write as well as this? but: Why should I write this kind of thing at all? And, if not this, then what? The encounter with [Hans] Arp’s work reveals to [Wallace] Stevens, through what it lacks, that the greatest art is an affront as well as a pleasure; that there is an art which is good, intelligent, aesthetically pleasing, but which we will never feel to be really important because it never quite dares to be more than that, to recognise its dangerous power.”

— Gabriel Jospovici, The Mirror of Criticism

Uncommon Readers

A genuine interest in criticism is an achievement in creation.

Marianne Moore

In selecting the title for this post, I should point out that it in no way refers to that dreadful Alan Bennett novel, but is a term that Christopher Knight uses to single out three especially perceptive readers: Denis Donoghue, Frank Kermode, and George Steiner. In his book Uncommon Readers, Knight describes these as critics “who bring to their reviews less a position (though positions they have) than an acute intelligence, prepared to be provoked by the last book they have read and to place it at the centre of a discussion that ripples outward.”

Donoghue, Kermode, and Steiner are generally considered rather conservative, anti-theory critics, but such labels are unnecessarily reductive. James Wood is the contemporary public critic placed in a similar pigeon-hole. All three of the former are touchstone critics that I’ll read for their insight into literature, but also because of the lucidity and elegance of their work.

Virginia Woolf in How It Strikes a Contemporary wrote that any common reader possesses the capacity to interpret a text, providing they are willing to be intellectually challenged. Her goal was to create a system in which a common reader is also a common critic. My Links list on the right of this blog connects to several common readers and critics who would fit into Knight’s definition as uncommonly perceptive readers.

Criticism is rewarding when it confirms my perspective, but thrilling when it changes the way I see a book (or film or whatever). These are the critics I turn to repeatedly, not just for their insight into literature, but also for the sheer headiness of their writing: Christopher Ricks, Virginia Woolf, Hugh Kenner, Susan Sontag, Joseph Brodsky, Martha Nussbaum, Gabriel Josipovici, Edward Said, Harold Bloom, Cynthia Ozick, Guy Davenport, Marjorie Perloff, Zadie Smith, and Helen Vendler.

No doubt there is someone significant that I’ve forgotten from this list. Please feel free to remind me, or let me know of the critics you read for sheer pleasure.

 

Sontag’s Diaries 1964-1980

Susan Sontag in 1972

Rain provides the excuse not to go out and be busy, but to drink tea and finish Susan Sontag’s 1964-1980 Diaries: As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh. Like the first volume of diaries, Reborn (2009), these entries show a different Sontag to the assured essayist. The bones of the fierce essays are here, but so also is the unvarnished emotion of Sontag’s quest for intimacy and love.

The diaries reveal tantalising outlines of works, some realised and others abandoned, and lists and opinions like these:

“New” British novelists: B. S. Johnson, Ann Quin, David Plante, Christine Brooke-Rose, Brigid Brophy, Gabriel Josipovici [1976]

The great American novels of the 20th century (that is from 1920 on: post-James): Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, Dos Passos’s USA, Faulkner’s Light in August [1976]

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).

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)]

Disenchantment

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.

The New Age Archive and Paradoxy of Modernism

Some very lively debates about modernity and aesthetics took place in the pages of The New Age, a weekly magazine devoted to literature, the arts and politics. The magazine ran from 1907 to 1922, offering readers a response to the conditions of modernity.

One of several discoveries of reading Robert Schole’s Paradoxy of Modernism is of a complete online archive of The New Age. Within its pages are contributions from writers like Hilaire Belloc, Havelock Ellis, T. E. Hulme, Holbrook Jackson, Katherine Mansfield, Ezra Pound, H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw.

Scholes book is good, though I am not convinced of his central thesis, that to truly appreciate Modernism we have to read more widely, particularly the minor texts (what Scholes calls “durable fluff,” “iridescent mediocrity” and “formulaic creativity.”) Josipovici and Scholes broadly agree on the origins, and inevitability, of Modernism, but would disagree on its transition to Postmodernism. More on the book on another occasion.