Decompression Zone

After several days living in the dappled shade of a forest comprised mostly of ancient giant redwoods, I’m unable, or unwilling, to return to London. I find myself in need of a decompression zone, so have elected to stay for a few days a flat in a small cathedral city. Once a bishop’s wardrobe, this small and moderately cosy flat is in a peaceful close next to the cathedral. These unusually sultry days are spent reading, writing and walking by the river at the end of the large garden. In the still evenings I listen to the choir’s evensong and am accompanied by regular tolling of church bells.

I’m under the spell of Reiner Stach’s Kafka: The Years of Insight, which I finished late last night, and so unable to settle with another book at the moment. While staying at his sister’s farm, Kafka wrote fragmentary notes that have become known to Kafka readers as the Zürau octavo notebooks. Stach writes that these fragments “consist mainly of compactly formulated notes that focus on religious and philosophical questions on good and evil, truth and falsehood, and alienation and redemption.” Stach also writes that “there a few comparable examples of this form in world literature: Valéry’s notebooks (a mother lode of this type of writing, which, however became accessible only after 1945 [and therefore not to Kafka] and, of course, Pascal’s Pensees.”

Serendipitously this sends me back to Valéry’s Notebooks. I bought the first volume with me, together with Calvino’s letters, though I am finding the latter inaccessible, perhaps because such a passage of time has passed since my Calvino obsession.

Back to Calvino

Italo Calvino: Letters 1941-1985
Italo Calvino: Letters 1941-1985

I know Michael Wood as the author of Literature and the Taste of Knowledge and Yeats and Violence, both works of literary criticism that I liked very much. Wood both selected the letters in this edition and writes the introduction, saying that the letters reveal not Calvino’s “real self” but his “plain self”: “We eavesdrop not on his secrets but on his devotion to clarity.” (Jonathan Galassi recently reviewed this book for NYRB).

Along with the second volume of Reiner Stach’s Kafka biography, this collection of Calvino’s letters is one of my two most eagerly anticipated books of 2013. Leafing through the index I can see fairly extensive referencing of Barthes, Borges, Kafka, Primo Levi, and Elsa Morante, but also that pretty much every writer I have time for gets at least one mention.

Pursuing a reference to Dante, I came across a lengthy letter addressed to literary critic Mario Motta. I quote a tantalising section below which precedes comments about Kafka, Dante, Conrad, Chekhov and Hemingway

[..] I notice that I’ve started classifying historical figures, writers, cultural movements into “paradisiacal” or not, As happens with these juxtapositions invented on the spot (which also have their own auxiliary usefulness, as long as one doesn’t dwell too long on them), the system always works out: the “paradisiacal” ones are all those I systematically distrust, the “non-paradisiacal” are those from whom I believe I’ve gathered some concrete teaching.

How many paradises there are, for instance, in recent literature! What can be more “paradisiacal” than Surrealism? And psychoanalysis? And Gidean irresponsibility? But even more significant, it seems to me, is the fact that the most coveted myth in modern literature is a regressive paradise: memory. And what can one say about the gelid paradise of the Hermeticists: absence?

Of course, the letters have disarmed me and demand my immediate attention.

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2013

So, in my review of this year’s reading I vowed to make no reading resolutions for 2013, not because I don’t have some ideas, but writing about them pretty much guarantees serendipity will lead me in a completely different direction. But I’m going to chuck a few ideas into the void, for no other reason than it helps me think.

Since my post dealing with feminine writing, I’ve started to identify a series of writers that I plan to read more thoroughly, more Cixous obviously. My touchstone book for 2012 was Kate Zambreno’s brilliant Heroines. The book  is the sort of polymorphous text that opens up new possibilities for biography, literary criticism and memoir. Read if you must but don’t be mislead by reviews of Heroines that reveal more about the prejudice of the reviewer than the text. Helen’s or Michelle’s reviews offer a more balanced, less blimpish point of view. I’ll be taking inspiration from both Kate Zambreno’s blog (a project now ended) and Heroines and reading writers like Jean Rhys, Djuna Barnes, Olive Moore, obviously more Clarice Lispector and Claude Cahun. I’m also interested in those treading similar ground, writers like Chris Kraus, Vanessa Place, Tamara Faith Berger and Dodie Bellamy. I also plan to read some Julia Kristeva and Kate Zambreno’s earlier Green Girl.

There are some thrilling new books due next year, so I will definitely be reading any new books that appear by László Krasznahorkai, JM Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus and the collection of letters between Coetzee and Paul Auster, Giorgio Agamben’s Nymphs, Amelie Nothomb’s Life Form, Sonallah C Ibrahim’s That Smell and Notes from Prison and William Gass’s Middle C. The second (and possibly third) volume of Reiner Stach’s Kafka biography is due and unmissable.

I’ve started reading Benoît Peeters’ Derrida biography and plan to read more Derrida. I’ve got plans to read Wittgenstein, Deleuze and Adorno more deeply, and want to explore further what Ray Brassier is doing. Oh, and I seriously intend to get back to Thomas Bernhard and Peter Handke.

If I achieve half of these goals I’ll be happy and no doubt serendipity will hijack my intentions along the way.

Thanks for reading Time’s Flow Stemmed. Have a good holiday.

A Year of Reading: 2011

I have read so many exceptional books this year. Samuel Beckett’s trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable) left me breathless, as did the first two volumes of Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, The Prime of Life). My most recurrent author was Geoff Dyer as I read and reread to complete his oeuvre to date (Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, The Missing of the SommeWorking the RoomParis, Trance and Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi), all works of great wit and sensitivity. And there were J. M. Coetzee’s essays (Inner Workings and Stranger Shores), both examples of criticism as works of art in their own right. I finally got around to Thomas Bernhard (Old Masters) and Peter Handke’s work (The Weight of the World and Across), every bit as intoxicating as I’d hoped. Anne Carson’s  translation of An Oresteia was memorable, and only confirmed my wonder for everything she does.

My surprising fiction discoveries (I am always happily surprised to enjoy a new author’s work) were Teju Cole’s exceptionally exquisite Open CityJ. M. Ledgard’s thrilling Submergence (thanks, Nicole), Vyacheslav Pyetsukh’s The New Moscow Philosophy (thanks Michelle) and Jenny Erpenbeck’s haunting Visitation.

Of the non-fiction, Masha Tupitsyn’s Laconia was charming and thought-provoking (to this day), Michael Levenson’s Modernism was the comprehensive history I was seeking. Stach’s Kafka biography leaves me starving for the next volume. My current book, Helen Small’s The Long Life is (so far) brilliant and a superb way to end the year.

I’m not able or willing to pick out a single favourite from either the fiction or non-fiction categories. I read a few books this year I loathed. Given the author is not living I will give Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels my coveted ‘I Wish I Could Get That Time Back Award’.

Geeky Statistics

  1. 40% of the eighty books I read were in translation (mostly from German), up from 30% last year.
  2. 18% of the books I read were written by women; I am disappointed this is exactly the same as last year.
  3. 52% of the books I read were written by living authors, pretty much the same as 2010.
  4. 58% of the books I read were fiction, up 14% from last year.

Other literary highlights of my year were attending John Berger’s angry and passionate reading of Bento’s Sketchbook and Geoff Dyer’s enlightening talk about Camus.

During 2011, with the help of readers, I compiled a list of female writers we should be reading and bibliographies of worthwhile secondary literature on the works of Kafka and Beckett.

Thanks to my book blogging friends, particularly Emily (Beckett, de Beauvoir) and Nicole (Goethe) with whom I shared reading explorations this year, and Frances whom I joined in a crazed attempt to read all 42 in Melville House’s Art of the Novella series, abandoning the attempt after thirteen novellas. I don’t participate in many read-a-longs but made an exception and had fun during German Literature month, organised by Caroline and Lizzy.

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)]

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.]