Mathias Enard: Zone

All morning spent absorbed in Mathias Enard’s Zone; the same wonder at Charlotte Mandell’s translation as Shelley Frisch’s rendering of Stach’s biography of Kafka. Zone is better read in long immersive binges, punctuated by dreamy Bordeaux or grassy Sencha Fukujyu tea.

Enard’s circumlocutory thoughts, precisely paced over the long Rome-ward train journey, never falter or lose their pace. Sometimes with a book, you get that fortunate feeling that this book has found its ideal reader, or as Enard writes, “sometimes you come across books that resemble you, they open up your chest from chin to navel, stun you . . .” I love that word resemble, so close to reassemble. Both accurate in this case. After Zone I feel in need of reassembly.

” . . . too many things there are too many things everything is too heavy even a train won’t manage to carry those memories to Rome they weigh so much, they weigh more than all the executioners and victims in the briefcase over my seat . . .” That’s what Zone is about, but like Calasso’s books, it is also about everything else.

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.

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2015 (updated)

These are not reading resolutions. Writers promising literary gifts lead me astray too easily for these ideas to be fixed in any way.

This year I read widely covering fifty or so writers, concentrating my reading more deeply only twice on Houellebecq and Anne Carson’s work. In 2015 I’d like to read more deeply into the work of some of my favourite authors: alternative Dante and Homer translations (and Adam Nicholson’s The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters) ,  more Ballard’s short stories, always more Beckett, John Berger, Roberto Calasso, more Anne Carson, the new Tom McCarthy, Robert Musil’s diaries, Hélène Cixous, Coetzee, Jenny Diski, Dostoevsky, Marguerite Duras, Pierre Hadot, Houellebecq’s new one if translated next year, Kafka’s short stories, László Krasznahorkai, Clarice Lispector, Bourdieu, Doris Lessing, Nabokov, Alice Oswald, Robert Macfarlane, Nietzsche, Atiq Rahimi, WG Sebald, Thomas Mann, Christa Wolf and Virginia Woolf.

Beyond these ‘old chestnuts’ (as Beckett called his favourite authors) I’m looking forward to unexpected surprises within the pages of the following new books, either missed in 2014 or due in 2015, by authors I have not read before:

  1. Kirmin Uribe – Bilbao – New York – Bilbao
  2. Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric
  3. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor – Dust
  4. Ceridwen Dovey – Only the Animals
  5. Karin Wieland (trans. Shelley Frisch) – Dietrich & Riefenstahl: The dream of the new woman
  6. Can Xue – The Last Lover
  7. Anna Smaill – The Chimes
  8. Han Kang (trans. Deborah Smith) – The Vegetarian
  9. Paul Celan – Breathturn Into Timestead
  10. David Winters – Infinite Fictions: Essays on Literature and Theory

There are several other writers whose older works I’d like to get around to exploring sometime soon including Jens Bjørneboe, Martin Shaw, Ivan Illich, Eva Hoffman, Ivan Goncharov, David Abram, Ágota Kristóf, Rebecca Solnit, Tomas Espedal and Elfriede Jelinek.

As always, distractions are greater than my ambition, but if I manage to take in a decent selection of the above I’m expecting a good year in reading. There are several other titles I have my eye on but I’m mindful of your patience and Molloy’s admission that ‘if you set out to mention everything you would never be done.’

A Year of Reading: 2013

It was an exceptional year of reading that began with Benoît Peeters’ prodigious Derrida biography. I also finally got around to Knowlson’s respectful but no less captivating Beckett biography.

2013 was a year for new encounters: notably Jane Bennett, Pierre Hadot and Christa Wolf, each of whose work I intend to continue exploring. Christa Wolf’s Cassandra and Medea linger long as intriguing reinterpretations of myths. Jane Bennett and Pierre Hadot’s philosophical work is transformative, and leads me back to Ancient Greece; expect to see a concentration on old Greeks next year. Robert Fagles’ lucid Iliad has surpassed Lattimore to become my favourite. On translations, until I left my much annotated copy, together with a fourteen-month old sketch/note-book, in an Indian temple, I was luxuriating in the Hollander Dante like a hippo in a mud bath.

Of books published this year (or late in 2012) my favourite non-fiction was Robert Calasso’s La Folie Baudelaire, or Shelley Frisch’s translation of Reiner Stach’s Kafka: The Years of Insight. I didn’t read much contemporary fiction but lapped up Rachel Kushner’s enjoyable The Flamethrowers.

I continued to read Clarice Lispector. A Breath of Life and Near to the Wild Heart were as remarkable as Água Vida. Over the next twelve months I’ll read all the Lispector I can lay my hands on.

As is traditional, for me anyway, serendipity lead me up totally different paths than my intentions of a year ago. All I can say with any certainty of the next twelve months is more Coetzee, Cixous, Lispector and Beckett.

I read pretty much the same number of books as 2012, but still worry about Twitter as a distracting time-sink.