May 24th, 2010
November 1st, 2009
From “Conclusio ad Diversos,” the final chapter of Notes on a Cellar-Book, George Saintsbury (1920):
As one looks back over such a life there are many things that one regards with thankfulness. It is good to have walked by oneself five hundred miles in twenty days and one pair of boots (never needing the cobbler till the very last day) without any training and with a fairly heavy knapsack. It is good to have seen something on this and many other occasions, sometimes alone, sometimes in company, of the secret of the sea and the lessons of the land from Scilly to Skye; from the Land’s End to Dover; from the Nore to the Moray Firth; from Dartmoor to Lochaber; and from the Weald of Sussex to those Northumbrian lakes that lie, lonely and rather uncanny, under the Roman Wall. It is good to have attended evening chapel at Oxford, then gone up to town and danced all night (the maximum of dances with the minimum of partners), returning next morning and attending chapel again. It is good to have prevented an editor, some time before Pigott caught the Times, from engaging in negotiations with that ingenious person as he had intended to do; and to have actually silenced a Radical canvasser. It it good to have been always like-minded with the old and not the modern law of England, to the effect that ‘collective bargaining’ can never be anything but collective bullying. It is good to have read Walz’s Rhetores Graeci, and the Grand Cyrus, and nearly all the English poets that anybody ever heard of; also to find The Earthly Paradise, at a twentieth reading in 1920, as delightful as it was at a first in 1868. It is good to have heard Sims Reeves flood St. James Hall with ‘Adelaida’ til you felt as if you were being drowned, not in a bath but in an ocean of malmsey; and to have descanted on the beauties of your first Burne-Jones, without knowing that a half-puzzled, half-amused don stood behind you. Many other things past, and some present, have been and are—for anything, once more, that has been is—good.
But I do not feel the slightest shame in ranking as good likewise and very good, those voyages to the Oracle of the Bottle and those obediences to its utterance, taken literally as well as allegorically, which are partially chronicled here.
May 3rd, 2009
At “Kafka in America” last Thursday evening in New York, a remarkable panel of writers gathered to celebrate a new translation of Kafka’s Amerika: the Missing Person, translated by Mark Harman. Participants included novelists Louis Begley, Norbert Gstrein, Lynne Tillman, and Colm Tóibín along with translator Harman and critic Jonathan Taylor, who served as moderator.
In ACF’s beautiful wood-paneled theater, ACF Director Andreas Stadler greeted us with a few words of welcome. Deputy Director and head of literary and film programs Martin Rauchbauer talked briefly about how the event came about. Then Taylor introduced the panelists, compressing his bios in the interest of time, and thereby omitting date-of-birth from all introductions except Tóibín’s, at which Tóibín feigned offense [laughter].
Harman opened with a few remarks about literary translation (“a solitary activity”) and how much Kafka enjoyed reading his works aloud, often laughing, and evoking laughter, as he did so. Harman then read aloud from the first five pages of his translation of the novel, in which hero Karl Rossmann lands in New York and immediately finds misadventure.
At the passage, “Karl … had heard a great deal about the dangers facing newcomers in America, especially from Irishman,” Harman pointed an accusing finger at County Wexford native Tóibín to his right, who in turn pointed back at his Dublin-born accuser. [Laughter.]
Noting Begley’s birth in pre-war Poland and immigration to New York in the 1940s, Taylor asked him to share his thoughts on Amerika.
Begley observed that Kafka was the son of the first generation of people from his background (German-speaking Jews) who had “made good in Bohemia.” German-speakers were a small minority in Bohemia, but they were in the ascendency. At the time, all attention in Europe was fixed on the United States. But when we talk about Kafka it’s a mistake to place too much emphasis on traditional notions of the immigrant’s dream of America. Middle-class Jews had a comfortable life in Prague. In fact, Kafka was always talking about going not to America but rather to Jerusalem. He didn’t go, because he was comfortable in Prague.
Begley went on to say that he had to disagree with Harman — referring not to Harman’s remarks at the event, but rather to Harman’s introduction to Amerika — “I think too much can be made of the fact that Kafka had read Holitscher.”
Kafka already knew about America from other sources — he had two distant cousins who had succeeded in America. But the important thing to remember is that Kafka set out to write an adventure story. It’s about his storytelling ability, not his sources.
After making these points, Begley smiled and said, “I’ll now sit down for the rebuttal.”
Harman responded genially that he wouldn’t disagree about Kafka’s storytelling ability, but Kafka being a conscientious sort — he was a lawyer, after all — he no doubt thought he should do some reading. There are several places, Harman pointed out, where Karl remarks on things he has read about America, which tells us that Kafka knew those sources as well.
Harman went on to note, however, that great writers don’t merely rest on their historical research — they also transform it. He said, “If you think of Joyce’s story ‘The Dead,’ ‘Furey’ is a west of Ireland name certainly, but ‘Furey’ also stands for passion.”
In closing, he reiterated that he didn’t completely disagree with Begley — at which point Begley interjected: “That’s good, because I’m right!” [Laughter.]
Taylor then addressed Tillman, noting that in her novel American Genius she had written about Kafka and the interplay of freedom and constraint. Tillman said she felt Amerika was “like Franz Kafka speaking through Lewis Carroll.” She pointed out that Amerika has a more optimistic hero than we find in Kafka’s other works. Nevertheless, in Kafka freedom is something that will always be withheld from one, because there is always a higher power. She quoted the line, “only the unimaginable is not expressly forbidden.”
Tóibín then spoke. He said that the characters in Amerika were “in constant struggle, constantly under threat.” “There are times I’ve wondered if the news were beginning to leak out” that America was in fact a frightening place. He noted that you see the same darkness in Henry James — the scale of the city as frightening and disturbing, the immigrant masses as inhuman (ants, insects) or dehumanized. Amerika seems like an anomaly in Kafka’s work — unless you recognize this darkness.
Finally, German novelist Norbert Gstrein, sitting at the far right of the stage, was asked for his thoughts.
“I’m not sure if the novel is set in America,” he began provocatively, though none of his fellow panelists took the bait. “I couldn’t help feeling that Karl in the novel is not heading west but rather east.”
He said he first read Amerika in his youth, and didn’t like it. Only on later rereading did he come to admire it.
Gstrein noted that the country Karl visits is rich but also totalitarian. Perhaps he’s not in New York but rather Moscow. In the final chapter ["The Nature Theater of Oklahoma"], it feels not like America but rather like the world of the dead, given the angels with trumpets, etc.
Harman noted, with regard to the last chapter, that Kafka misspelled “Oklahoma” more than once in his manuscript as “Oklahama” — a mistake which is also present in Holitscher.
Tillman noted, “It often makes you feel foolish to interpret Kafka,” given the multiplicity of meanings in his works.
Harman noted that the book had been neglected in the United States since its first publication here in 1940, and wondered whether the reason was that its portrait of America was not really very flattering. Another panelist mentioned that perhaps the date of publication was a problem, on the verge of a world war.
It was Begley who addressed the unspoken point — that perhaps the book was not very good. He said that, like Gstrein, he didn’t initially like Amerika when he first read it. “It seemed half-baked. I made many trips to Amerika,” he joked, before he came to admire the book. And indeed, the book is half-baked — but the reader is utimately won over by Kafka’s storytelling.
Begley also raised the interesting point that Kafka identified David Copperfield as one of the influences on Amerika. Begley compared Karl’s forced emigration to David being banished by Murdstone and sent to work in the blacking factory. The implication here was that Kafka didn’t need reports from America to learn about the miseries of urban life — he knew them already from Dickens.
Tóibín then talked about Nabokov’s copy of Metamorphosis, which is in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library. The copy has both Nabokov’s and his wife Vera’s handwriting in the margins, written as the two combed through the translation for weaknesses.
This is particularly funny, Tóibín noted, when you consider that Nabokov admitted that he had no German. [Laughter.] But maybe you don’t need to speak the language in order to critique a translation. [Laughter.] Maybe it’s even a hindrance! [Laughter.] But Tóibín said he loved thinking of Nabokov and Vera in this kind of “performance” together.
Changing subjects, Gstrein noted that literary studies had not served Kafka well in at least one respect — it has “robbed him of his body.” Kafka was physically active, he had fun, he participated in life — this is missing in our picture of Kafka.
At this point someone in the front row interrupted to note that The Office Writings provided a useful corrective, though we were all left to wonder how reading “Fixed-Rate Insurance Premiums for Small Farms Using Machinery” brought us closer to the flesh-and-blood Kafka.
Returning to his theme, Gstrein mentioned a scene in Philip Roth’s The Professor of Desire, in which Roth’s hero Kepesh, on a visit to Prague, dreams of meeting a prostitute whom Kafka himself had patronized. Kepesh asked the prostitute what services Kafka had requested. Gstrein’s translator, rendering his words into English, at this point smiled at Gstrein and asked “should I say it?” She did — in a slightly cleaned-up version that Gstrein explicated afterwards, over drinks.
(Cheers to Jonathan Taylor for the terrific job moderating the panel, and thanks to Bud Parr, my old lit-blogging confrere, and his Words Without Borders contributors Nicolle Elizabeth and David Varno for the stimulating company before and after the event.)
April 24th, 2009
A great entry by Patrick Kurp today on a Samuel Johnson and Samuel Beckett reminded me that the following post — like many others — was a-mouldering in my drafts folder.
Here’s the opening:
The letters of some of the greatest artists of their day, of Wordsworth and Cézanne, Proust and Eliot, for example, though occasionally moving and of interest because of who they were, would never figure in anyone’s list of the ten or twenty greatest books of their time. The letters of Keats and van Gogh, Kafka and Wallace Stevens certainly would. And so, on the evidence of this volume, would those of Samuel Beckett.
I like to know a reviewer’s critical touchstones. It’s enjoyable as a parlour game — I’ve read Keats and Kafka, but not van Gogh and Stevens, so I give myself a marginal passing grade — but better yet it puts the review in context.
Anyway, one item in the review caught my eye (my bold):
The same fierce individuality is evident in his response to literature: “Am reading [Balzac’s] Cousine Bette. The bathos of style & thought is so enormous that I wonder is he writing seriously or in parody”. “Read Cecil’s Life of Cowper . . . . Very bad. But what a life! It depressed & terrified me. How did he ever manage to write such bad poetry?” “So I was reduced to finishing [Mauriac’s] Le Désert de l’Amour, which I most decidedly do not like. A patient, tenuous snivel that one longs to see projected noisily into a handkerchief.” “I’m reading the ‘Possédés’ in a foul translation. Even so it must be very carelessly & badly written in the Russian, full of clichés & journalese: but the movement, the transitions! No one moves about like Dostoievski.
Tough stuff. But a GRJ initiate — is my team still ploughing? — is not likely to find Beckett’s opinion of Cowper so very independent. As noted previously, Beckett was a devotee of Samuel Johnson, and Samuel Johnson — as also noted — was likewise tough on Cowper in his Lives of the English Poets.
If nothing else, Beckett probably remembered Johnson’s put-down on Cowper’s Pindaric odes for the same reason I do: because it’s funny:
It is hard to conceive that a man of the first rank in learning and wit, when he was dealing out such minute morality in such feeble diction, could imagine, either waking or dreaming, that he imitated Pindar.
As Vivian Mercier notes in Beckett/Beckett, “Signs of Johnsonian gravity will be found in the most unexpected places in Beckett’s work; the English version of Molloy is full of passages that might have appeared in Rasselas.”
March 16th, 2009
In 1972, German artist Horst Janssen suffered a serious illness. Following his recovery, he was inspired to produce a series of etchings. Over one week, Janssen produced 27 self-portraits “which show approaching death in all stages of disintegration.” He entitled the series “Hanno’s Tod,” or “The Death of Hanno,” after the famous scene in Buddenbrooks in which the sensitive, artistic son of businessman Thomas Buddenbrook is struck by typhus and dies. The scene famously begins (in the John E. Woods translation), with the chilling words:
“Typhoid runs the following course.”
At which point, in an instant, the reader learns that Hanno will die. It is the second-to-last chapter, but essentially the end of the book and of the Buddenbrook family.
Janssen’s series is wonderful, beginning with a fairly straightforward portrait (here, which is the one that I have on my living-room wall) and concluding with something that looks like an exploding tree. I also have a book that includes all the portraits (actually, I count 36) and some commentary in German.
Here are some of Janssen’s works. Here’s more. He was incredibly prolific and most of his works are on paper, meaning that even though he’s in MOMA and the Tate and lots of other museums, his works are pretty affordable.
March 1st, 2009
Yesterday I happened to mention on Twitter — yes, that’s me at @samgrj — that Brock Clarke’s terrific piece on late great novelist and short-story writer Muriel Spark in the March issue of The Believer didn’t mention the role of dexedrine in the writing of Spark’s 1957 debut, The Comforters.
Now, just to clarify: Muriel Spark did not write The Comforters on dexedrine. Nor did she write it on a single scroll of paper 120 feet long while a guest in the home of Caroline Cassady. However, dexedrine was materially involved. Here’s the whole story, from Spark’s wonderful memoir, Curriculum Vitae (pp. 200, 2004-5):
“No one,” writes Tony Strachan, “has ever been as poor as you were in those days.” . . .
This was true. I was getting tired of it. I also had very little to eat. Those were the days of rationing, tighter even than during the war. If one didn’t eat the whole of the allotted rations one was in trouble. In 1952 and 1953 a single person was allowed one and a half ounces of cheese, four ounces of bacon, two eggs and eight ounces of butter per week (there was a special coronation issue of four ounces of butter in May 1953). Butcher’s meat was rationed by price, limited to one shilling and ninepence per week in 1953. This was, in fact, the basis of a fairly balanced minimum diet. But living alone, as I did, I neglected to take these basics. I didn’t care enough …. the fact remains that I was thoroughly undernourished. When I went to Edinburgh for The Observer to cover the Edinburgh Festival in 1953 I felt thoroughly ill, and hardly knew what I was doing.
. . .
But in 1954 shortly after my reception into the Church of Rome something strange occurred. Something strange was not surprising, because, foolishly, I has been taking dexedrine as an appetite supressant, so that I would feel less hungry. It was a mad idea.
As I worked on the Eliot book one night the letters of the words I was reading because confused. They formed anagrams and crosswords. In a way, as long as this sensation lasted, I knew they were hallucinations. But I didn’t connect them with the dexedrine. It is difficult to convey how absolutely fascinating that involuntary word-game was. I thought at first that there was a code built into Eliot’s work and tried to decipher it. Next, I seemed to realize that this word-game went through other books by other authors. It appeared that they were phonetics of Greek, and were extracts from the Greek dramatists.
This experience lasted from 25 January 1954 to 22 April 1954. I saw Dr. Lieber, a general practitioner, in Wimpole Street . . .
As soon as I stopped taking dexedrine the delusions of the word-game stopped. But I felt ill, as I had felt at Edinburgh the previous year . . . In the mean time Graham Greene, through Derek Stanford, had offered to give me a monthly sum of twenty pounds until I got better. He really admired my work and was enthusiastic about helping me. With the cheque he would often send a few bottles of red wine — as I was happy to record when speaking at Graham’s memorial service — which took the edge off cold charity.
I took refuge first at Aylesford in Kent at the Carmelite monastery, and next at nearby Allington Castle, near Maidstone, a Carmelite stronghold of tertiary nuns. There I rented a cottage in the grounds, and it was there that I put into effect the determination I had fixed upon, which was to write a novel about my recent brief but extremly intense word-game experience.
. . . .
From the aspect of method, I could see that to create a character who suffered from verbal illusions on the printed page would be clumsy. So I made my main character “hear” a typewriter with the voices composing the novel itself. This novel, The Comforters, was published in February 1957.
I just happen to have Graham Greene: A Life in Letters out of the library this week, and I was pleased to see a letter from Greene to “Dear Mrs. Spark,” dated 2 December 1955. It begins:
I am delighted to hear you are better and I do hope that MacMillan’s will publish your book. Perhaps they are not quite the publisher for anything weird and if you have trouble there don’t hesitate to as advice on another publisher. At the end of a misspent life one has quite a lot of experience.
One more connection: the Greene letters volume also includes a letter to GRJ idol Flann O’Brien (p 257), one of the few authors, one could argue, whose novels, particularly his own debut novel At Swim-Two-Birds, teach the same lessons in “artifice and self-conciousness” that Brock Clarke praises in his article on Spark.
25th October 1961
Dear Mr. O’Brien
I was delighted this morning to receive a copy of The Hard Life from your publishers and find it dedicated to me. I’m a proud man! At Swim Two Birds has remained to my mind ever since it first appeared  one of the best books of our century. But my God what a long time it has been waiting for the next.
I also have The Hard Life to hand. The dedication reads, “I honourably present to GRAHAM GREENE whose own forms of gloom I admire this misterpiece.” I like the disclaimer too: “All the persons in this book are real and none is fictitious even in part.”
Anyhow, it’s funny, isn’t it, that Greene was a champion of both Spark and O’Brien? Do you suppose Greene shared with Spark his enthusiasm for Flann? Did Flann influence Spark?
Incidentally, inspired by Clarke’s piece, I picked up a copy of The Comforters yesterday. I’ve read only the opening pages, but it seems just as brilliant as Clarke suggests.
January 4th, 2009
Jean-Philippe Toussaint, in the February 15, 2001, issue of the literary journal Bon-a-Tirer, describes the day he became a writer:
J’ai oublié l’heure exacte du jour précis où j’ai pris la décision de commencer à écrire, mais cette heure existe, et ce jour existe, cette décision, la décision de commencer à écrire, je l’ai prise brusquement, dans un bus, entre la place de la République et la place de la Bastille. Je n’ai plus la moindre idée de ce que j’avais fait auparavant ce jour-là, car, dans mon souvenir, à cette journée réelle de septembre ou d’octobre 1979 où j’ai commencé à écrire se mêle le souvenir du premier paragraphe du livre que j’ai écrit, qui racontait comment un homme qui se promenait dans une rue ensoleillée se souvenait du jour où il avait découvert le jeu d’échecs, livre qui commençait, je m’en souviens très bien, c’est la première phrase que j’ai jamais écrite, par : “C’est un peu par hasard que j’ai découvert le jeu d’échecs.” Ce que je sais avec plus de certitude, le souvenir se précise maintenant davantage, c’est que, rentré chez moi ce jour-là, ce lundi-là, je ne sais si c’était vraiment un lundi, mais il me plaît en tout cas de le croire (j’ai toujours éprouvé un petit penchant naturel pour le lundi), j’ai écrit la première phrase de mon premier livre dans ma chambre de la rue des Tournelles, dos à la porte, en face du mur. J’ai écrit la première version de ce livre en un mois, sur une vieille machine à écrire (et, comme je ne savais pas encore taper à la machine, je progressais avec deux doigts, maladroitement : en même temps que j’écrivais, j’apprenais à taper à la machine).
January 2nd, 2009
BBC Northern Ireland on local writing legend Brian Moore:
Moore had a difficult relationship with his father. He believed his father ‘died thinking I was a wimp.’ This perception of failure echoes through many of Moore’s novels. Failure interested him more than success because he believed that ’success alters people, while failure reveals them as they truly are.’ Perhaps this is what attracted him back to Northern Ireland during the Troubles – he took the chance to examine a society that had failed on so many levels, that was revealed for what it was.
Follow the link above for more about Moore, including some video of Moore visiting his old Belfast neighborhood. Here is another good essay about Moore, written by Tom Christie for LA Weekly in 1999.
January 2nd, 2009
J. R. Jones in the Chicago Reader, remembering Richard Yates:
“I guess I’m not very interested in successful people,” he told the Translatlantic Review. “I guess I’m more interested in failures.” But of course failure is the quotidian—most of us fail more than we succeed—which is why he dwelled on it and why his books are both depressing and endlessly rich in emotion. His own success was sweet indeed: Revolutionary Road was nominated for the National Book Award, and its critical acclaim won him jobs in Hollywood and Washington, not to mention more women than he’d ever imagined. But his name faded quickly from the public consciousness, and a long series of drunken outbursts on campuses and at writers’ gatherings, including one conference from which he was carried in a straitjacket, made him unemployable despite a general high regard for his work. He was the first to admit that, like his characters, he’d failed to live up to his potential.
December 31st, 2008
Musing on McCarthy’s Remainder per my post below — and by the way, isn’t it interesting that, in a blog, the past is “below” while in real life the past is always “above” or “to the left”? — I remembered that I wanted to Google possible connections between said novel and the movie Synecdoche, New York. And here it is, in an interview with Charlie Kaufman conducted by Scott Indrisek in Anthem magazine:
I found a lot of similarities between Synecdoche and this novel, Remainder, by Tom McCarthy…
This script, for the record, [was] written before that novel came out. I saw a review of that thing [Remainder]; I was freaked out. I intentionally did not read it. I have not read it. I hadn’t made the movie yet, and I didn’t want to have any kind of influence [from] it. But like I said, this script was written before that came out. I saw it online and I thought, A) oh fuck, and B) this is a book that I would read, normally. This sounds like a cool book. But I won’t. And I haven’t. And I probably at some point I will, but I don’t know…now it might be awful to read it. It might be like, Oh, he had this great idea that I didn’t have and I cant do anything about it.
It’s interesting to know that you haven’t read it.
It’s an idea that…that idea is not new to me, in my work. This particular version of it…What I’m saying is, it’s an attractive idea. I would look at that novel and think, Oh, cool. But I couldn’t in this case.
It’s got a similar kind of self-contained illogic.
He builds an apartment house and hires actors?
[Sarcastically] I wonder if McCarthy read the script…