Posts Tagged ‘Franz Kafka’

Fading into obscurity…

March 15, 2018

On a recent visit to my mother, I noticed a novel by Somerset Maugham on the bookshelf, and found myself thinking, ‘Does anyone still read him?’ And I was back on a well-worn track, the one where I contemplate writers falling out of favour. I remember reading Somerset Maugham in the 1970s, when The Razor’s Edge inspired me in my hippy days with the urge to travel (reasonably) far and wide, and to explore spiritual issues more widely. And I also read some of the shorter novels about which I remember nothing, and Of Human Bondage, and thought, ‘Why is the hero so stupid?’

I still can’t really decide whether it’s merely about fashions changing, and publishers finding new middle-ranking writers to put before the public, or whether some writers deservedly fade into obscurity, because they do not cross generational divides with their characters and treatment of their subject-matter. New thriller writers emerge fairly consistently, so why would anyone read the relatively tame and worthy efforts of Hammond Innes, Alistair MacLean or Ian Fleming, who marked my teenage years? But other, perhaps ‘worthier’ writers also disappear, becoming curiosities only encountered by a much narrower audience, not in bookshops any longer but perhaps encountered in second-hand and charity shops, recommended by a friend or even appearing briefly on an academic reading list.

For instance, and I’m sure I’ve made this particular point before, who now reads D H Lawrence? Jean-Paul Sartre, even? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn? Franz Kafka? Graham Greene? I have most of Hermann Hesse’s fiction mouldering on my shelves, but no-one ever mentions him any more. What also seems to happen is that a writer who was quite prolific in their time is now only associated with one or two books of theirs, and the rest are forgotten. So George Orwell is remembered for Animal Farm because it’s often a set text in schools, and for Nineteen Eighty-four because that’s one of the iconic novels of the last century. Joseph Conrad is still known as the author of Heart of Darkness, and perhaps for The Secret Agent; his many other books, including the marvellous Nostromo, almost completely forgotten.

There’s a filtering process going on: publishers renewing their lists, generations who read a particular writer and enjoyed them passing on, academics and schools picking up certain writers and giving them a new lease of life while ignoring others… how do we know that those who have been forgotten deserved to fade into obscurity? The real test of time, whether a writer survives, needs a generation or two to work. We cannot say now if even a widely read and very popular writer like J K Rowling will still be read in fifty years time. So, when I stare at my bookshelves and see the collected works of Jane Austen, for example, I know she has survived across two centuries and more, garnering praise and academic recognition, TV adaptations and recommendations across generations, but who else who wrote then and has been forgotten, might also have a decent claim on our attention? We will never know.

The other thing is, that I can’t really say why this issue bothers me so much, and yet it does. I suppose it may be because it links into the wider question of how we make our – necessarily subjective – value judgements, the criteria we use, and how those influence (or not) wider collective judgements.

I offer a list of ten books – in no particular order – which I think have unreasonably fallen into obscurity:

Joseph Conrad – Nostromo

Mark Twain – Life On The Mississippi

Katharine Burdekin – Swastika Night

Jaroslav Hasek – The Good Soldier Svejk

Hermann Hesse – Narziss and Goldmund

Aldous Huxley – Island

Marge Piercy – Woman On The Edge Of Time

Joseph Roth – The Radetzky March

Jean-Paul Sartre – The Reprieve

John Kennedy Toole – A Confederacy Of Dunces

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Ismail Kadare: Spiritus

October 11, 2017

51DMKNYZ3RL._AC_US218_Well, this makes Kafka read like Winnie-the-Pooh!

I’ve long been a fan of the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare, who I think should have received the Nobel Prize in Literature years ago; I’ve read a good number of his novels, and though they do vary in quality, they never fail to grip, or to disturb. I’ve had a fascination with Albania for years, too, and hope to go there one day.

Kadare’s novels are inevitably heavily overshadowed by the rather insane world of the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, the intrigues by which he retained power, and the political disagreements during which he fell out with Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and eventually the Chinese, totally isolating his small Balkan nation from the rest of the world.

The premise of this novel is extremely far-fetched, and yet Kadare subtly makes it credible: the Secret Police, having introduced a new range of ultra-sensitive listening devices, believe they have captured information from a spirit, specifically the ghost of a dead man, buried three years previously, with a concealed microphone still on his body; it concerns, of course, an imperialist plot against Albania and the Guide.

Careful framing of the story in three nested sections helps create plausibility, and the lengthy central section involves seances and political intrigues, and among other things we learn that a prisoner who died in prison could have his sentence extended in the cemetery before his relatives were finally allowed to collect the corpse… An expert on Albania would be able to tell how much of Kadare’s narrative is pure satire and how much reflects the reality of that paranoid nation; what comes across very effectively is the craziness of how far the tentacles of the state extend and how far those in power are prepared to go in order to to remain there. And I don’t think for a moment that it’s only old-style communist states that operate in that manner.

The vagueness of the opening – a mysterious commission, after the fall of communism, is attempting to clarify what went on at the time of the plot, then shifts to the main story, and the loose ends are definitely not cleared up in the final section, so that the reader’s knowledge and understanding of events is constantly shifting and uncertain, and at times we are sucked into the utter paranoia of the secret state and its victims: just as you think nothing can possibly become any weirder, it does. Hallucinatory would be a good word to describe this novel.

It wasn’t an easy read; I did at one point wonder if I’d bother to see it through, but then – I don’t quite know how or when – I was utterly gripped: how insane can this become, I wondered?

Crazy literature for crazy times…

January 17, 2017

The craziness, rank insanity even, that seems to have gripped Britain and the US over the past months has shocked me deeply; it’s also recently set me scanning my bookshelves looking for the literature of strangeness, madness and insanity: and there’s plenty of it.

Let’s start with two novels whose narrators are both involuntarily interned in some kind of mental hospital, from which they tell their stories and communicate their opinions: Gunter GrassThe Tin Drum, obviously, and Siegfried LenzThe German Lesson. Grass particularly, in all his work, was keen for Germany to come to terms with its horrendous history; the European project, flawed though it is, has been part of ensuring peaceful co-existence in our continent for several generations.

Two novels that present us with a world where insanity has taken over: the second volume of Anatoly Rybakov’s stunning Arbat trilogy, Fear, shows us the lives of a group of Muscovite students during the time of Stalin’s purges and show-trials, a world in which nothing makes sense and there is no way to save yourself if you have been randomly marked out for doom. Similarly, Jonathan Littell’s award-winning The Kindly Ones takes us inside the mind of a German intellectual who is one of those engaged in planning and carrying out the extermination of the Jews: we see how his work ‘makes sense’ to him inside his own Nazi bubble, and it’s the stuff of nightmares. Because these are both based on actual events, somehow Kafka’s The Trial pales a little alongside them, even though the inescapability of K’s situation is what really terrifies. But again, the Albanian Ismail Kadare’s novel The Palace of Dreams with its similar trope, is again rooted in reality, and gains more power from this.

It’s not only twentieth century writers who confront us with madness: Lear’s Fool has the licence to say anything, and tells the truth to power, and in the end dies for it; in Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, there is business to be done and profit to be made from the selling of dead souls – non-existent serfs – in tsarist times. In Alamut, by Vladimir Bartol, a twentieth century writer who sets his tale back in mediaeval times, we are with the sect of the assassins, apparently so in the thrall of hashish that they are prepared to sacrifice their lives committing deeds ordered by their master, because the mythical heaven with its freely available virgins awaits them.51agnyropzl-_ac_us174_

Ben Marcus, an American writer, approaches strangeness from another angle, removing the usual and commonly accepted sense and meaning from words and imbuing them with different ones, torturing our minds and creating a semi-hallucinatory effect in his narratives: The Age of Wire and String is a truly weird read, which you cannot take too much of at once… when even the language does not behave in the ways you expect, then we really are lost.

Perhaps the most horrific novel I can mention is by the Portuguese writer Jose Saramago: Blindness. I believe it has been filmed and I’m not about to watch it. Gradually all the inhabitants of a city inexplicably go blind, and a world of chaos, violence, cruelty and insanity descends as people’s basest instincts are freed: it’s a kind of Lord of the Flies with grownups, on a grander scale. I persevered with it; it’s a very powerful read and one I’m not sure I will have the guts to go back to. In a final twist in the tale, it transpire the collective loss of sight is not permanent… 51a30yp20gl-_ac_us174_

Somehow, though, the most relevant text seems to me to be Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. Here is a novel in which truth has no meaning: it’s not Pontius Pilate’s bland question ‘What is truth?’ but the malleability of any fact, idea or notion to serve the needs of those in power: now where have we met that recently? Winston Smith sits in his cubicle at his speakwrite making the news say whatever he is ordered to make it say, and removing all evidence of changes. How do we, can we, check the veracity of what we are told? Winston’s personal madness is that he sees the contradictions, remembers what was and it does him no good, just as it did no good telling voters that a certain candidate was a serial abuser of women, a narcissist and an inveterate liar… in such a world, O’Brien is right, Winston is the insane one. I find myself hoping that truth is not stranger than fiction… 51og8uqrofl-_ac_us174_

These I have (also) loved…

October 30, 2015

51A8kLcTurL._AA160_51PUfJlOyYL._AA160_51XFpHt6JBL._AA160_

(continuing the theme of literatures from other lands)

 It does seem a little unfair to put so many writers and nations together under ‘other’ but you will understand what I mean when I say that there is not enough time to read everything I would like to, and that some countries and authors will just have to wait for my next existence…

I’m glad I read Don Quixote once. I’m not sure I’ll have time to come back to him, but I did understand why the Spanish love him, and I learned quite a lot about the development of the novel in its early days.

The Portuguese writer Jose Saramago has intrigued me and I’ve read several of his novels; Blindness, which I believe had been made into a film and which I’m definitely NOT planning to watch, is one of the scariest and most horrifying novels I’ve read. Almost everyone is struck blind over the course of a few days, and the anarchy and human vileness which is released makes the world of Lord of the Flies seem like the Teddy Bears’ Picnic. It’s stunning, and fearsomely convincing. However, it’s Antonio Tabucci‘s Pereira Maintains that I have liked best from that country’s literature. He conveys the spookiness of the long Salazar dicatatorship very effectively indeed.

I’ve read several Italian novelists. Umberto Eco I’ve written at great length about elsewhere in this blog if you care to look, so no more about him. Primo Levi I have found very moving. He was an Auschwitz survivor who eventually committed suicide, but not before writing a powerful memoir, If This is a Man, and an intriguing, semi-autobiographical novel inspired by his life (he was a research chemist) called The Periodic Table, which I think is a masterpiece, especially the final chapter. And I love the lighthearted feel of The Garden of the Finzi Continis, by Gregorio Bassani, with the hidden undertones of menace in the background… but if I had to pick the very best, then I’d undoubtedly go for Giovanni di Lampedusa‘s The Leopard, a stunningly beautiful and lyrical tale of the emergence of modern Italy and the disappearance of an era seen through the eyes of a man who knows it must happen, wants it to happen and knows it makes him redundant, inescapably part of a past that has gone forever.

I also have to mention the Albanian Ismail Kadare. Older friends of mine will be acquainted with my fascination with the country, largely due to listening to propaganda broadcasts from Radio Tirana in the evenings. So when I came across translations – mainly into French, but some into English, of this astonishing writer, I was hooked. Broken April is set in the tradition of the kanun, or blood-feud, a historically Albanian thing, with all sorts of rules about who you can and can’t kill, and when. The Pyramid is an allegory of sorts about his own country under the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, while telling the story of the building of the pyramids in ancient Egypt, and The Palace of Dreams creates a bureaucracy to rival Kafka‘s. And then there are realistic novels set in the Albania of the fifties and sixties as she fell out with the Soviet Union (‘social imperialists’)and came to ally herself with the Chinese, The Concert, and The Great Winter. He is a masterly chronicler of his times and his country, and an entertaining novelist.

I’m glad to have been able to get to know (I’m sure merely skimming the surface) the literature of so many other lands; I do think it’s sad how many people I meet who, though they may venture far from our shores on holiday, never do so in the realms of reading. What they have missed…

Witold Gombrowicz: Ferdydurke

April 3, 2015

41L3hsuxUbL._AA160_ (1)So, I’ve finally read another of the oldest unread books in my library, which has been languishing there for about 35 years. I think I’ll stop reading Gombrowicz now. This novel articulates in fictional form many of the ideas that he wrote about at length in his diaries; it seems on so many levels to be allegorical, about the difficulties of the new Poland in coming to terms with its new self and its past.

Superficially it’s a story of transformation: an adult of thirty regresses into a schoolboy of half that age, who then undergoes a number of increasingly bizarre, often hallucinatory adventures. I found myself wondering about transformations in the literature of th 1920s and 1930s: there’s Gregor Samsa in Kafka‘s Metamorphosis, the transformations I mentioned in The Street of Crocodiles, and now here.

Our schoolboy adult in class is forced, by idiotic teachers in the most asinine ways possible, to admit to liking the traditional classics; the idea is that the past perpetuates itself and its values in spite of subsequent generations who want to escape it. I could see how Gombrowicz’ contemporaries were challenged and shocked by his onslaught on the old ways, beliefs and traditions. His allegory presents a new Polish Republic that is not a nation rejuvenated, so much as a nation infantilised by a semi-moronic insistence on past glories. He is also desperately searching for the key to how one can escape the bonds of one’s past, either as an individual or as a nation.

There is an almost coherent narrative strand to Ferdydurke, with the newly-infantilised schoolboy standing for the new Polish nation, though interrupted by Shandean authorial interventions where the author seeks to direct our thinking himself… There are farcical scenes about duelling, about a daughter who invites two different men, a teacher and a fellow-pupil, to her room for an assignation… on the same night, and a bizarre episode in an aristocratic household where the author’s friend wants to ‘fraternise’ with a servant: the consequences are farcical. Gombrowicz is setting up the ridiculousness of the bourgeoisie, and using anarchy as his secret weapon. And what, exactly, were the relations between social classes in interwar Poland supposed to be? The aristocracy was legally abolished in 1919.

Ultimately it’s a book of its time, I think, and will be increasingly hard to approach for subsequent generations. As I worked my way towards the denouement, I found myself thinking of James Joyce‘s realisation, at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, that he must leave his native land and go into exile, and seeing the parallel working itself out in Gombrowicz’ mind: there was no place for him in the new Poland, and he left forever, a couple of weeks before Hitler and Stalin snuffed out its brief existence.

Bruno Schultz: The Street of Crocodiles

March 31, 2015

51ft9Cr66yL._AA160_I finally picked this up and read it for the first time (having bought it new in 1980!) because I learned from Gombrowiczdiary that the two knew each other, and Gombrowicz rated Schultz quite highly.

It’s a collection of linked short stories centred on Schultz’ hometown of Drohobycz, formerly in eastern Poland. The atmosphere is dreamlike, almost hallucinatory in places; there are echoes of Kafka‘s short story Metamorphosis as Schultz writes about his father, though the transformation is slower and more drawn out than that of Gregor Samsa.

Although they are divorced from reality, there is a hypnotic feel to the stories; the characters are also unreal: the closest comparison I could come up with as I thought about them was with Marquez and magic realism, that style which was to emerge much later on. The language is often beautiful, lyrical as we shift from semi-reality to fantasy. Echoes of some of Boris Vian, too. I often wonder which writers have read, heard of or comes across each other when I pick up on similar traits like this in different writers.

The two most accomplished stories are The Street of Crocodiles and Cinnamon Shops (this collection is sometimes given the name of that story as its title), both powerful and haunting visions of aspects of the town. When I read something like this, I find myself reading quite differently compared with how I interact with a more conventional novel or short story: here, I drift too, in a dreamlike state, through the almost poetic visions and imaginings of the writer, rather than absorbing words and thinking about them as I seek to take plot and character on board. Quite a magical experience.

German Literature

July 17, 2014

Yet more of my thoughts on why other countries are producing more interesting literature than we are…

As I thought about this topic, it became more and more complex. For starters, I realised I don’t mean just German, but literature written in the German language, which brought in Austrians and Swiss, and then I realised that writers like Kafka also wrote in German, although they were not German; and then, frontiers have moved about so in the last century…

I also realised that my reading in, in some ways, quite limited. Although I’m working on my German, I read in translation; from the past, some Goethe and Fontane; from earlier this century, Herman Hesse whose spiritual romanticism hooked me in my hippy days but does seem to have dated rather as time has passed. Ernst Wiechert‘s The Simple Life is one of my all-time favourite novels. Thomas Mann I have to admit to failure with. Joseph Roth I think is wonderful: his evocation of those lost times of the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is unsurpassed, I think, and I often go back to him.

What marks German literature out for me – and now I do mean literature written by Germans – is, of course, the Second World War, and the Hitler period more generally. It has marked, as it must have done, everything written since then. And the response is a complex one, depending on the age of the writer at the time of the events. Hans Fallada‘s Alone in Berlin is a chilling tale of an ordinary German couple’s quiet acts of resistance – anonymous anti-Hitler postcards dropped around Berlin – which ends in their capture, trial and execution, and I am looking forward to the translation of Iron Gustav which has just been published. Others of his novels capture (for me) very skilfully the crazy atmosphere of the years leading up to Hitler’s seizure of power. Heinrich Boll addresses the Nazi years well, but for me the most interesting and effective explorer of those times is Gunter Grass.

I’ve never forgotten a graffito I saw on my first visit to Gdansk forty-four years ago, which my father translated for me: ‘We have not forgotten; we shall not forgive.’ It shocked me, and since then, I have sought to understand its implications. Grass explores the Hitler time in his native Danzig in the celebrated Danzig Trilogy (The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse, Dog Years) metaphorically through the child Oscar who deliberately stunts his growth to remain child-sized, but who cannot escape growing adult consciousness. It’s magic realism long before the Latin American writers came up with it; it’s also a magical evocation of a totally lost world, the multi-cultural, multi-national, multi-ethnic city, the Free City of Danzig which, having been on the wrong side in the war, was ethnically cleansed by the Soviets, and is now a totally Polish city. In The Call Of  The Toad, Grass twins the tragic story of this city with the equally tragic – and almost unknown,  unless you are familiar with the writings of Czeslaw Milosz – story of the city of Wilno, part of Poland, home of one of its oldest universities, multi-ethnic and the largest Jewish city in the world outside Jerusalem until the war. It is now Vilnius, capital of Lithuania.

Grass has fallen from favour with some recently, following his admission in his autobiography that he had been a junior member of the SS (at age fourteen) at the very end of the war; some have felt that he ‘concealed’ an awkward detail; I think that’s an uncharitable view; for me it does not diminish his stunning literary achievements, but it does underline even more pointedly the difficulty for Germans of dealing with these times…

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