Monthly Archives: June 2017

NYC Reading Suggestions from Literary Twitter

Literary Twitter has come through for me once again.  I sent a Tweet asking if anyone would like to recommend some reading for my upcoming trip to New York City.  The response has been overwhelming and I thought I would share the suggestions I have gotten so far.  I have chosen to list them alphabetically by author.  If anyone has additional titles to add then please leave them in the comments:

The New York Trilogy by Paul Aster

The Cities (poems) by Paul Blackburn

Open City by Teju Cole

The Flea of Sodom by Edward Dahlberg

Time and Again by Jack Finney

Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

New York Revisited by Henry James

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

Thieves of Manhattan by Adam Langer

Passing by Nella Larsen

Poet in New York by Federico Garcia Lorca

Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli.

The Assistant by Bernard Malamud

Brightness Falls by Jay McInerney

The Rosy Crucifixion Series by Henry Miller

Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell

McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon by Joseph Mitchell

After Claude by Iris Owens

Manhattan Transfer by Dos Passos

Harlem is Nowhere by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney

Low Life by Luc Sante

Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr.

A Tree Growns in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and Other Stories by Delmore Schwartz

Down these Mean Streets by Piri Thomas

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The Colossus of New York by Colson Whitehead

 

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Investigations of a Dog and Other Creatures: More thoughts on Kafka

What more can really be said about Kafka’s writing?  I feel almost embarrassed to share my thoughts about this new volume of translations by Michael Hofmann; there will be nothing new or earthshattering here, but I am hoping that fellow Kafka lovers will at least be happy to stumble across another devotee.  Please go easy on me as I offer my humble observations on this collection!

One of the descriptions about Kafka that I have found most fascinating is that of his writing schedule.  Since he was an office worker at an insurance agency for most of his adult life, he was limited to writing at night and, as a result, got very little sleep.  It seems he truly suffered and sacrificed in order to do the one task in the world that he loved.  In a letter to Felice dated November 1, 1912, Kafka describes his daily routine which includes work, exercise, walks with his friend Max, and writing from 10:30 p.m. until 1, 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning.   How can one not have the utmost admiration for the work ethic of such a man?  Unfortunately for Felice, however, nothing and no one in his life would ever be as important as Kafka’s writing. In the introduction to his new translations of Kafka’s short prose, Hofmann writes about the author’s daily habits: “He devised for himself a life that was largely disagreeable, inflexible, and inescapable, and tried to make it productive.”

Many of the stories in this collection feel as if Kafka wrote for as long as could into the early hours of the morning and due to tiredness or further lack of inspiration he stopped working and never returned to finish them.  Although Kafka’s short prose included in this volume are likely beginnings of stories or parts of what would have been longer pieces, the writing is creative, profound and philosophical. A few of the stories were particularly dark and melancholy and left me desperately wanting more.  For instance, in “Blumfeld The Elderly Bachelor,” the story starts simply and humorously with a man returning to his flat after work, alone and wishing he had some kind of companion.  He contemplates getting a dog to keep him company, but quickly decides that the fleas, dirt and other messes involved would disrupt his orderly lifestyle.  The rigidity of Blumfeld’s daily routine felt as inflexible as Kafka’s description of his own bachelor lifestyle.

One evening, as Blumfeld is arriving home he hears a strange noise and upon entering his apartment he finds two bouncing balls.  The balls follow him around the apartment, incessantly moving and making noise and he is uneasy to find that he suddenly has two constant, annoying companions.  He comes up with a brilliant idea to give the balls away to his charwoman’s ten-year-old son, so he entrusts the boy with the keys to his apartment and requests that the child fetch them while Blumfeld is at work.

When Blumfeld feels that he has a successful plan to get rid of the balls, the scene and topics of the story change abruptly.  Blumfeld forgets about the balls and arrives at work in a linen factory where he is viewed as an obstinate, crabby man who does not work well with others.  He is condescending to his two interns and he doesn’t trust them to do even the most menial tasks.  The story ends with Blumfeld’s intern trying to wrestle a broom from a janitor so that he can avoid doing any work for Blumfled.  Kafka’s story is an interesting and sad commentary on the monotony of working in an office factory.  But what about the balls from Blumfeld’s apartment?  Did the boy ever successfully extract them?  Or were they able to entertain Blumfeld and offer some interest and companionship to his dull, lonely life?

“Texts on the Hunter Gracchus Theme,” “Building the Great Wall of China” and “Investigations of a Dog” were my other favorite stories in this collection.  They all have themes of restriction, as each person or animal is caught in a situation he feels he cannot easily escape.  The Hunter Gracchus particularly stood out because the main character is caught in a state of limbo, neither fully dead nor alive.  Is that how Kafka viewed his life, his office job and his routine?

What are your favorites of Kafka’s short prose?

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Sifting Through the Ruins of an Abandoned Library

I teach Latin and Ancient Greek at The Woodstock Academy, an independent day and boarding school in northeastern Connecticut.  At a time when schools are shrinking and slashing budgets, we have had the good fortune to purchase an additional campus.  A private school in town closed and we bought the entire school, lock, stock and barrel in order to expand our facilities and programs.  Among the many things left behind by the former occupants of the school was their entire library.  They had originally intended to pack it up and ship it to Maine where they own another boarding school.  But at the last minute they abandoned it.  When our administration sent a message that we were not keeping the library, that any and all books from the library were free to anyone for the taking I couldn’t resist.

I walked away with a trunk full of books—the trunk of my car could not have fit another book.  They are packed into four boxes and are currently sitting in the garage where I can sort them and figure out how they should be shelved and arrange for more space.

You will have to forgive the mess in the background since the books are all in the garage and that is where I took these photos.  I found lots of classics books.  I took away two large boxes of Ancient Greek and Ancient Rome titles.  Some of them are duplicates, like the three volumes of Greek Tragedies translated by Richard Lattimore.  But I couldn’t very well just leave them there:

 

 

A wonderful surprise among the ruins were these four volumes of Civilizations of The Ancient Near East.  Something I would love to have owned but would not necessarily have invested the money in:

 

I also collected a very lovely stack of poetry books. The essays about the poems of William Carolos Williams especially intrigued me. And it is nice to finally have a large volume of Robert Frost poems sitting on my shelves.  Gibran’s The Prophet was a nice find since I had not owned a copy of that previously.

And finally I rescued several stacks of literary classics that are duplicates of books I already own but couldn’t leave behind.  I now have three different translations of Kafka’s The Castle, for instance.  But I think most bibliophiles would agree that one can never have too much Kafka.

And some Thoreau, and Hardy and Dante and Chaucer and….

As I was driving over to what is now our South Campus, I was excited at the prospect of sifting through books and I thought it would be akin to browsing through a used bookstore.  But the experience was much more sad and melancholy than I had expected.  The books were strewn on the floors and counters of the former library.  The large room will now serve as the new band and music room, so all of the shelves and fixtures were removed and the books were lying everywhere, haphazardly abandoned.  There were even books sitting on carts that were recently returned by students and under normal circumstances would have been reshelved.  It made me think that each collection of books, whether public or private, serves a specific purpose or a specific community.  And it is unfortunate when a collection is broken up and no longer serves that need.  I, personally, would like to have kept the collection together, to be able to brag about a school with two libraries.  But, we really needed the space for music, so I did the next best thing and rescued a least a few of the books.

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Charges by Elfriede Jelinek

Aeschylus’s tragedy The Suppliant Women is a unique piece of Ancient Greek theater because the poet uses the chorus, normally reserved for a secondary role, as the protagonist of his play.  The Danaides, the fifty daughters of Danaus, are refugees from Egypt where they were going to be forced into marriage with their cousins.  Having chosen flight from Egypt instead of  mandatory betrothal, The Danaides arrive in Argos seeking asylum.  As the chorus/protagonist of this tragedy, these women tell us, with one, strong, loud, simultaneous voice, about the hardships they’ve suffered and they beg, as suppliants at the altar of Zeus, for protection.

Elfriede Jelinek adopts the narrative structure, setting and themes of Aeschylus’s Suppliant Women for her drama entitled Charges which delivers a powerful, raw, emotional depiction of the refugee crisis playing out globally.  The nobel prize winning author witnesses via television and other media—she is an agoraphobe—the plight of a group of refugees from Central Asia and the Middle East who arrive in Vienna in November of 2012 and set up a camp in front of a church.  The local populace engages in an intense debate about what to do with these illegal immigrants, politicians and the media get involved, and some of the refugees take shelter inside the church where they go on a prolonged hunger strike.

At the same time that this humanitarian tragedy is unfolding, a world-renowned, Russian opera singer and the daughter of Boris Yeltsin, both very wealthy with powerful political allies, are given citizenship.   While the refugees from the church are shuffled off to a monastery where they can be kept out of public site these two privileged women are bestowed with the freedom and honor of asylum and naturalization.  Although she uses this scenario that takes place in her hometown as the backdrop for her drama,  Jelinek chooses not to mention Vienna or  other specific place names in her text;  she makes her themes of displacement, fear and privilege universal, ones that can be applied to any of the current refugee crises we see playing out on a daily basis in various parts of the world.

Les Danaide, by Paul Oesten, 1908

By using the chorus, in the tradition of an Ancient Greek tragedy, Jelinek is able to employ several dramatic techniques to emphatically get her point across about the desparate and sad plight of the refugees.  For instance, as is common in ancient tragedy, the chorus in Charges repeat themselves, in a rhythmic way, circling back often to the same themes and topics.  In addition, punctuation and connectives are dispensed with in order to give their speech a vehemence that conveys the deplorable hardships that they have suffered and continue to suffer:

We lie on the cold stone floor, but this comes hot off the press, here it is irrefutably, irreconcilably, poured into this brochure like water that instantly runs down and out instantly, like water thrown from cliff to cliff, turned into water as well, sinking like statues, almost elegantly, with raised hands, no, no, from dam to dam, into the bottomless, into the micro power plant, down, down it goes for years, we vanish, we vanish as we become more and more, funny, we still vanish, though our numbers increase, our  courage does not vanish, there are ever more, though also fewer and fewer of us, may don’t even arrive, the suffering people are falling like water off the cliff, down the butte, into the chute, over the mountains, through the sea, over the sea, into the sea, always thrown, always driven…

The most striking similarity between The Suppliants and Charges is the explanation that the refugee choruses give in both plays for choosing flight from their homelands and for seeking refuge from strangers. Aeschylus’s chorus begins the play with an justification for their sea voyage to Argos:  “This exile is our own decision.  We have fled a despicable situation.”   The words spoken by Aeschylus’s chorus more than two thousand years ago, which evoke sympathy and compassion from the audience,  is equally fitting for Jelinek’s refugee chorus who, by their own choosing, have also escaped dangerous conditions in their homeland and at sea.  Escape into the unknown is a theme that Jelinek’s refugees return to repeatedly in the play; they speak of family members who have been murdered and their attempts to avoid the same fate for themselves.  Some of the most heartrending parts of the chorus’s speech are when they recount their griefs and their woes and the endless indignity of their misfortunes:

…We look around, but how does prosperity work?  If it is that common, should we have it too?  At least be able to obtain it?  After those monstrous killers back home, no, that isn’t your fault, we aren’t throwing that in your face, we are throwing ourselves in front of you, after they took everything from us, we should be able to get something, anything back, no?  Something should be accessible to us, we should get something, instead you call us a cursed, raging brood, brood, brood!  Like animals! Brood of foreigners!

Hearing the refugees speak, in the first person, about their escape, rejection and maltreatment from other citizens of the world increases the pathos of Jelinek’s narrative.  There is a point in their speech during which the tone of the narrative becomes decidedly angry; these feelings of resentment come from the fact that two prominent Russian women are given citizenship while these refugees live in squalor like beggars.  The opera singer, in particular, becomes the focus for Jelinek’s outrage as the author uses parallels between this privileged refugee’s circumstances and the mythic character of Ovid’s Io.

Io was loved by Zeus and in order to protect his lover from his wife’s wrath, Zeus disguises Io by turning her into a cow.  In Jelinek’s narrative the opera singer becomes that cow, traveling around the world, not suffering any consequences for her transgressions.  Once this prominent woman is issued citizenship, she chooses not to live in this country but instead travels the world.  Io is usually a character worthy of sympathy because of her seduction by Zeus; but in Charges the opera singer becomes a derogatory cow, the name of which animal is uttered with biting sarcasm:

How did she become a citizen?, alright then, we guarantee you no one died there, in that dump, not the daughter either, the European cow, excuse me, she turned into one only now, an official main residence has been registered here, which we don’t have, she does, but she does not live there either, you are here to stay, you have a say, you have the voters, at least on your side, you the but sponsors but no trace of those—now I don’t know myself whom I mean.

In his book The Greeks, H.D.F. Kitto argues that the Greek dramatists used myths infused with moral, religious and philosophical meaning to instruct their fellow Athenians on how to live a good life.  Drama becomes “an explanation of human life and of the human soul.”  Jelinek has brilliantly adopted the medium of these ancient poets in order to enlighten us about those who have been displaced from their homes and cannot return safely.  The chorus of refugees in Charges, speaking in one loud, emphatic, emotional voice is distressing and tragic.  We should treat them with dignity, kindness and generosity instead of with disgust and xenophobia and recognize that this has become a human rights crisis of epic proportions.

Vitvkirche, Protest of Refugees, 2012. © Bwag/Commons

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Konundrum: Selected Prose of Kafka Translated by Peter Wortsman

In this new translation of Kafka’s prose published by Archipelago Books last year, Peter Wortsman has chosen a wonderful selection of shorter writings that showcases the range of the author’s brilliance.  Old favorites such as “The Metamorphosis,” translated in this collection by Wortsman as “Transformed” appear in the volume with fresh, updated language for a 21st century audience.  For those who are new to Kafka’s writing, the inclusion of additional classic short pieces such as “The Penal Colony” and “A Report to an Academy” make this a perfect volume with which to be introduced to his writing.

For enthusiasts who are already devotees of Kafka, some surprising new translations of smaller pieces can also be found within the pages of Wortsman’s translation.  Letters, aphorisms, and short stories that would today be classified as flash fiction are all included in this new volume.  I especially enjoyed the short prose that Wortsman includes in order to highlight the different aspects of Kafka’s personal side—his sense of humor, his anxiety, his thoughts on writing and his loneliness.  In his Afterword, Wortsman writes about his love of Kafka and his decision to attempt a translation of this legendary author:

Translating Kafka for me is a bit like looking back at a first love, an attachment saved from sentimentality and necrophilia by a corpus of work in need of no face-lifts or taxidermy to entice, still as alive and relevant as any musings of an elogquent insomniac committed to extreme particularity of expression.  I give you these precious nuggets of a gold miner in the caves of the unconscious.

One of my favorite pieces that Wortsman translates, entitled “I can also Laugh,” appears to be in response to a comment made to Kafka by his fiancé Felice about his lack of a sense of humor.  Kafka’s emphatic response to her begins:

I can also laugh, Felice, you bet I can, I am even known as a big laugher, even though in this respect I used to be much more foolhardy than I am now.  It even happened that I burst out laughing —and how!—at a solemn meeting with our director— that was two years ago, but the incident has lived on as a legend at the institute.

Kafka goes on to describe in great detail how, having received a promotion at his job, was required to appear in front of the director of the insurance company in order to give thanks for his new position.  Such an occasion was expected to have an atmosphere of solemnity but during the meeting Kafka developed a ranging case of the giggles.  He tries to pretend that he is just coughing, but he begins laughing so hard that he can’t stop himself.  It was fun to see that Kafka, whose writing is so often associated with feelings of existential angst, loneliness, and isolation actually had a good belly laugh every now and then:

The room went silent, and my laugh and I were finally recognized as the center of everyone’s attention.  Whereby  my knees trembled with terror, as I kept laughing, and my colleagues had no choice but to laugh along with me, though their levity never managed to reach the degree of impropriety of my long-repressed and perfectly accomplished laughter, and in comparison seemed rather sedate.

Kafka, 1923

Three additional works of short prose that particularly attracted my attention in this volume were the ones dealing with Greek mythology: “The Silence of the Sirens”, “Prometheus”, and “Poseidon” all showcased Kafka’s ability to take elements of the fantastic and put a realistic and even humorous spin on them.  Kafka images Odysseus chained to his mast with wax stuffed in his ears to avoid the alluring songs of the Sirens.  But Kafka goes on to describe the Sirens as being silent when Odysseus passes by so the Greek hero looks rather ridiculous with his blocked-up ears.  In “Prometheus”, Kafka images the hero chained to a rock with his liver being continually eaten by eagles; but how long can this really last?  Kafka points out the absurdity of Prometheus’s punishment by concluding, “…the world grew weary of a pointless procedure. The gods grew weary, the eagles grew weary, the wounds closed wearily.”

My favorite of the three myth-based stories is the one that imagines the god Poseidon sitting at his desk under the waves and crunching numbers.  Kafka presents us with a Poseidon whose job as god of the sea no one truly understands.  Because he is so busy in his management position, he never gets to enjoy the sea over which he rules.  Poseidon would love to find a new job, but what else is he really qualified to do?  Kafka ironically and humorously concludes his story, “He liked to joke that he was waiting for the end of the world, then he’d find a free moment right before the end, after completing his final calculation, to take a quick spin in the sea.”

Wortsman concludes his translations with a series of notes that Kafka composed while very sick and unable to speak because of the pain he suffered due to his tuberculosis.  The notes, entitled by Worstsman as “Selected Last Conversation Shreds,”  are sad and tragic and show us the author’s painful last days:

To grasp what galloping consumption is: picture a bevel-edged stone in the idle, a diamond saw to the side and otherwise nothing but dried sputum.

—–

A little water, the pill fragments are stuck like glass shards in the phlegm.

—–

Might I try a little ice cream today?

—–

It is not possible for a dying man to drink.

—–

Lay your hand of my forehead a moment to give me courage.

Wortsman has put together and translated a truly enjoyable selection of Kafka’s prose that has wetted my appetite for more of the German-Jewish author’s writing.  Stay tuned for more Kafka posts!

About the Translator:

Peter Wortsman was a Fulbright Fellow in 1973, a Thomas J. Watson Foundation Fellow in 1974, and a Holtzbrinck Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin in 2010. His writing has been honored with the 1985 Beard’s Fund Short Story Award, the 2008 Gertje Potash-Suhr Prosapreis of the Society for Contemporary American Literature in German, the 2012 Gold Grand Prize for Best Travel Story of the Year in the Solas Awards Competition, and a 2014 Independent Publishers Book Award (IPPY). His travel reflections were selected five years in a row, 2008-2012, and again in 2016, for inclusion in The Best Travel Writing. He is the author of two books of short fiction, A Modern Way to Die (1991) and Footprints in Wet Cement(forthcoming 2017), the plays The Tattooed Man Tells All (2000) and Burning Words (2006), and the travel memoir Ghost Dance in Berlin: A Rhapsody in Gray (2013), and a novel Cold Earth Wanderers (2014). Wortsman’s numerous translations from the German include Telegrams of the Soul: Selected Prose of Peter Altenberg, Travel Pictures by Heinrich Heine, Posthumous Papers of a Living Author by Robert Musil, Peter Schelmiel, The Man Who Sold His Shadow by Adelbert von Chamisso, Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist, and Konundrum: Selected Prose of Franz Kafka, many of which are published by Archipelago Books. He edited and translated an anthology, Tales of the German Imagination: From the Brothers Grimm to Ingeborg Bachmann, from Penguin Classics. He works as a medical and travel journalist.

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