Category Archives: History

A Drowning Man: Stach’s Insights on Kafka and World War I

The final installment of Reiner Stach’s expansive and compelling biography of Kafka begins with The Great War. I had mentioned on Twitter the other day that one of the most surprising revelations for me from Stach’s narrative is the fact that Kafka desperately wanted to enlist for the war, but his bosses at the Insurance Institute kept exempting him from service. His weak, frail constitution initially spared him from service, but as the war dragged on and more men were needed on the Austro-Hungarian front lines, Kafka was given a second medical evaluation that cleared him for the military. But his supervisors, whose staff had been wiped out by the draft, insisted that Kafka was indispensable to the continued operation of their business. He argued with the president on a couple of occasions to release him but to no avail.

Chad Post, the publisher of Open Letter Books, left an interesting comment on Twitter in response to my reaction about Kafka’s desire for military service: “Knausgaard details a number of reactions of intellectuals to WWI in My Struggle Volume 6, and it seems so crazy knowing what WWI actually was. They didn’t get modern warfare until it was actually happening.” To prove his point, Chad sent me a quote from Thomas Mann that he aptly calls “wild”: “War! It was purification, liberation that we experienced, and an enormous hope…it set the hearts of poets aflame…how should the artist, the soldier in the artist not have praised God for the collapse of a world of peace that he had his fill, so completely his fill of?”

Stach argues that Kafka never showed this same amount of patriotic fervor as Mann and other writers, even at the beginning of the war. Kafka’s diary about this topic mixes the personal and mundane with the global and tragic: “Germany declared war on Russia—Swimming in the afternoon.” Because of his job at the Insurance Agency which become responsible for founding a sanatorium for wounded veterans, Kafka knew more horrific details about the physical and mental consequences of war than any other writer of his day. Stach argues that Kafka was neither naïve nor oblivious to the gruesome realities of modern warfare. So why the insistence on joining this catastrophe firsthand? Even Stach is flummoxed by this: “Kafka’s insistence on joining the military is one of the most baffling decisions of his life; psychologically motivated empathy will not get us very far. We would have an easier time understanding an act of desperation of a fleeting indifference to his own fate—and Kafka would not have been the first to seek refuge in barracks. But that was not the case. His endeavors to serve in the military were well thought out, purposeful, and spirited, and they were repeated for years on end.”

Even though Kafka fell into a deep depression during the winter of 1915 and 1916, Stach rules out suicide. So what is left? Kafka is greatly susceptible to guilt and as Kafka witnesses friends, family members, and fellow writers succumb to the tragedies of war, it is certainly possible that he felt terribly guilty for his continued exemptions. But the most compelling reason that Stach makes, I think, for Kafka’s desire for military service is also the simplest—he wanted to escape, even if it meant going to war:

He found himself careening down an inclined plane whose slope kept steepening, and everything was tugging him in the same direction. He was cooped up in the office for fifty-hour workweeks, his desire to write stifled by headaches, insomnia, and increasing isolation. Kafka welcomed any prospect at all of making a fundamental change and warding off the psychological decline he was experiencing with the agonizingly intensified sense of time of a drowning man. Vacation, marriage, military service…it mad almost no difference which one.

Vacation, marriage, World War I….whatever, any one will do! Oh Kafka! I know I keep going on and on about how extraordinary Stach’s biography of Kafka is. But I really must say it again. Stach has set a new, very high bar for writing intense, exhaustive, interesting and compelling stories. Kakfa, who loved to read biographies, would have most definitely approved of this one!

2 Comments

Filed under German Literature, History, Kafka, Nonfiction, World War I

Slightly Exhausted at the End: My Favorite Books of 2017

I received several lovely books as gifts for Christmas and tucked inside one of them was a handwritten notecard with this quote by William Styron:  “A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end.  You live several lives while reading.”  I thought this sentiment was perfect for writing about my list of books this year that have provided me with rich and deep cerebral experiences;  these are the  books I have thought about on sleepless nights, these are the books that have left me figuratively and literally exhausted.

Many of the books on this list are classics, written in the 19th or 20th century.  Only a couple of titles that were published this year have made the list.  There is also a predominance of classic British and German literature.

Mrs. Dalloway,  To the Lighthouse and The Waves, Virginia Woolf.  This was the year that I finally discovered the wonder that is Virginia Woolf.  Of the three titles I read I couldn’t possibility pick a favorite, they all resonated with me for different reasons.  I’ve also enjoyed reading her essays along side the novels.

Pilgrimage, Vols. 1 and 2, Dorothy Richardson.  I started reading Richardson towards the end of the summer and was instantly captivated by her language and her strong, daring female character.  I made it about half way through Pilgrimage before taking a break.  But I will finish the last two volumes in the new year.

Map Drawn by a Spy, Guillermo Cabrera Infante.  This is another great title from Archipelago books and a chilling account of the author’s escape from his homeland of Cuba.  A unique, eye-opening read on the mindset of those living under an oppressive, totalitarian regime.

And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos and Bento’s Sketchbook,  John Berger.  I initially picked up And Our Faces when Scott Esposito pointed it out on Twitter several months back.  I just happened to be walking by one of my bookshelves one day and it caught my eye.  I haven’t stopped reading Berger since.  I also remembered that I had a copy of Bento’s Sketchbook which came recommended by someone with impeccable literary taste who said it is one of those “must read” books.  He was not wrong.

The Quest for Christa T., Christa Wolf.  I first discovered Wolf last year when I read her Medea and Cassandra.  Surprisingly, I think of all the Wolf  titles I’ve read so far, The Quest for Christa T. has been my favorite.  I have also gotten about half way through her memoir One Day a Year which I am hoping to finish in the new year.

Effi Briest, Theodor FontaIne.  I saw a list of Samuel Beckett’s favorite books and Effi was on the list.  I immediately picked up a copy and read it.  This is a title that is worthy of multiple reads, one that indeed left me exhausted yet eager to start all over from the beginning.

Other Men’s Daughters, Richard Stern.  It is no surprise that my list includes at least one title from NYRB Classics.  I had never heard of Stern and this book made me want to explore more of his writings.  This is a tale of a marriage and divorce, but Stern’s writing is not typical of this genre in any way whatsoever.

Penthesilea, Heinrich von Kleist.  Kleist’s story of Penthesilea and her brief yet powerful relationship with the hero Achilles was captivating.  I oftentimes avoid retellings of Ancient myths because they veer too far from the original stories, but Kleist’s rendition of these events from the Trojan War deftly incorporate his own backstory with these ancient characters.

Poetic Fragments, Karoline von Gunderrode.  This was another title that I came across on literary Twitter.  For all of the negative things that can be said about social media,  it has definitely served a great purpose for me through interacting with a community of liked minded readers.  Thanks to flowerville, in particular, who has steered me toward many a great German classic that I would otherwise not have been made aware of.

Blameless, Claudio Magris.  As with other Magris novels I have read, I was impressed with the high level of the author’s erudition mixed with poetic language and intriguing plot.  Much like Compass which is also on this list,  it is not an easy read, but for those who enjoy a literary challenge then I highly recommend Blameless

A Terrace in Rome, Pascal Quignard.  I have been slowly making my way through all of  the Quignard that is in translation.  A Terrace in Rome had  all of the elements that I love about a Quignard title; it was poetic, passionate, philosophical, enigmatic, and beautiful.  I am especially eager to get a copy of Villa Amalia which Seagull Books will soon be publishing.

Compass, Mathias Enard.  This is one of the few books actually published this year on my list.  This is a book for those who really enjoy books.  My TBR pile grew by leaps and bounds collecting just a fragment of the titles mentioned by Enard in his fascinating story of a musicologist who suffers from a sleepless night.

Now I’m exhausted just thinking about these books all over again…

 

31 Comments

Filed under British Literature, Classics, French Literature, German Literature, History, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books, Poetry, Virginia Woolf

The Bookshop and The Beach: My Vacation to Maine

Harding Books on Route 1 in Wells, Maine

My family and I went on our annual summer vacation this year to Kennebunk Beach in Maine. This has been our favored destination for the past few years and I thought I would say a few words about my favorite bookshop in Maine and my recent finds there. Harding’s Rare and Used Books is located one town adjacent to Kennebunk, in Wells, Maine on Route 1.  The staff is kind, friendly and very knowledgeable.  I was told by the employees that they buy books every day and their owner, a very nice gentleman named Douglas, also buys books from auctions and dealers.

One realizes this is a serious bookshop when, upon opening the front door, one encounters two gigantic piles of their newest acquisitions.  It took me a while to sift through these piles, but my patience was greatly rewarded by finding a first edition of I, Claudius by Robert Graves. I also dug out a copy of Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor and William H. Gass’s Reading Rilke from these piles.

 

The rest of the store is like a maze with rooms of various shapes and sizes piled with books from floor to ceiling.  Harding’s has a wide variety of first editions as well as signed books and they also have  the largest selection of books about New England that I have ever encountered.  I found a first edition copy of Within the Harbor by Sara Ware Bassett, a New England author whose books are set in two Cape Cod villages that she created.  This is an interesting little find that makes visiting this store so much fun.

A view of part of the hard copy fiction books at Harding’s

 

I spent most of my time in the Latin and Ancient Greek, Poetry and Classic Fiction sections.  Among the classic fiction books, I found two titles to add to my ever growing collection of New York Review of Books classics and I also found five Virago Modern Classics to add to my shelves.

My haul from Harding’s

The Latin and Ancient Greek section had a nice selection of Loebs as well as ancient authors in translation.  My favorite find was a dual language edition of Oedipus by Sophocles with an introduction by Thornton Wilder.  The illustrations in this edition are also quite interesting.

I also found in the Ancient Civilization section a copy of Michael Grant’s book on Nero which is in mint condition; not only is it an excellent introduction to this enigmatic and misunderstood emperor (and my favorite), but it also contains some gorgeous color plates to go along with the text.

Among the poetry books I found a hard copy edition of the Collected Poems of W.H. Auden that was only $5.00.  I have to say that all of the books at Harding’s are very reasonably priced, including the first editions and signed books.

But I didn’t spend all of my time in the bookshop.  I also enjoyed the beach very much, worked on my tan and did a little swimming even though the water was quite chilly.  My daughter did some surfing (I only watched and took some pictures.)  My beach reads were Henry Green’s Party Going and Clarice Lispector’s Agua Viva—more thoughts on those to come.

Surfing at Kennebunk Beach

Finally, we had some truly fabulous meals in Kennebunk and Kennebunkport.  One of our favorites is David’s KPT in Dock Square whose selection of raw oysters is spectacular and decadent.  It is no surprise that the seafood dishes, in particular, are wonderful no matter the restaurant.  I will spare everyone pictures of my food as well as a picture of myself wearing one of those goofy lobster bibs.  The picture below is a view we had during Sunday Brunch.

Where have you spent your holidays this summer?  Have you found any interesting books or bookshops?

15 Comments

Filed under British Literature, Classics, History, New York Review of Books, Nonfiction, Opinion Posts, Poetry, Travel Writing

Tempus, Aevum, Aeternitas: a review of December by Alexander Kluge and Gerhard Richter

This title was published in the original German in 2010 and this English version has been translated by Martin Chalmers and published by Seagull Books.

My Review:
decemberDecember comes from the Latin word decem, meaning ten because in the original Roman calendar December was the tenth month of the year.  When two new months were added to the beginning of the Julian calendar, thus pushing back December to become the twelfth month, no one bothered to change the name.  As the month which concludes the Julian and Gregorian calendar years it is naturally a month of reflection, of looking back, of becoming more aware of the passage of time.  Kluge and Richter use this last month of the year for the inspiration behind their collection of stories and photographs; there is one entry for each day of the month in December and together the writings and art work serve as a philosophical and poetic commentary about time, fate, choice and even love.

The entries or pieces of writing for each day in December are a mixture of short story, poetry and philosophy.  The dates for the entries vary widely, from 12,999 B.C. to 2009 A.D.  Kluge does tend to favor the events of December 1941 and 2009 as many of the entries are set during one of these two years.  My favorite entry is the one for December 18th, 1941 entitled, “A WRONG DECISION IN WARTIME.”  Kluge describes Marita, the wife of the surgeon Dalquen, who had come to Berlin from her provincial town to stay at the Grand Hotel Furstenberg on Potsdamer Platz.  She falls in love with First Lieutenant Berlepsch but refuses to make love to him on that night because she had not wanted to prematurely hasten their relationship by engaging in one evening of unbridled passion.  Kluge writes, “Only three weeks later she would regret her decision.  The young officer fell in the fighting in northern Russia.”  Marita is deeply upset because she did not take the chance to be with the First Lieutenant when she was presented with a choice.  When Marita is faced with the opportunity later in the war to have one night of passion she takes it, and although it is not with Berlepsch whom she truly loved, she does not regret it.  Kluge’s last quotation in this story is very striking:

For one night full of bliss

 I would give my all

december-1

Kluge’s story about Marita and her fallen love brings up many more questions than answers.  Do we live our lives to the fullest and take advantage of every precious moment, whether there is a war or a crisis raging around us or not?  Do we take time to embrace and appreciate those whom we love?  And if we make the wrong choice is it irrevocable? Or can we find a way to learn from our mistakes and move on?

December is the month of the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, so the cold and the snow and the shorter days feature  prominently in Kluge’s stories and in Richter’s photographs.  Another story that stands out is the one dated the 20th of December, 1832: “UNEXPECTED CONVERSION OF A HEATHEN.”  Dr. Wernecke has just helped a woman give birth in the village and is setting out through the snow and the woods to go back home.  Kluge writes:

At first he took the path which the villagers, either out of habit or out of superstition, had created as a kind of VILLAGE EXIT INTO DEAD NATURE, because in this hard-frozen winter such a ‘track’ led into nothingness.

As the doctor gets farther along on his snowy journey he becomes increasingly tired and bewildered.  He keeps on moving so he doesn’t freeze but he is becoming tired and disoriented.  The snow and the woods around him are closing in:

The endless expanse of snow produced a certain brightness in the night.  Wernecke could neither say ‘I don’t see anything at all’ nor ‘I see something.’ For that a clue would have been needed, a difference in the monotony of the snow-covered land.

december-2The doctor estimates that he has about four or five hours to live when suddenly he sees a faint, flickering light in the distance.  He isn’t sure if this light is a figment of his bewildered mind but he chooses to follow it anyway.  The light, which is indeed the very thing that saves him, was the lamp of the cathedral verger who at that precise moment was climbing the stairs of the cathedral to ring the nightly bells.

Dull-eyed, Dr. Wernecke nevertheless resolved to trust the light that had soon disappeared.  The light had guided his obstinate heart.  So the doctor found his way to the first houses of the town.

Because the good doctor is saved by this light, he, the “heathen” pays to have an iron lamp installed in the tower next to the bells.  Once again, Kluge poses many deep, philosophical questions with this brief story.  Why do we choose to follow certain paths and not others?  When a light appears in life do we choose to let it guide us, or do we let our obstinate heart convince us to take a less fortunate and unhappy path?  Do we choose to trust and to follow the light like Dr. Wernecke did, or do we ignore it at our own peril?

Each of the 39 photographs in the collection are a variation of trees in a forest that are covered with snow.  The photos are taken up close and give one the feeling of being closed in by the forest and the snow.  Dr. Wernecke’s description of his time in the snow-covered forest, as being able to see something and yet nothing at all, is a fitting description for Richter’s art.  In one picture there is, in the distance, a tiny image of a deer and in the very last photo in the collection a small cottage appears in a clearing through the trees.  Like Dr. Wernecke, can we make our way out of this claustrophobic woods and find that faint glimmer of light?

The second part of the book entitled, “CALENDARS ARE CONSERVATIVE” contains various discussions and meditations on calendars, time, and the passage of time.  One passage in particular caught my attention because of its reference to Latin words for time.  In “Tempus, Aevum, Aeternitas’, an Islamic astrophysicist from Bangladesh and a European ambassador who is a medievalist are discussing different kinds of time by using the Latin names for them.  TEMPUS is time associated with the clock, with checking our watches, it is earthly time that we are always fighting against.  AEVUM, however, is celestial time, experienced only by the angels or other celestial beings.  In Latin it can be literally translated as “Time regarded as the medium in which events occur, indefinite continuous duration, the time series.”  It is oftentimes translated as a “span of time,” a “generation,” or an “age.”  Finally AETERNITAS is brought up by the scholars which, they argue, is the sense of time experienced only by the highest divinity.  It is translated as “infinite time,” eternity,” or “immortality.”  This tricolon crescendo of time presented by the men makes us step outside ourselves and think about time as something other than that ticking clock on the wall or that alarm that wakes us up or that watch which is constantly staring up at us from our wrists.

Seagull Books has published another extraordinary, thought-provoking, beautiful book.  This book is worth owning not only for the literature, philosophy and poetry contained within, but the beautiful prints reproduced on glossy, heavy weight paper make it a very special piece.

About the Author:
Alexander Kluge is one of the major German fiction writers of the late- twentieth century and an important social critic. As a filmmaker, he is credited with the launch of the New German Cinema movement.

About the Artist:
Gerhard Richter is one of the most respected visual artists of Germany, and his seminal works include Atlas (1964), October 18, 1977 (1988) and Eight Grey (2002).

december-3

 

 

4 Comments

Filed under Art, German Literature, History, Literature in Translation, Seagull Books, Short Stories

Review: Boswell’s Enlightenment by Robert Zaretsky

My Review:

Boswell's EnlightenmentThe 10th Laird of Auchinleck is best known for his comprehensive biography of Samuel Johnson; but James Boswell was an important and interesting figure in his own right.  This book is essentially an account of how Boswell becomes The Boswell we are more familiar with–the writer, the biographer, the lawyer.  This book reveals to us a Boswell who thought deeply about religion, the afterlife and the immortality of the soul and who sought out the greatest thinkers of his days and questioned them relentlessly about these topics.  Zaretsky’s brief biography is an account of Boswell’s Grand Tour of Europe from 1763-1765 as he interviews great men in an attempt to probe the depths of his own soul.

Zaretsky first describes Boswell’s Calvinist roots which laid the foundation for his struggle with religion, worship and the immortality of the soul.  Boswell was born and raised in Edinburgh, Scotland where his parents were very traditional followers of this Christian sect which believed in a harsh and vengeful God.  The long Sundays spent in devotion to such an ever-watchful deity had a lasting influence on Boswell’s psyche.  When he graduates from university and his father expects him to study law, Boswell wants first to travel around Europe and have conversations with the world’s leading Enlightenment thinkers.  Boswell actively pursues and interrogates the likes of Johnson, Rosseau, Voltaire, Wilke and Paoli.

There are some interesting themes that Zaretsky notes about Boswell’s life during this period, the most important of which is his constant battle with melancholy.  When Boswell meets Johnson in London, the two men bond over their respective bouts of depression.  Boswell is constantly plagued by a type of pensive sadness concerning his life and the course which it ought to take.  During these low periods he indulges in two forms of “medication”: drinking and sex.  The self-medication and depression become a cyclical pattern because the more depressed he feels the more he drinks and has sex; after a night of extreme debauchery Boswell has feelings of dread and guilt which further launch him into a depression.  Zaretsky points out that even much later in life, when he is settled down with a wonderful wife and five children he continues to wrestle with these demons.

The most entertaining encounters that Boswell has during his travels are with Rosseau and Voltaire.  At this point, both writers are carrying out reclusive lives as feeble, crusty old men when Boswell overtakes them.  And overtakes them he does as he shows up on both men’s doorsteps and insinuates himself into their homes.  He questions both men about religion, life, and most importantly the immortality of the soul.  Zaretsky provides us with a general overview of Rosseau’s and Voltaire’s important ideas and how these ideas have an impact on young Boswell.  Rosseau is a bit more affable with Boswell and is entertained by Boswell’s gregarious and affable personality.  But neither philosopher is able to give Boswell satisfactory answers about the role of God in this life or what will happen to his soul in the next.

Boswell then moves on to Italy and eventually Corsica where he meets two very different types of men. John Wilkes, the libertine politician, is a free-spirited thinker who embraces life for all it is worth; he, too, loves to drink and whore around but he is unapologetic about his behavior.  Wilkes dismisses Boswell’s questions about religion and mortality and tells Boswell to stop being so serious and to embrace life.  While Boswell is with Wilkes he lets loose with wild abandon as his days and nights are taken up with talking to his friend, drinking and sexual promiscuity.

Sometimes funny, sometimes serious, but always well-written, Boswell’s Enlightenment has given me a much greater appreciation for Johnson’s biographer. Boswell is plagued with self-doubt and depression yet through all of his low points he continues to contemplate the importance of this life and his possible annihilation in the next.  This book covers only a brief span in Boswell’s life, but I enjoyed it so much that I purchased a copy of Boswell’s diaries so I can learn more about this fascinating, Scottish laird.

About The Author:

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of French History at the University of Houston.

 

9 Comments

Filed under History, Nonfiction