Category Archives: Kafka

Putting the Shaken House in its New Order: My Year in Reading-2018

There is no doubt that this was a tough year by any measure. The news, in my country and around the world. was depressing, scary and, at times, downright ridiculous. Personally, I had some very high highs and some very low lows. The summer was particularly hot and oppressive. And this semester was unusually demanding at work. More than any other year I can remember, I took solace and comfort by retreating into my books. I have listed here the books, essays and translations that kept me busy in 2018. War and Peace, Daniel Deronda, The Divine Comedy and Stach’s three volume biography of Kafka were particular favorites, but there really wasn’t a dud in this bunch.

Classic Fiction and Non-Fiction (20th Century or earlier):

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (trans. Louise and Alymer Maude)

The Bachelors by Adalbert Stifter (trans. David Bryer)

City Folk and Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya (trans. Nora Seligman Favorov)

The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

A Dead Rose by Aurora Caceres (trans. Laura Kanost)

Nothing but the Night by John Williams

G: A Novel by John Berger

Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

Artemisia by Anna Banti (trans. Shirley D’Ardia Caracciolo)

The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark

Flesh by Brigid Brophy

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

The Colour of Memory by Geoff Dyer

The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky (trans. by Ignat Avsey)

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

Lyric Novella by Annmarie Schwarzenbach (trans. Lucy Renner Jones)

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (trans. Allen Mandelbaum)

The Achilleid by Statius (trans. Stanley Lombardo)

The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter by Matei Calinescu (trans. Adriana Calinescu and Breon Mitchell)

The Blue Octavo Notebooks by Franz Kafka (trans. Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins)

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir (trans. James Kirkup)

Journey into the Mind’s Eye: Fragments of an Autobiography by Lesley Blanch

String of Beginnings by Michael Hamburger

Theseus by André Gide (trans. John Russell)

Contemporary Fiction and Non-Fiction:

Kafka: The Early Years by Reiner Stach (trans. Shelley Frisch)

Kafka: The Decisive Years by Reiner Stach (trans. Shelley Frisch)

Kafka: The Years of Insight by Reiner Stach (trans. Shelley Frisch)

Villa Amalia by Pascal Quignard (trans. Chris Turner)

All the World’s Mornings by Pascal Quignard (trans. James Kirkup)

Requiem for Ernst Jundl by Friederike Mayröcker (trans. Roslyn Theobald)

Bergeners by Tomas Espedal (trans. James Anderson)

Kudos by Rachel Cusk

The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy

The Years by Annie Ernaux (trans. Alison L. Strayer)

He Held Radical Light by Christian Wiman

The Unspeakable Girl by Giorgio Agamben and Monica Ferrando (trans. Leland de la Durantaye)

The Adventure by Giorgio Agamben (trans. Lorenzo Chiesa)

Essays and Essay Collections:

Expectations by Jean-Luc Nancy

Errata by George Steiner

My Unwritten Books by George Steiner

The Poetry of Thought by George Steiner

A Handbook of Disappointed Fate by Anne Boyer

“Dante Now: The Gossip of Eternity” by George Steiner

“Conversation with Dante” by Osip Mandelstam

“George Washington”, “The Bookish Life,” and “On Being Well-Read” and “The Ideal of Culture” by Joseph Epstein

“On Not Knowing Greek,” “George Eliot,” “Russian Thinking” by Virginia Woolf

Poetry Collections:

The Selected Poems of Donald Hall

Exiles and Marriage: Poems by Donald Hall

H.D., Collected Poems

Elizabeth Jennings, Selected Poems and Timely Issues

Eavan Boland, New Selected Poems

Omar Carcares, Defense of the Idol

The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova

Analicia Sotelo, Virgin

Elizabeth Bishop, Poems, Prose and Letters (LOA Edition)

Michael Hamburger: A Reader, (Declan O’Driscoll, ed.)

I also dipped into quite a few collections of letters such as Kafka, Kierkegaard, Kleist, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, etc. that I won’t bother to list here. I enjoyed reading personal letters alongside an author’s fiction and/or biography.

My own Translations (Latin and Greek):

Vergil, Aeneid IV: Dido’s Suicide

Statius, Silvae IV: A Plea for Some Sleep

Horace Ode 1.5: Oh Gracilis Puer!

Horace, Ode 1.11: May You Strain Your Wine

Propertius 1.3: Entrusting One’s Sleep to Another

Seneca: A Selection from “The Trojan Women”

Heraclitus: Selected Fragments

Cristoforo Landino, Love is not Blind: A Renaissance Latin Love Elegy

As George Steiner writes in his essay Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: “Great works of art pass through us like storm-winds, flinging open the doors of perception, pressing upon the architecture of our beliefs with their transforming powers. We seek to record their impact, to put our shaken house in its new order.” My reading patterns have most definitely changed and shifted this year. I am no longer satisfied to read a single book by an author and move on. I feel the need to become completely absorbed by an author’s works in addition to whatever other sources are available (letters, essays, biography, autobiography, etc.) Instead of just one book at a time, I immerse myself in what feels more like reading projects. I am also drawn to classics, especially “loose, baggy monsters” and have read very little contemporary authors this year. I image that this pattern will continue into 2019.

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Filed under Autobiography, British Literature, French Literature, German Literature, Italian Literature, Kafka, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Nonfiction, Novella, Poetry, Russian Literature, Tolstoi, Virginia Woolf

The Force of Gravity: Kafka’s Blue Octavo Notebooks

I have reached one of the parts of Stach’s biography that I been eagerly anticipating—his discussions of Kafka’s Blue Octavo Notebooks.  In the winter of 1916-1917, Kafka’s youngest sister, Ottla, rents a small house in Alchimistengasse (Alchemists’ Alley) in a section of Old Prague.  “A room with an open hearth in a tiny basement, grimy and dilapidated, for a mere twenty kornen,” Stach says.  Ottla rented it in secret and it was to serve as a little oasis, away from her parents, away from the family shop, for a few hours a day.  She generously shared her space with her brother and Kafka loved the quiet and solitude of this space; while visiting this simple hideaway, at the height of winter and world war, he had one of his most productive writing periods.  During this time, Kafka started writing in octavo notebooks instead of his diary.  As usual, Stach’s description of these notebooks is perfect:

Four unlined octavo volumes, each about eighty pages in length—a compact size suitable for carrying around town in his breast pocket—have been preserved from the winter of 1916 to 1917.  Two additional notebooks that Kafka must have used are missing.

These nondescript pads, which are filled with writing down to the last page (Kafka scholars refer to them as the Octavo Notebooks A through D), offer a startling and confusing sight: long, short, and very brief entries, prose and dialogue, a couple of lines of poetry, dated and undated texts, normal handwriting randomly alternating with shorthand, a scattering of headings, entire pages crossed out, word-for-word repetitions, disjointed sentences, fluid transitions and long dividing lines punctuated by doodles, mysterious names, an address, drafts of letters, a checklist of errands, torn out and mixed up pages, a random slip of paper…everything looking as though he had spread his papers out all over the floor while writing.

There is something decidedly different about reading these notebooks.  They are profound, sad and contemplative.  I have enjoyed reading them more than another other of Kafka’s writings.  I share with you a few of my favorite pieces from the first few notebooks:

October 18, 1917:

Dread of night. Dread of not-night.

November 24:

Celibacy and suicide are on similar levels of understanding, suicide and a martyr’s death not so by any means, perhaps marriage and a martyr’s death.

November 24:

It could be imagined that Alexander the Great, in spite of his youthful triumphs in warfare, in spite of the superb army he built up, in spite of the energies he felt in himself that were directed to transforming the world, might have halted at the Hellespont and not have crossed it, and this not from fear, not from irresolution, not from weakness of will, but from the force of gravity.

February 7:

Weariness does not necessarily signify weakness of faith—or does it?  In any case weariness signifies insufficiency.  I feel too tightly constricted in everything that signifies Myself: even the eternity that I am is too tight for me.  But if, for instance, I read a good book, say an account of travels, it rouses me, satisfies me, suffices me.  Proofs that previously I did not include this book in my eternity, or had not pushed on far enough ahead to have an intuitive glimpse of the eternity that necessarily includes this book as well. —From a certain state of knowledge [Erkenntnis] on, weariness, insufficiency, constriction, self contempt, must all vanish: namely at the point where I have the strength to recognize as my own nature what previously was something alien to myself that refreshed me, satisfied, liberated, and exalted me.

The edition of the Blue Octavo Notebooks I have were edited by Max Brod and translated by Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins.

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Filed under German Literature, Kafka

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!

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

The Eternally Dithering Kafka: Some Final Thoughts on Stach’s The Decisive Years

The Metamorphosis. First Edition cover, 1916.

So far I have read over 1,000 pages, about two-thirds, of Stach’s three volume biography of Kafka.  To be perfectly honest, I thought I would grow tired of such a long work and would want a break in between volumes, but this has not been the case.  I am completely absorbed in Stach’s narrative and I have been thinking about what, exactly, sets this extraordinary biography apart from not only other biographies of Kafka, but from other books in this genre as a whole.  Stach, in his preface to the second volume of his Kafka biography (which was actually the first to be published) answers this question for me.  He writes (trans. Shelley Frisch):

The magic word of biographers is empathy.  Empathy comes into play when psychology and experience fall short.  Even a life that is empirically very well documented remains elusive if the biographer fails to rouse the reader’s willingness to identify with a character, a situation, and a milieu.  Hence the curious sterility of some massive biographies that are bloated by data and references.  They purport to say everything that can be said but completely miss their subject and therefore fail to satisfy our curiosity.

There are two themes that consume Kafka and Stach’s biography between the years 1912 and 1914: Literature and Felice.  Stach progresses in his story by building on these themes layer by careful layer and the result is a riveting, impressive, stunning work;  Stach elicits empathy by highlighting Kafka’s indecision, inner turmoil and self-doubt in relation to his writing and his engagement with Felice.

Felice Bauer is a middle-class, Jewish woman from Berlin whom Kafka meets just once before he engages in an intense, personal relationship with her through letters.  Other biographers have tended to depict Felice as a woman who is intellectually unworthy of Kafka’s attentions, but Stach’s discussion of her family and her own life is much  more balanced than this.  Not only do we feel empathy for Kafka’s indecision about marriage, but we also feel great sorrow for this woman to whom he was engaged twice. In addition to  an emotionally sensitive and unstable fiancé who writes her lengthy, daily letters, she was also dealing with working full-time, a sister who got pregnant out of wedlock and a profligate brother who was caught stealing money from his future father-in-law.  Stach writes beautifully and poignantly about Felice and Kafka’s extensive exchange of letters (wonderfully translated by Shelly Frisch):

When we try to get an overview of the tangled correspondence between Kafka and Felice Bauer, from their first attempts to establish a relationship in September 1912 to the “reception day” in Berlin, the official engagement celebration on Whitsunday 1914, we encounter an enormous emotional and mental ground swell.  The motif of repetition predominates: a kind of minimal music in which new elements are introduced with slight variations, while the main melody remains audible.  Still, it is fascinating to read these letters, because Kafka’s metaphoric richness and humor never fade, even in  moments of torpor.

The reading is also painful.  What is the source of our sympathetic torment?  Are we embarrassed at playing the voyeur?  Is it the disaster, the helplessness, the failure witnessed up close? These are people who walk over an abyss of psychosocial pathology. Yet procrastination, repression, the mix of emotion and cold calculation, regression, the alternation of advances and retreats, narcissism, undignified quarrels, fantasizing, and lost opportunities were all common phenomena in relationships in bourgeois society, which advocated an exceedingly binding ideal of love.

After writing Felice detailed and intimate letters for the better part of a year Kafka realizes that there are only two ways that this could end: in marriage or in the complete loss of this woman from his life.  The eighteen-page letter (or “treatise”—his own word for it) that describes the discontented, socially awkward, physically fragile, lonely man whom she would be marrying serves as his proposal to Felice and is a testament to his anguish over these choices.   It’s hard to believe that it took her less than two days to say yes to all of this!  Once again, Stach’s insights into this complex situation and Kafka’s paralyzing indecisions are incisive and balanced:

A biographer cannot dispense advice, and perfunctory long-distance diagnoses of human relationships that go back generations or even epochs, are among the vilest side effects of the historical leveling that has become prevalent among with the discursive predominance of psychology.  Nonetheless, if we work our way along the cascade of fears that plagued and eventually overwhelmed Kafka, more and more insistently once Felice and he had decided to marry, it is difficult to refrain from considering the could haves and should haves.  They ought to have met more often, on neutral territory, far away from their parents, bosses and guardians.  They needed to share experiences, define their common past, and somehow find a way of testing the waters of marriage.

But Kafka’s inability to make a decision and move forward prevented him from doing these most basic, logical things with Felice during both of their doomed engagements.

The period of his relationship and correspondence with Felice also coincides with his most productive phases of writing.  After meeting her, he sits down at his desk and in a single, overnight sitting writes “The Judgement.”  He also works on, but never finishes, his novel The Man Who Disappeared.  While writing larges pieces of this novel he takes a break and creates his masterpiece, “The Metamorphosis.”  After he breaks off his second engagement with Felice, he begins his second novel, The Trial, which will also remain unfinished,  and composes his short story “In the Penal Colony.”  But even as far as literature is concerned, his self-doubt and hesitation sabotage his chances for publication.  He had an agreement from Wolff, his publisher, to release three of his stories in one volume but Kafka failed to pull together this project and never sent the manuscripts to the publisher who eventually lost interest.  Stach writes, “We can imagine the advice Brod, Pick and Weiss gave the eternally dithering Kafka: If your major novel is not finished yet, get “The Metamorphosis” out of your drawer! Three-quarters of a year had passed since Kafka had promised his publisher a serviceable typescript of the story…”  It is no wonder that any of Kafka’s writing saw the light of day under these circumstances.

Finally, I have to mention one additional, pleasant side-effect of reading this second volume Stach’s biography.  He discusses, especially in relation to Kafka’s engagements, the author’s interest in the lives, failed love affairs and writings of  Flaubert, Grillparzer and Kierkegaard.  I have obtained some of the writings from these authors which I will also explore since they were so important to Kafka.  After reading Kierkegaard’s diaries Kafka writes, “As I suspected, his case, despite vital differences, is very similar to mine; he is on the same side of the world.  He supports me like a friend.”  How can we not experience sympathy, compassion or even empathy for this lonely, tormented man who identifies a long-dead, Danish philosopher as more of a “friend” than anyone who is actually around him?

On to the final volume…

 

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Filed under German Literature, Kafka, Nonfiction

The Bachelor of World Literature: Kafka-The Decisive Years by Reiner Stach

In a letter written while in his twenties, Rainer Maria Rilke describes his vision of what a good marriage ought to be (trans. John J.L. Mood):

It is a question in marriage, to my feeling, not of creating a quick community of spirit by tearing down and destroying all boundaries, but rather a good marriage is that in which each appoints the other guardian of his solitude, and shows him this confidence, the greatest in his power to bestow. A togetherness between two people is an impossibility, and where it seems, nevertheless, to exist, it is a narrowing, a reciprocal agreement which robs either one party or both of is fullest freedom and development. But, once the realization is accepted that even between the closet human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole and against a wide sky!

This is one of the most beautiful descriptions I have ever read of what a good, supportive and loving marriage could be. I keep thinking about Rilke’s thoughts as I make my way through the second volume of Reiner Stach’s biography of Kafka. Stach begins The Decisive Years in 1910 when a twenty-eight-year-old Kafka is still a bachelor, is still living at home with his parents and sisters, and is still trying to find enough solitude to write. Even though he is the only member of the family to have his own room, the constant noise in the apartment and the proximity of his family hinders his writing during daylight hours. Kafka’s closest friends—Max Brod, Oscar Baum and Felix Weltsch—as well as his sisters have gotten married or are making plans to get married. As Stach points out, Kafka is certainly neither innocent nor sexually neutral—he visits prostitutes to satisfy his physical needs. But the thread we see running throughout his diaries and letters is an intense, obsessive, and urgent desire to write; a wife, and family would certainly not give him the solitude he needs for his literary endeavors. In the chapter entitled “Bachelors, Young and Old” Stach writes (translated Shelley Frisch): “Franz Kafka is the bachelor of world literature. No one, not even the most open-minded reader, can imagine him at the side of a Frau Doktor Kafka, and the image of a white-haired family man surrounded by grandchildren at play is irreconcilable with the gaunt figure and self-conscious smile of the man we know as Kafka, who blossomed and wilted at an early age.”

Kafka has two “relationships” of sorts before he meets Felice Bauer, the woman to whom he will become engaged. Hedwig Weller is his first girlfriend in his early twenties and he exchanges letters with her between 1907 and 1909. She lives in Berlin and so most of their contact is only through letters. In 1912, Kafka and Max Brod take a trip to Weimar to meet with publishers and visit Goethe’s home which has been turned into a museum. The caretaker of Goethe’s estate has a teenage daughter with whom Kafka becomes obsessed. It is sweet and endearing how he eagerly awaits for her outside of local shops and taverns to catch fleeting glimpses of her. He even has Brod run interference with her father so he can have a stolen moment with her in the orchard on the Goethe property. (This moment is captured in a blurry photograph that Wagenbach includes in his biography of Kafka.) He is sad when he has to leave her, but it’s interesting to note that Kafka keeps choosing women that live quite a distance from him and with whom there is never a realistic chance of pursuing a serious courtship. As Stach is leading up to the chapters on Felice Bauer in this second volume, these earlier precedents will serve to shed more light on his later, failed engagements.

Marriage and the distinct possibility of not having a partner for the rest of his life also weighs heavily on Kafka. In November 1911, in a fragment of a story called “The Bachelor’s Unhappiness” he depicts a pathetic, lonely, joyless, unmarried, older man: “It seems so strange to remain a bachelor, to become an old man struggling hard to preserve his dignity while pleading for an invitation when he wants to spend an evening with people, being ill and spending weeks staring into an empty room from the corner of his bed, always saying good night at the gate, never running up the stairs beside his wife…” Kafka’s diaries entries just two years later in which he lists the pros and cons of marriage reiterate this fear of perpetual loneliness: “I am incapable, alone, of bearing the assault of my own life, the demands of my own person, the attacks of time and old age, the vague presence of the desire to write, sleeplessness, the nearness of insanity—I cannot bear all this alone.” But sacrificing his solitude to write, even if it eases his loneliness, is not something is his willing to do. Not, at least, at this point in his life.

And so my mind returns to that lovely Rilke quote which, I think, is something that Kafka might have appreciated. If he could only find a wife that would have been that “guardian of his solitude,” It is tragic that this concept of marriage is something that would have been completely alien to him, especially given his social and religious upbringing. Even more than his relationships with Felice and Milena, I am eager to read Stach’s description of the last months of Kafka’s life when he doesn’t marry but does live with a woman named Dora Diamant, which is the closet he will ever get to a domestic life. Did she protect his solitude? Or did he finally decide that he didn’t want to die alone?

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Filed under German Literature, Kafka, Letters, Nonfiction