Tag Archives: Classics

Cycle of a non-person: The Castle by Kafka

Kafka’s final novel describes a land surveyor, simply known as “K.” arriving in an unnamed village, over which looms a castle and its mysterious bureaucracy. Through K.’s attempt to find out why he has been sent and what he is supposed to do in the village, Kafka captures the feelings of alienation, anxiety, loneliness, pain and existential angst that are universal to the human condition. Conversations with the village mayor, the schoolteacher, the landlady of the inn and a woman to whom he becomes engaged never help K. feel settled or at home in this strange place which he refuses to leave.

As I was reading The Castle, a passage from an essay entitled, “Answers and Questions” written by the exiled  Cuban author Guillermo Cabrera Infante kept coming to mind. Initially a supporter of Fidel Castro and the revolution in his country, Cabrera Infante becomes disillusioned with the suppressive Communist regime that launches his people into poverty. The author decides that if he is to continue his career as a writer then his only option is to leave Cuba and go into exile. He describes the horrifying and sad fate of those who are trapped in Cuba and have become what he calls a non-person:

Cycle of a non-person: request for exit from the country, automatic loss of job and eventual inventory of house and household goods; without work there is no work card, without a work card there is no ration book; the permission for exit can take months, a year, two, following the rules more of political lottery than of socialist chess; meanwhile, the non-person finds himself obliged to live by using the money he has saved in the bank: to leave he must restore even the last cent that he had in the bank at the moment of requesting the exit visa; if the bank account is not in order the exit visa is automatically cancelled: new request for exit visa, etc., etc.

The Castle illustrates that there are many ways in which a man or woman can be made to feel like a “non-person”: politically, socially, emotionally, economically, etc. We oftentimes feel in life, despite our best efforts to settle down, like we don’t belong in a home, a country, a relationship, a job, etc.

Kafka’s female characters and his descriptions of various romantic relationships in The Castle also fascinated me.  Women seem to hold a certain amount of power and influence in the village.  The Landlady, for instance, is the reason for the success of The Inn and the mayor’s wife Mizzi has more influence over decisions that are made in the village than the mayor himself.  When K. arrives in town he meets Freida the barmaid and after a single night of passionate sex on the Castle Inn floor, he becomes engaged to her.  But women can also become a burden as relationships grow more and more complicated and the passion dissolves.  K. takes a menial job as a school janitor so that he and Freida will have a home and a source of income.  How many sacrifices and compromises can a man or woman make in a relationship before one loses his or her identity?  How often to we feel like a non-person, a shadow of our true selves, because of obligations to family, friends, spouses, etc.?  I’m not surprised that Kafka was engaged several times and never had the desire to make a final commitment to one woman.

I am interested to see what others have thought about The Castle.  Let me know your impressions in the comments!

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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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Venit Ver (Spring Arrives)

Fresco, The Roman Goddess Flora

The Latin poet Catullus had a passionate yet turbulent love affair with a prominent married woman named Clodia. When Clodia finally releases him for good, Catullus accepts a position on the staff of the Roman governor of Bithynia to get out of town for a while and away from any painful reminders of his love affair. He chooses this long and tedious journey to get as far away as possible from Rome in order to nurse his sore wounds. But as we learn from poem 10, the governor of Bithynia was a crook and Catullus did not make any profit there. After a year in this outpost in Asia Minor, Catullus writes a poem in 56 B.C. as he is about to embark on his journey home. It is springtime and Catullus has that renewed sense of hope which comes with the warmer air and the fresh breezes. The meter is hendecasyllabic:

Catullus, Carmen 46:

Iam ver egelidos refert tepores,
iam caeli furor aequinoctialis
iucundis Zephyri silescit aureis.
Linquantur Phrygii, Catulle, campi
nicaeaeque ager uber aestuosae:
ad claras asiae volemus urbes.
Iam mens praetrepidans avet vagari,
iam laeti studio pedes vigescunt.
O dulces comitum valete coetus,
longe quos simul a domo profectos
diversae varie viae reportant.

My Translation of Carmen 46:

Now spring returns the mild warmth
now the fury of the equinoctial sky is silenced
by the pleasant breezes of the west-wind.
Let the Phrygian plains, Catullus,
and the fertile fields of Nicaea be left behind:
Let us fly through the well-known cities of Asia.
Now my mind, trembling with anticipation, strongly desires to roam,
now my happy feet become lively with eagerness.
Take care, oh cherished group of friends
who, having traveled together far from our homes,
are now being carried back on different roads.

I find this time of the year, May in particular, to be the most difficult to get through as far as teaching my classes are concerned. The springtime causes the students to become increasingly impatient because they are trapped in a classroom as the weather is becoming warmer.  Who could blame them! The spring has mixed blessings for me: I enjoy the warmth of the sun and the budding flowers but I don’t look forward to fidgety students who are increasingly eager to carry their laeti pedes (happy feet) away from these halls of learning for summer.

Fresco from the Villa di Livia

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Review: Blindness by Henry Green

Blindness is the first of Henry Green’s nine novels and has elements of autobiography woven into the character sketch of seventeen-year-old John Hayes, a student attending British public school in the early twentieth century.  The first part of Blindness is written as a series of diary entries by John who is attending Noat, a school that closely resembles Green’s alma mater, Eaton.  John’s diaries are filled with entries about his keen interest in writing, stories of his silly friends, anecdotes about public school life and the various duties of his important role as the secretary of the Noat art society.  During one of his trips home, John is injured in a horrendous, freak accident and he is permanently blinded.  Forced to leave school and live at Barwood with his stepmother and old Nanny, John’s carefree life comes to a dramatic end.  In Green’s unique presentation of a Bildungsroman, young John must reexamine the world through the use of his other senses and learn to deal with his new version of reality as he moves forward with his life.

Green’s use of  diary entries for part one of his book, the single chapter of which is aptly called “Laugh,”  is a subtle way of showing us the humor and quirks of John’s easy existence but without turning his protagonist into a ridiculous caricature of a British school boy.   John’s entry for October 1 reads:

Brown, a friend of mine, has hit Billing, who keeps the food shop where you get rat poison, in the stomach so that he crumpled up behind the counter: the best thing that has happened for years.

Billing had apparently hit Brown previously, and had sent him to the Headmaster for being rude, and he, instead of backing Billing up, had asked Brown why he had not hit back: so when Billing hit Rockfeller today, Rockfeller being with Brown was rude to Billing, who attacked Brown, who laid Billing out.  Meanwhile Brown has gone to his House master to ask that Billing’s shop may be put out of bounds, and Billing presumably is going to the Headmaster.  There will be a fine flare-up.

John’s diary is replete with these seemingly mundane stories that Green’s writing style manages to make witty and charming.   John takes his role as secretary of the Noat art society very seriously and is oftentimes stressed out because of the various shows and lectures the he helps to organize.  Social ostracism, wearing the right clothes and hats, thoughts on his favorite books and his interest in a writing career are topics that fill up the pages of this entertaining diary.  We also get a glimpse of John’s fussy stepmother who is consumed with running her household, fighting with the Town Council and making certain that everyone in the village is behaving properly.  John thinks that she doesn’t really understand him on any kind of a deep level, but he acknowledges that she is a concerned and loving mother figure to him.

Although the rest of the book is not written in diary form, Green continues to narrate the actions through the intimate thoughts of various characters.  Green’s strength as an author begins in this first book with his ability to allow his audience to experience the events and images of the book right alongside with his characters.  For example, we learn through her rambling thoughts that Nanny has raised John since he was born and that she is completely distraught over the accident; Mamma is concerned that John will never have anything to do with his life and will be in danger of staying a bachelor.  Mamma dearly misses her husband, John’s father, whom she is certain would have know the right courses of action to deal with this tragedy.

Parts two and three have a marked change of tone from the humorous to the more serious.  But Green manages to do this without turning the story into a banal tragedy.  What ties the three parts of this book together is John’s optimism even when he can no longer see.  As he learns that there is no chance that he will ever have his vision back, he absorbs this bad news with a stoicism that developed in him while he was a student at Noat.  He tries to console his mother and his nanny who seem much more distraught at the news of his blindness than John himself.  While he is getting used to the darkness that has permanently set in we see the first glimpses of his optimism:

But he was blind, everyone would be sorry for him, everyone would try to help him, and everyone would be at his beck and call; it was very nice, it was comfortable.  He would take full advantage, after all he deserved it in a conscience.  He would enjoy life.  Why not?  But he was blind.

Another strength of Green’s writing that shines through in Blindness is his ability to describe in great detail images that beautifully capture the splendor of the English countryside.  Green weaves these different images throughout his story so that they are fitting for John’s metamorphosis from Caterpillar, to Chrysalis, to Butterfly, as the three parts of the novel are fittingly named.  When John is first blinded he is still trying to experience the beauty of Barwood estate through memories of vision.  Green writes:

So much of life had been made up of seeing things.  The country he had always looked to for something.  He had seen so much in line, so much in colour, so much in everything he had seen.  And he had noticed more than anyone else, of course he had.

But when he had seen, how much it had meant.  Everything was abstract now personality had gone.  Flashs came back of things seen and remembered, but they were not clear-cut.  Little bits in a wood, a pool in a hedge with red flowers everywhere, a red-coated man in the distance on a white horse galloping, the sea with violet patches over grey where the seaweed stained it, silver where the sun rays met it.  A gull coming up from beneath a cliff.  There was a certain comfort in remembering.

As John adjusts to his new world, Green shifts his imagery in the final part of the book from an emphasis on the visual to the aural and the tangible:

He was in the summer house.  Light rain crackled as it fell on the wooden roof, and winds swept up, one after the other, to rustle the trees.  A pigeon hurried rather through his phrase that was no longer now a call.  Cries of rooks came down tohim from where they would be floating, whirling in the air like dead leaves, over the lawn.  The winds kept coming back, growing out of each other and when a stronger one had gone by there would be left cool eddies slipping by his cheek, while a tree further on would thunder softly.

John’s newfound outlook on life coincides with a bizarre relationship he has with a woman named Joan who lives in a dilapidated cottage with her drunken father.  Green’s insertion of this storyline and character has a mixed success in the overall narrative structure of the story.  There is a long interlude at the end of part two that describes Joan and her miserable life with her father who was once the village parson but has been ostracized because of his alcoholism and the rumors that he deceased wife was cheating on him.  The abrupt change from John and his family’s perspective to Joan and her father seemed out of place especially since her story was given no real ending by Green.  At best Joan serves as a catalyst for John to explore the world through other senses as he and Joan take long walks in the woods together.  But it is evident that their different social classes and upbringing is too much of an obstacle for them to have any long-term commitment to one another.

The Joan episode is not completely devoid of its merits within the framework of the book, however.  Green could have been easily turned their story into the cliché blind-rich-boy meets and marries poor-downtrodden-scared girl who live happily ever after.  Even in his first novel Green writes an unexpected ending;  John’s optimism wins over and an unlikely character, who isn’t Joan, helps him embrace a new life and become the adventurous, independent butterfly he is meant to be.

About the Author:
Henry Green was the nom de plume of Henry Vincent Yorke.  Green was born near Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, into an educated family with successful business interests. His father Vincent Wodehouse Yorke, the son of John Reginald Yorke and Sophia Matilda de Tuyll de Serooskerken, was a wealthy landowner and industrialist in Birmingham. His mother, Hon. Maud Evelyn Wyndham, was daughter of the second Baron Leconfield. Green grew up in Gloucestershire and attended Eton College, where he became friends with fellow pupil Anthony Powell and wrote most of his first novel, Blindness. He studied at Oxford University and there began a friendship and literary rivalry with Evelyn Waugh.

Green left Oxford in 1926 without taking a degree and returned to Birmingham to engage in his family business. He started by working with the ordinary workers on the factory floor of his family’s factory, which produced beer-bottling machines, and later became the managing director. During this time he gained the experience to write Living, his second novel, which he worked on during 1927 and 1928. In 1929, he married his second cousin, the Hon. Adelaide Biddulph, also known as ‘Dig’. They were both great-grandchildren of the 1st Baron Leconfield. Their son Sebastian was born in 1934. In 1940, Green published Pack My Bag, which he regarded as a nearly-accurate autobiography. During World War II Green served as a fireman in the Auxiliary Fire Service and these wartime experiences are echoed in his novel Caught; they were also a strong influence on his subsequent novel, Back.

Green’s last published novel was Doting (1952); this was the end of his writing career. In his later years, until his death in 1973, he became increasingly focused on studies of the Ottoman Empire, and became alcoholic and reclusive. Politically, Green was a traditional Tory throughout his life.

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Molloy by Samuel Beckett: My Contribution to the #1951 Club

Karin at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at  Stuck in a Book are hosting a readlong of books that were published in 1951.  As I was looking through the list I realized that I had a nice collection of Beckett’s writing which included his novel Molloy.  At first I hesitated to write anything about Beckett.  I mean, really, what more can be said about Beckett and one of his most popular and well-known novels?  But here are the results of some feeble attempts at putting together a few words about this masterpiece.

The first part of Molloy consists of two paragraphs, the first of which is two pages long.  Molloy is living in his mother’s room and he is not sure how he got there or when she died.  The second paragraph takes up the next eighty pages of text and is written in the first person by Molloy who has embarked on the archetypal journey of a literary or mythological hero.  He sets out on his bicycle and has random encounters with a plethora of characters that include an elderly man with a stick, a police officer, a woman named Lousse whose dog he runs over and another woman named Ruth or Edith (like many other details he is unsure of her name) who shows him the meaning of love (i.e. she has sex with him.)  His thoughts and internal dialogue are as meandering as his physical journey.

In addition to the nature of his epic journey that brings him to strange places, there were two other strong parallels I noted between Molloy’s journey and that of Odysseus.   Molloy is stopped by a police officer when he is riding on his bicycle and when he is taken to the police station he can’t remember his name.  When it finally comes to him, he can’t stop saying it and shouts, “Molloy, Molloy,” which is evocative of the scene between Odysseus and the Cyclops.  In the Odyssey it is the Cyclops, Polyphemus who is representation of everything that is uncivilized, uncouth and disordered.  But through Molloy’s rambling thoughts and rambling journey, Beckett seems to be putting his narrator in the role of the outsider.  Molloy isn’t quite sure where he fits in, he is never certain of his final destination, and he has no Penelope towards whom he is drawn.  Molloy keeps bringing up his mother and is desperate to find her and find out whether or not she is dead; this is a psychologically interesting twist on the Homeric role of Penelope faithfully waiting for her husband.

An additional scene in Molloy which for me was even more evocative of the Odyssey is Molloy’s extended stay with a woman named Lousse who resembles Homer’s Circe.  Molloy runs over and kills Lousse’s dog and after he helps her bury the dog in the backyard he can’t seem to muster the strength to leave her home.  It is unclear how much time passes, but he is in a vague stupor which is imposed on him by herbs that Lousse slips him in his food and drink.  He doesn’t seem unhappy or very eager to escape.  During his stay with Lousse he also recalls visions of his mother and another woman named Ruth with whom he has sex for the first time.  Overall, Molloy seems to have a positive view of women who may, like Lousse, put a spell on him for a time, but he always manages to escape when he wants.

The second part of the book is narrated by a man named Jacques Moran who is some type of investigator hired by his boss to find Molloy.  The change in narrative structure, from the rambling story of Molloy in the first part to the more traditional method of straightforward narrative, felt rather abrupt.  At first Molloy and Moran seem to be polar opposites.  Moran is obsessed with order and structure; he eats at the same time every day, goes to church every Sunday and demands the same structure from his maid and his son.  As he prepares for his journey to find Molloy, he forces his son to pack his things so he can go along with his father.  Moran is emotionally cold, mistrustful, and condescending to his son.  At one point in the story Moran’s son complains of a stomach ache and Moran forces the boy to endure an enema which appeared to be more about control and humiliation of his son rather than trying to cure him of intestinal distress.  I suspect Beckett did not have a very favorable view of fathers or the father/son relationship, to say the least.

As Moran sets out on foot through the woods with his son he becomes more and more like Molloy.  Moran, just as Molloy in part one, becomes physically feeble and can’t walk.  The farther he goes on his journey, the more rambling and incohesive his thoughts also become.  Is Moran turning into Molloy?  Is Moran going on a figurative process of discovery and an existential crisis of identity during which he is transformed into Molloy?   Needless to say, this book is not for the faint of heart who want a light, straightforward, read.  Beckett’s trilogy which includes Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable has rightfully been called one of the most important pieces of literature in the 20th century.  Be prepared to encounter thoughts on life, death, identity, and relationships while taking a trip with Molloy and Moran (or Molloy/Moran.)

 

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