Tag Archives: Nonfiction

String of Beginnings: Michael Hamburger’s Autobiography

String of beginnings, a lifetime long,
So thin, so strong, it’s outlasted the bulk it bound,
Whenever light out of haze lifted
Scarred masonry, marred wood
As a mother her child from the cot,
To strip, to wash, to dress again,
And the cities even were innocent…
—Michael Hamburger

Of all the autobiographies I’ve read this year, Michael Hamburger’s String of Beginnings has been the most intriguing to me.  Born in Berlin to a Jewish family, “It was the month of the year when Kafka left Berlin to die. It was the day, March 22nd, of Goethe’s death and his cry for more light.  The year, 1924, was one of relative stabilization after the failure of a Hitler-Ludendorff ‘putsch’ and the success of Schacht’s measures against an inflation so extreme that it had turned most Germans into undernourished millionaires.”  Hamburger describes the autobiography, however, as “intermittent” since it only covers the years of his life between 1924 and 1954.

Originally published in 1973 under a different title, A Mug’s Game, and reissued in 1991 as String of Beginnings, Hamburger discusses in an interview with Peter Dale his reasons for limiting the scope of this second edition of his autobiography and for not publishing a sequel:

At one time I had planned a continuation, but my publisher didn’t want another volume, not having done well with the first.  Also, it became clear to me that I couldn’t write a second book on the same lines, as a factual and chronological account.  I then planned an altogether different sort of book, organized by theme, rather than documentary sequence, and with more freedom of movement and association than the chronological presentation had given me.  It had also become clear to me that it is virtually impossible to write truthfully about living relatives and friends in a non-fiction book—or about one’s own life, for that matter.

In the first chapter of String of Beginnings, he also elaborates on his very strict approach to writing autobiography.  Hamburger feels that too many autobiographies read more like novels because of an author’s tendency to embellish the truth.  He says of this genre, “Neither the chronicler’s nor the novelist’s way is adequate, because too much of one’s life is beyond recall, and the experience that made us what we are lies neither in moments nor in recurrences, but in a fusion of both far too subtle to be retracted.”  Much of the text of his autobiography contains direct quotes from letters to friends, family and acquaintances or paraphrasing from diaries that he kept.  Hamburger never veers from his strict writing standards.

Despite the “chronological presentation” of  his autobiography there are three “strings” that he highlights throughout the book which, he implies, affect him for the rest of his life: writing his own poetry, interacting with other poets and traveling.  Although Hamburger is best know for his translations, especially those of Holderlin which he started work on at the age of fifteen, it is the composition of his own, original poems that occupies his mind more than anything else.  The original title of the book,  A Mug’s Game, was taken from a comment made to Hamburger by T.S. Eliot who was reflecting on the, oftentimes futile, life and career of a poet, “‘A mug’s game,’ T.S. Eliot called it, aware of the risk he shared with those whose persistence was a blind obstinacy, a waste of themselves and others.  Or wasn’t it—even at the worst?  Where even the best is for ever being reexamined and re-assessed, where any new development could be a falling-off or a final defeat, mightn’t it be enough to go on trying?”

And go on trying Hamburger did.  Before he enrolls in the army, he spends a few terms at Oxford where he kept writing poetry and subjecting himself to the feedback of other famous poets.  He knows that his biggest flow is that his verse is too mechanical and he is not really seeing enough of life will translate into good poetry: “Though I published early, and had made literary connections even at this time, without being award of looking for them, the only success I wanted was to write good poems…”  Furthermore, he admits that the influence of poets he worshipped, like T.S. Eliot, was too great on him and he had trouble finding his own voice: “It is easy enough in retrospect to see why it took me so long to write my own poems, good or bad.  All my responses were exaggerated, inwardly over-dramatized, as it were, and utterly unstable, because I was trying out one stance, one identity, after another.”

The number of  poets—famous, infamous and obscure—that he meets during his time at Oxford is astounding.  Hamburger argues, “To write about oneself is to write about other people…” and the “other people” whom he discusses most in his autobiography are poets.  He meets Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin, T.S. Eliot, Stephen Spender, David Gascoyne and Peter Hofler, just to name a few.  The  most intriguing writer of them all for me, however, was a close friend whom he simply refers to as “X.”  X is about ten years older than Hamburger and is an academic; they had a falling out over the publication of Hamburger’s autobiography so Hamburger keeps X’s identity a secret throughout the book.  But X’s impact on Hamburger’s career and life as a poet is inescapable and the entire autobiography would fall apart with the exclusion of this friend and fellow author.   (I’m still curious to know the identity of X and I’m sure that someone has figured it out.  So if you know his identity please leave me a comment!)

The final “string” that one follows through the thirty years of Hamburger’s life is that of traveling.  Even though he and his family emigrate from Berlin to London in 1933, he gets his first real experience of Europe when he is a soldier in the British army during World War II.  He is stationed in both Italy and Austria and his favorite activities in those places are those which take him away from tourist areas and off the beaten path.  After his first visit to Paris he decides that big cities are places he would rather avoid: “If I have no business in a large city, and no close friends, all I find there is ghosts—‘the soul of all those who have lived there.’ absorbed by walls.”  One of my favorite, amusing stories in the book is when he is traveling in Austria, after being released from the army, and he moves from one small town to the next.  In one of these backwater places he stays at a rather strange little hotel which he eventually realizes, after many days, is a brothel.   Italy becomes one of his favorite places to visit, especially the countryside around Florence and Fiesole: “What really captivated me about Italy was the least palpable of phenomena—the mere smells on the banks of the Arno, the precise colour of olive trees, silver-white-green-blue-grey, something about the landscape at Fiesole that I couldn’t describe. ‘Self-sufficiency of the landscape, architecture, people,’ I noted. ‘No need for transcendence.  How the sun melts the written word.'”

Michael Hamburger lived until the age of 83 and I am so sad that there is no autobiographical account of the years between 1955 and 2007.  How did his life evolve in his last forty years?  What other poets did he meet?  How did he view the development of his poetry?  To what other places in the world did he enjoy traveling?  And in his interview with Peter Dale he alludes to his marriage with poet Ann Beresford and some of the troubles they had over the years which I would also have been interested to learn more about.  Maybe some day there will be a thorough biography of Michael Hamburger which will continue with his string of beginnings.

For the extra curious, these are the editions of the books I’ve discussed in my post:

A Mug’s Game by Michael Hamburger. Carcanet Press, 1973.

String of Beginnings by Michael Hamburger. Skoob Books, 1991.

Michael Hamburger, A Reader.  Declan O’Driscoll, ed. Carcanet Press, 2017.

Michael Hamburger in conversation with Peter Dale. Between the Lines, 1998.

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Filed under Autobiography, British Literature, German Literature, Nonfiction

Raised to the Pitch of Incandescence: Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir

“Sartre corresponded exactly to the dream-companion I had longed for since I was fifteen; he was the double in whom I found all my burning aspiration raised to the pitch of incandescence,” writes a young Simone de Beauvoir who is about to begin her most famous love affair.   While reading Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, the first in a trilogy of very detailed books about her life, I kept thinking that incandescent, intense, and passionate are the perfect words to describe Beauvoir even from a very young age.

At the age of five or six Beauvoir has vivid memories and intense feelings of love and devotion towards the people who are closest to her: her parents, her younger sister and her nanny, Louise.  She believes they are all perfect and can do no wrong and adores her family with an unwavering and almost romantic fervor.   She writes about her earliest years, “I though it was a remarkable coincidence that heaven should have given me just these parents, this sister, this life.  Without any doubt, I had every reason to be pleased with what fate had brought me.”  When she goes to school she throws herself wholeheartedly into her studies and is very proud when she receives praises and rewards for her academic achievements.  And the young Simone’s religious devotion is just as passionate as her love for her family and her interest in learning:

I was very pious; I made my confession twice a month to Abbe Martin, received Holy Communion three times a week and every morning read a chapter of The Imitation of Christ; between classes, I would slip into the school chapel and, with my head in my hands, I would offer up lengthy prayers; often in the course of the day I would lift up my soul to my Maker.  I was no longer very interested in the Infant Jesus, but I adored Christ to distraction.

As she grows older, she gradually loses her faith and questions the double standards for men and women placed on her not only by the rules of religion but also by the demands of the bourgeois society that she has grown up in. She is discouraged from asking any questions about sex and doesn’t realize until an absurdly late age—at least by today’s standards—how conception takes place and she knows full-well that this is ridiculous.  She detests the idea that it is acceptable for young men to sow their wild oats and have a variety of sexual escapades before marriage, but if  a woman does the same thing then she, and her family, are ruined.

Not surprisingly, Beauvoir goes from one extreme to the next—she embraces atheism, openly rebels against her parents, and chooses education and a career instead of marriage and children.  As she is moving towards these things her desire for more and more freedom causes her a great deal of angst and her moods are rather extreme.  She goes, within the space of a page or two, from being in love with life to being in the absolute pits of despair.  She oftentimes quotes the diary she keeps during these years which are filled with grand, melodramatic statements: “I want life, the whole of life.  I feel an avid curiosity; I desperately want to burn myself away, more brightly than any other person, and no matter with what kind of flame.”

In a lot of ways the memoir is  a tragedy about two of the closest people to her throughout her childhood and her teenage years: her older cousin Jacques and her best friend Zaza.  Beauvoir is intermittently in love with her cousin whom she views as a hero, especially in her younger years.  For a time she even thinks that should could marry Jacques, but her feelings about him, like many other things in her life, run to the extremes of love and rejection.  And Zaza she meets when they are young pupils at the same school.  It is touching to see that as the girls get older they become closer friends and confidants.  But neither Zaza nor Jacques are able to break free from yoke and expectations placed on the by bourgeois life.  While Beauvoir is studying at the Sorbonne, living on her own, and meeting Sartre, her cousin and her best friend are swallowed up by their miserable lives.

This volume of the memoir ends just as Beauvoir is about to take up a love affair with Sartre.  The amount of details, the extremes of emotion, the incandescence are, at times, a bit overwhelming—not that I didn’t like her writing, and, in fact, I oftentimes identified with her.    But I think I will take a break because I am in need of something a little more serene at the moment before I resume her story.

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Filed under French Literature, Nonfiction

Building and Connecting the Honeycombs: Reiner Stach’s Three Volume Biography of Kafka (trans. Shelley Frisch)

There are just certain books that change you.  After spending the last month reading all 1557 pages (excluding notes and index) of Reiner Stach’s biography of Kafka, I will never look at the author, his writings, the early 20th century, marriage, Prague, Zionism, biography, friendship or World War I the same again.  For my readers who are used to my relatively short posts, I apologize for this rather lengthy piece of writing.  I felt that Stach’s profoundly enlightening book and Shelley Frisch’s meticulous, thoughtful translation of it required more time and attention to capture the depth and complexity of all three volumes when viewed as a whole.

Although I read Stach’s comprehensive and astonishing three volume biography of Kafka in chronological order, this was not the order in which they were written and published. Stach was waiting for access to the extensive papers in the literary estate of Max Brod, which were hung up in years of litigation, in order to finish writing the first book about Kafka’s earliest years. Thus it is in the second volume, The Decisive Years, which was released first, where we find Stach’s eloquent introduction to the entire project. He describes the onerous task of writing a biography of Kafka:

Most biographies, even the best among them, are composed in this way, through a kind of honeycomb technique. The picture of how a life was lived breaks down into a number of thematic segments, each of which is relatively independent of the others and calls for separate research: background, education, influences, achievements (or misdeeds), social interactions, religion and political and cultural background. Ultimately some interdependences blur this initially clear picture, but if the biographer does not want to subject readers to a hodgepodge, the fiction of topical clarity must be maintained, each subject must be synthesized separately, each cell of the honeycomb must be closed. Only then, in a second step, will the biographer try to merge the cells in such a way as to minimize the empty spaces: a synthesis of syntheses. The result is a portrayal of a life whose events are narrated in linear fashion, their causal connection thus made evident. The honeycomb cells lie in a row, and the conceptual paradigm of this kind of biography is the journey through life.

Kafka, born into a Jewish family in Prague at the end of the 19th century, was named after Franz Joseph I, the kaisar of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was survived by three younger sisters who were all murdered in concentration camps by the Nazis during World War II. He earned a doctorate in law, but had no intention whatsoever of being a lawyer. He was excellent at his job at the Worker’s Insurance Institute and wrote many legal documents that advocated for workers’ safety. He had a strained relationship with his father to whom he wrote a 100-page letter but which he never delivered. When he broke up with his fiancé, Felice Bauer, for the final time he went to his best friend Max Brod’s office and sobbed uncontrollably. He desperately wanted to join the fight in World War I, but his employers kept exempting him from service. After Felice, he was engaged for a second time to a woman named Julie with whom he broke it off when he met Milena, a Czech journalist who lived in Vienna. Milena’s pet name for him was “Frank.” Shortly after being diagnosed with tuberculosis, he also came down with a horrible case of the Spanish flu which he miraculously survived. He loved swimming, going to the movies and slapstick comedy. He, himself, had a droll sense of humor. He was a naturalist and a vegetarian and enthusiastically took up an interest in gardening. He was not a practicing Jew, but towards the end of his life he developed a renewed interest in Jewish culture and history and learned Hebrew.  When he lived in Berlin, he would put on a suit and tie every day to go out and buy his milk.  He was shy, introverted and brooding but he was also kind, empathetic and generous. In the last, painful days of his life his laryngeal tuberculosis prevented him from speaking, eating and drinking and his only communication was done by writing on slips of paper. He requested on one of these notes to a friend that he be given some ice cream to try. When he awoke on June 3rd, 1924 in excruciating pain and could not breath, he asked his friend, a physician, Robert Klopstock to euthanize him with morphine. Klopstock did give him a dose of an opiate, but we are not sure how much. Dora Diamant, the third and final woman to whom he proposed marriage, held his hand and consoled him with the smell of his favorite flowers as he died.

These are, to me, some of the most surprising and enlightening bits and pieces of these honeycomb cells that Stach constructs throughout the course of his extensive biography. Stach argues that Kafka’s struggled with the same issues throughout his life and though there are only a few themes on which to focus—marriage, family, literature— each one of these threads can be connected in a complex number of ways. Kafka’s views on marriage, for instance, can first be analyzed in light of his parents’ own union which took place with the help of a professional marriage broker. Stach describes in The Early Years how Hermann Kafka decides that he is in need of a Jewish bride with a decent dowry who could co-manage his fancy goods store and that’s exactly what the professional matchmaker finds for him in Julie Lowy.  Love, in the very beginning at least, has nothing to do with it.  As a Jewish man who grows up in a petit bourgeois family, in Prague, at the beginning of the 20th century Kafka has certain expectations placed on him as far as marriage is concerned.  He has to be a good provider, his wife has to have a spotless reputation, the dowry has to be the right amount, and, most importantly, his family has to approve of the match.

And, of course, a thorough discussion of Kafka’s views on marriage also requires Stach to look into the marriages of Kafka’s closet friends.  Kafka’s best friend, Max Brod, was a notorious womanizer and even when he finally decides to settle down into marriage, he still has numerous affairs with women in different cities to which he would frequently travel.  Kafka appears to have known all of the nitty gritty details of Brod’s amorous adventures and even becomes friends with some of Max’s lovers, which makaes seeing Max’s wife rather awkward.  Oscar Baum, a fellow author and music teacher, seems to have a happy marriage but he is heavily dependent on his wife for many of his needs because of his blindness.  Kafka is also a witness to Felix Weltsch’s marriage which is a bad match and a miserable disaster from the beginning.

Although there appears to be a dearth of happy marriages for Kafka to emulate, he very much wants to get married, but on his own terms.  He rejects the traditional expectations placed on him and wants a union that will be both emotionally intimate and physically fulfilling.  He envisions a domestic partnership in which he and his future wife will have common interests and he particularly wants his wife to share his passion for literature and to support his writing.  His biggest fear in marriage is that a wife and family might hinder his writing and intrude on the solitude he required to carry out his work.

As I was reading Stach’s various threads about Kafka’s views on and attempts at marriage I kept thinking about some advice I received once from a dear, kind friend (who, like Kafka, is a great correspondent) about marriage.  He wrote: “I was reading a book by a member of the Clapham Sect recently and was struck by this passage: ‘Nothing so soon, and so certainly wears out the happiness of married persons, as that too common bad effect of familiarity, the sinking down into dullness and insipidity; neglecting to keep alive the flame by the delicacy which first kindled it; want of vigilance in keeping the temper cheerful by . . . discipline, and the faculties bright by constant use. Mutual affection decays of itself, even where there is no great moral turpitude, without mutual endeavours, not only to improve, but to amuse.’  The idea of making an effort to amuse and entertain one’s spouse is certainly unheard of these days. But I do think the point of the passage is a good one. Marriage should be deliberate, and if it is deliberate, it can be fun.”

My friend’s thoughts are not new—he brings up age old questions—why do we marry and when we choose a partner, what keeps us in that marriage for the long-term? How do we know when it’s over and when do we decide that things are hopeless and the only option left is to leave?  Stach keeps circling back to all of these questions that consume Kafka throughout his adult life.  In Kafka’s letters to Felice, some of which I think are didactic in tone, he constantly talks about literature, what he is reading, what she is reading, what he is writing.  He so desperately wants her to be a part of his literary life and the illusion that she is capable of doing this for him is a big part, I think,  of what keeps him from breaking it off with her for five years.   In their later correspondence he encourages her to volunteer at a Jewish Home for children, a common cause, he thinks, that they can develop together.  He is always searching for that mutual endeavor and he never quite finds a satisfactory one to share with her.  Their engagement party in Berlin is described by Kafka as anxiety inducing, he feels suffocated and the event has more of the tone of a funeral, an ending for him, than a beginning of a new life.

With Milena, who was a writer and a journalist, Kafka seems to have found this mutual endeavour in literature and in a physical attraction but she could never break free from her tumultuous marriage.  He seems to have learned his lesson with Felice that a prolonged, hopeless relationship will only waste his time and cause him more anxiety.  He is much more decisive and quicker to break things off with Milena.  Finally, Kafka meets Dora, with whom he has several mutual endeavours—literature, Zionism, Jewish history and Culture, a physical and emotional intimacy he had always craved.  And, what I think is most important, is that their affection for one another is very deliberate, especially under strained circumstance.  Dora takes such tender and devoted care of Kafka when his tuberculosis is becoming worse, and despite the fact that his health is poor he moves away from his family to be with her in Berlin.  Just at the time when he finds the perfect partner, his life is cut short.  It is nice to think that their relationship would never have sunk down into dullness and insipidity.  But who knows…

Stach continually points out in his narrative that an examination of Kafka’s views on marriage are also closely related to his writings—the greatest and best source for his relationships is his own writings in the form of letters and diary entries.  In addition, many of Kafka’s short works deal with marriage, family and bachelorhood.  Stach meticulously and deftly connects both of these thematic threads, these “honeycombs” at several points in the biography.  Many scholars have attempted to track down and comment on every piece of autobiographical information that Kafka weaves into his writing.  Stach argues that this is exhausting, and futile, and doesn’t necessarily give us more insight into Kafka’s stories.  Instead, Stach focuses his attention on Kafka’s most productive time periods and shows that the more pressure and anxiety that is placed on him the more productive he becomes.

By placing Kafka’s novels and short stories in the broader context of what is happening in his life,  Stach’s discussion of Kafka’s body of literature proved invaluable for me.  For example, “The Judgement” which I had read only once and has never really stood out in my mind among Kafka’s writings, was considered by the author his best piece of work.  He writes it in a single, sleepless night after he meets Felice.  After reading this entire biography, I understand better why animals, frustrating government officials, and feelings of helpless and despair abound in Kafka’s writings.  The most enlightening chapters for me as far as Kafka’s writings are concerned are those in which Stach guides us through the process and circumstances under which all three of Kafka’s novels remained unfinished. I assumed because he died young he never had time to complete any of them. But after reading Stach’s thoughts on The Castle, Amerika, and The Trial I am now of the opinion that even if he lived another 40 years these books would not have progressed much further. Kafka’s crippling self-doubt, his nagging sense of perfection and a myriad of other circumstances which caused him to endlessly dither would never have gone away.

Finally, Stach’s treatment of marriage and literature are also closely connected to his analysis of Kafka’s relationships with friends and family.  Stach, once again, is always attempting to attach these honeycombs. For example, a great deal of information we know about Kafka’s early years is from the author’s 100-page letter to his father and Stach quotes the letter extensively in the first volume. Hermann Kafka was an authoritarian patriarch who yelled often and berated his son for his perceived failings and inadequacies. Kafka’s bachelorhood must have irritated Hermann to no end and been a constant source of tension at the family dinner table. Marriage and his failure to go through with one was another topic that Kafka brings up in his letter to his overbearing pater familiae.

Kafka has one of his most productive periods during the final winter of World War II despite cold and starvation, in large part due to his sister Ottla’s providing a comfortable place for him to write and tending to all of his needs.  He also writes in the famous Blue Octavo Notebooks during this phase. In the end, even though he had his issues with his intrusive, pushy family, they support him financially when his illness is at its worst. He composes a lovely, tender and heartbreaking letter to both of his parents the day before he dies. Although he could be shy, brooding and introverted, his kindness and empathy attracts the best and most loyal friends. Most of what he publishes during his life was done through the efforts and interventions of Max Brod. It was Max who travels from Prague to Berlin to escort Kafka to the proper hospital to get the medical treatment he so badly needs at the end of his life. And, of course, it is Max we have to thank for saving and publishing the vast amounts of letters, diaries and manuscripts that Kafka left behind. Everyone ought to have a true friend like Max.

In hindsight Kafka’s life is judged as a success because of the wide and enduring popularity of his literature. But after reading Stach’s magnum opus, I think that a better measure of a good and successful life is the kind of love and respect we receive from the types of people with whom we surround ourselves. Stach’s depictions of people like Max, and Robert Klopstock, and Ottla, and Dora and their interactions with Kafka are full of love, tenderness, mutual admiration and respect; I would say that his short life was indeed rather successful. Stach has forever altered my view of Kafka for the better.

 

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Filed under German Literature, Nonfiction

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

Arcs of Compressed Voltage: George Steiner on Heraclitus

Polymath George Steiner in his text entitled The Poetry of Thought: From Hellenism to Celan, ambitiously seeks to explore the tension between philosophy and language that has occupied western thinkers for millennia.  The author begins his essay with his thoughts on Heraclitus, the Presocratic philosopher whose fragmentary writing is notoriously enigmatic.  The Presocratics, and Heraclitus in particular, fascinated me so much as a graduate student that I chose them as the topic for one of my specialized exams for my Master’s degree.  After reading Steiner’s first chapter I immediately, and enthusiastically, dug up my old Heraclitus texts which I am chagrined to say I have not looked at for many years.  I offer a translation here of a few of my favorite fragments:

Fragment 2:
τοῦ λόγου δὲ ἐόντος ξυνοῦ ζώουσιν οἱ πολλοὶ ὡς ἰδίαν ἔχοντες φρόνησιν.

With the logos being common, many men live having their own personal purpose.

Fragment 7:
εἰ πάντα τὰ ὄντα καπνὸς γένοιτο, ῥῖνες ἂν διαγνοῖεν.

If all things would become smoke, then noses would discern them.

Fragment 12:
ποταμοῖσι τοῖσιν αὐτοῖσιν ἐμϐαίνουσιν ἕτερα καὶ ἕτερα ὕδατα ἐπιρρεῖ.

Different things step into the same waters and different waters are flowing upon the surface.

Fragment 17:
οὐ γὰρ φρονέουσι τοιαῦτα πολλοί ὁκοίοις ἐγκυ­ρεῦσιν, οὐδὲ μαθόντες γινώσκουσιν, ἑωυτοῖσι δὲ δοκέουσι.

Many men do not think about the things, nor do they know the things they learn. But they think they do.

Fragment 31:
πυρὸς τροπαὶ πρῶτον θάλασσα, θαλάσσης δὲ τὸ μὲν ἥμισυ γῆ, τὸ δὲ ἥμισυ πρηστήρ.

The transformations of fire are first the sea, half of the sea is earth, half of the sea is a hurricane.

Fragment 43:
ὕϐριν χρὴ σϐεννύναι μᾶλλον ἢ πυρκαϊήν.

It is necessary to extinguish hubris more than a fire.

Fragment 64:
τὰ δὲ πὰντα οἰακίζει κεραυνός.

The thunderbolt steers all things.

George Steiner’s discussion of Heraclitus is equally as poetic and philosophical as that of the Presocratic whose work he is attempting to analyze. In Poetry of Thought he says about Heraclitus’s prominent place in the history of philosophy and language:

Together with Pindar, rules Heidegger, Heraclitus commands an idiom which exhibits the matchless ‘nobility of the beginning.’ Meaning at dawn.

Philologists, philosophers, historians of archaic Hellas, have labored to define, to circumscribe this auroral force. Heraclitus’s dicta are arcs of compressed voltage setting alight the space between words and things. His metaphoric concision suggests immediacies of existential encounter, primacies of experience largely unrecapturable to rationalities and sequential logic after Aristotle.

Steiner continues his own fiery, mesmerizing language to discuss Heraclitus:

Heraclitus ‘works in original manner with the raw material of human speech, where “original” signifies both the initial and the singular.’ (Clemence Ramnoux one of the most insightful commentators). He quarries language before it weakens into imagery, into eroded abstraction. His abstractions are radically sensory and concrete, but not in the opportunistic mode of allegory. They enact, they perform thought where it is still, as it were, incandescent—the trope of fire is unavoidable. Where it follows on a shock of discovery, of naked confrontation with its own dynamism, at once limitless and bounded. Heraclitus does not narrate. To him things are with an evidence and enigma of total presence like that of lightning (his own simile).

“Auroral,” “voltage,”  “setting alight,”  “incandescent,”  “lightning.”  No one does Heraclitus like Steiner.  Steiner’s discussion of Lucretius in the next section of his text is equally as fascinating. More to come…

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Essay, Nonfiction, Philosophy