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“In 1983, the publisher Einaudi asked [Primo] Levi to translate Kafka’s The Trial. Infinite interpretations of The Trial have been offered; some underline the novel’s prophetic political character (modern bureaucracy as absolute evil) or its theological dimension (the court as the unknown God) or its biographical meaning (condemnation as the illness from which Kafka believed himself to suffer). It has been rarely noted that this book, in which law appears solely in the form of trial, contains a profound insight into the nature of law, which, contrary to common belief, is not so much rule as it is judgment and, therefore, trial. But if the essence of the law – of every law – is the trial, if all right (and morality that is contaminated by it) is only tribunal right, then execution and transgression, innocence and guilt, obedience and disobedience all become indistinct and lose their importance. “The court wants nothing from you. It welcomes you when you come; it releases you when you go.” The ultimate end of the juridical regulation is to produce judgment; but judgment aims neither to punish not to extol, nether to establish justice nor to prove the truth. Judgment is in itself the end and this, it has been said, constitutes its mystery, the mystery of the trial.”

— Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive.

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David Lynch recently attended the Rome Film Festival 2017, where the artist and filmmaker received a lifetime achievement award. In a Q&A session addressing his return to the Twin Peaks franchise, Lynch also brought up a separate project that had long been close to him:

“Another project that the director has been cultivating for a long time is an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which seems to have arrived at a halt. ‘Once I finished writing the script for a feature film adaptation I realised that Kafka’s beauty is in his words. That story is so full of words that when I was finished writing I realised it was better on paper than it could ever be on film,’ Lynch commented.”

— Gabriele Niola, ScreenDaily.com

“The stories here, including everything not in Penguin’s Metamorphosis and Other Stories, have been arranged chronologically, or as near chronologically as possible, for Kafka often interrupted one story to write another. They are often incomplete, fragmentary or even, so to speak, radically unfinished: you can’t imagine them working any better if they had continued to a conclusion. The very lack of conclusion seems often to be the point.”

— Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

Franz Kafka (right) with Max Brod’s younger brother, Otto, at the Castel Toblino near Trento, Italy, 1909
Franz Kafka (right) with Max Brod’s younger brother, Otto, at the Castel Toblino near Trento, Italy, 1909

Restlessness. I finished reading Stephen King‘s Cell last week, and have had difficulty picking up (or concentrating on) anything since. I have works by Marguerite Duras, Robert Seethaler, and a very promising biography of Vincent Van Gogh all waiting in the wings, but none have quite made it onto the bedside table.

Instead, I have been enjoying a number of shorter pieces. Among them, John Banville‘s rather glowing review of Reiner Stach‘s Kafka: The Early Years translated by Shelley Frisch (despite being the first in a three-volume series, it was published last) • The Economist has also published a review of Kafka: The Early Years • Paul Binding on Karl Ove Knausgaard • The Rise of Dystopian FictionThe 1910s-1920s artwork of William FaulknerAnd a new study suggests that immersing oneself in art, music, and nature might increase one’s life expectancy (life expectancy aside, it sounds like a good way to live as far as I’m concerned)

 

 

5dc65-kafkaThe novelist and short story writer Franz Kafka was born on this day in 1883. I remember discovering his work as an adolescent, and his work has continued to exert a hold on me ever since. While he is perhaps better known for his short stories, it’s his incomplete novels that fascinate me most: The Man Who DisappearedThe Trial, and The Castle are a trio without equal in Western literature. To mark Kafka’s birthday, I have assembled a selection of articles, interviews, and reviews concerning the writer’s life, work, and legacy. Enjoy! (more…)

Primo Levi in his studio, Turin, 1981.
Primo Levi in his studio, Turin, 1981.

In a recent piece for The Times Literary Supplement, Ian Thomson has reviewed Penguin’s new three-volume collection of Primo Levi‘s Complete Works in English. Thomson praises the work of Ann Goldstein, the editor who oversaw the new translations (including one revision) over the course of fifteen years. He also takes time to acknowledge the power of Goldstein’s own translation, which bring “Levi’s formidably concise Italian into a transparent and bracingly spare English”.

Thomson, the author of Primo Levi: A Life, offers a number of fascinating insights into the character and sensibility of the late writer, chemist, and Holocaust survivor (including a note on Levi’s distaste for the term “Holocaust”). Readers of Franz Kafka will be interested to learn that Levi attempted to translate the Prague writer in the early 1980s, and found the experience deeply unsettling:

“In his essay ‘Translating Kafka’, included in Volume Three, Levi relates how his translation of The Trial in 1982 left him more terribly involved than he could have imagined. Originally he had hoped to improve his German, but found only bleakness in Josef K., who is arrested for a crime he probably did not commit. Levi wonders in the essay if he has any ‘affinity’ at all with Kafka. Yet the more he immersed himself in the work of ‘St Franz of Prague’, the more he saw uncomfortable parallels. Kafka lived an unremarkable life as an insurance clerk in Prague, rarely travelling beyond his home or that of his parents; Levi believed he was similarly constricted in his own life as the manager of a paint and varnish factory outside Turin. Moreover, Kafka’s three sisters had all perished in the Nazi gas chambers – victims of a grotesque bureaucratically structured system foreshadowed by their brother two decades earlier in The Trial. Kafka must have had ‘astounding clairvoyance’, Levi comments, to have looked so accurately into the future.”

12403-franz-kafka-max-brodOvercast, but bright. The marine layer has moved in over the city. Watching political commentators reflect on the unfolding of the Trump administration—particularly impressed by the insights of MSNBC reporters Rachel MaddowKatie Tur, Joy ReidChris Hayes, Kasie Hunt and Chuck Todd.

Robert Cohen has written Franz Kafka‘s ‘Budget Guide to Florence’, filed under The Paris Review‘s ‘Department of Tomfoolery’. It includes a vital piece of Kafkaesque advice: ‘In the struggle between one’s self and the world, bet on the world.’

Meeting friends for coffee, and hoping to find some time to read Thomas Merton.

Victor Brombert discusses how literature reflects changing ideas about life, death, and the condition of mortality
Victor Brombert, Musings on Mortality: From Tolstoy to Primo Levi (University of Chicago Press, 2016)
Victor Brombert, Musings on Mortality: From Tolstoy to Primo Levi (University of Chicago Press, 2016)

What motivated you to write the book?

Probably it was an early childhood and adolescent awareness of our mortal condition, of human vulnerability in general: the death in infancy of my younger sister (I was seven years old), the assault on human life and dignity by totalitarian regimes that forced families like mine into multiple exiles, and later the experience of war and the Nazi occupation of France, our escape to the United States on an overcrowded freighter zigzagging for six weeks across the Atlantic to elude German U-boats, my joining the American army and surviving the Omaha Beach landing and the Battle of the Bulge — perhaps above all the growing belief that all valuable human achievements, especially in literature and the arts, were a defiance of death.

Your subtitle traces a history between Leo Tolstoy and Primo Levi. What is significant about these two writers?

It is a long trajectory between Tolstoy and Primo Levi. The distance and the contrast tell a story. Whereas Tolstoy in The Death of Ivan Ilych is concerned with an exemplary individual, his morally and spiritually empty life, and his ultimate salvational epiphany at the hour of death, Primo Levi by contrast is dealing with a collective moral and political context in which private salvation is no longer thinkable. The trajectory as well as the authors along the way tell the story of the 20th century as that of a growing awareness of a collective tragedy. (more…)