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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…)

A new historical novel watches the rise of Nazism through the eyes of Sigmund Freud and a boy from the country
Robert Seethaler, The Tobacconist
Robert Seethaler, The Tobacconist

Can you imagine getting dating advice from Freud? This is one of the conceits of Robert Seethaler’s The Tobacconist, recently published by Picador in a translation by Charlotte Collins. The novel is a coming-of-age story about Franz, a seventeen-year-old boy who leaves his rural town to become a tobacconist’s apprentice in Vienna in the 1930s. As the naïve young Franz is dazzled by the lights and stimulations of the modern city, Dr Freud appears as a customer in the small tobacco shop where he works. They strike up cigars and conversation, and speculate on love, life, and a rapidly-changing world.

Seethaler rose to prominence with A Whole Life (2014), a novel shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. Praised by Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan, the text explored the influence of modernity and the Second World War on traditional ways of life. Seethaler’s interest in this theme persists in The Tobacconist, where what begins as a whimsical tale shifts gear into a novel exploring the rise of fascism in Austria. The forces of history push Franz towards maturity, and he transitions from a wide-eyed witness to tragic commentator on antisemitism, political violence, and populist rhetoric. (more…)

A new short story collection from NYRB celebrates what is enigmatic about everyday minutiae

Robert Walser, Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories (NYRB, 2016)
Robert Walser, Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories (NYRB, 2016)
Feuilleton. Traditionally, a ‘feuilleton’ is a portion at the bottom of a French newspaper that is kept free for light literature, criticism, and commentary. It derives from the word ‘feuille’, meaning ‘leaf’. By its very nature, the feuilleton is marginal and fragmentary. For the early twentieth-century author Robert Walser, this became an ideal medium for his wandering and ephemeral style.

The NYRB’s wonderful new collection of the Swiss writer’s short texts, entitled Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories, allows us to leaf through a life of extraordinary writing. The German writer and academic W. G. Sebald, using Walser’s own words, described him as a ‘clairvoyant of the small’, a writer of prose ‘at odds with the demands of high culture’. Tom Whalen’s afterword to the NYRB volume echoes this sentiment, recognizing in Walser a sensibility of ‘sovereign insignificance’. Whalen continues: ‘For the fueilletonist anything can be an occasion for a prose piece: a walk in the mountains, a new hairstyle, an old fountain, shopwindows, a kitten, a carousel, a Parisian newspaper’. As Walser drifts aimlessly through the modern European city, we share his curiosity and wonder at the small details of this strange and peculiar life. (more…)

Is That Kafka?: 99 finds, which sounds perhaps like warmed-up leftovers from Reiner Stach’s monumental and definitive three-volume biography of Kafka (which Shelley Frisch has translated into English), is nothing of the kind. Actually, it’s more like a fascinating recipe book, from which the reader may improvise or enrich his or her own Kafka. Long into the age of the automatic biography – though not all of them are as judicious, as devoted, or as brilliant as Stach’s – it is interesting to consider whether a different, less autonomous form may not in the end be more helpful, and more in the interests of writers and readers.”

More at TLS.

Alison Flood (The Guardian) traces the term’s history and its current uses in contemporary culture
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A doodle by Franz Kafka

The dictionary defines the adjective, incidentally, as “of, relating to, or suggestive of Franz Kafka or his writings; especially: having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality”. Nightmarish and illogical is also what I’d have taken from a description of something as Kafkaesque, with an insectile undercurrent beneath it all (I don’t think that last bit is right, incidentally, but it’s what the word makes me think of).

But Merriam-Webster also admits that the word, which saw its first recorded use in English in 1946, “is so overused that it’s begun to lose its meaning”, a word that a columnist for Toronto’s Globe and Mail argued is “tossed around with cavalier imprecision, applied to everything from an annoying encounter with a petty bureaucrat to the genocidal horrors of the Third Reich”. [Read More]

On 19 May, Professor Anne Fuchs FBA MRIA will give a lecture exploring the figure of the walker in modernist and contemporary literature at the British Academy in London

About the event

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Robert Walser

Modernity celebrated speed as the motor of progress and a source of pleasure unleashing vitality and energy. But speed also provoked a new desire for slowness to allow modern selves to cope with the frantic pace of transformation. Hence the emergence of the modern walker who, for example, strays through texts by Benjamin, Joyce, Woolf, Kafka, Thomas Mann and Robert Walser. Focusing on diverse types of walking such as urban perambulations, rural rambling, disorientated straying, imprisoned crawling and condemned walking, my lecture examines the aesthetic and moral implications of perambulating through time and space. (more…)

Joseph Schreiber (Rough Ghosts) reviews a new book from Kafka’s definitive German biographer
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Reiner Stach, Is That Kafka? 99 Finds

Is That Kafka?, a collection of 99 fragments, letters, reminisces and insights offers an image of a man who was warm, friendly and well liked by those who knew him. He comes alive here as anything but a soul tortured and crushed by life.

Newly released from New Directions, this entertaining, illustrated compendium of facts and photographs, texts and testimonies represents a selection of fascinating finds uncovered by Rainer Stach in the course of researching his acclaimed three volume biography of Kafka. These are exactly the sort of glimpses into Kafka, the man, that rightfully inform a sensitive biographical study but can easily get lost in the retelling. An affectionately curated collection such as this volume offers a chance to slip back in time and glimpse the human, humorous man behind a body of work that has acquired mythic dimensions that would likely have embarrassed, if not horrified, its creator. Translated by Kurt Beals, this richly illustrated volume is ideal for anyone who has found themselves drawn to Kafka’s work, a book best enjoyed at leisure, a few entries at a time. [Read More]

American novelist Paul Auster on Sunset Park, influences and writing habits
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Paul Auster

Goodreads (Bethanne Patrick): Now for a few questions from our community. Goodreads member Kirstie Shanley would like to hear your favorite story about another author.

Paul Auster: I do have a beloved story about another author that I believe is true, and I hope is true, because of how I feel about that author. I used the story in my novel Brooklyn Follies. It is, I believe, a true story: Kafka and his last lover, Dora, were walking in a Berlin park together and came upon a little girl crying because she had lost her doll. Kafka told her that he knew for a fact that the doll was fine, because he had had a letter from her. When the girl asked to see it, he told her he had not brought it with him but would return the next day with the letter. Thus began a series of elaborate letters from the doll posted from various locations. It’s a wonderful story, not least because it shows such compassion on Kafka’s part. (more…)