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…)

The Paris Review shares two excerpts from Reiner Stach’s Is That Kafka? 99 Finds that reveal a new side to Kafka

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“The invention of a cross between a telephone and a parlograph, it really can’t be that hard. Surely by the day after tomorrow you’ll be reporting to me that the project is already a success. Of course that would have an enormous impact on editorial offices, news agencies, etc. Harder, but doubtless possible as well, would be a combination of the gramophone and the telephone. Harder because you can’t understand a gramophone at all, and a parlograph can’t ask it to speak more clearly. A combination of the gramophone and the telephone wouldn’t have such great significance in general either, but for people like me, who are afraid of the telephone, it would be a relief. But then people like me are also afraid of the gramophone, so we can’t be helped at all. By the way, it’s a nice idea that a parlograph could go to the telephone in Berlin, call up a gramophone in Prague, and the two of them could have a little conversation with each other. But my dearest the combination of the parlograph and the telephone absolutely has to be invented.”

Although Kafka was timid and skeptical in his interactions with the latest technical gadgets—particularly when they intervened in social communication—he was always fascinated by people who knew how to handle these devices as a matter of course. That included his fiancée Felice Bauer, who worked in the Berlin offices of Carl Lindström AG, where she was in charge of marketing for the “parlograph,” a dictation machine. Bauer even appeared in an advertising film that Lindström produced and distributed as a flip-book. In this film, which is only a few seconds long, she can be seen working with the parlograph and the typewriter simultaneously. (more…)