Collected after his death by his friend and literary executor Max Brod, here are more than two decades’ worth of Franz Kafka’s letters to the men and women with whom he maintained his closest personal relationships, from his years as a student in Prague in the early 1900s to his final months in the sanatorium near Vienna where he died in 1924.
Sometimes surprisingly humorous, sometimes wrenchingly sad, they include charming notes to school friends; fascinating accounts to Brod about his work in its various stages of publication; correspondence with his publisher, Kurt Wolff, about manuscripts in progress, suggested book titles, type design, and late royalty statements; revealing exchanges with other young writers of the day, including Martin Buber and Felix Weltsch, on life, literature, and girls; and heartbreaking reports to his parents, sisters, and friends on the declining state of his health in the last months of his life.
Franz Kafka met Felice Bauer in August 1912, at the home of his friend Max Brod. Energetic, down-to-earth, and life-affirming, the twenty-five-year-old secretary was everything Kafka was not, and he was instantly smitten. Because he was living in Prague and she in Berlin, his courtship was largely an epistolary one—passionate, self-deprecating, and anxious letters sent almost daily, sometimes even two or three times a day. But soon after their engagement was announced in 1914, Kafka began to worry that marriage would interfere with his writing and his need for solitude.
The more than five hundred letters Kafka wrote to Felice—through their breakup, a second engagement in 1917, and their final parting in the fall of that year, when Kafka began to feel the effects of the tuberculosis that would eventually claim his life—reveal the full measure of his inner turmoil as he tried, in vain, to balance his desire for human connection with what he felt were the solitary demands of his craft.
The fact that Germany had produced a Beethoven, Russia a Tolstoy, Italy a Verdi, or Spain a Cervantes, was wholly irrelevant to the fact that all these countries experienced brutal dictatorships in the twentieth century. High cultural achievements across the centuries did not render a descent into political barbarism more inexplicable than their absence would have done; culture and politics simply do not impinge on each other in so simple and direct a manner. If the experience of the Third Reich teaches us anything, it is that a love of great music, great art and great literature does not provide people with any kind of moral or political immunization against violence, atrocity, or subservience to dictatorship.
From: Richard J. Evans’s The Coming of the Third Reich (2003).
The sky of U.S.A.’s desert was clotted with blue stars. Now it was deep at night. Only above the U.S.A. city was the sky blank of stars; its color was pearly and blank. Marathe shrugged. ‘Perhaps in you is the sense that citizens of Canada are not involved in the real root of the threat.’
Steeply shook the head in seeming annoyance. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ he said. The lurid wig of him slipped when he moved the head with any abrupt force.
The first way Marathe betrayed anything of emotion was to smooth rather too fussily at the blanket on his lap. ‘It is meaning that it will not of finality be Québecers making this kick to l’aine des Etats Unis. Look: the facts of the situation speak loudly. What is known. This is a U.S.A. production, this Entertainment cartridge. Made by an American man in the U.S.A. The appetite for the appeal of it: this also is U.S.A. The U.S.A. drive for spectation, which your culture teaches. This I was saying: this is why choosing is everything. When I say to you choose with great care in loving and you make ridicule it is why I look and say: can I believe this man is saying this thing of ridicule?’ Marathe leaned slightly forward on his stumps, leaving the machine pistol to use both his hands in saying. Steeply could tell this was important to Marathe; he really believed it.
Marathe made small emphatic circles and cuts in the air while he spoke: ‘These facts of situation, which speak so loudly of your Bureau’s fear of this samizdat: now is what has happened when a people choose nothing over themselves to love, each one. A U.S.A. that would die — and let its children die, each one — for the so-called perfect Entertainment, this film. Who would die for this chance to be fed this death of pleasure with spoons, in their warm homes, alone, unmoving: Hugh Steeply, in complete seriousness as a citizen of your neighbor I say to you: forget for a moment the Entertainment, and think instead about a U.S.A. where such a thing could be possible enough for your Office to fear: can such a U.S.A. hope to survive for a much longer time? To survive as a nation of peoples? To much less exercise dominion over other nations of other peoples? If these are other peoples who still know what it is to choose? who will die for something larger? who will sacrifice the warm home, the loved woman at home, their legs, their life even, for something more than their own wishes of sentiment? who would choose not to die for pleasure, alone?’
It’s easier to work from what’s outside of me lately, so I’ve been doing these Gravity’s Rainbow annotations; I “finished” (not the right verb) a third reading this weekend and then dipped back into it again—this time in the middle. I was thinking of doing a “how to read Gravity’s Rainbow” post but that seems fucking pretentious. I love the book though.
This stack looks big, but it’s not really—most of the other books there are slim volumes I worked into my reread of Gravity’s Rainbow. Little breaks, of a sort.
But not that big book at the bottom.
That big book at the bottom, Bottom’s Dream? Hm. Not sure about this guy. It’s too big to read. I mean physically. It’s unwieldy, uncomfortable, uncurlupwithable. I can’t get a rhythm going there.
Daniel Green’s Beyond the Blurb will also get a review, sort of, soon (the book is a critical survey of literary criticism, making a review of it especially difficult to me). I have n interview with Green in the works.
Not pictured here because it’s an e-book is Scott Esposito’s The Missing Books. Esposito’s book is a continuing project, a “curated directory of books that do not exist, but should.” I read it in one sitting and was frankly jealous that I hadn’t written it.
Leon Forrest’s There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden is a novel I read in a blur, a kind of fever dream postmodern pastiche, a narrative unstuck in time and yet wholly about a specific time and place and past and consciousness. I need to read it again; like so many so-called “experimental” novels, a first reading is highly impressionistic but also confusing. Forrest throws you in the deep end. The prose is liquid, viscous, and you’re swimming around for edges, contours to grab onto. Just a marvelous strange read, and it deserves better than I’m giving it here—I mean, I think the novel deserves way more attention, and I’ll attend to it again.
Vítězslav Nezval’s 1937 poetry collection The Absolute Gravedigger is new in English translation by Stephan Delbos and Tereza Novická (Twisted Spoon Press). I hadn’t read Nezval before now, but I did see Jaromil Jireš’s film adaptation of his novel Valerie and Her Week of Wonders; if you know it, you’ll perhaps have an idea of some of Gravedigger’s rich dark weird flavor. There’s something of Bosch or Goya in the spare poems—somehow simultaneously bleak but vivid, morose but witty. The cityscapes, the entropy, the impressionistic details here all melded into my Pynchon-addled brain with the immediate post-War Zone of Gravity’s Rainbow: broken bits of civilization twitching into new combinations of reality.
Marian Engel’s Bear is this wonderfully lucid story of a bibliographer who goes to a remote island to document the contents (and library) of an old semi-famous house. Engel’s sentences are too good; there’s something fresh and restorative about the prose that echoes the plot, which is both simple and bizarre. Also, the bibliographer has a sexual relationship with a bear.
I read the first half of John Hawkes’s The Lime Twig over two short plane rides. I might have finished it, but I had to read every paragraph twice. I haven’t picked it up since the election on Tuesday. Maybe this post will motivate me to pick it up. Here’s Flannery O’Connor’s so very accurate blurb from the back cover:
You suffer The Lime Twig like a dream. It seems to be something that is happening to you, that you want to escape from but can’t. The reader even has that slight feeling of suffocation that you have when you can’t wake up and some evil is being worked on you.
Kekulé 1 dreams 2 the Great Serpent holding its own tail in its mouth, the dreaming Serpent which surrounds the World 3. But the meanness, the cynicism with which this dream is to be used 4. The Serpent that announces, “The World is a closed thing, cyclical, resonant, eternally-returning,” 5 is to be delivered into a system 6 whose only aim is to violate the Cycle. Taking and not giving back, demanding that “productivity” and “earnings” keep on increasing with time, the System removing from the rest of the World these vast quantities of energy to keep its own tiny desperate fraction showing a profit: and not only most of humanity—most of the World, animal, vegetable and mineral, is laid waste in the process 7 . The System may or may not understand that it’s only buying time. And that time is an artificial resource to begin with, of no value to anyone or anything but the System, which sooner or later must crash to its death, when its addiction to energy has become more than the rest of the World can supply 8 , dragging with it innocent souls all along the chain of life. Living inside the System is like riding across the country in a bus driven by a maniac bent on suicide… though he’s amiable enough, keeps cracking jokes 9 back through the loudspeaker, “Good morning folks, this is Heidelberg 10 here we’re coming into now, you know the old refrain, ‘I lost my heart in Heidelberg,’ 11 well I have a friend who lost both his ears here! Don’t get me wrong, it’s really a nice town, the people are warm and wonderful—when they’re not dueling. Seriously though, they treat you just fine, they don’t just give you the key to the city, they give you the bung-starter!” 12 u.s.w. 13 On you 14 roll, across a countryside whose light is forever changing 15 —castles, heaps of rock, moons of different shapes and colors come and go. There are stops at odd hours of the mornings, for reasons that are not announced: you get out to stretch in lime-lit courtyards where the old men sit around the table under enormous eucalyptus trees you can smell in the night, shuffling the ancient decks oily and worn, throwing down swords and cups 16 and trumps major in the tremor of light while behind them the bus is idling, waiting—passengers will now reclaim their seats and much as you’d like to stay, right here, learn the game, find your old age around this quiet table, it’s no use 17 : he is waiting beside the door of the bus in his pressed uniform, Lord of the Night he is checking your tickets, your ID and travel papers 18 , and it’s the wands of enterprise 19 that dominate tonight… as he nods you by, you catch a glimpse of his face, his insane, committed eyes, and you remember then, for a terrible few heartbeats, that of course it will end for you all in blood, in shock, without dignity 20 —but there is meanwhile this trip to be on… over your own seat, where there ought to be an advertising plaque, is instead a quote from Rilke: “Once, only once…” 21 One of Their favorite slogans. No return, no salvation, no Cycle—that’s not what They, nor Their brilliant employee Kekulé, have taken the Serpent to mean. No: what the Serpent means is—how’s this—that the six carbon atoms of benzene are in fact curled around into a closed ring, just like that snake with its tail in its mouth, GET IT? 22
From pages 412-13 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow.
1 Friedrich August Kekulé, 1829–1896, German chemist—the “father of organic chemistry.” (Our arts and sciences must be fathered, it seems).
, 397-433. This long chapter, consisting mostly of one long recollection, narrated in the past tense, tells the story of Franz Pökler […] Pökler dreamed about the history of Friedrich August Kekulé, father of organic chemistry (410-13), and about Kekulé’s dream: a serpent with its tail in its mouth. We learn how this dream was misused by the System, as the foundation for understanding the benzine ring. All this is lectured on by “Pökler’s old prof,” Laszlo Jamf.
A neat little summary, yes.
Kekulé’s most notable contribution to chemistry—and capitalism!—is in his work on describing the structure of that valuable petrochemical benzene.
Kekulé’s dream-image-symbol is clearly compelling for both the reader and, I think, for Pynchon. Gravity’s Rainbow is very much about the overlap between physical and metaphysical, and Kekulé’s vision points to the convergence of dream and experience, magic and science.
3Ouroboros is literally tail-devouring in Greek, but through surreal etymological phonological dream-time leaps, we can get to tale-devouring (why not?—okay, I guess maybe that’s mythosboros or something like that, but hell—–).
In any case, the serpent, or Serpent, here strikes me as one of Pynchon’s Moves Against Them—he taps into an older myth, one that elevates the Scaly and Low—the Preterite?—into an Elect position that the Christian Tradition simply doesn’t care for, what with the Tempting Serpent and all. No, no shedding of the skin, no eternal return…no, no return at all. Cf. a few lines later in the passage cited above: “No return, no salvation, no Cycle—that’s not what They, nor Their brilliant employee Kekulé, have taken the Serpent to mean.”
Horapollo, referring to the serpent symbol, says of it:— ‘When the Egyptians would represent the Universe they delineate a serpent bespeckled with variegated scales, devouring its own tail, the scales intimating the stars in the Universe. The animal is extremely heavy, as is the earth, and extremely slippery like the water, moreover, it every year puts off its old age with its skin, as in the Universe the annual period effects a corresponding change and becomes renovated, and the making use of its own body for food implies that all things whatever, which are generated by divine providence in the world, undergo a corruption into them again.’
4 Used by Them.
Gravity’s Rainbow is clearly about paranoia of Them, and as such (necessarily), Pynchon’s targets are…nebulous. (Although technology and the Military-Industrial-Entertainment Complex that technology works through might be a manifest if not wholly concrete villain in GR.). Pynchon’s big novel Against the Day offers a more specific locus for everything wrong with Them in its awful villain Scarsdale Vibe and his henchmen and lackeys.
12 A wooden mallet for opening the bung of a cask (or wine or beer). I visited Heidelberg when I was 16 and drank copious quantities of ale.
13 “u.s.w.” — German acronym for und so weiter; translates to etcetera. Pynchon allows the tape to roll on in his reader’s head.
14 Always beware Gravity’s Rainbow’s shifts into second-person! Look at this ride that Pynchon’s put us on…but wait…we’re already on the ride.
15 A rainbow image.
16 Tarot references abound in Gravity’s Rainbow.
17 The preterite’s complaint: Wisdom shall not be found, order will not reveal itself, meaning will be suspended indefinitely.
18 Our wacky busdriver is actually “the Lord of the Night,” an ominous and perhaps self-explanatory title (and one that resonates with the passage’s mythological overtones and tarot motif). The Lords of the Night are figures in both the Mayan and Aztec calendars, but I’m not sure if Pynchon’s referencing them here—although this passage is deeply concerned with the apprehension and management of time. This Lord of the Night, you’ll note—a stickler for paperwork—is awfully bureaucratic.
19 Oligarchial capitalism. The wands are another suit in the tarot deck. (The upright three of wands is associated with enterprise).
20 The strange trip here echoes Gravity’s Rainbow’s bewildering opening “evacuation” sequence, and the line I’ve noted recalls to me a line I’ve cited at least twice now in these annotations.
From the novel’s sixth paragraph:
“You didn’t really believe you’d be saved. Come, we all know who we are by now. No one was ever going to take the trouble to save you, old fellow. . . .”
21 In A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion, Weisenburger provides the following context for the Rilke quote:
From Hell, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s epic revision of the Jack the Ripper story, posits Sir William Gull, a physician to Queen Victoria, as the orchestrator of the Ripper murders that terrified Londoners at the end of the 19th century. The murders initially arise as a means to cover up an illegitimate son begat by foolish Prince Albert, Victoria’s grandson. However, for Gull the murders represent much more. The murders are part of the continued forces of “masculine rationality” that will constrain “lunar female power.” Gull is a high-level Mason; during a stroke, he experiences a vision of the Masonic god Jahbulon, one which prompts him to his “great work”–namely, the murders that will reify masculine dominance.
One of the standout chapters in the book is Gull’s tour of London, with his hapless (and witless) sidekick Netley. In a trip that weds geography, religion, politics, and mythology, Gull riffs on a barbaric, hermetic history of London, revealing the gritty city as an ongoing site of conflict between paganism and orthodoxy, artistic lunacy and scientific rationality, female and male, left brain and right brain. The tour ends with a plan to commit the first murder.
From there, the book picks up the story of Frederick Abberline, the Scotland Yard inspector charged with solving the murders. Of course, the murders are unsolvable, as the hierarchy of London–from the Queen down to the head of police–are well aware of who the (government-commissioned) murderer is. The police procedural aspects of the plot are fascinating and offer a balanced contrast with Gull’s mystical visions–visions that culminate in a climax of a sort of time-travel. Gull goes backwards (William Blake sees him in a vision and turns that vision into Ghost of Flea) and Gull goes forwards: he sees London at the end of the twentieth century, and receives a guarantee that his murder plot has had its intended effect.
From Hell takes many of its cues from the idea that history is shaped not by random events, but rather by tragic conspiracies that force people to willingly give up freedom to a “rational” authority. The book points repeatedly to the 1811 Ratcliffe Highway murders, which led directly to the world’s first modern police force. In our own time, if we’re open to conspiracy theories, we might find the same pattern in the 21st century responses to terrorism.
Although From Hell features moments of supernatural horror in Gull’s mysticism, it is the book’s grimy realism that is far more terrifying. London in the late 1880s is no place you want to be, especially if you are poor, especially if you are a woman. The city is its own character, a labyrinth larded with ancient secrets the inhabitants of which cannot hope to plumb. Despite the nineteenth century’s claims for enlightenment and rationality, this London is bizarrely cruel and deeply unfair. Campbell’s style evokes this London and its denizens with a surreal brilliance; his dark inks are by turns exacting and then erratic, concentrated and purposeful and then wild and severe. The art is somehow both rich and stark, like the coal-begrimed London it replicates. Although Moore has much to say, he allows Campbell’s art to forward the plot whenever possible. Moore is erudite and fascinating; even when one of his characters is lecturing us, it’s a lecture we want to hear. His ear for dialog and tone lends great sympathy to each of the characters, especially the unfortunate women who must turn to prostitution to earn their “doss” money. And while Abberline’s frustrations at having to solve a crime that no higher-ups want solve make him the hero of this story, Gull’s mystic madness makes him the narrative’s dominant figure.
From Hell is a fantastic starting place for anyone interested in Moore’s work, more self-contained than his comics that reimagine superhero myths, like Watchmen or Swamp Thing, and more satisfying and fully achieved than Promethea or V Is for Vendetta. Be forewarned that it is a graphic graphic novel, although I do not believe its violence is gratuitous or purposeless. Indeed, From Hell aspires to remark upon the futility and ugliness of cyclical violence, and it does so with wisdom and verve. Highly recommended.
In Yoko Ogawa’s new collection Revenge, eleven stories of fascinating morbidity intertwine at oblique angles. Tale extends into tale: characters, settings, and images float intertextually from chapter to chapter, layering and reticulating themes of death, crime, consumption, and creation. (And revenge, of course. Let’s not forget revenge). Not quite a story cycle or a novel-in-tales, Revenge’s sum is nevertheless greater than its parts. It’s a brisk, engaging read, and as I worked my way to the final story, I already anticipated returning to the beginning to pull at the motifs threading through the book.
The book’s dominant motifs of death and food arrive in the first tale, “Afternoon Bakery,” where a mother tries to buy strawberry shortcakes for her dead son’s birthday—only the baker is too busy bawling to attend to sales. We learn why this baker is crying in “Fruit Juice,” the second story, a tale that ends inexplicably with an abandoned post office full of kiwi fruit. The third story, “Old Mrs. J” (one of Revenge’s stand-outs) perhaps answers where those kiwis came from. More importantly, “Old Mrs. J,” with its writer-protagonist, elegantly introduces the thematic textual instability of the collection. There’s a haunting suspicion here that the characters who glide from one tale to the next aren’t necessarily the silent extras they seem to be on the surface. Our characters, background and fore, are doppelgängers, ghost writers, phantoms.
The penultimate tale “Tomatoes and the Full Moon” lays the ghosting bare. Its protagonist is a magazine writer, whose “articles” really amount to little more than advertising. Staying at a seaside resort, he’s pestered by an old woman, one of the many witches who haunt Revenge. The old woman claims to be a novelist, and points out one of her books in the resort’s library:
Later, in my room, I read ‘Afternoon at the Bakery.’ It was about a woman who goes to buy a birthday cake for her dead son. That was the whole story. I should have gone back to my article, but I read her novel through twice, finishing for the second time at 3:00 a.m. The prose was unremarkable, as were the plot an characters, but there was an icy current running under her words, and I found myself wanting to plunge into it again and again.
The final line is perhaps a description of Revenge’s haunting intertextual program—although to be clear, Ogawa’s plot and characters are hardly “unremarkable,” and her prose, in Stephen Snyder’s English translation, is lucid and descriptive. It’s the “icy current running under her words” that makes Ogawa’s tales stick so disconcertingly in the reader’s psychic gullet. And if her prose is at times “unremarkable,” it’s all in the service of creating a unifying tone. All eleven tales are narrated in first-person, and each narrator is bound to the limits of his or her own language.
These limitations of language bump up against the odd, the spectacular, the alien, as in “Sewing for the Heart”:
She had explained that she was born with her heart outside of her chest—as difficult as that might be to imagine.
The line is wonderful in its mundane trajectory: Our narrator, an artisan bagmaker, witnesses this woman who lives with her heart outside her chest and concedes that such a thing might be “difficult . . . to imagine”! There’s something terribly paltry in this, but it’s also purposeful and controlled: Here we find the real in magical realism.
But this bagmaker can imagine, as we see in an extraordinary passage that moves from the phenomenological world of sight and sound and into the realm of our narrator’s strange desires:
She began to sing, but I could not make out the words. It must have been a love song, to judge from the slightly pained expression on her face, and the way she tightly gripped the microphone. I noticed a flash of white skin on her neck. As she reached the climax of the song, her eyes half closed and her shoulders thrown back, a shudder passed through her body. She moved her arm across her chest to cradle her heart, as though consoling it, afraid it might burst. I wondered what would happen if I held her tight in my arms, in a lovers’ embrace, melting into one another, bone on bone . . . her heart would be crushed. The membrane would split, the veins tear free, the heart itself explode into bits of flesh, and then my desire would contain hers—it was all so painful and yet so utterly beautiful to imagine.
Painful and utterly beautiful: Another description of Revenge.
Sometimes the matter-of-fact tone of the stories accounts for marvelous little eruptions of humor, as in “The Last Hour of the Bengal Tiger”:
At fifteen, I took an overdose of sleeping pills. I must have had a good reason for wanting to kill myself, but I’ve forgotten what it was. Perhaps I was just fed up with everything. At any rate, I slept for eighteen hours straight, and when I woke up I was completely refreshed. My body felt so empty and purified that I wondered whether I had, in fact, died. But no one in my family even seemed to have noticed that I had attempted suicide.
The scene is simultaneously devastating and hilarious, an evocation of abyssal depression coupled with mordant irony. The scene also underscores the dramatic uncertainty that underpins so many of the tales, where the possibility that the narrator is in fact a ghost or merely a character in someone else’s story is always in play.
There’s no postmodern gimmickry on display here though. Ogawa weaves her tales together with organic ease, her control both powerful and graceful. Her narrators contradict each other; we’re offered perspectives, glimpses, shades and slivers of meaning. A version of events recounted differently several stories later seems no more true than an earlier version, but each new detail adds to the elegant tangle. Like David Lynch and Roberto Bolaño, Ogawa traffics in beautiful, venomous, bizarre dread. Like those artists, she offers a discrete world we sense is complete and unified, even as our access to it is broken and discontinuous. And like Angela Carter, Ogawa channels the icy current seething below the surface of our darkest fairy tales, those stories that, with their sundry murders and crimes, haunt readers decades after first readings.
What I like most about Revenge is its refusal to relieve the reader. The book can be grisly at times, but Ogawa rarely goes for the lurid image. Instead, the real horror (and pleasure) of Revenge is the anxiety it produces in the reader, who becomes implicated in the crimes cataloged in the text. Witness to first-person narratives that often omit key clues, the reader plays detective—or perhaps accomplice. Recommended.
Revenge is new in handsome trade paperback from Picador; Picador also released Ogawa’s novel Hotel Iris in 2010.
After my father died, I began to wonder whether my turn might come sooner rather than later. What a pity! Later would have been so much more convenient! And what if my time might be even sooner than soon? Before I knew it, I would recognize death by its cold shining as of brass. Hence in those days, I do confess, I felt sometimes angry that the treasures of sunlight escaped my hands no matter how tightly I clenched them. I loved life so perfectly, at least in my own estimation, that it seemed I deserved to live forever, or at least until later rather than sooner. But just in case death disregarded my all-important judgments, I decided to seek out a ghost, in order to gain expert advice about being dead. The living learn to weigh the merits of preparation against those of spontaneity, which is why they hire investment counselors and other fortune-tellers. And since I had been born an American, I naturally believed myself entitled to any destiny I could pay for. Why shouldn’t my postmortem years stretch on like a lovely procession of stone lamps?
If you believe, as H.P. Lovecraft asserted, that all cemeteries are subterraneously connected, then it scarcely matters which one you visit; so I put one foot before the other, and within a half-hour found myself allured by the bright green moss on the pointed tops of those ancient stone columns of the third Shogun’s loyally suicided retainers. Next I found, glowing brighter than the daylight, more green moss upon the stone railings and torii enclosing these square plots whose tombstones strained upward like trees, each stone engraved with its undertenant’s postmortem Buddhist name.
The smell of moss consists of new and old together. Dead matter having decayed into clean dirt, the dirt now freshens into green. It is this becoming-alive that one smells. I remember how when my parents got old, they used to like to walk with me in a certain quiet marsh. The mud there smelled clean and chocolate-bitter. I now stood breathing this same mossy odor, and fallen cryptomeria-needles darkened their shades of green and orange while a cloud slid over the sun. Have you ever seen a lizard’s eyelid close over his yellow orb? If so, then you have entered ghostly regions, which is where I found myself upon the sun’s darkening. All the same, I had not gone perilously far: On the other side of the wall, tiny cars buzzed sweetly, bearing living skeletons to any number of premortem destinations. Reassured by the shallowness of my commitment, I approached the nearest grave.
The instant I touched the wet moss on the railing, I fell into communication with the stern occupant, upon whose wet dark hearthstone lay so many dead cryptomeria-tips. To say he declined to come out would be less than an understatement. It was enough to make a fellow spurn the afterlife! I experienced his anger as an electric shock. To him I was nothing, a rootless alien who lacked a lord to die for. Why should he teach me?
Humiliated, I turned away, and let myself into the lower courtyard behind the temple. Here grew the more diminutive ovoid and phallic tombs of priests. Some were incised with lotus wave-patterns. One resembled a mirror or hairbrush stood on end. I considered inviting myself in, but then I thought: If that lord up there was so cross, wouldn’t a priest have even less use for me?
So I pulled myself up to the temple’s narrow porch and sat there with my feet dangling over, watching cherry blossoms raining down on the tombs. The gnarled arms of that tree pointed toward every grave, and afternoon fell almost into dusk.
A single white blossom sped down like a spider parachuting down his newest thread. Then my ears began to ring—death’s call.
So I ran away. I sat down in my room and hid. Looking out my window, I spied death up boards and pouring vinegar on nails. Death killed a dog. What if I were next?
Vítězslav Nezval’s 1937 poetry collection The Absolute Gravedigger is new in English translation by Stephan Delbos and Tereza Novická, thanks to Twisted Spoon Press. As usual, Twisted Spoon’s edition is a beauty, including some of Nezval’s original illustrations.
The Absolute Gravedigger seems comprised of seven “books,” and I ended up barreling through one of them, Bizarre Town, in one sitting. Nezval’s surrealist poems are seemingly spare, but the parts jar against each other in unsettling ways; Bizarre Town evokes Bosch, or Goya’s etchings.
You might know Nezval as the author of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, which was adapted into a marvelously disturbing 1970 film by Jaromil Jireš.
More to come as I read more, but for now, here’s Twisted Press’s blurb:
The Absolute Gravedigger, published in 1937, is in many ways the culmination of Vítězslav Nezval’s work as an avant-garde poet, combining the Poetism of his earlier work and his turn to Surrealism in the 1930s with his political concerns in the years leading up to World War II. It is above all a collection of startling verbal and visual inventiveness. And while a number of salient political issues emerge from the surrealistic ommatidia, Nezval’s imagination here is completely free-wheeling and untethered to any specific locale, as he displays mastery of a variety of forms, from long-limbed imaginative free verse narratives to short, formally rhymed meditations in quatrains, to prose and even visual art (the volume includes six of his decalcomania images).
Together with Nezval’s prior two collections, The Absolute Gravedigger forms one of the most important corpora of interwar Surrealist poetry. Yet here his wild albeit restrained mix of absolute freedom and formal perfection has shifted its focus to explore the darker imagery of putrefaction and entropy, the line breaks in the shorter lyric poems slicing the language into fragments that float in the mind with open-ended meaning and a multiplicity of readings. Inspired by Salvador Dalí’s paranoiac-critical method, the poems go in directions that are at first unimaginable but continue to evolve unexpectedly until they resolve or dissolve – like electron clouds, they have a form within which a seemingly chaotic energy reigns. Nezval’s language, however, is under absolute control, allowing him to reach into the polychromatic clouds of Surrealist uncertainty to form shapes we recognize, though never expected to see, to meld images and concepts into a constantly developing and dazzling kaleidoscope.
Toward dusk, the black birds descend, millions 1of them, to sit in the branches of trees nearby. The trees grow heavy with black birds, branches like dendrites of the Nervous System 2 fattening, deep in twittering nerve-dusk, in preparation for some important message… . 3
Later in Berlin, down in the cellar among fever-dreams with shit leaking out of him at gallons per hour, too weak to aim more than token kicks at the rats 4 running by with eyes fixed earnestly noplace, trying to make believe they don’t have a newer and dearer status among the Berliners, at minimum points on his mental health chart, when the sun is gone so totally it might as well be for good, Slothrop’s dumb idling heart 5 sez: The Schwarzgerät is no Grail, Ace, that’s not what the G in Imipolex G stands for. And you are no knightly hero 6. The best you can compare with is Tannhäuser 7, the Singing Nincompoop—you’ve been under one mountain at Nordhausen, been known to sing a song or two with uke accompaniment, and don’tcha feel you’re in a sucking marshland of sin out here, Slothrop? maybe not the same thing William Slothrop, vomiting a good part of 1630 away over the side of that Arbella8, meant when he said “sin.” . . . But what you’ve done is put yourself on somebody else’s voyage 9—some Frau Holda, some Venus in some mountain—playing her, its, game… you know that in some irreducible way it’s an evil game. You play because you have nothing better to do 10, but that doesn’t make it right. And where is the Pope whose staff’s gonna bloom for you? 11
From page 364 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow.
1A million black birds sounds like a hyperbole of crows, but Berlin 1945, post-V-E Day—which is like, where we are here—I mean, it’s a desperate deathly ghastly place. So maybe buzzards and dreadful crows abound.
3 What’s the important message? Oh wait, we’re still in the marvelous tree-crow-dendrite simile—the “twittering nerve-dusk”—so the “message” the crow-tree-branches awaits is just part of the, uh, metaphor. Or not? I mean, this is a novel in large part about expectation—about waiting for the bomb to fall, waiting for the Sword of Damocles to descend. And also: awaiting a message of Return.
But: What a lovely little simile. Pynchon’s powers as a prose stylist seem under-remarked upon.
4Cf. page 359: “Last week, in the British sector someplace, Slothrop, having been asshole enough to drink out of an ornamental pond in the Tiergarten, took sick.”
The cellar, the diarrhea, the rats….I’ve written it before:Gravity’s Rainbow is a thoroughly abject novel—full of assholes (literal) and shit (literal) and toilets (literal). (And oh, also: metaphorical too, metaphorical too). Slothrop here is sick, literally evacuating—but also figuratively evacuating. A few pages later he’ll evacuate into his next identity, Rocket Man.
Cf. page 553, from Slothrop’s “Partial List of Wishes on Evening Stars for This Period”:
“Let me be able to take a shit soon.”
5I counted 75 words in the dependent clause that precedes Pynchon’s finally introducing the independent clause—which is to say subject and verb—
“Slothrop’s dumb idling heart sez”
(My count is likely off; I counted once and I’ve had some bourbon. I counted “fever-dreams” as two words, although I think you’re not supposed to do that).
Anyway: That’s a lot of dependent-clauseauge before, like, the main idea—which I guess, from a prose/aesthetic analysis, is the, uh, main idea—ascent, suspension—and then an immediate divergence (and note how Pynchon simultaneously deflates and invigorates his predicate verb “sez” with colloquial zeal).
6Many of Gravity’s Rainbow’s motifs almost cohere here. Pynchon highlights two of Slothrop’s ostensible “quests” — the Schwarzgerät (the mysterious “black device” that will be installed in rocket 00000 (present), and the sexy sinister plastic Imipolex G (past). (But also both, obviously: Future).
Slothrop’s dumb heart denies any knightly virtue, rejects Romanticism—and, perhaps, Modernism’s ironic obsessions with Romanticism.
(I think the passage above, what with its ravens and Venus-denial and grail-refusal, is a tidy antonym to Rossetti’s depiction of the Grail…and yet I’d argue Pynchon’s writing bears a Pre-Raphaelite streak)—
The episode strikes me as utterly true, a moment of honest self-speech. As Emily Dickinson put it: “I like a look of Agony / Because I know it’s true.” (One of Slothrop’s ancestor’s plagiarized Ms. Dickinson on his gravestone). And yet and yet and yet…Perhaps Tyrone S. is being a bit too harsh on himself (who among us hasn’t cast a harsh gaze into the mirror?).
Slothrop expels the old identity here, the old dreams, the old, evacuating space for the arrival of “Raketemensch,” — Rocketman!
Rocketman points to an emerging postmodern hero—a comic bookish hero, perhaps—totemic, sure, but also Pop, cartoonish, textual—framed (literally) in the conventions of previous centuries’ conceptions of “heroism.”
8Cf. pages 203-04 (annotations here), wherein Slothrop’s vomiting ancestor William Slothrop, in a remarkable passage of hysteron proteron, travels backwards from the New World to the Old.
9One of the central paranoias of Gravity’s Rainbow is that you might be on their voyage. How much agency do you have in your own life? And what’s the cost of asserting that agency? How many identities do you have to evacuate? And in the end—what’s left?
10Boredom strikes me as one of (if not the) central theme connecting Modernism, postmodernism, and post-postmodernism.
Or: Simply note the motif of bloom, of fruition, of phallic life, of promise. In fuller context though—it’s a bloom too late. The question blooms from Slothrop’s self-speech, but also extends to you and me, reader.
Or: Cf. the opening of Gravity’s Rainbow. From the sixth paragraph:
“You didn’t really believe you’d be saved. Come, we all know who we are by now. No one was ever going to take the trouble to save you, old fellow. . . .”
I filled 45 minutes that I had to wait for something at my favorite used bookstore. I spent most of the time perusing the section of German books—I’d never looked at them before. I was kinda sorta browsing for a copy of Arno Schmidt’s Zettels Traum. I picked up the English translation of Zettels Traum (Bottom’s Dream) not quite two weeks ago, and I was curious to see what the original looks like. It may or may not (I’m guessing probably not) have been there—I got a bit lost. (There are almost three million books in this store; at least 1000 or so in the German section, and not particularly well-organized).
I did pick up Schmidt’s sci-fi novel The Egghead Republic, which is much much shorter (and much much more accessible) than Bottom’s Dream. Here’s the blurb:
I couldn’t help but snap some pic of some of the German-language, German-published books I perused:
Arno Schmidt’s 1970 novel Bottom’s Dream is finally available in English translation by John E. Woods. The book has been published by the Dalkey Archive.
It is enormous.
As you can see in the picture above: Enormous.
But what’s Bottom’s Dream about? (This is the wrong question).
“I have had a dream past the wit of man to say what dream it was,” says Bottom. “I have had a dream, and I wrote a Big Book about it,” Arno Schmidt might have said. Schmidt’s rare vision is a journey into many literary worlds. First and foremost it is about Edgar Allan Poe, or perhaps it is language itself that plays that lead role; and it is certainly about sex in its many Freudian disguises, but about love as well, whether fragile and unfulfilled or crude and wedded. As befits a dream upon a heath populated by elemental spirits, the shapes and figures are protean, its protagonists suddenly transformed into trees, horses, and demigods. In a single day, from one midsummer dawn to a fiery second, Dan and Franzisca, Wilma and Paul explore the labyrinths of literary creation and of their own dreams and desires.
The novel begins around 4 AM on Midsummer’s Day 1968 in the Lüneburg Heath in northeastern Lower Saxony in northern Germany, and concludes twenty-five hours later. It follows the lives of 54-year-old Daniel Pagenstecher, visiting translators Paul Jacobi and his wife Wilma, and their 16-year-old daughter Franziska. The story is concerned with the problems of translating Edgar Allan Poe into German and with exploring the themes he conveys, especially regarding sexuality.
Did I mention that it’s enormous?
Look, I know that dwelling on a book’s size probably has nothing to do with literary criticism, but Bottom’s Dream poses something of a special case. As an article on Bottom’s Dream at The Wall Street Journal points out,Schmidt’s opus is 1,496 pages long, contains over 1.3 million words, and weighs 13 pounds.
It’s a physical challenge as well as a mental challenge.
And, Oh that mental challenge!
Here’s the first page of Bottom’s Dream (the pic links to a much larger image):
Hmmm…? What do you think?
The obvious easy reference point here is Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which indeed Schmidt was actively following, both in form and style: competing columns, a fragmentary and elusive/allusive style, collage-like metacommentary, an etymological explosion—words as paint, text as meaning. Etc.
(Did I mention it’s a lot longer than Finnegans Wake? Did I mention it’s enormous?)
Here’s a glimpse at two random pages (don’t be afraid to click on that image and get the full, y’know, effect):
I’ll never forget one of my graduate school professors warning us not to “peer too long into Finnegans Wake.” He called it an abyss. (The man loved Joyce’s work, by the way, and had studied under Hugh Kenner. I’m not sure if he meant abyss pejoratively. It was, like I say, a warning).
Bottom’s Dream seems like an abyss. As its title (a reference to A Midsummer Night’s Dream) suggests, “it hath no bottom.”
After nine days, I’m “on” page 21 of Schmidt’s novel now, and I have no idea what’s going on. And not just because it’s a primal gobbledygook wordmass. No, part of my incomprehension results from a very strong physical reaction to “reading” Bottom’s Dream. This physical reaction goes beyond the size of the volume—although there’s certainly something to the size. I more or less have to read the thing on my dining room table; it’s dreadfully uncomfortable on a couch, and probably impossible on my hammock or in the bathtub. I can’t really hold it while I read it. I think this matters, although I can’t really say how right now. The multiple columns, marginalia, images, etc. are engaging but also fragment my attention—and I generally find myself flicking through Bottom’s Dream, rather than sustaining the will to follow the “plot.” Right now, anyway, I find myself wrapped up in the aesthetics of reading Bottom’s Dream. It’s a tactile read. I enjoy it most when I smooth my hands over it, jump out of the stream, 20, 30, 100 pages forward, backwards. Relax a little.
Otherwise, Bottom’s Dream becomes a bit of a nightmare for me: I get all dizzy, thirsty, my eyes seem to thrum. Something going on in the inner-ear. It’s like a slow-motion panic attack. When that abyss-stress comes on, I jump ahead.
Which is how I found this bit of marginalia (I wish I’d recorded the page when I photographed it; but, also: the iPhone camera is a better recorder of Bottom’s Dream’s aesthetic textuality than any word-processing program. Even a scanner might straighten some of its bends and arcs, its voluminous volume):
Yes! Poe’s >swirlpools<! >intoxication o’r dizziness<! — there’s a description for me of my own reaction to reading Bottom’s Dream.
Poe might be something of a guide for me if I do try to stick out wandering through Bottom’s Dream, and his story “A Descent into the Maelstrom,” referenced above, seems a particularly nice parallel to Schmidt’s bigass book.
“Descent” relates the tale of a sailor (a voyager!–a, like, metaphoricalreader, y’know) transformed by his encounter with the “Moskoestrom” —a swirling abyss from which no one returns. This vortex, “absurd and unintelligible,” breaks the sailor, “body and soul.” He can’t comprehend the storm. It’s unknowable, un-nameable. At best, he is able to make a sidelong glance at it, but can never plumb its depths. And not only is his glance broken, but all of his senses are fragmented. He escapes the maelstrom, but is unrecognizable to the sailors who rescue him. He becomes the voice of the vortex, the metonymy of a force he can perceive but can’t comprehend.
The maelstrom—the vortex, the abyss—this, for Poe, was language.
I’m not sure how deep I’ll travel into Schmidt’s maelstrom. I managed large sections of Finnegans Wake—but I had a guide in Joseph Campbell’s Skeleton Key. Someone to map out the terrain, show me the ropes, etc.