Franz Kafka: The Tremendous World Inside My Head

Louis Begley’s biographical essay about Kafka is a great place to start unraveling the twisty turns of this Prague genius’s forty year life. You’re left with the confirmed opinion that K was a giant weirdo, beset by crippling fear and antipathy towards his father/parents, torturing his fiancee Felice with up and down/back and forth/push-pull of wanting to marry and not marry (his letter to Milena “Yes, torture is extremely important to me—my sole occupation is torturing and being tortured”). He was fiercely protective of his work, only allowing a handful of things to be published in his lifetime and instructing Max Brod to burn everything else on his death (command ignored, for better or worse, giving us The Trial, The Castle, Amerika, Letter to His Father, and all his diaries and letters). Of those published while he was alive I’ve only read The Metamorphosis (decades ago). Otherwise, his sanctioned works are In the Penal Colony, and short stories: The Judgement, A Country Doctor, A Report to the Academy, A Hunger Artist, Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk.

Here’s a sobering tidbit—all three of Kafka’s sisters were murdered by Germans in concentration camps. Kafka himself bowed out of the world stage at age 40 in 1924, from tuberculosis. He preferred his youngest sister, Ottla, but otherwise despised his family, with whom he lived. “It is not because they are relatives that I cannot bear to be in the same room with them, but merely because they are people… I cannot live with people; I absolutely hate all my relatives, not because they are wicked, not because I don’t think well of them… but simply because they are people with whom I live in close proximity.” Further in this letter to his fiance, he tells her that he’d be incomparably happier living in a desert, in a forest, on an island, rather than with his family. “Beware of thinking of life as commonplace… Life is merely terrible; I feel it as few others do. Often—and in my inmost self perhaps all the time—I doubt that I am a human being.”

He took work as a clerk in an insurance office but always knew that his purpose in life was to write. “The tremendous world I have inside my head, but how to free myself and free it without being torn to pieces. And a thousand times rather to be torn to pieces than retain it in me or bury it. That, indeed, is why I am here, that is quite clear to me.” As such, he yearned for complete solitude in his life, saying, “this is why one can never be alone enough when one writes, why there can never be enough silence around one when one writes, why even night is not night enough.”

The fantastic quote about literature comes from a letter to Oskar Pollak from 1904:

“If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?… We need books to affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”

Begley credits K’s 1912 story, The Judgement for revealing one of Kafka’s greatest inventions: the “nonchalant treatment of events in his fiction that every reader knows are implausible.”

Lots of book suggestions from this: Tonio Kroger by Thomas Mann, Ferdydurke by Gombrowicz, Benjamin’s Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, Elizabeth Boa’s Kafka: Gender, Class and Race, and K by Roberto Calasso. (Note: I did a cursory flip through Boa’s book on Kafka and gender and it looks solid but I’m all Kafka’d out at the moment. Benjamin’s Illuminations also very good.)

A Mammal’s Notebook: The Writings of Erik Satie

Great companion book to go along with the bio of Satie I just finished. The editor, Ornella Volta, carefully curates all the various bits of writing that Satie left behind, either within his musical compositions, or published essays, or from the 150 surviving of 4,000 little cards found in his room after his death (“amid an indescribable mess, carefully stored in cigar boxes, each describing in neat calligraphy, in the form of small advertisements, elements of a looking-glass world.”) It’s a beautiful book.

Volta groups Satie’s writing in three categories: written for performance (despite fake? admonition not to read it outloud), written for publication, and his private writings. Quite possibly my favorite section was the compendium of all the performance indications he’d notated into his music, all grouped together, alphabetically in one place.

A sample:

  • A bit rococo but slow
  • Arching your back
  • Be an hour late
  • Continue without losing consciousness
  • Dance inwardly
  • Do not change our physiognomy
  • Do not cough
  • Do not look disagreeable
  • Dry as a cuckoo
  • Even duller if you can
  • From a distance, bored
  • Gird yourself with perceptiveness
  • Like a nightingale with a toothache
  • On the tips of your back teeth
  • On yellowing velvet
  • Take your hand off and put it in your pocket
  • Tell yourself about it
  • With your bones dry and distant

Amusing Ourselves To Death

I had to wait several weeks for this to filter through the library to me since everyone seems eager to understand the calamity of Election 2016. This book helped, despite being over 30 years old (pub’d 1985), by outlining the ways our television culture redefines discourse. It holds up well through the decades if you can overlook the dated cultural touchstones (even the intro from Postman’s son in 2005 dated quickly, mentioning Tivoing and Game Boys).

Postman first outlines the ways that print culture forced various modes of communication, mentioning Plato’s recognition that no intelligent person would write down their philosophy in unchangeable text. How strange writing must seem to people of an entirely oral culture “a conversation with no one and yet with everyone.”

In 1835, de Tocqueville presaged the arrival of Twitter hundred of years ahead of time: “In America, parties do not write books to combat each other’s opinions, but pamphlets, which are circulated for a day with incredible rapidity and then expire.”

From the perspective of someone with a 2 second attention span, it’s mind boggling to imagine the audiences for the Lincoln-Douglas debates that took seven hours. “Is there any audience of Americans today who could endure seven hours of talk? or five? or three? Especially without pictures of any kind?” He then shows an example of the complex clauses used by Lincoln while speaking and says (of Reagan, but it applies to Toxic T) “It is hard to imagine the present occupant of hte White House being capable of constructing such clauses in similar circumstances. And if he were, he would surely do so at the risk of burdening the comprehension or concentration of his audience.”

Enter photographs and advertising, then slogans and the decline of text was on the rise. But the death knell came with the invention of the telegraph, which “dignified irrelevance and amplified impotence… making public discourse essentially incoherent.” He quotes Lewis Mumford as saying that it brought us into a world of “broken time and broken attention.”

Television forced everything to become entertainment, including the news; everything is there for our amusement and pleasure. This focus on amusement makes us leery of caring about facts, quoting a 1983 NYTimes story saying “President Reagan’s aides used to become visibly alarmed at suggestions that he had given mangled and perhaps misleading accounts of his policies or of current events in general. That doesn’t seem to happen much anymore [due to lack of public interest].”

Walter Lippmann in 1920 wrote: “There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the means by which to detect lies.” This assumes that the press would function as lie-detectors and that the public would care. We don’t. Further on, Postman notes (quaintly for 2017’s alternative facts) “And there is no Newspeak here. Lies have not been defined as truth nor truth as lies.”

On the pernicious effects of commercials:

A person who has seen one million television commercials might well believe that all political problems have fast solutions through simple measures—or ought to.  Or that complex language is not to be trusted, and that all problems lend themselves to theatrical expression.

I do have some concerns with his statements, especially the comment that “a good reader does not cheer an apt sentence or pause to applaud even an inspired paragraph. Analytic thought it too busy for that, and too detached.” He also mistakenly assumes “women were probably more adept readers than men” on the American frontier, woefully ignorant of the lack of basic education open to them. Jane Franklin, Ben’s sister, rose up in my mind, embarrassed about the spelling errors in her letters to him.

Little Dorrit

If everyone started the day by reading an hour of Dickens, I’m convinced the world would be a better place—in good humor and with eyes twinkling. This 800+ page tale envelopes you, luring you into its cozy layers, tales within tales. Dickens serialized this between 1855-7 when he was in his forties, getting better with each foray into the printed world. The characters pile up fast and furious, and if you’re not paying attention, you have to flip back several hundred pages to wonder where it was that you first heard of Mrs. Merdle (not to be confused with Mrs. Meagle, although their stories do slightly cross) and her squawking parrot. The eponymous character, Little Dorrit, is Amy Dorrit, daughter born to a gentleman in debtors prison and raised all her life there until fortune smiled on him with his friends uncovering the fact that he was heir to a title and lots of money. Mr. Dorrit immediately wants to forget the previous 25 years of his life and turns his back on those who helped him, but Amy still yearns for those simpler days with Arthur Clennam and Maggy (the 80 year old child). Dorrit dies in Rome along with his brother, and this seems fortuitous, releasing Amy from the need to “marry well” and removing the threat of having Mrs. General as her stepmother.

There’s a mystery laid down at the beginning, when Arthur returns from China after his father’s death to ask his mother if there were some sort of wrong that he had done to someone that needed reparation. His wheelchair-bound mother sniffs off this suggestion and turns her back on him to solely run their business with Mr. Flintwinch when Arthur gives up his claim. Spoiler alert: she’s not really his mother! And the mystery is that she’s withholding £1000 that should rightfully be Little Dorrit’s, although I’m a bit confused about the circumstances.

Dickens is at his best when he pokes fun of the obtuse inflated flaccid bureaucratic arms of government, here represented by the Circumlocution Office. “Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving – HOW NOT TO DO IT.” He goes on to detail the red tape, paperwork, forms, and in general abhorrence to “doing things” in preference to “not doing” anything. Much of this rings true about our illustrious Congress in the early 21st century.

His writing is always entertaining, secret jabs and pokes that make you laugh like “his genius, during his earlier manhood, was of that exclusively agricultural character which applies itself to the cultivation of wild oats.” His description of Pancks as a tugboat steaming away always brought a smile to my face whenever he appeared. And when describing Mr. Baptist/Signor Cavalletto, “He looks to me as if every tooth in his head was always laughing.”

You also pick up random bits of life from mid-19th century, like the fact that bakers kept their ovens going continuously and would cook food in it for people for a small fee (like a leg of mutton stuffed with oysters in this case). Refrigerators were in use (and called such); at this time they were vessels filled with cold water or any cool place.

Once again I’m amazed at the variety of names. A sampling: Mr. Pancks, Mr. Rugg, Mrs. Chivery, Plornish, Flora Finching, Meagles, Doyce, Clennam, Merdle, Gowan, Tite Barnacle, Stiltstalkings, Barnacle Junior, Mrs. Bangham, Flintwinch, Mrs. Tickit.

The Thirteen Travellers

Delightful collection of stories about the residents of a posh apartment home (Hortons) in the center of London, all figuring out how to live post-war in 1919. Published in 1920, this provided a fantastic glimpse into the chaos and psychic mess that people had to deal with.

1. There’s Absalom Jay, the man at his best in the 1890s who simply withers without funds/social engagements/society in the post-war world.

2. Fanny Close is the highly competent portress who takes over the job when all the men ship off for war, and retains it when they come back; she’s quite pleasant to everyone because compared to her sister Aggie, everyone is dreamy.

3. The Honorable Clive Torby is a silly chit of a man who spends his parents money without care until the day that it runs out and then he cheerfully goes out and learns how to be a (one-armed) house-painter.

4. Miss Morganhurst is an old spinster who only cares for her tiny dog and who effectively seals off her brain from any war news; she goes insane and dies after her dog dies and she’s unable to keep the vivid horrific war images from her brain, insisting that she was there: “I was there, you know.”

5. Peter Westcott is a has-been novelist who borrows the flat of a rich and successful author; he snubs modern authors for their cheap tricks and says he could do it as well as they: “Write in suspensive dots and dashes, mention all parts of the human body in full, count every tick of the clock, and call your book ‘Disintegration,’ or ‘Dead Moons,’ or ‘Green Queens.’ ”

6. Lucy Moon comes to visit her aunt in Hortons on the eve of her wedding, discovers that she knows nothing and has not yet begun to live. She exchanges glances with a strange man at the symphony and realizes she will not marry the older man she’s said yes to.

7 & 8. Mrs. Porter and Miss Allen have a bit of a ghost tale in them, haunted by the apparition of dead Mr. Porter who swore that as soon as Mrs. Porter began to enjoy her life without him, he’d come steal her for death.

9. Lois Drake is one of those hard, modern women who thrived during this time, whooping it up with men and living loud, drinking whiskey, flaunting convention. Only it turns out that her best friend falls in love with the man Lois is in love with, leaving her alone and weeping.

10. Mr. Nix is the manager of Hortons who begins having bad dreams after the war. This rings quite true for me in 2017: “everyone was having bad dreams just now, that it was the natural reaction after the four years of stress and turmoil through which we have passed.” His wife decides to leave him and assert her independence, at which point he falls madly in love with her again and vows never to take her for granted.

11. Lizzie Rand is an old maid whose last job as a companion netted her a boatload of money from the woman who wanted to spite her nephews and nieces. She meets a widower who struggles to let go of his wife’s image, and he soon proposes to her. Lizzie turns him down because she sees how easy it is to dominate him and just wants to stay pals.

12. Nobody is actually Tom, back from the war thrice wounded and inheriting a pile of money from his uncle. He’s dead on the inside until he has a chance meeting where he helps an old couple get home in the rain to their squalid home.

13. Bombastes Furioso is the storyteller who cannot seem to tell a completely true story about himself but does not think he is lying. His stories are threatened to come to an end when he falls in love with a woman who says she’ll marry him if he stops lying.

Leviathan

It’s been over twenty years since I read any Paul Auster and I’m convinced I need to do a reboot after finishing this delightful book. I came to Leviathan by way of Sophie Calle, who figures as Maria Turner in the book, with several of her real life projects featured. Dedicated to his pal, Don DeLillo, I wondered what kind of post-modern treat I’d be subjected to, but very much enjoyed it. Well-written and a tasty tale to boot…. the best book written by a man that I’ve consumed in months/years? Perhaps there is hope for them yet. (Although the women are slightly cardboard, at least there is a lack of overt misogyny and his writing smooths away my wrinkled brow)

The narrator, Auster thinly disguised as “Peter Aaron,” hurriedly writes the book of Benjamin Sachs’ life in the weeks following his death by accidental explosion when the bombs he’s setting off across the nation at all the Statue of Liberty replicas goes off before he’s ready. There are some hard lefts in the plot, such as when Ben is swallowed up by the earth, e.g. disappears for years. Entertaining and well written. Putting Auster on my list again.

Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness

This was mildly entertaining. His constant interspersing with exclamations from his young daughter Josephine were sometimes annoying, sometimes endearing. A Berkeley writer with the luxury of working from home and raising his child decides to dig into the natural world around them, investigating the mundanities of squirrels, ants, crows, turkey vultures, etc. I enjoyed the Ginko chapter the most, getting a book rec or two (Seeing Trees by Nancy Ross Hugo, and Marie Stopes’ Ancient Plants– curiously I’d just discovered Stopes vis-à-vis Woolf’s letters where she credits Stopes’ book on parenting for giving her lessons in birth control).

The Journey to the Western Islands Scotland and The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides

I am finally ready to give this one back to the library, it having lulled me to sleep many nights over many months. A unique pairing of Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands Scotland with Boswell’s much more entertaining Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, two works that cover the same trip the two of them undertook in 1773. I had to shove my way through Johnson’s prose, lines not holding up well to the inspection of modern times. Boswell much more lively, giving bursts of personality throughout. On the whole it made me dread less the reading of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, since most of the laughable bits were those of quoting dialog straight from SJ’s mouth, including frequent coining of new words. Their journey seemed arduous, plagued by rain and wind, and resulted in several cozy fireside chats about God and sundry.

Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town

I wanted to like this book, but a light, barely perceptible tinge of woman-hating wafts through the pages, skimming along and occasionally stinging. The author is from the town he writes about, Lancaster, OH, and feels obligated to insert himself into the story, which combined with the misogyny, makes you wish you were reading a better version of this book. The best part is when he hits his stride, sadly only a few page from the end, thundering proclamations about how the social contract has been destroyed by three decades of greed: “The ‘vicious, selfish culture’ didn’t come from small towns, or even from Hollywood or ‘the media.’ It came from a thirty-five-year program of exploitation and value destruction in the service of ‘returns.’ America had fetishized cash until it became synonymous with virtue.” (The “vicious, selfish culture” quote from a Kevin Williamson National Review article March 2016 wherein he says “The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin.”)

By inserting himself into the story, I feel compelled to slap him, especially when he mocks one of his subjects in person. “When I left them, I needled Brian. ‘Keep opening those boxes!’ I said, referring to his work at Drew [shoe factory]. ‘I think a little of Brian just died when you said that,’ Chris said. ‘Yeah dude,’ Brian said. ‘ A piece of my heart just fell on the floor.’ ”

My biggest problem with the book was that he didn’t knit the various pieces together in a cohesive argument (until the very end… way too late… you lost my interest). Over here we have drugs, cheap heroin, junkies, dealers. Then over here we have the corporate raiding of the town’s glass factory, decimating jobs. Only at the end does he connect the two, corporate greed ransacking the town, pulling away any opportunities for a decent wage/schools/life. This younger generation has NOTHING to look forward to. “The problem wasn’t caused by drugs at all, or government handouts, or single-parent families. While addiction could be as individual as people, common themes included alienation and disconnection.” Earlier in the book, he gives us a hint of this direction, saying that drug dealers were the visionaries who knew that they lived “in a global, rootless, gadget-coveting, atomized, every-man-for-himself world in which money trumped all other considerations.”

I didn’t bother to track his anti-women comments from the beginning, so I won’t do a catalogue of them, but I can summarize by saying women were mostly not named, only given “X’s girlfriend” or “Y’s wife”. One that is named is Lora Manon, who appeared to the author to be “a steely stickler, a middle-aged, pants-wearing schoolmarm.” His distaste for the young girls who had several babies by various fathers: “And the babies. All those young women pushing charity-store strollers around town, playing mix-and-match paternity.” Being the white, privileged male, even in the midst of unraveling this tale of social ills, he fails to understand the feminist perspective, or even empathize about the fourteen-year-old girl who walks up to him “with a sashay that showed off her too-small denim shorts. Amanda was pretty enough that the missing bottom half of her left arm was not necessarily the first thing most people noticed. She’d taken care to apply mascara, and a little pale, glossy lipstick. She glanced up at me with the eyes of a coquettish puppy.” Yes, jerk, this fourteen-year-old is well versed in how the world works already and knows that the only thing she’s got that is worth anything to the world is sex. I don’t suppose you took your eyes off her “too-small denim shorts” long enough to ask her any questions?

The Gentleman from San Francisco

I was primarily interested in this 1923 collection of Bunin stories because D.H. Lawrence and S.S. Koteliansky translated it for the Hogarth Press, and Leonard contributed some of the other story translations with Kot. The story wasn’t particularly interesting to me, the unnamed family known as either the Gentleman from San Francisco or his wife or daughter. They voyage to the Old World, ready to spend some of his hard earned cash. He dies, and immediately all respect for the family disappears, the hotel proprietor insists that the body be disposed of immediately. The women voyage home with the body. The end? Perhaps the most interesting part was the couple who were paid by the ship company to voyage on this or that cruise ship and pretend to be deeply in love.

Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television

Jerry Mander (whose parents had a delightful sense of humor when naming him) wrote this book 1977 and it wheezes across forty years to raise a shaking fist against that 20th century devil, television. It’s almost quaint to read in this age where everyone’s snoot is deep into their own tiny screens, city workers under the sidewalk watching videos on their phones, people heads down staring at their inches of entertainment instead of interacting and engaging in their surroundings. It’s a bit of a depressing and unnecessary read in this era of our first reality-show president.

Jerry tells us from the get-go that he’s a reformed advertising executive, and that’s how he had he Aha! moment— when he saw how much clients were spending to thrust images of their products into your home, compared to how little was spent by non-profits trying to get you to do the right thing (e.g. recycle).

His arguments:

  1. The mediation of experience: we no longer have direct contact with the world, everything is experienced through a film/screen/unreality.
  2. The colonization of experience: TV creates consumers, period. That’s it.
  3. The effects of TV on human beings: TV produces neuro-physiological responses in its viewers, creating confusion and submission to external images. “Taken together, the effects amount to conditioning for autocratic control.” TV loves creating passive people who soak up its message, e.g. couch potatoes. “We are only the second generation that has had to face the fact that huge proportions of the images we carry in our heads are not natural images which arrived as though they were connected to the planet… Without training in sensory cynicism, we cannot possibly learn to deal with this.”
  4. The inherent biases of TV: you only see what is shown. (How does one show empathy/kindness on TV? easier to show violence, drama)

Perhaps the best part for me was the act of reading this forty-year-old book with all the markings and scrawls and notations of other readers across the ages.

 

Beginning Again: An Autobiography Of The Years 1911 To 1918

So far I’ve managed to avoid Mr. Woolf, but he’s come knocking at my door finally, and I dipped into this volume of his extensive autobiography for background detail on Katherine Mansfield. On the plus side, there are minor details that he blurts out that otherwise would go untold, how at his and Virginia’s marriage ceremony on August 10 1912 at the St. Pancras Register Office, Vanessa interrupted the Registrar to ask how to go about changing her 2-year-old son Clement’s name to Quentin. There’s also a good deal of gobbledygook about VW’s “madness” and his coded entries in Tamil to chart her progress.

For the most part, it’s a dry, circuitous journey through Leonard’s years between 1911 and 1918, with occasional flashes of unintentional funny: “Journalism is a highly dangerous profession. Among its many occupational diseases is not only drink, but a kind of fatty degeneration of the mind.” He’s quite serious about this, going on at length to talk about the six years of journalism he did and how it almost wiped his mind clean.

There’s also a terrible section where he hammers home the point that Vanessa was more beautiful than Virginia. This never ceases to enrage me— you were married to a genius and yet a few decades after her death, you’re talking about how her sister was prettier. “Vanessa was, I think, usually more beautiful than Virginia. The form of her features was more perfect, her eyes bigger and better, her complexion more glowing. If Rupert [Brooke] was a goddess’s Adonis, Vanessa in her thirties had something of the physical splendour which Adonis must have seen when the goddess suddenly stood before him. To many people she appeared frightening and formidable, for she was blended of three goddesses with slightly more of Athene and Artemis in her and her face than of Aphrodite. I myself never found her formidable, partly because she had the most beautiful speaking voice that I have ever heard, and partly because of her tranquility and quietude.”  We learn from LW that Virginia was frequently laughed at by people on the street, something wasn’t quite right about her appearance. (Although we also learn the same was true of Lady Ottoline, later).

Some interesting details about starting Hogarth Press, glimpses into the years with VW, but for the most part you walk away thinking him a tremendous bore and wishing that V’s talent would have rubbed off on him a bit more from constant contact during the years they spent together.

Life of Katherine Mansfield

Alpers’ bio from 1980 should be taken with a grain of salt since not all of the notebooks/journals/letters had been released, and (dare I say?)  standards for scholarly biography were a bit lower then. He’s not reluctant about jumping in with bold statements, claiming to have broken KM’s code for who “China” was that the more cautious Margaret Scott claimed not to know in her 2002 epic treatment of the journals. (Alpers claims it’s Orage, Scott notes on p316 “China remains unidentified”) Overall kind of a weird look at Mansfield’s life, I couldn’t tell if he was sneering at her literary ambitions occasionally.

An entire chapter is devoted to the relationship between KM and VW, so I had plenty of pages to raise my eyebrow over. Most egregious, Alpers flat out claims that KM helped VW “break out of the mould in which she had been working hitherto;” his evidence? that VW had only pub’d one long novel when they met, but then pub’d two short pieces. Close on the heels of that stupidity, the pages and pages of ink spilled over VW’s comment that KM stank like a street walking civet cat. He digresses into what others said about KM’s appearance, Lady Ottoline describing her dress as “rather a cheap taste.” And here comes some of that Alpers tone that I grew to hate, that patronizing snoot, “But the further one tries to pursue this matter by authorities, the further certainty recedes. How a woman’s dress strikes other women is one of the greater mysteries.” No, Alpers. The greater mystery is how you have survived as a writer all these years. Why are you so concerned about this question?

There’s also some bullshit about “a little love affair” that Quentin Bell cooked up in V’s feelings for K; nothing comparable to Vita, but “a fascination, all the same, with K’s elusive personality and all her wide experience.”

All this aside, if you have that wad of salt you’re taking this tale with, it does a good service in weaving in some extra detail from LM/Ida Baker’s memoirs/letters to Alpers and fills in the blank on some of the hazier parts of KM’s timeline.

Beginning in the May 1912 New Age, Orage launched a personal attack against KM in a moral fable that ran 6 weeks, in a series “Tales for Men Only” where Orage “intended to expose the disastrous effects of female influence on the masculine mind. It exhibits his own male attitudes at their most illiberal, but it contains the first and for a long time the best attempt in print to describe what it was that made her work unique; and it is the only full-length portrayal of KM in her New Age phase – her masks and her vanishing tricks, her flat with its bohemian décor, her literary small talk, and her tricky little ways with men, whom she keeps in separate compartments. It is full of hostile glimpses of the K we know, or think we know. It is also, with its grating and dangerous tone, a reminder of what risks awaited any vulnerable young woman who chose to reveal her nature and her ambitions to the mainly masculine literary world of 1912.”

Flight out of time : a Dada diary by Hugh Ball

Chris Kraus set me onto Hugo Ball’s diaries, but I’m afraid that I’m not in much of a mood to appreciate this primary source view of 1916-era Zurich & the creation of the Dadaism movement. “What we are celebrating is both buffoonery and a requiem mass” hits just a little too close to home now. But for further study, I would like to dive into Emmy (Ball-)Hennings life a bit more.

Ball explains that Dada is “yes, yes” in Rumanian, “rocking horse”  and “hobbyhorse” in French, a sign of foolish naivete & preoccupation with the baby carriage in German.

Some invaluable advice on writing:

“It is imperative to write invulnerable sentences. Sentences that withstand all irony. The better the sentence, the higher the rank. In eliminating vulnerable syntax or association one preserves the sum of the things that constitute the style and the pride of a writer—taste, cadence, rhythm, and melody.”

On avoiding being a concrete presence:

“It is a mistake to believe in my presence. I am just polite and accommodating. I have difficulty in feigning a real existence to myself. If a salesclerk sells me a pair of suspenders, he smiles smugly in an unmistakable way. My shy tone of voice and my hesitant behavior have long since shown him that I am an ‘artist,’ an idealist, a creature of air. If I take a seat at a party, I can see even from afar that only a ghost is sitting there. Every citizen who is only halfway brave and solid regards me as inferior and suspicious. So I avoid letting myself be seen.”

Madness from boundless desire to be different:

“With all the passion at my disposal I am trying to put aside certain paths and possibilities (e.g., career, a bourgeois existence, etc.) completely and forever. My present life is likely to give me substantial support in this intention. From time to time, whenever the suspicious ‘harmony’ of my nature breaks through, I smell a rat and instinctively try to commit some foolish act, an error, an offense, to bring myself down again in my own eyes. I cannot let certain talents and abilities appear. My higher conscience and my understanding forbid it.

‘Know thyself.’ As if it were so simple! As if only good will and introspection were needed. An individual can compare himself, see himself, and correct himself wherever an eternal ideal is firmly anchored in closely knit forms of education and culture, of literature and politics. But what if all norms are shaky and in a state of confusion? What if illusions dominate not only the present but also all generations; if race and tradition, blood and spirit, if all the reliable possessions of the past are all profaned, desecrated, and defaced? What if all the voices in the symphony are at variance with each other? Who will know himself then? Who will find himself then?

I notice that I am falling into a slight madness that comes from my boundless desire to be different.”

Avoid defenestration!

“Remove yourself as far as possible from the times in order to assess them. But do not lean so far out of the window that you fall out.”

 

 

Miss Lonelyhearts

This weekend, a bookstore clerk was ranting about how much she loved reading Miss Lonelyhearts, so I figured I could give it a re-read, since it’s been a few decades since I perused it. Unfortunately, my opinion of Nathanael West still stands— I classify him in the grimy bucket along with Norman Mailer of filthy modern slop that remains unappetizing to me at the moment. Viewed completely objectively, the story is a wonder, pub’d in 1933 and well ahead of its time for darkness, bleakness, hopelessness. But I have little tolerance for books that suggest women authors need a “good rape” after complaining about the number of female writers. The story is an acidic bath of lemonade without the sugar, propped up on the flimsy prospects of an advice columnist in NYC.