czech

THE METAMORPHOSIS BY FRANZ KAFKA

It was the cowering spider that did it. I spied it crawling across the bedroom wall one afternoon. It was fairly small, but still had a grotesque bulb-arse, the kind that, when I had offed the others, had exploded under the weight of the shoe set aside for the purpose of killing. I immediately ran for this shoe, which, grossly, had the dried remains of numerous arachnids caked to the sole. But I paid that no mind; I couldn’t afford to. Who worries about the carcasses of dead spiders when there is a real live one crawling, blithely, across your wall? So, I clutched the shoe and pulled a chair over, for the thing was pretty high up and I didn’t want to overstretch and miss it and have it fall on my face, or even the floor, because falling spiders are my biggest fear, are what you might call the ultimate nightmare. I positioned the chair close to the wall, a little to the left of the spider, in case it should fall, and climbed up, my hand resting on the wall for support.

It was at this point, I would swear it hand-on-bible, that the spider cowered. Perhaps it had seen me, sensed me, or felt a vibration. I don’t know. But it pulled in its legs. It tried to make itself as small as possible. And that was it; the jig was up. No way could I kill it. In fact, I started to feel a kind of tenderness towards it. I named it; I watched out for it every day. I spared the spider because I saw in its behaviour some form of recognition of me, of my power, and this made me benevolent. Yet, more importantly, in that brief moment of silent communication between us, I also recognised the spider, and, consequently, it stopped being revolting to me. It was no longer some alien, unfeeling, creature; something entirely ‘other’, and therefore beyond my understanding; and so a relationship had been created between it and I.

“We can’t carry on like this. Maybe you can’t see it, but I can. I don’t want to call this monster my brother, all I can say is: we have to try and get rid of it.”

Whenever I raise the subject of the work of Franz Kafka with friends or acquaintances – which is something that I do often, for it is frequently on my mind – I am mostly met with blank or bemused faces. Yet, if I specifically mention his story about a man who finds himself turned into a bug, there is invariably an immediate gesture of happy recognition. There seems to be something about the premise of The Metamorphosis that is so appealing that it has seeped into the consciousness of the general public, even though, in my experience, many haven’t read it, nor can they name it or its author. Part of the reason for this is, I believe, because of the absurdity of the situation. Gregor Samsa – whose appalling fate this is – isn’t cursed by a witch, wizard, devil, or demon; he isn’t magically transformed on the whim of some powerful being. He hasn’t been dabbling in strange experiments either. There is no backstory, or explanation; and the man himself is entirely without responsibility or blame. He simply wakes from ‘troubled dreams’, and he is a bug. This is both unnerving and amusing.

The absurd plays an important role in the story as a whole, as it does in much of Kafka’s writing. When Samsa realises what has happened to him, he doesn’t freak out, as one would expect. In fact, there is almost no emotional reaction whatsoever, except that he blames his strenuous, exhausting job as a travelling salesman, which, he states, ‘is bound to take its effect.’ Indeed, his principle concern is being late for work, and how this will be viewed by his employers, rather than his transformation. He contemplates calling in sick, which in the circumstances seems more than reasonable, and yet ‘that would be rather embarrassing and a little suspicious too.’ It is in relation to this that one sees another of Kafka’s principle themes, which is oppression. In The Trial, Josef K wakes to find himself arrested for a crime he knows nothing about, one from which, subsequently, he cannot clear his name; while in The Castle K is oppressed, in the main, by his own bloodymindedness. Here, Samsa is oppressed, amongst other things, by his job and his new body.

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It is worth focussing for a while on this last point. When Samsa awakes he is in bed, of course, on his back. For a human being this position isn’t such a problem, yet for a bug it is incapacitating. Samsa struggles, for ‘he would have needed arms and hands with which to get up; instead of which all he had were those numerous little legs, forever in varied movement, and evidently not under his control.’ Throughout The Metamorphosis, there is a sense of a man/thing coming to terms with, and understanding, himself/itself. Gregor learns how to ‘inflate’, thereby pushing off the bed cover; he learns to crawl and climb; he, through a kind of trial and error, but also by instinct, discovers his preference for foods that previously he wouldn’t have touched. Indeed, he feels a sense of ‘physical well-being’ only when he accepts himself, when, in other words, he stops trying to be human, to fight against his new self, such as when he drops onto his multiple legs, instead of trying to walk on two.

Yet while Samsa, for the most part, accepts what he has become, the same cannot be said of the people who come into contact with him. The cook, for example, is so disgusted that she asks to be let go. His mother is distraught, and frightened, albeit initially sympathetic. His father is outright hostile. Only his sister, in the early stages, seeks to understand him and make things easier for him, although even she cannot tolerate seeing him. In this way, one sees more evidence of oppression, but this time it is Samsa unintentionally oppressing others with his physical appearance. However, what is most interesting about this is not the revulsion, which is expected, natural even, but how the transformation affects how Samsa is treated. He is, despite posing no danger, locked in his room, and at no point, once his bug-form is revealed, does anyone attempt to intelligently interact with him. He does not look human, and so is deemed to be a primitive creature, with primitive desires, with no consciousness, which is, of course, not the case.

“Was he an animal if music could captivate him so? It seemed to him that he was being shown the way to the unknown nourishment he had been yearning for.”

In my opinion, the overriding theme in Kafka’s major works is the inability to communicate, to connect with other people. I am not going to labour over that here, as I have dealt with it extensively elsewhere, but one might argue that ultimately it is Samsa’s inability to communicate with his family, either with human sounds or human gestures, that leads to his downfall. Yes, he may look horrific, but if he could talk, if he could give evidence of his consciousness, his thoughts and feelings, then it would be much more difficult to dismiss him. [Tellingly, towards the end of the story Grete, his sister, stops referring to him as Gregor, and starts calling him ‘it.’] This of course raises questions about personal identity. One way of seeing The Metamorphosis, although it isn’t my preferred interpretation, would be as a comment upon not only how we treat other creatures, but how we treat the ill or disabled. If someone cannot express themselves in ways that we can understand we tend to assume that they do not have a complex inner life. There are also passages that deal with the idea of the ill or disabled, or in this case the transformed, as a burden, and how this too can lead to callousness.

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[my most recent tattoo]

When I read The Metamorphosis previously I considered it to be a brilliant, but less sophisticated work than The Trial and, even more so, The Castle, which is my favourite. The reason for this is because I felt the main character’s oppression to be too literal, and therefore less subtle. In contrast, consider K, and how in The Castle it is his own stubborn refusal to leave that is the real problem. Unlike Samsa, he could free himself from what oppresses him, but he does not, and I believe this to be a more complex, depressing take on humanity. Furthermore, as repeatedly stated, Gregor is a bug, and so cannot speak, and this, I would again argue, is a less compelling way of addressing the issue of [mis]communication than when the principle character is human also. However, having now reread The Metamorphosis, what I believe it does have in its favour, what elevates it to the level of Kafka’s other two masterpieces, is extreme pathos. It is difficult, in view of what I have said about him, to be moved by K’s plight, for example; but one genuinely feels for Gregor, especially when he does such things as hide under the sofa to spare his sister his appearance. In fact, it is a long time since I could say of any book that it broke my heart, but this one did, and so perhaps it is time to retire my killing shoe for good.

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VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS BY VÍTĚZSLAV NEZVAL

Maturation is, of course, an ongoing process; a process that, you might argue, ends only with your death. It is, therefore, difficult, perhaps even absurd, to attempt to pinpoint a moment in your life when you became aware of yourself as a adult. Yet, when I cast into the pool of my memories, I am able to dredge up a number of incidents or experiences, which at the time struck me as pivotal in my development towards becoming a man. My first ejaculation, for example. My seed has adorned the faces, the bellies, the breasts, the backs, and backsides, of various women; it has been swallowed and spat out; it has dried slowly into bedsheets and t-shirts; but none were as significant, as world-shaping, for you are the world, as the afternoon it made its debut, dribbling down my own hand.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders by Vítězslav Nezval is not, you may be relieved to hear, about masturbation, or not explicitly anyway. It could, however, be described as a sexual coming-of-age story, if you’ll permit me that trite phrase. The girl of the title is seventeen years old, and very early in the novel, on the first day in fact, she feels ‘a thin stream of blood trickling down her ankle.’ She has, of course, started her period, her first period we’re led to believe, an event that, at least for society at large, indicates that she is now no longer a little girl, but a woman. Not everything that follows is as easy to decipher, nor as directly related to menstruation, but it is telling that the action takes place over seven days, which is [the upper end of] the length of time a period can last.

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Also telling is that Valerie is said to feel ‘great dismay’ when she notices the blood, suggesting that she isn’t happy about leaving her childhood behind. It is interesting, in this regard, that the novel’s action is so fantastical, so reminiscent of a certain kind of children’s literature – Alice in Wonderland immediately springs to mind, of course – and of the games and fantasies of children themselves, what with the strange creatures, hidden rooms, magic phials, and so on. These peculiar, often frightening, situations, characters, and objects represent Valerie’s inner turmoil, the sturm and drang of her emotions and the changes occurring in her body. Yet one might also regard them as a product of her imagination, as the girl fighting against the onset of adulthood by retreating into a childish fantasy world, which is, one ought to note, scary, yes, but never genuinely harmful.

In any case, there is much in the novel about the importance of age, and this is often linked to sexual desire or appeal. For example, one of Valerie’s friends, Hedviga, agrees to wed a much older, and richer, man. When Valerie asks her grandmother why he would want to marry a poor girl, her grandmother replies that ‘she’s young. That explains everything.’ The idea is that youth equals sex appeal, that the old man wants her because she is firm and virginal; and so he uses his money to snare, and in turn fuck, this local beauty, who otherwise he would have no chance with. Later, the grandmother bargains away her house in order to be made young again for a week. What Elsa – who, by the way, is only given a christian name once the transformation has taken place – does with this gift is endeavor to seduce, and at times succeeds in seducing, people younger than her real age.

In addition, there are repeated references to Valerie’s own sexual awakening, such as when she attends the instruction of virgins at church. During the service the minister speaks lustily of buds that ‘will burst when the time is ripe’ and ‘uncleft pomegranates’, and his words are said to touch ‘the girl’s very body.’ There is also more than one occasion when she witnesses people copulating, and makes no move to depart, being, in one instance, ‘unable to stop her eyes from feasting on the strange looking crab writhing on the bed.’ Furthermore, there is the suggestion that others can sense her ripeness, her newfound sexual potency. Indeed, one of the people Elsa attempts to seduce is her granddaughter. The Polecat, who at times is said to be Valerie’s father, does likewise. It struck me that the incestuous element of the narrative is a way of indicating how powerful the sexual urge is, in that it can transcend moral boundaries. This is backed up when the minister intends to rape Valerie.

“Valerie had lost her way. For the third time, without knowing how, she had entered a deserted square that seemed to be enchanted.”

It is said that, both in style and content, Nezval was paying homage to old gothic serials [and the marvellously silly Pulp genre]. I don’t have much to say on that, in the way of insightful criticism, beyond what I wrote earlier regarding Valerie’s turmoil/retreat into childish fantasy. Yet, even if you dismiss those theories, it is certainly the case that the ‘wonders’ element of the novel is its most immediately appealing feature. Indeed, were I attempting to convince someone to read the book I would, without question, mention the vampire polecat; the plot to steal a boy’s heart and transplant it into another; the hanging, the accusations of witchery, the despairing crowing of a cock, the burial ground, the ghost. In relation to this, Nezval himself wrote in his foreword that his work is ‘bordering on the ridiculous’, and there is, as far as I am concerned, no greater selling point than that.

TOO LOUD A SOLITUDE BY BOHUMIL HRABAL

This is not a love story. It was once, but my relationship with books has soured. Reading is, these days, like swallowing a cheap broth, one that contains the occasional scrap of meat, but which is, for the most part, thin, watery and bitter. Yet as a child I would avoid school and every day take myself to the local library. I would stand before the shelves in awe, almost afraid to touch, as I was so unused to things offering themselves to me. The rows seemed endless, unconquerable; and yet I perhaps now own more books than that library ever contained. I own so many; too many. But really they own me, and they oppress me. What was once my passion has become my prison. In my room I am surrounded on all sides by shaky towers of books. It is as though I am trying to wall myself in, when in fact I want to break out. I fantasise about giving them all away or creating a huge pyre and setting fire to it. Yet books, I’m told, do not burn. So picking up Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude seems, at best, like a form of masochism. Not only is it a book, but it is a book about the value of books and the pleasures of reading. The value of books and the pleasure of reading? I am convinced that one day my towers will fall and crush me. They are crushing me already, slowly but surely. Too Loud A Solitude is narrated by Haňt’a, a man who for thirty-five years has been compacting wastepaper, smearing himself with letters until, he says, he has come to resemble an encyclopaedia. As a character, he is the Hrabalian archetype, which is to say that he seems naive, perhaps at times even something of an idiot, but is, simultaneously, unassumingly, capable of great insight or displays of great intelligence. He is a man, a drunk you might say, who, for example, will sit dreaming at a bar and when he moves to open his wallet will fling upon the counter a mouse or let fall one from his trouser-leg. Yet he also quotes Nietzsche, Hegel, Rimbaud and Kant. Although lacking in formal education, Haňt’a is well read, having received an ‘unwitting education’ from the books he saves from destruction, from the jaws of his press, and takes home. In this way, I am reminded again of that child, myself as a child, standing before the seemingly endless rows of books, timidly reaching out my hand. Where would I be without the activity that I now so disparage, which gave me my own unwitting education? At least Haňt’a has the good grace to feel gratitude. He writes, lovingly, lovely lines about popping a sentence into his mouth and sucking it like a fruit drop, lines about thoughts that dissolve within him, infusing his brain and heart. Am I so bitter these days that I cannot acknowledge how beautiful that is? For Haňt’a education allows, or gives birth to, thought; without access to profound ideas, one cannot have profound ideas of one’s own; one’s brain remains foetal. Yet, for me, education was a means of escape from a situation I found intolerable, from an environment that was harmful. My mother, bless her, cried at the station as I boarded the train that was taking me away to university. She cried, I’m sure, because she understood that I had dug my way out, which is something she had once hoped for herself but never achieved; and books had been my tools, books it was that had broken the earth; without them I would have exhausted myself frantically clawing at the hard surface without making an impression. Haňt’a, however, is much less demanding of life than I was. One does not get the impression that he has ambitions to be elevated above his current station; and yet books allow him to escape too. He is so good-natured that it would be easy to take lightly how heavy-hearted a man might feel deep in a mouse-infested cellar, compacting wastepaper, day in and day out, for thirty-five years; all while living in a police-state; a police-state that doesn’t look too kindly upon books, to boot. It is no surprise, therefore, that he drinks; and it is no surprise that this underground man values, and takes pleasure in, the printed words that transport him to another, better world. Our world, Haňt’a repeatedly informs us, is not humane; and he, furthermore, provides the reader with numerous examples of this inhumanity, such as the working girls who draw the insides from still living chickens and his gypsy lover who is murdered in a concentration camp. Yes, there is a cellar-deep strain of melancholy running through the book, although it is easy to miss it, to be seduced into missing it by the soothingly good-natured, and unassuming, voice of the narrator. Indeed, Too Loud a Solitude is a book of contrasts of this sort: Haňt’a, the wise fool, the intellectual simpleton, who decorates his bails of wastepaper with art and rare books, like flowers in the barrels of guns; Haňt’a, the ‘refined butcher’, the cultured artist and the destroyer of culture. Doesn’t this topsy-turviness, this two-facedness, sum up human existence? The supreme and the inhumane, the good and the bad, love and hate, creation and destruction, suffering and joy, etc. Just look at Manka, poor Manka, the pretty girl who, when at her most divine, her most winning, twice falls foul of faeces. And Haňt’a too, who takes pride in his work – which is itself a kind of shitting, what with paper going in one end and lumpy bails coming out the other – to such an extent that he wishes to purchase his press for his retirement; Haňt’a, poor Haňt’a, who falls foul, not of faeces, but progress, inhumane progress. Ah, how beautiful the world’s hands are, but how dirty its fingernails. Bohumil Hrabal, as much as any writer, understood this; and I can’t help but love him for it, even now. So I guess that this is a love story, in the end. Yet it is the worst kind of love, the kind that flickers with life, that occasionally reminds you of what you once had, that tricks you, for a short time, into thinking that you will have it again.

THE SUFFERINGS OF PRINCE STERNENHOCH BY LADISLAV KLIMA

Only once have I been considered mad by the world at large. Yet it is, perversely, when I felt most sane. I sought advice from the doctor upon the urging of my intimates; and what did he say? Nothing! He cowered before my tears and my reason. I had stopped being able to laugh at life, to find absurd amusement in what Rene Daumal called ‘this monkey cage frenzy.’ My mind’s eye had been squeegeed clean. I saw clearly that a conventional existence was terrifying, painful…impossible. I could no longer continue in the hapless, mindless manner I had become accustomed to. Work, talk, fuck…and repeat. Impossible! The doctor gave me a prescription. I later found out that it was for the kind of drug they give to patients in mental institutions, the most unruly patients, who were, to quote, ‘literally climbing the walls.’ He wanted to sedate me, to dupe me into again accepting what I had renounced, what I felt as though I had transcended.

When looking back on myself during this period, I feel a sort of kinship with the Czech novelist and philosopher Ladislav Klíma. Certainly, no one could accuse the man of having lived conventionally. His personal philosophy, which naturally filtered into his work, manifested itself as a kind of non-conformism, in the rejection of societal norms, such that, for example, he spent his later years shining shoes, drinking heavily, and eating vermin. Moreover, Klíma is said to have destroyed a number of his manuscripts. One might speculate that he did so not because he doubted the quality of what he had produced but because writing and regularly publishing books could be considered a stable career, and therefore ought to be avoided. Yet some of his manuscripts did, of course, survive, including The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch, which is generally thought to be the most important, and best, of Klíma’s work.

“It is necessary to love – to love everything; even what is most revolting. Love is the cruellest, most difficult thing of all.”

The book begins with thirty-three year old Prince Helmut Sternenhoch, wealthy aristocrat, and confidante and favourite of Kaiser ‘Willy’ Wilhelm, taking an interest in Helga, a relatively poor seventeen year old girl. One’s initial impression of the Prince is emphatically a negative one. He calls Helga ‘downright ugly’, for example, and proceeds to enumerate her faults and physical failings: her movements are ‘sluggish’, her hair ‘bulky’, and so on. He was, he states, ‘absolutely ill’ when he first saw her. Indeed, so vicious is some of the criticism that I was concerned at this point that The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch was going to be unpleasantly misogynistic throughout. However, after a few pages one realises that Klíma is poking fun at Helmut, that one is meant to take against him, at least for the time being.

In the first half of the novel, Prince Sternenhoch is portrayed as arrogant and loathsome. He is a man who believes that he is superior by virtue of his position and his wealth, and that, regardless of his own behaviour, he is therefore deserving of the greatest respect. For example, he wishes to marry Helga in order to demonstrate his magnanimity, and, to a lesser extent, to shock and surprise [and amuse] others, including Willy. Making a young girl marry is for him a kind of game, a kind of self-flattery. He even threatens the girl’s father with jail when he does not show him due deference. Klíma further, and most obviously, lampoons the man when it is revealed that he is ‘only 150 centimetres tall’ and ‘toothless, hairless and whiskerless, also a little squint-eyed,’ upon which revelations he opines that ‘even the sun has spots.’

In spite of my initial concerns, Klíma’s novel is refreshingly critical of patriarchy and specifically the abusive treatment of women in relationships. To recap: the Prince is much older than Helga, he is ugly and conceited. Yet he appears to believe that the girl ought to be grateful to him for wanting to marry her. While it is true that he doesn’t himself force her, nor want to force her, there is still an underlying suggestion that Helga does not have any choice in the matter. She must, and she does, become his wife. Indeed, unsurprisingly, she is said to go to the alter ‘like a sacrificial lamb.’ Once married, it becomes clear that Helga finds her husband repulsive. She will not, for example, allow him to have sex with her, going so far as to flee to the stable when he enters her bedroom. This of course causes the Prince some consternation, for he, like many men of his [and perhaps our] time, believes that her body is his by rights of marriage.

If the book were more popular one images that Helga might be held up as a kind of feminist icon. Throughout, she is associated with, and surrounded by, powerful animals, by jaguars and lions and tigers, which of course symbolise her strength. She does not lay down, open her legs, and weakly submit to her husband, but rather she challenges him, ignores him, fights him, and calls him names. Indeed, she could be said to dominate him. Helmut may want to fuck, he may even want a loving relationship, but without her consent, without her approval, he can have neither. There is a chilling scene in the novel that I think best demonstrates the power balance in the relationship, which is when Helga murders the couple’s child [their only fornication took place on their wedding night, when she was still meek] because it looks like the Prince. The young Daemoness demands that the nanny take the blame, and Sternenhoch, who is terrified of her, agrees immediately.

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One might have noted the term Daemoness in the preceding paragraph, and it is necessary to explain its significance. For the Prince, Helga is not symbolically a demon, but rather a literal one. She has, it seems, supernatural powers, and they are not, let’s say, God-given. There is, in fact, much in the book that might lead one to describing it as a horror story. Yet, while I found all that a huge amount of fun, I am more interested in what it says about Sternenhoch and subsequently how it relates to one of Klíma’s principle themes, which is the nature of reality. It is clear as one makes one’s way through the book that the Prince is insane, and if it wasn’t then he openly declares it himself numerous times. Therefore, the behaviour of his wife, her demonic or devilish abilities, could be explained as simply a consequence of his madness, as a kind of hallucination.

What Klíma seems to be saying, and it is something that I have said myself many times prior to reading his novel, is that whatever you experience is your reality, that there is no concrete, objective reality, and that trying to convince yourself that there is such a thing is the surest, quickest road to madness. And so, if Sternenhoch sees his wife an an emissary of Satan, then that is what she is. It is no more unbelievable, no more insane, than any other version of ‘reality.’ On this, there is a fascinating discussion between the Prince and his wife, who believes that she is alive, yet dreaming, but who is, as far as he is concerned, quite dead [but haunting him]. Her life after her death is, she states, ‘only my dream, which I have probably been dreaming for only a short time in the forest, although it seems to be lasting an eternity.’ Moreover, to further complicate matters, the Prince wakes in his bed and wonders ‘what if this bed is in heaven? What if I am only dreaming that I have awoken? After all I must be dead, dead…’

There is so much more that I could discuss, specifically Klíma’s ideas about will, and ‘the self as God.’ In the novel, it is Helga – who considers herself all powerful, more powerful than God or the Devil in fact – who embodies this theory, which has much in common with Nietzsche’s Übermensch. As I understand it, the author believed that if you reject conventional moral, societal values, practices, etc, you become your own deity, and this is how he lived his life. However, there are passages in The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch that spell all this out, quite clearly, and, convinced that I really have nothing to add to what Klíma himself wrote, I will let you read about it for yourself rather than go over it in detail here.

What I do want to acknowledge before I conclude is just how readable, how relentlessly entertaining, I found all this to be. It is true that the book is somewhat repetitive, especially in the second half, when it revolves around the Prince’s meetings with the dead Helga, but I was never at any time bored or tempted to put the book down. Indeed, I flew through it at a breakneck, one might say mad, pace. Much of my enthusiasm could be put down to how genuinely funny it is. The Prince’s descent into insanity throws up some wonderful scenes, such as when he caresses his slipper in his lap, believing it to be a cat. My favourite, however, involves the gypsy, Esmerelda Carmen Kuhmist, who gives Sternenhoch a magical nut and convinces him that the best way to deal with his fear of his spooky tormentor is to shout ‘Ghost, jump up my ass!’ whenever he sees her. Which of course he does, repeatedly, hilariously. And so too will I, most likely, if I am ever again at the point of finding existence terrifying, painful….impossible. Life, jump up my ass!

MARKETA LAZAROVA BY VLADISLAV VANCURA

Prague. Praha. City of a Hundred Spires. I have left so much of myself there. At a bus stop in I.P. Pavlova with Daria. On the Vltava river with Shazir. With Eliška in Old Town Square. There are traces of me all over the city, like the mucus trail of a snail. Vyšehrad, Karlův most, Riegrovy Sady, Liliová. I have left so much of myself that I am not sure what exactly I have brought home. Except memories and longing. On the day of my return, the most recent return, I had a panic attack in the Václav Havel airport lounge, brought on by the sight of the plane that was to take me away. I felt as though I was being abducted, and I knew that all my captor would leave me with would be memories and longing. And a copy of Marketa Lazarová.

I had not intended to buy a book. The act was a kind of muscle memory. I opened it more than once while I was away, but words were a chore. I was done with reading. I saw it as a form of cowardice, as a way of hiding, rather than, as I have sometimes tried to convince myself in my more positive moments, a way of finding myself. But then I left, came homeand once again I was happy to hide. However, I didn’t pick up Marketa Lazarová straightaway. I read around it, anything but it, for not only did I want to hide from my life in England, I wanted to hide from my memories of Prague also. It has taken nearly three months for me to be able to confront Vladislav Vančura’s novel, to become comfortable with what it represents, for the humdrum to eat away at my anguish.

“What do you want with glory? Life is what’s glorious, or rather, what one creates, and death is loathsome.”

Published in 1931, Marketa Lazarová casts back into the past, to Medieval Bohemia. It focuses on a family of ‘crafty nobles’, the Kozliks, and their feud with the neighbouring Lazar family and their war with the King’s army. The Kozliks are, despite their aristocratic title, criminals, the kind who ‘laugh aloud as they spill blood.’ Indeed, Vančura repeatedly stresses how violent, crude and primitive they are. For example, when Mikolaš is badly beaten by the Lazars, he does not receive sympathy from his own family, but rather disdain for not having defended himself, or at least killed one or two of the enemy in the process of trying to defend himself. Nothing, it seems, is morally impermissible for these people, not even murder and rape.

However, one gets the impression that many of Vančura’s criticisms are ironic, that in fact he admires the Kozlik clan or at least what they represent. First of all, he contrasts them with the Lazars, who, unlike the Kozliks, would rob an unarmed man. Secondly, he invites you to draw comparisons with the king’s soldiers, who he describes as ‘swords for hire, gluttons for pork, rats in the larder.’ They are a band of men ‘whose sins are dressed up as honor and glory,’ with the implication being that it is the Kozlik family who demonstrate true honour, bravery, etc. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he draws regular distinctions between the ‘Herculean times’ of yore and modern society, gently mocking the refined reader’s probable unease over certain elements of the story and chiding you for not fighting and loving as ferociously as men and women had once done.

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You may be wondering at this stage who Marketa Lazarová is and why Vančura thought fit to name his novel after her. The first question is easy to answer, of course; she is Lazar’s seventeen year old daughter, who is abducted by Mikolaš as part of the feud between the two families. However, as to the second question, I am not so sure, for although she plays a major role in the text, she is, for me, not as engaging as some of the other characters, most notably her abductor. When we first meet her she is described as a ‘charming maiden,’ who was promised to God. Therefore, one thinks that she will be the conventional moral/religious heart of the tale. Even more so when Mikolaš forces himself upon her, and Marketa prays for death, believing herself to have been defiled and made impure in the eyes of God.

“Devil take it! Let us dispel once and for all any doubt about her innocence. She is Mikolaš’s slut, who sucks passionately at his shoulder, bruises his throat, writhes in mad desire on the snow. What’s the point, though once a placid virgin, the situation has been different some time already. She has become a more splendid lover than even rumour has it, for the purple robe in which love clothes its mistresses was lined with spurned azure.”

Yet soon the nature of her sin changes, as she begins to enjoy the sex. I have encountered this sort of thing before, in Love in the Time of Cholera for example, and I find it indefensible to suggest that women might enjoy being raped, and may come to love their rapist. However, while I would rather he had found another way to do so, I believe that what the author wanted to do was to make a point about being true to oneself, to one’s nature. One sees this in the Kozliks, of course, who are truly, fully themselves and only themselves, living by, and absolutely committed to, their own moral code [regardless of how it might strike someone else].

Marketa, on the other hand, is in conflict. She is bound by traditional Christian ideals and values, and yet the suggestion is that these do not represent who she is really is. Her journey in the novel is one of self discovery, yes, but it is a journey in reverse, so to speak; she does not travel towards refinement, but rather backwards, as she gets in touch with her sensual, passionate, barbarian side. In this way, it is interesting to compare her to Mikolaš, who begins the novel as a knuckle-dragging criminal and rapist, but who, by the end, has shown that he is capable of great love and compassion. For this reason, I would have named the book after him, but who am I to argue with the author? It is also worth noting that the one character – Kristian – who doesn’t act in accordance with his true nature is afforded the most humiliating fate, that of being cudgelled by his wildcat lover.

THE ENGINEER OF HUMAN SOULS BY JOSEF SKVORECKY

I have long fantasised about leaving the UK, but it wasn’t until recently that I seriously considered the prospect. Indeed, a couple of weeks ago I took a trip to Prague, my favourite city, in order to feel the place as someone looking to live there [which obviously involves a different mind-set from that of someone going there on holiday]. To this end, I made an effort to speak to locals, of course, but focussed my attention on those who had moved from elsewhere. As you would expect, there is a healthy ex-pat community; and what I found is that many of these people were damaged in some way, were running from something [even if only themselves], just as I am and would be. Yet many of them still seemed to yearn for ‘the old country,’ without, it seemed, having any intention of actually returning there. And as I sat in various bars talking to these people, I started to wonder how I would feel, years from now, as an ex-pat myself. Would I begin to view the place of my birth romantically? Would a snatch of British accent on a street corner send me into sentimental reverie?

“All of my thoughts are memories.”

The Engineer of Human Souls by Josef Škvorecký begins with mention of a ‘wilderness’, which is, for the narrator, the grounds of Edenvale College in snowy Toronto. The use of this word is, of course, intended to emphasise that Danny Smiricky, a Czech by birth, has in a sense been cast out, or, more accurately, has cast himself out, from his home country. Czechoslovakia, as it was known at the time, was first invaded by the Nazis, and then, after the war, became one of the Soviet Communist satellite states; and so it was, without question, a dangerous, unstable place for quite some time. Therefore, Danny is, in essence, a refugee; his decision to move was not made in search of adventure, as is the case with many novels dealing with the émigré experience, but in order to live without being in a constant state of anxiety or uneasiness. Indeed, he calls Canada ‘wonderful’, because ‘there is nothing to be afraid of.’

As you would expect then, oppression plays a major role in the novel, although it is often dealt with in a lighthearted, almost good-natured way consistent with the narrator’s personality and outlook on life. For example, the father of Nadia, the girl who a young Danny spends much of his time trying to lay, is sent to a concentration camp, and is presumed dead. Danny himself, meanwhile, is, as are many of the inhabitants of Kostelec, forced by the Nazis to work in a Messerschmitt factory, and subsequently becomes embroiled in a sabotage caper that he believes may cost him his life. Likewise, the evils of communism are frequently alluded to: Veronika, one of Smiricky’s students, was, we’re told, thrown out of a Prague theatre group for having Jewish blood; and, in one of the old letters that pepper the text, letters from Danny’s friends and fellow artists, a playwright informs him that his work has been suppressed, including a play that seems to have involved little more than a bunch of people shitting.

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[“Memorial to the Victims of Communism” – Prague, Czech Republic]

Yet even in present day Canada Danny and the Czech community he regularly interacts with are not entirely safe from what he describes as ‘the many horrors of our life.’ There are numerous amusing chapters devoted to Czech informers and secret police officers and their attempts to entrap or, in the case of Magister Maslo, take out, these enemies of the state. However, even when recounting the most obviously comedic episodes – such as the female informer who Danny manages to get so horrendously drunk that she cannot keep her cover story straight – Škvorecký has a serious point to make, about freedom, the kinds of freedom that people like me often take for granted. For example, he notes Dotty’s crude t-shirt, which depicts a naked couple in the act of copulation, and for which she would have been arrested ‘back home.’ And one gets the sense that this is why she is wearing it: because she can, and because at one time she could not. One also sees something of this in Mrs. Santner’s passionate defence of a Czech author and his right to be as blasphemous or inappropriate in his work as he sees fit.

It is worth saying a little more about the Czech community, and indeed all of the minor characters in the novel, for they are so lovingly, finely drawn: autumn-eyed Veronika, who misses Czechoslovakia so much and feels out of place in Canada; skinny Nadia with the big appetite, who displays more genuine heroism than anyone else in the novel, and who, I have to admit, made my poor heart ache; Novak, who brings Danny a replacement for a record he had played a part, a long time ago, in losing; and many many others. But this, as noted previously, is due to Danny and the way that he sees the world. He describes himself as ‘a sadist with a soft heart,’ and that is a nice phrase, but I would lose the sadist bit, for he is a pure sentimentalist; indeed, he is the best kind of sentimentalist, which is to say that he isn’t naive, he merely tries to see the best in people. Even the informers and secret police officers are given something of the benefit of the doubt, and he treats them all with warmth. Moreover, he understands that if something bad happens, something much worse could have happened instead, and does happen, and is happening somewhere else in the world. Make no mistake, The Engineer of Human Souls is a relentlessly moving and beautiful book, written in the loveliest blue-eyed style.

“The writer is the engineer of the human soul.” – Joseph Stalin

In my introduction I wrote about yearning for ‘the old country’, and have mentioned how Veronika does just that, yet it is Danny who lives in his memories the most. Everything reminds him of Czechoslovakia, everything transports him back home, everything is a madeleine. So, for example, when his English is praised in the present, this instantly brings to mind for him a story from his youth, an incident whereby he spoke English to a German officer, and of course immediately regretted it. Indeed, while watching a film at the Svenssons’, as he experiences another of his flashbacks, he states that ‘associations’ are ‘the essence of everything.’ And, if you have read a number of my reviews, you will know that I agree with him, that, without question, were I to emigrate to Prague, that beautiful city that Danny left behind with such a heavy heart, I would still spend much of my time here.

THE NOTEBOOKS OF MALTE LAURIDS BRIGGE BY RAINER MARIA RILKE

I don’t imagine that I will always read. I hope not, anyway. For someone who is so scared of death it is rather perverse, or certainly absurd, that I spend so much of my time amongst the dead, instead of engaging with the world around me. Indeed, that is why I started reading heavily, it was, I’m sure, a way of turning away from a world that I so often felt, and still feel, at odds with, towards another that I could control and which did not challenge me. With books, I can pick and choose a sensibility, an outlook, that chimes with my own and I can guarantee company and conversation that I don’t find alienating or dispiriting. To this end, I have read The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge three times. As a novel it is something of a failure, but large parts of it resonate with me as much as, if not more than, any writing ever set down on paper.

“My last hope was always the window. I imagined that outside there, there still might be something that belonged to me, even now, even in this sudden poverty of dying. But scarcely had I looked thither when I wished the window had been barricaded, blocked up, like the wall. For now I knew that things were going on out there in the same indifferent way, that out there, too, there was nothing but my loneliness.”

The Notebooks is essentially the thoughts, memories and impressions of Malte, a twenty-eight year old Dane who has recently moved to Paris. There are a number of well-known but now dated novels that deal with the ex-pat experience, such as Cortazar’s Hopscotch and Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, novels that are invariably marred by machismo and pretension. The Notebooks, however, contains none of that. Rilke’s Paris isn’t a playboy’s playground, littered with booze and whores; it is a ‘great’ city, full of ‘curious temptations,’ but there is nothing glamorous about it and no sense that Malte is living some kind of mock-heroic existence. Indeed, in the opening line of the novel he states that Paris is a place where, it strikes him, one does not go to live, but where one goes to die; it is a place that smells of pommes frites and fear.

That Malte is the last, or one of the last, in his family line is trebly significant, for he is preoccupied with death, with solitude, and with nostalgia. One notices that, again in contrast with many other similar novels, there is not one living character with whom he regularly engages or communicates. In Paris he is an observer, making notes about ordinary citizens, but never interacting with them. For example, he sees a pregnant woman ‘inching ponderously along by a high, sun-warmed wall’ as though ‘seeking assurance that it was still there,’ he watches a man collapse, and then another who has some kind of physical ailment that causes him to hop and jerk suddenly. He appears to be drawn to the eccentric and lost, the suffering and down-trodden, no doubt because he identifies with them, but he remains alone and isolated himself. Towards the end of the novel he states that he once felt a loneliness of such enormity that his heart was not equal to it.

However, when he is surrounded by people, such as when there is a carnival, he describes it as a ‘vicious tide of humanity’ and notes how laughter oozes from their mouths like pus from a wound. Malte is the kind of man who lives mostly in his head, who, although he encourages his solitude, is scared of losing his connection with the world, of withdrawing and parting from it. At one point he goes to the library, and praises it as a place where people are so engrossed in their reading that they barely acknowledge each other. He spends his time strolling to little shops, book dealers and antique places, that, he says, no one ever visits. Once more, we see an interest in obscure things, in things that have been forgotten or neglected. One of my favourite passages is when he comes upon a torn down building, and he states that it is the bit that is left that interests him, the last remaining wall with little bits of floor still visible. It is the suggestion of something once whole, once fully functioning that grabs his attention.

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[Rainer Maria Rilke  – left – and Auguste Rodin in Paris]

As noted, much of the book is concerned with Malte’s memories regarding his family, specifically in relation to his childhood. One understands how this – his upbringing and family situation – may have gone some way to making him the man he is. He is taciturn, he says, and then notes how his father was too. His father was not fond of physical affection either. Later, in one of the more autobiographical anecdotes, Malte talks about his mother’s mourning for a dead child, a little girl, and how he would pretend to be Sophie [the name of Rilke’s own mother] in an effort to please her. It is therefore not a surprise that he is highly sensitive, inward-looking and ill at ease with himself. Indeed, there is much in The Notebooks about identity and individuality. There are, Malte says, no plurals, there is no women, only singularities; he baulks at the term family, saying that the four people under this umbrella did not belong together. Furthermore, at one stage he fools around, dressing up in different costumes, in which he feels more himself, not less; but then he tries on a mask and has some kind of emotional breakdown.

All of these things – ruins, obscurity, deformity, ailments, nostalgia, the self, loneliness – come together in what is the book’s dominant theme, which is that of death. Only Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilych and Lampedusa’s The Leopard contain as much heartrending insight into the subject. There are numerous passages and quotes I could discuss or lift from the text, but, not wanting to ruin your own reading, I will focus on only one. When writing about individuality, Malte bemoans the fact, as he sees it, that people do not die their own deaths anymore, they die the death of their illness, they become their illness and their passing, therefore, has nothing to do with them. In sanatoriums, he continues, people die ‘so readily and with much gratitude’; the upper classes die a genteel death at home, and the lower-classes are simply happy to find a death that ‘more or less fits.’

“Who is there today who still cares about a well-finished death? No one. Even the rich, who could after all afford this luxury, are beginning to grow lazy and indifferent; the desire to have a death of one’s own is becoming more and more rare. In a short time it will be as rare as a life of one’s own.”

Malte contrasts these predictable, unheroic deaths with that of his uncle, Chamberlain Christoph Detlev Brigge. The old Chamberlain died extravagantly; his death was so huge that new wings of the house ought to have been built to accommodate it. He shouted and made demands, demands to see people – both living and dead – and demands to die. This voice plagued the locals, keeping them in a state of agitation; it was a voice louder than the church bells…it was the voice of death, not of Christoph, and it became the master, a more terrible master than the Chamberlain had ever been himself. The point that Malte is making seems to be that one should not go gentle into that good night, that one should not accept the death that most pleases others, that causes the least amount of fuss. You will die, there is no escape, it is within you, your death, from the very first moment, you carry it with you at all times, but you do not have to go out with a whimper.

One might also argue that in looking to the past, in tracing his memories, Malte is running away from death, or that he is attempting to give death the finger, by turning back the clock and keeping these people alive in his own mind and on paper. In any case, it is not difficult to see how for someone so introspective death would be a major concern, for death robs you of that, it prevents everything, it brings everything to a stop, including the ability to think. You cease to be, and what truly makes you yourself is not your appearance, but your thoughts and your experiences. I wonder if this is why, towards the very end of the novel, Malte suddenly begins to write about Christ and God, even going so far as to write to them. Is this a final, cowardly bid to convince himself that death is not the end? I don’t know, but it is fair to say that The Notebooks does lose its way in the final ten or twenty pages.

I wrote at the beginning of this review that The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is a failure as a novel and this probably warrants further explanation. Rather like Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, which it resembles in many ways actually, I imagine that some readers will find it difficult to read the book cover-to-cover. There is absolutely no plot, and many of the entries do not follow on from the previous one. Moreover, after a few pages about Paris, which I would guess serve to draw in a number of people, the focus abruptly shifts, and the book then becomes increasingly strange and elusive, with a relentless interiority. None of this bothers me, however. While I do hope to give up reading one day, I will, without question, carry this book around inside me for the rest of my life, rather like my death.