kafka

ASYLUM PIECE BY ANNA KAVAN

Have you ever had the feeling that you’re being followed and watched? Lean into the darkness and what do you see? The alley, the wardrobe, the space under the bed, the cracks in the walls – lean in close and what do you see? Maybe you’re being paranoid, for when you root around in the dark corners of your life there’s no one there. Still, you’d better clutch your keys, or quicken your step or pull the duvet over your head. There’s a knife in the kitchen which gives you peace of mind but which, you note to yourself, could equally be a murder weapon. I once had a stalker. Once, perhaps still. Who knows how good she is at the task she has given herself. Stalking like anything else is a skill one can develop. I would see her, fleetingly, although we had never met, in shops and on streets. I knew her from her photographs, in which she was naked and her face was turned away from the camera. Someone, if not her. Something, if not her. A powerful force dogging my heels that never fully reveals itself. I lay awake every night, cat-eyeing the dark corners of my life.

“I know that I’m doomed and I’m not going to struggle against my fate. I am only writing this down so that when you do not see me any more you will know that my enemy has finally triumphed.”

It has been a number of weeks since I last read a book. I didn’t read this one, or certainly not with strict concentration. I dipped in and out of it as though it were a dream, my cat eyes skimming the white pages and always drifting towards the window in the room. Even now, as I write, I find my head involuntarily turning towards it and whatever conscious part of me that still exits is drawn into the snowy static that obscures the world. My relationship with Anna Kavan has been an uneasy one, but that isn’t it. My relationship with most things is uneasy. During my past periods of lucidity I found her work tiresome, not now. I’ve read Ice three times, and enjoyed it only once, most recently. Asylum Piece was written much earlier than Ice, in some year or other. Or years, perhaps, for I’m not sure if it is something whole, put together by the author, or a collection fashioned by a publisher from various sources. It reads – if my experience of it could be said to be that of reading, which I am certain it cannot – like a bit of both. The first half of the book is given over to a sequence of Kafkaesque* – in the truest sense of the word – short pieces, while the second is a cycle of stories concerned with patients in mental institutions.

It strikes me as necessary to concentrate on the first half of the book, for no reason other than that was when my attention was most focused on it. In fact, The Birthmark, which opens the collection, is the only story I know by name, whose details I can confidently associate with a title. This is fortunate in so much as it is representative of what I can recall of the first half as a whole. In it a young girl is sent away to boarding school where she meets another girl, H, whose arm, ‘as if traced in faded ink’, is blemished by a birthmark. The years pass and the girls lose touch with each other, although the narrator confesses to having never really forgotten about H. Then, one summer when she is travelling in a foreign country, the narrator visits an ancient fortress and, while walking around, notices a ‘barred window giving on to some subterranean cell.’ It is in this cell that she thinks she sees a woman with an identifying birthmark, in which he thinks she sees H.

stock-photo-teen-girl-looks-out-of-the-fortress-jail-window-65926453 (2)

With succinctness and clarity The Birthmark could be said to make much of the rest of the book redundant, and in fact much of Kavan’s oeuvre [with the obvious exception of Ice, which in hindsight becomes richer]. Certainly, when I finished it I felt as though I knew more about, and better understood, her principle concerns. The most compelling and insistent of these concerns is that of oppression. In her most famous work it is manifested in the elements, and in the girl’s partner, here it is the boarding school and the fortress prison and possibly the birthmark itself [which H is self-conscious of]. It is interesting that Kavan herself was said to be secretive about her age, as though that too – ageing – is an oppressive force, especially for a woman. In each of the rest of the stories in the first half of Asylum Piece the narrator – they are all told in the first person – is either being punished, persecuted, threatened, or imagines herself to be. In some she is at the mercy of an authority – such as the patrons in Going Up in the World – of whom she is aware, and with whom she interacts, and in others it is a shadowy, distant, unknown entity that she believes to be at work against her.

The tone of these stories is panicked and fearful; there is a sense of dread and unease, paranoia and futility throughout, regardless of the primary action. For example, in the early stages of The Birthmark the narrator speaks of feeling ‘strange and subdued’ and of how ‘nullification’ accompanied H. Indeed, the book is full of words and phrases such as ‘ill omened’, ‘gloomy inertia’, ‘doom’, ‘hostile’, ‘treacherous’, and so on. Moreover, frequent references are made to being or feeling alone or isolated. The prison speaks to this, of course, but so does the situation of the girl in Going Up in the World, where she is forced to live in a cold and dirty room, while her patrons live above her in luxury and brightness. Even in less restrictive circumstances, while apparently free, her narrator is ‘frightened and lonely in a nightmare world’ with ‘not a soul’ she can trust. I know very little about Kavan as a person, and so I would not want to make judgements about her mental state, but it is clear that she was at least interested in the mental processes of the hysterical depressive. This is perhaps how both halves of the book fit together. The first puts us inside the diseased mind of such a person, while the second observes these types from a distance.

 

*this is a word that I instinctively recoil from in most circumstances. However, if you are familiar with Kafka’s work the similarities should be apparent having read this review. In fact, there is a short suite of stories in Asylum Piece, in which the narrator has been charged with a crime she knows nothing about, that are on the borderline of plagiarism.

Advertisements

THE TRIAL BY FRANZ KAFKA

[P] was woken one morning by the sound of sniggering coming from the corner of his room. As he opened his eyes he saw two figures emerge out of the shadows and approach the bed. ‘We are here to investigate,’ one said. ‘We are the police,’ said the other. [P] was disconcerted, he had never woken to find two policemen in his room before. ‘I haven’t reported a crime,’ said [P]. ‘There must be some mistake.’ ‘There is no mistake,’ said one of the policemen. His colleague had taken up a position beside [P]’s bookshelves. ‘See here, your copy of The Trial is missing!’ [P] laughed meekly. This must be some kind of practical joke, he thought to himself, but if it was a joke it wasn’t funny, and, besides, who let the men into the room? ‘I can see,’ he said seriously, ‘that my copy of The Trial has indeed been moved. Perhaps it is somewhere else in the room.’ The two policemen solemnly shook their heads. ‘In any case, even if it has been stolen, a criminal investigation is unnecessary. I will simply buy a new copy, maybe even a nicer copy.’ ‘No, that won’t do,’ said the first policeman. ‘Whenever there is a crime, it must be investigated…’ 

Before I started rereading The Trial it was my intention to compose one of my pastiche reviews for it. My thought was that the above situation, i.e. being harangued by policemen who want to investigate a crime that you yourself don’t want them to investigate, a crime that you doubt has even been committed, was suitably absurd and Kafkaesque [I hate that word!]. To some extent I mourn the loss of that review; it would have been fun to write. The reason that I didn’t continue any further than the opening paragraph is that I found, to my surprise, so much to say about the book. I tend to compose those pastiche reviews when I am dealing with something that either didn’t inspire me to think too much or that has been poured over and analysed to the point that it becomes impossible to say anything new or even interesting about it. Now, I don’t claim that my take on The Trial is completely original, but I certainly found that it wasn’t the book I remembered it being, that the most commonly discussed aspects are underpinned by, I would argue, more compelling themes that commentators often ignore or do not give sufficient weight to.

To fully engage with, or even enjoy, The Trial one has to primarily concern oneself with ideas, because Kafka was not, I think it is fair to say, a master of plot or characterisation. Both of Kafka’s novels, although obviously unfinished, meander shamelessly, they proceed with apparent aimlessness; one might even call them repetitive and largely uneventful. Furthermore, Josef K. is not complex, or certainly not in the way that, say, Tolstoy’s creations are; nor is he is believable [whatever that means]. He has moods, of course, but they are all of one type; his emotional range is limited; and what he does feel tends to be negative. For example, he could be said to exhibit exasperation, despair, frustration, anger, confusion and so on. For me, Josef K. as a man, as a character, is really only interesting in relation to another of Kafka’s creations, K. from The Castle, who, on the surface, he appears to closely resemble.

In The Trial Josef K. is caught up in a situation beyond his control; he has, specifically, been arrested, and so it is logical, understandable, that he would want to find out why and to attempt to clear his name. He is, in this way, a relatable figure, because he does what most of us would do. Moreover, he is, despite some less than admirable qualities, sympathetic because, unless one is of the opinion that he has committed a crime, which would put you in a minority, the situation he finds himself in is not his fault. In fact, one might even call him heroic, in that he seeks, and fights for, an explanation or, if you prefer, justice; he also vows to improve or even destroy the system that he believes is persecuting him. This is not at all like what happens in The Castle. In that book, K. is under the impression that he has been summoned to a town in order to work as a land surveyor; yet when he gets there he finds that the locals do not want a land surveyor, and that they would rather he leave as soon as possible. However, K. refuses, even though his experience of the town and its inhabitants galls him. There is nothing sympathetic about K. because he does, unlike Josef K., have the option to free himself from the situation that oppresses him. That he doesn’t, that he stays out of stubbornness, out of sheer pig-headedness, that he will not do what is actually in his own best interests, is what, for me, means that The Castle is a much more depressing take on humanity.

“One must lie low, no matter how much it went against the grain, and try to understand that this great organization remained, so to speak, in a state of delicate balance, and that if someone took it upon himself to alter the dispositions of things around him, he ran the risk of losing his footing and falling to destruction, while the organization would simply right itself by some compensating reaction in another part of its machinery – since everything interlocked – and remain unchanged, unless, indeed, which was very probable, it became still more rigid, more vigilant, severer, and more ruthless.”

The Trial Is often, or most popularly, described as a novel about the insane nature of bureaucracy; and there is certainly evidence in the text to back that up. At the most basic level, Josef K. finds himself entangled in an absurd, confusing system, involving interviews and appointments, petitions and pleas. No matter how much he attempts to progress, or further his case, he is unable to do so. Of course, almost everyone can relate to this. For example, I once had a job, and part of this job was what we called ‘customer-facing’ i.e. you saw people who dropped in with queries. However, the customer-facing staff could not actually resolve queries; oh no, we could listen to them, we could make note of them, but we had to refer, via email, all queries to the appropriate section of the business, which was not, of course, even located in the same city. The customers themselves, we were often forced to confess, could not directly speak to the people trained, and expected, to resolve their queries. They – the customers – simply had to take it on trust that their query would be investigated and dealt with appropriately. This more-or-less universal experience does, I think, go some way to accounting for Kafka’s appeal. However, I would argue that it is important, in terms of understanding The Trial, to consider what is at the heart of people’s frustrations regarding bureaucracy. For me, it is about being unable to make a human connection. Of course, it is sometimes the case that people are literally interacting with a machine [some kind of automated service], but, even when one is able to speak with a human being, that human being, with few exceptions, hides behind impersonal regulations and procedures. In this way, bureaucracy is always cold and inhuman. No matter how much you plead, or argue your position, the bureaucrat will stare you down and repeat their mantra: ‘you must go through the proper channels.’

So while I accept that The Trial is, to some extent, about bureaucracy, I think that it is only one facet of the novel’s broader concerns about the difficulty of human interaction and our [often futile] attempts to make a connection with other people. There are abundant clues to this throughout the text, for example, when K. offers his hand to the supervisor, at the very beginning of the book, it is ignored. In his position of power, K has ceased to be a contemporary or an equal. A desire for human contact is also responsible for K. waiting for Fraülein Bürstner and for him impulsively kissing her. His relationship, if you can call it that, with Bürstner is particularly humiliating. When K. wants to see her again, after the impulsive kiss, he sends her notes or letters, which she ignores; she, on the other hand, dispatches the lame Fraülein Montag to speak to K. in her stead, which makes him exceedingly uneasy. It’s the kind of horribly uncomfortable moment most of us have experienced at one time or another, when someone you like or are attracted to, someone who you have reached out to, rejects you, feels compelled to let you know, through an intermediary no less, that they are not interested. Moreover, the awkwardness is on both sides: from Bürstner, who doesn’t want to speak to K., and from K., who is being given the brush-off.

“Whether she was to blame now was not clear. K. could only see that a man had drawn her into a corner by the door and was pressing her against his body. But it was not she who was shrieking but the man.”

As with bureaucracy, a lot is made of the role of women in The Trial, and rightly so, because there is something disconcerting about the way that they are presented. They are, almost without exception, sexualised to the point at which one might consider them loose women or even prostitutes. For instance, when K. visits the courts he meets a married woman who aggressively makes a play for him and asks that he take her away. Crucially, K., although initially resistant, begins to feel tempted, and it is then that she is picked up [literally] by another man and whisked away. When K. tries to intervene and plead his case, the woman rejects him. Yet, while this might say something about the way that Kafka himself saw women, it does, once again, feed into, is simply another example of, what I believe were the writer’s more general preoccupations. People focus specifically on the women because of what we know about Kafka’s personal life, and because it is often the way that scholars will want to bring a kind of gender analysis to novels, but one should not overlook that it is the case that all of the human interaction in the novel is awkward, strained, and painful. Consider the scene at the court’s offices, when K. approaches a man and asks him what he is there for. The man finds himself speechless, due to either shame or shyness, and when K. touches him he actually starts to scream. This is, in one sense, very amusing, but it is, for me, also immensely sad.

be33bf29ff8df9878a147bbc34bb2f8e

[Fenced in. One of Franz Kafka’s own illustrations]

I mentioned humour just now, and it has become popular [even perhaps a cliché] to describe Kafka’s work as incredibly funny, which, it strikes me, is an opinion that has, in classic contrarian fashion, emerged only to contradict the previously commonly held opinion that it is entirely bleak and foreboding. The truth, as is often the case, is actually somewhere between the two extremes. There are undeniably comedic passages, situations, and lines, such as when K. visits the courthouse, which turns out to be some kind of high-rise block of flats, and, afraid of giving himself away, goes knocking on doors asking for the joiner Lanz. This is amusing in numerous ways; first of all, because one would expect the courthouse to be located in an impressive, official building, not what is seemingly a cramped and dirty place full of tenants [the kids running around the corridors is a nice touch]; secondly, because when K. asks about Lanz some of the inhabitants of the building take the request very seriously and start directing him and trying to help him find the non-existent joiner. It is the jolting absurdity that provides the comedy and the sense that K. is surrounded by fools and foolishness. However, in spite of all that, I must say that I think that the humour is overstated these days, and that the book, more than anything, is unsettling and nightmarish. The word ‘nightmarish’ gets thrown around a lot when discussing literature and art and film, and it often denotes nothing more than something that is grotesque. In my opinion, The Trial more closely resembles real nightmares, or mine anyway, which often involve odd and abrupt temporal shifts [minutes for K. are sometimes hours for others], the inversion of space [things that you expect to be large are small, and vice versa], and people behaving in incomprehensible ways or entering scenes in an inexplicable or eerie manner [more than one person literally emerges out of the shadows]. Many, many things are called Kafkaesque, but if anything genuinely deserves that tag it would be the films of David Lynch, and you don’t find those in the comedy section on Netflix.

To conclude, I have tried, in this review, to give some idea of what I found impressive and enjoyable and engaging about The Trial, a book that is, for me, one of world literature’s most imposing masterpieces. I have also tried to explore what I think are the significant themes. However, the great genius of the work is that one could see almost anything in it. Indeed, Jorge Luis Borges once wrote something about how great literature actually becomes greater with age, that, as time passes, it gains meaning, becomes more, not less, relevant. This is certainly the case with all of Kafka’s work, and The Trial in particular. Think about the basic premise again: a man arrested for a crime he knows nothing about, who, when he seeks an explanation, is met with illogical resistance and endless bureaucracy. The similarities between this situation and accounts of what happened to large numbers of citizens in Stalin’s Russia, and other Communist countries, is uncanny. Or what about the Jewish experience in Nazi Germany, where people found themselves suddenly relieved of their basic rights, where official bodies could, and did, turn lives upside down [and take them away, of course] without any wrong-doing on their part? It is no surprise, in this regard, that there are acclaimed Russian authors who lived and worked under Stalin, and Jewish writers affected by the Holocaust, that have been heavily influenced by Prague’s finest. Yet for all his influence, for all the talented writers that have stepped in the marks left by his shoes as he blazed his trail, Franz Kafka – the originator – remains unsurpassed.

VERTIGO BY W.G. SEBALD

I find the wonderful German writer W.G. Sebald so difficult to review that my treatment of his second novel, The Rings of Saturn, was no more than a long story about a trip I once made with my then partner to her home in Cornwall, during which, mostly on account of her parents, I lost my mind and my girlfriend. I’m not, of course, going to go over all that again, and I couldn’t even if I wanted to, for I have forgotten much of what took place; yet the disquieting thing is that what I can recall or bring back I now doubt the veracity of. For example, my girlfriend’s parents were very rich, but I am sure that it is not the case that their admittedly large home was backed by an even larger field, in which wild horses ran; yet that – the field, the horses, the house – is my strongest memory of the week I spent in Cornwall.

Some years ago I was at college and my philosophy teacher told me a story about how he moved to the Czech Republic, on a whim so to speak, in order to be with a Czech girl he had met whilst she was on vacation in England. When he arrived at her house she showed him in and explained that he ought to say hello to her father. My friend agreed and so she directed him to climb the stairs, where her father could be found in the first room on the right. My teacher may have found this odd, but in any case he climbed the stairs and entered the room and there he saw the old man, sitting in a chair, listening to Wagner, with tears streaming down his face. Now, this did not happen to me. I know that well enough, so why is it that this memory now seems as though it belongs to me? Why is it that I am able to put myself in that situation, in place of my teacher, and see, not what he saw, but my own version of it, with as much assurance as anything that has actually happened to me in my life?

As I sit here and think about those two trips, one to Cornwall and one to the Czech Republic, both of which are a strange mixture of fantasy and fact, the proportions of each unknowable to me, I feel extremely disorientated. This disorientation is, I believe, what Sebald called vertigo, a state that is characterised by the difficulty, or a belief in the difficulty, of putting one’s feet on the ground, of being sure of yourself, and of the world around you. It is this mental, and physical, state that Sebald writes about in this book, the first of his four great novels. In it he tells a series of anecdotes and stories, involving both fictional characters and real people, including himself.

Lunchbasicversion

Sebald’s first vertigo-sufferer is Marie-Henri Beyle, who we are told was a soldier in Napoleon’s army; he was also a writer, and is better known as Stendhal. Throughout his life Beyle’s memories and perceptions, according to Sebald, consistently played tricks on him. For example, he was convinced that the town of Ivrea, through which he once passed, would be indelibly fixed in his mind, only to find, some years later, that what he actually remembered was nothing but a copy of an engraving called Prospetto d’Ivrea.

“Beyle writes that even when the images supplied by memory are true to life one can place little confidence in them.”

For Beyle, the distinction between truth and fiction, reality and imagination, was tenuous at best. Probably the most wonderful, the most moving anecdote Sebald shares with us in this regard involves Beyle’s relationship with a possibly imaginary woman, La Ghita. Beyle, writes Sebald, claimed to have been travelling with La Ghita, to have had involved conversations with her, and to have eventually broken from her, and yet there is no definitive proof that she ever existed; in fact, the likelihood is that she was a composite of numerous women the Frenchman had known.

As with all of Sebald’s work, in Vertigo he is concerned with melancholy outsiders, or eccentrics. Most people do not have a troubled relationship with reality, like Beyle does, but the few that do tend to not be particularly happy [or mentally stable]. This appears to be borne out when, at the beginning of the second section of the novel, Sebald, or the narrator who so closely resembles Sebald, discusses his own mental breakdown, which occurs when travelling through Vienna, Milan, Verona, Venice and Innsbruck. The narrator’s vertigo manifests itself as a kind of dread or neurotic fear, and by a sense of the uncanny. For example, at one point he tells the story of Casanova’s imprisonment and notices that the day the Italian had set for his escape is the day that he [Sebald] had visited that same prison, Doge’s Palace. When he leaves each town or city he does so as though trying to outstrip his anxiety, as though he is on the run from himself [and possibly the two shadowy figures he believes may be following him]. In the second half of this long second section, Sebald returns, seven years later, to make the same trip and visit some of the same places. This trip is a tour of his memories of those places as much as it is an actual tour of them.

Like Beyle, Sebald is hyper-sensitive; the things that he reads and the art that he engages with often break into reality, the everyday world is often transformed by his imagination [or madness]. At one point in the book he thinks that he is following Dante, at another he mentions that he was once convinced that a black limousine driver was Melchior, one of the three magi [or wise men]. Throughout, there hangs over the book the question, What is reality? Are Sebald’s strange experiences reality? Instinctively one would want to say no, because Dante was dead at the time the narrator claims to have seen him, and yet, for me, the issue is far from clear-cut; what someone experiences, regardless of how impossible it may may seem, is their reality, is as real as anything we would accept without raising an eyebrowThe truth of the world, I once wrote, is like a cloud of blue smoke on a windy day.

“Over the years I had puzzled out a good deal in my own mind, but in spite of that, far from becoming clearer, things now appeared to me more incomprehensible than ever. The more images I gathered from the past, i said, the more unlikely it seemed to me that the past actually happened in this or that way.”

According to many of the reviews and articles I have read, Vertigo is the weakest of Sebald’s four novels, but that is not an opinion I share; for me The Emigrants is the least engaging of the bunch. However, what does distinguish this novel from the others, and perhaps accounts for some of the indifference towards it, is that it wears its influences more brazenly. Sebald’s other work all tastes subtly of Marcel Proust and Jorge Luis Borges, but here the flavour is very, very strong. The prose style, involving long complex sentences, with multiple clauses, is recognisably Proustian; and some of the ideas contained within Vertigo are not only similar to some of those found in In Search of Lost Time, but actually appear in it. Furthermore, the structure of this book, in comparison with Austerlitz and The Rings of Saturn in particular, is far from sophisticated. For example, while the opening Beyle section is thematically connected to the rest of the work, it still essentially stands alone. Later in his career Sebald would work his anecdotes and stories into his overall narrative and that gave them a satisfying flow that Vertigo does not have.

Yet there are also positive aspects of the book that one will not find in Sebald’s more sophisticated work. First of all, it is at times pretty funny. There is a refreshing lightness of touch, or lightheartedness, in certain passages. Two incidents stand out or me in this regard, there is Sebald getting hit on in a bar in Italy and a scene on a bus when he spies two kids who he thinks are dead-ringers for Franz Kafka. Here, our intrepid narrator approaches the boys and their parents, but receives a frosty reception; he asks for a photograph of the children but is turned down. They probably thought I was a pederast, Sebald notes. Ha! Martin Amis once said that all great writers are also comic writers, and I believe there is some truth in that. A comic writer does not have to mean someone like P.G. Wodehouse, but, for me, and Amis too, includes the likes of Tolstoy and Kafka. The idea is that if you understand the world, and the human condition, you cannot help but be, on occasions, funny, because life is funny; so it pleases me that Sebald showed that he, too, could be humorous. The story of the Kafka kids also highlights another pleasing aspect of Vertigo, which is that it is more obviously fictional than the novels that came after it. One may in fact see that as a negative, but it was nice, in my opinion, to encounter a more relaxed Sebald, one trying stuff out, even some goofy stuff.

STORIES BY ANTON CHEKHOV

When the subject comes up I often find myself saying that I don’t like short stories, but that blunt statement is misleading. It is not really short stories themselves that I have a problem with, it is collections of short stories. Yet even the use of the term collections is a poor choice, because there are certain kinds of short story books that I do like. The ones that I have enjoyed have, to my mind anyway, certain things in common that are absent from most collections. The first thing that unites them is that they were put together by the author specifically to stand as a complete work. I have very little interest in what I call random collections, which are those put together by a publisher, translator or other writer. These collections will, in most cases, span the author’s career and include stories dealing with a multitude of themes or ideas. My aversion to these types of books is not really about quality; a collection such as this might, on a story to story basis, be more consistently excellent than one put together by the author, but, I dunno, they bore me or rankle me. Reading them is like listening to a best of or greatest hits album, i.e. someone’s lazy, subjective idea of what are an artist’s finest moments.

In terms of collections put together by an author the stories were chosen, one imagines, with care; the author intended those specific stories to be included, they were in some way connected in his mind. This leads to the second common quality found in good short story collections, which is that the stories will share themes and style and ideas. One of the things I most like about novels is development, both in terms of character and plot, and obviously a short story collection is not going to give you that, but certain ones do at least satisfy my need for completeness and connectedness, or, if you prefer, a unified vision. I am fully aware that my understanding of these terms is ambiguous, that it may be hard to grasp what exactly it is I mean by them. Certainly one could argue that a bunch of stories chosen by a publisher could equally be said to be complete or connected. Undeniably they are connected by author and by virtue of having been chosen, but these kinds of connections are less necessary, less important to me. One could also argue that some collections put together by an author do not have a unified vision. I accept that might be the case, but would call those bad collections too, or at least boring ones or ones unlikely to satisfy me.

I could write thousands of words about this, and the resulting essay would be interesting to no one but me; it would probably only make sense to me too. The point of all this waffle is to try to explain why I have been so resistant to reading the book under review here, which is a randomly chosen collection of Chekhov’s stories translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Indeed, I have started and then abandoned the book many times, feeling no desire to wade through it, no compulsion to continue, despite the obvious quality of the stories I read. It wasn’t until I found myself at an absolute reading standstill last week that I returned to it again and, this time, forced myself to carry on beyond the first 40-50 pages. What I found as I entered further into it is that although the stories do not follow on, do not share characters or situations, they, taken as a whole, do at least have that unified vision which is so important to me. This unified vision has, I think, nothing at all to do with the choices made by the translators or publishers, but with Chekhov’s narrow focus, his limited concerns. In the same way that all of Thomas Bernhard’s novels can be described using the words ranting, hate, repetition, madness etc, nearly every story here brings to mind the words boredom, pettiness, poverty, and disquiet. In fact, the stories can probably be best summed up by one of the author’s own titles: Small Fry; almost all of his characters are exactly that, they are small fry, they are the little man; they are clerks, and peasants; they are, more than anything, largely insignificant and downtrodden.

It is difficult to review short story collections because a few words about each individual story would be tedious, for both the reviewer and the reader, and yet an overview of one’s impressions of the whole book would likely result in one or two superficial paragraphs. What I will do, then, is to focus on a couple of my favourites from this collection. One of Chekhov’s earliest and, if this book is anything to go by, funniest stories is The Sneeze. In it a man accidentally sneezes on another, more important, man; his initial attempts to apologise are accepted, but not in the way, not as graciously, as he would like. So he continues to try and apologise, to try and illicit the response he deems satisfactory. The more he is rebuffed, the greater his anxiety, and so his apologies become increasingly intense, aggressive and ridiculous. The upshot is that his obsession with apologising, with it being accepted in the way that he would like, makes him a complete nuisance. If you are a fan of Curb Your Enthusiasm you will understand and appreciate this kind of humour. The man’s desires, the desire to make amends and for his apology to be accepted, are entirely rational, but they become irrational by virtue of the status, the importance he gives to them. A normal person, a truly rational person, would apologise once and if it was not accepted in a way that he would like or expect he would brush it off and forget about it. In terms of literary antecedents The Sneeze is clearly influenced by Gogol and his epic silliness; it is also reminiscent of Kafka, and his protagonists who want to accomplish seemingly straightforward tasks, and satisfy entirely rational desires, but find that they cannot, that other people, or circumstances, prevent them.

The Sneeze is only a couple of pages long, but Chekhov was no Borges; he also wrote many longer pieces, some of which are actually novella length. Four of these, including the highly rated The Duel, are available as The Complete Short Novels, but some of them are included here. One of the most well-known is A Boring Story, which features an academic who has some unspecified illness [which comes across more as a kind of existential sickness or ennui, than something physical] and is convinced that he will soon pass on. The man surveys his life and deems it a failure; he hates his wife and daughter and his colleagues. It is impossible for me to say whether they were influenced by A Boring Story, but both Joseph Heller’s Something Happened and William Gass’ The Tunnel are strikingly similar. There is something very modern about the professor’s weariness; it is not that his life has been especially hard or bad, just that it has been a let down. I think that is how many people feel these days; it is the horror of being middling, of having an average or not-quite-brilliant existence. In The Tunnel Gass has his protagonist fantasising about a Party of Disappointed People, a party that the professor would undeniably have lobbied to join.

Someone who was by his own admission very influenced by Chekhov was Raymond Carver, and like Carver, the Russian’s best stories are snapshots. They don’t tell a story, as we generally understand that term, but often capture an insignificant moment in an insignificant person’s life, thereby giving that moment significance. There are some that are more dramatic, but even with these the tone is one of banality; what I mean by this is that there might be death or arguments or whatever, but these things are treated as absolutely ordinary [which of course they are]. Chekhov’s prose style is well suited to his subjects; it is simple, straightforward, without ever seeming stupid or inconsequential; it is, however, occasionally dreamy, almost surreal, like in the story of Gusev where his body is weighted and dropped into the ocean; we follow it as it falls and frightens a shoal of fish and catches the attention of a shark.

In terms of the translation, I am on record in having my doubts about the abilities of Pevear and Volokhonsky; my main gripe is that much of their work reads exactly the same, regardless of which author they are dealing with; their translations read as though they were all written by the same person, and I refuse to accept that many of the great Russian authors did not have their own individual style. Furthermore, at least two of their translations are pretty much unreadable; the sentences, phrases, word order etc in their versions of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and Gogol’s Dead Souls are often confusing and almost impossibly ugly. However, neither of those two issues are present in Chekhov’s Stories to any great extent; sure, there were a couple of times I raised my eyebrows, but in this case the occasionally strange English was distracting rather than a major problem.

In any case, to sum up, while this particular collection did not blow my mind [some of the selections struck me as odd, considering the translators had almost the entire back catalogue to plunder; the story involving a recently deceased monk, for example, seemed an esoteric inclusion, at best], a number of the individual pieces did, certainly enough of them to convince me that Chekhov was a very fine writer and that from the 100+ stories he authored someone could put together something genuinely stunning, a kind of flawless best of. If you like that sort of thing. Which, generally speaking, I don’t.

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT BY FYODOR DOSTOEVSKY

I first read Crime and Punishment when I was 14. I was, at that time, perhaps this book’s perfect reader, maybe even a perfect reader for any book; I was certainly the happiest reader I’ve ever been. I find these days that I cannot read purely for enjoyment, that I spend half my time mentally composing reviews while I turn pages. Yet when I was a teenager I wasn’t interested in literary criticism, and did not have a huge backlog of knowledge about world literature to draw from. Truth be told, my tastes were pretty unsophisticated. I knew what I liked, of course, but I didn’t really know why; and I’m sad, in a way, that I cannot go back to that state of innocence, because the more great works that I have read, the greater my critical faculty has become, the more impossible it is for a book to completely please or impress me. I mention all this, because when recently rereading Crime and Punishment I felt a little disheartened. Unfortunately, I can no longer cherish it in the way that I once did.

I doubt there are any people reading this review who are not aware of the book’s basic plot. However, just in case, here is a very brief summation: impoverished young man decides to murder woman, in part to rob her and in part [so he claims] to showcase his superiority and therefore his right to behave as he pleases, morally. What then ensues is a game of cat and mouse between the killer, Raskolnikov, and the police. Crime and Punishment is, then, a kind of existential thriller.

2013-10-14-crime[One of Fritz Eichenberg’s Crime & Punishment illustrations]

Kafka is often lazily thrown around as a comparison when reviewing or talking about literature – effectively serving as little more than a substitute for weird – but in this instance I believe that it is worthwhile to look at Raskolnikov in relation to Josef K, from The Trial. Like Josef K, Raskolnikov is oppressed at every turn, tragically and absurdly and comically. K., however, is oppressed by things outside of himself, by the other, by other people’s inability to reason, while Raskolnikov is oppressed by himself, by what is inside, by his own inability to reason his way through situations. He knows exactly how to behave in his own best interests and yet cannot; indeed he seems deliberately to draw attention to himself, and actively seeks out people to confess to. I know that some, and maybe Dostoevsky himself, would call this inability to reason conscience, but he is exactly the same prior to the murder. For example, despite being poor he turns down work when it offered to him. What I find most interesting about the Kafka-Dostoevsky comparison is that it maybe explains why Kafka is increasingly relevant and the Russian less so, because we, as a society, are more outward looking than inward looking, we tend to find our oppression in other people, rather than ourselves.

It is baffling to me that Raskolnokov is often described by readers as someone who successfully acts out a clearly defined philosophy. Yes, I know there is some stuff in the text, voiced by Raskolnikov, about supremacy and a kind of utilitarian approach to life and morality [i.e. that if good can come from the death of a wicked person, then one ought to remove the wicked person; or at least it isn’t bad to do so]. But I wouldn’t say the philosophy is clearly defined, nor is it successfully acted upon. In fact, it strikes me that this is Dostoevsky’s point, that these kinds of approaches are ok in theory, but that reality is a whole lot messier, a whole lot more difficult to control and predict. In any case, Raskolnikov isn’t any kind of success, he is actually a complete failure, both personally and philosophically. Indeed, he is, to a large extent, socially inept or awkward. Perhaps that is why young men and students often identify with him and the book.

“Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth.”

It is not oft mentioned but Dostoevsky’s work, and this novel in particular, is at times really very funny. All of the characters, or nearly all, are grotesque and emotionally abnormal. Take, for example, the ranting Berhardian monologues, of which there are many here [but which occur much less frequently in his more sophisticated work]. Ranting is inherently funny, to me anyway, because it involves a loss of control. It is almost a kind of physical comedy, like someone falling down or tripping up or losing their footing on ice. There is, too, a kind of randomness to the behaviour and actions of the characters, people do not act according to our [realist] expectations. Indeed, while one may anticipate that Raskolnikov – as the murderer, as a paranoiac – will behave oddly, he actually seems hardly any less volatile than a handful of other major players, such as Razumikhin, who takes a shine to the killer’s sister. This jolting unpredictability is amusing precisely because it is unexpected or unexplainable. There is a carnivalesque atmosphere to the book, a chronic absurdity, which means that I struggle to understand the furrow-browed, earnest response to it from many readers. Crime and Punishment is, let’s face it, to a large extent epically silly.

One could say, however, that this chronic absurdity, this epic Gogolian silliness, is a flaw with the work. Raskolnikov, we’re led to believe, is meant to be a man in torment, a man apart, a man isolated, a man in conflict with his conscience and his soul. But If he does not appear any crazier, does not strike us as more anguished, more unpredictable, and less in control of himself and his emotions, than nearly everyone else in the book, surely Dostoevsky’s vision is compromised. if you feel that the point of the book was, with high-seriousness, to explore one man’s descent into insanity, one man’s struggle with his own soul, then the book cannot possibly be deemed a success. Of course, Dostoevsky wasn’t incapable of providing contrasts, of writing straight men, serious men, sane men. There is the pious Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov, for example. But Crime and Punishment was written 14 years earlier, and so perhaps he wasn’t yet capable of that kind of subtlety, and that for me is what makes it one of his lesser works.

It must also be said that the book suffers from more than just the failure to successfully execute its ideas. I was struck by how tedious and inorganic it is in places. Dostoevsky’s major novels all involve long passages in which characters exchange or discuss philosophical, moral, issues. Yet, here those conversations lack the power of those, for example, in Brothers Karamazov. Furthermore, there are pages and pages of essentially aimless interaction. Raskolnokov’s mother says almost nothing of any note, and yet she isn’t adverse to rambling on, often incoherently. Likewise, Ramusikhin is often guilty of this, as in Sonia’s mother. These characters repeat themselves frequently, and while it does, as mentioned earlier, contribute to the absurd Kafkian atmosphere, it does become, well, boring over nearly 600 pages. How is it inorganic? Dostoevsky was never the most controlled writer, his novels not often finely plotted. Here, the plot feels stage-managed, there are too many occasions when you can see the strings, when Dostoevsky signposts what he is doing. By this I mean that someone will say something or overhear something or there will be some unbelievable coincidence, and each time the purpose is obviously simply to move along the story in a particular direction.

So, if you consider Crime and Punishment a failure [relative to his best work, of course; it’s still better than most things out there], as I do, what reason is there to read it? Well, the book has much to say about the state of the world, about every man, not just one individual isolated from the rest of [civilised?] society. The world of Crime and Punishment is a world in collapse, in disintegration, where women can silently, randomly, throw themselves off a bridge; it is a world where near everyone is going loco and that is what, in my opinion, gives the book its power. In fact, to my mind Raskolnikov is reacting against this state of the world when he does the dirty deed, as he sees it as a way of distinguishing himself from other people, people he considers louses. The key to the work, for me, is that while Raskolnikov seeks to prove his superiority, to set himself apart as a great man, a man who as great is therefore outside of conventional moral obligations, he comes to realise that he isn’t any of those things, that he is, in fact, just like everyone else. That, indeed, while initially contributing to his anguish eventually leads to his salvation.

THE CASTLE BY FRANZ KAFKA

Screen Shot 2017-04-19 at 18.19.51.jpg

Greetings comrades!

Welcome to Learn about the Humanoids 101. My name is Cocky, or Cock for short. Stop sniggering! You’re here, of course, because of the blast. I always knew that this day would come, that the most powerful humanoid government on earth would pick on the wrong country one day – who would have thought it’d be Switzerland? – and the whole planet would go up: kaboom! Nuclear holocaust! Anyway, I want to welcome Keith Richard to the ranks. Hi Keef! I know he’s not a roach, comrades, but, well, there was just no way of getting rid of him; so, please, make him feel at home. I’ve chosen to begin our lessons with a look at one of the humanoids’ favourite authors, Franz Kafka, and in particular his book The Castle. I will also be sharing some complimentary evidence in the form of a diary, written by [P], who ran the excellent book blog books, yo. while he was alive, and was actually reading the book in question at the time of the blast.

So, what does Kafka tell us? Primarily, that being a humanoid was a shitty gig. You know how we watched them for many years, scurrying around, scuttling from home to work to the pub and home and to work again, wasting their time engaged in meaningless activities and concerned with pointless preoccupations? And, you know how they were constantly in anguish because they could never find any satisfaction [yes, yes, Keef, settle down] or peace or recognition? Well, that’s Kafka’s work in a nutshell! The novel The Castle begins with a character, K., arriving in a village to take up a job as a land surveyor. Thing is, the people there claim to have never asked for, nor do they need, a land surveyor. And, so, we see in evidence that humanoid existential conflict: the desire to be needed, to feel appreciated, to be acknowledged, while at the same time being ignored and resented. The locals are hostile towards K. and seemingly want to push him away, which, in classic humanoid fashion, actually increases his desire to stay. Not like us, comrades! We have dignity! We tried to keep out of their way by hiding in the toilet or the shower! I’d like to read from [P]’s diary now, and share his thoughts on the beginning of the book.

May 8th 2014

Started reading The Castle by Franz Kafka. Not sure how I feel about it. K. aimlessly wandering around, and, of course, not actually getting anywhere. Comparison with The Trial? Josef K. had a purpose: to clear his name and to avoid punishment. K. seems almost purposeless, which is a far more depressing take on human existence.

Very insightful words from [P], it’s almost a shame that he was obliterated.

In preparation for this lesson I read numerous old reviews and essays, and it struck me as odd that a significant proportion of them felt that The Castle is cheerier and more optimistic, is less bleak, than The Trial. Josef K exhibits humanoid qualities such as fear and panic and extreme frustration, but his response to his situation is, at least, understandable. Remember that, because it is important. Josef behaves as we would expect him to behave and is, therefore, someone you can, and maybe want to, identify with; he is easy to like and feel for. K., on the other hand, is far more unpleasant, is far less likeable, and more difficult to empathise with and understand. He isn’t caught in a situation beyond his control [he doesn’t, like Josef, wake up to an altered world, in which he is confronted by an oppressive force outside of himself] because it is always possible for him to leave the village. Indeed, the villagers, and his fiancé, actively encourage him to leave. And, yet, he doesn’t. He stays, out of pride or stubbornness or inquisitiveness. And isn’t that a more damning appraisal of humanoid behaviour? They say: you’re not wanted here! You’re not welcome here! You’re not one of us! Look how unhappy and frustrated this is making you! And the reply is: screw you, I’m staying! Two forces butting heads; and for what? With what aim? Isn’t this closer to the humanoids we knew? From [P]’s diary again:

May 9th 2014

Wearying. Like being forced to play the cup-and-ball game for hours, with no ball. K. strikes me as an embodiment of our sense of entitlement. He thinks that he is owed an explanation, owed a job, owed friendly interactions; he is not fighting for a basic human right [like Josef], but is acting out of self-importance.

Ah, those humanoids! How many times did you hear them say: you cannot treat me this way! How many times did we find that phrase on their greasy lips?

It is worth noting that a great many people thought The Castle a religious allegory. That idea appears to have stemmed from Max Brod, the man who refused to destroy the author’s work after his death, and the first English translators, the Muirs. It was Brod who saw in the book a religious angle and so he provided notes and directions for the Muirs, who in turn translated the work along those lines, actually adding things that are not in the original text. And this interpretation of the book appeared to stick, despite later and more accurate translations. [P]:

May 10th 2014

I don’t see a religious allegory in this at all. To label it as such seems almost to do it a disservice, to devalue the work. Ironically, like religion itself, that interpretation serves as a way of making the incomprehensible comprehensible, to make it cuddly and familiar.

Which is not to say that a religious interpretation of the novel does not make some sense; K’s striving towards the castle, to make his way there, could easily be seen as man’s journey towards salvation or the humanoid God. However, I agree with the sadly departed [P], that it does not do the novel justice. K. is essentially amoral, and his journey does not involve self-discovery, or the learning of lessons, so it would make a strange kind of religious allegory. It seems to me to be much more about rationality and logic. K. wants to make sense of what is happening to him, to impose a logical, forward-moving, structure on his time and existence. For example, I was engaged to be a land surveyor in village X, therefore I travelled to village X. This is logical, it makes sense. Yet, then the structure breaks down. The following statement ought to be something like, I completed my work as a land surveyor in village X. But that is not how things turn out. Logic cannot be applied to what happens; his life, his existence, stops moving forward, it comes to a sharp and confusing halt. Similarly, he asks questions and does not get answers, or gets them and they do not make sense, or he makes reasonable pleas or demands which are ignored or dismissed as impossible, as though he is speaking to people bereft of any kind of rational faculty. On the basis of this interpretation one would see the castle itself as knowledge, unattainable knowledge; as understanding. Indeed, that is what K. is ultimately striving for. The castle, he thinks, will answer all of his questions, if only he could get there. But he cannot get there.

While it is not relevant, in terms of improving our understanding of humanoids, it is perhaps of interest to note what [P] wrote in terms of the style of The Castle, which differs from Kafka’s other work:

The conversations are long and often laborious and repetitive; and the novel is made up almost entirely of conversations. I, at times, feel like a melancholy dog watching a washing machine go round and round in circles. Is the book meant to be tedious? Thomas Bernhard is often compared to Kafka, but previously I had paid that comparison no mind. This is the first time I have seen echoes of his style in one of Kafka’s works. Is the book deliberately the way it is, is it a style choice? Or is that, the style, merely a consequence of its unfinished nature? Are those conversations, for example, the sign of poor editing, or a lack of editing, or are they intentionally the way they are, are they that way for effect? Similarly, the grammar here is, well, odd. There are commas where there ought to be full-stops, commas where they aren’t needed at all, and full-stops where one would expect a comma. Do I love this book or hate it?

In a book like this, comrades, with the history it has, with the circumstances surrounding its composition and its publication, it is near impossible to apply judgements as one would with other [completed] works. In any case, the lesson has finished for today. Now, I expect you all to have read the book for your seminars next week; and I look forward to hearing your opinions in detail. The last words for today ought, I think, go to poor dead [P]:

May 11th 2014

This book is making me feel crazy. Am I crazy? Initially I found it disappointing and yet at some point its maddening style got under my skin, so much so that I now feel like it is the work of a genius, a dour comedic genius. It both distresses and amuses me in equal measure. I feel as though it has somehow invaded me.

Ah, there is the bell. See you next week, comrades!