January 11, 2009

Best of... Most of...

There seems to be a growing trend in publishing, wherein a selection of minor works by certain famous writers are collected, ostensibly in an attempt to get a more comprehensive view of their lives. Walter Benjamin's Archive (2007), for example, consists largely of photographs of pages from his notebooks, where every conceivable space is covered with handwriting, as well as postcards, photographs, and seemingly random lists. This seems appropriate for a writer like Benjamin, who was a compulsive collector of books and quotes, and held a kaleidoscopic view of society and culture.

These "new" collections are usually reserved for writers who died young, at times only achieving their fame posthumously, and did not have a chance to canonize their work, or at least decide which of it was worth preserving. Thus, we get collections like Donald Barthelme's The Teachings of Don B. (1992), which gathers his offhanded and dated anonymous comments from the seventies, hopelessly truncated short works, and old stories needlessly rehashed in the form of plays. This book only serves to diminish his achievements and importance in my eyes. Last year's Flying to America: 45 More Stories (2008) seems to be a better collection, mostly focusing on hard-to-find stories from his earlier collections, but I have to wonder how many more gems there might still be in Barthelme's oeuvre which were not already included in Sixty Stories (1981) or Forty Stories (1987), both compiled by Barthelme himself.

Personally, I'm a huge fan of the massive single-volume collections of The Complete works of... such as Jorge Luis Borges's Collected Fictions, The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, and the American Library's comprehensive collections of works by Nathanael West and Flannery O'Connor. As Harold Bloom stated:
"It is a deep pleasure to read the Collected Fictions of Borges... There is also a particular satisfaction in having all the stories in one volume."

Thus, as a somewhat compulsive completist Like Benjamin, I often find myself equally excited and annoyed when I find out about a new book by a writer I had previously thought I already had everything by. I'm happy to discover there's more stuff out there, but I'm annoyed that I either did not know about it, or else might have to buy another book (these new volumes are often expensive; Walter Benjamin's Archive costs almost $30). However, I must admit it's even more frustrating when you know of a certain work that isn't available anywhere, like Even Stephen, a play written by Nathanael West and S. J. Perelman in 1934, which has never been published or performed, and only exists in manuscript form at the Brown University Library.

Nathanael West and S. J. Perelman

I am particularly obsessed with acquiring and reading all of Franz Kafka's works, and was somewhat proud when I managed to gather decent copies of his sporadically available collections of letters (5 books - Letter to His Father, Letters to Felice, Letters to Milena, Letters to Ottla, and Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors).

Recently, I came across Franz Kafka: The Office Writings (2008), which brings together some of Kafka's professional writings, composed during his years as a high-ranking lawyer with a Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute. This book includes an appeal for the founding of a psychiatric hospital for shell-shocked veterans, as well as articles and letters dealing with issues like workmen's compensation and workplace safety.

If this was by anyone other than Kafka I would not be interested, And if it wasn't so prohibitively expensive (the book costs $45; $36 on Amazon) I would have purchased it immediately, even if I didn't intend to read it all the way through. This made me think of an old satirical essay by Woody Allen "The Metterling Lists" (Getting Even, 1978), which is a fake review of The Collected Laundry Lists of Hans Metterling, Vol. I.

While I'm sure Kafka's professional writing was quite important to him (he cared a lot about his job, though he didn't enjoy much of it, and was even credited by certain scholars for developing the first civilian hard hat), I don't know how much reading these reports would illuminate his life or literature.

Detail of a drawing by Kafka

I also wonder how much of these new collections are simply attempts to squeeze more money out of a dead writer. There are countless bad editions and translations out there of authors whose work is no longer protected by copyright (for Kafka I prefer Schocken Books, who were the first to publish his work, edited by the excellent Nahum Glatzer, and have in the last ten years put out commendable new translations of his novels).

This naturally relates to the cross-industry tendency to rehash, reissue, and repackage the same material over and over again, as was identified so appropriately in relation to the music industry by The Smiths in the song "Paint a Vulgar Picture" from their final studio album Strangeways, Here We Come (1987):

At the record company meeting
On their hands - a dead star
And oh, the plans they weave
And oh, the sickening greed

At the record company party
On their hands - a dead star
The sycophantic slags all say :
"I knew him first, and I knew him well"

Re-issue, Re-package, Re-package,
Re-evaluate the songs
Double-pack with a photograph
Extra track and a tacky badge...

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