February 28, 2010

How to Read Kafka's Non-Fiction

Let's say you've already read all of Kafka's short stories, and the three novels, and all the parables, and you're still interested in reading more, how should you proceed? Or let's say you haven't read everything, but you'd like to get an idea of who Kafka was from his personal writings, rather than his many (many) biographies, which book should you turn to?

First, let's put things in order. As far as I am aware, these are the books which collect Kafka's non-fiction:
(The last two volumes might be a little difficult to find)

Since almost all of these have been meticulously dated, it's pretty simple to read them in order, though constantly going from one book to another might be a little tiring, so I suggest reading them by year (e.g. diaries from 1910, followed by letters from 1910, followed by diaries from 1911, et cetera; years with less writing can be condensed). I would, however, suggest a few exceptions to this strict chronological order - Kafka's letter to his father should be read first, before anything else, and his series of letters to Felice and Milena should not be broken up, but read complete (Felice around 1912, Milena around 1924), as they form complete, coherent, and fascinating narratives on their own. I would probably also read The Blue Octavo Notebooks all together, since they were deliberately set apart from the diaries by Kafka. In case you still want to throw a biography into the mix, I suggest Max Brod's, which may be a bit dated, but still indispensable. To sum it all up, here is how I would arrange the reading list:
  1. Letter to His Father
  2. Biography – Chapter I
  3. Letters to Family, Friends, and Editors – 1902-1904
  4. Biography – Chapter II
  5. Letters to Family, Friends, and Editors – 1905-1909
  6. Biography – Chapter III
  7. Diaries – 1910
  8. Letters to Family, Friends, and Editors – 1910
  9. Biography – Chapter IV
  10. Diaries – 1911
  11. Letters to Family, Friends, and Editors – 1911
  12. Biography – Chapter V
  13. Biography – Chapter VI
  14. Biography – Chapter VII
  15. Biography – Chapter VIII
  16. Letters to Ottla and the Family – 1909-1912
  17. Letters to Felice
  18. Diaries – travel diaries
  19. Diaries – 1912-1917
  20. Letters to Family, Friends, and Editors – 1912-1917
  21. Letters to Ottla and the Family – 1913-1918
  22. Letters to Family, Friends, and Editors – 1918
  23. The Blue Octavo Notebooks
  24. Diaries – 1919-1923
  25. Letters to Family, Friends, and Editors – 1919-1923
  26. Letters to Ottla and the Family – 1919-1924
  27. Letters to Milena
  28. Letters to Family, Friends, and Editors – 1924 + Conversation Slips
(All said I think it comes to about 2,000 pages, with about 250 more for the biography)

A few more tips:
  • If you're going for extra credit, you can weave in The Office Writings, which includes some of Kafka's professional papers written between 1908 - 1917.
  • If you're interested in this method of reading Kafka, but would like the whole thing to be much shorter and less complicated, you can try to track down I Am a Memory Come Alive, a chronological selection of Franz Kafka's autobiographical writings edited by Nahum N. Glatzer, clocking in at a mere 250 pages.
  • If you're interested in my ramblings about the need for a definitive edition of Kafka's collected work, check out this old post.
  • If you don't know anything about Kafka, read the short stories first, then the novels; if you feel lost or confused, read Introducing Kafka by David Zane Mairowitz and Robert Crumb; if you smell bad, take a shower.

February 24, 2010

Most Overused Poems in Literature

First of all, let me make it clear that I'm not against stealing good lines from poetry or verse and reusing them in literature as titles, especially if this is done meaningfully (e.g. The Sound and the Fury or Pale Fire). However, certain poems have been so overused it seems kind of lazy to go back to them and dredge up another line; there's no shortage of decent poetry. Constantly going back to the same works basically proves that the writer didn't read Byron or Coleridge extensively, but was probably just assigned one or two of their famous works in an introductory English Lit. class as an undergrad, and clung to them ever since.

Anyway, here is my list of most overused poems, it's mostly off the top of my head, done with little research, and limited to 10, so I'm bound to miss a few, you can add them in the comments if you like.
  1. All of Shakespeare
  2. To His Coy Mistress - Andrew Marvell
  3. Meditation XVII - John Donne
  4. The Tyger - William Blake
  5. She Walks in Beauty - Lord Byron
  6. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner - Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  7. Jabberwocky - Lewis Carroll
  8. The Second Coming - William Butler Yeats
  9. The Waste Land - T.S. Eliot
  10. Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night - Dylan Thomas
(I focused on direct quotes rather than allusions, hence the lack of texts like The Odyssey and The Divine Comedy.)

February 22, 2010

How to Read The Sound and the Fury - Part I

I've often thought there should be some kind of website that offers advice for readers, kind of like a literary "Ask Ann Landers," where they could write in and ask questions like: "Should I read Beckett's essay on Proust before or after I read Proust's writing?" or "I want to read Jame Joyce's Ulysses, HELP!" I'm sure there are a lot of reading guides available online, but I think most of them are intended for students who want to know what a work is about without really having to read it (CliffNotes/SparkNotes and all that Jazz) or summaries that tend to either spoil whatever surprises are lurking in the text, or already inject their own interpretation of the material into it.

It is with this thought in mind that I am going to write about my experience of reading William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. I'm not a scholar, I have not read a lot of Faulkner, and I'm certainly no Ann Landers, but I think that's all probably for the better since it would allow me to focus on the simple "What the hell is going on here?" aspects of the book, rather than try to voice some clever opinion on it. In this post I'll focus on the first part, which is the only one I've finished so far.

First, there are a few things it helps to know before you start reading (These do not, in my opinion, constitute spoilers):
  1. The first section (April Seventh, 1928) is narrated by Benjy, who is mentally retarded and does not have a clear grasp of time. Ergo, the narrative jumps around a lot between the present and past.
  2. Faulkner uses italics for a reason, pay attention to them.
  3. There are two Jasons and two Quentins, one of which is a girl. These are separate people, this is not a sex change story.
I think it helps to have a little cuecard where you can draw out the family tree and/or the relationships between the characters. I often do this when I'm reading; it can be helpful, and I also think it looks kind of nice (when I was reading Appointment in Samarra I drew a map of Lantenengo Street, where a lot of the main characters live).

With that in mind, I think the first section can be fairly readable, albeit a tad exasperating (at some point you might ask yourself, "does simply everything make Benjy cry?" to which the answer is, emphatically, "yes"). If you're a little confused as to when the action is actually happening, a good way to keep track (semi-spoiler alert) is to pay attention to which one of the black servants is taking care of Benjy - Versh is the earliest, followed by T.P., and Luster is in the "present" (i.e. 1928). If you're not sure what is actually going on, this summary from SparkNotes will clue you in, with a relatively small amount of conjecture and interpretation (just read the top half, not the analysis).

That's it for now, I'll write my thoughts about part II next week.

February 14, 2010

Rant Control

I've recently realized that a good deal of my fiction includes scenes of characters going on angry rants. I wonder if this is too much of a crutch, as it is a very easy way to show what the character thinks and feels, without using heavy exposition.

On the other hand, these are often the most exciting, amusing, or enlightening parts of the narrative; I don't think I could write a story where everyone is calm and stoic and super-subtle, I'll leave that to Henry James.

In fact, some of my favorite books include rants - The Brothers Karamazov, Invisible Man, Under the Volcano, Miss Lonelyhearts, Past Continuous - and some stories like Notes from Underground and "Diary of a Madman" could be said to be composed almost entirely of angry rants.

Plus, planning and writing them is so damn much fun. I guess I'll rant on.