August 28, 2010

Kafka. . . Borges. Benjamin . . Bloomberg?

Jon Stewart's recent interview of Michael Bloomberg (which you can watch here) began with an interesting interaction between the two. Stewart asked the mayor for his autograph, which Bloomberg dutifully provided, leading Stewart to reveal that what he had actually signed was an "all access 5 borough parking pass." At this point Bloomberg told Stewart to look at the name he had signed, which turned out to be not Michael Bloomberg, but Jon Stewart. I'm not certain how much of this little scene was planned, and perhaps it's even more telling if it wasn't, but for me it had an immediate, albeit initially hazy, literary echo.

Walter Benjamin begins his essay on Kafka ("Franz Kafka, On the Tenth Anniversary of His Death," collected in Illuminations) with an anecdote about Grigory Potyomkin (spelled Potemkin below) relating a remarkably similar event (the anecdote is usually attributed to Pushkin):
It is related that Potemkin suffered from states of depression which recurred more or less regularly. At such times no one was allowed to go near him, and access to his room was strictly forbidden. This malady was never mentioned at court, and in particular it was known that any allusion to it incurred the disfavor of Empress Catherine. One of the Chancellor's depressions lasted for an extraordinary length of time and brought about serious difficulties; in the offices documents piled up that re quired Potemkin's signature, and the Empress pressed for their completion. The high officials were at their wits' end. One day an unimportant little clerk named Shuvalkin happened to enter the anteroom of the Chancellor's palace and found the councillors of state assembled there, moaning and groaning as usual. "What is the matter, Your Excellencies?" asked the obliging Shuvalkin. They explained things to him and regretted that they could not use his services. "If that's all it is," said Shuvalkin, "I beg you to let me have those papers." Having nothing to lose, the councillors of state let themselves be persuaded to do so, and with the sheaf of documents under his arm, Shuvalkin set out, through galleries and corridors, for Potemkin's bedroom. With out stopping or bothering to knock, he turned the door-handle;
portrait of Grigory Potyomkin by Johann-Baptist Lampi
the room was not locked. In semidarkness Potemkin was sitting on his bed in a threadbare nightshirt, biting his nails. Shuvalkin stepped up to the writing desk, dipped a pen in ink, and without saying a word pressed it into Potemkin's hand while putting one of the documents on his knees. Potemkin gave the intruder a vacant stare; then, as though in his sleep, he started to sign—first one paper, then a second, finally all of them. When the last signature had been affixed, Shuvalkin took the papers under his arm and left the room without further ado, just as he had entered it. Waving the papers triumpantly, he stepped into the anteroom. The councillors of state rushed toward him and tore the documents out of his hands. Breathlessly they bent over them. No one spoke a word; the whole group seemed paralyzed. Again Shuvalkin came closer and solicitously asked why the gentlemen seemed so upset. At that point he noticed the signatures. One document after another was signed Shuvalkin . . . Shuvalkin . . . Shuvalkin. . . .
Benjamin presented this story as a herald of Kafka's work, which is probably why, when I could not recall where I had read the story, the first place I thought to look for it was in Borges's essay "Kafka and His Precursors" (collected in Selected Non-Fictions). This mistake itself has also proven revelatory since, beyond Borges and Benjamin's shared desire to identify Kafka's forerunners, there is another reason this little scene led me to Borges. Bloomberg and Stewart's recreation of a scene (or a variation on a scene) which has occurred hundreds of years earlier, probably without even realizing that they were recreating it, is also the main point of Borges's short story "The Plot":
To make his horror complete, Caesar, pressed to the foot of a statue by his friends' impatient daggers, discovers among the blades and faces the face of Marcus Junius Brutus, his ward, perhaps his very son, and so Caesar stops defending himself , and cries out Et tu, Brute? Shakespeare and Quevedo record that pathetic cry.
 Death of Caesar by Vincenzo Camuccini
Destiny takes pleasure in repetitions, variations, symmetries. Nineteen centuries later, in the southern part of the province of Buenos Aires, a gaucho is attacked by other gauchos, and as he falls he recognizes a godson of his and says to him in gentle remonstrance and slow surprise (these words must be heard, not read), Pero, ¡che! He dies, but he does not know that he has died so that a scene may be played out again.
This, in turn, is also the main concept behind James Joyce's Ulysses, where the events of one day in the life of a pudgy and unheroic Jewish man echo Odysseus's epic journey (and, in case you're wondering, it is for this reason that I gave this post its title, a reference to Samuel Beckett's essay on Joyce: "Dante . . . Bruno . Vico . . Joyce").

August 16, 2010

Jorge Luis Borges on the Task of Art

Only rarely does it occur to me to look for videos relating to my favorite writers. This might have something to do with the fact that most of my favorites are from several generations ago, making videos of them rare or nonexistent (I still find it hard to accept that Beckett died 2 days before my 10th birthday - that we existed within the same world for such a long time), but occasionally I do stumble upon such a video, like this brief interview with Borges:

August 10, 2010


Over on The Huffington Post Anis Shivani presents an amusing and suitably vitriolic list of the 15 most overrated contemporary writers. The list includes six poets and a couple of critics, but seems to be chiefly directed at workshop-generated novels whose authors work with a checklist (family dysfunction, drug use, multiculturalism). He also proposes an interesting theory regarding the cause for the preeminence of these authors - the lack of major critics to champion the truly worthy:
since the onset of poststructuralist theory, humanist critics have been put to pasture. The academy is ruled by "theorists" who consider their work superior to the literature they deconstruct, and moreover they have no interest in contemporary literature. As for the reviewing establishment, it is no more than the blurbing arm for conglomerate publishing, offering unanalytical "reviews" announcing that the emperor is wearing clothes.
This assessment leads him to include The New York Times's critic Michiko Kakutani on the list as the "enabler-in-chief" for the rest, which I'm not sure I agree with. I think Kakutani, much like James Wood, tends to be excessively breathless when she encounters a book she really likes, but can also be insightful, and actually provides what reviews are supposed to, giving us a sense of what the book is about and whether it's worth reading (a surprisingly small amount of reviews actually do that). Plus, both Wood and Kakutani can be very amusing when they review a book they disliked (e.g. Kakutani's review of Beatrice and Virgil or Wood's review of Paul Auster's fiction).

So who else is on the list? the omnipresent Jonathan Safran Foer, of course. He's the only writer on both The New Yorker's "top 20 under 40" list and this one (though Wells Tower is parenthetically mentioned here as well), and Shivani offers an accurate summary of his career:
...gimmick after gimmick is what Foer excels at. Always quick to jump on to the bandwagon of the moment. Debuted with harmless multiculturalism for the perennially bored in Everything Is Illuminated, with cute lovable foreigners and the slacker generation digging lovableness; a more pretentious "magical realist" novel was never written. Rode the 9/11-novel gravy train with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, giving us a nine-year-old with the brain of a--twenty-eight-year-old Jonathan Safran Foer. Having cashed in on 9/11, and seeing no obvious fictional goldmine to plunder, moved on to nonfiction with Eating Animals, hanging on to J. M. Coetzee's coattails.
A few more irresistible quotes:
  • William T. Vollmann - "determined to churn out a full Pynchon a year."
  • Michael Cunningham - "Uses Mrs. Dalloway as a convenient modernist football to play with..."
  • Junot Diaz - "Might one day move beyond writing about pussy-hunting nerds and write in a language above that of his childish protagonists'..."

    August 8, 2010

    Ars Prosa Word Cloud

    August 6, 2010

    A Short Story by Kafka You've Probably Never Seen Before

    A couple of weeks ago there was some buzz regarding the opening of some safety deposit boxes containing Max Brod's papers, which include some writings by Franz Kafka. As I've mentioned in one of my previous posts, I find it quite difficult to believe that researchers would find anything there that has not already been published by Brod. I've also had a few e-mail correspondences with friends about this, one of whom expressed disappointment that there "won't be any new stories" to be found. I believe my response was something like:
    "You say that as if you've already gone through his diaries, letters, and notebooks twice."
    To which he replied:
    "I have no intention of going through all his diaries and letters, I'm not a Kafka addict, like SOME people I know."
    Which is a shame, but also touches on a rather common misconception that all of Kafka's short fiction is to be found in a volume like The Complete Stories (I'll admit, the title is misleading). In fact, even including the sporadically available Parables and Paradoxes, which collects some famous short works like "The Green Dragon" and "The Hunger Strike", some works are left out, particularly those that only appeared in Kafka's letters.
    For example, Kafka's earliest surviving work of fiction, "Shamefaced Lanky and Impure in Heart," is not included in any collection of his stories that I've come across, and only survived because Kafka incorporated it into a 1902 letter to Oskar Pollak (included in Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors).
    And since there's nothing I'd like better than to be sued by the greedy heirs of Max Brod and/or Oskar Pollak, here is the complete story for your enjoyment (click on the text for a better view):

    August 4, 2010


    Yes, I know, I've been neglecting my regular Tuesday news round ups. My excuses include a lot of work, general laziness, and the heat, dear god, the HEAT! I'll try to post more often, but no promises, work (both the paying and the writerly kinds) comes first.
    Anyway, I just wanted to share this image of three great Modern Library books I rescued a couple of days ago, along with 18 paperbacks (including books by Pindar, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Andre Gide, Aldous Huxley and Carson McCullers), from four boxes of books someone on my street decided he (or she) no longer desired (I believe all the books eventually found homes, all of them were gone by the time I passed down the street several hours later). I think this, along with my recent purchases in Oxford, puts my library at about 900 books. I think I'll go read some right now.