Tag Archives: Franz Kafka

Thinking Pig

11 Jan


Stories of animal transformation abound in myths and folktales across the world. The theme is one that pervades Greek and Celtic mythologies, to take just two examples, and traditionally takes two forms: the ability of a god or sorcerer or shaman to wilfully transform him/herself into an animal; and the punitive transformation of people into animals for some misdeed or crime.

In a reading of Kafka’s Metamorphosis we might argue – as Nabokov does in his lecture notes on the book – that before the actual transformation, Gregor Samsa already lived like an insect, always scuttling about and kowtowing to greater pressures such as familial guilt and responsibility as well as a servile sense of duty to his job. Just as bugs mooch about, busying themselves yet at the same time achieving nothing, Gregor scuttles through his day, occasionally running across another insect and eating morsels as he finds them.

But what of the broader, mythical background to the notion of metamorphosis? In The Odyssey we encounter Proteus and Circe. Proteus changes forms several times throughout the poem: lion, serpent, leopard and pig, and ultimately is the character responsible for guiding Odysseus home. Circe’s ability to transform Odysseus’ crew into pigs might be regarded as the forerunner of countless tales of human-animal metamorphosis.

A powerful motif running though both Irish and Welsh mythic literature is that of shape-shifting  . . . In the Welsh narratives, shape-shifting is generally presented as punitive rather than voluntary: a few episodes revolve around the transformation of people into animals because of some misdemeanour. Thus in ‘Culhwch and Olwen’, Twrch Trwyth – an enchanted boar – is the object of one of Culhwch’s quests to win the hand of Olwen. When questioned as to the origin of his misfortune, Trwch Trwyth replied that God blighted him with boar-shape as punishment for his evil ways. In the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, Gwydion and his brother Gilfaethwy are turned into three successive pairs of beasts (deer, wolves and swine) because of their conspiracy to rape King Math’s virgin footholder Goewin (Math needs a footholder – obviously – because he will die if his feet are not held in the lap of a virgin).

The pig seems a popular incarnation for errant humans. In Christian symbology they represent venality and the sins of the flesh. But there is more. In Edmund Leach’s famous paper on animal categories and verbal abuse, we are reminded that what we eat is often analogous to whom we are normally expected to sleep with: for instance we don’t – in British culture – tend to eat dogs, and – analogously, according to Leach – we disapprove of incest. We do however eat domestic farm animals (pigs, sheep, chickens etc), which are bred for human consumption, a class of animal that Leach correlates to an intermediate rank of sociability: people whom one might meet socially, within a circle of acquaintances, and who serve as potential sexual partners. By extension, claims Leach, we don’t, as a rule, sleep with complete strangers (questionable, but let’s stick with the theory for a minute) – and accordingly we do not habitually eat exotic animals such as lions and crocodiles and elephants and emus (availability is an issue there, which kind of upsets the theory, but let’s not be pernickety). Leach’s thesis could be summarised in less scholarly terms as the edibility : fuckability theory.

Having just read Marie Darriussecq’s Pig Tales, the English translation of a book originally published in French in 1996 as Truismes, I will concede that pigs are not regarded favourably. The protagonist of this excellent short novel has the misfortune to find herself metamorphosing into a sow and there is little she can do about it. She puts on weight in all the wrong places, her skin turns tough and bristles of hair sprout abundantly. She starts eating flowers and develops a love of raw potatoes. She grows a third nipple, then a full set of six teats. She grunts and squeals uncontrollably and eventually finds it more comfortable to go about on all fours. Darriuessecq’s book is hilarious and filthy and thought-provoking, tackling big themes such as consciousness, gender roles and the objectification of the female body, but it would be a shame to encumber it with too much interpretation. Sometimes a novel can be read like a dream (or a nightmare) and just taken for what it is: a woman morphing into a pig (just as her lover morphs into a wolf). The concept itself is enough to travel with: just think pig. Relax. Lie back in your sty. Make a bacon sandwich. Read a book, why don’t you.









On Not Getting It

12 Mar


cat watching goldfish

Curiosity can sometimes be more satisfying, more enhancing, than the mere consolation of achievement.

A while ago I wrote here on Kafka’s claim that in spite of knowing how to swim, he had not forgotten what it feels like to not know how to swim – and consequently the achievement, or consolation of ‘being able to swim’ was only of any value when weighed against the state of curiosity and mystery of not knowing how to swim.

Or something like that.

Adam Phillips, in his excellent book Missing Out, says something very close to this. In the chapter ‘On Not Getting It’ he writes that sometimes ‘not getting it’ (whatever ‘it’ might be – knowing how to swim, or winning some straightforward or else obscure object of desire) is more interesting than ‘getting it’. He imagines a life ‘in which not getting it is the point and not the problem; in which the project is to learn how not to ride the bicycle, how not to understand the poem. Or to put it the other way round, this would be a life in which getting it – the will to get it, the ambition to get it – was the problem; in which wanting to be an accomplice didn’t take precedence over making up one’s mind.’

There is something very appealing about this notion of ‘not getting it.’ Here’s more:

‘What I want to promote here is the alternative or complementary consideration; that getting it, as a project or a supposed achievement, can itself sometimes be an avoidance; an avoidance, say, of our solitariness or our singularity or our unhostile interest and uninterest in other people. From this point of view, we are, in Wittgenstein’s bewitching term, ‘bewitched’ by getting it; and that means by a picture of ourselves as conspirators or accomplices or know-alls.’

For now, I am surprisingly happy to be bewitched by the notion of not getting it; to remain enhanced if occasionally bewildered by my inability or disinclination to get it.




Knowing how not to swim

28 Oct


I have just picked up (and put down) a fat novel by a leading British novelist. It doesn’t matter which one. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker a few years ago. It’s meant to be a cracker. But I can’t be bothered to read it. I know it’s supposed to be oh so very good and all that: ‘well-written’, ‘unputdownable’; ‘a masterpiece’ even, but can I be arsed to invest the amount of time needed to complete it, when essentially, I know what is going to happen from Page One, and also how it will be told, by glancing over the first few pages? Probably not.

There are two ways of looking at the world, and they lie behind two ways of doing literature. The first way, to quote Roberto Bolaño, consists of stories that are “easy to understand”. They imply a linear narrative, a degree of suspense, a beginning, a middle and an end – preferably in that order. As Bolaño wrote, these books “sell and are popular with the readers because their stories can be understood. I mean” – he goes on to say – “because the readers, as consumers . . . understand perfectly (these writers’) novels or their stories.”

Which brings me to an article I read over the summer in a newspaper by the novelist Enrique Vila-Matas. For those who read Spanish, it’s available here.

There are two groups of people, writes Vila-Matas – more or less, as I am paraphrasing. One lot insists that things are the way they are, that life is simply thus, and it’s not worth worrying your socks off about it. The other group, of whom V-M is perhaps a particular offender, believe that they don’t quite belong on this planet, that they are restlessly in pursuit of another place, which might be called death, but quite possibly has some other definition entirely . . . V-M likens the distinction between these two types of person to those whose literary predilections lie in the direction of a simple story, well told – the kind disparaged by Bolaño – and those others who are enthralled “by complexity and by the labyrinth”, and who will always find ways of constructing stories in a different and more complex manner, and will always try to see more. (In ordinary life, this latter group are often compulsive liars, or fantasists, or are confined to institutions of one kind or another.)

Put another way, in the lounges of those conservative writers who adhere to some kiss-and-tell narrative linearity based on the novels (and to an extent, the ideology) of the nineteenth century, the world is described as ‘given’. Whereas in the slums and squats occupied by these more complicated types, a kind of negativity is evoked which, suggests V-M, might find an allegory in this quotation from Kafka:

I know how to swim like the others, but I have a better memory than they do and I have not forgotten my old inability to swim. And as I have not forgotten it, the ‘knowing how to swim’ part isn’t of much use to me, and so, in consequence, I don’t know how to swim.

Perhaps then, some of us, although we have learned to swim, sometimes practise drowning, just to remember what it feels like.

So it is, too, that some writers, even though they know how to write in a certain linear way, to write a certain kind of story, that ‘can be understood’, elect not to, and opt instead for the labyrinth, or head for the deep forest. Perhaps they find it more of a challenge that way, more fun.







The Arabian Nights and Franz Kafka

10 Sep


I would hate to give the impression that I do not enjoy reading novels. It is just that in the normal course of my work I read an awful lot of fiction and sometimes I like to take a break, and prefer to read other things. Last month, for instance – and this is not unusual – I read a good deal of poetry, and especially enjoyed re-acquainting myself with the wonder that is Federico García Lorca.

Also, as some followers of this blog might recall, I entered the weird realm of Stranger Magic, Marina Warner’s absorbing study, subtitled ‘Charmed States and the Arabian Nights’. The many handwritten footnotes, exclamation marks and marginalia in my copy will no doubt draw me back to the book over and again during the years ahead. Borges comes up for special attention in Ms Warner’s book, not least for his essay ‘The Translators of The Thousand and One Nights’, in which he argues, according to Warner, that “every reader can be, and should be, creative; that you can make up the stories as you please. In the process, the translator is being translated.” What a wonderfully liberating notion! One of those ideas that makes you realise that yes, that is how reading goes, when it is going at its best, which is what makes it more of a pleasure than writing (a view, incidentally, expressed by Zadie Smith on a Radio Four interview yesterday afternoon, causing me to nod my head sagely while juicing a vile concoction of raw beetroot and spinach).

But it is the huge scope and influence of the stories that Shahrazad (or Scheherazade) weaves for the murderous Sultan to stave off her own (and her sister Dunyazad’s) execution that most preoccupy Marina Warner; that and the labyrinthine cultural mythologies that attach to tales with which almost everyone feels familiar, either – at the posh end of the market – through the exhaustive and archaic translation of the Victorian explorer, swordsman, linguist and pornographer Sir Richard Burton, or else, more likely, via the mock-heroic exertions of Aladdin, either in the town hall pantomime or Walt Disney Productions. Take your pick. Personally I would dearly love to own a leather-bound first edition set of Burton’s Nights.

What most interests me, however, are the ways in which, at a profound level, the feats described in The Thousand and One Nights – all those jinns (or genies) and magic carpets and animal transmutations – together create a pervasive magical sensibility that has cast its influence on many aspects of world literature, from early science fiction, through Victorian Gothic fantasy to Latin American and eastern European so-called magic realism. Warner also spends some time with Kafka, claiming that his:

“style, its careful accountancy of detail and its measured verisimilitude, performs a sleight-of-hand to obscure the symbolic, allegorical and fairytale character of his tales. Gregor’s metamorphosis is presented as an event that has taken place, and it involves a complete hypostatic change: species and substance into the real presence of a monstrous bug. No agents of the change are invoked, unlike the mythological tales by Ovid which Kafka echoes in the his story’s title, or the jinn who change men into beasts in the Nights, because this new, modernist supernatural does not presuppose a hierarchy of beings, higher and lower, divine or diabolical: the daimon occupies a here and now, curled up in the word that brings the thing – the bug – into being on the page for us, the readers.”

Although four stories by Franz Kafka are referenced in Stranger Magic, one that seems to have slipped through Warner’s fastidious net is ‘The Bucket Rider’, a short piece written when Kafka had escaped Prague, to spend a terrible, freezing winter in Berlin with Dora Diamant. The story begins:

Coal all spent; the bucket empty; the shovel useless; the stove breathing our cold; the room freezing; the trees outside the window rigid, covered with rime; the sky a silver shield against anyone who looks for help from it. I must have coal; I cannot freeze to death; behind me is the pitiless stove, before me the pitiless sky, so I must ride out between them and on my journey seek aid from the coal dealer . . .

            . . . My mode of arrival must decide the matter; so I ride off on the [coal] bucket. Seated on the bucket, my hands on the handle, the simplest kind of bridle, I propel myself with difficulty down the stairs, but once downstairs my bucket ascends, superbly, superbly; camels humbly squatting on the ground do not rise with more dignity, shaking themselves under the sticks of their drivers . . .

Needless to say, the story ends badly, with the coal dealer and his wicked wife refusing to give even a shovelful of coal on credit, and the bucket-rider flying off into oblivion: “And with that I ascend into the regions of the ice mountains and am lost forever.”

I mention the story only in passing, having been reminded of it in this week’s TLS, in an article about Kafka by Gabriel Josipovici, titled ‘It must end in the inexplicable’ (TLS, 7 September 2012). The main point of the reference in the article is to dismantle an interpretation of the story by another critic, June Leavitt. But for me the central trope of the story is sufficient to link it to The Thousand and One Nights, whatever the interpretative differences we may entertain about Kafka’s intentions – which in any case is not a discussion that much interests me.

How else, we may wonder – other than through the universalism of the Arabian Nights stories – did the damned camels get into a story set in the icy Berlin winter?









The Lottery in Babylon

5 Feb

In Borges’ story The Lottery in Babylon, narrated by an exile from that place, we learn that there had once been a regular lottery in Babylon, in which only the winners were announced, but that it began to lose popularity because it had no moral force or purpose, and so the old lottery was replaced by one in which there was a loser for every thirty winners. This small adjustment titillated the public interest and people flocked to buy lottery tickets. The penalty was at first a fine – which, if the loser could not pay, was replaced by a prison term – but then, as you can imagine, the desire for punishment and the administration of retribution on selected individuals became the driving force of the enterprise. Crowds love a victim: look at the stocks in medieval English towns, public hangings at Tyburn in the eighteenth century, or the popularity of public stonings and other barbarities in those places that still practice such things. In Borges’ Babylon the Company – i.e. those who administered the lottery, took control of the society and acquired omnipotence within it: the lottery came to rule the lives of all those who lived in Babylon.

Borges might well have been thinking of the role of the Catholic Church – or of any other autocratic system – when he wrote this story, but it seems to me to have a horrible contemporary relevance. Terror and misery emerge as being just as essential to human survival as the pursuit of some idiotic and unachievable happiness; the kind of elusive happiness that is offered by our own, commonplace lottery, for example, and which is announced on those absurd little TV slots where some moronic interlocutor commentates on the coloured balls as they whizz through the transparent tubes. The lottery for us is the gateway to a realm inhabited by those who have attained ‘celebrity’. Celebrity, of one kind or another, is the only good worth achieving, and the Company – interpret this as you will, but its omnipotence is terrifying – uses celebrity as a reward, but also, as we have so forcefully been reminded by the News of the World phone tapping scandal – as a punishment. Hell, of a kind: not the imprisonment or tortures endured by the losers in Borges’ story, but the pernicious and constant attentions of paparazzi and a culture of intrusion that renders the lives of all who live in the public eye (what a lovely expression) to be satirized, ridiculed and denigrated. Celebrity has replaced the religious status of the elect once occupied by bishops and popes and medieval saints, but has magnified their sufferings and their ecstasies and placed them all in the public eye. And all of it is registered, every hair of the head counted by an all-surveying Company, its cameras at every street corner.

In Borges’ story there is even ‘a sacred latrine called Qaphqa (pronounced ‘Kafka’) which gave access to the Company. In other words, there were CCTV cameras in the lavatories also.






Kafka and Obsession

27 Jul
3:4 Portrait crop of Franz Kafka

Image via Wikipedia

“Hold fast to the diary from today on! Write regularly! Don’t surrender! Even if no salvation should come, I want to be worthy of it at every moment.” Huzzah!

Never before, I suggest, has this ejaculation been used in conjunction with the life or writings of Franz Kafka, as occurred in a somewhat cavalier fashion at the end of my last post. Huzzah or Huzza, according to Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, is “a sort of cheer, hurrah . . . a sailor’s cheer or salute, possibly an alteration of earlier hissa a cry also said to be used by sailors in pulling or hauling (about 1500)”. However this is not the only interpretation of its origin, as the Wikipedia entry makes clear. Whether or not Kafka ever said ‘Huzzah’ or its equivalent in German or Czech, is uncertain.

But Huzzah for Kafka, I say, in any case. He has helped me through many a writing crisis, leading by example; the practical example, for one, of how to apply oneself when you have another, proper job to go to and yet still feel compelled to write (Kafka worked as an insurance officer, and wrote at night). And while Anthony Trollope would get up at four or five in the morning and put in three hours’ work before setting off for the Post Office, one gets the impression that writing didn’t cleave his soul in twain in quite the same way.

Kafka has been the subject of essays by just about every writer on twentieth century literature worth their salt. From Nabokov to Zadie Smith, from Borges to J.M. Coetzee, it seems an imperative part of a writer’s CV to have an opinion on Kafka. And why? In his essay ‘Literature + Illness = Illness’  Roberto Bolaño gives us a clue: “the greatest writer of the twentieth century understood that the dice were cast, and from the day he first spat blood nothing came between him and writing.”

The answer to his continuing centrality in the canon of world literature lies not only in his widespread acceptance (among other writers of note, at least) as ‘the greatest writer of the twentieth century’ but in Kafka’s intense personification of the writer obsessed by writing. Looking at some extracts from Maurice Blanchot’s essay ‘Kafka and Literature’, we can see why. “Everything that is not literature bores me.” “Everything that does not have to do with literature I hate.” “All I am is literature, and I am not willing to be anything else”. Not necessarily the kind of person you would want to be seated next to at a dinner party.

This notion of literature as a calling, at least in so fiery a formula, is not something that most citizens can relate to, even if it is common knowledge that writers, or any artist caught up in the throes of creative activity will become inaccessible for stretches of time, when the rest of the world is blanked out and only the job in hand seems to have any meaning.  It brings to mind the similar one-track-mindedness of the person hopelessly in love, which the ancient Greeks considered a form of madness. And is this cast of mind, this personification of the obsessed and almost transcendentally ‘removed’ author, one that still has salience today? Or is it a remnant of the late Romanticism that had its final explosive moment in the modernist movement of the early twentieth century, and has no relevance to us now, except as a tired and embarrassing pose? I am genuinely confused by all this, and have the impression that there is still a myth of the terminally obsessed artist just as there is the myth of the Dionysian and self-destructive artist discussed in my post of 12th July on Dionysus and The Doors. The prevailing myth, sustained by Hollywood, is that the artist has to be an obsessed sociopath, but in my experience it is a question of degree. Some of the finest artists live out their lives like deranged beasts, while others drink tea from bone china cups, and discuss the lateness of the roses. I believe there is room for both varieties, and more. The further we get away from stereotypes of any kind, the more comfortable I am in my own skin. I wonder what other people think?

How to talk about books you haven’t read (and how to write like Kafka)

26 Jul



I wake up early, make tea, return to bed, and start reflecting on the many, many books that I have not read, that I will in all probability never read. In an attempt to console myself (not that I am really all that bothered), I recall Pierre Bayard’s highly entertaining How to talk about books you haven’t read, which I always recommend to students at the university. It was a significantly more rewarding read than the title might suggest. And as for the techniques of reading a huge amount at speed: why bother? Unless, of course you are judging some competition and are required to read ninety novels in a month, in which case I have heard it is a good idea to read the first two chapters and the last, and if they are promising, to read the bits in between. In fact that might be a good attitude to apply to all fiction reading: It is horrible being caught up in a novel that you don’t want to be reading – in fact there are a thousand things you would rather be doing – but you somehow feel obliged to finish. The last time I had that experience was with Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow, which I thought quite dreadful, but out of some obscure sense of obligation, perhaps for once having enjoyed Money – I plodded on like an earnest foot-soldier to the bitter end. And then I decided: no more. No longer will I make myself finish the long book that is boring me to tears. So Bayard’s advice is well heeded. If you want to find out more, read his book. Besides – returning to my original line of thought – no one has read everything, not even Borges. But that needn’t stop you talking as if you had, according to Bayard, at least.

That there are so many books in the world would indicate that there is a lot to write about, but this does not always seem to be the case for the aspiring writer. Undergraduate students at the university where I teach often complain of not having anything to write about, by which they mean that their resources are limited by age and experience (a bit like applying for your first job). One way around this is to heed the advice given by Kafka, that “you don’t sit in your room and set out to write a story; if you just wait for it to happen, it will”. This might have been the way it was for Kafka: it certainly doesn’t always work with my students. But hang on (I hear you say) – where and when did Kafka say this? I have just lifted it from my notebook, because on 18th June, following my appearance with the delightful and hilarious Sandi Toksvig on Excess Baggage, I pootled along to the British Museum, where the London Review of Books was hosting a series of talks on World Literature. I walked in on a session with the Galician novelist Manuel Rivas, and the scribble in my notebook can be attributed to him. What he was attempting to summarize, from Kafka’s notebooks, was this: “You need not leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. You need not even listen, simply wait, just learn to become quiet, and still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” Which is rather different, but probably still of not much help to my students, who would willingly beg, borrow, or steal their £9k a year fees to have anything rolling in ecstasy at their feet. What student writers regularly misunderstand is that they have to actually start writing before the ideas happen: they will arrive at the ideas through the practice of writing. Ideas don’t necessarily always ignite the writing: the writing can ignite the ideas. That’s why I always recommend them to just start writing, anything, freewriting or even nonsense, just to get into the swing of it, and then, with luck, the ideas will come.

Rivas came up with another quotation that I have no means of verifying, from Claude Lévi-Strauss, whom I last studied in any detail as a student at the LSE many years ago. According to Rivas, L-S said that in Greek times people and animals shared the same earth. Which I liked enough to jot down in my notebook also (they are the only two jottings from the Rivas talk). I love the idea of people and animals sharing the earth in respectful harmony, and for that reason have chosen a picture by Franz Marc to head this entry, Marc had a keen sensibility to the animal world, and was famous for going everywhere with his large white dog.

As a postscript, Mrs Blanco was a little concerned that I may have given the impression in my blog of 24th July that she did not think I was passionate. To set the record straight, this is neither the impression I meant to give, nor is it the opinion that she holds, and would add that a love of books is by no means incompatible with a passionate nature.

And finally, living proof that, as Goethe said, by simply making the effort to do something, the forces of providence will begin to move with you (or something like that) I find – while on my search for the correct wording of the one about sitting in your room and waiting, another quote from Kafka’s diaries for all aspiring bloggers (who are the diarists of our era), from February 25, 1912: “Hold fast to the diary from today on! Write regularly! Don’t surrender! Even if no salvation should come, I want to be worthy of it at every moment.” Huzzah!