ReadySteadyBlog

When I read Barth, I notice – and I am sure many others do as well – that we have fallen asleep and have produced legitimizing explanations for all kinds of substitute pleasures. Of course Barth can motivate you to wake up and to stop retreating to pseudo-justifications for social, political, or biographical success. But that alone is insufficient. That is the reason why Kafka’s “The Trial” is so important for me. The protagonist Josef K. is asked to appear before a court on his 30th birthday to testify about his life. When he realizes that he cannot justify his life with the things he has done, he despairs. He sees lawyers, artists, and finally a priest. The more he strives for justification, the more he realizes that he is lacking it. You cannot finish the book without confronting these themes in Kafka’s writings. The book is incredibly radical; it ends in a staged suicide. That is more than simple fiction (More...)

He continues: "You cannot retreat to the comforts of atheism. Behind us are two thousand years that have been marked by questions about God. Today’s atheistic calm, even from intellectuals, is equal to the eradication of our intellectual history." Superb stuff from Martin Walser (in an interview in The European Magazine.)

Not quite at the same level, but I did also enjoy Melvyn Bragg attacking Richard Dawkins' 'atheist fundamentalism' in this video on The Telegraph's site.

The remarkable announcement this week by the Bodleian Library and the German Literary Archive at Marbach that they have agreed jointly to purchase a collection of more than 100 letters and postcards from Franz Kafka to his sister Ottla will cause great excitement amongst Kafka biographers and scholars. New archival material about this exhaustively covered writer is an increasing rarity.

The new material will offer a chance to learn more about Kafka's favourite sister, who is a remarkable woman in her own right. Ottilie ("Ottla") David was totally dedicated to her brother. She divorced her non-Jewish Czech husband, Josef David ("Pepa") in order to save his life, declared herself a Jew to the Nazi authorities and, on arrival at Theresienstadt concentration camp, volunteered to accompany around 1,200 children on a "special transport" to Auschwitz, where she was gassed to death on arrival.

The Bodleian has not yet itemised the material in detail so it is difficult to know exactly how much of this material is genuinely new (a volume Letters to Ottla and the Family was published in 1974) but it is clear from the joint statement by the two institutions that there is at least some brand new material unseen by any scholars and biographers to date. In particular there are said to be new letters from Kafka's last lover Dora Diamant and the young Hungarian medical student and friend of Kafka's on his deathbed, Robert Klopstock (more...)

Via Nicholas Murray.

In the past I have been very critical of literary critics using scientific methods to justify itself, yet here a medical scientist allows literary creation to countermand the positivist inferences of science. Indeed, Mishara recognises that "literature documents and records cognitive and neural processes of self with an intimacy that is otherwise unavailable to neuroscience." One has to attend to literary writing as literary writing rather than only as clinical data. And while documented intimacy is Mishara's concern, for us it can teach us again how to resist dominant contemporary notions of literature as craft, as mastery, as memory, as a record of historical events, as social commentary, as a career, as something less than an impossible letting-go. "In a letter to Max Brod," Mishara notes, "Kafka writes that it is 'not alertness but self-oblivion [that] is the precondition of writing'". For Kafka, writing was a means of transformation, the seeking of an unsayable end, whether or not there are traces left on the page (more...)

Stephen Mitchelmore responds to psychiatrist Aaron Mishara's "remarkable paper" Kafka, paranoic doubles and the brain.

Thanks to Nigel Beale and D.G. Myers for responding to my question concerning what should be on a history of the novel reading list with long reading lists of their own. Both Nigel's and D.G.'s lists are very useful (and this bibliography from the University of Warwick has some good pointers too), but I'll compile one of my own here soon which is specifically just about the history of the novel itself. (For starters, my current Book of the Week, The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain: Volume 2, 1100 - 1400, would certainly be on it, as would Robert Mayer's excellent History and the Early English Novel and Nancy Armstrong's flawed engagement with Ian Watt, How Novels Think: The Limits Of Individualism From 1719-1900.)


Really, though, the last thing I should be doing is starting a new project! I'm run off my feet at the moment: we got over 120 submissions for this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, (so lots and lots and lots of reading, but nothing I can talk about until after we've longlisted some of them); and I'm also working on getting all sorts of content together for the new look Book Depository website which will land some time in the next couple of weeks.


Whilst all that should be enough for anyone, I'm rather beside myself with excitement as The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 1, 1929-1940 (CUP) has just landed. A bottle of whisky and a few nights without sleep seem in order!


Finally, you'll have all no doubt noticed that Twitter has become all the rage -- despite having been around for quite a while, it suddenly seems to have really taken off. RSB has had a Twitter page for ages (and so has The Book Depository and BritLitBlogs), but I've relied on RSB's RSS feed to do all the tweeting for me and have not actually done much active tweeting myself. Well, expect that to change soon!

We had a bit of a ding-dong here on ReadySteadyBook, back at the end of last month, about James Hawes' thesis of the Kafka myth. Knowing my scepticism, James has been good enough to flesh out his thoughts here on RSB:


So why has the vast academic Kafka-industry failed to undercut this myth? Kafka’s business memoranda get their own Critical Edition, entire exhibitions are mounted about the factories he inspected, whole books published about the cafés he sat in or the distant relatives he occasionally met. Yet the standard German reference guide, the Kafka Chronik (1999) used by every scholar, still maintains on its back cover the hoary myth that Kafka was “almost unknown in his lifetime”, and in 2004 the UK’s top Kafka-scholar (Oxford Chair of German Ritchie Robertson) felt moved to praise Germany’s top Kafka-scholar (Berlin Chair of German Peter-André Alt) for countering “the notion, still widespread today, that Kafka was hardly noticed by fellow-authors and reviewers in his lifetime” (more...)

For me, a signal frustration in trying to read Kafka with college students is that it is next to impossible to get them to see that Kafka is funny.

David Foster Wallace on Kafka, from a speech given at a symposium in the mid 90s:


Nor to appreciate the way funniness is bound up with the extraordinary power of his stories. Because, of course, great short stories and great jokes have a lot in common. Both depend on what communication theorists sometimes call "exformation," which is a certain quantity of vital information removed from but evoked by a communication in such a way as to cause a kind of explosion of associative connections within the recipient. This is probably why the effect of both short stories and jokes often feels sudden and percussive, like the venting of a long-stuck valve. It's not for nothing that Kafka spoke of literature as "a hatchet with which we chop at the frozen seas inside us." Nor is it an accident that the technical achievement of great short stories is often called "compression" -- for both the pressure and the release are already inside the reader. What Kafka seems able to do better than just about anyone else is to orchestrate the pressure's increase in such a way that it becomes intolerable at the precise instant it is released. (More....)

Talking about The JC.com, Nicholas Murray writes a brief demolition in its pages of James Hawes' recent study, Excavating Kafka. Hawes condemns Kakfa scholarship for creating and cultivating "the K. myth" of a saintly, tortured, unknown artist. He quite rightly calls this a nonsense and uses... Kafka scholarship to prove his point! So, Murray (author of a recent Kafka biography himself) nails the biggest absurdity of the book in his review: "it is Hawes's mission to remind us that he liked upmarket porn, consorted with prostitutes, and treated his women rather badly, none of which will be news to anyone who has any basic knowledge of Kafka derived from recent biography."


But Hawes' book isn't all bad. Most Kafka scholarship does have something of an awed tone towards its subject and Hawes is refreshingly cross about this. He seems to dislike Kafka the man as much as he values his work, and he wishes to get the man full square out of the way so that readers can concentrate on his writing free of biographical distractions. But Hawes has created new biographical distractions of his own (his reaction to Kafka's "porn stash" -- omigosh, heterosexual man likes pictures of noody ladies shock! -- is adolescent and priggish in the extreme) and he offers little in the way of new, critical comment on the work. For all that, I enjoyed Excavating Kafka. It is punchy and impassioned and written with some verve, but Kafka and his work remain just as enigmatic after reading Hawes' essay as they do before you begin. And that is only right.

I mentioned yesterday that some papers of Kafka had been newly discovered. There is much more on this at the Diary Junction blog, including this nugget about Max Brod:


Interestingly, however, Brod was also a keen diarist, and his diaries formed part of the estate left to [his secretary Ilse Esther Hoffe]. According to Haaretz, a German publisher, Artemis and Winkler, paid Hoffe a five-figure advance for Brod’s diaries in the 1980s, but never received them. In 1993, the German news magazine Der Spiegel reported that Hoffe had removed the Brod diaries from her apartment and transferred them to a safe at a bank in Tel Aviv, where they remain to this day. Artemis and Winkler is now owned by a large publisher, apparently, who is still negotiating access to the diaries. They are thought to contain intimate details about Brod’s life, and may well provide interesting information on Kafka’s life.

Oh, and Zadie Smith has an essay on Kafka in the New York Review (via Conversational Reading).

Via the Guardian:


Scholars of the 20th-century writer Franz Kafka were in a state of suspense last night at the news that the remains of his estate, which have been hoarded in a Tel Aviv flat for decades, may soon be revealed.

Previously unseen documents, postcards, sketches and personal belongings of the Czech-Jewish writer, who wrote in German, have been gathering dust in the home of Esther Hoffe, the former secretary of Kafka's friend and executor Max Brod since his death in 1968. Hoffe's refusal to relinquish the documents led to a literary game of cat and mouse between her and the state of Israel, under pressure from the country's cultural elite, which on one occasion even led to her arrest on suspicion of smuggling Kafka's writings out of the country more...

So, I have Kafka's Letters to Milena (in an unprepossessing Minerva paperback edition) and his Letters to Felice (in a nice, fat, old Penguin paperback with an introduction by Elias Canetti).


I now note that there are two other collections in the world: Letters to Friends, Family and Editors and Letters to Ottla and the Family. Are these the same? Or do I need to get both of them? Advice please!

Thanks to Nigel Beale and D.G. Myers for responding to my question concerning what should be on a history of the novel reading list with long reading lists of their own. Both Nigel's and D.G.'s lists are very useful (and this bibliography from the University of Warwick has some good pointers too), but I'll compile one of my own here soon which is specifically just about the history of the novel itself. (For starters, my current Book of the Week, The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain: Volume 2, 1100 - 1400, would certainly be on it, as would Robert Mayer's excellent History and the Early English Novel and Nancy Armstrong's flawed engagement with Ian Watt, How Novels Think: The Limits Of Individualism From 1719-1900.)


Really, though, the last thing I should be doing is starting a new project! I'm run off my feet at the moment: we got over 120 submissions for this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, (so lots and lots and lots of reading, but nothing I can talk about until after we've longlisted some of them); and I'm also working on getting all sorts of content together for the new look Book Depository website which will land some time in the next couple of weeks.


Whilst all that should be enough for anyone, I'm rather beside myself with excitement as The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 1, 1929-1940 (CUP) has just landed. A bottle of whisky and a few nights without sleep seem in order!


Finally, you'll have all no doubt noticed that Twitter has become all the rage -- despite having been around for quite a while now, it suddenly seems to have really taken off. RSB has had a Twitter page for ages now (and so has The Book Depository and BritLitBlogs), but I've relied on RSB's RSS feed to do all the tweeting for me and have not actually done much active tweeting myself. Well, expect that to change soon!