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Posts Tagged ‘fables’

A Little Fable

October 13, 2016 | by

From the cover of Bright Magic.

The German writer Alfred Döblin (1878–1957) is best known for his novel Berlin Alexanderplatz; Bright Magicout this month from New York Review Books, is the first collection of his stories to appear in English. In this later story, an imaginary citizenry surrenders their rights with glee. 

Once upon a time there was a continent called Allbark and Nobite, and in it a country called the Kingdom of Tongue-Tied. The sun and the moon shone their light upon it, in their customary alternating fashion, but mighty rivers flowed through and rugged mountains towered above it, giving rise to a sense of the exceptional and heroic. The kingdom was named Tongue-Tied following the wishes of its own people, since there was nothing they respected as much as language. Because of their idolatrous worship of language, they used it as little as possible. Education was therefore directed primarily toward vigorous exercise, business, and sports, and also music, and noise, but with no words or meaning. Language, they taught, was not worthy of a true Tongue-Tiedian; precise thinking was likewise not held in very high esteem. People made themselves understood with looks, short nods, or hand gestures, and deaf-mutes enjoyed great honor throughout the land. Read More »

Three by Kafka

September 14, 2016 | by

A drawing from Kafka’s journal, 1916.

A drawing from Kafka’s journal, 1916.

Three what by Kafka? Truthfully, I don’t know how best to categorize the trio of prose nuggets below. I’m tempted to call them parables—each is succinct and appears to illustrate some truth—but Kafka himself undoes that notion in the first fragment, drawing a meaningful line between the lessons of allegory and those of real life. And yet Kafka’s writing is so effective because it plays within an area of overlap between the two worlds. The result, of course, is the Kafkaesque, a mode that is entirely unto itself. “It would be a fallacy,” writes Peter Wortsman, the editor and translator of Konundrum, from which these fragments are excerpted, “to insist that his fables and parables, or whatever literary label we may apply, are really about anything, i.e., that they correspond to states of reality extant outside the tenuous confines of a solitary psyche, or that they carry a clearly decipherable moral.” 

In Konundrum (forthcoming next month), Wortsman has gathered remnants of Kafka’s various writings—letters, journals, posthumously published and unfinished stories, newly translated tales—from which we have selected three. These jottings come from Kafkas’s posthumous papers, and each was titled by his friend, biographer, and literary executor Max Brod. —Nicole Rudick



Many complain that the words of the wise are always only presented as parables, useless in daily life, and this is all we have. When the wise man says: “Get thee hence,” he does not mean that we should go to the other side, a task we could in any case easily accomplish were the crossing worthwhile, he rather means for us to hasten to some fabled yonder that we don’t know, a place moreover which he cannot describe any more precisely, and which is perfectly useless to us here and now. What all these parables really mean to say is just that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and that much we already knew. But what we wrestle with every day, that’s something else.

To which a wise one said: “Why do you resist? Were you to follow the wisdom of the parables, you yourselves would become parables, and would thereby be relieved of the burden of everyday toil.”

Another one said: “I bet that that’s a parable too.” Read More »

Mermaid Convention: An Interview with Matthea Harvey

September 2, 2014 | by

Harvey, Matthea

Matthea Harvey. Photo courtesy of Graywolf Press

Matthea Harvey’s whimsy almost defies the scope of the English language. She seems to sculpt out of molten glass the topics and the treatments in her poems, optimistic fairy tales for a universe where everything’s deformed, or maybe deformed fairies in a universe where everything’s optimistic. It’s easy to feel almost at home among her poems, which are sometimes uncanny in the way that scary truths are uncanny, sometimes uncanny like the Uncanny X-Men, and sometimes uncanny in that their delightful artifice should, but can’t, be preserved and canned.

Harvey teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Brooklyn; she grew up in England and Wisconsin. You may have read her beautifully titled first volume, Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form (2000); or Modern Life (2007), where alliterative, associative, alphabetical poems jostle against prose parables that science-fiction readers would call “slipstream”; or Of Lamb (2011), Harvey’s collaboration with the visual artist Amy Jean Porter, in which an erased biography of Charles and Mary Lamb sends Mary and Her Lamb through—a lost garden? A forest of previous children’s books? A dreamland? Or you might have seen one of her other collaborations—with composers, with animators—or one of her own photographs. Still, you won’t be ready for If The Tabloids Are True Then What Are You?, her new collection of poems and fables, in verse and prose, about mermaids, ice cubes, erasures, talking animals, and early telephones, with a set of images—including photographs of Harvey’s sculptures—inseparable from them. As NPR put it earlier this year, “Harvey is a genius of the unusual, and of the dark underbelly of the adorable.”

You can read more about her here and especially here.

Some of the poems have obvious sources in fables—“No-Hands has hands,” or “the animals did begin to glow.” Is there a particular fable or fairy-tale compilation that served as your best source? Aesop, the Grimms, La Fontaine, Kafka, Andrew Lang?

I wrote both of those poems without knowing that there were fables about either one. Myths and fairy tales are mysterious that way—we’re all shoots sprouting from one underground narrative fungus. Still, I know that stories by the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and Heinrich Hoffmann’s Der Struwwelpeter are all tumbling around in the pebble polisher of my unconscious. I’m currently reading Phillip Pullman’s Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, in which I found a new favorite, “The Mouse, the Bird and the Sausage.” This insanity happens in it: “The sausage stayed by the pot most of the time, keeping an eye on the vegetables, and from time to time he’d slither through the water to give it a bit of flavoring. If it needed seasoning, he’d swim more slowly.” Imagine flavoring a soup with yourself!

This collection is full of mermaids. Why mermaids?

Primarily because the phrase “straightforward mermaid” appeared in my head and wouldn’t leave me alone. But why mermaids in general? Because they’re sex objects who can’t have sex. Because there’s a whole school of gender issues swimming around them. Because we live among so many unspoken boundaries that sometimes it’s a relief to have such an explicit one. Because we all know the feeling of being divided and not belonging. Because we don’t acknowledge our animal selves enough. Read More »