The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Franz Kafka’

The Vegetated Sound Buffer of Your Dreams, and Other News

May 19, 2016 | by

A rendering from Studio Dror. Photo via Slate.

  • Remember that scene in The Squid and the Whale where the pretentious Jesse Eisenberg character says that a novel is “very Kafkaesque,” and his classmate says, “That’s because it was written by Franz Kafka”? In real life we have the opposite problem: the word Kafkaesque risks total meaninglessness. “The dictionary defines the adjective, incidentally, as ‘of, relating to, or suggestive of Franz Kafka or his writings; especially: having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality’ … But Merriam-Webster also admits that the word, which saw its first recorded use in English in 1946, ‘is so overused that it’s begun to lose its meaning,’ a word that a columnist for Toronto’s Globe and Mail argued is ‘tossed around with cavalier imprecision, applied to everything from an annoying encounter with a petty bureaucrat to the genocidal horrors of the Third Reich.’ ”
  • Every year brings with it another armload of Brontë-related biographies and ephemera: plays, films, novelizations, tea towels. Why? “I see no reason not to consider the Brontë cult a religion. What are People of the Book, after all, if not irrepressible embroiderers of fetishized texts?” Judith Shulevitz asks. “The Jews have a word for the feverish imaginings that run like bright threads through their Torah commentaries: midrash, the spinning of gloriously weird backstories or fairy tales prompted by gaps or contradictions in the narratives … Some Brontë fans—reader, I’m one of them—would happily work through stacks of Brontë midrash in search of answers to the mysterium tremendum, the awesome mystery, of the Brontës’ improbable sainthood. How did a poor and socially awkward ex-governess named Charlotte and her even more awkward sister Emily, who kept house for their father in a parsonage on a Yorkshire moor far from the literary circles of London, come to write novels and poems that outshone nearly every other nineteenth-century British novel and poem by dint of being more alive?”

Lego Karl Ove, and Other News

April 12, 2016 | by

Image via Instagram (@legokarlove).

Some Unearthly Master, and Other News

March 10, 2016 | by

William Horton’s illustration in The Savoy No. 7. Via the Public Domain Review.

  • Brad Bigelow thinks of his blog, Neglected Books, as “one little step against entropy.” His reviews of forgotten or obscure books have led, in many cases, to publishers reissuing them, sometimes even in translation: “One of Bigelow’s favorite rediscoveries is Gentleman Overboard, a 1937 novella by Herbert Clyde Lewis, a son of Russian immigrants. Lewis grew up in New York, became a journalist, and eventually wrote Hollywood screenplays. The book’s protagonist is a steamship passenger named Henry Preston Standish, who slips on a spot of oil and tumbles overboard. Gentleman Overboard is a record of his final day and his fading hopes of rescue … The most accessible online edition was scanned from an old library copy, which was last checked out in 1950. That’s the same year that Lewis died, of a heart attack, at the age of forty-one. But Bigelow has saved Gentleman Overboard from going completely underwater: a few years ago, he recommended it to a publisher in Argentina, who decided to release a Spanish translation.”
  • While we’re on forgetting: Yeats wrote that his friend William Horton “has his waking dreams, but more detailed and vivid than mine; and copied them as if they were models posed for him by some unearthly master.” Despite the poet’s praise, few remember Horton’s drawings today—after some early success, his career, as Jon Crabb writes, found him listing toward occultism: “Horton was clearly immersed in the London occult scene during the 1900s, but in 1905 he also finally attracted the attention of The Studio, the era’s foremost journal of design and illustration. The September issue featured several Horton illustrations, which are of a more mature and less ominous style … Sadly, he published little after 1912 and, in 1916, suffered a mental breakdown after the death of his partner Amy Audrey Locke. In 1918, he was hit by a car and further incapacitated. He died in obscurity the following year.”
  • No one does compound words like the Germans do compound works. English speakers can only look on in envy as the Germans chain together nouns—Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän, anyone?—with reckless abandon and effortless precision. Bruce Duncan picks some of his favorites and looks at the grammatical back end: “Both German and English can create compound words out of most parts of speech, not just nouns … My own personal favorite [is] Verschlimmbesserung. This construction doesn’t just present contrasting concepts. It also employs a playful use of German’s grammatical structures to tie them together. The word begins with two verbs—verschlimmern (‘to worsen’) and verbessern (‘to improve’). It then conflates their prefixes (ver-), and adds the suffix (-ung) to turn it into a noun. This process compresses an idea that only a wordy English translation can unpack: “an intended improvement that makes things worse.”
  • If you’re fluent in German, you’ll get more out of Paul Klee’s notebooks—thirty-nine hundred pages of which have just been digitized and released online—than I was able to. Klee used these notes “as the source for his Bauhaus teaching between 1921 and 1931 … His extensively detailed textual theorizing on the mechanics of art (especially the use of color, with which he struggled before returning from a 1914 trip to Tunisia declaring, ‘Color and I are one. I am a painter’) [and] … his copious illustrations of all these observations and principles, in their vividness, clarity, and reflection of a truly active mind, can still captivate anybody—just as his paintings do.”
  • Michael Wood on Orson Welles’s adaptation of Kafka: “It’s not that Welles has ‘a stunning visual intelligence and a numbingly banal view of human experience,’ as Joan Didion thought Fellini and Bergman had; but he does get extraordinary suggestions into his images, and he can become sententious in his words and plots. Welles fans are not enthusiastic about The Trial … But we can see Welles doing something new with his visual machinery in the film, reaching for social meanings of a kind he had not sought before. Welles’s Joseph K is a guilty man and proud of it, because he is not half as guilty as the evil system that closes in on him and kills him … In The Trial more than anywhere else we see how much Welles’s imagination has to do with space. A set for him is a location to be explored, and a location is full of stories.”

The Entrepreneurial Kafka

March 8, 2016 | by

These two excerpts from Reiner Stach’s Is That Kafka? 99 Finds reveal a new side to Kafka—and new shades of meaning for the Kafkaesque.

Is that Kafka?

How Kafka and Brod Almost Became Millionaires

During a trip that they took together in August and September of 1911, traveling to Paris via Lugano and Milan, Kafka and Max Brod hit on the idea of creating a new type of travel guide. “It would be called Billig (On the Cheap),” Brod remembered. “Franz was tireless and got a childlike pleasure out of elaborating all the principles down to the nest detail for this new type of guide, which was supposed to make us millionaires, and above all wrest us away from our awful office work. Then I engaged in a very serious correspondence with publishers about our ‘Reform of Guidebooks.’ The negotiations failed because we didn’t want to disclose our precious secret without an enormous advance.” Read More »

That Time When Beckett Made a Movie, and Other News

September 18, 2015 | by

Beckett scrutinizes a filmstrip. Image via Moving Image Archives

  • In 1965, an elderly Buster Keaton starred in film, a little experiment in cinema by one Samuel Beckett—an unlikely collaboration, but an inspired one. The movie was almost entirely silent, and shot largely in the first person; Beckett regarded it as an interesting failure. Now there’s notfilm, a documentary about film. “Beckett’s twenty-two-minute film dealt in striking ways with many aspects of motion-picture history, and more generally, the nature of spectacle, of perception, and of being perceived by self and others … the film was shot over eleven days, with the camera chase, then a five-minute scene on some stairs, followed by a seventeen-minute sequence in a room.”
  • In which Kafka gets real, very real, maybe too real, in a letter to his father: “You asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you … we were so different and in our difference so dangerous to each other that if anyone had tried to calculate in advance how I, the slowly developing child, and you, the full-grown man, would behave toward one another, he could have assumed that you would simply trample me underfoot so that nothing was left of me. Well, that did not happen. Nothing alive can be calculated.”
  • Today in provisional libraries: at the Calais migrant camp, a British volunteer has set up “a book-filled haven of peace.” “The shed is filled floor-to-ceiling with books: chick lit, thrillers and a neat set of Agatha Christies line the shelves, alongside a large atlas, a few dictionaries and grammars, and the thin green spines of children’s learning-to-read books. More books spill out of boxes stacked in the corner, and pens, notepads, bags of clothes, a globe, a guitar and a game of Battleship … I am taken aback when a man who has been flicking through various novels for at least half an hour, including classics like Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, settles on a thin picture book about kittens. When I ask him if he really likes cats, he shrugs, mumbles a thank you, and leaves.”
  • And while we’re on libraries, here are some items you can now check out at various centers of knowledge around the country: cake pans, snow shoes, ukuleles, American Girl dolls, mobile hot-spot devices, sewing machines. “Services like the Library of Things and the ‘Stuff-brary’ in Mesa, outside Phoenix, are part of a broad cultural shift in which libraries increasingly view themselves as hands-on creative hubs, places where people can learn new crafts and experiment with technology like 3-D printers.” Rent-A-Center must be shaking in its corporate boots.
  • Where does porcelain come from? Edmund de Waal endeavors to find its origins: “Trace the origin of any physical object, from the Mona Lisa to an iPhone, and there will be a mass of human labor and human stories lurking behind it, no matter how purely a product of the solitary artist or glossy factory it might seem to be. What is striking about porcelain, however, is that while it appears to be the acme of artistry, it is, by and large, the result of relentlessly standardized piecemeal work.”

The Beetle and the Fly

December 29, 2014 | by

We’re out until January 5, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2014 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!

kafka metamorphosis

From the original cover of Kafka’s Die Verwandlung, 1915.

I woke up one morning recently to discover that I was a seventy-year-old man. Is this different from what happens to Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis? He wakes up to find that he’s become a near-human-sized beetle (probably of the scarab family, if his household’s charwoman is to be believed), and not a particularly robust specimen at that. Our reactions, mine and Gregor’s, are very similar. We are confused and bemused, and think that it’s a momentary delusion that will soon dissipate, leaving our lives to continue as they were. What could the source of these twin transformations possibly be? Certainly, you can see a birthday coming from many miles away, and it should not be a shock or a surprise when it happens. And as any well-meaning friend will tell you, seventy is just a number. What impact can that number really have on an actual, unique physical human life?

In the case of Gregor, a young traveling salesman spending a night at home in his family’s apartment in Prague, awakening into a strange, human/insect hybrid existence is, to say the obvious, a surprise he did not see coming, and the reaction of his household—mother, father, sister, maid, cook—is to recoil in benumbed horror, as one would expect, and not one member of his family feels compelled to console the creature by, for example, pointing out that a beetle is also a living thing, and turning into one might, for a mediocre human living a humdrum life, be an exhilarating and elevating experience, and so what’s the problem? This imagined consolation could not, in any case, take place within the structure of the story, because Gregor can understand human speech, but cannot be understood when he tries to speak, and so his family never think to approach him as a creature with human intelligence. (It must be noted, though, that in their bourgeois banality, they somehow accept that this creature is, in some unnamable way, their Gregor. It never occurs to them that, for example, a giant beetle has eaten Gregor; they don’t have the imagination, and he very quickly becomes not much more than a housekeeping problem.) His transformation seals him within himself as surely as if he had suffered a total paralysis. These two scenarios, mine and Gregor’s, seem so different, one might ask why I even bother to compare them. The source of the transformations is the same, I argue: we have both awakened to a forced awareness of what we really are, and that awareness is profound and irreversible; in each case, the delusion soon proves to be a new, mandatory reality, and life does not continue as it did. Read More >>

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