David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: kafka (page 1 of 7)

The Galley Slave, by Drago Jančar

Slovenian writer Drago Jančar published The Galley Slave in 1978, but it doesn’t bear too many signifiers of that particular time, at least to Western eyes. Its setting is firmly premodern. Even though the novel is set in the identifiable 17th century, plague and witch-trials are the two most frequent events. This is not the civilized world.

Emerging from a long trek through a swamp, Johan Ot arrives in a small town in Central Europe, around the Adriatic. Protestantism burgeons, Leopold I is Holy Roman Emperor, and the plague is visiting town after town, so I suspect we are in 1679, year of the Vienna Plague.

Everyone is scared, even the Emperor. No one understands a damn thing. The Scientific Revolution may have happened, but the upper classes are absent from this book; this is about the countryside, and so it feels medieval. No one knows who to blame and no one knows what causes anything. Is it God? The Devil? Witches?

The nightmarish events and even the protagonist’s name, Johan Ot, might recall Kafka, but the resemblance is only superficial. In Kafka there is a sharp delineation between the protagonist and the other characters and setting. Josef K., Gregor Samsa, and the rest are devoid of true allies, and they are always singular characters distinct from anyone else in the world.

In The Galley Slave, Johan’s fate is not signaled to be anything especially different from that of those around him, other than by chance or misfortune. Others can be friendly or hostile, but they hold no secrets. Some of them have authority and control, though–people do not differ by levels of knowledge, only by degrees of power. At times, Johan does begin to suspect he might be different, a thought that Kafka’s characters resolutely avoid. The chaotic tumble of events, which sends him all around the Adriatic coast and eventually toward Venice, is closer to Kleist or Leskov.

Johan has some medical skills; he takes up lodgings in the town and is comfortable. Jančar tends to announce the forthcoming plot points before they occur, lending a didactic and premodern slant to the narrative. So when there is much talk of witch trials and the gathering of evidence, we know Johan will be arrested and tried long before it happens in a flash, after a dizzy summary of pagan rituals that seem half-dreamed by him.

Though the process for the trial is set out in detail, again hinting at Kafka, the condemnation is quick. (Carlo Ginzburg’s The Night Battles depicts how such trials went.) Yet Johan escapes his death by being taken in by a revolutionary millennial religious brotherhood (leftovers of the Templars?), seeking to overthrow church and state both. From them he sees “the true face of the world”:

Fire and blood and chaos were the order of the day. The cruel, bloodthirsty Turk was still skewering innocent Christian children on his pike before their parents’ eyes. He had been beaten back a hundred times, but still he wouldn’t relent. Rebellious peasants were being condemned to death and the gallesy. The nobles were undermining the Emperor’s and the Church’s authority with their plots and feuds. The Church was perpetrating the worst sacrileges. Barely had it managed to subdue Luther’s false prophets than it was once again overtaken by greed, sin, and viciousness….

But the old brotherhood was still alive. It was corroding this world of darkness at its roots. It’s true it had been involved in the uprisings. It’s true it had been a part of conspiracies. For aren’t all means permitted when one is destroying a world built on chaos and error? (84)

This truth fades. The brotherhood sends him on missions to spread the secret gospel (it might be Protestant, but it feels millennial), but he loses interest and falls in with a reasonably affable group of merchants, settling down and sleeping with Dorotea, the wife of successful merchant Locatelli. The government and the revolutionaries have not forgotten him, of course.

Further events ensue, including an anomalous episode between Dorotea and Emperor Leopold, which seems to have wandered in from another book. Other frequent but less jarring shifts in tone occur as well, making it harder to figure out just who Johan Ot is, or just who anyone is. Beneath the chaos, this is the center of the book, and whatever identity Johan claims for himself is slowly removed as he is drawn toward his eventual fate as a Venetian galley slave.

The question of identity is paramount. Though this is hardly a totalitarian regime, Johan is claimed by various groups over the course of the book, and his inability to find any enduring place for himself.

What did Johan Ot want, where did he come from and where was he going and what, in fact, was he doing in the middle of this moment that seemed forever to turn back on itself? Surrounded by dangers and pleasures that, to tell the truth, had absolutely nothing to do with him? What brilliant notion did Adam have inside him that his eye burned bright and his mind spun and spun, and all he craved was action? And Ot’s covenant–hadn’t he once been a member of a group that also wanted to create and order things in this world? He had? A horrid shudder went up his spine. He had? And a sharp realization shot through him, one that had already pushed him out into the world so many times before: get going. Bad things are brewing here. Blades are being sharpened here, and ropes are being braided for necks. Get going. Away from this place. Here he would only rot in some tower of justice again, some joker would put on the thumbscrews and he’d be paraded through the streets on a cart like some exotic beast. That morning by the river he felt the whole of the chaos of the universe within him, and it shifted and jostled and collided inside him, sharpening into a single, clear thought: get going. (171)

Each time he leaves he loses himself. Hints of his life before the start of the book are given, but only faintly. The use of the premodern setting is extremely unsettling: the moorings obtained in urban life to assert one’s self, one’s thoughts, and one’s sanity simply don’t exist. Superstitions cannot be so easily disposed of, when a coherent truth is not available. Johan tries to trust his senses and his instincts, but they cannot stand up to the assault of incoherence.

Here Kleist looms large, but Kleist remains at the level of event and surface to portray the cosmos more than the person. Jančar’s delicate engagement with Johan’s psychology creates a frightening evocation of ego-collapse, the likes of which readers are fortunate not to know today. Whether it is accurate is difficult to tell: the premodern pre-urban mentality seems to resist capture in words. (That strange Leopold/Dorotea episode causes the book to lose focus for a bit.) But with those psychological touches, Jančar gets closer to its absolute foreignness than many, and the last third paints Johan’s final release of his self with an austere and punishing gracefulness.

It’s best summarized when Johan is sick, lying on a hillside watching a procession of inspired, self-flagellating pilgrims with torches. A toothless vagrant tends to him and tells him:

“You’re bad off,” he said. “You’ve seen everything but you’ve understood nothing. Everyone is getting slaughtered and flattened in these times of ours. Other people know why. You haven’t passed any of your tests very well.” (245)

To which Johan replies, in a virtually anachronistic moment of clarity:

“I see just one thing–this sorry country and this terrible mess. This mental illness that’s crossing through the land and drenching it through and through–the land, the air, the people. I said that once somewhere. They tried to butcher me for that. So I’ll say it again: spiritual anguish is being forged into human substance. That’s why all of this has to collapse, disintegrate, and rot. Along with me.” (247)

The Guinea Pigs, Ludvik Vaculik

[This is an old review which I’m bumping because Open Letters has recently republished this book, for which I am grateful. It has stayed with me as one of the greatest Communist allegories I have read.]

Ludvik Vaculik has very little in common with Milan Kundera, or Ivan Klima, or Josef Skvorecky. Those are three of the biggest names in modern Czech writing, and they all combine a historical awareness with a fondness of heavy allegory. All deal with political subjects explicitly, but the material isn’t polemical, especially with Kundera.

The Guinea Pigs is different. It shuns any specific realism and has a surrealistic streak that has more in common with the samizdat literature of Czechoslovakia, like that of Lukas Tomin, but it is handled with such steely calm that surrealism doesn’t predominate.

Very little predominates over anything else; Vaculik applies Kafka’s style of ambiguous symbolism to totalitarian allegory with huge success. Next to the more explicit and/or fanciful allegories of Koestler, Makine, Pelevin, and others, Vaculik’s book is more intimate, less graspable, and far more striking. Kafka wrongly gets posited as a political or humanitarian allegorist, when his stories are rather personal series of images and processes that cannot be conclusively unlocked. Vaculik really is an allegorist.

Vasek, the narrator, works as a bank clerk in Prague, where people regularly steal money to make their living. He buys some guinea pigs for his children, but becomes obsessed with them himself: specifically, with their responsiveness (or lack thereof), their tolerance for adverse situations, and their seeming absence of personality short of gut reactions (like biting).

Halfway through the book, he is torturing them. The tortures aren’t beastly; what makes them acutely discomfiting to read is the narrator’s sickly mental state:

As the water rose, the guinea pig rose too, although it ordinarily doesn’t stand around on its hind legs, but rather squats like a hare or a rabbit. Now it stood on its hind legs, though, and raised its body above the water level. “Well, how are things?” I said gently. “Not so hot,” it replied, and rocked slightly in the waves. But it was still standing on its feet. It raised its head, up, in my direction.

I turned off the water. The silence was a relief. Only the sewer gurgled. I became aware of a pressure in my skull, a drunken excitement that I had never known before, a tremor of the nerves. I reached into the pit. With my miraculous power, I lifted Ruprecht into the air, he grabbed my hand with all his claws, he hung on. I picked him up to my cheek and I could hear his tight, thin, wheezing breathing. I also whispered to myself, “We’re saved.”

Vaculik walks a very fine line between a symbolism that is too schematic and intrinsically arbitrary, on the one hand, and an overdramatization of the Vasek’s treatment of the guinea pigs, on the other. Sometimes he loses control and takes the easy way out, as when Vasek tells his wife that he’s turning into a guinea pig. But much of the time he carefully piles on the ambiguities and mysteries.

Vasek’s strange relationship with his workplace and his superiors, including the venerable Mr. Maelstrom, whose name signifies the slow degradation of the surrounding environs, as money disappears after it is confiscated from the workers who stole it, as the guinea pigs meet random fates in the face of Vasek’s disinterested curiosity, and as Vasek meets his fate as he loses all his emotional capacities.

The end of the book is an explicit reference to the end of The Trial, and there are other segments that resemble it, like Maelstrom’s discourse on circulation, which could be a first cousin to the speeches of the lawyer and the priest of The Trial. The flow and process of the book is not as effortless as in Kafka, but Vaculik manages a stricter version of a process Kafka never fully embraced, that of removal. It’s not there in his novels, and the two short stories in which the process of removal predominates–“The Metamorphosis” and “A Hunger Artist”–are actually atypical. By placing the senseless guinea pigs front and center, Vaculik sets his aim quite early, and follows the arc without error. What remains at the end is not language, as with Beckett, but a physical void.

Books like these that strive for an almost noetic effect can have an initial impact that is not lasting, but guardedly, I will say that it ranks far beyond any of the other Czech writers mentioned, and alongside Kleist and Gogol.

The Stasis of Spaces in Kafka’s Trial

[Introductory note: this is a very old paper. It strikes me now as immensely callow in voice and construction, yet I don’t find it too embarrassing. I think this is because Kafka is very receptive to the sort of motivic analysis that I perform here, so I had a wide margin for error. So even if the conclusion and narrative are reductive, the links are still meaningful. My mistake was in trying to draw too definite a theme from them. It could just as easily have been called “The Fluidity of Spaces,” but “The Stasis of Spaces” just sounds so much better and reminded me of Georges Perec’s Species of Spaces (that would be Espèces d’espaces in the original French). I’ve resisted the temptation to make stylistic edits, so please enjoy some juvenilia. I remember, more than anything, really enjoying writing it, and maybe that redeems its faults for me now.]

The Door that Always Stands Open

In Franz Kafka’s The Trial, K. makes his way through a labyrinthine and chaotic city in dealing with his case. He is continually entering and exiting doors, going through passageways, and passing through antechambers. The ubiquitous presence of doorways is immediate and constant. Yet the doors in The Trial do not function as normal doorways; the spaces that they separate are not entirely separate. In the course of the novel, Kafka dissolves the clear delineation between the two sides of the door, and creates instead a space within the door, which is central to the entire narrative of The Trial, both in relation to the spaces of the city, and in relation to time.

In a nearly physical example of this dissolution, a door virtually disintegrates as young girls mount an attack on it, in the “Painter” section. Titorelli remarks that the girls have “had a key made for my door, and they lend it round” (144), already hurting the door’s function to keep people on one side of it. The row of girls becomes a constant force against the door. They “see into the room through the cracks in the door” (148) as they crowd around the keyhole, and they then breach the door with their words. They breach the door physically, by thrusting “a blade of straw through a crack between the planks and . . . moving it slowly up and down” (150). The painter even remarks that “the air comes in everywhere through the chinks [in the door]” (155). When the girls are once more “crowding to peer through the cracks and view the spectacle” (156), the door seems hardly there, not functioning as a physical boundary. Yet K. cannot cross it himself, as he futilely tugs at the handle of the door, “which the girls, as he could tell from the resistance, were hanging on to from outside” (162). Instead, he must take the exit to the Law Court offices. What is hardly a boundary for the girls is all too solid for him.

In the above passage, the door becomes a very tangible boundary for K., even though the girls seem to be able to penetrate it with ease. K.’s case will be examined in more depth, but even in this situation, the role of the door is difficult to completely understand. In The Trial, K. finds himself in situations where the distinction between one side of the door and the other becomes very hazy. Without this distinction, K. can neither enter nor exit. The door will cease to function as a gateway and instead will trap K, as the painter’s door does. Unable to exit, he instead takes the route through the Law Offices, ending up nonetheless back where he began. Through doors, K. embarks on a forward progression to nowhere, where both sides of the door may indeed be the same.

The opening scene presents K. with seemingly total freedom. After the warder Willem tells K. to stay put in his room, he considers that “If he were to open the door of the next room or even the door leading to the hall, perhaps the two of them would not dare to hinder him” (7). He soon finds out from the inspector that he is free to go about his business and can still lead his regular life. His freedom to exit his room is useless, however, because he will remain in the same “space” as he is in from the beginning of the novel, and he will not escape it, except possibly through death. Leaving through the doorway of his room will make no difference. His situation, however, will become more clear, as Kafka develops it throughout the novel.

[Very clear, or so I thought at the time. Look at all the stuff I’m about to quote below.]

Continue reading

Nikolai Leskov

Slightly late here, but I did write an essay on Nikolai Leskov over at the Quarterly Conversation, the fantastic and strange 19th century Russian writer. I hope his works are reprinted and retranslated.

My old exegesis on his greatest work, The Enchanted Wanderer, is still available here.


Of the great Russian prose writers of the 19th century, Nikolai Leskov was an outsider. He was not a member of the gentry, he lacked a privileged education, and he wrote about common serfs and the country clergy in their own language. He managed to alienate both the left and right wings of the Russian intelligentsia early in his career, and though his work was popular, critics dismissed it. His work was capable of great darkness and brutal cynicism, but it lacks the angst, romantic and existential, present in so much other prose of the time. (Still, one of his stories was so controversial in its criticisms of the Russian church that it was only published decades later.) And Leskov himself was confused enough as to his own strengths that he said that his brilliant storytelling abilities would be forgotten in favor of his ideas, when, in fact, his legacy lies in the unique qualities of his stories, which are hilarious, unpredictable, surreal, and often baffling.

Walter Benjamin and Irving Howe have both paid great tribute to Leskov (Benjamin’s essay characteristically seems to have more to do with Benjamin’s obsessions than with Leskov himself), but neither of them quite characterizes the sheer peculiarity of Leskov’s best work, where the narrative material is subject to perversion along the lines of Euripides, Kleist, Gogol, or Kafka, though with far less malevolence. Leskov’s structural perversities are in service of a particular, peculiar form of morality, one not as doctrinal or particular as Tolstoy’s or Dostoevsky’s, but one that celebrates humility in the face of fate.


Jenny Diski on Erving Goffman

Rejecting any possibility of an essential identity, his notion is of the self as purely contingent, a shape-shifting construction of altering circumstances. The individual, Goffman says, arrives into an already established social world, and is shaped by, rather than shapes, his environment. All interaction is performance; each individual (or ‘team’) performs for the other and is the other’s audience. Careful ritual and fear of embarrassment are all that hold social order together, which results in the social actor’s impression management being colluded with (if it is not too incompetent or absurd: the comb-over in preference to a bad wig) by the audience, which no more wishes to be embarrassed by the unmasking of the other than the other wishes to be unmasked.

Thus we are actors or con artists or gamblers or audiences or team members or marks, who walk into discrete situational frames and become whatever will get us through. There is no essential morality, only human nature, anxious risk avoidance or calculative dealings. Read Goffman all these years on, and you see the ghostly images of sociobiology and Thatcherism to come. He made no pretence that he was doing anything about the world, he merely described it, using the metaphor of drama as a tool. When he was accused, as he had to be in the early 1970s, of making no attempt to analyse the world in terms of social or economic advantage or disadvantage, or to reveal the true reality behind appearances, he shrugged: ‘I think that is true. I can only suggest that he who would combat false consciousness and awaken people to their true interests has much to do, because the sleep is very deep. And I do not intend here to provide a lullaby but merely to sneak in and watch the way people snore.’ He had no interest in endearing himself to others.

More than thirty years later, academic sociologists are still enraged or delighted by him for his refusal to conform to the rules of sociology, his lack of political passion, his early perception of the fragmented, postmodern, socially constructed individual, his contempt for orthodoxies (we sociologists ‘haven’t managed to produce in our students the high level of trained incompetence that psychologists have achieved in theirs, although, God knows, we’re working on it’). According to Thomas Scheff’s essay, his work is ‘so advanced that we haven’t yet understood it . . . none of us, not even his fans are yet as free of the assumptive world as Goffman. We haven’t caught up with him yet.’ Norman Denzin, on the other hand, believes he offered a sociology ‘that seemed to turn human beings into Kafkaesque insects to be studied under glass’. He did not address ‘social injustice, violence or war under capitalism’. Goffman’s actors were men and women in grey flannel suits who did not resist, ‘they conformed to the requirements of a local and global capitalism that erased class, race and gender in the name of a universal, circumspect human nature . . . Capital was a missing term . . . His was a universal sociology, part of a pandisciplinary project, that moved from linguistics to psychoanalysis, sociology, anthropology, psychology and economics.’

I am still unable to understand what is so wrong with a pandisciplinary project, but I can see the rest of Denzin’s point. Reading Goffman now is alarmingly claustrophobic. He presents a world where there is nowhere to run; a perpetual dinner party of status seeking, jockeying for position and saving face. Any idea of an authentic self becomes a nonsense. You may or may not believe in what you are performing; either type of performance is believed in or it is not. There is, as Goffman repeatedly says, no real reality. Still, you wonder, what is it then in either actor or audience that’s doing the believing or not believing? And when the individual is alone, does she continue to perform for herself? Always? And when she is asleep and dreaming? And if she is ever not performing, what or who is she? Certainly something, because Javier Treviño tells us Goffman acknowledged that the self is ‘always “anchored” in an individual’s “continuing biography” before and after every social event’. I remain baffled, no image comes of this accrued history sitting alone in her bath with flashes of me-ness in between performances. Marshall Berman is quoted as writing of Goffman: ‘Although he was magnificent at evoking human situations, he seemed . . . to lack empathy with actual human beings. People seemed to exist for him only as manipulative players in an endless series of games people play. Feelings, emotions, love, hate, the self, did not seem to come in anywhere at all.’

“Think of Mrs Darling,” LRB, 4 March 2004

But I don’t see how Berman’s assessment can be. For me the anger seeps off the page in his books, especially Asylums, which had to be the inspiration for Frederick Wiseman’s Titticut Follies a few years later. He just knew how difficult the task of action would be, and abdicated responsibility.

And how much more concrete and realistic his visions are than the abstractions given to us by our contemporary social theorists. If we can’t generalize from the reality at hand, the one Goffman described, to the greater world situation, that is our blindness and not his.

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