David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: kafka (page 3 of 7)

Ferenc Karinthy: Metropole + Thomas Glavinic: Night Work

I read these two books consecutively without knowing that they both try to address a particular problem in novels, and not knowing that one succeeds and one fails. The problem is that of a novel about the total alienation of a main character, where the character cannot, for one reason or another, communicate with any other person, and so the perspective is that much more limited.

In Karinthy’s Metropole, the main character Budai mysteriously ends up in a foreign land in which people only speak a language that bears no resemblance to any of the five he knows, and he has horrendous difficulty making himself understood. In Glavinic’s Night Work, the main character Jonas wakes up one morning to find that every other person in the world has disappeared without explanation. In both novels, I got the suspicion that there would not be an explanation for the mysterious circumstances, and in both cases I was right. In both novels, the problem of the single character is slightly finessed by the introduction of a second, opaque quasi-character. And both depend on a careful flow of logical, rational actions to substitute for character-driven conflict: in Night Work, it is Jonas setting up cameras to film parts of the world he has visited; in Metropole, it is Budai analyzing newspapers and other writings to try to derive some knowledge of the foreign language. So why is it that Metropole holds interest while Night Work quickly grows tedious?

The easy answer would be that Metropole does have other characters, albeit non-speaking ones, such as the elevator operator Epepe (or something like that, as Budai has great trouble with the phonemes of the other language) and the hotel workers and the policemen and the revolutionary workers he gets caught up with toward the end of the book. But I don’t think that is the reason.

Rather, it’s that Metropole is the book that fulfills its conceptual bargain with the reader. Both books ask you to suspend your disbelief for a very unlikely scenario, implying that this horrific but imaginary scenario somehow relates to, well, life as we know it, and is not merely an illogical nightmare. We must see the characters as deploying recognizably human characteristics in their respective hypothetical situation. We must feel that this single character is someone we care about, because there is nothing else left to care about in the novels’ worlds. The human world has shrunk to the size of a single person.

Budai, in Metropole, is consumed by the need to communicate. The book strains belief at times because of how stunningly unhelpful the residents of the foreign city are (this is the sort of language that Chomsky claims could not exist, so utterly different is it from any known language; it makes Quine’s gavagai query look trivial in comparison). But Karinthy plays fair. We aren’t asked just to assume this; we go through the careful, logical steps that Budai takes to try to decipher the language, his tentative encounters with the elevator operator, the monetary system, and the subway system. And so by the time the situation begins to appear truly terminal, Budai’s frustration was palpable because I had followed his every step. The situation was real. And though the alienation is of an entirely different sort than that of Kafka’s novels, the emphasis on sheer inexorable process in conveying the difficulty of the situation is similarly effective.

In Night Work, however, logic breaks down too quickly. I was willing to accept that the electricity in this peopled world stays on way too long while the internet dies immediately, but after the first hundred pages or so of scene-setting, leaving notes in case someone shows up, eating, sleeping, and so on, Jonas runs out of things to do, and even the practical problems of his new life are easily elided (I myself was waiting for the power to run out, but it never happens). He remembers things about his rather mundane life before the disappearance. He becomes consumed with philosophical thoughts about being himself, being other people, witnessing events, not witnessing events, Zeno’s paradox, simultaneity, and so on. But Glavinic has front-loaded the philosophy, having Jonas think his new phenomenology before he acts on it, and so readers are dragged into this new pattern of behavior that has somehow determined a course of action for Jonas, just not one that seems to come out of any necessity. To the extent that these are everyman characters because their ability to define themselves in opposition to others is greatly curtailed, they cannot just simply go insane, but must justify their eccentric actions to the reader if they are to maintain relevance. No Exit would not be of interest if the three characters hated each other from the moment they came in.

Perhaps aware of this problem, Glavinic introduces “the Sleeper,” the name given by Jonas to his sleepwalking and sleeptalking self. The Sleeper is, in a word, uncanny: the Sleeper videotapes himself staring at Jonas’s video camera, points to spots on walls, and does other vaguely menacing (and eventually very menacing) things. And he is the best thing about the book. Confronted with an other that is part of himself, I was thrown back into Jonas’s position and fascinated that the end of al other life on earth had caused a part of him other than his conscious self to assert itself. Unfortunately, the resolution of the Sleeper plot is not particularly satisfying, but while the Sleeper makes his malevolent communications to Jonas, the book is gripping. I wonder if Glavinic considered doing more with this plot, because any connections between it and the rest of Jonas’s projects are purely theoretical, barely held together by increasingly abstract and disconnected ruminations on time and self.

And so I return to Metropole, where Budai remains resolutely practical, carefully observant, and increasingly stressed, and the narrative never goes slack. He is a character one would want to have in the situation the novel presents. Whereas if someone asks me what I would do if I were suddenly the last person on earth, I could point to Night Work and say, “Probably not that.”

Freud on the Uncanny/Unheimlich

The uncanny as it is depicted in literature, in stories and imaginative productions, merits in truth a separate discussion. Above all, it is a much more fertile province than the uncanny in real life, for it contains the whole of the latter and something more besides, something that cannot be found in real life. The contrast between what has been repressed and what has been surmounted cannot be transposed on to the uncanny in fiction without profound modification; for the realm of phantasy depends for its effect on the fact that its content is not submitted to reality-testing. The somewhat paradoxical result is that in the first place a great deal that is not uncanny in fiction would be so if it happened in real life; and in the second place, that there are many more means of creating uncanny effects in fiction than there are in real life.

The Uncanny

Elsewhere in the essay Freud (taking off, magpie-like, from Ernst Jentsch’s conception of the uncanny) discusses the partial synonymy between heimlich and unheimlich, suggesting that the latter is a product of the repression of the former. But I like the idea that fiction and presumably other forms of art and writing as well bring with it its own set of standards for what is and is not uncanny, and these standards are in no way mimetic of the real world. It seems like an obvious enough point, but how many discussions of the uncanny ignore the clear difference between those standards for what one experiences in reading and those standards for what one experiences in life? (Benjamin, for one, as with when he treats Kafka.) And how often do one’s expectations of uncanniness in stories get projected mistakenly onto life itself?

Moreover, the writer works overtime to create uncanny effects well beyond anything that we tend to encounter in life (or that if we encounter in real life, we think it to be is “stranger than fiction”), then has to be held to the ever-shifting standards of the uncanny, and how robust the writer’s conception was determines the reception of their work in the ensuing years. (That is, the nature of the “reality testing” changes as the social conception of reality does.) Private, unshared neuroses may cause any would-be uncanny effects to quickly fade from the page.

(As an example of the shifting, take Freud’s essay and larger work itself. Since so many versions of Freud’s ideas have passed into conventional wisdom, every time Freud doesn’t match one of the common conceptions in his writing, there’s an uncanny experience that Freud has greatly departed from what Freud is supposed to be.)

One other, metatextual point, is that you can hypothesize that the fictional standards from the uncanny bear an uncanny relation to the real-life standards; our laxer standards in fiction allow for the airing of more repression. Maybe this is too clever a formulation, but at least it merits bearing in mind before a critic jumps at the opportunity to point out every quirk in a novel as being uncanny. It’s become an overused category, and it would be better to document it descriptively than to postulate instances of it willy-nilly.

(The most famous application of the idea of the uncanny as nearly-familiar is Masahiro Mori’s uncanny valley.)

Robert Walser: The Assistant

This novel was written in 1908. That seems just about right. And that’s odd for Robert Walser, because his other novels, whatever their connection to the German modernist and expressionist tendencies of their time, stand apart from their contemporaries. Walser does not fit into the puzzle in the way that Broch, Zweig, Canetti, Doblin, Roth, and other Germanic writers do. Perhaps this is because he is Swiss, perhaps it is because he has been rather ignored and excluded from construction of the period’s literary history, but I think it’s mostly because his ruminative short stories and his enigmatic, sui generis novel The Robber stand on a path that no one directly followed. Even his comparatively normal Jakob Von Gunten has a withdrawn airiness to it that is closer to Bruno Schulz’s detached aesthetic than to any Germanophone author.

What’s strange about The Assistant is that it is much more easily connected to those German antecedents and successors. This short novel about Joseph Marti’s life as a live-in assistant to the hapless inventor Carl Tobler and his family has clear affinities with the more pedestrian neuroses portrayed in the stories of Hofmannsthal, and the outsized characters (not just Tobler, but Joseph’s alcoholic predecessor Wirsich, and the two Manicheistic Tobler daughters) are a more subdued version of the histrionics of Schnitzler and Wedekind. But what’s most striking is how the tone and scenario anticipate that of early Kafka, particularly that of “The Stoker” and the novel it became part of, The Man Who Disappeared (aka Amerika). Walser is often compared spuriously to Kafka, but in The Assistant, and not in any of his other work that I’ve read, I think there’s some merit to the comparison. Marti, like Karl Rossmann, begins and ends as a bystander, pulled into the circle of affairs without becoming their center. Unlike Kafka’s later work, where the protagonists continually fail in their attempts to be mere quotidian bystanders in life–think of “Report to an Academy” as well as the last two novels–Walser’s protagonists steadfastly remain in the interstitial zone between observation and action. (Joseph’s only real decisive act ends the book.) Yet the concreteness of the situation here–absent in Walser’s subsequent work–is what gives it some of Kafka’s urgency.

Consequently, Walser goes off in a different direction, and Joseph’s mixture of passivity and inchoate loyalty result in very un-Kafka-like conversations like:

“Is your salary being paid?” the visitor inquired.

“No,” the assistant said, “and admittedly this is one of the things with which I am not fully satisfied. Often I have wanted to discuss this with Herr Tobler, but each time I am about to open my mouth to remind my superior of this matter which, as I have had occasion to perceive, is not exactly the most agreeable to him, the courage to speak deserts me, and so each time I tell myself: Put it off! And I’m still alive today, even without a salary.”

And Walser too lets things proceed languorously as Tobler fails and fails in his attempts to market dubious projects (most memorably the Marksman’s Vending Machine, which dispenses bullets). There’s even a disconnected, burlesque scene in which Joseph is picked up for evading army duty and dumped in jail for a night, which seems to have entered from another novel entirely. It distracts somewhat from the novel’s central pivot, which is the character of Tobler himself: desperate and arrogant, controlling and helpless, grandiose and pathetic, he is the very model of the petty capitalist cog that still exists today. Walser’s portrayal of his rationalizations and indignations is masterful, as when he begs his mother for more money for his business:

I am sitting here in my house like a bird trapped by the piercing gaze of the snake–already being killed in advance…What would you say if one day soon, one fine morning or afternoon, you were to read in the newspaper that your son had taken his own li–…but no, I am not capable of uttering such a thing in its entirety, for it is to my mother I am speaking. Send me the money at once. This, too, is not a threat, I am merely urging you to do so, urging you desperately. Even in our household budget nothing remains, and both my wife and I have long since had to accustom ourselves to the idea that sooner or later there will be nothing left for our children to eat.

Confronted with such self-propelling desperation, what can Joseph do except be a bystander?

Borges: The House of Asterion

Of Mirrors and the Labyrinth, quoted by Art of Memory, made me remember that crucial Borges story that is not as well-known as some, “The House of Asterion.” It is one of Borges’s more explicit invocations of Kafka, and specifically of Kafka’s parables. I’ll just quote the whole thing, seeing as it’s very short:

And the queen gave birth to a child who was called Asterion. (Apollodorus Bibliotecha III, I)

I know they accuse me of arrogance, and perhaps misanthropy, and perhaps of madness. Such accusations (for which I shall exact punishment in due time) are derisory. It is true that I never leave my house, but it is also true that its doors (whose numbers are infinite) (footnote: The original says fourteen, but there is ample reason to infer that, as used by Asterion, this numeral stands for infinite.) are open day and night to men and to animals as well. Anyone may enter. He will find here no female pomp nor gallant court formality, but he will find quiet and solitude. And he will also find a house like no other on the face of this earth. (There are those who declare there is a similar one in Egypt, but they lie.) Even my detractors admit there is not one single piece of furniture in the house. Another ridiculous falsehood has it that I, Asterion, am a prisoner. Shall I repeat that there are no locked doors, shall I add that there are no locks? Besides, one afternoon I did step into the street; If I returned before night, I did so because of the fear that the faces of the common people inspired in me, faces as discolored and flat as the palm of one’s hand. the sun had already set ,but the helpless crying of a child and the rude supplications of the faithful told me I had been recognized. The people prayed, fled, prostrated themselves; some climbed onto the stylobate of the temple of the axes, others gathered stones. One of them, I believe, hid himself beneath the sea. Not for nothing was my mother a queen; I cannot be confused with the populace, though my modesty might so desire. The fact is that that I am unique. I am not interested in what one man may transmit to other men; like the philosopher I think that nothing is communicable by the art of writing. Bothersome and trivial details have no place in my spirit, which is prepared for all that is vast and grand; I have never retained the difference between one letter and another. A certain generous impatience has not permitted that I learn to read. Sometimes I deplore this, for the nights and days are long.

Of course, I am not without distractions. Like the ram about to charge, I run through the stone galleries until I fall dizzy to the floor. I crouch in the shadow of a pool or around a corner and pretend I am being followed. There are roofs from which I let myself fall until I am bloody. At any time I can pretend to be asleep, with my eyes closed and my breathing heavy. (Sometimes I really sleep, sometimes the color of day has changed when I open my eyes.) But of all the games, I prefer the one about the other Asterion. I pretend that he comes to visit me and that I show him my house. With great obeisance I say to him “Now we shall return to the first intersection” or “Now we shall come out into another courtyard” Or “I knew you would like the drain” or “Now you will see a pool that was filled with sand” or “You will soon see how the cellar branches out”. Sometimes I make a mistake and the two of us laugh heartily.

Not only have I imagined these games, I have also meditated on the house. All parts of the house are repeated many times, any place is another place. There is no one pool, courtyard, drinking trough, manger; the mangers, drinking troughs, courtyards pools are fourteen (infinite) in number. The house is the same size as the world; or rather it is the world. However, by dint of exhausting the courtyards with pools and dusty gray stone galleries I have reached the street and seen the temple of the Axes and the sea. I did not understand this until a night vision revealed to me that the seas and temples are also fourteen (infinite) in number. Everything is repeated many times, fourteen times, but two things in the world seem to be repeated only once: above, the intricate sun; below Asterion. Perhaps I have created the stars and the sun and this enormous house, but I no longer remember.

Every nine years nine men enter the house so that I may deliver them from evil. I hear their steps or their voices in the depths of the stone galleries and I run joyfully to find them. The ceremony lasts a few minutes. They fall one after another without my having to bloody my hands. They remain where they fell and their bodies help distinguish one gallery from another. I do not know who they are, but I know that one of them prophesied, at the moment of his death, that some day my redeemer would come. Since then my loneliness does not pain me, because I know my redeemer lives and he will finally rise above the dust. If my ear could capture all the sounds of the world, I should hear his steps. I hope he will take me to a place with fewer galleries fewer doors. What will my redeemer be like? I ask myself. Will he be a bull or a man? will he perhaps be a bull with the face of a man? or will he be like me?

The morning sun reverberated from the bronze sword. There was no longer even a vestige of blood. “Would you believe it, Ariadne?” said Theseus “The Minotaur scarcely defended himself.”

Hermetic isolation, an invocation of Purgatory as conceived by Dante, and to labyrinths before and after, to the invented worlds of Tlon and the murderous architecture of “Death and the Compass.”

Vladimir Sorokin: Ice

The way this book is structured, it’s almost over just as it begins. I was deeply struck by Chetyre (aka 4), which was scripted by Sorokin, and Ice plays on some of the same themes: weird genetics, supernatural myths become gritty urban reality, and an emphasis on flesh and the physical at their most blunt. Blunt this book is, because the first half of it is Keystone Kops caperings of mobsters and a secret society of chosen people (blond and blue-eyed) who seek to awaken their comrades by smashing in their chests with a hammer, to awaken their “hearts” and cause them to speak. Some of their candidates do not have such a heart within them, and they tend not to survive the attempted awakening.

That this is evidently a pastiche of contemporary decadent writing only becomes apparent in the last half, where the style inverts into a long chronicle of the movement’s history by its current leader Khram, an old lady who survived the Nazis and survived Stalin to bring her movement to fruition with the aid of an aggressive oil tycoon post-perestroika. She’s upfront: there are 23,000 of them, alien visitors who were trapped through ambiguous means in the bodies of humans. As it is explained to her:

The absolute majority of people on this earth are walking dead. They are born dead, they marry the dead, they give birth to the dead, and die…That is the circle of the dead lives. There is no way out. But we are alive, we are the chosen. We know what the language of the heart is, the language we have already spoken to you. And we know what love is. Genuine Divine Love.

There is more to the mythology, particularly the notion that they commune not through physical sex but through mystical “conversations of the heart,” but this is the basic duality: life and death, love and lack of love, hope and despair. There is no hope for most people, and the chosen treat them as objects, because that’s all they are.

The book ends with the ascension just beginning, and there is both a sequel and a prequel in the offing. Aside from Sorokin’s slick navigation of styles (it seems that way in English, at least, and a few Russian speakers have confirmed this), there’s not too much more than the secret history presented in this novel, from the oppression of the chosen to their rise in the chaos of present-day Russia. In some ways it is a glib vision that Sorokin offers. Accepting the disbelief in spiritual salvation, but not wishing to produce nihilism (Chetyre was, for all its grotesqueries, deeply humanistic), he takes off from Kafka’s famous aphorism: there is “Plenty of hope for God–no end of hope–only not for us.”

People tend to excise the “God” part from that quote, but the quote is merely fashionable pessimism without it. Though he leaves the certainty of the salvation ambiguous, Sorokin resolutely focuses on a set of chosen who resist reader identification and are therefore wholly other. It makes Sorokin an inversion of Hegel: life is always elsewhere. Intuitively, this seems a far better model for the big claustrophobic world of today than Hegel’s steadfast one-world (hell, one-country) view.

Update: See also this excellent review.

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