David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: kafka (page 4 of 7)

Kafka: Diogenes


In my case one can imagine three circles, an innermost one, A, then B, then C. The core A explains to B why this man must torment and mistrust himself, why he must renounce, why he must not live. (Was not Diogenes, for instance, gravely ill in this sense? Which of us would not have been happy under Alexander’s radiant gaze? But Diogenes frantically begged him to move out of the way of the sun. That tub was full of ghosts.) To C, the active man, no explanations are given, he is merely terribly ordered about by B; C acts under the most severe pressure, but more in fear that in understanding, he trusts, he believes, that A explains everything to B and that B has understood everything rightly.

Kafka (tr. Kaiser/Wilkins)

I don’t see this parable mentioned too often, but it portrays the most severe internalization of some of Kafka’s obsessions. Everything is internalized. But while we have A, the controlling deity who answers to no one (shades of Jaynes!) and C, the unknowing worker, who is this B? Is it Klamm or the Mayor from The Castle? The father in “The Judgment”? The academy of “Report to an Academy”? Karl, Huld, or Titorelli in The Trial?

Yet it is B that chooses not to share the knowledge B gains from A with C, the very knowledge that would assuage C’s fear, or at least temper it with some sense of duty, responsibility, necessity, anything. Or does B? C does not get to ask B that question. Maybe B cannot explain to C what C does not understand. Maybe B is mediating between two entities that speak incompatible languages: one of command, one of action. Maybe C does not have an option other than to act, and C’s dreams of explanation are meaningless and cannot be satisfied. C only waits for the next order. B’s barked commands may be the only thing that C can understand. B, the messenger and interpreter, can never be sure of being properly understood. And what then of A?

And why is it that we are inside of C’s mind, while B and A are opaque? Are we reading only in C’s language?

Miklos Jancso: Winter Wind (Sirokko)

Jancso is already in my pantheon of genius directors, all the more
from coming out of the backwaters of Eastern Europe under Communism; I
can’t think of another of his contemporaries that even approaches
him. The Round-Up is a brilliant, taut exercise in Kafka-esque
consequentiality, and The Red and the White is simply one of my
favorite films of all time.

Winter Wind is not as narrative as The Round-Up, nor
does it have the formalized brutality of The Red and the White,
but it is from the same period as them and qualifies as a minor
masterpiece. The historical background, only given at the very start
of the film, is that between the two world wars, Hungary is providing
assistance to Croatian nationalist separatists who wish for an
independent Croatia separate from Yugoslavia, which in 1929 was made a
dictatorship under Serbian King
. The film takes place on the Yugoslavian-Croatian
border, where Hungarian-supported Croatian terrorists are making raids
into Yugoslavia and conducting assassinations and such. Our hero,
Marko, returns from a raid and spends the entire movie in a Hungarian
safehouse with compatriots and Hungarian officials. He distrusts them
all intensely and interrogates (or kills) them, until…well, his
fears are well-founded, that’s all I’ll say.

Marko is defined by two characteristics alone: his nationalism and
his paranoia. Any other trait has been completely subsumed into the
service of these two aspects, and he is monomaniacal in his
obsessions. (The one funny moment involves his hatred for his
compatriot’s pet dog, which has been irritating him all the time in
the safehouse. A new terrorist trainee shows up and Marko, to test his
marksmanship, tells him to shoot the dog.) He separates himself from
all the other political figures on the grounds that no one is as pure
in their fervor as he is. Everyone else is using him and his cause.

He’s right. There is never a moment where he is taken aback or
surprised; his comprehension of the situation is total, as is his
paranoia. The only people to whom he shows a degree of trust are the
wholly powerless: a handful of Croatian children whom he trains to
kill and an abused prostitute sent by the Hungarian government to
service him. (He’s not interested.)

The movie is not about development; like The Red and the
, it’s a visceral portrayal of a situation. The brilliance of
it lies in how Jancso communicates the abstract conflict between the
idealists and the realpolitik sorts with pretty much no explicit
political speech. It is conveyed through their mannerisms, their
stances, their confidences and their paranoias.

Laszlo Krasznahorkai: War and War

I said I’d been holding off reviewing this book, originally published in Hungarian in 1999 but only translated into English now, until I knew more of what to make of it, and I’m not sure if I’m quite there yet. But the past week has been personally rather lousy for me, and overlapping as it does with the conflagration in the Middle East between Israel and, well, nearly everyone else, War and War has been at the front of my mind in ways that I cannot totally quantify. The way it treats the amorphous yet concrete intersection of the personal and political is so convincingly evocative of my current admixture of petty personal woes and fatalistic political worries that I have to say that it is the book for now.

I thought Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance a fantastic book, a haunting and violent political allegory that had more to say than a hundred contemporary books. I wrestled with it as I do with Musil, Riding, Gass, and too few others. In its sweeping, uncanny world, it is the book J.M. Coetzee has tried to write several times, but never quite succeeded. (I think Waiting for the Barbarians comes closest.) So I looked forward to War and War, also translated by the poet George Szirtes, as the most promising book on the horizon this year.

War and War is a remarkable novel, and it is drastically different from Krasznahorkai’s previous novel. Stylistically, the huge sentences and paragraphs are there, as is the sheer bleakness and black humor, but this book is far more oblique. It is not an allegory, but neither is it a realistic narrative, nor a fantasy, and as unusual as his past work was, War and War is sui generis. It is intensely personal, and I think it works hard to defy easy analysis. Krasznahorkai was quite explicit about the narrative and thematic construction of The Melancholy of Resistance within the text; here he draws back whenever the text is about to be too conclusive.

The story is odd and spare. A Hungarian scholar, Korin, has located a historical manuscript of tremendous importance to him, and he wants to share it with all humanity. To do so, he goes to New York, the heart of the living world, makes acquaintances with some unpleasant characters, and purchases a computer and web site to post the manuscript. He describes the manuscript at length to everyone he encounters. Korin is quite touched (and out of touch), and by the time of his eventual suicide, one wonders how he made it so far.

The manuscript is something else entirely. We only hear about it through Korin’s descriptions, but it is one strange beast, placing four somewhat nebulous travelers in various historical times and places from Greece to Italy to Africa, usually just before some sort of catastrophe or war. Often their bete noir, the Mephistophelian Mastemann, makes an appearance. The manuscript becomes hazier and more chaotic, according to Korin, until he himself has no idea what to make of it, other than being convinced of its utter importance. His most explicit summary comes towards the end, speaking of the possible author Wlassich and the four men:

It was a way out that this Wlassich or whatever his name is, was seeking for them, but he could not find one that was wholly airy and fantastical so he sent them forth into the wholly real realm of history, into the reality of eternal war, and tried to settle them at a point that held the promise of peace, a promise that was never fulfilled, though he conjures this reality with ever more infernal power, with ever more devilish fidelity, even greater demonic sensitivity, and populates it with the products of his own imagination, in vain as it turns out, for their path leads but from war to war, and never from war to peace, and this Wlassich, or whoever it is, despairs ever more of his one-person, amateurish ritual, and eventually goes completely off his head, for there is no Way Out. (203)

Needless to say, Korin is living this nightmare himself, though in a rather abstruse manner. The severity with which he goes about his life, even the simple matter of traveling to New York and publishing the manuscript, is difficult to bear at times. It is this historical weight, the constant sense of grand war and a society that is too great and heavy with suffering for a person to contain, that is the heart of the book, as inexplicable as it may be. Korin suffers it constantly and acutely. Krasznahorkai does not give any simple explanation, or any real explanation at all, for Korin’s condition, in which the historical and personal have collapsed and are overwhelming him. But the “historical” is not quite what we read in the papers and in books; it is, as Korin says, “the version that has triumphed by stealth.”

As for the Way Out…Krasznahorkai leaves it somewhat open. The end uses a couple of metafictional conceits. One of them is quite a punchline, and the other is touchingly ingenuous. Both reinforce that Korin’s nightmare is meant to be shared, as it is Krasznahorkai’s and his readers’. In his online introduction, Krasznahorkai says:

…there was an unexpected, fierce, poignant vision: a couple of people running for life in timeless devastation and meanwhile taking stock of all that they have to say good-bye to.

The book I started to write in 1992 rests on this vision, and given the feeling I had while working on it that there were less and less people who would grasp the meaning of a vision like mine, from 1996 on I tried to get in touch with them. I had been writing messages for two years and dividing them into separate sentences I had them published in literary journals. Then in 1998 I sent a kind of a last message, a story forwarded as a letter and entitled Megj&#xc3&#xb6tt &#xc3&#x89zsai&#xc3&#xa1s /Isaiah has come/ in which the future hero described the roots, origin and spirit of the novel announced to be published the following year.

Perhaps Krasznahorkai is trying to resituate Beckett and Kafka’s private mirrors of the self in known historical reality, a goal with which I am wholly sympathetic. His open conception of a narrow readership seems in line with this goal, and it matches the book’s concept as well, since Korin and the four travelers are such aberrant figures. I don’t know if I’m included in that readership, but for the last week I’ve felt like I am, felt shaken as Korin does.

A la Fin Du Temps Perdu

I’ll try not to give away too much here, but the multiyear Proust reading has come to an end, even if the blog hasn’t. Since this isn’t an in-depth analysis but only my own reaction on finishing what is the longest book I’ve ever read (I can’t think of anything else that even comes close), I’m putting it on the main page. For you all who haven’t finished it, I don’t think there is much in the way of spoilers below, but it’s about finishing the book, so caveat emptor.

This is a very personal book. Towards the end, Proust describes a work of literary art as being an edifice built around the writer, to be seen and interpreted by visitors from the outside. There are works of fiction that don’t take this stance, works that attempt to generalize over all of life and speak in universals. In this view, the author is merely a conduit for a noumenal world. Shakespeare, of course, falls into this category, as do Dostoevsky, Homer, Melville, Faulkner. But Proust is very explicit that the vision he is projecting is a mirror of his own mind and little else, not that he needs to be explicit about it. In many ways Proust is as hermetic as Kafka or Kleist in his unshakeable devotion to his own perspective. It’s apparent that the problems he faces–and the ultimate answers he arrives at–are ones quite specific to himself and his own situation; i.e., that of a brilliant writer in active society.

That Proust’s excavation is so complete and so brilliant makes the work paradoxical. As I had been told by friends, Proust ends on a high, bringing together many threads from earlier in the work, and the feeling on finishing is one of satisfaction and completeness. It is the opposite of Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, which embraces the world and everything in it only to shatter and fall apart, because Musil’s world expanded and mutated faster than his book. But the paradox makes leaving Proust an ambivalent experience. On finishing his work, I did not feel as though I was carrying the entirety of the book with me in my head (though I have assimilated parts of it quite thoroughly). Rather, it was like leaving a cathedral and having the doors shut behind you.

I held off reading the end for about a week, precisely because I knew that finishing it would mean leaving Proust’s world. Proust never had to deal with that problem; even having written the end, the refinement of the gigantic middle could have easily been stretched to accomodate far more days than he had. The polar emotions that greeted me at the end were comfortable satisfaction at being at the brilliant summit of the end of the book, followed by the blinding readjustment that you have on walking out of a dark theater into the sunlight. And then the question, “Well, what do I read next?” (A: I think it has to be Beckett.)

Is it, in the words of an old professor, the greatest thing ever written? I can’t say that it is, because part of me feels that admitting that would be to narrow the scope of my world to that of Proust’s. But is it the greatest success ever written, a book that sets out very specific terms and fulfills them beyond any expectation, comparable to Joyce or Kant? Possibly.

K. Dream

I’m watching a new film version of Kafka’s The Castle in a quiet, empty theater. The film is in black and white, and it’s rather grainy, but intentionally so, though possibly from a felicitous combination of low budget and artistic intent. The editing, however, is poor: abrupt cuts between long, static shots.

It’s a loose adaptation. K. is on a beach. In the first scene, he is buried under the sand near the water, only the top half of his head visible above the sand. He raises himself like a seal, throwing an inch of wet sand aside, and drags his detritus-laden body away from the water. We cut to the next scene, where he is now under a large mound of sand, now with only the top of his head visible, poking through the side of the mound. K. is farther away from the water, and in the distance I can see the disarrayed sand from the first scene, near the water. His head shakes and he pushes his head through the mound, and he manages to pull himself through and out of the mound, all the while grimacing and clenching his teeth from the effort. Covered in wet and dry sand, he stumbles away from the collapsed mound. Cut to the next scene, where he is still on the beach, even further away from the water, now lying underneath a large boulder. The stone is vaguely obelisk-shaped, much taller–at least eight feet–than it is wide, and stands straight on one end. Now K. is having a good deal more trouble; his entire head is out of the sand, but his body is trapped under the rock, and he’s making no progress at extricating himself, despite the obvious struggle. I have to feel for him.

In the theater, I think that while this film shares a certain high-contrast visual style with Orson Welles’s film of The Trial, it’s a much more faithful adaptation than Welles’s version. True in spirit, at least. I think that Welles did a masterful job of capturing the claustrophobic, interior spaces of The Trial, but he did not grasp the true depths of the book. I think that the case is the opposite with this film of The Castle: it has no evocative visuals, but it feels more faithful.

(Please see The Dream Factory for more inspired offerings.)

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