There is a lot of literature on what is literature that I ignore buying for my anti-library. What I enjoy is the user manuals: the novelists talking about the novel, talking about the history of the novel.
The novel is a passage towards truth. Some areas are dark, others semi or well-lit, there are novels that are breezy and those that are closing in on the reader and the possibilities for the novel remain as robust as ever. These truths are not categorical. They are not crisp and well-defined for someone to make a statistical list and are exactly the opposite of a typical yes and no answer. They are ambiguous and life-like. Franco-Czech novelist and modern master Milan Kundera says in his non-fiction work The Art of the Novel: “The more attentively we read a novel, the more impossible the answer, because the novel is, by definition, the ironic art: its “truth” is concealed, undeclared, undeclarable.”
Interviewer: What is literature for you? Julian Barnes in the Paris Review: “There are many answers to that question. The shortest is that it’s the best way of telling the truth; it’s a process of producing grand, beautiful, well-ordered lies that tell more truth than any assemblage of facts. Beyond that, literature is many things, such as delight in, and play with, language; also, a curiously intimate way of communicating with people whom you will never meet. And being a writer gives you a sense of historical community, which I feel rather weakly as a normal social being living in early twenty-first-century Britain. For example, I don’t feel any particular ties with the world of Queen Victoria, or the participants of the Civil War or the Wars of the Roses, but I do feel a very particular tie to various writers and artists who are contemporaneous with those periods and events.”
Interviewer: What do you mean by “telling the truth”? Barnes: I think a great book—leaving aside other qualities such as narrative power, characterization, style, and so on—is a book that describes the world in a way that has not been done before; and that is recognized by those who read it as telling new truths—about society or the way in which emotional lives are led, or both—such truths having not been previously available, certainly not from official records or government documents, or from journalism or television. For example, even people who condemned Madame Bovary, who thought that it ought to be banned, recognized the truth of the portrait of that sort of woman, in that sort of society, which they had never encountered before in literature. That is why the novel was so dangerous. I do think that there is this central, ground-breaking veracity in literature, which is part of its grandeur. Obviously it varies according to the society. In an oppressive society the truth-telling nature of literature is of a different order, and sometimes valued more highly than other elements in a work of art.
“My objection to his book is that The Good Is Too much absent,” said Sainte-Beuve in his review of Madame Bovary. Why, he asked, does this novel not have in it “a single person who might console and give ease to the reader by some picture of goodness?” Then he points the young author to the right path: “In a remote province in central France, I met a woman, still young, superior in intelligence, ardent of heart, restless: a wife but not a mother, with no child to raise, to love, what did she do to make use of her overflowing mind and soul? . . . She set about becoming a delightful benefactress . . . She taught reading and moral development to the children of the villages, often few and far between . . . There are such souls in provincial and rural life; why not show them as well? That is uplifting, it is consoling, and the picture of humankind is only the more complete for it. (I have emphasized the key terms.)”
In fact George Sand, in a letter some twenty years later, told Flaubert much the same thing: Why does he hide the “feeling” he has for his characters? Why not show his “personal doctrine” in his novel? Why does he bring his readers “desolation,” whereas she, Sand, would rather “console” them? As a friend she admonishes him: “Art is not only criticism and satire.”
Flaubert replies that he never sought to write either criticism or satire. He does not write his novels to communicate his judgments to readers. He is after something entirely different: “I have always done my utmost to get into the soul of things.” His reply makes it very clear: the real subject of the disagreement is not Flaubert’s character (whether he is kind or cruel, cold or compassionate) but the question of what the novel is.” Thus begins Kundera’s chapter Getting into the soul of things in his great non-fiction work called The Curtain.
“I was asked to speak to a short-story class at Sarah Lawrence College. I went, and I enjoyed the day, but it isn’t something I’d ever want to do again. I got very oracular and literary. I found myself labelling all the writers I respect. (Thomas Mann, in an introduction he wrote for The Castle, called Kafka a ‘religious humourist.’ I’ll never forgive him for it.) A writer, when he’s asked to discuss his craft, ought to get up and call out in a loud voice just the names of the writers he loves. I love Kafka, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Proust, O’Casey, Rilke, Lorca, Keats, Rimbaud, Burns, E. Brontë, Jane Austen, Henry James, Blake, Coleridge. I won’t name any living writers. I don’t think it’s right.” J D Salinger, July 1951.
The map of novelistic knowledge is more real than say the history of the development of science. Science is a progression. New gadgets appear, old theories get revised, there are corrections made to equations that were thought to be perfect for years. Art is not a progression of that kind. Don Quixote is Don Quixote and will remain so no matter the proliferation of imaginary characters. Albert Camus said: “The real 19th century prophet was Dostoyevsky, not Karl Marx.” And it was Albert Einstein who said: “Dostoevsky gives me more than any scientist, more than Gauss.” That’s the range of a novelist, it goes way beyond a ‘theoretical social scientist’ and even ahead of a once-in-a-century kind of scientist.
Getting into the soul of things kind of defines the job of a novelist. Novelist (and his life): Someone asks the novelist Karel Capek why he doesn’t write poetry. His answer: “Because I loathe talking about myself.” Hermann Broch on himself, on Musil, on Kafka: “The three of us have no real biographies.” Which is not to say that their lives were short on event, but that the lives were not meant to be conspicuous, to be public, to become biography. “I hate tampering with the precious lives of great writers, and no biographer will ever catch a glimpse of my private life,” said Nabokov. And Faulkner wished “to be, as a private individual, abolished and voided from history, leaving it markless, no refuse save the printed books.” Overfamiliar metaphor: The novelist destroys the house of his life and uses its stones to build the house of his novel. A novelist’s biographers thus undo what a novelist has done, and redo what he undid. All their labour cannot illuminate either the value or the meaning of a novel, can scarcely even identify a few of the bricks. The moment Kafka attracts more attention than Joseph K., Kafka’s posthumous death begins.
This piece is a sort of concluding part of the Kafka series I had done earlier and my main purpose here is to provide a mildly-edited second chapter called The Castrating Shadow of Saint Garta from Kundera’s musical evocation of the interior history of the novel called Testaments Betrayed.
Before we go into that long talk on novelistic discovery I am going to give a link to a great piece in the London Review of Books by Judith Butler titled Who owns Kafka? I quote from the article: The tone of The Trial is, after all, one in which a false or obscure accusation against K. is relayed in the most neutral terms, without resonating affect. It seems that the grief avowed in the letters is precisely what is put out of play in the writing; and yet the writing conveys precisely a set of events that are bound together neither through probable cause nor logical induction. So the writing effectively opens up the disjunction between clarity—we might even say a certain lucidity and purity of prose—and the horror that is normalised precisely as a consequence of that lucidity. No one can fault the grammar and syntax of Kafka’s writing, and no one has ever found emotional excess in his tone; but precisely because of this apparently objective and rigorous mode of writing, a certain horror opens up in the midst of the quotidian, perhaps also an unspeakable grief. Syntax and theme are effectively at war, which means that we might think twice about praising Kafka only for his lucidity. After all, the lucid works as style only insofar as it betrays its own claim to self-sufficiency. Something obscure, if not unspeakable, opens up within the perfect syntax. Indeed, if we consider that recurrent and libellous accusations lurk in the background of his many trials, we can read the narrative voice as a neutralisation of outrage, a linguistic packing away of sorrow that paradoxically brings it to the fore.”
The extract: “The image of Kafka that is widely held these days comes originally from a novel. Max Brod wrote it immediately after Kafka’s death and published it in 1926. Savour the title: The Enchanted Kingdom of Love (Zauberreich der Liebe). This key-novel is a roman a clef, a novel with a key. Its protagonist, a German writer in Prague named Nowy, is recognizably a flattering self-portrait of Brod (adored by women, envied by the literati). Nowy/Brod cuckolds a man who, by very elaborate wicked schemes, gets him sent to prison for four years. We are instantly plunged into a story cobbled together by the most• improbable coincidences (characters meet by complete chance on a ship out at sea, on a Haifa street, on a street in Vienna), we witness the struggle between the good (Nowy and his mistress) and the evil (the cuckold, so vulgar that he fully deserves his horns, and a literary critic who systematically pans Nowy’s wonderful books), we are pained by melodramatic reversals (the heroine kills herself because she cannot bear life caught between the cuckold and the cuckolder), we admire the sensitive soul of Nowy/Brod, who swoons regularly.
This novel would have been forgotten before it was written if not for the character Garta. Because Garta, Nowy’s close friend, is a portrait of Kafka. Without this key, the character would be the most uninteresting in the entire history of literature; he is described as a “saint of our time,” but even about the ministry of his saintliness we don’t learn much, except that from time to time, when Nowy/Brod is having love troubles, he seeks advice from his friend, which the friend, as a saint with no such experience, is incapable of giving him.
What a marvellous paradox: the whole image of Kafka and the whole posthumous fate of his work were first conceived and laid out in this simpleminded novel, this garbage, this cartoon-novel concoction, which, aesthetically, stands at exactly the opposite pole from Kafka’s art.
Some quotations from the novel: Garta “was a saint of our time, a veritable saint.” “Perhaps his best quality was his remaining so independent and free, so saintly rational in the face of all mythologies, even though deep down he was akin to them and nearly a mythological figure himself.” “He wanted to live in perfect purity—rather, he could not do otherwise….”
Garta is presented as someone who writes. Nowy “had agreed to be Garta’s literary executor–Garta had asked him to do this, but with the unusual condition that everything be destroyed.” Nowy “sensed the reason for that last wish. Garta was not announcing a new religion; he wanted only to live his faith…. He required the ultimate effort of himself; as he had not succeeded, his writings (mere rungs to help him climb to the heights) had no value for him.”
Still, Nowy/Brod did not want to obey his friend’s wish, because in his view, Garta’s writings, “even as attempts, as mere sketches, bring to wandering humanity a presentiment of something irreplaceable.” Yes, it’s all there.
Were it not for Brod, we would not even know Kafka’s name today. Right after his friend’s death, Brod saw to the publication of his three novels. No reaction. So he realized that, to establish Kafka’s work, he would have to undertake a real and long war. Establishing a body of work means presenting it, interpreting it. Brod opened a veritable artillery attack: prefaces: for The Trial (1925), for The Castle (1926), for Amerika (1927), for “Description of a Struggle” (1936), for the diaries and letters (1937), for the stories (1946); for the Conversations by Gustav Janouch (1952); then the dramatizations: of The Castle (1953) and Amerika (1957); but above all, four important books of interpretation (take good note of the titles!): Franz Kafka: A Biography (1937), The Faith and Teachings of Franz Kafka (1946), Franz Kafka, He Who Shows the Way (1951), and Despair and Salvation in the Work of Franz Kafka (1959).
Through all of these texts, the image outlined in The Enchanted Kingdom of Love is confirmed and developed: above all, Kafka is primarily the religious thinker, der religiose Denker. True, he “never systematically set out his philosophy and his religious world view. Nonetheless, we can deduce rather clear fundamentals from his work, from his aphorisms especially but also from his poetry, his letters, his diaries, and then also from his way of life (from that above all)….”
Further on: Kafka’s true importance cannot be understood “unless two currents in his work are distinguished: (l) the aphorisms, (2) the narrative writings (novels, stories, fragments). “In his aphorisms Kafka expounds the positive word [das positive Wort] that he gives to mankind, a faith, a stern call for each individual to change his own life.” In his novels and stories, “he describes the horrible punishments in store for those who do not wish to hear the word [das Wort] and do not follow the path of righteousness.” Note the hierarchy: at the top: Kafka’s life as an example to be followed; in the middle: the aphorisms, that is, all the meditative “philosophical” passages in his diaries; at the bottom: the narrative works.
Brod was a brilliant intellectual with exceptional energy; a generous man willing to do battle for others; his attachment to Kafka was warm and disinterested. The only problem was his artistic orientation: a man of ideas, he knew nothing of the passion for form; his novels (he wrote twenty of them) are sadly conventional; and above all: he understood nothing at all about modern art. Why, despite all this, was, Kafka so fond of him? What about you–do you stop being fond of your best friend because he has a compulsion to write bad verse?
But the man who writes bad verse turns dangerous once he starts to publish the work of his poet friend. Suppose the most influential commentator on Picasso were a painter who could not even manage to understand the impressionists. What would he say about Picasso’s paintings? Probably the same thing Brod said about Kafka’s novels: that they describe “the horrible punishments in store for those who… do not follow the path of righteousness.”
Max Brod created the image of Kafka and that of his work; he created Kafkology at the same time. The Kafkologists may distance themselves from their founding father, but they never leave the terrain he mapped out for them. Despite the astronomical number of its texts, Kafkology goes on elaborating infinite variants on the same discussion, the same speculation, which, increasingly unconnected to Kafka’s work, feeds only on itself. Through innumerable prefaces, postfaces, notes, biographies and monographs, university lectures and dissertations, Kafkology produces and sustains its own image of Kafka, to the point where the author whom readers know by the name Kafka is no longer Kafka but the Kafkologized Kafka.
Not everything written on Kafka is Kafkology. How then to define Kafkology? By a tautology: Kafkology is discourse for Kafkologizing Kafka. For replacing Kafka with the Kafkologized Kafka:
1) Following Brod’s example, Kafkology examines Kafka’s books not in the large context of literary history (the history of the European novel) but almost exclusively in the microcontext of biography. In their monograph, Boisdeffre and Alberes cite Proust rejecting biographical explication of art, but only to say that Kafka requires exception to that rule, as his books are “not separable from his person. Whether he is called Josef K., Rohan, Samsa, the Surveyor, Bendemann, Josefine the Singer, the Hunger Artist, or the Trapeze Artist, the hero of his books is none other than Kafka himself.” Biography is the principal key for understanding the meaning of the work. Worse: the only meaning of the work is as a key for understanding the biography.
2) Following Brod’s example, in the hands of the Kafkologists Kafka’s biography becomes hagiography; such as the unforgettable bombast with which Roman Karst ended his talk at the famous 1963 conference on Kafka in Czechoslovakia: “Franz Kafka lived and suffered for us!” Various kinds of hagiography: religious; secular–Kafka, martyr to his solitude; leftist–Kafka “assiduously” attending anarchist meetings and “very interested in the 1917 Revolution” (according to a mythomaniacal assertion frequency cited but never verified). To every church its apocrypha: Conversations with Kafka by Gustav Janouch. To every saint a sacrificial gesture: Kafka’s wish to have his work destroyed.
3) Following Brod’s example, Kafkology systematically dislodges Kafka from the domain of aesthetics: either as a “religious thinker” or else, on the left, as a protester against art, whose “ideal library would include only books by engineers or mechanics, and declaratory jurists” (in the book by Deleuze and Guattari). Kafkology is tireless in examining his connections to Kierkegaard, to Nietzsche, to the theologians, but ignores the novelists and poets. Even Camus, in his essay, discusses Kafka in terms one would use not for a novelist but for a philosopher. His private writings are treated the same way as his novels, but with a marked preference for the former: taking at random the Kafka essay Roger Garaudy wrote while he was still a Marxist: fifty-four times he quotes Kafka’s letters, Kafka’s diaries forty-five times; the Janouch Conversations thirty-five times; the stories twenty times; The Trial five times, The Castle four times, Amerika not once.
4) Following Brod’s example, Kajkology ignores the existence of modern art; as though Kafka did not belong to the generatien of the great innovators–Stravinsky, Webern, Bartok, Apollinaire, Musil, Joyce, Picasso, Braque–all born, like him, between 1880 and 1883. When, in the 1950s, someone proposed the notion of his kinship with Beckett, Brod immediately protested: Saint Garta has nothing to do with such decadence!
5) Kafkology is not literary criticism (it does not examine the value of the work: the previously unknown aspects of existence that the work reveal, the aesthetic innovations by which it affected the evolution of the art, etc.); Kafkology is an exegesis: As such, it can see only allegories in Kafka’s novels. They are religious (Brod: the Castle = the grace of God; the surveyor = the new Parsifal in quest of the divine; etc., etc.); they are psychoanalytical, existentialistic, Marxist (the surveyor =a symbol of revolution; because he undertakes land redistribution); they are political (Orson Welles’s The Trial); Kafkology does not look to Kafka’s novels for the real world transformed by an immense imagination; rather, it decodes religious messages, it deciphers philosophical parables.
“Garta was a saint of our time, a veritable saint.” But can a saint go to brothels? When Brod published Kafka’s diaries he censored them somewhat; he deleted not only the allusions to whores but anything else touching on sex. Kafkology has always expressed doubts about its subject’s virility, and it delights in discussing the martyrdom of his impotence. Thus Kafka long ago became the patron saint of the neurotic, the depressive, the anorexic, the feeble; the patron saint of the twisted, the precieuses ridicules, and the hysterical (in the Orson Welles film, K. howls hysterically, whereas Kafka’s novels are the least hysterical in the entire history of literature).
Biographers know nothing about the intimate sex lives of their own wives, but they think they know all about Stendhal’s or Faulkner’s. About Kafka’s I would dare say nothing but this: the (not very easy) erotic life of his time had little resemblance to ours: girls in those days did not make love before marriage; for a bachelor, that left only two possibilities: married women of good family, or easy women of the lower classes: shopgirls, maids, and of course prostitutes.
The imagination of Brod’s novels drew on the first source; whence their kind of eroticism–rapturous, romantic (involving dramatic cuckoldries, suicides, pathological jealousies), and asexual: “Women are wrong to believe a good man cares only about physical possession. That is merely a symbol and is by far less important than this feeling: the woman loves me, and so she is entirely well-disposed toward me. All of man’s love seeks to win woman’s good will and kindness” (The Enchanted Kingdom of Love).
The erotic imagination in Kafka’s novels, on the contrary, draws almost exclusively on the other source: “I walked past the brothel as though it were the house of a beloved” (diary, 1910, sentence censored by Brod).
Masterful as they were at analyzing all the strategies of love, nineteenth-century novels left sex and the sexual act itself hidden. In the first decades of our century, sex emerged from the mists of romantic passion. Kafka was one of the first (certainly along with Joyce) to uncover it in his novels. He unveiled sex not as the playing field for a small circle of libertines (in eighteenth-century style) but as a commonplace, fundamental reality in everyone’s life. Kafka unveiled the existential aspects of sex: sex in conflict with love; the strangeness of the other as a condition, a requirement, of sex; the ambiguous nature of sex: those aspects that are exciting and simultaneously repugnant; its terrible triviality, which in no way lessens its frightening power, etc. Brod was a romantic. By contrast, at the root of Kafka’s novels I believe I discern a profound anti-romanticism; it shows up everywhere: in the way Kafka sees society as well as in the way he constructs a sentence; but its origin may lie in Kafka’s vision of sex.
The finest erotic scene Kafka ever wrote is in the third chapter of The Castle: the act of love between K. and Frieda. Scarcely an hour after seeing that “unprepossessing little blonde” for the first time, he is embracing her behind the bar, “among the beer puddles and the other filth covering the floor.” Filth: it is inseparable from sex, from its essence.
But immediately thereafter, in the same paragraph, Kafka sounds the poetry of sex: “There hours went by, hours of mutual breaths, of mutual heartbeats, hours in which K. continually had the feeling that he was going astray, or that he was farther inside the strange world than any person before him, in a strange world where the very air had in it no element of his native air, where one must suffocate from strangeness and where, in the midst of absurd enticements, one could do nothing but keep going, keep going astray.”
The length of the coition turns into a metaphor for a walk beneath the sky of strangeness. And yet that walk is not ugliness; on the contrary, it attracts us, invites us to go on still farther, intoxicates us: it is beauty.A few lines later: “he was far too happy to be holding Frieda in his hands, too anxiously happy as well, because it seemed to him that if Frieda were to leave him, everything he had would leave him.” So is this love? No indeed, not love; if a person is banished and dispossessed of everything, then a tiny little woman he hardly knows, embraced in puddles of beer, becomes a whole universe–love has nothing to do with it.
In his Manifesto of Surrealism, Andre Breton speaks severely about the art of the novel. He complains that the novel is incurably hobbled by mediocrity, by banality, by everything that is contrary to poetry. He mocks its descriptions and its tiresome psychology. This criticism of the novel is immediately followed by praise of dreams. Then he ends by saying: “I believe in the eventual fusion of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak.”
Paradox: the “fusion of dream and reality” that the surrealists proclaimed, without actually knowing how to bring it about in a great literary work, had already occurred, and in the very genre they disparaged: in Kafka’s novels, written in the course of the previous decade.
It is very difficult to describe, to define, to give a name to the kind of imagination with which Kafka bewitches us. The “fusion of dream and reality”–that phrase Kafka of course never heard–is illuminating. As in another phrase dear to surrealists, Lautreamont’s about the beauty in the chance encounter between an umbrella and a sewing machine: the more alien things are from one another, the more magical the light that springs from their contact. I’d like to call it a poetics of surprise; or beauty as perpetual astonishment. Or to use the notion of density as a criterion of value: density of imagination, density of unexpected encounters. The scene I cited, of the coition of K. and Frieda, is an example of that dizzying density: the short passage, scarcely a page long, encompasses three completely distinct existential discoveries (the existential triangle of sex) that are stunning in their swift succession: filth; the intoxicating dark beauty of strangeness; and touching, anxious yearning.
The whole third chapter is a whirlpool of the unexpected: within a fairly tight span come, one after the other: the first encounter between K. and Frieda at the inn; the extraordinarily realistic dialogue in the seduction, which is disguised because of the presence of a third person (Olga); the motif of a hole in the door (a trite motif, but it shifts away from empirical plausibility), through which K. sees Klamm sleeping behind the desk; the crowd of servants dancing with Olga; the surprising cruelty of Frieda, who runs them off with a whip, and their surprising fear as they obey her; the innkeeper, who arrives as K. hides by lying flat under the bar; the arrival of Frieda, who discovers K. on the floor and denies his presence to the innkeeper (meanwhile amorously caressing K.’s chest with her foot); the act of love interrupted by the call from Klamm, who has awakened, outside the door; Frieda’s astonishingly courageous gesture of shouting to Klamm, “I’m with the surveyor!”; and then, to top it all off (and here empirical plausibility is completely abandoned): above them, on the bar counter, sit the two assistants; they were watching the couple the whole time.
The two assistants from the castle are probably Kafka’s greatest poetic find, the marvel of his fantasy; their existence is not only infinitely astonishing, it is also packed with meanings: they are a couple of pathetic blackmailers and nuisances; but they also stand for the whole threatening “modernity” of the castle’s universe: they are cops, reporters, paparazzi: agents of the total destruction of private life; they are the innocent clowns who wander across the stage as the drama proceeds; but they are also lecherous voyeurs whose presence imbues the whole novel with the sexual scent of a smutty, Kafkaesquely comic promiscuity.
But above all: the invention of these two assistants is like a lever that hoists the story into that realm where everything is at once strangely real and unreal, possible and impossible. Chapter Twelve: K, Frieda, and the two assistants camp in a grade-school classroom that they have turned into a bedroom. The teacher and the pupils come in just as the incredible menage a quatre are starting their morning toilet: they get dressed behind the blankets hung from the parallel bars, while the children watch–amused, intrigued, curious (voyeurs themselves). It is more than the encounter of an umbrella with a sewing machine. It is the superbly incongruous encounter of two spaces; a grade-school classroom with a dubious bedroom.
This scene with its enormous comic poetry (which should head the list in an anthology of modernism in the novel) would have been unthinkable in the pre-Kafka era. Totally unthinkable. I stress this in order to make dear the full radical nature of Kafka’s aesthetic revolution. I recall a conversation, by now twenty years back, with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who told me: “It was Kafka who showed me that it’s possible to write another way.” “Another way” means: breaking through the plausibility barrier. Not in order to escape the real world (the way the Romantics did) but to apprehend it better.
Because apprehending the real world is part of the definition of the novel: but how to both apprehend it and at the same time engage in an enchanting game of fantasy? How be rigorous in analyzing the world and at the same time be irresponsibly free at playful reveries? How bring these two incompatible purposes together? Kafka managed to solve this enormous puzzle. He cut a breach in the wall of plausibility; the breach through which many others followed him, each in his own way: Fellini, Marquez, Fuentes, Rushdie. And others, others.
To hell with Saint Garta! His castrating shadow has blocked our view of one of the novel’s greatest poets of all time.