July 3


Kafka was born this morning, still a human being, not yet the "ungeheueren Ungeziefer", the "monstrous verminous bug", into which he would later metamorphose, not yet the "Hungerk√ľnstler", the "Hunger Artist", whom he would eventually become, and which would, quite literally, consume him.

Some books you go cover to cover, plot and character and denouement, been there, done that, maybe see the movie if they make one. Others are meant for short bursts of occasional, random, unfinished reading, on a train say, or while waiting for the kids, or in the bath, the coffee bar, and frankly it really doesn't matter whether Marcel ends up with Albertine or not, or who killed papa Karamazov, or whether Brobdingnag or Lilliput wins the war, because the whole point of books like these isn't plot or character or denouement anyway, but what the author has to say, and how he says it.

In this way do I return, to Brecht's and Rilke's poems, to Borges' Tales, to Durrell's descriptive passages, and to Franz Kafka's Diaries, where I always seem to find something I hadn't paid proper attention to before; and more significantly, something that would go unnoticed in consecutive reading. On this occasion, from the Octavo Notebook B, a superb metaphor for the act of poesy:-

“I have - who else can speak so freely of his abilities? - the wrist of a lucky, untiring, old angler. For instance, I sit at home before I go out fishing, and, watching closely, turn my right hand first this way and then that. This is enough to reveal to me, by the look and the feeling of it, the result of the fishing expedition on which I am about to set out, and often down to the very detail. I see the water of the place where I shall fish, and the particular current at the particular hour; a cross-section of the river appears to me; distinct in number and in species, at up to ten, twenty or even a hundred different places, fish thrust towards the edge of this cross-section; now I know how to cast the line; some thrust their heads through the edge without coming to harm, then I let the hook dangle before them, and at once they are hanging on it; the brevity of this moment of destiny delights me even at the table at home; other fish thrust forward up to the belly, now it is high time, some still I manage to overtake, others again slip through the dangerous edge right up to their tails and for the time being are lost to me, only for this time though; from a real angler no fish escapes.”
Not too much ever got past Franz's meticulous pen, despite his modesty! This would also make a fascinating exemplar for a teaching exercise on the fastidious use of punctuation - almost Beckettian here, with commas for Pause and semi-colons for Silence: the creation of a continuous event within a single instant of imagining, and time factored out in punctuation marks.

Less fully fleshed-out than in the novels and parables, K's diaries repeatedly play with metaphors of the act of writing, some more effective than others. On the 15th November 1911, for example, he writes:-

“It is certain that everything I have conceived in advance, even when I was in a good mood, whether word for word or just casually, but in specific words, appears dry, wrong, inflexible, embarrassing to everyone around me, timid, but above all incomplete, when I try to write it down at my desk, although I have forgotten nothing of the original conception. This is naturally related in large part to the fact that I conceive something good away from the page only in a time of exaltation, a time more feared than longed for, much as I do long for it; but then the fullness is so great that I have to give up. Blindly and arbitrarily I snatch handfuls out of the stream so that when I write the fullness in which it lived is incapable of restoring this fullness, and thus is bad and disturbing because it tempts to no purpose.”

Spontaneity versus the constructed work of Art - the age-old debate. Creative writing schools can only conceive of the latter; writers of genius tend to the former, but dangerously, because they fail to comment on how much time they spend after the moment of inspiration, touching up, putting flesh upon the skeleton, and how many years previous to the first word, living and learning and reflecting and improving, until they were finally ready.

And how far is this timid little soul, overly self-conscious almost to a point of paranoia, a mere literary invention, like Woody Allen's klutz, or Chaplin's tramp, or Beckett's Malone and Molloy who owe so much to Kafka? So many of his comments suggest, not the dry paranoiac of the literary critical deconstructions, but a laughing Kafka, rocking in his chair as he re-reads his carefully constructed prose, wondering if the world will ever see through him, will ever get his joke. This is probably a falsehood on my part, but someone needs to think it.

The last sentence in that November 11th piece is the one that interests me the most however, for this is Kafka's real syndrome. Syntactically it is complex, but I think my translation works better than others I have read, as much as anything for dispensing with the excessive punctuation. What disturbs me is not what disturbs Kafka. For him it is - metaphorically - that disappointment-of-the-orgasm which so dismayed the Metaphysicals; in K's case poetic rather than sexual. What disturbs is that a man, any man and not just Donne or Kafka, should even want even the perfect orgasm to be sufficient. Perfection and ephemerality cannot lodge together, and life is compounded on infinitudes of ephemeralities - including the rare transitory moments of seeming perfection. The excitement of endless future possibility lies precisely in being reconciled with disappointment as a fact of life.

Max Brod, his best friend who ultimately betrayed him (where would Jesus be now, without Judas? see June 3) by refusing to fulfill the instruction in K's will, and destroy all his unpublished manuscripts, Max Brod once said, of writing his biography of K:- "One has to write as if one was writing into a tunnel, without knowing how the figures will develop..." Did Kafka teach him that, or did he know it for himself?

Elsewhere ("Circulation" in Private Collection), I have tried to tie together some seemingly interconnected threads between Kafka and Gottfried Benn, a little-known poet in England, but highly regarded in the German-speaking world. And in a separate piece in the same blog-book, "Zenith", similar threads that interconnect Kafka with the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, and both of them with Benn. Labyrinths and the invention of our own precursors, as Borges, who also belongs in that literary group, once insisted.

Amber pages

Ken Russell, movie director, born today in 1927 - did Russell ever make a film about Kafka, in his documentary days with the BBC, before he started making movies?

Tom Stoppard, playwright, born today in 1937 - see September 2

First colour TV transmission, today in 1928, in London, remote control buttons held by John Logie Baird.

Amelia Earhart, US aviatrix, lost over the Pacific, today in 1937 - see my novel "A Journey In Time"

Jim Morrison, vocalist for The Doors, died today, in 1971, 
in Paris; drugs mostly

Raid on Entebbe, today in 1976; they made three films about it at the time, and now, as I write this (May 2018) another is about to be released in the UK. I wonder if Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whose brother Yoni led the raid, and died on it, will be attending the world premi

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