Review of “Kafkaesque” edited by John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly, SF Site, 2012

I previously blogged a shorter piece, adapted from this review, on Kafka and alternate history. Here is a full review of what was an enjoyable book to read,

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“Kafkaesque” is a word used very often to describe bureaucratic snafus and paradoxes. Even people who have never read a word of Kafka use it to describe their encounter with the Department of Motor Vehicles, or airport security. So pervasive has “Kafkaesque” become that it has nearly lost its link with the works of Franz Kafka. When it comes to trying to summarise this wonderful anthology, I have something of a dilemma. I would recommend it unhesitatingly to anyone who has ever read any Kafka (even — perhaps especially — if they didn’t like the experience), but what about those for whom Kafkaesque is a noun they use but Kafka is not someone they’ve read?

On reflection, the answer is yes. This anthology — which after all includes Kafka’s own “The Hunger Artist,” and a version of the same story by R. Crumb — is both an ideal introduction to Kafka’s writings and an surpassingly excellent anthology in its own right. An ideal introduction as the stories capture the strangeness, wonder, despair and humour which Kafka’s work exemplifies (often all at the same time). And an excellent anthology in its own right as stories such as Jeffrey Ford’s “Bright Morning” and T.C. Boyle’s “The Big Garage” would be worthy inclusions in any collection of speculative, surreal, slipstream-ish (not to nail the genre coffin lid on too tight) stories.

This beautifully designed little volume consists of eighteen stories (as well as a witty, insightful introduction from the editors, and a handy Kafka chronology) each of which is preceded by a brief piece from the story’s author on Kafka’s influence on them and the story. After each story the editors provide their thoughts on the story. So what we have is a sort of extension of the anthology concept. Not only does each story itself reflect and deepen our reading of Kafka, the authors’ and editors’ contributions deepen our appreciation not just of the story, or of Kafka, but of the whole web of influences and reflections that every author exists in.

In a famous essay, “Kafka and His Precursors,” Jorge Luis Borges identified a diverse band of stories, poems and essays which bore the mark of Kafka. They were an assorted bunch — Browning, Kierkegaard, Léon Bloy, Zeno of the eponymous paradox inter alia. As Borges wrote, these were not necessarily authors we would have linked were it not for Kafka. Yet there is unmistakably something of the Kafka spirit about the works he discusses. Kafka creates his precursors, as much as his precursors created him. His work modified our perception of the past, as it will modify that of the future.

Of course, our perception of Kafka is modified by our own preoccupations and concerns. Kafka’s own work never contains the word “Jew” and explicit consideration of Jewishness is absent. Many of the stories in this collection deal with themes of Jewishness. Our contemporary concern with ethnicity and diversity is surely part of this; more significant may be the Holocaust. Kafka’s work is often seen as a prefiguration of the totalitarianisms of the Twentieth Century, and also as a premonition of the attempted industrial extermination of a whole population. Orson Welles, in his film version of The Trial, described his final scene as an explicit invocation of the Holocaust; we read Kafka now in the shadow of an event that began fourteen years after he died. Tamar Yellin’s excellent “Kafka in Bronteland” explores Kafka’s Jewishness — and the narrator’s — in a way that is never strained or (despite what one might think from the title) overly “literary.” It is the final story in the anthology and one that has a real sense of compressed power, a sense of being a summing up that opens up new possibilities.

I am being rather perverse discussing the final story first. Some of the stories, such as Borges’ own “The Lottery in Babylon” and J.G. Ballard’s “The Drowned Giant,” are Kafkaesque in spirit. Others, such as Carol Emshwiller’s “Report to the Men’s Club,” Damon Knight’s “The Handler” and Boyle’s “The Big Garage” use Kafkaian tropes and themes (with varying degrees of explicitness) but do not invoke Franz by name. Of course, as readers we may think we are finding allusions when the author hasn’t meant there to be. Eileen Gunn, in her reflection on her insect transformation story “Stable Strategies For Middle Management,” describes how her inspiration came from a particularly anthropomorphic sentence from David Attenborough’s Life On Earth: A Natural History. It was only later, discussing her work on the story with a writer friend, that she realised the Kafkaian parallels. And now the story takes its place in an anthology of stories “inspired by Franz Kafka.”

Another strain — and possibly the stories which Kafka aficionados will perhaps get more out of than the Kafka virgin — is the story in which Kafka and his works feature directly. I have to say these were the stories I enjoyed most myself — and in their invention and wit, I personally feel confident that the hypothetical person who had never read a word of Kafka would too. “Bright Morning” is a perfect example, a tale which Jeffrey Ford wrote partly to exorcise the overwhelming influence of Kafka, which combines weird wit, vampirism, and a very literary ghost story into a package that may be the most haunting short story I’ve read all year. Johnathan Lethem and Carter Scholz’s “Receding Horizon” has Kafka survive his tuberculosis and cross the Atlantic, changes his name to Jack Dawson, become a screenwriter and work with his near-namesake Frank Capra. The story becomes a retelling of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Quentin Tarantino said once that what he found really interesting about Capra’s seasonal tale of Everyman realising his indispensability was not the redemptive ending but the despair and alienation of George Bailey. Lethem and Scholz insert themselves into the narrative in the best metafictional tradition, yet the whole thing works and never seems overly contrived or clever-clever.

Scholz, as a solo writer, is represented by “The Amount to Carry,” which takes Kafka’s day job in the insurance industry and imagines him crossing the Atlantic (a recurrent theme of quite a few of these stories) to attend a conference where he meets his fellow insurance professionals Charles Ives and Wallace Stevens. Lethem and Scholz have co written a book of five stories on Kafka in America, Kafka Americana, published originally by Subterranean Press and republished by W.W. Norton.

Paul di Fillipo’s “The Jackdaw’s Last Case” (at this point the reader may be interested to know that kavka is the Czech for “jackdaw”) is perhaps the wildest, most fun reimagining of the real Franz Kafka, this time as a caped crusader against crime in New York. Kafka writes for a newspaper owned by Bernarr Macfadden, a historical figure I had never heard of and I am eternally grateful to di Fillipo that now I have.

What this collection is, above all, is entertaining. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Kafka is actually very funny, which is not what one is usually meant by the popular word “Kafkaesque.” As Rudy Rucker, author of gothic identify-shift of “The 57th Franz Kafka,” observes in his pre-story reflection: “Kafka himself considered his stories to be funny. His friend Max Brod reports that Kafka once fell out of his chair from laughing so hard while reading aloud from one of his works, perhaps from Die Verwandlung, that is, ‘The Metamorphosis.’ Our puritanical and self-aggrandizing American culture tends to make out Kafka’s work to be solemn and portentous. But it’s funny the same way as Donald Duck comics.”

The one literary work I thought might have been included but wasn’t was an excerpt from Alan Bennet’s play Kafka’s Dick, or Bennet’s mordantly witty introduction, which explored the legacy of Max Brod and what it means to be talented and hard working yet overshadowed by genius (I do not know enough about Brod’s real life to know if this reflects reality, or if it is a Amadeus style myth).

Beautifully designed, typeset and presented, it is an example of what superb artefacts physical books can be. Even the less engaging or entertaining stories manage to provoke thought, to be part of a great conversation between Kafka, the authors, the editors, and ourselves. Borges described how Kafka both created and was created by his precursors; the stories in this anthology are not only to be read in the shadow of Kafka but modify our own perception of the master.

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Photographs of Jorge Luis Borges in Palermo, 1984, by Ferdinando Scianna

I came across this wonderful photo by Fernandino Scianna on twitter:

It turns out that on the Magnum Photo Agency site there is a series of photos of Borges by Scianna. Most (but not all) of these are from a 1984 visit by Borges to Palermo in Sicily (Borges grew up in a Buenos Aires district called Palermo)

Obviously the copyright lies with Scianna and I will advise readers to go to Magnum site to browse, but I couldn’t resist this photo of Borges touching a bust of Julius Caesar:

Palermo: touching a sculpture of Julius Caesar in the Archeological Museum.

Oh and another from a visit to the National Gallery:

Palermo: the National Galery.

 

From “Quest for God in the Work of Borges”, Annette U. Flynn

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I recently started this book by UCD Lecturer Annette U Flynn. Her biography is worth noting and outlines a winding if not forking path into academia:

 

I grew up in the mountains of the Schwäbische Alb in Southern Germany. After my initial studies at the University of Tübingen, and with the help of the DAAD, I was assigned to Morayshire, on the Northern Scotland coast, to try my hand at teaching pupils at a secondary school. It also led me to adult education in Aberlour, in the Speyside Valley, where I taught Spanish to the workers of the local whisky distilleries. This was the beginning of a long standing love affair with my host country which lasted until 2002, when I came to Ireland to take up my post at UCD.

In Scotland, I worked as a legal translator, and soon started on a new degree course at the University of Edinburgh, joint majoring in Spanish and Italian with Portuguese. This was followed by an MSc (the Scottish equivalent of the Irish MA), and the PhD. I was extremely fortunate to be supervised in my postgraduate studies by Edwin Williamson, who now is at the University of Oxford.

I taught at the universities of Edinburgh and Stirling, and also had the privilege of working for the German publishing House Klett as a lexicographer.

In 2003 I got married and now live in County Wicklow with my husband Dave, who is a painter and writer.

One of my loves is the Argentine tango, which I think is one of the most complete and exciting art forms. It is profound, unpredictable and inexhaustible, very much like Borges.

I look forward to reading and absorbing the whole book which deals with one of my favourite writers from a perspective oft-ignored. As is the way of forking paths, it has introduced me to the philosophy of Hans Vaihinger of “as-if”… and I fear that the footnotes and references of Annette U Flynn’s book may lead me down paths that distract from actually reading it!

Here is an extract:

 

 

The abiding themes of time and identity, which Borges explores, and which he battles with throughout all of his creative life, are an expression of his desire to find a release from these problematic concepts. The quest for the divine in his stories, the unfulfilled spiritual quest of his characters, is not accidental. It is also a metaphor which points to a need to heal a fragile sense of personal self. This is evidenced in one of his very early essays of 1923, ‘La nadería de la personalidad’, where he recounts a personal experience of parting from a friend for good. Borges is prompted, he tells us, by a deep, emotional desire to reveal his soul, his innermost self, to his friend. But this gives way to a vehement, intellectual denial of that very essence of the self. This violent shift from yearning to intellectual denial points to a sense of self which is, in its essence, wounded. This oscillation between affirmation and denial is to be played out again and again. His captivating and intellectually stimulating texts also reveal a lesser known aspect: his struggle to attain a faith reality as expressed in the anguished search for spiritual plenitude. His texts and his characters do speak, openly in some cases, obliquely in others, of a search, a yearning, if not always explicitly for faith itself or God, then for a spiritual experience of some kind or another. The consequences of this difficult search are the emergence of a fragile sense of self, fragmented and caught in a stricture between affirmation and denial. Borges’ fragile sense of self has implications for his notion of time, and vice versa. Both are linked to his spiritual searching.”

Happy #WorldLabyrinthDay 2018

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Happy World Labyrinth Day! :

Celebrate the 10th Annual World Labyrinth Day on May 5, 2018 and join over 5,000 people taking steps for peace, ‘Walking as One at 1’ in the afternoon. Last year gatherings were held in over 20 countries and 45 US states!

For those new to labyrinths, find one to walk in your area using the World Wide Labyrinth Locator. You can also learn to draw or build a simple labyrinth with links in our resources section below. Already planning your event? Be counted and fill out our survey with the WLD Google Form.

Members of the Labyrinth Society are encouraged to facilitate group walks at public labyrinths to engage the community and amplify our collective energy. World Labyrinth Day is also a great opportunity to introduce others to the path by organizing lectures, workshops, tours, book readings, art exhibitions, or building temporary or permanent labyrinths.

If you are unable to ‘Walk as One at 1’ other opportunities to participate include tracing a finger labyrinth on paper or using a mobile app. Labyrinth walks and events can also be held in the morning or evening, as others will be walking in unison with you in other time zones. Just as there are a wide variety of uses of the labyrinth, creativity and multiplicity are encouraged.

Today I am one of those unable to Walk as One at 1 due to work commitments, but I am aiming to mark the event in some way around that time…. and here are some of my labyrinth related posts from this blog:

A Labyrinth on the Rock of Cashel

Castletownroche, Co. Cork – labyrinths, dinosaurs, and spies.

The Labyrinth of Mr Price

The snowy mini-labyrinth of Mr Price

Glencomeragh in February

World Labyrinth Day 2017 – May 6th, 1 pm

“it is astonishing that each morning we wake up sane – that is, relatively sane -after having passed through that zone of shades, those labyrinths of dreams”

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“Democracy is a thing which is always breaking down through the complexity of civilisation” – GK Chesterton, Allan Massie and complexity

. As I have recently written, I am reading a collection of Allan Massie’s Life and Letters columns from the Spectator, which is full of shrewd judgments. In particular there is this on G K Chesterton:

What is disconcerting for many about Chesterton is that, while deadly serious, he revelled in paradoxes, absurdity and farce. He believed in the Devil, believed in him as perhaps few in the last centuries did, but the weapon he employed against him was laughter; he was at one with Rabelais : ‘the discovery of the reality of evil and the battle against it are at the basis of all gaiety and even of all farce’.

Chesterton would have found Orwell admirable — and ridiculous; ridiculous because of his solemnity. ‘The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums’, he declared. He thought in paradoxes, on the sensible ground that if an idea is worth anything it ought to be able to be held upside down and shaken about.

Sometimes, admittedly, the paradoxes flew too easily, too frequently and tiresomely from his pen. He wrote too much and often, I suspect, when he was tired, and then the paradoxes had a mechanical or tinkling sound like music from an elderly barrel-organ. But at his best they make you think, and this is always disturbing: ‘Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.’

That’s a thought you get your mind round. Because he was a man of faith he understood and valued doubt. He thought Charles II’s deathbed admission to the Roman Church proof of his perfect scepticism. The wafer might, or might not be, the body of Christ, but then it might, or might not be, a wafer. More than 70 years after his death he remains an entertaining writer, and a disquieting one. In the opinion of the editor of L’Atelier du Roman, Lakis Proguidis, ‘no twentieth-century author has so thoroughly examined the yawning gulf cut in each soul by the ideology of Progress’.

I know what Massie means about “too easily, too frequently and tiresomely” – at times in the polemical and apologetic works there is a sense of dead horses being flogged. At his best, however, there is a freshness to Chesterton’s prose, especially his fiction. Borges adored Chesterton, indeed placed him with Stevenson (and on one occasion Homer) in a personal pantheon.

Anyhow all this is prelude to a passage from The Everlasting Man which struck me as forcibly summarising the thoughts of Joseph Tainter on complexity:

It is far more probable that a primitive society was something like a pure democracy. To this day the comparatively simple agricultural communities are by far the purest democracies. Democracy is a thing which is always breaking down through the complexity of civilisation. Anyone who likes may state it by saying that democracy is the foe of civilisation. But he must remember that some of us really prefer democracy to civilisation, in the sense of preferring democracy to complexity.

Do you want to see what human eyes have never seen?

Do you want to see what human eyes have never seen?
Look at the moon
Do you want to hear what ears have never heard?
Listen to the birds cry
Do you want to touch what hands have never touched?
Touch the earth
Truly I say that God is about to create the world.

From The Theologians, Jorge Luis Borges

The opening lines of The Theologians:

After having razed the garden and profaned the chalices and altars, the Huns entered the monastery library on horseback and trampled the incomprehensible books and vituperated and burned them, perhaps fearful that the letters concealed blasphemies against their god, which was an iron scimitar. Palimpsests and codices were consumed, but in the heart of the fire, amid the ashes, there remained almost intact the twelfth book of the Civitas Dei, which relates how in Athens Plato taught that, at the centuries’ end, all things will recover their previous state and he in Athens, before the same audience, will teach this same doctrine anew. The text pardoned by the flames enjoyed special veneration and those who read and reread it in that remote province came to forget that the author had only stated this doctrine in order better to refute it.

“The story-within-a-story done right” : review of “The World House”, Guy Adams, SF Site 2010

“The story-within-a-story done right” : review of “The World House”, Guy Adams, SF Site 2010

Original here. Despite my enthusiasm here – and what I wrote in the penultimate paragraph – I didn’t read any of the succeeding books in this series. I was never, even at my adolescent height of enthusiasm for SF/fantasy, all that into the multivolume series which dominate the field.

The World House
Guy Adams
Angry Robot, 2010

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Done properly, the story within a story can have a vertiginous effect, a sense of being caught in an infinite loop, best described by Jorge Luis Borges in his lecture on “The Thousand And One Nights” collected in the book Seven Nights. The world-within-a-world story can have a similar effect. In a way, the hidden world is a theme not only of literature — from Horton Hears A Who to, it could be argued, the three stages of the afterlife in Dante’s Divine Comedy (Dante enters the afterworld through “a dark wood”) — but of myth of the underworld may be the first world-within-a-world story.

Guy Adams has created a rollercoaster of a story set in a world within a box — a world-within-a-world that is itself a Divine Comedy. For the box is, for most of those inside, a kind of after-life — those humans who enter the box do so at a moment of imminent death in this world — and it is certainly more an Inferno, or at best a Purgatorio, than a Paradiso. This is a world created out of the nightmares and fears of humans themselves, contained inside a box that is in fact a prison, with a very special prisoner.

The first third or so of the book is taken up by gradually introducing the multifarious cast of characters. From Spain during the Civil War to Harlem in the early 30s to the late night bars of New York in the 70s to Florida and an unnamed corner of England today, the pre-box lives of the characters are sketched artfully and speedily.

We begin with Miles, an English antique shop owner with poor financial judgement and a gambling habit, who gets on the wrong side of some very nasty characters indeed, and just before they blow him away on account of an unpaid debt he vanishes into the box. We also meet Penelope Simmons, a fun-loving Boston socialite in the 30s, who, about to be raped and murdered by her psychopathic fiancé Chester and his chauffeur at the end of a night out in Harlem, also disappears into the box. Both turn up at the same time and in the same area of the rambling, seemingly infinite house, which is where most of the action in the world takes place. If there is a main protagonist to the book, it is Miles, whose mordant world-view and lack of appetite for heroics, and lustful longing for Penelope (in fairness to Miles, at their first encounter Penelope is totally naked having escaped from Chester’s clutches just in time) are an earthy anchor point as the surreal action ensues. Miles and Penelope luckily team up with Carruthers, an Edwardian big game hunter and general man of action along the lines of Lord John Roxton from The Lost World who is determined, with admirable pluck, to escape the box altogether.

Interspersed with the stories of the box’s human inhabitants are brief vignettes of the story of some kind of super-powerful entities, probably extraterrestrial, who are responsible for the box’s existence. The box is a kind of prison for a renegade entity, one who stayed behind to enjoy tormenting the puny, pitiful humans whom its fellows had just been bored by.

In the early stages, it seems at times that Adams is throwing in yet another character from yet another setting, seemingly at random. As the story progresses, we realise that there are connections and commonalities there. And there seems to be another kind of inhabitant of the box — who seems able to exit and re-enter both the box and our own timeline. Alan Arthur, an academic in modern Florida with a large chunk of his memory missing, is drawn to this box (which, unsurprisingly for an artefact of such power and mystery, has been the subject of confused and fragmentary articles in some of the more out-of-the-mainstream media) for reasons that become clearer as the story progresses.

Too much more would give away not only the plot but the pleasure of reading the unfolding of this intricate tale. The world of the box is one of subtly altered reality, where benign seeming surfaces mask mortal dangers. From a jungle to snow-capped mountains to a sea of literal dreams, there are all the unnatural environments that one could think of. This may be a kind of after-life, but the box is a highly lethal place. Most of the visitors have a short life expectancy, and many resort to a brutish subhuman existence of cannibalism and fear.

Some of the most endearing characters are, unfortunately, not with us for long — although the conclusion does raise the possibility that the arrows of causality may have to be tinkered with, if not actually reversed. There will be a sequel, Restoration, which I for one will certainly be reading to see where the ride will go next.

World-within-a-world stories, like stories-within-stories, can be horribly self-indulgent and dull. After a while, the reader can lose interest in a story in which anything can happen with no real consequences, or in which random settings can be created. The crucial trick which Adams pulls off is to create compelling characters whose destiny becomes a matter of all-consuming interest in the reader. Adams is also adept at keeping the various strands of his highly productive imagination together, and creating a real sense of nightmare and indeed of menace in the story.