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First impressions of Kafka: The Judgement

After Contemplation, on to a longer story by Kafka. Naturally enough, there’s more of a sense of movement within ‘The Judgement’, but to begin with I felt I was reading something clearly ‘of a piece’ with the Kafka I’d already read. When we meet him, Georg Bendemann has just finished writing a letter to a friend of his who now lives in Russia. From Georg’s thoughts, it is clear just how difficult he found it to decide what to write:

Should you advise him to come home, to take up his old life here, pick up the threads of his former friendships – there was no reason why he shouldn’t – and look to the support of his friends in other ways too? That was tantamount to telling him (and the more carefully one did it, the more wounding it was) that his endeavours thus far had been a failure, that he should call a halt and come home – and thenceforth suffer himself to be stared at by everyone as a returnee…

This is only part of a long series of what-ifs that recalls pieces like ‘The Sudden Walk’, and there’s another one soon after where Georg is wondering whether to mention that he’s recently become engaged (and whether he’d want his friend to come back for the wedding). By now, I’m used to being immersed in this uncertainty from Kafka. But then, Georg heads over to his father’s room, and something starts to feel different; or, rather, there’s a sense of something from the earlier pieces happening on a larger scale.

There are shifts in mood and emphasis, but they happen within the same scene, rather than between individual paragraphs. First, our impression of Georg’s father is that he’s ill and weak; then, the father commands our attention with a long speech that questions whether his son even has a friend in Russia; then Georg is the strong one again, carrying his father to bed; and so it continues. In his introduction to the collection, translator Michael Hofmann comments that ‘The Judgement’ feels “like a code that makes sense”, and I think he has a point. There’s a sense of something going on, or some secret, just beyond our reach, which might explain everything that happens. Then again, perhaps there isn’t – either way, we’ll never know.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

‘The Judgement’ (1913) by Franz Kafka, in Metamorphosis and Other Stories (2007), tr. Michael Hofmann, Penguin Modern Classics paperback

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First impressions of Kafka: The Passenger

‘The Passenger’ stands out in Contemplation as the piece that encapsulates my impressions of Kafka’s work at this point. Like ‘The Men Running Past’, it has three paragraphs, each acting like a movement in a piece of music. The first paragraphs establishes the narrator: waiting for a tram, questioning his very being (“I am not even able to justify my standing there on the platform”). In the second paragraph, he notices a young woman and describes her in precise detail:

She has quantities of chestnut hair, and a few stray wisps of it are blown across her right temple. Her small ear is pressed tight against the side of her head…

Though the protagonist may be uncertain of himself, he seems certain of what he perceives about this woman. Yet what does he really know? He says in the last paragraph:

I asked myself at the time: how is it that she is not astonished at herself; that she keeps her mouth closed, and expresses nothing of any wonderment?

We go from the narrator’s doubts in the first paragraph, to an apparently stable portrait of someone else in the second, before that closing question returns us to uncertainty: there’s no answer, because we cannot know what the woman is thinking – indeed, she might be mulling over her own set of questions, or wondering in just the way that the narrator assumes she is not.

The narrator’s question also sums up what may be my strongest impression of Kafka’s work having read Contemplation: the sense that, beneath the most everyday situations, there may be untold emotional and intellectual depths that we cannot reach.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Contemplation (1913) by Franz Kafka, published in Metamorphosis and Other Stories(2007), tr. Michael Hofmann, Penguin Modern Classics paperback

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First impressions of Kafka: The Men Running Past

One thing that strikes me again and again in the pieces from Kafka’s Contemplation is the dizzying way they open up interior worlds – the way Kafka reveals the uncertainty beneath seemingly ordinary moments. In ‘The Men Running Past’, the narrator is out walking one night and sees a man running in the opposite direction, being chased by another, but chooses not to intervene. The next paragraph – another of Kafka’s swirling, open sentences – goes through the reasons why:

…it is possible that the two men have devised their chase for their own amusement, perhaps they are both in pursuit of a third man…

Some of these possibilities are quite fanciful, others reveal that ‘we’ are just afraid of the consequences of getting involved (“perhaps the first of them is carrying a weapon”). But the effect of this long chain of ‘perhapses’ is to dissolve a concrete opening of action into a swirl of uncertainty. As with ‘The Sudden Walk’, the last paragraph closes this off:

And finally, may we not be tired, and have we not had a lot of wine to drink? We are relieved not to see the second man.

But where ‘The Sudden Walk’ leaves us with a sense of a new beginning, the end of ‘The Men Running Past’ feels more like a truce: there will be no resolution – a story has been averted.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Contemplation (1913) by Franz Kafka, published in Metamorphosis and Other Stories(2007), tr. Michael Hofmann, Penguin Modern Classics paperback

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First impressions of Kafka: The Sudden Walk

I don’t know why it has taken me so long to get around to reading Kafka, except perhaps that it’s only too easy to dwell on the writers you’d like to read one day, to the point that ‘one day’ never comes. Anyway, I’ve bought myself a copy of the 2007 Penguin Modern Classics edition of Metamorphosis and Other Stories, which collects together the stories that Kafka allowed to be published in his lifetime, all translated by Michael Hofmann. I am starting from the beginning, with the short pieces collected in 1913 as Contemplation. What I’m going to do for now is just pick out a few of these pieces and try to capture what struck me, what it was like to read them. No doubt there will be much more to see once I’ve read deeper into Kafka’s bibliography, but this blog is meat to record reading as a work-in-progress – so…

What I’d really like to do with ‘The Sudden Walk’ is reproduce the whole thing and let it speak for itself, because quoting it can’t capture the effect. But I have to try. The piece consists of two single-sentence paragraphs. The first takes up a page, and is an extraordinary cascade of details (or, perhaps, conditions):

When it seems we have finally decided to stay home of the evening, have slipped into our smoking jackets, are sitting at a lit table after supper, and have taken out some piece of work or game at the conclusion of which we customarily go to bed, when the weather outside is inclement, which makes it perfectly understandable that we are staying at home….

This sentence is wonderfully open in terms of where it could go, but there’s also a sense of indecisiveness – and, indeed, halfway through, ‘we’ change our minds and go back out again. The result of this is that the family “drifts into vaporousness, whereas we ourselves, as indisputable and sharp and black as a silhouette, smacking the backs of our thighs, come into our true nature.” The openness of the sentence is closed off with that ‘smacking’ – a sense of finality, even confidence, with coming into one’s ‘true nature’, tempered by the insubstantiality of the silhouette image.

Then comes the second sentence-paragraph: “And all this may even be accentuated if, at this late hour, we go to seek out some friend, to see how he is doing.” The relative brevity of this sentence feels like an even firmer closing-off, a trapdoor over the first paragraph. But it also opens up an entirely new possibility – visiting the friend – which, of course, we’ll never get to see. The world is open, closed, open and closed again, all from a decision to leave the house one evening.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Contemplation (1913) by Franz Kafka, in Metamorphosis and Other Stories (2007), tr. Michael Hofmann, Penguin Modern Classics paperback

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High Tide: reading in fragments

The Latvian writer Inga Ābele’s High Tide begins with Ieva ruminating on how fleeting true happiness can be, how thin the veneer on the cold world (you trade the suffering of existence in return for the smell of baking bread”). Then the novel heads back through Ieva’s three decades of life to uncover exactly how she ended up feeling this way. The revelations come – for example, we discover that Ieva’s husband Andrejs was convicted for murder – but the cumulative effect is where Ābele’s novel shines the most for me.

High Tide is told haphazardly – not strictly in reverse chronological order, but something close to that. It goes through a number of different forms and styles: one chapter is entirely in dialogue; one is a series of letters; and so on. One that really struck me is a monologue where we discover that Ieva’s daughter Monta feels distant from her mother and has never been to see her father; the combination of a dense block of text and a breezily informal tone conveys the sense that Monta is desperate to get out of a situation, a state of being, that she may never quite be able to shake off. Kaija Straumanis’ translation is full of these subtle effects.

The overall experience of reading Ābele’s novel, I found, is one of reading in fragments. Because it’s not a smooth reverse-chronological narrative, and because the chapters can’t all be Ieva’s recollections, the book never quite settles into a seamless whole. So one ends up focusing on the individual pieces – appropriately enough, as one senses that this is how Ieva experiences her own life.

Book details (publisher link)

High Tide (2008) by Inga Ābele, tr. kaija Straumanis (2013), Open Letter paperback

Read more of my posts for Women in Translation Month.

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A glimpse of the lake

From the book I’ve just read: a quotation on how reading can open doors to new worlds – and then close them again all too quickly:

Knock, and the door will be opened unto you. Maybe not quite opened, but something will definitely change—if that makes you happy. Maybe new wallpaper. Moving to a new apartment. A new perfume. A new perspective. And a new picture. If an irrational hope sparks in your veins now and again, it could even be the moment when you’re on the train reading a book translated into Latvian, and in a brief flash you realize that you understand the author, the main character, and the life of the translator. For a second, all three of these personas unite in you, not in a linear sense, but in a  predestined, glowing arc. You go inside and can suddenly see through to the bottom of a frozen lake, to the stillness of the undercurrent between motionless water lilies. Then you turn the page and it all disappears. You’re back in your own body, you have to buy milk for the kid, and a heart to cook up for the dog—a giant, red, cow  heart—and bring it all home, you have to be a hunter because all around you are nothing but frozen, wintery fields that destroy everything warm and alive.

Book details (publisher link)

High Tide (2008) by Inga Ābele, tr. kaija Straumanis (2013), Open Letter paperback

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A reading acrostic

Just for fun, here’s something I saw on Annabel’s blog the other day: make an acrostic of your name from the titles of books that you’ve read this year. To make it more of a challenge, I decided to use my first name and surname.  I managed it… just about. I had to use two books that I’d read but not reviewed as well as read, and even the original-language title of a book that I read in English. But that’s all part of the fun!

D is for Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas (tr. Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean)

A is for Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth

V is for (The) Vegetarian by Han Kang (tr. Deborah Smith)

I is for Into the Trees by Robert Williams

D is for Diving Belles by Lucy Wood

H is for Hotel Arcadia by Sunny Singh

E is for (The) End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck (tr. Susan Bernofsky)

B is for (The) Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Iván Repila (tr. Sophie Hughes)

B is for (The) Beginning of the End by Ian Parkinson

L is for (The) Last Lover by Can Xue (tr. Annelise Finegan)

E is for (The) Ecliptic by Benjamin Wood

T is for To Mervas by Elisabeth Rynell (tr. Victoria Häggblom)

H is for (At) Hawthorn Time by Melissa Harrison

W is for White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen (tr. Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah)

A is for Atlas: the Archaeology of an Imaginary City by Dung Kai-cheung (tr. Dung Kai-cheung, Anders Hansson and Bonnie S. McDougall)

I is for In the Beginning Was the Sea by Tomás González (tr. Frank Wynne)

T is for Take It Cool by Jonathan Pinnock

E is for Ett Annat Liv (The Wandering Pine) by Per Olov Enquist (tr. Deborah Bragan-Turner)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Reading ‘In the Wind’ by Jung Mi-kyung

The first two stories in Jung Mi-kyung’s collection My Son’s Girlfriend were good, but they didn’t prepare me for this…

‘In the Wind’ started innocuously enough, with its narrator looking at the quivering bunch of cells in the Petri dish before her, and wondering if IVF is really what she wants. But then it got under my skin, and I’m still trying to process how and why.

Now, I’ll admit I’m a sucker for symbolism and patterning in a story, and ‘In the Wind’ has plenty of those. The would-be embryo looks to the protagonist like a flower, and there are recurring images of petals, and fragile things blowing on the wind. Jung’s narrator also sees the cells as being somewhere between mere existence and ‘life’ proper; and she has similar uncertainties about other things – her own life, her relationships.

But that alone doesn’t account for my response. This is a story that burrowed down into me and wouldn’t be coaxed back out. There’s nothing obviously flashy about Yu Young-nan’s translation from the Korean; but I think that very ordinariness allows the narrator’s doubts to spread and fester, up to that final line: “I shuddered violently at the thought that nothing had changed.”

When I respond strongly to fiction, it’s a visceral reaction. With ‘In the Wind’, this wasn’t a pleasant feeling by any means, and I’ve had to put the book aside for now to read something else. `But still… it was exhilarating – it was what reading is all about for me. So I will be going back… tentatively.

Book details (Publisher link)

My Son’s Girlfriend by Jung Mi-kyung (2008), tr. Yu Young-nan (2013), Dalkey Archive Press paperback

Read more of my posts for Women in Translation Month.

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Second Impressions: Alina Bronsky

Much as I like discovering unfamiliar writers, one of the pleasures of reading an author for the second time in particular is that it allows you to start making connections and building a tentative picture of that author’s approach and concerns. The picture might eventually turn out to be inaccurate, but that’s all part of the exploration of reading.

I’ve now read two novels by Alina Bronsky, so I can form a better picture of her work. Vivid narrators are a key element, which is no surprise following the powerful presence of Rosa in The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, but it’s still good to have this underlined. If Marek in Just Call Me Superhero isn’t quite as a strong a presence – well, few would be. Besides, his distance from the reader (from everyone, from himself) is a central part of his nature as a character.

Bronsky also filters reality through the perception of her narrators in striking ways. Rosa is so sure of her self-image that there’s a certain wry humour (and, later, melancholy) in realising that the actuality is rather different. Marek isn’t so much deluded about his situation as too guarded to let others in, including the reader. We’re with him as he crosses the boundaries into unfamiliar territory, and we see his ambivalence about getting closer to someone else.

Here’s hoping, then, for many more interesting characters’ worlds to come from Alina Bronsky.

Book details (Publisher link / Foyles affiliate link)

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine (2010) by Alina Bronsky, tr. Tim Mohr (2011), Europa Editions paperback

Just Call Me Superhero (2013) by Alina Bronsky, tr. Tim Mohr (2014), Europa Editions paperback

Read more of my posts for Women in Translation Month.

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Just Call Me Superhero: into the unknown

If To Mervas is a novel of moving from inside to outside and back again, Alina Bronsky’s Just Call Me Superhero (translated from the German by Tim Mohr) is one of crossing into unfamiliar worlds. It begins with our narrator, Marek, arriving at what he thinks will be a tutorial to help him pass his high school diploma – only to find that his mother has actually sent him to a support group for disabled people. Marek was disfigured after being attacked by a Rottweiler, but he wants nothing to do with any sort of disability group – until, that is, he spots the beautiful Janne sitting there in her wheelchair.

One of the first things I began to notice about Just Call Me Superhero was how tightly controlled was the flow of information about Marek– for instance, we never learn the full story of his disfigurement. We are firmly in the ‘here and now’ of Marek’s life; there is a clear sense of going only as far into his world as he will allow. That’s what it’s like for Marek with the disability group (particularly the frosty reception he gets from Janne), though there’s also reluctance on his part to enter the group and open himself to them.

Bronsky’s novel is effectively structured into two halves, with Marek taking reluctant steps into two of these unfamiliar spheres. In the first half, it’s the disability group; in the second, it is the family of his father, who eloped with the au pair and had a son whom Marek barely knows. Bronsky draws intriguing parallels between the two groups, and one question hangs above all: is there a family for Marek, among all these people?

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Just Call Me Superhero (2013) by Alina Bronsky, tr. Tim Mohr (2014), Europa Editions paperback

Read more of my posts for Women in Translation Month.

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