KAFKA AND THE CATS.

Elif Batuman has an amazing story in last week’s New York Times Magazine on the tangled history of Franz Kafka’s diaries and other papers. I won’t even try to summarize it, I’ll just quote a paragraph in which another writer provides a hilarious sort-of-summary:

Etgar Keret, a best-selling Israeli short-story writer who considers Kafka to be his greatest influence, proposes that Brod had no idea that Hoffe would sit on the papers for so long. “Half of us are married to people who say, ‘I’m just going to buy a pack of cigarettes,’ and never return,” he told me. “I think this is the literary version of that, with this Hoffe chick.” Keret characterizes Brod as “a good judge of texts, for sure, but a very bad judge of human characters.” If Brod could see what was happening now, Keret says, he would be “horrified.” Kafka, on the other hand, might be O.K. with it: “The next best thing to having your stuff burned, if you’re ambivalent, is giving it to some guy who gives it to some lady who gives it to her daughters who keep it in an apartment full of cats, right?”

Really, read the whole thing. You won’t regret it.
In other literary-legacy news: Antonina Pirozhkova, Engineer and Widow of Isaac Babel, Dies at 101 (Times obit by William Grimes; thanks, Eric!) and Tolstoy’s Guiding Light: “The philosophical writings of the author of War and Peace inspired followers from Moscow to Croydon and led to the creation of a Christian anarchist reform movement. Charlotte Alston examines the activities and influence of Tolstoy’s disciples.” (Thanks, Paul!)

Comments

  1. In Britain the leading centre of Tolstoyism was the Croydon Brotherhood Church and its associated colony at Purleigh near Maldon in Essex.
    You probably have to know southern England quite well to appreciate how funny this sounds (Croydon is very close to Gatwick airport). It reminds me of a P.G. Wodehouse story.

  2. Can’t pass a mention of Grimes without including a link to the Tale of the Chicken:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2001/03/21/living/21CHIC.html

  3. J.W. Brewer says:

    in English popular culture, is Croydon intrinsically funny (in a sad-sack can’t-get-no-respect way)? I have always been struck by the almost baffling intensity with which the line “But then we went to Croydon!” is sung in the autobiographical Mott the Moople song “Saturday Gigs.”

  4. I’m just now reading Canetti’s Das Gewissen der Worte [The Conscience of Words], which has a very long piece on the Trial and the Letters to Felice. I had not read the Letters, but they give the impression that Kafka was as neurotic as they come. But so what, I ask myself ? Well, as Canetti shows in great detail, the mixed-signal nature of Kafka’s “courtship” of Felice, then his sneaky para-courtship of Grete Bloch (a friend of Felice that Felice had asked to broker between her and Kafka), and then the “trial” by Felice’s family that led to Kafka’s being thrown out on his ear – all of this is very similar to the atmosphere and events of The Trial, which Kafka wrote soon afterwards.
    On page 2 of Batuman’s article, I found the curious expression “damp flags”:

    Walking home together afterward, they discussed their favorite writers. Brod praised a passage from the story “Purple Death” in which Gustav Meyrink “compared butterflies to great opened-out books of magic.” Kafka, who took no stock in magic butterflies, countered with a phrase from Hugo von Hoffmansthal: “the smell of damp flags in a hall.” Having uttered these words, he fell into a profound silence that left a great impression on Brod.

    What does “flags” mean here ? Banners hanging in a hall are not likely to get damp, so I wondered if “flags” meant “flagstones”. Sure enough, HERE is the passage from Hoffmansthal: ‘Der Geruch nasser Steine in einem Hausflur’ [the smell of damp flagstones in an entrance hall]. HERE is Goethe’s Hausflur in Frankfurt.
    As a connoisseur of phoney uses of the word “irony”, I appreciated this quote by Batuman:

    Philip Roth characterized this outcome as “yet another lurid Kafkaesque irony” that was being “perpetrated on 20th-century Western culture,” observing not only that Kafka was not German but also that his three sisters perished in Nazi death camps.

    But there is no irony here. Kafka wrote in German – exlusively, so far as I know – was often in Berlin and Vienna often in connection with his job (and to meet up with Felice), knew German-language culture, and was part of it. It’s obvious why the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach would like to have the literary legacy of a great writer-in-German – Batuman mentions some of those reasons, which do not include the disingenuous one given by Eva Hoffe that “In Israel there is no place to keep the papers so well as in Germany”. If the Austrian National Library is not in the running, it may be because they don’t have the money, or have other priorities. It’s also obvious why the National Library of Israel wants the legacy – for the same reasons, and the additional one that Kafka was Jewish. I don’t see what the Nazis have to do with any of this.
    If you like “Kafkaesque”, you’ll appreciate the all-too-human squabbling desctibed by Batuman. If you appreciate Kafka, then you will instead prefer to read and reread his works.

  5. J.W., I think so. There has been some remarking on the irony that the beautiful fashion model Kate Moss grew up in — of all places — Croydon!
    To speculate on the origin of this: it’s a cheap and ugly place to live in what used to be called “the stockbroker belt”, the ring of countryside in commuting distance of the City of London (Sussex, Hampshire, Surrey, Kent, Middlesex, Buckinghamshire). The latter was throughout the 20th century an expensive place to live. For the same reason, their peripheral relationship to London, places like Milton Keynes, Basildon, Stevenage, Croydon & others were developed in the 1960s as “new towns”. The new towns inevitably had a different character than the local towns: they had (ideally, at any rate) modernist centres designed with a Russian Constructivist or Corbusian cross-section (“streets in the air”) and an American plan (wide streets with lots of parking). To look at, new towns were atypical (by definition) and by the 1970s they were causing a lot of resentment, as was the influx of people who had no previous connection with the area — that too annoyed the locals.
    Prior to all this, Croydon is probably associated in most people’s minds with Croydon aerodrome, the place where Chamberlain, in 1938, returned from Berchtesgaden with his piece of paper. This is wrong; Chamberlain actually flew from & returned to Heston aerodrome, west of London (now near the Heston Services on the M4).

  6. Sorry to go on at such length about… Croydon!

  7. No need to be sorry. You’re in good company with Karl Rosenkranz and Die Ästhetik des Häßlichen [The Aesthetics of Ugliness] (1853). It was reprinted here in Germany in 2007, with an attractive cover. I bought it for the cover, and because I keep thinking I need to be more arty. I still haven’t read it through, partly because I feel that I don’t need a book to tell me about ugly. But that’s just “I don’t know ugly, but I know what I dislike”, a version of the low-brow “I don’t know art, but I know what I like”.
    According to THIS, Victor Hugo beat Rosenkranz to the idea in his preface to “Cromwell” in 1827.

  8. Yes, a lovely cover, Grum. I’d be quite interested to know how the aesthetics of ugliness ties in with Hegel, if it does (Karl Rosenkranz being, apparently, a Hegelian). The other permutation is “I know a lot about art, and I know what I dislike”

  9. .

  10. “.”
    I’m glad you finished off your thoughts with that period, Crown, because I was still waiting for the rest of them. That’s rule 4 of the four rules for successful public speaking:
    1) Tell them what you’re going to say.
    2) Tell them how you’re going to say it.
    3) Say it.
    4) Tell them when you’re finished.
    The German WiPe on Rosenkranz tells us a little more about the connection with Hegel. Rosenkranz was an Althegelianer, an adherent to Hegel’s original ideas, and also a “student” [Schüler] in the sense of having heard the old boy lecture. He published a biography of Hegel (d. 1831) in 1844. A cute detail: he belonged to a group calling itself the Gesellschaft zum ungelegten Ei [Society At the Sign of The Unlaid Egg]. You might want to dip into Hegel’s Philosophie der Kunst for starters. I certainly don’t intend to read it.
    I became aware of Rosenkranz through Sloterdijk. Because I’m always harping on Sloterdijk’s philosophical ideas, you may be surprised to learn that he is chancellor of the University of Art and Design in Karlsruhe and professor of Philosophy and Aesthetics there, as well as professor of Cultural Philosophy and Media Theory at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, etc. etc. He published a collection of essays entitled Das ästhetische Imperativ [The Aesthetic Imperative] in 2007. I read it, and came away with the message that there is no “aesthetic imperative”. Though perhaps, being such a down-to-earth kind of guy, I just misread it. Either Sloterdijk was pulling a fast one on his readers, or I am pulling one now.

  11. “chick”?

  12. I don’t see what the Nazis have to do with any of this.
    That strikes me as a willed refusal to see.
    “chick”?
    Israelis tend not to be as big on political correctness as Americans.

  13. That strikes me as a willed refusal to see.
    You’re right – unlike the hairbrush collectors and outrage enthusiasts, I resist any inclination to drive hobby-horses through the dispute:

    Kathi Diamant — Dora Diamant’s biographer and the founder of the San Diego-based Kafka Project, which in 2000 discovered Kafka’s old hairbrush at a kibbutz in Jezreel Valley — is eagerly awaiting the release from the vaults of 70 letters written by Dora to Brod.

    Reiner Stach, Kafka’s biographer, sees things differently. He maintains that Brod was torn between Marbach, with its impressive facilities, and the library in Jerusalem, where so many of his friends worked. Unable to announce that he was leaving Kafka’s papers to “the country of the perpetrators,” as Stach puts it, Brod left Hoffe to play the bad cop.

    During a discussion of “travelling wives” at this website last year, an occasional contributor suddenly introduced the topic of “child abuse” – but didn’t follow up on it. That’s another example of what I am calling outrage enthusiasm. There are more stick-on Scarlet Letters nowadays than you could find in a bowl of alphabet soup.
    The Holocaust is not an issue in the dispute between Marbach and the Israeli National Library, as Batuman describes things. After all, Kafka died in 1924. Here’s a quote from Hoffe’s attorney:

    Oded Hacohen, Eva Hoffe’s attorney, maintains that “moral positions” about Germany are irrelevant to the case. “People ask me, ‘Don’t you care that those manuscripts could end up in Germany?’ ” he said. “I care much more that those Holocaust refugees cannot pay their electricity bills here in Israel.”

    Zionism comes up frequently, though:

    “Why does Kafka belong here?” asks Mark Gelber, a literature professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “Because the Zionist enterprise was important to him.”

    As I know from Canetti’s essay, Kafka claimed in 1912 that he wanted to go to Palestine with (Felice) Bauer. But Zionism predates the Third Reich by many decades.
    If you want to bring the Nazis in, why stop there ? Indeed, the cats seem to be a more present danger.

  14. That Wikipedia doesn’t mention that Rosenkranz held the Lehrstuhl für Logik und Metaphysik that Kant had had at Königsberg. It does mention this for Johann Friedrich Herbart, though. I didn’t find a chronological list of holders anyplace, which might be interesting. Kant had earlier been passed over for this professorship, after Johann David Kypke in favor of Friedrich Johann Buck, now so forgotten that they don’t even get their own Wikipedia pages, though the former’s son does. All of this is in the massively detailed Kant in the Classroom site. It even has a timeline like I wanted, but stopping, naturally, when Kant did. Maybe it’s an Anglo-Saxon obsession. Poor editing does seem (to me) to make Kant’s next-door neighbor and anti-Illuminist Johann August von Starck get the chair when Kant did.

  15. That Wikipedia doesn’t mention that Rosenkranz held the Lehrstuhl für Logik und Metaphysik that Kant had had at Königsberg. It does mention this for Johann Friedrich Herbart, though.
    Where did you find that about Herbart, MMcM ? There’s no mention of him on the “Kant in the Classroom” site. The WiPe on Herbart to which you linked indeed says:

    1809 wurde Herbart an die Universität Königsberg als Professor für Philosophie und Pädagogik auf den früheren Lehrstuhl Immanuel Kants berufen, wo er auch an der Reform des Schulwesens in Preußen mitwirkte.

    But Kant held no chair in Philosophy and Pedagogy, as far as I know.

  16. Oh, and here (or here) is Hugo’s Romantic manifesto from the preface to Cromwell.

  17. I admit, I can’t tell whether the chair was renamed or poor editing of Wikipedia hasn’t reflected changing titles. But reliable sources do indicate that there was a specific full professorship of Philosophy there that they both held.

  18. Thanks for the Cromwell preface, MMcM ! It really is a manifesto for “the good, the bad and the ugly”, not just adumbrations. I wonder, though: wasn’t there a writer or two before Hugo who tried to talk up the “grotesque” ? I’m way out of my range here, but Cervantes, Rabelais and Shakespeare (and/or their admirers) spring to mind.

  19. Kant’s immediate successor was Wilhelm Traugott Krug, then Hebart from 1809-33, then Rozenkranz.
    I think maybe Professor für Philosophie und Pädagogik was what Hebart’s sheepskin said, and Logik und Metaphysik was what the chair said. (Was there a physical chair?)

  20. Even if there had been a physical chair, I doubt it could speak. Kant may have sat in a Stuhl-an-sich. That would explain why we are having such difficulties identifying it.

  21. Stu, there were magnificent grottos at Sanssouci. Der Grottensaal im Neuern Palais (die Wände sind mit Muscheln, Mineralien, Korallen & Schmucksteinen besetzt) and the dreiteilligen Muschelgrotte im Neuen Garten.

  22. Not to mention the entire rococo movement. (Talking up the grotesque before Victor Hugo, I mean.)

  23. Are you telling me that the artists got there before the word-men ??

  24. J.W. Brewer says:

    Well, the other historic irony is that it’s not like Prague is an obvious place for the Kafka papers since the German-speaking side of its history was airbrushed away / ethnically cleansed by Czech nationalists, starting well before the Nazis were on the scene (one can argue that collaboration with the Nazis means that no one needs to take the grievances of the Sudetendeutsch seriously after the fact, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t legitimate grievances ex ante). Maybe the Kafka papers could be housed in Croydon?

  25. Yeah, but consider the context. The Classicists still admired Shakespeare’s poetry, but dismissed his drama, and in particular his grotesque. We owe our modern perspective of Shakespeare (or the modern one that preceded the postmodern free-for-all) to the Romantics. Of the witches in Macbeth, which Hugo refers to, Johnson felt them appropriate to Elizabethan rabble, but ridiculous in his time. When 18th century theorists like Flögel write of the grotesque and the comic, it’s as a satire of reality, not a reflection of it. And it’s not like Hugo was just recording what everyone was doing: FitzGerald called the Romantics the Gurgoyle School.

  26. John Emerson says:

    Stu, you drive tons of hobby horses through these threads. They’re just different than other ppeople’s hobbyhorses.

  27. Stu, you drive tons of hobby horses through these threads. They’re just different than other people’s hobbyhorses.
    A very astute comment.

  28. Am I being unnecessarily literal in saying that you have to ride a hobby horse rather than drive it? Unless you’ve got a herd of them stacked up in the back of the van/SUV/ute?
    Don’t be too rude about Stevenage – it’s ugly all right, but I grew up there. About Croydon you can be as rude as you like. The borough – which is desperate to become a city, bringing to mind jokes about lipstick and pigs – gave its name to a hairstyle involving tying the hair extremely tightly into a ponytail, now known as the Croydon facelift.

  29. to ride a hobby horse rather than drive it
    I was trying to get two expressions into one: “drive a coach-and-four through the dispute” and “ride a hobby-horse”.

  30. A very astute comment
    Hat, I set out the reasons why I think the Nazis have nothing to do with the library dispute – among them the fact that the library representatives themselves are not squabbling about Holocaust issues. As yet you haven’t explained your reasons for thinking the opposite. But that’s one of the purposes of outrage – to avoid discussion. I myself can ride a hobby-horse and shoot the breeze at the same time, unlike Gerald Ford.

  31. Ditn’t mean no disrespect, Z.
    In the Wikipedia “Stevenage” article, in case you were wondering:
    Climate
    Stevenage experiences an oceanic climate (Köppen climate classification Cfb) similar to almost all of the United Kingdom.

    But I like the idea that Stevenage is a tropical paradise that you stumble upon east of junctions 7 and 8 on the A1(M).

  32. Israelis tend not to be as big on political correctness as Americans.

    He won’t mind me referring to him as studmuffin, then, should his name ever arise in conversation. I’m sure his gender and physical attributes are more interesting than his attempts at writing.

  33. I’m sure he won’t.

  34. John Emerson says:

    From what I’ve heard (from an American born now-Israeli) Israelis are very, very frank about everything whatsoever, like the stereotypical New Yorker but more so. He ended up liking it, but it took awhile.

  35. When I saw Etgar Keret quoted in the Batuman article, I remarked (to nobody in particular, of course) that Keret could be Batuman in Hebrew. Mutatis mutandis, of course (one is a chick, one a studmuffin), with “mutatis mutandis” the Latin for “I’m too lazy to fill in the rest of the comparison.”

  36. Thanks for mentioning Tolstoy’s Guiding Light article. I have enjoyed it tremendously. I didn’t know that the co-operative movement in Britain was originally inspired by the good Count. Are there any reviews of the book mentioned in bibliography at the end: How Russia Shaped the Modern World: From Art to Anti-Semitism, Ballet to Bolshevism (Princeton University, 2003)

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