Franz Kafka


Ice by Anna Kavan; Penguin Classics

Ice by Anna Kavan; Penguin Classics

Ice was published in 1967 and is the author’s final published work before she died. Anna Kavan (1901 – 1968) lived a fairly eventful life, but struggled with drug addiction and mental illness. Reading about her, I immediately managed to get her and Anais Nin conflated into one person. Totally unfair and awful of me, I suppose, but there you have it.  I started this novel with the feeling that “there is nothing about this book that appeals or interests me in any way. Likely I won’t enjoy it.” I hesitate to call this work a “novel” because it is so far outside of the typical definition that I am not sure that the definition can apply. I also suspect this would not really bother the author. Allegedly in his biography of Kavan, Callard quotes Kavan as knowing fully that her work was on the edges of the fiction-spectrum; she herself says it is not supposed to be realistic.

I had never before met anyone who owned a telephone and believed in dragons. It amused me, and also contributed to my sense of the unreal. – pg. 35

Reviews/comments of this work frequently reference Kafka. They suggest that this is Kafka-esque. I’m no fan of Kafka whatsoever and, frankly, do not find Kavan to be an imitation of Kafka. After reading this work, I do think Kavan stands on her own and deserves to be treated without some cheap comparison to Kafka. I think, maybe, I see more similarities with Ernst Junger – believe it or not.

Most reviews also begin by stating that there is an unreliable narrator who is surviving in a dystopia. Narrator. The Narrator. As I read this work, throughout I had the nagging feeling, which was stronger at some points than others, that there is no separate narrator. The word that I put on all of this story is schizophrenia. Now I am aware that some readers may gesture at the last chapter as if that proves there are at least two characters. I dispute and firmly hold my position that there is one character. If there are any characters. The majority of the work, to me, seems like a study in atmosphere. I use that word a lot when thinking of Ice and it is because it is, as Christopher Priest calls it, “virtually plotless.” So, instead of storylines, the reader must focus on small scenes, chunks of disjointed settings.

I had a curious feeling that I was living on several planes simultaneously; the overlapping of these planes was confusing. – pg. 56

How disjointed? Very disjointed; here is how I imagine it. There are lakes frozen across solidly. It is still and cold. And then there are rivers on which flow chunks of ice, mini-glaciers that are a lot like white stepping stones loosened by the current. So, on each chunk the setting is just the same ice as on the solid lake. But one is a congruent, solid mass. The other is a broken off fragment. A lot of this novel is full of fragments. They appear to have come from one solid mass, but we cannot see that lake of ice, we can only focus on each individual chunk being tossed around in the river.

The “characters” in the novel have similar focus points. For example, the narrator focuses often on the Indris animals. Why? No outstanding reason, I think. Or, perhaps as a stark and jarring contrast from everything else in the scene. Also, the girl’s wrists – focused on a great deal, repeatedly.  I might suggest, too, that a common symptom of mental illness is fragmentation and disorientation to the point of increased inability to establish a whole picture of reality.

In any case, it is nearly absurd to discuss a novel as a novel that is so disjointed and has such jarring focus points. This is why I think the discussion must always look at atmosphere and tone.

This work contains some excellent prose.  There are turns of phrase, so to speak, that are so lovely to read, one wants to read them aloud. They describe with such ease the confusion and mayhem that the story is running through – it hardly seems fair that any author should be able to have this skill. However, I am not sure that the work as an entire piece has the payoff for the reader. No doubt, the sentences here and there are marvelous, but overall the work is symbolic, difficult, and maybe maybe maybe….. empty. I am unsure.

Much of the writing is repetitive. I find this is typical in any author using symbolism. They want to drive the symbols deep into the reader’s psyche. Also, this repetitious “pseudo-storyline” combines with an overwhelming, but nearly undescribed sense of doom that is coming down like an unstoppable curtain – but only in the corners of the mind – creates a super intense atmosphere. The “ice” of the title is the final doom of the planet, but rarely can it be seen head-on. Usually in this work it is referred to as if caught from the corner of the eye, or some remnant of a nightmarish dream still latent upon awakening.

The intensity and tone of this work is very well done. Overall, this is an intense work – an intensity that comes very much outward toward the reader. Continually, it reminded me VERY MUCH of many elements in the video for the song I Follow Rivers (2011) by Lykke Li [The music video, directed by Tarik Saleh and filmed on the Swedish island of Gotland, features Li in a black robe and veil chasing a man (actor Fares Fares) through a snowy landscape.] – I feel that Tarik Saleh would have captured the tone/atmosphere in Ice very, very well.

All that was left was the ceaselessly shrinking fragment of time called “now.” – pg. 177

Overall, what will readers get out of the time invested in this novel? It is unique in some ways that make it valuable to know about. However, it is also jarring and gruesome at times – particularly in its matter-of-fact moments. The avant-garde style of absolutely transitionless slips into daydreams/mirages/memories/hallucinations are worthy of notice. I suspect this is evidence of Kavan’s heroin usage. In other words, the ability to describe blackouts, mental confusion, hallucinations as experienced. There are some neat ideas that come as “scenes” or “brief segments” of writing. But I do not know that overall there is a take-away that is necessary or integral. Its not for all readers, certainly, and maybe most strong readers would have no interest in it. So perhaps the takeaway is the study of a heroin-addicted schizophrenic. It can be a frightful thing in these pages….

I give this two stars. It is not easy to rate this sort of work at all. My somewhat “low” rating is because, at the end of the day, though I will remember pieces of this novel, it will never resonate with me on the same level as a number of other novels will. Further, I cannot think of a single person I would want to recommend this to. Sadly, this makes it seem like I do not appreciate Kavan’s efforts.

2 stars

Guest Review: Memoirs Found in a Bathtub

I started reading this book based on a recommendation from my friend, AQ. The title was an immediate attention grabber! Not many books have such ludicrous titles. If nothing else, this book would get mad props from me for just the sheer ridiculousness of the title. And true to form, the title bespoke a lot about the book itself.

Memoirs Found in a Bathtub – Stanislaw Lem

Though I am usually put off by introductions and editor’s notes, the introduction to this book is really a misnomer. The introduction is witty and intelligent in Lem’s imagining of an apocalyptic world bereft of paper, in which it has somehow lost meaning and substance.  Structure exists but devoid of content.

I started reading the book and instantly felt I was pulled into “The Castle” (Kafka) meets “The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare” (Chesterton) in a “1984” (Orwell) kind of setting. As with all these books, the effect is surreal and defies any kind of formulaic plot. You are just thrown in media res into a world in which you cannot adhere to the regular norms and conventions of what is sensical and what is absurd.

It is a world not only involving intrigue, conspiracies, agents, double agents but going all the way up to sextuple agents; and that is something one does not get to say/write often. It is a mind-spinning tale written with such vivid details that some of the scenes, such as the one with the professors, are the embodiment of the absurd with the all the underlying senses of meaning and depth.

Even after I had finished the book, it kept resonating with me. The key question I found myself speculating and contemplating was the reason for the protagonist not leaving. It struck me because of what it implied about human nature in its quest for structure and meaning.

Here’s a world in which there is structure, an obscene amount of it actually, yet, with a myriad of schemes and plots in the absence of any real content. The protagonist chooses to cling to structure and the machinations of the absurd, and even propagate it, rather than attempt to use his logical skills in arriving at the conclusion that there simply is no meaning to what is happening inside the building, a reality in which he is has found himself entrenched.

It is as if logical reasoning cannot abide by a lack of meaning. Though logic is essentially a set of rules that contributes to inferences and meaning, it operates independently from actual reality / substance for you can always posit the existence of hairy pink dragons and derive logical conclusions.  However, as gifted as our protagonist may be in questioning and following the rules of logic, yet, he is caught in the loop of trying to derive meaning from the meaningless instead of venturing outside the building to change the paradigm.

He opts for the illusion of meaning instead of seeing if there is actual meaning that can be derived from the “outside.” The possibility of there being no meaning or no content is what drives the protagonist to persist in the bureaucratic intrigue, in the paranoid absurdity of structure.

The protagonist is persistent, but what kind of fortitude, grit, or strength does it take for a person to choose a course in which the realization that no readily available meaning is an actual possibility. How many would actually let go of the illusion to achieve certainty whichever way it turned out.

This book is truly brilliant and I am sure that each reader will take from it something different. Just be ready for a book that defies formulaic plots, for it is nowhere near ordinary. 4 stars

Teneen, the author of this review, has written a previous review (here) for this blog. She is a busy reader, but not a frequent reviewer.

The Trial

THe TrialYears ago I read the three “major” Kafka works:  The Castle, The Trial, and The Metamorphosis.  I really enjoyed the The Castle and I was okay with The Metamorphosis.  Well, I am recently reading a “genre” of books that The Trial sort of can be categorized within, so I finally scrounged up a used copy for $4.00 and read it again.

The Trial was originally published in 1925, after Kafka’s death.  It is considered “unfinished,” but it does come to an end of sorts.  The edition I read is the “Definitive” edition (as opposed to the “Critical”) and translated by Edwin and Willa Muir.  Anyway, my copy was published in 1984 by Schocken Books, the cover illustration is by Anthony Russo.  The cover for this edition is pretty neat, actually, so I will also say that the cover design was by Louise Fili – nicely done!

The Trial – if you don’t know – is about a bank clerk named Joseph K. who is “arrested” and spends his time coping with what this may mean.  To be quite honest, I am not really into the “existentialist scene.”  By this I mean that I really dislike Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Soren Kirkegaard.  If you have read that The Trial raises “existential questions” or something like this, I cannot speak to the veracity of it.  I suppose it does, but I find existentialism tedious and pathetic.

The noir-existential story of being “under arrest” and “having a case” all without knowing the charges or the accusers is actually an interesting concept.  Fighting the unknown minions of an “Establishment/System” is also a well-trod path in literature, which never seems to grow old.  However, Kafka is inconsistent and unable to maintain the greatness of these concepts in the novel. Frankly, he falls into boring sidetracks, navel-gazing, and pointless simpering.

I really hate the main character, so it’s difficult to work up any sympathy or concern for him.  And even if we are going to interpret the main character as a focus for mocking the mid-level banking/lawyer/official – I don’t find his troubles enough to mock him, I’m more so disgusted by him.  I did find it interesting that my response to this character was disgust – and I wondered, as I read along, if this would have been different had I read the novel in, say, the 1950s or 1960s.  I suppose the main character moves through a series of psychological responses to the fact that he “has a case.”  First it’s outrage and indignation, followed by indifference and disinterest, then the “case” begins to overwhelm him and he begins to obsess and suffer anxiety over it. I feel like in the hands of Dostoyevsky – this psychological movement could have been gripping and intense, whereas with Kafka the thing is weak and boring.

Anyway, the real reason I read the novel, as I said above, has to do with my recent interest in a certain category of novels. I was/am most interested in the sections of the novel that describe the bureaucracy and establishment.  The entirety of Chapter Seven carries the bulk of the book and includes the passages that I was most interested in. For example speaking of the Court/Systems’ officials:

They could not help feeling the disadvantages of a judiciary system which insisted on secrecy from the start.  Their remoteness kept the officials from being in touch with the populace; for the average case they were excellently equipped, such a case proceeded almost mechanically and only needed a push now and then; yet confronted with quite simple cases, or particularly difficult cases, they were often utterly at a loss, they did not have any right understanding of human relations, since they were confined day and night to the workings of their judicial system, whereas in such cases a knowledge of human nature itself was indispensable.

The ranks of officials in this judiciary system mounted endlessly, so that not even the initiated could survey the hierarchy as a whole.  And the proceedings of the Courts were generally kept secret from subordinate officials, consequently they could hardly ever quite follow in their further progress the cases on which they had worked; any particular case thus appeared in their circle of jurisdiction often without their knowing whens it came, and passed from it they knew not whither.

I think these are the most relevant passages to the whole idea that this is a dystopian novel – and that Kafka is commenting on the legal system as a whole.  Satirical and mocking, I suppose these are some of the thoughts that coincide with feelings from both Stanislaw Lem’s Memoirs Found in a Bathub, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, and Orwell’s 1984.  There is this gigantic bureaucracy that employs minions who are kept occupied, many times with meaningless tasks, and who hardly have any knowledge of the huge edifice under which they toil.  And I feel there is the derived sense of how, in contemporary times, we view huge government and lawyers in general.  It also calls to mind the 1992 Egyptian film Terrorism and Kebab ( Al-irhab wal kabab), which takes place in the gigantic government building The Mogamma.

Also, there are instances in the novel that bespeak some weird sexuality of Kafka’s.  The segments that are obvious are with Leni and Fraulein Burstner – but also the really BDSM Whippers chapter. I am no Freudian, but even I can see this is odd stuff. Overall, I give the novel two stars since I appreciate certain parts, but I do find it inconsistent and tedious.

2 stars