An Overdue Response to the Ownership Question

In 20th c. Literature, Questions for the Panel on February 8, 2009 at 10:00 pm

Editor’s Note: This is the first post by industrial midwest exile and Sympathist extraordinaire, Brian Hill.  Clocking at at a relatively brief (by Sympathies standards) 860 words, Mr. Hill’s modest and wryly self-knowing style is a nice fit for the blog.

Brian Hill, Kyoto Japan

tower_3Happy for any dead or broken branch from any type of tree to prod at what appears, at first appraisal, to be the carcass of my literary consciousness, then cause it to stir, eventually to stand on numb legs with maw gaped in a yawn complete with fingernails scratching ass; happy as I am, I will try to pull something out of…well…I shall scribble down some thoughts.

I admit that I have no thesis but only the errant desire to own some authors.  I also admit that I have become very undisciplined with my reading, favoring collections of essays, short stories, poetry over any longer form; over any novel.  And then, I only pick and choose and then let it drop again.  Fortunately for me there exists Borges and Calvino.

Borges is someone that I would like to own.  Remembering my time in Toledo reading through Cognitive Psychology journals, a geology textbook, a biology textbook, Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, etc. I would find myself distracted from my studies and begin furiously trying to capture some idea that had occurred to me.  So, that when I first started reading Borges I thought: “Here is a guy who took my idea and expanded it in ways I never dreamed.”  I would like to own him, but am too often intimidated by his erudition.

A lesser known author who I do own is Albert Goldbarth, a poet and essayist who I discovered some 16 f years ago.  A Sympathy of Souls, is a collection of creative essays touching on Jewish stories and parables, family, personal experience, humor and the Goldbarth wit.  His, Heaven and Earth, A Cosmology was my first introduction to him and remains a solid sample of his poetry that combines modern scientific ideas with…poetry.  He captivated me early on and has achieved ‘Can Do No Wrong’ status.  As a sample here is “One Continuous Substance”:

A small boy and a slant of morning light both exit the last dark trees of this forest, though the boy is gone in an instant. Not the light: it travels its famous 186,000 miles per second to be this still gold bar on the floor of the darkness. I suppose that from the universe’s point of view we do the same: a small boy and an old man being one continuous substance.  We were making love when the phone rang saying my father was dead, and the sun kept touching you, there, and there, where I’d been.

Italo Calvino is someone who I never expected to own when I first read him.  Yet, story after essay after story I find him impossible to put down.  Yes, he is a contemporary of Borges and, is his work is often labeled magical realism–I suppose I’m hooked on this…genre.  Yet, I’ve never been able to read past page 70 of anything by Gabrielle Garcia Marquez.

Finally, there is Kafka.  I am ashamed to say it, but I saw the movie first.  I graduated high school without reading Kafka.  Later, I found myself laughing out loud in coffee shops or in the comfort of my tiny apartment.  The horrors he described were ridiculously funny because they were unavoidable.  The image from the film that stays with me (I am not sure if it was in The Castle or not anymore) is of Kafka emerging from a filing cabinet into the depths of the castle.  I related–something, perhaps, to do with growing up for 10 years in a ridiculously, sparsely populated area in northeast Ohio.

My favorite comment of his, taken from his Blue Octavo Notebooks, reads: “The true way is along a rope that is not spanned high in the air, but only just above the ground.  It seems intended more to cause stumbling than to be walked along.”

My favorite obscure quote of his, taken from the same Notebooks, reads:

“One of the most effective means of seduction that Evil has is the challenge to struggle.  It is like the struggle with women, which ends in bed.  A married man’s true deviations from the path of virtue are, rightly understood, never gay.”

I must also give thanks the fact that Nabokov’s lecture on The Metamorphosis made it to video.  It greatly aided me in understanding the importance of the dung beetle.

Foremost among my list of associations with all things Kafka, is a short essay by Borges concerning Kafka’s precursors.  In it he cites Zeno’s paradox of movement, stories by Kierkegaard, Lord Dunsany, Han Yu and a poem by Browning not as direct but as sort of spiritual precursors to Kafka.  The most interesting observation here is that all of these works contain a Kafkaesque quality that would never have been noticed had Kafka never written.  Borges goes further to posit that,

“…every writer creates his own precursors.  His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.”

In some way I wish to guess that Zeno, Kierkegaard, Dunsany, Browning, and Han Yu would have ‘owned’ Kafka had they had the chance to read him.  Is there any other writer so unique as Kafka as to unarguably redefine how we read works of the past?

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  1. I agree, the Calvino section is thin and not well thought out. I’ve recently been reading his ‘6 Memos For The Next Millennium’ and been so enamored with it as well as my memories of ‘Why Read The Classics?’ that I had to include him. What I respect in him, of his essays,is how well he relates ideas in either a lay or a nigh-lay way. There is a definite scarcity of high-brow literary terminology and instead a focus on clearly explaining his observations, dense and chock-full as they are. I am already looking forward to reading both of the mentioned books of essays again.

    I am poor in that I have only read a collection of short stories called ‘Numbers In The Dark’ which contains much of his earlier work focusing on accounts of life in small town Italy and on principles of communism. So, where the hell did I get the ‘magical realism’ tag from? I’ve always heard it tossed around with his and Borges’ names. I believe Gabriel Garcia Marquez claimed both of them as influences, although, as I stated before, I’ve never dug into his work.

    ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ is under the umbrella of the magical realism genre, but I would agree that it is a foo-foo example of the genre.

    There is a short story by Borges of a Jewish writer who is arrested by the Nazi’s and is informed that he will be executed soon. Well, he published one noteworthy play but has done anything to live up to his earlier promise as a writer, publishing some few pages of criticism since. Yet, he had an idea for a play that he desperately wanted to finish…as a sort of redemption or defense of his existence. So, he prays and prays and prays. The day of his execution comes and a rifle is fired and as the bullet is a bout to strike him down time freezes. For a year, it freezes and he, standing frozen in time, is able to finish (writing) his play.

    The themes: one’s inability to appreciate the gift of life till one is faced with death; the idea of a mental time which can’t be clocked – like life flashing before ones eyes; and the fantasy fulfillment of having more time or going back in time to do something correctly.

    This would be the upper echelon of the genre and when you find a type of attractive woman who swoons for this over a film/novel about cooking then you should do your best to keep in touch with her.

  2. In other words, Dean, you love one work by an artist but dislike everything else they have done? Hmmm…

    BJ–the Calvino section here is thin. What makes him an acceptable “magical realist”?

  3. My favorite Calvino is Cosmicomics. Short, pithy stories that begin with a factoid from cosmology but go in all kind of wonderful and unexpected directions. Hey, and get his Italian fairy tales, from the Pantheon Press, I think. A whole huge tome of authentic fairy tales, smoothed out and retold through the magic pen of a Nobel laureate..but I must say Calvino is one of those I admire and appreciate without adoring.
    Except for Cosmicomics..Matthew, another possible topic stream for people, works/films by creative artists that are the only thing they did you like, but you dont just like it, you love it, while everything else you hate…if that makes sense.

  4. Just recalling the number of conversations in which I faked an interest in “magical realism” because an attractive female was describing to me the wonders of “Like Water for Chocolate” or some such work. There exists a certain type of attractive woman who swoons for magical realism–sadly rarely for someone as excellent as Calvino. Calvino is no magical realist, but rather a mythical fabulist–a whole different ball of wax. Anyway, when discussing magical realism with a beautiful woman one is apt to fall head over heels into the grossest kind of cliche and tortured banality. Good fun.

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