More Serendipity

[posted by Alice]

A few years ago I posted “Reading, Serendipity, and a Little Synchronicity” on this blog. Since then, I have written some essays at my Digital Gloss blog about finding books serendipitously. Because irrealists might be interested in some of these books, here are links to a few of the posts:

Unbalancing Act: Helen Oyeyemi’s what is not yours is not yours

Is Tom McCarthy ‘a Kafka for the Google Age’?

“The Food of Angels” and “A Hunger Artist”

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A note on the use of metaphor in the works of Bruno Schulz

[posted by Greg]

Recently I’ve re-read Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles (New York, 1977) and what especially stood out for me on this reading was Schulz’s extensive use of simile and metaphor. In part this happened because Schulz’s work is often likened to the work of Franz Kafka, and yet Kafka rarely used similes or metaphors. And, as an irrealist, I would argue that Kafka didn’t use them for good reason: when the world being described is already fantastic in ways that aren’t clear to the reader, using a lot of similes and metaphors can confuse matters. In addition, similes and metaphors can offer the reader an escape from the irreal. If, in an irreal work, we liken something to the scent of a rose, we have just given the reader a lifeline to the world of the normal and potentially reassuring. And this upsets the high-tension state of the irreal, in which the reader is kept constantly poised between the real and the unreal.

But does Schulz’s extensive and continual use of analogies therefore mean that it is a mistake to liken his writing to Kafka, in spite of several natural affinities between the two (their fiction is often fantastic in theme and deals with issues they had with their fathers, they were both Jews living in Slavic countries between the wars, etc.)? Not entirely. First of all, as Alice explained in another posting on this blog, some of Schulz’s stories, such as “Tailors’ Dummies,” are quite certainly irreal. But, additionally, I would argue that in a few of his stories that are ostensibly magical realist in structure and theme, his unusual use of metaphor gives them something of an irreal hue. To illustrate this, I will first use an example where his use of metaphor doesn’t do this. In this excerpt from the story “The Night of the Great Season,” Schulz has already described the vast crowd that is making its way through the streets of the town of Drogobych on the occasion of a strange phenomenon known as the “thirteenth month,” and how the crowd has now entered his father’s fabric shop. Deserted by his shop assistants and faced with the incessant demands of the crowd, his father, “in one leap, reached the shelves of fabrics and, hanging high above the crowd, began to blow with all his strength a large shofar, sounding the alert. But the ceiling did not resound with the rustle of angel’s wings speeding to his rescue…[and, seeing that resistance would be useless, his father] jumped down from his ledge and moved with a shout toward barricades of cloth.” He then proceeds to rampage through the shop, leaning “with his whole strength against the enormous bales, heaving them from their places. He put his shoulders under the great lengths of cloth and made them fall on the counter with a dull thud…” The visual description of the store and the crowd’s actions that follows is biblical in tone and reference:

“The walls of the shop disappeared under the powerful formations of that cosmogony of cloth, under its mountain ranges that rose in imposing massifs. Wide valleys opened up between the slopes, and lines of continents loomed up from the pathos of broad plains. The interior shop formed itself into the panorama of an autumn landscape, full of lakes and distance. Against that backdrop my father wandered among the folds and valleys of a fantastic Canaan. He strode about, his hands spread out prophetically to touch the clouds, and shaped the land with strokes of inspiration…” [p. 133]

The effect here is not irreal. The metaphors, dramatic though they are, simply expand the proportions and meaning of the town, store, and season, even if they are, with an intentional irony, to a biblical scale. And to the extent they provoke an unreality, it is a legendary unreality, in this case flowing from God himself. Indeed, in this passage Schulz bears out Jerzy Ficowski’s description in the book’s introduction that it is in the “mythmaking realm” that “both the source and the final goal of Bruno Schulz’s work reside.” (p. 17)

But the next example, which comes from “The Gale,” uses strong, unreal metaphors that are not tied to any concrete realities or established mythologies and thus begin to move us into the realm of the irreal. Similar to the previous story, a force is moving through the town, but in this case it is the storm implied by the story’s title.

“The gale blew cold and dead colors onto the sky—streaks of green, yellow, and violet—the distant vaults and arcades of its spirals. The roofs loomed black and crooked, apprehensive and expectant. Those under which the wind had already penetrated, rose in inspiration, outgrew the neighboring roofs and prophesied doom under the unkempt sky. Then they fell and expired, unable to hold any longer the powerful breath which then moved farther along and filled the whole space with noise and terror. And yet more houses rose with a scream, in a paroxysm of prediction, and howled disaster.” (p. 119)

Initially we assume the story to be a description of a particularly violent storm passing through Drogobych and related to us via the vivid imagination of the stories narrator, a young Bruno Schulz, who is being kept home from school by his mother because “there’s a gale blowing.” But this is not a child’s description of a storm, and what are we to make of the fact that some of the roofs “rose in inspiration, outgrew the neighboring roofs and prophesied doom under the unkempt sky”? Especially when, in the next passage, we learn that the “enormous beech trees around the church stood with their arms upraised, like witnesses of terrifying visions, and screamed and screamed”? Since these metaphors have no obvious metaphysical or mythological connection, nor possesses a clear real-life correlate, they tend to leave us properly (in the irreal sense) cast adrift from both the real and “concretely” unreal. Certainly more so than does the first example, in which the father strides about the “folds and valleys of a fantastic Canaan” spreading his hands out prophetically. Indeed, the fact that “The Gale,” uses such unusual, juxtapositional metaphors so consistently and incessantly through the whole of the story even starts to make the reader wonder if maybe the metaphors might not be describing the actual reality depicted in the story, heightening the story’s projection of the irreal.

Our Article in the Journal of the Kafka Society of America

posted by Greg and Alice

Dr. Marie Luise Caputo-Mayr, the editor of the Journal of the Kafka Society of America, has just written to tell us that the new issue of the Journal, containing our article “After Kafka: Kafka criticism and scholarship as a resource in an attempt to promulgate a new literary genre,” has just come out. In the article we discuss using critical work on Franz Kafka by various writers and scholars (including Shimon Sandbank, Amaryll Beatrice Chanady, Eric Rabkin, Clayton Koelb, and Jean-Paul Sartre) as a basis for, and justification of, our attempts to establish irrealism as a distinct literary genre.

Obviously we are very pleased and honored to have our article appear in this distinguished and interesting publication, more information about which can be found on the website of the Kafka Society of America.

Some News from Prague

[posted by Greg]

Last week I had the good fortune to attend and read at one of the two book launch parties for the monumental anthology The Return Of Kral Majales: Prague’s Inter­national Literary Renaissance 1990-2010 (ed., Louis Armand, Prague: Litteraria Pragensia, 2010), whose 960 pages detail and present the literary and artistic activities of the English-language community in Prague — perhaps the most coherent, successful, and self-aware English-language expatriate community of the last fifty years. Both Alice and I have pieces in the anthology, and there are several translations originally published in The Cafe Irreal that are also included. In fact, the whole thing got me thinking about Prague, its influence on us, and our irreal project, and so that is something I will be writing on soon, and at length.

And, speaking of Prague and at least one of its influences on The Cafe Irreal, Franz Kafka, I finally made it to the Divadlo Komedie’s presentation of a stage version (in Czech) of The Trial. This play, which has been running since 2007 and won awards that year for best staging and best actor, made me think of something John Updike wrote some years ago when he first saw the film version of his novel Rabbit Run. He recalled how impressed he was with the quality of the film but he said that, even as he was watching it, he wondered why the filmmakers didn’t just drop the pretense of making a film from his book and make their own original film; it was obvious to him that having to fit the film into the strictures of his book had hurt the film, while at the same time the film completely failed to capture any particular aspect of his novel.

In the same way I was left wondering why the producers and director of Proces didn’t just write their own play about a guilt-ridden and socially estranged guy having to deal with an arbitrary process of judgment. If they had, I wouldn’t have entered the theater with expectations based on having read Kafka’s work and so wouldn’t have been so disappointed by what they had made of his novel; I might have even praised the play for having had a rather Kafkan theme. But of course they didn’t write their own play, they chose to essentially rewrite Kafka and then go out and print up a bunch of flyers that boasted about it being “The Trial by Franz Kafka.” And so I wasn’t expecting, as such devices were very much eschewed in Kafka’s work, the play’s use of the classic song “Stand by Me” to emphasize the loneliness of the characters (talk about giving us something we can comfortably anchor ourselves to!), the emotional outbursts of the tormented, and ultimately suicidal, Joseph K. (also called, in the play, “Mr. K”), or a periodic personal, first person narrative delivered by him (so much for the narrative distancing of the original).

And this brings up another point: if you add a lot of your own material, dialogue, and so on, as they did here, can you really put forth the play as being “by” Franz Kafka (even beyond the fact that Kafka wrote a novel, and not a play, called The Trial)?

A little while ago I wrote in a post that when we watch these various remakes of original material, we need to set aside our expectations of the original and just focus on the new version, rather as if it had sprung up out of nowhere. But quite frankly I’m getting tired of having to do this; perhaps the people doing these remakes should save us this trouble by eliminating the middle man. They’d have more artistic license and give us something new. And this, I would argue, is especially true for remakes of works that have strong irreal elements, as those elements are easily washed out once more standard dramatic devices are introduced.

Alice has a father…so what?

[posted by Greg]

As we mentioned previously, we’re curious to see the new film version of Alice in Wonderland, which is opening this weekend in the United States. Or perhaps were curious is more the operative phrase here. Apparently director Tim Burton has said that he never felt a connection with the original Wonderland because it was always about a girl wandering around from one scene to another and so, he states, he has made it into more of a real story. And Alice, in the new film, is a nineteen-year-old woman “who doesn’t quite fit into Victorian society and structure” and, moreover, is grieving over the death of her beloved father. To me this sounds simply awful, as it introduces various standard melodramatic elements into the irreality of the original that will effectively ruin what made the original interesting. However, as with so many other film versions of books, it is probably a better idea to go into this film pretending that there never was an Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll and instead imagine it to be a wholly original fantasy film by Tim Burton. It would, after all, be extraordinary if the absurdity, undermining of reality, and (to use Clayton Koelb’s term) alethic qualities inherent in the original survived a Hollywood production, and to focus on the lack of them would distract us from the interesting things that Tim Burton might be doing in the film.

One additional question comes out of this, however. Namely, what is it with this father theme? In the original book and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll doesn’t see a need to even mention Alice’s father. And yet not only is there a father theme in this new film version, but it was also present in Syfy’s re-make of Alice: in that mini-series the father had seemingly abandoned Alice (who also is now a young adult, and so too fits into that key 18-34 demographic). This causes her great distress, until their later reunion in which he nobly sacrifices himself to save her life. The father theme was also present in the recent television remake of The Prisoner, in which a major theme is the responsibility Number Two feels toward his son. But, again, in the original series with Patrick McGoohan, the issue of offspring never comes up for any of the primary characters. And I could go on. In fact, most films (and TV series) made over the past fifteen years have worked this theme in one way or the other. Try the remake of War of the Worlds, where the divorced protagonist played by Tom Cruise looks after his son and daughter (for whom, of course, he feels great responsibility) as he flees from and fights the alien invasion, though the protagonist in H.G. Wells original had no children, is accompanied by his brother through part of the adventure and is striving to reunite with his wife. Most absurdly, the 1998 remake of Godzilla also included a kind of father theme when the title creature took responsibility for the little godzillas around him which he, yes, he, had begotten. It’s enough to make you wonder if there isn’t some Central Committee somewhere decreeing that the father theme must be inserted into a film if the film project is to get the millions of dollars necessary to make it.

Of course, it’s not the father theme per se that undoes the irreality of a work, Kafka’s great breakthrough work, “The Judgement,” contains an outstanding example of an irreal father theme. It is rather the forced imposition of the father theme onto so many films and TV shows, and its melodramatic, instructive nature, which is the problem for works of whatever genre. One suspects that if a modern day director were to make a film version of “The Hunger Artist,” he or she would be compelled to attribute the protagonist’s behavior to a lack of fatherly love. According to the text on the CD package for the film “The Search for Bobby Fischer” that I came across recently, the hero of the film “wasn’t afraid of losing a match…just his father’s love.” Perhaps for our film version of “The Hunger Artist” it would read: “He didn’t want to starve himself to death…he just wanted the nourishment of his father’s love.”