July 01, 2009

Spunge or sieve? Types of readers

"I like the idea of the Diagram Prize" began the comment from Moocho, who read up on it after my Kafka post in which I made a quip about this award for Oddest Title of the Year. He went on, "My favourite was How to avoid huge ships, something that keeps me up at night." At first glance, the lack of formatting made it seem as though the entire sentence was the title, a very good one at that. Or maybe "How to avoid huge ships, something that keeps me up at night" is really better for a song title, along the lines of "I've got the you don't know the half of it, dearie blues" (the great Gershwin).

"Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers" is the metaphysical-sounding winner of last year's The Diagram of Diagrams, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the prize and inspired by the Booker of Bookers. Or was that the Best of Booker? Anyway, more people voted for the Diagram of Diagrams than the Booker maxima, as it turns out, 8000 something to 7000 something.

I also liked last year's shortlisted "The large sieve and its applications", described as a 350 pg book with many tables and exercises. It's already a Google book (they work fast!) so you can further enjoy such gems among its chapters as "Explicit bounds" and "Random Walks in Discrete Groups".

Among applications for the sieve, we might remember Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was not only the great romantic poet of the dreamy, druggy "Kubla Khan" and the demented and terrifying "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner" but an astute social and political commentator as well, who applied it to reading, or rather, to a type of reader. In all he identified four kinds of readers, beginning with the spunge, which I'm pretty sure would be me:

"1. Spunges that suck up every thing and, when pressed give it out in the same state, only perhaps somewhat dirtier.
2. Sand Glasses -- or rather the upper Half of the Sand Glass which in a brief hour assurdely lets out what it has received -- & whose reading is only a profitless measurement and dozeing away of Time.
3. Straining Bags, who get rid of whatever is good & pure, and retain the Dregs
4. and lastly, the Great-Moguls Diamond Sieve -- which is perhaps going farther for a Simile than its superior Dignity can repay, inasmuch as a common Cullender whould have ben equally symbolic. But Imperial or culinary, these are the only good, & I fear the least numerous, who assuredly retain the good while the superfluous or impure passes away and leaves no trace." 
(From his 1808 lecture series on Poetry and the principles of taste)

Try Coleridge's Biographia Literaria or Biographical sketches of my literary life and opinions in two volumes from the Central City Library basement stacks.

The unexpected Kafka

Or, looking forward to reading TS Eliot’s currency trading records from his time at Lloyd’s Bank.
How did I only hear about it now? The library doesn’t have it but hey, put in a request: Princeton University Press has published Franz Kafka: The Office Writings, a 400 pg. collection of the reports Franz Kafka wrote for his day job (his night job being writing The Castle, America, Metamorphosis etc.) as a lawyer at the Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute in Prague.

I looked it up on the publishers’ website and it made for a most Kafka-esque read – particularly as regards the hilarity, which many people forget about (I think it was Max Brod who reported Kafka laughing so hard he couldn’t go on when reading the first chapter of The Trial aloud). I actually had some serious doubts about whether it was all just a joke:

1. Their blurb:

“Franz Kafka is commonly recognized as the greatest German prose writer of the twentieth century. It is less well known that he had an established legal career. Kafka's briefs reveal him to be a canny bureaucrat, sharp litigator, and innovative thinker on the social, political, and legal issues of his time. His official preoccupations inspired many of the themes and strategies of the novels and stories he wrote at night.”

2. Are they talking about these? Believe it or not, yes!

  • Fixed-Rate Insurance Premiums for Small Farms Using Machinery
  • Inclusion of Private Automobile "Firms" in the Compulsory Insurance Program
  • Appeal against Risk Classification of Christian Geipel & Sohn, Mechanical Weaving Mill in Asch
  • Measures for Preventing Accidents from Wood-Planing Machines
  • On the Examination of Firms by Trade Inspectors
  • Workmen's Insurance and Employers: Two Articles in the Tetschen Bodenbacher Zeitung
  • Petition of the Toy Producers' Association in Katharinaberg, Erzgebirge
  • Risk Classification Appeal by Norbert Hochsieder, Boarding House Owner in Marienbad
  • Letters to the Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute in Prague
  • Criminal Charge against Josef Renelt for the Illegal Withholding of Insurance Fees

  • 3. Also on the website, a sample of peer reviews:

    "Kafka himself complained constantly that his day job at the Prague Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute oppressed his artistic calling; this volume's editors beg to differ. In the hands of Kafka scholars Stanley Corngold and Benno Wagner and the legal scholar Jack Greenberg, the 18 briefs collected here comprise more than a record of the author's years in the insurance business. By reading between his legal writings and his fiction, the editors argue that Kafka's dual identities are inextricable: the writer is informed by the lawyer, the lawyer by the writer. Franz Kafka is the Franz Kafka we know not in spite of his day job, but rather because of it."--Rachel Sugar, The National (Abu Dhabi)

    Hard to top this guileless “the editors beg to differ with Kafka” but I think the next one does:

    "[T]he texts have impressive sociological merit: They provide a compelling picture of what life was like for an early twentieth-century bureaucrat who took his work seriously, believed in it, and did it well. . . . But ultimately, the value of The Office Writings lies less in the potential connections to Kafka's fiction than in the fundamental disconnect."--Ben Kafka, Bookforum
    "Fundamental disconnect"! Ben Kafka! This professor who studies "the powers and failures of paperwork” has to have been invented by Woody Allen. Have a look at him and see if you don’t agree: Prof. Ben Kafka, conveniently "on leave until 2010 and unable to respond to queries".

    If Princeton University had just thought to call the book On the Examination of Firms by Trade Inspectors and other writings I feel sure that it could have been a strong contender for the famed Diagram Prize for oddest book title, which in March of this year was won by The 2009-2014 World Outlook for 60-milligram Containers of Fromage Frais. I find that On the Examination of Firms has that unintentional hint of fun which Horace Bent, the man behind the award, has always appreciated, while disdaining both self-conscious titles and those in which the double-entendre is too rude.

    By the way, the person who spots the title gets a prize too. I've been keeping my eyes open but haven't had any luck spotting something among our new acquisitions. However, I did enjoy encountering a book called Cavemen old and new the other day when I was down in the basement stacks. Not sure why, but it reminds me a bit of a past Diagram contender All dogs have ADHD.

    Oh, and if you did want an interesting book on Franz Kafka there’s a new book called The tremendous world I have inside my head : Franz Kafka - a biographical essay, by Louis Begley (the author of About Schmidt and, like Kafka, a lawyer as well as an author) which the library does have.

    Napoleon the novelist

    One of my best memories of my first trip through Europe is how whenever our canary-green Caravelle sports car with us three little girls crammed in the back -- I have since learned it was considered a two-seater -- turned onto a tree-lined road my father, enthusiastic in his bucket seat, would wave his cigarette expansively at the trees and say “Look, girls! Napoleon was here!" because of course all those trees along the highways of Europe had been planted by Napoleon to make shade for his soldiers on the march.

    It was my first taste of the Napoleon mystique. After that came Napoleon saying “Soldiers, from the height of those pyramids, forty centuries contemplate us!”; Napoleon taking the crown at his coronation and placing it on his own head and Beethoven, betrayed, scratching out his name on the dedication of the Eroica symphony; Josephine; exile; the folly of the 100 days, all of that. When years later I learned about the Napoleonic Code (the first to give every accused the right to a lawyer) from living under it in one of the many countries where he planted it, like his trees, it seemed a not-contradictory facet of his revolutionary, romantic energy.

    But in England Napoleon is seen above all as a pragmatic, or so I gather from the buzz engendered by the announcement a few weeks ago that the surviving fragments of Clisson et Eugenie, a novella which Napoleon wrote at age 26, are about to be published in English for the first time. According to Jane Aitken, who is publishing the 40 pages at Gallic, "Although the piece of writing is short, it does cast an extraordinary light on Napoleon, who is someone we all think we know. We in Britain think of him as a military man, but here we see the romantic side to him." The Guardian thought she was talking red stilettos more than satin breeches, not sure why, perhaps the confusion of using four hands: “The emperor of chick-lit” was the title of the rather smug article by a certain Maev Kennedy and Catherine Neilan.

    Sorry, Maev and Catherine. Clisson et Eugenie is a romance, but in the old sense of a novel filled with passion, drama and adventure. Napoleon wrote it in a Left Bank hotel, with his army career in the doldrums, pining away with love for Eugenie Clary, called Desiree, who later married his marshal Bernadotte and became Queen of Sweden. His choice of name for the hero is revealing too, the original Clisson having been Commander in Chief of the Royal Armies. I also like the way it suggests “frisson”, a thrill.

    “Clisson was born for war," the story begins. "Although a mere youth, he had reached the highest rank in the army… And yet, his soul was not satisfied.” Where would a chick-lit author (who are not allowed to be men, as far as I know) take the plot at this point? Perhaps Clisson would learn to – gulp-- commit to a relationship? Pas de tout! Napoleon loved the tragic form; on St. Helena he read aloud every evening from the plays of Corneille and Racine -- no, not to goats and hens, he actually had a group of faithful officers who had decided to share his exile -- and his story has a tragic ending: Clisson dies in battle, pierced by a thousand blows.

    The prose is not stirring like Dumas, whose father by the way was one of Napoleon’s generals on the Egyptian campaign, or sharp like Balzac, the story is not as complex as Stendhal’s, you know I suspect Aitken of a bit of hype when she says Napoleon stands revealed as “an accomplished author of fiction.” Surely the thing is instead that Napoleon was an accomplished author of himself. Just as he turned an anonymous Belgian town into a symbol used by everyone from Abba to the unknown poet, perhaps a suitor, whose verses we found pasted into an old album of my grandmother’s:

    But to my sad heart the music-- 
    my soul is of sombrer hue 
    Was like waltzes played at Brussels 
    the night before Waterloo. 

    so Napoleon turned himself into, and I quote no less than the BBC, “arguably (aarggh) the most fascinating man in history”.

    From Eugenie and Clisson: ‘Like all men, he was still looking for happiness and all he had found was glory’.

    Go to Napoleon.org to view some of the manuscript pages of Eugenie and Clisson.

    One of the last things Napoleon did was to plant two rows of trees in front of his windows at St. Helena. I just found this out today reading about his death. You can experience Napoleon’s tree-lined highways on “Arbres et routes”, a website dedicated to stopping French towns from chopping down the trees to save the lives of people who crash their cars into them when driving home “inebriated” from nightclubs (could be a scene in a Houellebecq novel?)

    For more about Desiree, try Desiree by Anne-Marie Selinko. She also has a website devoted to her– “Desiree”.

    From Norman Mailer's typewriter

    I find author relics almost always entertaining. An example of an exception could be John Ruskin’s umbrella, sorry, that's John Ruskin's last umbrella, which I saw at a little museum in the Lake District where we had gone looking for the original Amazon from Swallows and Amazons, which was supposed to be there but was not.

    But I'm enthusiastic about a trip to Duchcov Castle in Bohemia, where Casanova lived out his final years. There were local boys in period costumes sword-fighting in the courtyard and, inside, a somewhat dusty dignitary in mufti who, when he heard that my sister was a Casanova scholar, insisted he must show us the very chair Casanova had died in. He then led us carefully into a room where, bowing from the waist, with a sweeping gesture he indicated one of four absolutely identical chairs.

    Now the TLS reports that the Harry Ransom Center in Texas, the Emerald City of literary archives, has just acquired an Ezra Pound collection which contains, besides mere unpublished poems, a walking stick (but no umbrella) and a lock of Pound’s baby hair. From the “Personal effects” page of the HRC website where I went looking to find out more, I learned that the HRC holds lots of author relics, including such gems as George Bernard Shaw’s letter opener, which may have opened 100 letters a day, and a pair of Arthur Conan Doyle’s underwear, special characteristics unknown.

    It also houses a perfect replica of Perry Mason author Erle Stanley Gardner’s workroom where “one can view the desk, chairs, cabinets, artifacts, and slightly suspicious decorations from Gardner's 1960s study”. I’d love to have any suggestions as to what those might have been.

    And Norman Mailer’s typewriter. Yes, Mailer fans, typewriter fans, Norman Mailer’s archive at the HRC, a huge collection initially begun by Mailer’s “friend and biographer” Dr. Lucid (I kid you not), contains the typewriter Norman Mailer used to type his novel The naked and the dead, my favourite, the one that starts out at night (how many books do that, think about it), throbbing with tension, soldiers trying to sleep who the next day will climb onto assault craft to be landed on a Pacific atoll, and never lets up. War is hell.

    Could Mailer have used that same typewriter four years later to write the letter to Lillian Ross, published earlier this year by the New York Review of Books in a three-part selection of Mailer letters (at the Central City Library or online), which contains these lines about The old man and the sea, which had just come out:
    “I thought it was good and would have been better if it hadn’t been so full of shit. I thought the best thing about it was the conception of the story, but I just can’t bear his prose. It sets my teeth on edge. At least Hemingway’s prose of 1952 which has lost all of the simplicity it used to have. I think if he had written the story twenty years ago it would have been half as long and twice as good.”

    Alongside this intrepid opinion which I regret wasn't available to me when they made me read The old man and the sea in school, Mailer retained a great respect for Hemingway at his best, the person who made us see "as no one else ever has, what the potential strength of the English sentence could be". Mailer said that in an interview in the Paris Review in 2007, the year his last book, The castle in the forest, was published and the year he died. (You can read it online, or get Paris Review Interviews Vol 3 from the library and you can read interviews, too, with John Cheever, Jean Rhys, etc. We have all three volumes and I highly recommend them.) The 84 year old Mailer also says, then, “I almost wouldn’t trust a young novelist who doesn’t imitate Hemingway in his youth”.

    I once read an article about insects in the old Encyclopedia Britannica which said that from an evolutionary point of view, men have an excess of energy compared to male insects whose purpose is done once they have mated, which they use for making war, betting on horses, and writing literature. Hemingway and Mailer both. Oh, and don't forget boxing. They both loved boxing, too.

    I recommend: Norman Mailer's great novel about World War II The naked and the dead and his account of the Ali-Foreman Heavyweight Championship fight in Zaire, The Fight.

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