Sunday, March 13, 2011

It can do no other

I didn't expect to find on a discount book table, let alone finish reading -- in the time between dropping off my car for a service and when I had to collect it -- Kafka's The Zürau Aphorisms. I sat with the book near the centre of a one-level suburban concrete shopping complex, in a cafe without windows or walls, with only nominal divisions (such as a child would devise with chairs, plants and posts) from the rest of the interior -- the very antithesis of Kafka's eight month stay in Zürau where, as we learn from Roberto Calasso in the extract from his book K 'Veiled Splendor' at the end of the collection, he was surrounded by rolling hills, meadows, woodlands and animals -- the latter 'more in evidence than people'. The book comprises aphorisms numbered to 109, set either alone or in a pair at the centre of each page, as well as Calasso's introduction, 'Marginalia', and the extract from K. The first aphorism, as I discovered in that cafe, is vintage Kafka: where he shows us an object in his hand and then turns it over and over until it no longer resembles itself (or even the hand):

The true path is along a rope, not a rope suspended way up in the air, but rather only just over the ground. It seems more like a tripwire than a tightrope.

In the introduction and the extract, Calasso describes the way that Kafka, quite contrary to his usual way of writing -- which was to fill notebooks from one edge of the page to the other (not even distinguishing one chapter from the next except by inserting a brief slanted symbol in the middle of a line) -- placed each of his aphorisms on separate, loose numbered sheets of thin yellow paper. Max Brod first published these aphorisms under his own title of Reflections on Sin, Suffering, Hope and the True Way in a collection of Kafka's posthumous writings, Preparations for a Country Wedding in 1953, but without preserving anything of the manuscript's sparse aesthetic. It was Calasso's contact with it in the New Bodleian Library that convinced him that he needed to put together this 2006 edition with more white than words.

If anything, Calasso, like Brod who, as he writes, 'could lend a touch of kitsch to anything', is a little too inclined to support a more hagiographic version of Kafka than the Kafka of the clear, cold editorial eye might have liked him to do (the one who once specified which writings he wanted destroyed, and which to be kept, and whose specifications Brod famously ignored). In 'Veiled Splendor', Calasso states that it is 'impossible to determine why some of the aphorisms on the onion-skin are crossed out: they are not of a particular type, and what's more, some of them are among the most noteworthy.' Calasso preserves these crossed-out pieces in this edition, appending only an asterisk to indicate that Kafka might have preferred he didn't. It was hard to get any sense of which of these aphorisms Calasso had thought 'the most noteworthy'. With a couple of them, I found myself agreeing with Kafka the editor who had once put a line through them. For example, aphorism 58:

The way to tell fewest lines is to tell fewest lies, not to give oneself the fewest opportunities of telling lies.

And aphorism 30:

Goodness is in a certain sense comfortless.

To my mind they appeared too obvious, preserving little of the oblique puzzlement that holds many of the other aphorisms, still moving, to their muted pages, as happens in the first of the aphorisms that are numbered 76:

The feeling: "I'm not dropping anchor here," and straightaway the feeling of the sustaining sea-swell around one.

And this final aphorism:

It isn't necessary that you leave home. Sit at your desk and listen. Don't even listen, just wait. Don't wait, be still and alone. The whole world will offer itself to you to be unmasked, it can do no other, it will writhe before you in ecstasy. (109)

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