Friday, 15 August 2008

Kafka: Towards a minor literary feud

How's this for an academic barney? Apparently, Kafka specialist (and author of Rancid Aluminium, surprisingly) James Hawes has claimed that the obtuse Czech got his rocks off by looking at pictures of fellating hedgehogs. This has got German Kafkans in an almighty tizz. I don't see why: it sounds suspiciously like part of the campaign to do whatever the secular equivalent of deification to Kafka is. Why is Kafka's reputation so sacrosanct? Why does he inspire in people who are otherwise capable of appreciating tragic irony a kind of creepy piety? Why must we 'get Kafka right' by making a Mother Teresa figure of him, when it's all well and good to revel in Joycean scatophilia?

Actually, Woolf provokes the same sort of attitude. I always think that Woolf would have benefited from a few years off reading Chekhov: she could have spent the resulting free time on a point-to-point motorbike tour of European rock festivals. Moments of Being would be far better if her 'moments' of existential apprehension involved less flowers and experiences of abject disgust at working-class children and more descriptions of seeing Metallica at Roskilde. Apparently, if you go to Woolf conferences - which I avoid, on the basis that I'd rather deal with a lone Woolfean at a historiography/ narratology gig than a Woolf pack - y0u often meet women who claim to have been visited nocturnally by 'Virginia'. I'm not sure if they mean she comes as a succubus or if she wants to spend the small hours lamenting the shortcomings of Arnold Bennett over hot chocolate, or as a combination of these possibilities. In either case, I'm not sure if I can think of a less appealing literary night visitor (Thomas Hardy would be pretty bad as well, come to think of it. I reckon Katherine Mansfield would be fun.)

On that note, a story, which deserves to be shared. When we still had research seminars in the School of L&CW, one of my co-researchers was presenting a chapter of her thesis on an East German novelist. As things so often do during discussions about para-surrealist Eastern European fictions that thematise totalitarianism and bureaucracy, talk turned to Kafka. There was another woman in the seminar, who is middle-aged and renowned for being both inordinately highly-strung and somewhat pompous. Cutting in halfway through a point my friend M was making (see how I'm maintaining a veil of anonymity now: L McG and JH know who I mean), this character stood up in her chair, cast an operatic pose and proclaimed:

'If you know Kafka well, as I do, then you'll know that one must never laugh at his novels.'

Striking me that it was rather presumptuous to declare your superior Kafkawareness in a room full of modernists and narratologists, I bravely (seriously - it usually paid not to get into an argument with her) stepped into the breach and pointed out that not laughing at Kafka is more or less impossible and also seems to be part of the point (I'm sure Deleuze and Guattari say something along those lines in the inspiring but baffling Towards a Minor Literature.) Anyway, I won that argument. One must triumph occasionally in these circumstances.

1 comment:

Ernesto said...

Unrelated comment: Wolves 4-1!