Literary roundup: Misunderstanding Kafka and a Czech émigré novel

Apparently it isn’t only filmmakers who misunderstand Kafka. In the Times Literary Supplement Gabriel Josipovici writes an article covering a number of quite varied books about or related to Kafka titled “Why we don’t understand Kafka” that brings a demanding yet even-handed take on the ultimate resistance to interpretation that Kafka’s writing contains.

In a book on Kafka, theosophy and spiritualism, Josipovici writes that “even the most learned and well-meaning critics, if they are not very careful, will start with a slight misreading and end in the further reaches of absurdity.” He proceeds to show exactly how this is done, though indicates the valid points the author makes as well.

About a book looking to mine Kafka’s work and thoughts for ways to cope with the 21st century he writes, “But who ever imagined that writers should give us ‘fruitful strategies for coping’? They have quite enough on their plates trying to say what they feel they have it in them to say.”

While each book reviewed has something to be said for it the most interesting sounding work is the most distant from Kafka. Literary Passports: The making of modernist Hebrew fiction in Europe by Shachar Pinsker “is concerned to rescue writers of Hebrew and Yiddish poetry and fiction in the early years of the twentieth century, who were in large part Russian, from the Israeli narrative in which they have usually been placed.” He does this by placing them in the context of European modernism, café culture, sexuality and the problematics of tradition – all areas that their Central European cousin from Prague knew more than a little about.

Death of a translator

The Iran Book News Agency (IBNA) has reported the tragic death of Milan Kundera’s Iranian translator Parviz Homayounpoor. Homayounpoor translated Kundera’s novels The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Identity as well as The Art of the Novel. The translator was swimming in Lake Geneva and the cold water reportedly brought on a heart attack.

The IBNA has some interesting content but occasionally the English is a bit off. The site has a feature on writers who were born/died “on this day” but refer to it instead as “on a day like this,” which took me a few minutes to figure out what kind of a day this was like (cold? gray? unproductive?). I assume the same problem was at work in the line above the headline about the translator’s death, which I doubt they were trying to play for laughs, but which says, “A cold end for Parviz Homayounpoor.”

Three women

The Brooklyn Rail runs a review of Monika Zgustová’s novel Goya’s Glass, just recently published by Feminist Press at CUNY. It is the Barcelona-based Czech writer’s first novel translated into English though there is no mention of the translator or even what language it was translated from (she has lived in Spain since the early 1980s so could conceivably write in Spanish or Catalan) on the publisher’s site or in the review.

The novel tells the story of three historically significant and fascinating women – the Duchess of Alba, Božena Němcová and Nina Berberova. The novel’s three blurbs come from pretty compelling sources –  Václav Havel, Josef Škvorecký and Juan Goytisolo. Sounds worth tracking down.

The review though sounds a very odd note at the end in evoking 1930s Prague “brimming with Russian exiles—Vladimir Nabokov, as well as the less fortunate Alexander Blok, Andrei Bely, Osip Mandelstam, Isaac Babel, and Anna Akhmatova—all members of the Association of Artists and Writers.”

Where to begin with this baffling description? Well, Blok most definitely was less fortunate since he had died in 1921 and so had a fairly subdued role in 30s émigré life. As far as I know none of the others were in Prague in the 30s with the exception of Nabokov, who came to visit his nearly destitute mother and sister from his own strained Berlin existence.

Separated at publication

The strangest literary comparisons of the day are in the Irish Times, where Joseph Roth is described as “a central European George Orwell.” The Radetsky March and 1984? Uh, okay. Still more, the article pairs Roth with J. R. R. Tolkien of all people because they both served in World War I.

Photo – Vladislav Khodasevich and Nina Berberova in Sorrento, 1925

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3 Comments on “Literary roundup: Misunderstanding Kafka and a Czech émigré novel”

  1. 07/09/2012 at 2:19 am #

    Thanks for the round-up – some intriguing gems here 🙂


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    […] wrote about this interesting sounding book and some peculiarities of a review of it (or in the novel itself), as well as the fact that I […]

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