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

Another in a series of essays about serendipitous discovery and reading.
Helen Oyeyemi
I’ve never been lost in Prague because while I’m there I’m too conscious of myself and my poor sense of direction to forget where I am for even a minute. But Helen Oyeyemi got lost on her first day in Prague. She says she couldn’t read her map because she was “assaulted by beauty” on her way to look at the astronomical clock. She adds, “I walked through jigsaws of light and shadow and greenish-gold stone; I’d gawp shamelessly and then shield my eyes as if the sunset were getting into them — really, I was embarrassed at being unable to calmly and lucidly take my place in the scenery.” She finally ended up at the foot of Petřín and rode the funicular to the astronomical observatory where she looked at Venus through a telescope. Because Petřín is my favorite place in Prague, I’m impressed that she found her way to the top of that mysterious and marvelous hill on her first day in the city.

I read about Oyeyemi’s Prague experiences last March when my friend Julie, who knew I was returning to Prague in April, sent me Oyeyemi’s essay “Maybe Something, Maybe Nothing: a Prague Travelogue.” After reading it, I said I thought she must be “a woman with a generous heart” because she writes about the city so lovingly and kindly. She apparently regards Prague as an exceptional place, writing, “Like most South London women, or indeed most women from inner cities, I tend to move through public spaces fast and purposefully. Only the unusual will get me to slow down, to drop my guard, to stay. Through the stories I’d come to know about Prague and through observation of its signs and symbols, I’d found a place both old and new, a place where my imagination is at home.” Her prose and her attitudes made me want to read more of her work, so when I was in Prague I tried to find her just-published volume of stories. But the book didn’t make it to Prague before I left for home, so I had to wait until I got back to Tucson to buy and read what is not yours is not yours.

I see evidence throughout this story collection that Prague has worked its way into Oyeyemi’s consciousness and into her imagination. In addition to the key and lock images that loosely join the nine stories together, there are also echoes of Prague in almost all of them. “Books and Roses” contains an enclosed rose garden which reminds me of Prague’s Franciscan Garden (Františkánská zahrada) with its many rose bushes, as well as a fountain, statuary, and ornate gate. The puppet school and imaginative puppetry in “is your blood as red as this?” remind me of the puppet plays I’ve seen at Divadlo Minor and the puppet version of Don Giovanni and other operas offered at the National Marionette Theatre. Even the reference to the Black Madonna in “Books and Roses” brings to mind Prague’s House of the Black Madonna (U Černé Matky Boží), which is a well-known landmark. And of course Prague is at least a partial setting for several of the stories, including “if a book is locked there’s probably a good reason for that don’t you think,” with its references to Charles Bridge and St. John of Nepomuk.

After I finished what is not yours is not yours I wanted to know more about Oyeyemi, so I read some reviews of her older work, including Porochista Khakpour’s review of Boy, Snow, Bird at the New York Times. I learned that Oyeyemi was raised in Britain by Nigerian parents, that she has traveled widely, and that she has lived in New York and Prague, among other places. Describing Oyeyemi’s most recent novel as “another unapologetic, all-encompassing contradiction-celebration,” Khakpour describes its author as part of the New Uncanny, a term she appropriates from a Jerry Saltz piece that’s mostly about a Kanye West video. Saltz says “The New Uncanny is un-self-consciousness filtered through hyper-self-consciousness, unprocessed absurdity, grandiosity of desire, and fantastic self-regard.” Puzzled, because I don’t really find much of any of that in Oyeyemi’s story collection, I kept reading until I found a comment by Lou Reed about West’s work that concludes: “He keeps unbalancing you.” Yes, I thought. It’s true that Oyeyemi’s work does keep unbalancing me. Her stories unbalance me with their tendencies not to finish what they start and to go places I can’t be expected to expect, which for me constitutes a “reality constantly being undermined,” in this case the reality of our notions about narrative.

Here’s how Kate Clanchy at the Guardian describes one of the stories: “ ‘“Sorry” Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea’ takes misdirection to an extreme: it opens with a Nigerian man telling us about his superstar friend, moves rapidly on to his new gay relationship and his job in a weight-loss clinic where clients are put into comas, switches to his teenage daughters, and then on to a Kanye West-style rapper the daughters are obsessed with. To get to the heart of the story we must peer over the daughters’ shoulders at their computer, and not even at the video, but the comments below. The idea is novel and witty — but after such a chase, the screen seems small, and the figures not so much grandly ambiguous as rather indistinct.” Though I don’t think it’s fair to confuse the story’s violent and mean-spirited Matyas Fust with West nor do I agree with Clanchy’s take on the story as a whole, the mention of misdirection again brings to mind that notion of unbalancing.

In “ ‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea,” Oyeyemi plays with our expectations of what narrative should and will bring to us. The story flows over us, like a stream, interrupted by shifts and twists that constitute obstacles for the reader. These narrative obstacles allow the story to flow where Oyeyemi wants it to go, the way rocks or snags cause a stream to change direction and velocity. Amy Gentry at the Orlando Sentinel also discusses the notion of imbalance/unbalancing in her review of what is not yours is not yours: “Casual and accessible at the sentence level, [these stories] are not so much experimental as deeply comfortable with the pre-narrative and proto-narrative impulses at the heart of storytelling. Oyeyemi’s tendency to nest stories together, her willingness to let anecdotes and digressions swell until they take over the story, hark back to older story structures in which the hierarchies of narrative are less important than their ongoingness — think ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ or ‘The Decameron.’ The anatomy of a typical Oyeyemi story is one of deliberate imbalance; she inevitably opens more parentheses than she closes.”

In addition to her tendencies to create narrative imbalance and to unbalance us, there are also irreal notions in this story, if not a new uncanny. “ ‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea” (which first appeared in Ploughshares) contains some aspects that might more accurately be called magical realist, such as the part played by Hecate in the come-uppance received by the cruel and self-involved musician Matyas Fust. But there are also a variety of irreal notions that glimmer throughout the sometimes seemingly realistic story of young girls who become disillusioned with the star they once adored. These include: the weight loss clinic where the narrator works which uses a sleep-and-lose-weight scheme; a co-worker whose tattoo is sometimes there, sometimes isn’t and “goes through various degrees of permanence, from drawn on with kohl to full tattoo”; and a house with doors that don’t stay closed until they’re locked, after which there are “sounds that convince you you’ve locked someone in.” These glimmers of irreality, combined with the continual undermining of our expectations about narrative, give me reason to say there’s something “both old and new” about Oyeyemi as a writer, a phrase she uses to describe her affinity with Prague, and a phrase I might use to describe what she brings to the unfolding and developing of the art of fiction.

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

Another entry in my Shelfie Project:
Shelfie with Satin Island
Still in Prague and looking for something new to read, I saw Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island among the English language books at Palac Neoluxor bookstore on Wenceslas Square. I was curious about the accuracy of the cover blurb that quotes the Daily Telegraph review in which McCarthy is called “a Kafka for the Google age,” so I bought the book. There are those who say Kafka successfully summed up the age in which he lived, and I wanted to see if McCarthy’s work could be said to do the same.

Of course, Satin Island does bring Kafka to mind when the narrator is given a single letter for a name — in this case U., not K — but as the novel opens, the narrator has not yet introduced himself. He is waiting in the Torino-Caselle airport, a hub airport which he tells us is mainly a transfer point rather than a destination. He explains what this means by referring to a diagram found on the airport’s website which shows a rimless wheel, with spokes of different lengths that represent possible further destinations. This image reminds U. of Christ’s crown of thorns, which is relevant because we have just been told that Torino-Caselle is the airport of Turin, a city famous for the shroud some people believe once held the body of the crucified Christ. The focus on connections in this airport scene introduces the novel’s commentary on the nature of our age, an age in which everything seems to be connected, however indirectly.

The first-chapter airport scene also establishes clear links to the main characters and events of the novel (though as U. says early on: “events! If you want events you’d best stop reading now”). U. has a phone conversation with his boss Peyman, who tells him that the Company has won the contract to do the Koob-Sassen Project (which U.  later tells us will have had an effect on us whether we know it or not and which he describes as “formed of many other projects, linked to many other projects — which renders it well-nigh impossible to say where it began and ended…”). He Skypes with a woman named Madison, who says she has also spent time in the Torino-Caselle airport for reasons we only learn near the end of the novel. He sees the screens of the laptops and phones and televisions around him which first show images of a football game and later the scene of a Middle East marketplace bombing and later yet an oil spill much like the Deepwater Horizon disaster. My copy of the novel, published in the UK, is in fact partially illustrated with black oil-like blobs and drooling oil-like drips, but the oil spill is neither more nor less important than anything else we find here. Perhaps a summation of the novel – and of our age? – is already evident by Section 4.5 (the novel is divided into subsections like a legal document): “Who’s to say what is, or might turn out to be, related to what else?”

In any case by this point we know that U. is a corporate anthropologist. “What does an anthropologist working for a corporation actually do? We purvey cultural insight,” he tells us. Because he has been asked to write a Great Report as a part of the Koob-Sassen project, he is both perplexed by and wholly engaged with this process. And to this end he examines a wide variety of phenomena, from traffic jams in Lagos to the unexplained deaths of parachutists.

Of course all writers try to sum up the age in which they live and to make sense of the events unfolding around them. But McCarthy told the Telegraph: “I didn’t want to write a book about a writer trying to write a book, because I just don’t think the world needs one of those, especially not by a white man. But I did want to show this figure within some big machinery, of power and capital and everything else. The opposite of the romantic idea of the writer in his garret. The writer after Kafka, right in the heart of the machine. And then I stumbled across the figure of the corporate anthropologist.” As this corporate anthropologist more or less fails to create any sort of substantive report, yet is given a great deal of credit for his work by his Company, McCarthy suggests the futility of trying to sum up a world in which data increases exponentially every day and the human brain remains the same humble and remarkable organ it has been since the time of the earliest homo sapiens. We can’t really fault McCarthy if the task of summing up our age is not really possible, any more than the Company can fault U.

The book jacket also gives us a teasing description of the novel that looks something like this: A Treatise. An Essay. A Confession. A Manifesto. A Novel. A Report. And so, although this is a book in which a report figures prominently, and it is a book that many times sounds like a report on modern culture, we are explicitly told that it is a novel. When I tried to decide which story or stories from Metamorphosis and Other Stories that I wanted to discuss alongside Satin Island, in order to decide if McCarthy is a Kafka for the Google age, I chose “A Report to an Academy” partly because it is a story masquerading as a report, and partly because it is a story that easily calls for anthropological insights.

Michael Hofmann in his introduction to Metamorphosis and Other Stories acknowledges that “[u]nimaginable quantities of ink and ingenuity have been spilled on Kafka” but says that this extraordinary interest in Kafka was “…not really older than, say, 1945. It is as though Holocaust, Communism, Existentialism and Cold War all had to happen to validate a handful of texts written in the first quarter of the twentieth century.” So in a sense, Kafka was summing up a set of causal events that led to the world as it was in 1945 and not simply the age in which he lived, since he died in 1924. But Kafka’s fictional commentary on the landmark events of the twentieth century did not require references to current events or real people. Instead he wrote stories and parables that constantly undermine what we think we know. He hinted at political realities without ever actually describing them, and he gave each of us a chance to find our own problems, the world’s problems, and Franz Kafka’s problems in what K or other protagonists were experiencing. He did this by pointing at many possible meanings without explicitly giving us any meanings at all.

In “A Report to an Academy,” Red Peter, an ape, describes how he was captured in the wild and how he learned to become a part of human society. The story was first published by Martin Buber in the German magazine Der Jude (The Jew), and some see it as a commentary on Jewish assimilation and the “demands placed on minorities by intolerant societies.” But the story can also be seen as a description of the way human beings treat animals, without regard for their capacities and needs (in describing the crate in which he was first held captive, which makes it impossible for him to attain a comfortable position, Peter says, “Such accommodation for wild animals is thought to be suitable during the initial period, and after my own experience, I cannot deny its efficacy from the human standpoint.”) The story can also be seen to address the human relationship to the concept of freedom, presaging Erich Fromm’s distinction between positive and negative freedom. (“I quite deliberately do not say freedom. I don’t mean the great feeling of freedom on all sides. As an ape I may have known such a feeling, and I have met people who yearn to have it. As for me, I demanded freedom neither then nor now. And, incidentally, freedom is all too often self-deception among people. Just as freedom is among the most exalted of feelings, so the corresponding deception is among the most exalted of deceptions.”) Or it might point toward the experiences of a child being forced by parents or other authorities to conform to societal expectations. (“Dull sobbing, painful flea-hunting, desultory sucking on a coconut, banging my head against the crate in front of me, putting out my tongue when approached by anyone — those were my diversions, early on in the new life.”)

Red Peter tells his story in a dry tone and without self-pity, but the brutal details of his capture and initial imprisonment give his audience cause to pity him. After he has been transported to Hamburg, he realizes that the only two possibilities open to him are the zoo or the variety theatre, and so he becomes a performer. But Peter sums up his situation as follows: “By an exertion without parallel in the history of the world, I have reached the level of cultivation of the average European. In and of itself that might not mean anything, but it does mean something, because it got me out of my cage, and gave me this particular way out, this human way out.”

So how does Kafka’s writerly project differ from McCarthy’s, and is it really fair to compare a novel to a short story? This is not a scholarly work, and I don’t feel a need to make a lengthy argument, but I think that there’s a single germane difference that can be seen here. In “Report to an Academy,” as in much of Kafka, the events of the story are not realistic and the writing doesn’t try to deal with persons, places, or events that are well-known to the reader. We know that apes are intelligent and have been taught to understand sign language, but none has ever been known to present such a complex and self-aware report.

In Satin Island, on the other hand, U. searches for hints of meaning in a wide range of events from cargo cults to police brutality toward activists planning to demonstrate at the G8 conference in Genoa. Many of these events are taken from news reports and none of them are impossible. In addition, the work of anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss is examined for the insights he can contribute. Put simply (and perhaps too simply), instead of leaving it up to the reader to find meanings, as Kafka did, McCarthy tries to give us meaning — or at least tries to guide us toward meanings — and though I found Satin Island challenging and entertaining, ultimately I did not find it truly Kafkan.

Vanitas in Prague – and a Caveat

Shelfie with Kafka and Apple

While in Prague I’m constantly aware that this urban landscape is hostile to the aging body. The pavement is uneven, there are lots of steep steps, and the cobblestone streets give ample reason to fear falling down. When I’m here I also read the Guardian regularly, so when I came across a story a few weeks ago about an Indian woman in her 70s who gave birth to a baby, I was distressed to imagine how hard that experience must have been for an aging mother and ashamed that I complain about occasionally being forced to climb down stairs without a handrail.

Somewhat later, when Greg and I were in the Akademie Bookstore on Národní třída and I saw a book called Essentials of Biological Anthropology, I looked with real interest at the chapter called “Senescence, Ageing Populations and old Age.” This Charles University English-language publication was coincidentally a book I had browsed when it cost a hundred crowns, and because it was now marked down even further, I bought it. Later I found that, though it distinguished nicely between biological aging and reproductive aging, the book tended to focus on a litany of negative outcomes that accompany aging without giving any assurances that these do not affect all aging people. This chapter (and another related chapter called “Onthogenetic Development of the Man” (sic)) tended to portray getting older as a sort of debilitating medical condition, the way pregnancy once was described, and it didn’t really give much information about all the things aging people can do and accomplish (including, regardless of how you feel about her choice, getting pregnant and giving birth at the age of 73). But more about that later.

Just a couple of blocks away from the Akademie Bookstore, in the Galerie Hollar, we stopped to look at a sale and exhibit of Jiří Anderle prints from the 1970s and 1980s. Since the early 1990s we have been visiting Galerie Hollar to see excellent small exhibits of the work of top-notch Czech graphic artists — and here’s the serendipitous part: Anderle is an artist whose work could illustrate any discussion of old age and senescence. He frequently uses the vanitas format, though this form is more often associated with 16th and 17th century Dutch and Flemish painters.

Vanitas paintings are explicitly intended to remind us of our own mortality — life is very short, they point out insistently, and we will all die. Symbols found in vanitas paintings often include skulls, fruit, and flowers, and these also frequently appear in Anderle’s work. At Hollar there were perhaps two dozen prints of his drypoint drawings on offer, but I will describe three prints from 1983 which exemplify the artist’s work and deal with the grim but compelling subject of our mortality. The fact that this exhibit was staged on the occasion of Anderle’s 80th birthday adds resonance to this theme.

In Dejte si pozor na to co může přijít zitra (Pay attention to what can come tomorrow) an infant and two elders are depicted at the top of the picture, and at the bottom right we see the image of a young adult woman. Also depicted are a bare tree and some preposterous human forms, a couple of which sport legs where their arms should be and one which has a mouth at the top of his head. Then, in an image sequence common in Anderle’s work, there is a series of slightly overlapping heads in profile which range from young to old. There’s also a monstrous head with some human features but an animal’s jaw and a tongue like a sea snake. The young woman looks brave, but we wonder if she is really heeding the artist’s warning.

In Člověk je jako ovoce (A person is like fruit) a young woman looks boldly outward, and a man’s skull can be seen in profile. He is older than she is and his head is deteriorating or maybe decaying. In the foreground we see a bunch of grapes and a pomegranate, opened and with exposed seeds.

In Vanitas VIII we see more fruit and some flowers, both fresh and wilted. A young woman and man face each other and, again, their heads in profile range from young to successively older, coming closer and closer until their aged selves nearly touch.

Anderle uses the images common to the vanitas to make an obvious point, yet there is a fantastic imagination in his work that allows us to bypass some of the horror. In addition, Anderle reminds us of our progression toward aging and its attendant miseries and indignities with a certain amount of humor. He goes beyond the typical vanitas symbols of skulls and flowers to show us grotesque monsters that mock our fears. The monsters in “Pay attention” are not really human, which gives us a small sense of relief, but they remind us that we are always heading into the unknown.

Later I decided to see what I could find in Kafka that deals directly with aging and death. Of course in one sense everything in Kafka is focused on our headlong rush toward our demise, but a few short pieces fit together with my theme. First, there’s the tiny piece called “The Neighboring Village,” which is just one paragraph long. The narrator’s grandfather, we are told, said, “Life is astonishingly brief,” and went on to exclaim that he can’t understand how a young man can start off on a visit to a neighboring village without wondering if there will be enough time to get there in “the span of a normal happy life.” Also in this volume there are two other stories that deal explicitly with issues of mortality — “The Worries of a Head of Household” and “A Dream.”

At the beginning of “A Dream,” we are told that “Josef K. dreamed” and in his dream he went for a walk on a nice day. Almost immediately he “found himself in the cemetery.” Though this is very much the logic of dreams – that we find ourselves in unexpected places without having chosen to go there — when a dreamer finds himself among tombstones, he is often unsettled. But K., spotting a fresh grave, feels compelled to hurry toward it, and though it is sometimes obscured from view by twisting banners, and he can’t see who is holding them, “he had a sense of there being great jubilation.” Then, in a further example of dream logic, while he is looking elsewhere, K. realizes the grave he wants to reach is nearby, “practically underneath him.” He jumps to the grass, is forced to kneel in front of the grave by some additional dreamlike contortions of the physical world, and then he is trapped beside the grave when two men force a gravestone into place.

At this point a third man, the artist, appears. He is wearing a somewhat louche costume — trousers, a half-buttoned shirt, and a velvet cap — and he’s holding a pencil. He begins to write on the gravestone, and with what Kafka first calls “an ordinary pencil” and then “a perfectly ordinary pencil” he produces a gold inscription. “Each letter seemed pure and beautiful, deeply etched and in perfect gold.” And then, in spite of an inexplicable hindrance for the artist and some “intense opposition from within,” Josef K. ends up being gently moved into a “large hole with steep-sided walls” as the artist writes his epitaph “with immense flourishes.”

Because this is a story by Kafka, it would probably not be wise to hurry after a single meaning. Yes, this dream is filled with references to death and descriptions of graves and burial. It might be possible to see it as a premonition of early death — Kafka knew he suffered from tuberculosis. It might also be possible to see it as a story about the way artists try to create a monument to themselves that will live after them. Certainly the artist in this story is very skillful, able to produce beautiful gold etched letters with an ordinary pencil. And of course Kafka, whose alter ego Josef K. is being summarily buried and memorialized, is a writer, an artist whose work can be produced with an ordinary pencil. K. watches the artist, empathizes with his difficulties, and ends up wafting into his grave after he realizes “there was no longer time to beg him to change his mind.” This makes it sound as if the artist was not really human but a godlike figure who could determine when it was time for a man to lie in his grave.

This story set in a cemetery contains a surprising number of positive descriptions. When K. sees the fresh grave and the flags and banners, he has a sense that there is “great jubilation.” The forces that put him into the grave are gentle, he is “accepted by impenetrable depths,” and his epitaph is beautifully finished. “Ravished by the aspect, he awoke” concludes the dream, and ravished is a word that can mean to fill someone with intense delight. And of course a dream about death is not a death — it may be a reminder of mortality, a kind of written vanitas, or an exhortation not to struggle and feel so anxious about what is inevitable.

“The Worries of a Head of Household” is about a different sort of anxiety, a sense of unease that Sartre would attribute to our sense of discomfort with the in-itself, which is matter that is not imbued with life and consciousness. In this story Kafka presents us with the Odradek, which is surely a thing — it is a “tiny,” flat, star-shaped reel of thread with old, knotted or tattered pieces of thread protruding from it — yet with the aid of a little rod that emerges from its center it can stand upright. The Odradek seems to represent the senseless proliferation of matter that gives Roquentin his queasy feelings in Sartre’s Nausea, and though it might seem that this funny thing — with a name that doesn’t seem to have a meaning – was once created to serve a purpose and is now broken, the head of household says “the whole thing looks functionless, but after its fashion complete.”

The Odradek can move very fast and is very “maneuverable,” and even more remarkable than the fact that he moves from attic to stairs to corridors or from one building to the other on his own power (in the story the Odradek is referred to as a he) is the fact that he can speak. He can answer simple questions and he is sometimes heard to laugh, though “often he is silent for long periods, as silent as the wood he seems to be fashioned from.” The Ondradek has no aim or activity that is likely to wear him out, and therefore the head of household is uncertain that the Odradek will ever die. He finds it “painful” to think that this odd creature might outlive him.

But what meanings can the Odradek have for Kafka and for us? For one thing, the story takes a look at one way human beings feel about the in-itself — uneasy and a little resentful. Objects are not constantly striving and wearing themselves out over their aims and purposes, and so they often survive for many long years. But the Odradek might also refer to those parts of our bodies that will still be around long after we die, and he has more in common with a skull in an Anderle vanitas piece than with a human person.

After I finished with Kafka, I decided to add a caveat to the scientific point of view I found in Essentials of Biological Anthropology. Yes, life is astonishingly brief, all is vanity, and we know this with increasing clarity as we grow older. In addition, the 73-year-old woman’s newborn son is unlikely to have his mother around when he has children of his own, and many people would find her choice to become a mother at such an advanced age a questionable one (though she did so for complex reasons that involved her husband’s inheritance). But older people are still able to do remarkable things because life is not over until it’s over, and everyone deserves the chance to make the next serendipitous discovery.

Creation vs. Curation and The Birds of Kafka

Here’s the next Prague-based entry in my #ShelfieProject:
Shelfie Three
In my pursuit of serendipitous discovery, I again went into a Prague antikvariat and looked at the few English-language books on offer. The pasteboard cover of How to Recognise British Wild Birds, published as part of The Young Naturalist Series, featured drawings of common European birds, perched or in flight, arranged in a ring around the book’s title. These drawings were appealing, and when I opened the book I found this dedication: For Mummy and Daddy for Christmas 1944. Partly because of this and partly because the book would make it easier for me to learn the English names for many of the birds I see here, I bought it.

Though I’m not a birder, I have an ongoing interest in and appreciation of birds. I can easily tell a Magpie from a Jackdaw, and I see plenty of both because I’m living on the outskirts of Prague this year and have occasion to walk near woods and grassy fields almost every day. But some kinds of birds are easily confused with others, and on the back of my recent purchase there’s a drawing of a Rook and a Crow, sitting on the same branch but looking in opposite directions. As soon as he gives a brief introduction to the book, author Eric Pochin explains how to tell the difference between the two species. I also learned that the birds that fly “in parties over the rooftops screaming on Summer evenings” are Swifts, not Swallows.

Not long after I acquired my bird book, Greg and I decided to go to the newly opened exhibit at The Rudolfinum, that magnificent Prague space for music and art events. For over 20 years we’ve been going to the café on the first floor, sometimes just for the comfortably sedate café itself and sometimes as a place to have a cup of tea midway through an art exhibit. But when we arrived at the Rufolfinum to see the Taryn Simon exhibit, we learned that the café is closed for reconstruction, like so many of our favorite spaces here in Prague. We paid our entry fees and looked longingly through the window at the now empty café space, then made our way upstairs to see what was on offer.

Simon, according to the exhibition brochure, which has a picture of a deformed tiger on its cover, is a New York photographer who “creates elaborate classifications of obscurities that sometimes hide in plain sight.” She works with photos and text, film and performance, uses methods that often take years of research, and is “one of the most significant figures on the contemporary international art scene.” The first room we entered was devoted to “Field Guide to Birds of the West Indies,” and we learned that Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels, was also a birder and he lived for some time in Jamaica. His encounter with the “Field Guide to Birds of the West Indies,” written by ornithologist James Bond, inspired him to give his fictional superspy that name. Once I learned this, it occurred to me that my book about British birds was coincidentally connected with this exhibit of Simon’s work.

The connection pleased me and gave me reason to write this essay, but I found the exhibit itself to be hard to engage with. What Simon has done is to ferret out all the instances in which birds appear in the twenty-four James Bond films and make stills of these unscripted bird appearances. Then she arranged the images according to the locations in which the birds appear — which might be a real country like North Korea or a fictional place like San Monique. The exhibit, therefore, consists of many framed collections of bird photos in which the birds appear mostly to be pigeons or chickens, when they can be identified, and are often impossible to identify as birds at all. There’s also a display of photos of bird skins that were prepared by the “real” James Bond and some of his correspondence and personal effects. The overall impact of this roomful of carefully framed photos that don’t give a clear image of their intended subject is a sense that the fictional James Bond was so far removed from the work the real James Bond had undertaken that it was hard to clearly see from one world into the other.

In the next room in the exhibit space there were displays of images culled from the picture collection of the Mid-Manhattan Library and in the one after that there were 1,075 photographs of items detained or seized by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Federal Inspection Site and the U.S. Postal Service International Mail Facility at JFK Airport. The outtakes from the image collection are displayed according to categories such as Cats and Veils, and the photos of contraband are clearly labeled and categorized. To be honest, however, the part of the exhibit titled “An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar” is the only one in which Simon seems to have made truly creative decisions about her subject matter — this involves places that are “hidden and out-of-view within the borders of the United States,” such as a test site at which warheads are exploded or a white tiger breeding facility of which the unfortunate malformed tiger on the brochure cover is a product.

Those of us who blog or otherwise create content for the internet are likely to have participated in the ongoing debate about the relative importance of content creation and content curation (which in some ways is like knowing the difference between a Rook and a Crow). Creation, some argue, has the highest value and is the most important contribution that writers and thinkers and artists make because without it we would just be recycling the same old material ad infinitum. But other people, especially those with more postmodern sensibilities, argue that curation is as important as creation, if not more so, because there’s nothing new under the sun, to coin a phrase, and without interested and dedicated curators much of the burgeoning mass of creative work would be lost from sight. As I viewed this exhibit, particularly “Field Guide to Birds of the West Indies,” I could see that Taryn Simon is a woman who takes curation seriously and, as her bio notes, has “an interest in systems of categorization and classification.” So in spite of the fact that I found her work a bit dry and hard to engage with, I felt real appreciation for the fact that she’s an artist in whose work creation and curation came together in a challenging way. And the fact that she brought James Bond films and serious birding together not only allowed me to include her work in this essay but also led me to do a bit of curation myself.

Right now I have only one volume of Kafka’s work in my possession — Metamorphosis and Other Stories, which came out in 2007 and contains new translations by Michael Hofmann. As I paged through it the evening after I saw the Simon exhibit at the Rudolfinum, I became a Kafka curator, finding instances in which birds appear in Kafka’s published work. The first of these can be found on the first page in the first story, “Children on the Road,” which opens with a young boy sitting on a swing, watching life go by as adults make their way home from work, children run past, and people enact their social roles. Then “birds flew up like corks out of a bottle,” and he watches them as they rise until it seems more like he’s falling than that the birds are climbing. By then it’s dark, he eats his supper tiredly, and he watches passersby lethargically. Suddenly, he’s called by his friends to come out into the world he has only been watching up to this point. He says the children then “put our heads down and butted through the evening” — and they sometimes “ran along in a herd,” sometimes lay down to sleep on the ground, sometimes hurtled along roads and over ditches with alarming athleticism. This evocative piece contains many examples of the way in which Kafka uses descriptions of bodily activity — poses and movements — to express complex notions about the way human beings relate to one another and themselves. In this story, all bodily motion becomes body language. And when the narrator leaves his companions behind and instead of heading for home sets off “for the great city in the south” where it is said that they never sleep, Kafka leaves us unsure where the dream state ends and the dream begins.

The only other place in which birds can be found in this volume (though the screaming of the nomads in “An Old Journal” is compared to that of magpies) is in a non-fiction piece called “Great Noise,” which comes near the end. This lament is just one paragraph long, and in it Kafka declares that his room is “the headquarters of the noise of the whole apartment.” He catalogs this noise, which includes his father bursting through the door and his sister’s shouted question about whether or not father’s hat has been brushed. The oven door claps shut, the front door opens “with a rasp like a catarrhal throat being cleared,” and after his father leaves, there’s more “delicate” noise that includes the voices of two canaries. Despite the fact that their voices are sweet, canaries don’t please Kafka any more than the other noisemakers. He just wants quiet.

I reached the end of the book without finding any other mentions of birds. Of course, Kafka’s name is derived from the Czech name for the JackdawKavka obecna — and in light of that fact it’s surprising that he doesn’t include birds more often in his work. But Kafka is very fond of the silence birds are apt to disturb, and more importantly he is extraordinarily perceptive when it comes to body language. The bodily movements of birds perhaps suggest to him a constant anxious wariness rather than the freedom other less insightful people think they symbolize, and so he focuses on the more easily interpreted body language of mammals instead.

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

Here’s a new entry in my #ShelfieProject:
Warner and Kafka books

On my second day in Prague this year, I found Marina Warner’s collection of short stories, The Mermaids in the Basement, among some English-language books in an antikvariat. When this book was published in 1993, Warner was working on From the Beast to the Blonde, her feminist study of fairy tales, which I read in Prague exactly 20 years ago. The short story collection had a strong connection to my reading past, so I bought it.

Each of Warner’s stories features well-defined characters. Some of these characters are based on figures from myths and fairy tales, in which case the stories themselves often have imaginative and fantastic elements. Other characters are inspired by accounts in newspapers and by historical studies, and the stories in which they appear tend to be more realistic, though by no means conventional. “The Food of Angels” is one such story. Warner says in her acknowledgements that the story was inspired by one of the young women portrayed in Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s study, Fasting Girls. Set in East Anglia in the 1830s, this story is told from a number of points of view, but it focuses on Lucy Persis, a young woman who, because she refuses to eat, is regarded by some of the people around her as a kind of saint – ascetic and deeply spiritual.

At the beginning of “The Food of Angels” Lucy is fascinated by Meg, an unattractive and mentally challenged young woman who has just given birth to a baby boy, though no one knows who the father is. Lucy doesn’t believe her mother when she says “she was simple, that’s why she got a baby,” but instead she thinks the pregnancy occurred because Meg ate potatoes which “make you heavy and fat.” She also watches as Meg is tricked into eating a caterpillar, and soon afterward Lucy begins to refuse her meals and/or, as her sister notes, brings up her food “like kitty when she has hairballs.” Lucy’s father, who reads about a holy woman named Dame Julian who didn’t need “the worthless rubbish of this world to keep alive she just burned with the love of God,” becomes convinced that his daughter Lucy has been chosen and that her refusal to eat “is a sign of God’s special providence.”

At her father’s encouragement Lucy prays to be protected from sin and fornication, after which her father says “I think sometimes that she might be an angel come amongst us to save us from the corruption that enmires us…” Lucy’s mother, when she tries to coax her daughter to eat barley broth and bread, is told by her husband to let the girl be. The local doctor says it’s a miracle that Lucy can live on air, and encouraged by the rector, Lucy’s father allows people to come to visit her as though she were a saint (though these visitors are seen by Lucy’s mother, who must provide them with refreshments, as “gawkers and gawpers”).

We also see Lucy’s story from the points of view of a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, Mr. Longworth, and a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, Dr. Medlincott. These men are interested in the question of what gives life to the body, whether it might be the soul or some other animating principle, and they make Lucy into the subject of an experiment. Dr. Medlincott, who has seen other Fasting Girls, tries to determine once and for all how a human being can seemingly live on air. He puts a 24-hour watch on Lucy and allows “no one else beside the nurses accredited and approved by men of science” to enter. This, he says, will see the girl’s appetite return and allow him to “refute foolish notions about the vitality of the soul independent of the body.” In turn, Lucy’s father and the rector are horrified that medical men question the primacy of the soul. Lucy’s body becomes the battleground on which these men fight over their respective belief systems. And though Lucy’s mother is more in touch with her daughter’s bodily needs and has greater understanding, the self-serving motives of all these adults lead to devastating consequences for Lucy.

Warner tells the story from many perspectives, but “The Food of Angels” is ultimately about Lucy, a girl whose anxieties about her fertility, combined with her desire to be good and respected, lead her to try to free herself from the heaviness she fears that food will bring her and to seek the light/ness of starvation. Warner brings her feminist perspective to bear on the cruelties science and religion can inflict when not humanely practiced and the ways that women are penalized for their reproductive and sexual natures.

After I finished “The Food of Angels” I decided to reread Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist” so I could compare and contrast the two stories. I couldn’t find a used English-language volume of Kafka stories in any antikvariat, so I bought Metamorphosis and Other Stories, which was brought out by Penguin Books in 2007. This is a collection of the writings that were published by Kafka during his short lifetime, and they have all been re-translated by Michael Hoffman. During the first trip Greg and I made to Prague in 1993, we had a tattered copy of the Schocken edition of Kafka’s collected stories with us. As I looked my new Kafka book, I remembered lying in my narrow bed in a small pension in Holešovice, disoriented by jet lag, and reading “The Hunger Artist” for the first time, impressed by Kafka’s intensity.

At the start of the story we are told that, though interest in the art of self-starvation has declined, it was once profitable to be a hunger artist. In those days there were season-ticket holders, the whole town used to get involved with the hunger artist’s performance, and “everyone wanted to see the hunger-artist at least once a day.” The artist also had warders selected by his public – referred to as invigilators – who watched him day and night “to check that he wasn’t secretly taking any sustenance.” This was purely a formality, however, because devotees knew that “no hunger-artist would have eaten the least thing under any circumstances, not even under duress, the honor-code of his art forbade it.”

Of course there were always doubters, and suspicion was “inseparable from the act of starving.” No one could actually know for sure what the hunger artist ate and “only he therefore could be the spectator completely satisfied by his own hunger.” Though the artist stubbornly clung to his feats of starvation, and he never left his cage of his own free will, his fasts were limited by his manager to forty days (a span of time with Biblical resonance). When he didn’t want to leave his cage at the end of a performance, the manager would raise his arms over the artist “as if calling on the heavens to see what it had accomplished on this straw, this pitiable martyr, which the hunger-artist truly was, only in a quite different sense…” and then would carry him out and hand him over to his audience. And after he had eaten his post-starvation meal, the only one who remained dissatisfied was the artist himself.

But then, as noted at the beginning of the story, there was a shift in tastes and “as if by tacit arrangement a positive aversion against hungering had formed.” The artist is out of fashion, he grows old, he parts ways with his manager and is taken on by a circus. His life grows bleaker as interest in his art continues to decline. And when he is asked by a circus overseer why he has spent his life like this, the artist says, “I have to starve, I can’t do anything else,” and goes on to say that this was because “I couldn’t find any food I liked. If I had found any, believe me, I wouldn’t have made any fuss, and I would have eaten to my heart’s content, just like you or anyone else.” By this point, impressed by the obsessive nature of his performance and his unwillingness to give up his art regardless of its waning popularity, we are not inclined to believe him.

Because “The Hunger Artist” is not a realistic story – nor is it based on a historical incident – and because it is a story by Franz Kafka, the depiction of the artist and his artistry point meaningfully in many directions without ever actually arriving at one. The hunger-artist reminds us of the starving artist and the artist’s life, which is fraught with difficulty and always under the gaze of his fickle public and his irascible critics; the nature of his art, which is self-starvation, reminds of the duality between mind and body, the spiritual and the physical; his art also reminds us of the way humans constantly try to think of themselves as something other than the animals they are; the artist is a martyr to a cause, the cause of art or of himself; the story is about satiety and the lack thereof, how hard it is to satisfy fully our bodily appetites; and of course there is a biographical element because Kafka himself was thought by some to be anorexic and certainly was what we would call a picky eater, though this explanation like all purely biographical explanations isn’t really satisfying.

Lucy’s plight in “The Food of Angels” is of course is a more straightforward one and is based on fact, but both stories address the nature of what holds body and soul together and allows us to live. One story asks if sustenance is necessary if God chooses to shine through you; the other asks if sustenance is necessary if you are a great artist. But neither denies that we all have mortal animal bodies which require food like the bodies of all animals do in order to survive. If you believe that you are not your body, you may think you can treat your body as though it were subordinate to spirit/soul and all will be well. But for both Lucy and the artist, the spirit and the body turn out to be one, just as surely as they do for Meg whose mind doesn’t shine so brightly and for the hunger artist’s replacement, the panther, “…whose love of life came so powerfully out of its throat.”

When I had finished reading “A Hunger Artist” and because I was already thinking about Prague reading experiences of twenty years ago, I went back and re-read an essay I wrote in 1997 called “Letter to a Rabbit Now Underground,” in which I talked about Kafka’s story “The Burrow” and how it related to issues of the body. That essay is still online at The Café Irreal.

My New #ShelfieProject

I enjoy learning in a nonlinear fashion — tracking knowledge like a detective following a lead — and while the internet has greatly facilitated this process, I find that the world of print materials is often my best inspiration. So I’ve decided to start a #ShelfieProject to remind myself (and others) that print libraries and other sources of print materials are great ways to learn in a serendipitous way. Whenever I find an appropriate book or magazine — at a library or a thrift store or wherever print materials present themselves — I plan to follow it wherever it leads me. Below you will find my first shelfie, and the blogpost that the pictured books inspired.
Shelfie 1
Though I spend many hours on the internet each day, I always enjoy browsing the stacks of a well-stocked library. When I was at the Pima Community College West Campus library recently, I saw a book by Jacques Bonnet called Phantoms on the Bookshelves. Intrigued by the title — and the cover which shows a collection of ghostly pale books on ghostly pale shelves — I took the small volume to a nearby table and began to skim through it. Bonnet has a personal library of over 40,000 books, and he says he has acquired them “[b]y a combination of chance, systematic curiosity, and impulses generated by conversations or reading.” I decided to take a page out of his book, so to speak, and to go wherever my chance encounter with Bonnet took me.

In the context of his discussion of both fictional and real owners of very large private libraries, Bonnet mentions a novel by Giorgio Bassani called The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Bonnet says the professor in Bassani’s novel has more than 20,000 volumes, and on impulse I checked the Pima library shelves and found there the first English translation of the novel, published in 1965. I read the (fictional) Forward and learned that the Finzi-Continis were a family of Italian Jews from the town of Ferrara who were deported to Germany in 1943 and later killed by the Nazis. Having acknowledged this tragic end, the unnamed narrator goes on to tell an ironic coming-of-age story. I decided that I wanted to continue reading, so I borrowed the Bassani novel, along with the Bonnet book.

Besides telling an engaging story of unrequited love, the novel also presents a wealth of details about the period of the Mussolini dictatorship. At first Ferrara’s Jewish community had mixed opinions about Mussolini, and the unnamed Jewish narrator says that his own father joined the Fascist Party in 1933 when membership was opened to everyone. Though some Jews thought this was the patriotic thing to do, the aristocratic Finzi-Continis, who habitually isolated themselves behind the walls of their estate, chose not to join Mussolini’s party.

Then in 1938 Jews begin to feel the effects of new Racial Laws. These included decrees to end mixed marriages, to keep Jews out of state schools, and to forbid Jewish membership in “leisure time clubs.” Because he can no longer use the local tennis club facilities, the book’s young narrator joins a number of other, mostly Jewish students who regularly play tennis on the somewhat dilapidated courts of the Finzi-Contini estate. Later, when the narrator is expelled from the Ferrara public library, Professor Finzi-Contini allows him to use the estate’s huge book collection so he can do research work for his degree. The narrator accepts this invitation, in part because he is infatuated with the professor’s daughter Micòl.

Ferrara’s Jewish community manages to cope with these early violations of their civil rights, but in 1939 Mussolini entered into a military alliance with Germany, called The Pact of Steel, and his positions on race increasingly came to be based on those of the Nazis. Eventually, the 183 members of Ferrara’s Jewish community were deported to Germany, and all but one of them died there.

While I was reading Bassani’s novel, I did some research about fascist Italy online, and, coincidentally, I saw many news articles about Donald Trump’s retweet of a quote by Mussolini. Of course you might say that, compared to calling Mexicans rapists and praising the use of “bullets dipped in pigs’ blood” to kill Muslims, this is not his biggest outrage, but it is a remarkable thing for a presidential candidate to do. I decided, still following Bonnet’s lead, to learn more about it.

First I found a Gawker article called “How We Fooled Donald Trump Into Retweeting Benito Mussolini.” I learned that Gawker’s Ashley Feinberg set a trap for Trump last year by creating a Twitter account that would post Mussolini quotes and attribute them to Donald Trump. Eventually, in February of this year, Trump retweeted that account when it featured the following quote: “It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.” The folks at Gawker say that, whether or not Trump is a fascist, he “tweets like one.”

From Gawker I went to the New York Times and learned that while he was on “Meet the Press” Trump said he didn’t know the quote was from Mussolini, but he didn’t care. “‘It’s a very good quote,’ said Mr. Trump. ‘I didn’t know who said it, but what difference does it make if it was Mussolini or somebody else…?'”

Then I read an article translated from Huff Post Italy called “Dear Trump, Better to Live One Day as a Sheep Than One Hundred as Mussolini,” in which Mirella Serri says that the “one day as a lion” maxim was inscribed on the Italian lira in 1928 and also became a motto for Italian soldiers. But she suggests that someone should point out to “America’s overexcited tycoon” that Mussolini was not a lion-hearted conqueror but a man with “a sheep’s soul” who never demonstrated much courage, either in his rise to power or his ignominious end.

Trevor Noah, host of The Daily Show, made what I consider to be the best comment on Trump’s fascist retweet. He said, “I don’t blame Trump for retweeting a quote that he didn’t know was from the father of fascism… I have to play devil’s advocate here, you know. That’s not an obvious fascist quote… And by the way, personally, I’ll take living one hundred years as a sheep every time. I’m gonna have to go with that… One day as a lion? You’re just gonna be chasing down and killing things — it sounds exhausting — and then at the end of the day you’re just gonna be killed by some shit dentist from Minnesota… But here’s the thing. Once you do know that it’s a Mussolini quote, then at that point you should care.”

After reading a few more comments about the Trump retweet, I went back to finish Phantoms on the Bookshelves. Bonnet says that, because of the internet and a tendency toward more specialized research, “Bibliophiles will still keep their collections, and libraries devoted to precise topics will survive, but we may be pretty sure that vast and unwieldy personal collections of a few tens of thousands of books are likely to disappear…” Elsewhere, I’ve read that the same thing will happen to all large libraries, as books become increasingly available in digital form. Yet I would not have encountered Bonnet and Bassani for the first time if I had not been browsing the Pima College Library, and I remain convinced that well-stocked libraries complement the internet and digitized resources and cannot be replaced by them.