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Summer Reading


I’ve been out of the blogging game for a while now (since August, in fact), but for good reason; in between finishing off my PhD thesis, I have been reacquainting myself with books that have nothing (or very little) to do with academia. Below is my summer reading list, an eclectic mix of fiction, nonfiction, fictional travel writing, art, and short stories. Enjoy!

1. Hav, Jan Morris (2006, originally published in 1985 as Last Letters from Hav)

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Blurb:

“Hav is like no place on earth. Rumoured to be the site of Troy, captured during the crusades and recaptured by Saladin, visited by Tolstoy, Hitler, Grace Kelly, and Princess Diana, this Mediterranean city-state is home to several architectural marvels and an annual rooftop race that is a feat of athleticism and insanity. As Jan Morris guides us through the corridors and quarters of Hav, we hear the mingling of Italian, Russian, and Arabic in its markets, delight in its famous snow raspberries, and meet the denizens of its casinos and cafés.”

Interesting note: In the 2006 introduction by sci-fi great Ursula K. Le Guin, the author points out that following the original publication of Hav, travel agents had to deal with dismayed clients who were told they couldn’t book a cheap flight to the illustrious city.

2. Lost Horizon, James Hilton, 1933

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The classic tale of a group of travellers whose plane is hijacked before it crashes into relatively unknown territory. They are greeted by lamas of the now-illustrious utopian lamasery  known as Shangri-La. One of the most well-known literary adventure novels, the book is well-written, although it retains much of the kind of outdated behaviours and observations common in the 1930s. This fact notwithstanding, the book is very engaging. Great for those who want a bit of escapism.

3. Pastoralia, George Saunders, 2000

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A weird and wonderful collection of stories, quite unlike anything you  may have read before… A satirical and somewhat scathing look at modern America, the stories are set in a run-down caveman-themed adventure park. Highly praised upon initial publication, Thomas Pynchon calls the work “graceful, dark, authentic, and funny.” It is perhaps the strangest thing you’ll read in a long while.

4. Buddha’s Little Finger, Victor Pelevin, 1996

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I particularly love Russian authors and literature; their dark sense of humour and bleak but unapologetic stance on society (as well as their unique way with words) makes them a thrill to read. Here we have Buddha’s Little Finger, initially published as The Clay Machine Gun, and also published in Britain as Chapaev and Void. Another kind of adventure novel, though one intensely bizarre and psychedelic, the book follows the central character Pyotr Voyd, whose reality becomes subject to questioning. In one reality, Void is a poet fighting in the October Revolution alongside Vasily Ivanovich Chapaev. In another reality, he is in an asylum, and is unsure of which reality is real. Combining Russian pop culture with Buddhist philosophy, this particular work is a rare treat by an author described as “the psychedelic Nabokov of the Cyber Age”.

5. The Princess Diarist, Carrie Fisher, 2016

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From Pyotr to Princesses. I was very excited to hear about the publication of this book, ordering a copy in advance before it was published. I managed to read it in only a few sittings (and before the tragic death of Carrie Fisher and her mother Debbie Reynolds). As a fellow diarist, the book in thoroughly engaging, and for my inner gossip intensely satisfying. Fisher’s writing is, as always, frenetic and full with untamed intellectual energy. While her long-speculated-now-confirmed affair with Harrison Ford is the book’s main selling point (and the diary entires and details on Carrie’s turbulent experience in the affair truly great reading), the remains of the book and Carrie’s in-depth reminiscences make for amusing yet heart-felt reading. The book is tireless from start to finish, and ends on a positive note from someone who defined and changed an entire generation of readers and film enthusiasts.

6. Goya, Robert Hughes, 2003

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Now for a bit of nonfiction. Acclaimed Australian art critic and theorist Robert Hughes died in 2012. Arguably best known for The Shock of the New and The Fatal Shore, Hughes tackles his subject not long after being in a now well-known car accident. I picked up a $2 copy of his extensive treatment of Spanish artist Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes at a monthly Chatswood Library book sale, having always appreciated the dark and romantic works of Goya (Witches’ Sabbath remains my favourite, and I was delighted to see a great colour picture in the book). Hughes analyses the artist’s life and works with his his usual eloquent, insightful writing, but also approaches the artist’s works from a personal account.

 

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Siobhan’s Books of the Year


It has been a busy year of thesis writing, but I still managed to cram in a few pieces of fiction for good measure. The Sydney University Book Fair provided a few good books, including a couple of Flashman works, some Derridean philosophy and some trashy modern fiction. The small edited collection Nine Strange Stories (1974), edited by Owen Betty and featuring works by Jorge Luis Borges, Jack London, D.H. Lawrence, Patricia Highsmith, Rudyard Kipling and others proved to be comical and unnerving with tales to rival those of the Twilight Zone. Never Let Me Go (2005) by Kazuo Ishiguro left a lot to be desired; the intriguing premise was let down by deadpan writing (though perhaps this was intentional). Rabbit, Run (1960) by John Updike, which I finally got around to reading, was a surprising favourite, its utter simplicity alleviated by darkly humorous prose. Graham Green’s The End of the Affair (1951) was an emotional but sometimes frustrating (and somewhat predictable) work. Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997) was a complex, chaotic but intriguing treatise on waste and American consumerism, while Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge (2013) was almost as enjoyable as the author’s previous works. Matthew Asprey’s Dog City (2014) was a favourite, with self-deprecating humour and small town crime. Asprey also got a citation in Bryan Cheyette’s Diasporas of the Mind: Jewish and Postcolonial Writing and the Nightmare of History (2014), a shrewd work discussing both canonical and marginal authors through contemporary Jewish and post-colonial writing. And rounding off a year of reading is my latest purchase, TC Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain (1996), which follows the events of a poor Mexican hit by a rich man’s car, highlighting the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty in contemporary xenophobic America. Only a quarter of the way in so far, my review may appear in 2015. But there were three stand-out pieces from this year’s reading that reminded me why I love books and the act of reading. The top three book that I read this year are:

 

#3 The Scarlet Plague (1912) by Jack London

A short but thorough and imaginative novella, Jack London, writing in 1912, envisions a post-apocalyptic San Francisco in a world devastated by what is known as the Scarlet Plague, or the ‘Red Death’, which has destroyed most of the world’s population in 2013. 60 years later, the protagonist, an ageing professor, James Howard Smith, attempts in vain to impart his memories of pre-apocalyptic civilisation to his savage grandsons, who mock and ridicule the old man and his recollections. Smith recounts his days as an English professor, as well as how and when the plague took hold of the world, with heartbreaking, feverish nostalgia. The effect is made all the more poignant as his memories mean almost nothing in a world that has reverted to primitive living and dismisses emotion, love, intellect and education as trivial. Smith’s account acts more like a soliloquy as he is really talking to himself about all that he misses from the world of yesterday, and marvels at how class and status no longer have any place in the brutal post-plague world. London speculates on the fate of mankind following the outbreak of disease, and depicts what seems to be an unnervingly possibility when civilisation falls victim to plague.

 

#2 Petersburg (1913) by Andrei Bely, (the pseudonym of Boris Nikolaevich Bugaev)

Set against the frenzied backdrop of the Russian revolution of 1905, Petersburg is uncompromisingly dense and haphazard at times, particularly with dialogue, living up to its description as the Russian version of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Though published before Ulysses, the work was not translated into English until 1959. It is quite a difficult book to get in to. But the rewards for persevering are great once the reader becomes well acquainted with Bely’s infinite descriptive prowess and wordplay, rivalling only Nabokov, who called the work “one of the four greatest masterpieces of twentieth century prose.” The book focuses on Nikolai Apollonovich Ableukhov, a young Russian who occasionally likes to dress up like a red domino and who has been ordered to assassinate his own father, Tsarist Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov. There is a reason why Anthony Burgess called the work “The one novel that sums up the whole of Russia.” It is an exhaustive treatise on Russia, and captures the most intimate political and physical construction of the city of Petersburg. Early on in the novel, Bely writes: “A Petersburg street in autumn permeates the whole organism: chills the marrow and tickles the shuddering backbone; but as soon as you come from it into some warm premises, the Petersburg street runs in your veins like a fever.” Bely keeps this lyricism prominent throughout the whole novel, which can make it an exhaustive read for the amount of picturesque detail. A must for any aspiring writer wishing to broaden their expression, and a must for any fan of Russian literature who has exhausted Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Nabokov.

 

#1 In Cold Blood (1966) by Truman Capote

On my reading list for some time, I finally bought a simple $10 Penguin edition (since I’m no hipster), and took to the book immediately. A creative non-fiction work that took about seven years for Capote to write, In Cold Blood investigates the brutal murders of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, in 1959. Capote does not offer a tried-and-tested who-dunnit, but reveals the murderers to us from the get-go, and follows their exploits from murder to capture and death. Laden with intricate details of the police detectives, the family and their acquaintances, as well as the family and acquaintances of the murderers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, Capote brilliantly delivers a comprehensive story of the murders, encompassing years of research. In the same vein as Nabokov, Capote not only captures the tale with expertly lyrical prose, but delves into the minds of the criminals to make the reader empathise – if only slightly – with the murderers, their history and their background. And just like Nabokov, (only without the same black humour), Capote masters both the feats of storytelling, keeping the reader hooked through the hunt, and prose, exhaustively providing beautiful insights into the minds of those involved in the bloody affair. A sombre and melancholic tone lingers at the core of this riveting novel, which has occasional moments of humour to rescue it from complete depression. It hangs heavy on the heart right up until the very end, and stays with the reader for a long while after. An easy favourite for this years’ list.

 

 

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Literary Science Fiction


Science fiction is often viewed as an inferior form of literature; despite the prolific, intriguing and insightful works of such authors as Frank Herbert (of Dune (1965) fame) and, of course, Isaac Asimov, the genre has taken a back seat to the more respected genre of literary fiction. For instance, in an interview with Anthony Burgess for the LA Review of Books (interviewed by Jonathan Lethem), Burgess stated emphatically: “I don’t read science fiction”, prompting the notion that many authors are hesitant to align themselves with the genre (despite the author’s arguable engagement with science fiction in his work The Wanting Seed (1962)). Science fiction is so often associated with ostensibly low-brow cultures that many avid readers dismiss the genre as too commercial, clunky, juvenile or lacking in the literary prowess of more literary novelists. But many science fiction authors, if indeed they ought to be called such, have attempted to shut down this assumption. In his introduction to Ender’s Game (1985), Orson Scott Card writes: ‘a great many writers and critics have based their entire careers on the premise that anything that the general public can understand without mediation is worthless drivel […] If everybody came to agree that stories should be told this clearly, the professors of literature would be out of job, and the writers of obscure, encoded fiction would be, not honored, but pitied for their impenetrability.’

The science fiction genre is split into various sub-genres, including cyber-punk, sci-fi noir, space opera and sci-fi westerns, but also includes more literary works by authors more often associated with literary fiction. Often it is forgotten that such illustrious authors as Mark Twain and Jack London also penned works considered to belong to the science fiction oeuvre (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) and The Iron Heel (1908) respectively). J.G Ballard, whose semi-autobiographical work Empire of the Sun (1984) celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, penned some of the more intriguing works of sci-fi including his The Drowned World (1962), The Burning World (1964) and The Crystal World (1966). His short story collection Vermilion Sands (1971) also provides generous insight into the mysteriousness surrounding the darker side of sci-fi, though most would know Ballard for his salacious and controversial novel Crash (1973). Ballard is perhaps one of the few authors who has successfully managed to negotiate between the psychological explorations of humans known to high-brow literature, with the speculative imagination of science fiction.

  

The science fiction genre is often split into two groups: hard and soft sci-fi, the former featuring meticulous scientific detail of astrophysics and chemistry, while the latter involves more elements of the social sciences, including psychology. The latter, moreover, is much more character-oriented, making it a more palatable version of sci-fi for those reticent to engage in the genre. Although George Orwell and Aldous Huxley are perhaps the most notable of this stream of sci-fi, others, including Haruki Murakami, Don DeLillo and many others have dabbled in the experimental process of literary science fiction. One of the more obscure, psychological works of literary science fiction is Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren (1975), a incredibly complex work that rivals the lyrical complexity of James Joyce. The criticisms of this infinitely complex work have apparently come from within the science fiction community, though the work has been praised as a revolutionary work of literature, as well as an unsolvable riddle. Its influence can be seen in later novels including Jonathan Lethem’s science fiction work Amnesia Moon (1995), with comparisons often made between the work and Thomas Pynchon’s equally complex Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), written two years before Delany’s work.

 

The master of lyrical prose and a frequent individual on this blog, Vladimir Nabokov, possesses the rare chameleonic quality of adopting different literary styles. In his work Ada or Ardor (1969), Nabokov turns again to the theme of incest that proved so integral in his seminal Lolita (1955), and the book provides an alternative universe and history of the earth, where the United States (including Central and South America) have been colonised by the Russians, featuring provinces such as Estoty and Canady. Nabokov provides the same meticulous detail that he devotes to his earlier works, and explores his characters with the same intimacy. Similarly, channeling the imaginative Borges, Italo Calvino, most known for his metafictional If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (1979) and the speculative Invisible Cities (1972), dabbles in the sci-fi genre with his collection Cosmicomics (1965). Featuring cover art by MC Escher, the collection features a narrator, Qfwfq, who narrates all except two stories, one of which is the romantic ‘The Distance of the Moon’, based on romantic relationships between people who jumped from the earth to the moon and vice versa. Similarly to Nabokov, Calvino provides alternate and elaborate histories of the earth, featuring time before the universe, and discusses notions of civilisation, geographic development, guilt, fear and love. Calvino’s Complete Cosmicomics (2009) features both the stories from the aforementioned edition as well as the short stories from his postmodern sci-fi short story collection t zero (1967). The interplay between science fiction and literature seemed to reach its artistic pinnacle in the era of postmodernism, with Kurt’s Vonnegut’s phenomenal Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) revolutinising the relationship between the two, featuring an historical account of the bombings of Dresden amidst an intergalactic zoo that mates humans and animals. It seems the heyday of literary science fiction was the 60s and 70s.

The assumption that a genre containing the rigid and systematic element of science cannot exist alongside the flexible and imaginative world of literature is therefore somewhat of an erroneous notion; older examples include Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and anything by H.G. Wells, as well as the ever-popular works of Philip K. Dick, and Ray Bradbury’s colourful works (including his consequential Fahrenheit 451 (1953) undermine this notion, and yet the prominence of science fiction as a literary endeavour remains problematic. In 1998, Lethem wrote of the death of science fiction in society, arguing that the passing over of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow in favour of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama: ‘stands as a hidden tombstone marking the death of the hope that science fiction was about to merge with the mainstream.’ But perhaps science fiction’s inclusion in the mainstream of Hollywood itself has actually dampened its reputation in a literary context. The poor adaptations of such illustrious works of science fiction including Asimov’s I, Robot series is a testament to the inability, or unwillingness, of the mainstream to remain faithful to the originality of the genre’s genius. By elaborating certain plot points of characters, the science fiction adaptation rarely does justice to the actually intricate psychological elements of the novel’s world. But simply the assumption that science fiction and literary fiction are incompatible is erroneous; the term ‘literary writer’ almost ought to be obsolete, since so-called ‘literary writers’ have continuously engaged in science fiction, such as Don DeLillo’s Ratner’s Star (1975), part of the 70s pinnacle of literary science fiction, and, of course, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (1962), despite the fact that he chose not to read that particular genre…

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Great Representations: 11 Book Covers


It is said that readers shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. However, books such as Nicole Matthews’ and Nickianne Moody’s Judging a Book by its Cover (2007) suggest that covers have more significance than we acknowledge. In a time when brand authors and branded books are becoming commonplace, it is always refreshing to see a bit of thought put into the cover of a book. Below are a few of the more intriguing, clever book covers from literature that utilise an aspect or theme from the story itself, while others are just simply amusing.

There are very many sexually-suggestive covers for this infamous book, whose first edition was simply a blank hardback. This cover from Corgi Books ads a touch of humour to a story renowned for its lyricism and dark humour.

This playful yet subtle cover designed by Jamie Keenan explores the theme of innocence, uncertainty and deception.

Like the aforementioned Lolita cover, this Picador edition of Thomas Pynchon’s complex epic Gravity’s Rainbow plays up to the sexual, destructive nature of the book.

One of the strangest postmodern novels (although there is great competition), Ballard’s Crash features the psychological fetish known as symphorophilia, which describes the sexual gratification one gets when participating in a car crash. There are several book covers that explore the fusion of sex and cars, but this seemed the most creative and inventive.

If ever there was a novel to entice one to learn the piano, this work by Anthony Burgess would have to be at the top of the list. Better known for A Clockwork Orange, Burgess infuses the work with dark humour and poetic language. The cover on the left brilliantly details the sexual/musical nature of the book, while the right cover is even more ‘playful’, (though a rarer edition).

Italo Calvino’s mise-en-abyme, or novel-within-a-novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, is an extraordinary work of postmodern experimentation and metafiction, rivalled only by his other masterful Invisible Cities. The above edition evidently displays the self-referential traits of the book.

Granta’s 110th issue, ‘Sex’, features Roberto Bolano’s fantastic, frank, profanity-laden short story The Redhead. The cover’s photograph is taken by Billie Segal, and is expertly suggestive, yet functional, and altogether deceptively innocent.

Considered the fundamental novel of the Jazz Age, this old cover of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby captures the hedonistic yet hollow nature of the flapper generation. The Y used as the cocktail glass adds more depth as a metaphor for the simultaneous materialism and loss of self that Gatsby encounters.

A concept design, this edition of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 has cleverly been made to mimic a matchbox, with the spine of the book resembling the striking surface. While most designs of this book are obvious and predictable, this one is much more subtle and creative in its suggestion of fire, although it is not available for purchase.

Borges’ Labyrinths seemed almost too obvious, and there are a few covers that feature a requisite, predictable maze. This one at least seemed to be a bit more original in its approach, not simply depicting an ordinary maze, but rather a hall of mirrors, something much more confounding in order to do justice to Borges’ stories and essays.

This complete and unabridged work is that of George Orwell’s 1984. Featuring censorship, Big Brother, and dystopia, many covers rely on the obvious, with most depicting an ominous eye. This cover goes one step further and incorporates the actual element or illusion of censorship.

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Bleeding Edge: New Thomas Pynchon book for 2013


Thomas Pynchon– notorious recluse, celebrity author, enigma extraordinaire– has a new book out that is due to hit shelves in September 2013. For avid Pynchonophiles, as they are realistically called (See Don Foster’s Author Unknown: Tales of Literary Detective (2001)), this will mean another haphazard, chaotic though worthwhile endeavour down the darkest of rabbit-holes. Pynchon’s works are as notoriously dense as they are absurd; unbelievable characters, incredulous scenarios and conspiracy theories interwoven with sex and frantic lyricism, they are a force to contend with. They are the stuff of pop culture but also of complex academic inquiry and mathematical investigation, which makes them one of the more unique additions to contemporary literature but also one of the more difficult to absorb.

Pynchon has not been seen in public for years; his whereabouts are unknown, only few pictures of him are in existence, and little is known of his private life save that he purportedly studied under the Russian literary genius Vladimir Nabokov. And yet, despite the reclusiveness, Pynchon is a celebrity, having appeared on The Simpsons several times (though with a paper bag over his head) and having had his life been made the subject of intense scrutiny and speculation. Several theorists have speculated that his shrinking from the public gaze– something not seen since JD Salinger’s public disappearance– is a gesture performed so that his works may outshine his own personal life, yet if this was indeed the author’s intention it has not particularly succeeded. Pynchon’s latest novel, Bleeding Edge (2013), merges political strife with the digital age. The description is as follows:

It is 2001 in New York City, in the lull between the collapse of the dot-com boom and the terrible events of September 11th. Silicon Alley is a ghost town, Web 1.0 is having adolescent angst, Google has yet to IPO, Microsoft is still considered the Evil Empire. There may not be quite as much money around as there was at the height of the tech bubble, but there’s no shortage of swindlers looking to grab a piece of what’s left. Maxine Tarnow is running a nice little fraud investigation business on the Upper West Side, chasing down different kinds of small-scale con artists. She used to be legally certified but her license got pulled a while back, which has actually turned out to be a blessing because now she can follow her own code of ethics—carry a Beretta, do business with sleazebags, hack into people’s bank accounts—without having too much guilt about any of it. Otherwise, just your average working mom—two boys in elementary school, an off-and-on situation with her sort of semi-ex-husband Horst, life as normal as it ever gets in the neighborhood—till Maxine starts looking into the finances of a computer-security firm and its billionaire geek CEO, whereupon things begin rapidly to jam onto the subway and head downtown. She soon finds herself mixed up with a drug runner in an art deco motorboat, a professional nose obsessed with Hitler’s aftershave, a neoliberal enforcer with footwear issues, plus elements of the Russian mob and various bloggers, hackers, code monkeys, and entrepreneurs, some of whom begin to show up mysteriously dead. Foul play, of course. With occasional excursions into the DeepWeb and out to Long Island, Thomas Pynchon, channeling his inner Jewish mother, brings us a historical romance of New York in the early days of the internet, not that distant in calendar time but galactically remote from where we’ve journeyed to since. Will perpetrators be revealed, forget about brought to justice? Will Maxine have to take the handgun out of her purse? Will she and Horst get back together? Will Jerry Seinfeld make an unscheduled guest appearance? Will accounts secular and karmic be brought into balance? Hey. Who wants to know?

Like Nabokov, despite the brevity and darkness of his novels, Pynchon alleviates his readers from complete nihilism and instead injects much-needed sardonic and black humour into his works alongside endearing pathos and absurdity. At the root of his work is a wry statement on the extremities of modernity (and evidently postmodernity). For those unfamiliar with Pynchon’s work, the author’s debut novel V. (1963), along with the novella The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and the epic Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)  are brilliant and labyrinthine, while boasting an array of colourful, out of this world characters.

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A Strange Encounter: The Kafkaesque Quality


Kafkaesque, [adj]: of, relating to, or suggestive of Franz Kafka or his writings; especially : having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality.

A strange encounter to be sure: while browsing the net to find a special edition Chanel No.5 perfume bottle for mother’s day, I stumble upon a blog with the title Kafkaesque that strangely has a review of the perfume. It makes me ponder the extent to which the term has been applied, both prematurely and accurately, to various aspects of the world. There have been numerous ideologies attached to a writer’s name, notably in the philosophical realm: Rousseauvian, Hegelian, Deleuzian, etc. Even more contemporary writers have been granted such privileges: Salingerism and Mailerism, for example. But with no other writer has such a culture developed around the author’s name as with Kafka. The term Kafkaesque describes the nightmarish quality of writing and plot, wherein the protagonist is helplessly confounded by and at the mercy of exterior, bizarre circumstances that she cannot control. Frederick R. Karl defines Kafkaesque as ‘when you enter a surreal world in which all your control patterns, all your plans, the whole way in which you have configured your own behavior, begins to fall to pieces, when you find yourself against a force that does not lend itself to the way you perceive the world.’ Kafka’s The Trial and The Castle are exemplary examples of this phenomenon, the protagonist K. (or Joseph K.) being thwarted by dark powers he cannot comprehend. The Metamorphosis displays this nightmarish quality par excellence, while it also functions in Amerika , or, The Man who Disappeared to throw the protagonist, Karl, from several different posts and places, his wanderings characteristic of the bizarre element of Kafka’s work.

Of all the writers in the world Kafka is oddly, for me, the most approachable despite the dark elements he displays, for the reader can sympathise with Kafka’s state of mind and characters more so than any other author. Kafka’s narrators are so often powerless that it sets up an accessible narrative that the reader is most likely to be familiar with. If, as Proust writes, the novel is a mirror held up to the world (a notion I find troubling), then Kafka is one of the few writers who is able to deliver this bleak reality, more so than the existentialists who, while providing insight into the meaninglessness of life, do not illuminate the manipulations of exterior forces as cunningly (which should be to no one’s surprise). Kafka’s work is an exploration of the elements that exist to confound and belittle those drifting through life and events.

While it is difficult to isolate any one text as purely Kafkaesque, many texts exist wherein the character is at the mercy of dark circumstances. Much of Haruki Murakami’s work, while not written entirely well, absconds the pressures of a restorative tale and instead identifies with the polemics of ambiguity. His Wind-Up Bird Chronicle achieves this by positing a seemingly innocent stream of events as inherently dark and fatefully mischievous, offering up a narrative that explores the mundane as inherently disconcerting. But it is his Kafka on the Shore, fittingly enough, that follows the narrator, a Japanese boy named Kafka, on a series of strange, oedipal journeys that eventually sees KFC’s Colonel Sanders in the role of a pimp, while a series of strange, Nietzschian circumstances take place, before the narrative offers no conclusive solution. Contrary to the existentialists, who posit a meaninglessness of existence, Kafka’s work, like Murukami’s, offers the reader a kind of fateful encounter that is at once bewildering and dark, but in no sense fulfilling or restorative.

The work of Thomas Pynchon, moreover, has similar ties to the Kafkaesque element though is somewhat restrained by its Nabokovian dark, sardonic humour. Nevertheless Pynchon writes the unfinished work of Kafka, focusing on impenetrable, exterior forces, that which the characters cannot contend with nor even comprehend. Normality is rarely restored and the world remains ambiguous and incomprehensible. His Gravity’s Rainbow, his most obscure yet imaginatively daring work to date, features a very lengthy, complex plot which includes strange and arcane premises, one of which is the detonation of V2 rockets at the locations of a character’s numerous sexual conquests, as well as a conspiracy surrounding the mysterious Schwarzgerät device. Like Kafka, Pynchon explores the inexpressible, the unsayable, what one might understand as an aporia, by which both authors reflect on issues surrounding sovereignty and power and the mysterious, impenetrable element therein.

 

The Kafkaesque element is indeed imitatable and widely replicated; Mark Crick’s Kafka’s Soup shows the author’s brilliant knack for literary ventriloquism, positing K. in a characteristic surreal environment in which he has to cook Miso soup for uninvited guests, that doubles as a legitimate recipe for soup:

When the soup was simmering, K. cut the tofu into one-centimetre cubes and dropped it into the steaming pan with the mushrooms and wakame. Looking out of the window and into the darkness he noticed that a girl was watching from the neighbouring house. The girl’s severe expression was not unattractive to K., but the thought that she was deriving some pleasure from his situation sent him into a fury and he struck the worktop with his fist.

Jonathan Lethem and Carter Scholz too employ the Kafkaesque in their Kafka Americana (1999), in which the authors re-imagine Kafka and his stories in alternate universes, including turning Kafka into a Hollywood screenwriter in ‘Receding Horizon’ and parodying The Trial in ‘K. for Fake’. But it is Kafkaesque: Stories inspired by Franz Kafka (2011) edited by John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly, that shows the extent to which the nightmarish quality of Kafka’s work has permeated into other fiction. Some of the famous writers submitting their Kafka-inspired fiction include J.G. Ballard, Philip Roth, comic artist Robert Crumb and the always delightfully surreal Jorge Luis Borges, whose Collected Fictions (Labyrinths) is greatly on par with Kafka’s ability to weave newer, darker realities.

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As Kessel and Kelly innovatively observe: ‘While the wide acceptance and understanding of the adjective Kafkaesque is evidence of Franz Kafka’s enduring influence on our culture, it is also a kind of prison in which the writer and his work are confined. It is, in essence, Kafkaesque.’ It is perhaps then unsurprising that Kafka himself found deep flaws rooted in his work that would lead him to request his manuscripts be burnt, calling his The Metamorphosisimperfect almost to its marrow’. It is this imperfect quality of the work, then, and most ironically, that characterises the Kafkaesque element since, like so many of Kafka’s stories, we are left with the unfinished product, as though its ending is something fatefully unnecessary. Employing the Kafkaesque element thus requires this open-ended or confined quality that is so integral to producing the effect which the Kafkaesque embodies.

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The Hemingway Myth: A Review of the Literature


 

“Do you like Hemingway?” he asked.

“Not at all. Why do you like him?”

“Oh, I hate him in some ways.”

-Matthew Asprey, Red Hills of Africa (2009)

Ernest Hemingway attracts a rare breed of readership, in that contrary to many authors, his readers have the strange capacity to both love and loathe the man simultaneously. Of late my doctoral thesis has taken me away from reading assorted literary fiction and pushed me toward more scholarly sources, and as I plan to present a paper on Hemingway later in the year, I thought it fitting to go through the various works dedicated to demystifying (or indeed further provoking the myth of) Hemingway, especially as Sydney has reverted to its characteristic rainy weather.

Perhaps the greatest known work on Hemingway was by his notable biographer Carlos Baker, Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story (1969). While regarded as a classic biography, Hemingway’s third wife Martha Gellhorn was said to have disputed much of what was written about her affair with Hemingway. A Life Story, alongside Baker’s Hemingway: The Artist as Writer (1972) reveals the re-emergence of the individual throughout twentieth century theory. With readers often more taken with the figure than the actual works, Baker offers not only an insight into perhaps the last great celebrity author, but also rivals his subject in terms of prose and articulation. And despite whatever criticisms are shed over the work, it is an invaluable addition to the Hemingway-biography oeuvre.

 

Another reputable Hemingway scholar is Scott Donaldson, the author behind The Cambridge Companion to Hemingway (1996), and By Force of Will: The Life and Art of Ernest Hemingway (1977). The latter I found was a more informative study that has a greater flow, though this is most likely due to it being penned by only Donaldson himself, rather than an edited collection. What the former therefore offers, as many Cambridge Companions do, is varied perspective. Though, By Force of Will is more useful as a tool for insightful deliberation since it is, after all, a biography, whereas the Companion focuses mainly on Hemingway’s works. Moreover, Donaldson divides By Force of Will into sections related to various issues including Fame, Money, Politics, War, Love, Death, Sex, etc. It thus makes for a broad but intimate portrayal of Hemingway.

Much is written about Hemingway’s relationship to his celebrity; prominent Hemingway scholar Suzanne del Gizzo writes that Hemingway felt that his persona was hijacked by his readers, and that he felt imprisoned by the dynamics of his fame. For Gizzo, Under Kilimanjaro (1961) and Green Hills of Africa (1935) represent the most potent works of Hemingway’s distrust of fame, though also of his hypocritical nature as a celebrity author: ‘[Under Kilimanjaro] emerges as a study of the contradictions of commodity culture that are the hallmark of Hemingway’s career’. But it is John Raeburn’s hard-to-come-by Fame became of Him: Hemingway as Public Writer (1984) that explores Hemingway’s relationship to his fame on a more profound level. He writes that ‘there was something compelling in Hemingway’s personality that encouraged myth-making and defeated even the most scrupulous efforts to tell the truth.’ The Hemingway Myth then becomes a more attractive way in which to communicate the ideas and life of the author. One need only watch Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris to appreciate the complexity of depiction in Hemingway’s character: on the one hand we are given a rather cliché construction of the writer in which his famous minimalist prose in injected into the author’s speech, contrasted with a more brutish interpretation in which Hemingway indulges in the mannerisms of tarnished masculinity.

What is enjoyable about reading biographical texts on Hemingway is the often ambivalent approach to the Hemingway myth; many writers wish to dismember it but at the same time find it difficult to do so, considering that many aspects of Hemingway correlate to the constructed image. The womaniser, the drinker and the big game-hunter—many of these somewhat unfavourable attributes actually ironically serve to enhance the myth. But it does not elude all; though many are said to have disliked the man, Zelda Fitzgerald’s hatred on the author is widely understood, even appreciated in certain circumstances. As Nancy Milford wrote in her 1971 biography, Zelda: A Biography, ‘In an anecdote which has become a part of the Fitzgerald-Hemingway canon, Ernest upon meeting Zelda for the first time is supposed to have drawn Scott aside and told him that Zelda was crazy. Zelda’s reaction to Hemingway on the other hand was no more complimentary, for she considered him “bogus.” Scott had hoped that Zelda would be as taken with Ernest as he himself was, and he was both puzzled and disappointed in their mutual distrust.’

While many avid readers and theorists of the author attempt to defend Hemingway’s celebrity and the myth surrounding him— which accentuates the author’s sense of bravado— Hemingway certainly did not do himself any favours by injecting himself into his work in a distinctly self-congratulatory manner, as seen in the early pages of The Dangerous Summer (1985), in which an official scanning the author’s passport recognises him and professes his great admiration for the author. In this way, as in many others via advertising for Ballantine Ale and Pan American airlines, Hemingway was as much a creator of his myth as his many biographers and, most especially, his readers were.

Some of the literature is more tongue-in-cheek but nevertheless aims to illuminate the concept that is Hemingway’s machismo. Marty Beckerman’s 2012 work The Heming Way: How to Unleash the Booze-Inhaling, Animal-Slaughtering, War-Glorifying, Hairy-Chested Retro-Sexual Legend Within, Just Like Papa!, does more than just offer crude guidelines to turn the average man into a brute, though relies on the irony of Hemingway’s persona.

More recent biographies seem bereft of the kind of intimacy that made older counter-parts invaluable. Granted, Baker had the advantage of being a close friend to Hemingway, yet recent tributes seem to approach Hemingway from a safe haven while avoiding critical discussion.  A work that attempts to shine a more authentic light on Hemingway, however, is Paul Hendrickson’s Hemingway’s Boat: Everything he loved in life, and lost 1934-1961 (2012). Hendrickson writes how Hemingway’s fame was the cause of the author’s undoing, claiming that Hemingway’s ‘insides were eaten out by the diseases of fame’. A similar thesis is reached in Gizzo’s essay Glow in the Dark Authors, through the scathing critique of theorist Daniel J. Boorstin: ‘According to Boorstin, Hemingway had become a casualty of this system’s metastasis into other areas of American culture; he argued that by the time the shot rang out in Ketchum, Hemingway was a writer known not for the significance of his literary contribution, but for his “well-knowness”.’ Scott Donaldson argues against this assumption, claiming simply that ‘Twain had survived his celebrity, as will Hemingway, and for the same reason: they wrote some wonderful books.’ And this is perhaps the key thing to take away amidst the influx of biographies and critics: that while the Hemingway Myth was exactly that—a myth—that irrespective of these analyses Hemingway’s work substantially fills in the doubt surrounding his talent as a writer. More than once I’ve gotten into an argument with someone over the status of Hemingway’s character, the extent of which tends to illuminate the mythology associated with Hemingway’s authorship, but almost always returns to Hemingway as a writer more than any of his other roles. The persistence of this myth, which again I hope to address later this year at a conference, is arguably the most coveted concept in literary studies besides Thomas Pynchon’s identity.

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