Letters from New York: A hunger for books



From my teens on I read constantly and widely. Novels and short stories helped open up worlds far beyond the cohesive but constricted Bronx neighborhood I lived in. I felt then that I aspired to something more than those drab familiar streets and the limited options they offered. But I never could quite articulate what I was groping for.

It was literature that helped shape my vision and voice. It deepened my understanding of myself, my family, my friends, and of a larger public world that I knew only a bit more of than what I read in the newspapers daily. And given that the papers that graced our dinner table were usually tabloids, filled with sports, crime and scandal (though my father liked political talk), I hungered for more insight into how politics and society functioned.

In my 70s now I still read a great deal, but without the same energy, concentration, and compulsiveness I once had. If I complete more than a book a week it’s an anomaly, and though I still love fiction, it isn’t quite as emotionally resonant for me as it once was. But there are European writers like Kafka and Camus that I had passionately read and discussed in my high school and college years, and later assigned to students in the courses I taught, who still matter to me greatly. (A giant poster of Kafka -- my muse and heroic anti-hero, though not my literary model-- is tacked to the wall of the room I write in.)

In fact, when I was an adolescent, I adopted their respective visions of life’s absurdity, entrapment, and meaninglessness as facile tag lines to explain my own turbulent psychic state. I may have only half understood the complexity of their writing, but both writers were able to affect me intellectually and emotionally.

What brought me back to thinking about Kafka is a new book "Franz Kafka" (Yale University Press) written by a great 80-year-old historian, Saul Friedlander (e.g., "Reflections of Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch and Death").

Friedlander’s Kafka is a writer who built no theories, but "followed dreams, created metaphors and unexpected associations." He was the "poet of his own disorder." And the abstract interpretations of his work that critics offered never quite caught "the personal anguish at its center."

Friedlander goes on to perceptively discuss Kafka’s Oedipal relationship to his father, his indifference to Judaism as a religious faith, his obsessive and painful need to create, and he puts a special emphasis on his sexual fears and fantasies, Though he also writes about many other aspects of Kafka’s work.

Reading Kafka, I always felt he was a writer whose prose was accessible but whose meanings were layered and elusive. Kafka in his fiction used a number of alter egos, though all of them were similarly anxious and unsure of themselves -- indecisive, even impotent men who found purposive action impossible. They also inhabited worlds that lacked definition, where reality and dream seemed to merge.

For example, in "The Judgment," an early story that Kafka viewed as "the total opening of body and soul," a young merchant is engaged and soon to be married. His father is described as an old, weak man, who needs to be carried to bed. But, as in a nightmare, he suddenly develops enough strength to condemn his son for being "a devilish human being," and "disgracing his mother’s memory."

He concludes by "sentencing his son to death by drowning." The story is open to a number of possible interpretations, including a classical Freudian one of the tyrannical father, but for me it powerfully evoked Kafka’s overwhelming sense of guilt and his profound irresoluteness. Reading this as an almost terminally insecure adolescent, despite not having a controlling father, it struck home.

Also in my adolescence Camus’ "The Myth of Sisyphus" offered a vision of an indifferent, absurd universe that spoke very directly to my youthful concerns about discovering the meaning of life. I loved that Camus responded to his notion of an absurd world by seeing it as "a lucid invitation to live and create, in the very midst of the desert."

When I got older I read many of Camus’s political essays in which he directly attacked the many ‘50s French intellectuals sympathetic to the Soviet Union because they argued that the glorious future promised by the Stalinists justified the sacrifice of human liberty. He was conscious of the West’s defects, but saw it as a place where "there is room also for honor, for the freedom to desire, for the adventure of the mind."

Just now I have been reading Algerian Chronicles (Harvard University Press) -- a collection of writings by the Algerian-born Camus on Algeria’s war for independence from France, which were first published in 1958 but were only recently translated into English. As always Camus affirms a humanistic politics that views terrorism and torture, even for just ends, as unacceptable. It put him in a difficult position -- seeking a political resolution through reconciliation, with a peaceful federation of Algerian ethnic groups as the goal, which was criticized by all sides. He saw his role as an intellectual as "seeking by his own lights to make out the respective limits of force and justice in each camp."

Of course Algeria never became a peaceful federation, and Camus’s moral perspective had little effect on the politics of the day. But Camus left us with a political legacy that eschewed the all or nothing of ideological absolutes and the use of force -- "the nihilism of our time" -- to affirm a noble, if politically impractical, belief in the use of reason and human solidarity.

Leonard Quart is a regular Eagle contributor.


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