On Joe Orton’s collected works, and a selection of quotes from his “Loot”.
I discovered Joe Orton in a second-hand bookshop, on the bottom shelf, between a travelogue and a potboiler thriller. The front cover featured a cubist grotesque, while the back cover showed a man in his early thirties, crisply sunburnt, sitting back on a patio folding chair wearing nothing but an amused smirk and a pair of decidedly front-and-centre white briefs, fashionable half a century ago. He’s looking at the camera as if to say: “What you see is only the tip of what you’ll get.”
The mixed metaphor, the innuendo, and the natural smugness are a comedic staple—black comedy in his case. The picture spoke to me. I placed a coin on the counter and the yellowing, 1987 copy of his life’s work became mine.
(Orton, English playwright and etymon of the word Ortonesque, was bludgeoned to death by his partner in 1967, at the age of 34, only a few years after his commercial breakthrough.)
It’s always poignant paying virtually nothing for all that somebody’s left behind, though I suspect that’s not what got me the awkward smile from the cashier who rang up the purchase.
The slender blade of reason is no more than a probe against the tomahawk of insanity, which can crush a skull with a single blow.
—Louis Levy, Kzradock (translated by W. C. Bamberger)
Doubt about our surroundings, about our reality, about ourselves.
But where should doubt start, and when? What do we gain by being the detectives of our minds and souls?
These are the themes at the core of—take a deep breath—Kzradock the Onion Man and the Spring-Fresh Methuselah: From the Notes of Dr. Renard de Montpensier by Louis Levy (1910).
A moment to parse the title of this novella:
Dr Renard is the protagonist.
Kzradock the Onion Man is the title of Part I.
The Spring-Fresh Methuselah is the title of Part II.
A shorter moniker generally aids mental manipulation, so I chose Spring-Onion (no disrespect meant); you might chose something else. I note that the original Danish title at least avoids the English double-barrelled translations: Menneskeløget (Onion Man) and vaarfriske (Spring-Fresh).
On Oskar Panizza’s “The Pig” and how to deal with eccentric books.
The Pig by Oskar Panizza is difficult to classify.
It first appeared in the 1900 in the Zurich Discussions, a journal self-published by the author. Translated into English by Eric Butler, the book now reaches us via Wakefield press—an American publisher that specialises in literary oddities. The full title helps support its claim to uniqueness:
The Pig: In Poetic, Mythological, and Moral-Historical Perspective.
A quick flip-through provides a tad more insight.
It is non-fiction, erudite, creative in its approach to interpretation, and it has footnotes, lots of footnotes, so many that a page without them is a surprise and a page only of them ought to have been encouraged by the editor. Hebrew slips between two teeth, German and Latin between the other, Greek likes it on the tongue to roll about with French.
On giving a modern flavour to a retelling of an old myth, specifically Kafka’s “Poseidon”.
“The sea anemones need counting.”
“May I be assigned the Mediterranean section?”
“Same as every year. Here’s the conch. Put one white speck of sand for each healthy specimen, and one black speck for each diseased specimen. You have two days to bring back the conch to the records department.”
“No frolicking about with Triton.”
“Certainly not, sir.”
Poseidon watched the nymph swim off, giggling. Poseidon envied her—all he ever did was sit in his throne room, at the big rock slab of a desk tallying numbers and writing up reports. He sighed. Better get on with it.
On exploring alternative endings to classical myths, specifically Kafka’s “Prometheus”.
Pity the mortals, for they are cold.
Of all the powerful beings populating Greek myth, Prometheus always seemed the most generous towards our kind. According to some sources he moulded the first men from clay. According to most sources he stole fire from the gods and gave it to men. Crafty, haughty, but indomitable in his creative pursuit, Prometheus is perhaps more of a human ideal than we wish to admit.
(Mary Shelly does admit it in the title of her book Frankenstein, The Modern Prometheus.)
For his crimes, Prometheus, the titan, was strung up naked on a cliff in the Caucasus and sentenced to an eternity of having his (regenerating) liver torn daily by an eagle. Frostbite and cold, and continuous pain was the price he paid for our warmth and grace.
On fresh retellings of myths, specifically Kafka’s “The Silence of the Sirens”.
Feathers are the soul of the wind.
To fly, you just need wings, gleaming, beautiful, lighter than the thickest ribbons of air so you can take off, heavier than the thinnest clouds so you don’t stumble upon the pathways of the gods.
So the man believed. Man, inventor, father.
The wings were almost ready, the primary feathers sown into place, the secondary feathers glued with wax.
“There.” The man tightened the strap on his son’s right arm, before adjusting his own. The boy quaked for fear of heights.
“What can be more exciting than this,” the man said, “father and son, taking to the clouds, escaping all those guards Minos has sent to secure the coast?”
The boy nodded, hardly reassured.
They launched themselves from the highest Cretan cliffs at noon, when no archer dared watch Helios drive his blazing chariot across the sky.
The man went first, confident, eager to feel the air carry him. He glanced back, and saw his son steadily gliding in his wake. Good.
Shy, inexperienced, and wary of his large wings, the boy chose a steady course between heaven and sea, not looking up, not looking down, even when his father swerved and looped, showing off his flying skills. How he soars, my father! He’s so skilful and I’m so clumsy. One day, I’ll make him proud. The boy glided on.
Disaster crept upon them, stealthily, like a lion stalking a flock of sheep.
The boy noticed a small feather slip from his father’s wings. Then another. All that soaring and acrobatics was making the wax melt. He shouted a warning.
“It’s nothing,” his father said, though he too now chose to fly a cautious middle-course.
But the melting had started, the boy saw, and it could not be stopped. Unless…
Without a word, the boy flew up and up, until he was right above his father, flying at the same speed, providing a constant shade for the melting wax on his father’s wings. It hardened; no more feathers separated.
As they neared an island, the father rejoiced. They had made it. “Son! You see, my wings have not melted after all.” He turned.
On coherent, meaningful combinations of traits that make up entirely original creatures. Example: Franz Kafka’s Odradek from “The Cares of a Family Man”.
A 1000-piece puzzle is not a project for Frankenstein. The pieces were cut from a unified starting picture; the problem was deliberately made and has a predictable, well-fitting solution. No, a worthy project requires the invention or the discovery of something previously inconceivable.
Like stitching together pieces of flesh and reanimating them (science).
Like connecting pieces of metal and animating them (engineering).
Like layering paint or notes or movements and binding them (art).
Like assembling concepts and words and creating a coherent story world, character, or creature (writing).
I mean it in all in a positive way.
Credibility and resonance is achieved by using what’s around us:
Story worlds recycle and recombine common tropes in new ways. (Few go ahead and do the Tolkienesque thing of inventing new languages as well.)
Interesting characters are made up of different already-observed personality traits: take a bit from Aunt Veronica, a bit from Ruth the next door neighbour, a bit from Mum, together with a generous dollop of yourself, then mix with convenient imaginary glue till the gallimaufry congeals into an appetising dessert.
New creatures are often forged through similar borrowings; though, unlike with shape-shifters and cross-breeds where the number of sourced parts or shifts is limited, the creatures I call beautiful frankensteins come from so many sources their existence is as unexpected as it is baffling.
On hybrid creatures, and in particular on Franz Kafka’s half-kitten, half-lamb in “Crossbreed”.
Moonlit blue-tinted night, billowy curtains flicking edges of open terrace doors, impending danger for two sky-gazing protagonists. In swoops a softly neighing white horse with wings so large they trail on the ground when folded.
My first memory of Pegasus.
Despite the grainy TV picture and the obviously unrealistic set of what must have been an ancient Hollywood film, I only remember the awe. The magic! A flying horse, whoever thought of that?
Afterwards, catching a glimpse of a flying lion in a show about Narnia somehow didn’t do it for me. Not to say that Aslan is comparable to Pegasus, but perhaps there is a little idea-bulb in every child’s mind belonging to winged animals, and it can only be turned on once: first-imagined best-imagined?
Fictional cross-breeds, or hybrids, are produced by mating or creatively putting together a few different species. They’ve populated humankind’s imagination as long as shape-shifters.
I won’t attempt a classification—Wikipedia is thorough. However, since I mentioned horses and lions, here’s a taster for their hybrids.
On shape-shifting creatures, and in particular on Franz Kafka’s Rotpeter in “Report to an Academy”.
Fantasy bears many children and loves them all, heads, tails, wings, jaws, beaks, two legs, four legs, five and an input console. Magic and technology marry to make aliens; words (e)merge to make new monikers. A complete classification of templates may be impossible, but spotting patterns can be fun as a reader and helpful as a writer.
I’ve picked three basic categories: shape-shifters, cross-breeds, and beautiful frankensteins. Three is a fairytale ideal number. Also, Kafka’s complete short stories provide three fun examples.
More recently there’s Pennywise the Clown form Stephen King’s It, Mystique from the X-Men Comics, Terminator from Hollywood, and all manner of decanting from body to body, like in Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon.
Exploration of invisibility in daily life through four stories of Franz Kafka: “The Bucket Rider”, “Investigations of a Dog”, “Rejection”, and “The Bridge”.
Invisibility is a superpower.
Tolkien’s One Ring and Harry Potter’s Cloak of Invisibility render the wearer unseen by conventional methods. Much before that, the Ancient Greeks had gods who surrounded their favourite heroes in mists and clouds so that they could pass unchallenged.
Of course, all superpowers come with a price, and occasionally end in tragedy. H. G. Wells’s invisible man, the protagonist of his eponymous novel, struggles to control his ability, so much so it becomes more of a hindrance than a help.
But what of invisibility in daily life?
It’s actually quite prevalent, and it comes about in two flavours: as a result of being ignored, or as a result of ignorance. The former implies intention and a deliberate act, the latter an accident and blameless innocence—the middle ground is shaded by degrees of intentional ignorance.
(Unsurprisingly, both ignore and ignorance come from the negation of the same Latin stem gnō-, meaning to know, but perhaps surprisingly ignorance is the older wordby a few centuries.)
Fasting has come into fashion. Today it’s called dieting.
In moderation, it’s vaunted as a healthful activity. Taken to an extreme, it’s a debilitating mental illness. Either way, dieting is usually triggered by peer pressure, and since our bodies are our visible, measurable exteriors, all those peers will have an opinion which will affects us.
To put it bluntly: losing weight quickly becomes a performance art.
Kafka’s Hunger Artist explores what this performance art means without going into the physical aspect. Sure, bodies existed in the early 20th century, but calorie-counting, bodybuilding, and pilates weren’t the fad. So instead, the premise is entirely absurdist à la Kafka, but the debilitation, the existential angst, and the struggle of the protagonist with the world (and with himself) are all recognisably modern. Continue reading “Kafka’s Hunger Artist”
On the creeping terror of the slow reveal in Kafka’s short story “In the Pental Colony”.
Kafka has fallen out of favour in the modern age.
The German-speaking Bohemian author, Franz Kafka (1883–1924), I mean.
In contrast, the software, Apache Kafka, is prominently favoured in nine out of the first ten Google results for the search string Kafka.
Perhaps rightly so. After all, software is designed to aid not to befuddle, and to disperse existential angst not to replicate it on paper. Although, it’s a toss-up which of computer-esque or Kafkaesque better describes the alienation of man from mankind.
Since computers are all the rage, I’ll favour the “underdog” Kafka on this blog.
Image of the man?
I expected the search engine to throw up pictures of a human-sized beetle with a rotting apple stuck in its carapace. Even after having read five hundred pages of Vintage Kafka that contains all of his shorter works, I still identify the author with his novella The Metamorphosis. Or rather, with the protagonist, travelling salesman Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a monstrous vermin-beetle-creature.
The beetle is nasty; his story is sad.
The revulsion, the absurdity, the helplessness of this ungeheueres Ungeziefer (the German original helps spur the imagination), the ostracism that follows, and the final sinking into irrelevancy—they’re the sequence of events anyone on social media dreads. What happens if one day you wake up “ugly”, “disabled”, “different”, and ultimately incapable of communicating with the rest of society?
On Gabrielle Wittkop’s “Necrophiliac” and the questions in raises.
This post stands in the controversial shadow of its title.
You have been warned.
Quote: Sex is spoken of in all forms except one. Necrophilia isn’t tolerated by governments nor approved by questioning youth. Necrophiliac love: the only sort that is pure. Because even amor intellectualis — that great white rose —waits to be paid in return. No counterpart for the necrophiliac in love, the gift that he gives of himself awakens no enthusiasm.
Should every gap in the literary offering be plugged with a high-brow treatment?
I’d say no, because every is too broad a requirement. But some gaps do need the occasional thoughtful contribution. Necrophiliac was Wittkop’s, and she wasn’t shy about it.
Rewind a couple of centuries, and we find one of her literary forefathers: Marquis de Sade. He plugged a gap of his own, but in a savage, largely unpalatable, and tedious manner. For example, his 120 Days of Sodom runs close to four-hundred pages, and just the opening few contain enough brazen graphic violence to put off most people.
TheNecrophiliac isn’t like that. It’s ninety pages, written in first person, from the point of view of a sensitive, poetically inclined protagonist. Readers always have to work harder to condemn the narrator in whose head they ride—Wittkop knew what she was doing. Continue reading “Wittkop’s Necrophiliac”
On Io, the beautiful musk-ox, in Anne Carson’s verse-novel “Red Doc>”.
Io is a golden-eyed, white-haired, much-beloved musk-ox of Anne Carson’s protagonist, G, in her 2013 verse-novel Red Doc>.
How to unpack such a sentence? Try.
If you had a slightly vertiginous, confusing, yet ultimately not unsatisfactory experience figuring out three compound adjectives and two compound nouns, as well as, that Anne Carson is a poet, G is the name of (presumably) a person, Io is the name of a musk-ox, and that an angle bracket at the end of a book title is not an impossible concept … Excellent! You now have an inkling what it’s like to read Carson’s verse in general.
Of course, she does it better, and for longer, and without resorting to hyphens at every turn to compactify her images.
buzzing with gorse she
does not hesitate to
believe that a masterpiece
like herself can fly.
Should fly. Does fly.
She in the Quoteis Io the musk-ox.
I already wrote about Carson’s Autobiography of Red (1998), which is also a verse-novel, albeit of different appearance and feel. Itfollows the childhood and early years of Geryon, a boy with red wings; it is written in free verse, alternating visually between long and short lines on the page, and it reads like a dense, lyrical, unconventional novel—like a novelisation of poetry.
Red Doc>, published fifteen years later, returns to follow a middle-aged Geryon, now referred to as G. It’s a connected sequence of free verse poems contained within two-inch columns, justified on both sides, and it unfurls down the middle of the page like the chatters marks of a glacier or like the clusters of aa lava.
Speaking of which: glaciers and lava, flying red-winged monsters and oxen, love and army, hospitals and Ancient Greece—expect to find them all within the pages of Red Doc>. Bizarre can be beautiful, and meaningful. Carson ensures it.
A tough book is a maze, a mire, a minefield. Ten minutes into it, you’re either groaning or yawning, or—like me, when reading Knut Hamsun’s Hunger—you’re in the first stages of a literary delirium. The headache is an indication that you should stop; the disbelief at what you’re reading keeps you going. You throw the book aside saying, End this torture!, only to pick it up again asking, But where can this possibly end?
The nameless protagonist, let’s call him the starving artist (for the notion could have been named after him), is in a delirium himself—he is deteriorating before the reader’s very eyes. His hair falls out, sores open up, erratic behaviour and twisted thoughts beset him. Poverty shackles him; pride puts him on the rack; vanity shields him from admitting the truth of his situation the way an iron maiden shields you from the outside world.
Quote: I tore a pocket out of my coat and took to chewing it; not with any defined object, but with dour mien and unseeing eyes, staring straight into space. (George Egerton’s translation from the Norwegian.)