Category Archives: Quotes

The Quotable Kafka

My edition of Kafka’s complete short stories tells me that the short story "The Great Wall of China" "though apparently a fragment, is so perfect in itself that it may be read as a finished work." Indeed. Borges would have been proud to have written it.

Reading the stories, I’ve come to find out that quite a number of them are considered fragments. In a couple it’s obvious, but in many it’s really not. Kafka’s fragments are better than a lot of people’s finished efforts. I’ve also discovered that quite a number of his stories were published in his lifetime, which was contrary to the idea of the obscure Kafka I had received.

The short story "Description of a Struggle" was a great find; it was written in 1904-05 and is a little raw, but that means that it’s like nothing else I’ve read from Kafka, and that alone I think is a reason to give it a look. It’s completely surreal and has an interesting structure involving two frames . . . it’s very worthwhile just as a reading experience.

Of all the fragments, I think I most wish "Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor" was complete. Its truncation is felt a lot more acutely than "The Village Schoolmaster" (another great fragment), and I think where it was headed is much the same territory as The Castle covers. It also has a number of classic Kafka quotes. Here we go:

Even the unusual must have its limits.

But this they don’t do, they don’t want to irritate Blumfeld unduly, they are evidently confining themselves to what is absolutely necessary

A pity Blumfeld isn’t a small child, two balls like these would have been a happy surprise for him, whereas not the whole thing gives him rather an unpleasant feeling.

And lastly, this phrase from "The Village Schoolmaster," which strikes me as emblematic of Kafka as a whole:

the good intentions of an honest but uninfluential man

The Quotable Viktor Shklovsky

From Literature and Cinematography, originally written in 1923:

The poetics of the motion picture is a poetics of pure plot.

Blessed are the lowly ones in the history of art, for theirs is the kingdom of the future.

To my horror, I have discovered abroad that in America the film industry is the third-largest industry, exceeded only by metallurgy and textiles.

An image is like a parallelism with its first part suppressed. . . . A riddle is a parallelism with the first part of the parallel omitted and with the possibility of several substitutions.

The film script has turned both toward popular comedy, with its stock characters, and toward the adventure novel, with its highly developed use of "delaying elements," with its wide range of casualties, drownings, desert islands, and other tricks, which resemble, above all, the devices of the Greek adventure novel.

Thus in Lev Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina the Karenin-Vronsky group is opposed to the Kitty-Levin group. All of the above gave Tolstoy the right to declare that "he had no use for the clever darlings who fished individual thoughts out of the work" and that "if I wanted to say in a word everything that the novel wanted to express, then I would have had to write the same novel I wrote in the first place; and if the critics now understand it already, and if they can express in a topical satire the same thing I wanted to say in my novel, then I congratulate them and boldly assert that they are capable of creating things that are greater than those I myself can create."

The Problem with Quoting Peter Nadas

I’m not sure if A Book of Memories is representative of Peter Nadas’s work, but if it is then this author is difficult to quote concisely. This isn’t just a matter of most of his sentences being paragraph-length (and most of them are, and the paragraphs tend to be page-length), this is also a matter of the very distributed way in which his sentences convey meaning. Nadas’s writing (again, judging only by A Book of Memories) eludes concision because of the way his sentences loop back and back in upon themselves, probe each nuance as it comes up, inch bit by bit toward a complete action, in this way slowly building up layers and layers of meaning and interconnection–and often withholding the most important detail until the end.

Still, I will now attempt to quote Nadas somewhat concisely. This quote comes from the first paragraph of a segment called "Losing Consciousness and Regaining It." The narrator has been tossed up by a massive wave and knocked unconscious upon some rocks. He comes to, oddly nostalgic for the way he thinks he must have felt while he was swooned.

When I finally came to on the rocky embankment of Heiligendamm, I may have known where I was and in what condition, yet I’d have to say that this was nothing more than sensing existence in pure, disembodied form, because my consciousness was lacking all those inner flashes of instinct and habit tat, relying on experience and desires, evoke images and sounds, ensure the unrboken flow of imagination and memory that renders our existence sensible and to an extent even purposeful, enables us to define our position in the world and establish contact with our surroundings, or to relinquish this connection, which in itself is a form of contact; during the first and probably very brief phase of my returning to consciousness I felt no lack of any kind, if only because experiencing that senseless and purposeless state filled the very void I should have perceived as a lack; the sharp, slippery rocks did make me sense my body, water on my face did make my skin tingle, therefore I had to be aware of rocks and water and body and skin, yet these points of awareness, so keen in and of themselves, did not relate to the real situation which, in my normal state, I would have considered very unpleasant, dangerous, even intolerable; precisely because these sensations were so acute, so intense, and because I now felt what a moment ago I couldn’t yet have experienced, which meant that consciousness was returning to its customary track of remembering and comparing, I could not expect to absorb everything my consciousness had to offer . . . ; in this sense, then, wht had passed, the total insensibility of unconsciousness, proved to be a far stronger sensual pleasure than the sensation of real things, so if I had any purposeful desire at that point, it was not to recover but to relapse, not to regain consciousness but to faint again; this may have been the first so-called thought formed by a mind becoming once again partially conscious, comparing my state of "some things I can already feel" not with my state prior to losing consciousness but with unconsciousness itself, the longing for which was so profound that my returning memory wanted to sink back into oblivion, to recall what could no longer be recalled, to remember the void, the state in which pure sensation produces nothing tangible . . . ; it seemed that by coming back to consciousness, by being able to think and to remember, I had to lose paradise . . .

And, with the way the narrator of A Book of Memories is forever splitting each action into finer and finer pieces, apparently intent, one must think, on reaching the final, primordial quark-level of thought beyond which any particular action cannot be broken down into any smaller unit, who’s to say that a hazy, not-quite-human consciousness wouldn’t be manna for him?

The Following Story

A teacher of Dutch–well, if you wanted to draw a cartoon of the type, you could take him as your model.
Teaching children the language they were already hearing in the echo chamber of the womb long before they
were born, and stunting the natural growth of that language with tedious drivel about ordinal numbers, double possessives,
split infinitives, predicate nouns, and prepositional phrases is bad enough, but to look like an underdone cutlet and
pontificate about poetry, that’s too much. And not only did he lay down the law about poetry, he wrote it too. Every
few years he would spawn yet another anemic assembly of messages from the lukewarm provinces of his soul: toothless lines,
strings of words casting aimlessly about on the page. If they ever happened to brush against a single line of Horace,
they would disintegrate without a trace.

Galatea 2.2

I read then, everything I could lay hands on. Reading was my virgin continent. I read instantly upon awakening, and was still at it well past the hour that consciousness shut down. I read for nothing, for a pleasure difficult to describe and impossible afterwards to recover.

The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick

The Shekina fund-raiser was held in one of those mazy Upper West Side apartments where it is impossible to find the bathroom. You wander from corridor to corridor, tentatively entering bedrooms still redolent of their night odors, where the bedspreads have lain folded and unused on chairs for months. Sometimes on these journeys there will be a bewildered young child standing fearfully in your path, or else an unexpected small animal, but mostly you will encounter nothing but the stale mixed smells of an aging building. Such apartments are like demoralized old women shrouded in wrinkles, who, mourning their lost complexions, assert the dignity and importance of their prime. The bathroom sink, if you should happen to locate it in the dark (the light switch will be permanently hidden), is embroidered with the brown grime of its ancient cracks, like the lines of an astrological map; the base of the toilet, when you flush it, will trickle out a niggardly rusty stream. And then you will know how privileged you are: you have been touched by History.

Golem Song by Marc Estrin

The walls were floor-to-ceilinged with books–the great works of all periods. No less-than-literature volumes here. The exalted Germans and towering Russians took eye-level pride of place. And there were shrines, little face-out areas of shelving, sometimes decorated with statuettes or postcards–Buddha and Beethoven, Jarry and Rabelais, Einstein and Dostoevsky, George Steiner and Samuel Beckett, Shakespeare, Joyce, and Dylan Thomas, Wittgenstein and Spengler, Heidegger, Schopenhauer, and Clock–and the mysterious cover of Alexander Theroux’s Darconville’s Cat. And music galore. Old vinyls, cassettes, and CDs, arranged by composer, from Adam de la Halle to Zelenka. The complete works of every major composer except Brahms, multiple versions of favorite pieces, all three completions of Mahler’s Tenth, closely compared–and his pride and joy, a 1922 edition of Grove Encyclopedia of Music and Musicians in six volumes. His "reference section" included a 1911 Britannica, read through up to J, and a 1945 twenty-volume edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, whose volumes he would often take to bed with him to read, caress, and smell.

The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick

There, at any rate, Puttermesser would sit, in Eden, under a middle-sized tree, in the solid blaze of an infinite heart-of-summer July green, green, green everywhere, green above and green below, herself gleaming and made glorious by sweat, every inch annihilated, fecundity dismissed. And there Puttermesser would, as she imagined it, take in. Ready to her left hand, the box of fudge (rather like the fudge sold to the lower school by the eighth-grade cooking class in P.S. 74, the Bronx, circa 1942); ready to her right hand, a borrowed steeple of library books . . .

Here Puttermesser sits. Day after celestial day, perfection of desire upon perfection of contemplation, into the exaltations of an uninterrupted forever, she eats fudge in human shape (once known–no use covering this up–as nigger babies0, or fudge in square shapes (and in Eden there is no tooth decay); and she reads.

Golem Song

Alan gawked at the lipstick kiss on his shoulder, and gazed back at the poster he had been leaning on. A blonde male model, shot head-first, recumbent in his briefs, foreshortened, looking for all the world like a god on a slab, featuring a pudendal mountain under pesticide-free cotton. At the peak of the mount, as if planted by Sir Edmund Hilary’s wife herself, a full-mouthed press of lipstick, yum. This was the attestation that had transferred itself (less passionately) to Alan’s shoulder. Sex in the age of mechanical reproduction.

The Gold Bug Variations

What he had done, how he had chosen to spend his energies, really was science. A way of looking, reverencing. And the purpose of all science, like living, which amounts ot the same thing, was not the accumulations of Gnostic power, fixing of formulas for the names of God, stockpiling brutal efficiency, accomplishing the sadistic myth of progress. the purpose of science was to revive and cultivate a perpetual state of wonder. For nothing deserved wonder so much as our capacity to feel it. (611)

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