The End of Oulipo?

The End of Oulipo? My book (co-authored with Lauren Elkin), published by Zero Books. Available everywhere. Order it from Amazon, or find it in bookstores nationwide. The End of Oulipo

Lady Chatterley’s Brother

Lady Chatterley's Brother. The first ebook in the new TQC Long Essays series, Lady Chatterley's Brothercalled “an exciting new project” by Chad Post of Open Letter and Three Percent. Why can't Nicholson Baker write about sex? And why can Javier Marias? We investigate why porn is a dead end, and why seduction paves the way for the sex writing of the future. Read an excerpt.

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Translate This Book!

Ever wonder what English is missing? Called "a fascinating Life Perecread" by The New Yorker, Translate This Book! brings together over 40 of the top translators, publishers, and authors to tell us what books need to be published in English. Get it on Kindle.

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The Tunnel

Fall Read: The Tunnel by William H. Gass

A group read of the book that either "engenders awe and despair" or "[goads] the reader with obscenity and bigotry," or both. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Naked Singularity

Summer Read: A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

Fans of Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo: A group read of the book that went from Xlibris to the University of Chicago Press. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Life Perec

Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec

Starting March 2011, read the greatest novel from an experimental master. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Last Samurai

Fall Read: The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

A group read of one of the '00s most-lauded postmodern novels. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Tale of Genji

The Summer of Genji

Two great online lit magazines team up to read a mammoth court drama, the world's first novel.

Your Face Tomorrow

Your Face This Spring

A 3-month read of Javier Marias' mammoth book Your Face Tomorrow

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Ten Memorable Quotes from William Gaddis’ Letters

New Books
Here are ten of my favorite moments from these hugely interesting letters.


Interviews from Conversational Reading

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See this page for interviews with leading authors, translators, publishers, and more.


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  • The Tree With No Name by Drago Jančar September 15, 2014
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  • Kjell Askildsen, Selected Stories September 15, 2014
    Here, at the midpoint of his narrative, Bernhard, the affectless and purposeless protagonist of "The Unseen," experiences existential near-emancipation at dusk. This retreat toward obscurity in terse, direct language—thematic and stylistic markers of each work in the collection—comes immediately after Bernhard’s sister mentions her plans to enterta […]
  • Berlin Now by Peter Schneider September 15, 2014
    In his new book of essays, Berlin Now, Peter Schneider reveals himself as a gnarled Cold Warrior who has been stricken with many of the maladies common to his generation. With the specter of Communism exorcized, his new enemy is Islam. The book is a collection of short interlocking pieces introducing Anglophone readers to Berlin; it is not being published in […]
  • Paris by Marcos Giralt Torrente September 15, 2014
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  • 10:04 by Ben Lerner September 15, 2014
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  • Theories of Forgetting by Lance Olsen September 15, 2014
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Max Brod Sheds Light on The Unfortunates

Zadie Smith has a fine essay on Kafka in the most recent New York Review, and something she mentions about literary executor Max Brod seems quite pertinent for a book jut published here in the U.S.:

If few readers of Kafka can be truly sorry for the existence of the works Kafka had consigned to oblivion, many regret the way Brod chose to present them. The problem is not solely Brod’s flat-footed interpretations, it’s his interventions in the texts themselves. For when it came to editing the novels, Brod’s sympathy for the theological would seem to have guided his hand. Kafka’s system of ordering chapters was often unclear, occasionally nonexistent; it was Brod who collated The Trial in the form with which we are familiar. If it feels like a journey toward an absent God— so the argument goes—that’s because Brod placed the God-shaped hole at the end. The penultimate chapter, containing the pseudo-haggadic parable "Before the Law," might have gone anywhere, and placing it anywhere else skews the trajectory of ascension; no longer a journey toward the supreme incomprehensibility, but a journey without destination, into which a mystery is thrust and then succeeded by the quotidian once more.

Smith’s remarks on what the parable’s placement does to the religious trajectory of The Trial are, of course, absolutely correct. I would only hasten to add that placing what I think is the richest and most re-readable chapter of The Trial just before the end also adds to the aesthetic whole of the book: we get the best, the most poignant and visionary, right before the dark end.

In any event, The Trial would be a very different book were the chapters ordered differently.

I can’t help but connect this truth to some remarks I made a couple weeks ago about B.S. Johnson’s novel in a box, The Unfortunates.

The idea behind the book is that it’s a collection of unbound
signatures that you pick from randomly and read in whatever order
chance dictates (only the first and last ones are designated, and those
you’re supposed to read as assigned).

So I wonder, is everyone here working with the same text?

I made the remarks in regard to the fact that, since critics are now evaluating the work, it seemed fair to ask if they even were reading the same book. Smith’s comments re: The Trial would seem to indicate "no."

Smith then goes on to remark that a too-precise ordering of Kafka’s chapters would destroy some of the ambiguity he seems to have been at pains to leave readers with:

Of course, there’s also the possibility that Kafka would have placed
this chapter near the end, exactly as Brod did, but lovers of Kafka are
not inclined to credit him with Brod’s variety of common sense. The
whole point of Kafka is his uncommonness. Whatever Brod
explains, we feel sure Kafka would leave unexplained; whichever
conventional interpretation he foists on the works, the works
themselves repel.

Purposely preventing any firm chapter-ordering from being imposed on a novel would seem an excellent, if somewhat extreme, method for preserving this "uncommonness."

In this context, it’s worthwhile to consider that Kafka was attempting to limn the experience of a world  that he found inexplicable. If we are to take Kafka’s attempts to repel explanation as an attempt to show readers how this his world resists easy decryption, then what does that say of B.S. Johnson’s experiment?

Like Kafka Johnson too wanted to render a world he had difficulty comprehending, but his wasn’t bureaucracy and officaldom, it was the mind. The mixed-up nature of The Unfortunates is meant to illustrate the twisted paths found in a human mind. Not only is his book created in a way that resists explanation–it is written in a way that abdicates explanation, that says pure randomness can order the chapters just as well as he could. This is either a bleak image of Johnson’s hopes at comprehending another human intelligence or a particularly honest one.

More from Conversational Reading:

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9 comments to Max Brod Sheds Light on The Unfortunates

  • You stack the deck in confusing order with intent. The “randomness” is no abdication, but purposeful: from Jonathan Coe’s introduction (the 28th packet):
    “So what exactly was taking place on ‘the inside of his skull’ as Johnson went about the task of reporting his football match that Saturday afternoon? Memories of [his deceased friend] Tony were unfolding, certainly, but not in a structured, linear way, and they were interrupted at random by the action on the pitch and his attempts to start writing his match report. It was this randomness, this lack of structure in the way we remember things and receive impressions, that Johnson wanted to record with absolute fidelity. But randomness, he realized, is ‘directly in conflict with the technological fact of the bound book: for the bound book imposes an order, a fixed page order, on the material’. His solution, as always, was simple and radical: the pages of The Unfortunates should not be bound at all.”
    Coe goes on to say that “Johnson opted for a compromise. The Unfortunates would come in twenty-seven bound sections, with the first and last being marked as such to give the material a proper sense of form and closure.” When the Hungarian translation could not be produced in packet form, Johnson required that the list of symbols (not numbers) heading each chapter be included in the endmatter so that the reader could perform a draw to determine reading order.
    And as far as intent goes, did Kafka specify or provide guidance for the order in which The Trial was to be burnt? Perhaps he intended that Max Brod should impose that order even as he ordered him to do otherwise. (Similar problems arise in Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet; while there was some indication of the shape it was to take, there were texts by Soares not explicitly marked for inclusion.) This is an intentional fallacy: as Coe reports Johnson put it, “To the extent that a reader can impose his own imagination on my words, then that piece of writing is a failure.”

  • nnhav,
    Yes, I realize that Johnson purposely introduced randomness into his book. But it is nonetheless an abdication of his right as author to have us read his book in whatever order he wanted. My point is that in opting for pure chance rather that believing he could reproduce the twisted works of memory (as, for instance, Proust tries to), Johnson seems to be making a bold statement about the possibility of writing about the workings of the mind.

  • Johnson is making a point about the way in which memory works. Not organized according to a prior conception, not under narratorial control (the randomness is authorial control). He is reproducing the twisted works of memory more rigorously this way. (Another point of disagreement: it is the same book, whatever order it’s in; the reading is accretive by design. The reductio would be that each reading of any book, hingeing as it does on contingencies of prior exposure to other books and knowledge and of current situation, is Heraclitian. Not the case with The Trial, mind.)

  • Kafka had a good sense of chapters. Honestly, I haven’t read Kafka in a long while, but I seem to remember that his chapters always end definitively. (The overall order may not be very important though because there didn’t seem to be much plot progression). It’s helpful to use the dramaturgical language of TV here. the story arc seems apparent, but the individual orders could be enjoyed out of sequence without much harm.
    BTW, isn’t it fun to go back to a favorite book and read a chapter in the middle or to read them selectively or out of sequence? Perhaps that is something you can do only after finishing a book, not during.
    I’m currently working on a collection of related short stories and write fully with the knowledge that stories will be read out of order. There are plot developments among stories, but as I finish the collection, I find that I’ve left a lot of open threads. (it remains an open-ended project). In Castle and Trial, Kafka had a good sense of where the ultimate ending ought to be; he just didn’t know how to get there, or whether he should. It would have been relatively easy for Kafka to prepare a definitive ordering; the fact he didn’t do that tells me he wanted the ability to add additional episodes whenever an idea would hit him.

  • nnyhav,
    I’m with you on your the first point, except for the part where you say Johnson is reproducing the twisted works of memory more rigorously this way . . . not sure I agree with that.
    On your second point, you make an interesting argument, but I don’t agree, philosophically.

  • Anonymous

    This has been a very fascinating conversation to follow, with important points I think. Much more than I could make because I came to Kafka so differently, I was drawn not by the ordering of chapters and narrative elements–that didn’t seem incidfental but I was fully satisfied with the defintive work of Mx Broden in presenting Kafka’s work and didn’t feel a need to question it I felt myself compelled to be taken up instead with Kafkas swirling and desperate subjective psychological states, how those states created their own stories, not linerar events or traditonal “arcs”. Since man feel oppressed by his tyrannical father who squashes, it seemed perfectly logical that Gregor Samsa would awake being a roach. He felt like a roach so he was a roach in this story and Kafka’s genius was that he got that surreal state to work meaningfully, it was even a character we could identify with. But because of the psychological depth to this work. Similarly with The trial. KLiving in pre-nazi Austria and Germany, it was easy to imagine being arrested and detained and punished for no reason. The historical context framed Kafkas new exoistential questions about universal humanity and its laws. The social anxiety Kafka expressed, his profound ambiguity about the meanings of experience–create a prose that worked solely within its own universe of rules–perhaps because the outside rules were so fiercely persecuting at his time. The Trial seemed to me another example of that. A senseless arrest and persecution, the state of mind of a very alienated individual who is faced with the brutality of his community laws–I guess, too, it is hard for to see Kafka apart from the historical context he lived in–he was a Jew in early nazism and was aware of all that persecution acutely already, arrested for “crimes” he did not commit, afraid of his own breathing. (As he himself said). I don’t think it’s a question of a Godless world in the way Zadie Smith thinks of one or theology because Kafkas doesn’t share the kind of theology Smith seems to be alluding to –”Godlessness” would have a whole different definition fo Kafka and seemed not to be what Max Brodon meant either. I think is a hidtorical context which can illuminate Kafka’s need for un-orderliness in chapters, his work, indeed is an examination of any kind of “order” and how oppressive “order” can be. A student of law, Kafka was keen on presenting the senselessness of the laws of his time. Without that context, and the context that Kafka was among the first to really explore psychological states at their deepest levels by plunging into an unique surreality that was absolutely truthful to the human condition (loneliness, helplessness, anxiety, the general anxiety of being which raised questions not only about “memory” but identity and desire and fear and trembling)– opened up a whole new way for fiction to express sometimes ineffable, unanalyzable experiences–experiences which make our inner states “realer” than the external reality we inhabit, and render meaning to otherwise meaningless community and social laws. It’s not that it isn’t about “Godlessness” it’s that this isn’t the point or emphasis of Kafka, I think. So for me, Smith was arguing something not entirely irrelevant to Kafka but, not really salient either to his life’s work and vision.

  • Anonymous

    This has been a very fascinating conversation to follow, with important points I think. Much more than I could make because I came to Kafka so differently, I was drawn not by the ordering of chapters and narrative elements–that didn’t seem incidfental but I was fully satisfied with the defintive work of Mx Broden in presenting Kafka’s work and didn’t feel a need to question it I felt myself compelled to be taken up instead with Kafkas swirling and desperate subjective psychological states, how those states created their own stories, not linerar events or traditonal “arcs”. Since man feel oppressed by his tyrannical father who squashes, it seemed perfectly logical that Gregor Samsa would awake being a roach. He felt like a roach so he was a roach in this story and Kafka’s genius was that he got that surreal state to work meaningfully, it was even a character we could identify with. But because of the psychological depth to this work. Similarly with The trial. KLiving in pre-nazi Austria and Germany, it was easy to imagine being arrested and detained and punished for no reason. The historical context framed Kafkas new exoistential questions about universal humanity and its laws. The social anxiety Kafka expressed, his profound ambiguity about the meanings of experience–create a prose that worked solely within its own universe of rules–perhaps because the outside rules were so fiercely persecuting at his time. The Trial seemed to me another example of that. A senseless arrest and persecution, the state of mind of a very alienated individual who is faced with the brutality of his community laws–I guess, too, it is hard for to see Kafka apart from the historical context he lived in–he was a Jew in early nazism and was aware of all that persecution acutely already, arrested for “crimes” he did not commit, afraid of his own breathing. (As he himself said). I don’t think it’s a question of a Godless world in the way Zadie Smith thinks of one or theology because Kafkas doesn’t share the kind of theology Smith seems to be alluding to –”Godlessness” would have a whole different definition fo Kafka and seemed not to be what Max Brodon meant either. I think is a hidtorical context which can illuminate Kafka’s need for un-orderliness in chapters, his work, indeed is an examination of any kind of “order” and how oppressive “order” can be. A student of law, Kafka was keen on presenting the senselessness of the laws of his time. Without that context, and the context that Kafka was among the first to really explore psychological states at their deepest levels by plunging into an unique surreality that was absolutely truthful to the human condition (loneliness, helplessness, anxiety, the general anxiety of being which raised questions not only about “memory” but identity and desire and fear and trembling)– opened up a whole new way for fiction to express sometimes ineffable, unanalyzable experiences–experiences which make our inner states “realer” than the external reality we inhabit, and render meaning to otherwise meaningless community and social laws. It’s not that it isn’t about “Godlessness” it’s that this isn’t the point or emphasis of Kafka, I think. So for me, Smith was arguing something not entirely irrelevant to Kafka but, not really salient either to his life’s work and vision.

  • So sorry this got posted twice and that my name wasn’t on the original post. I couldn’t figure out how to work the comment section, Apologies.
    -Leora Skolkin-Smith

  • I recently came across an essay* by Clayton Koelb, a well-known Kafka scholar, in which he asserts that Brod actually intervened far more in the text of The Trial than Smith, or anyone else that I know of, has claimed. In fact, he argues that The Trial as we know it should be seen as a collaboration between Kafka and Max Brod. But he also argues that we shouldn’t discard Brod’s version, since it’s one of the works upon which Kafka’s reputation is based.
    At one point he writes: “An examination of the materials Kafka actually wrote [for The Trial] shows that the projected novel had never reached a form even remotely ready for publication; that Kafka had not yet formed a clearly discernible conception of the narrative as a whole; and that much of what he had been working on had been produced as disjointed fragments, each having only the sketchiest relation to the others. The only clear elements were the beginning and the end, which Kafka had evidently produced in the first hot enthusiasm of his inspiration.”
    Later he writes, referring to a published facsimile with transcription of the manuscripts for what became The Trial: “it is extremely difficult to read the Stroemfeld edition as a novel. One can only read it as a bundle of loosely related fragments that might, with a good deal of work, be made into a novel.”
    Obviously, I don’t know whether he’s right or not: I’ve seen the first volume of the edition he refers to, which reproduces the manuscript of the Cathedral chapter, but that’s not enough to judge.
    *”Critical Editions II: Will the Real Franz Kafka Please Stand Up?” in A Companion to the Works of Franz Kafka, edited by James Rolleston.

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