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.
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
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:
- Do They Review the Same Copy of The Unfortunates? Now that New Directions’s edition of The Unfortunates is starting to get reviews, I wonder: Is everyone reading the same book? The idea behind the...
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- Friday Column: Hopscotch Footnotes? Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch is a novel with an unconventional format. It includes 155 chapters, but only the first 56 are "required." As Cortazar says in...
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