Tuesday 29 December 2015


She perceived reality with devastating precision and her quest for an equivalent precision in language was a sort of fixation.

The artist Hugo Rask was another sort of fixation for her.
From feeling respect for him on Sunday, she progressed to reverence on Tuesday and by about Thursday she felt an insistent yearning, which by Friday turned into a deep sense of lacking something.

She had set herself the task of decoding reality and locating language’s most truthful illustration of it. But she miserably failed in this task as far as Hugo Rask was concerned.
She was confused when he peered at her through the smoke rising from his cigarette, which made his expression look both superior and indifferent.
It was hard to gauge him because he was always surrounded by people. She would have preferred him to be a solitary being with a fissure of longing in him that she could fill.

She wondered why she was attracted by him in the first place. Perhaps she had engineered falling in love with him because she had imperceptibly grown bored and needed this anxiety intermingled with hope.

But she accomplished nothing. Life was composed of an endless series of nows in which one lacked the energy to do what one wanted to do, and later, too, would prove to be a now that was also deficient in energy.
And so the affair went nowhere and she suffered.

The suffering would intensify and become more concentrated for a few days, but it was purer and less unclear now.

Wednesday 23 December 2015

Cell phone - a fashion that will fizzle out?

A novel full of elementary truths!
  • You need to know only one thing: the pleasure of erudition is reserved for losers.Editors who read manuscripts have noticed: The more the author knows, the more things have gone wrong.
And tongue-in-cheek truths:
  • On cell phones: a fashion that will fizzle out. The American president doesn’t need a cell phone. He has secretaries to look after him. So people will soon realize that only second-raters use cell phones, those folks who have to keep in touch with their bank and make sure they haven’t overdrawn, or with their boss who is checking on them.
  • On the journalistic style:  Forget about subtlety and sophistication. People need to be informed in clear and forceful terms. Here are some good, solid phrases to use: no-go situation, uphill battle, shooting point-blank, no time for belly-aching, we are in deep water. Or maybe, in the eye of the storm.
  • On the purpose of public apologies:The Anglicans apologize to Darwin, the Catholics to Galileo. Virginia apologizes for the ordeal of slaves, the Canadian government apologizes to the Inuits (here Eco is behind the times, at present they are apologizing for the murder of native women). If you do something you shouldn’t have done, then you apologize and wash your hands of it.

Eco should have added: And you create a commission to look into the matter. Several years and millions of dollar later, the commission comes up with a report containing 268 non-binding recommendations. Now you can wash your hands of it for good. 

Friday 18 December 2015


The protagonist of this novel is a popular physician. The secret of his success:
Giving the patient twenty minutes of his time. Mind you, after sixty seconds I’ve seen all I need to know. The remaining nineteen minutes I fill with attention or, I should say, with the illusion of attention.
Compare that with the work of a psychologist probing your phobia. After years of digging and delving, something finally bobs to the surface: a mother lost in the supermarket, a snail in your tennis shoe, a funny uncle. Now, will that give you any more satisfaction that twenty minutes of attention?
Some men get their satisfaction from girl-watching:
A film slid over his eyes. In nature films, you see that sometimes with birds of prey. His lips parted. He was seeing something delicious. His mouth was already anticipating a tasty morsel.
Women, on the other hand, may get their satisfaction from securing a provider.
Women are the soccer stars of creation. At thirty-five they are ready for retirement. They have to make sure they’re home and dry before then. A roof over their head, a husband, children.

Sooner or later we are all ready for permanent retirement. So let’s have a good funeral. If you are an artist, there should be laughter and drinking and bad language at your wake. A real blowout. No weeping and wailing. Fuck, no! A bourgeois funeral is an artist’s worst nightmare.

Hope you haven't missed my quotes from Koch's novel Dinner in an earlier blog.

Tuesday 15 December 2015

KAFKA’S FATHER REPLIES: You have no capacity for life.

In the Letter to His Father, Kafka imagines his father’s reply:

You have in mind to live off me entirely. I admit that we are in a fight, but there are two kinds of fights – chivalrous combat, in which two independent fighters match strengths, in which each man remains independent, loses for himself, wins for himself. Then there is the fight fought by vermin, which not only stings but also sucks blood to sustain itself. That is the fight of the professional soldier – you. You have no capacity for life. To live comfortably and without worry and without blaming yourself, you prove that I have taken all capacity to live from you and put it into my own pocket. Why would you worry about your lack of ability when it is my fault and responsibility? You lie down idly and allow me to drag you through life in body and mind.

Here is an example: Recently you wanted to marry. At the same time you did not want to marry (as you admit in your letter). To avoid any stress, you turned to me for help by forbidding you to marry and arguing that it would bring shame on my name. But I did no such thing. First of all, here as in other cases, I did not wish to get in the way of your happiness; secondly I would never want to hear such an accusation from my child. But was my self-discipline and the forbearance with which I gave you the option to marry of any avail to me? No, my objections would not have prevented your marriage. On the contrary, they would have been an added stimulus for you to marry the girl. Thus your attempt to flee from me (as you put it) would have been complete. Yet my permission to marry did not keep you from bringing accusations against me. You prove that it was in any case my fault that you did not get married…although it only proved that all my reproaches were justified. Indeed I did not mention one reproach that was especially fitting: accusing you of being untruthful, subservient, and parasitic. Indeed your letter is parasitic, if I am not mistaken.

I reply first of all: This interjection, which could also be turned against you, is mine rather than yours.  Your distrust of others is not as great as the distrust in myself, which you nourished in me. To a certain extent the interjection is justified, and indeed adds new material to characterize our relationship – I won’t deny it.  The proofs I offered in my letter cannot fit as neatly in real life – living one’s life requires more patience. But the correction which follows from this interjection, a correction which I cannot and will not execute in its details, does succeed in approximating the truth in my opinion, and may calm things between us and make our life and death easier.

And that’s the end of Kafka’s letter. Use the search function to check my older blogs for other passages from Kafka’s Letter to His Father:
(Image from www.kafkaestblog.files)

Wednesday 9 December 2015

From #Kafka’s Letter to his Father: Fear of marriage.

There is a belief that fear of marriage has its origin in fear that one day your offspring will pay you back for the sins you committed against your own parents. That has no great relevance to my case, I believe, because my bad conscience originated in you and is unique in every respect. Indeed the sense that it is unique is part of my torment. I can’t imagine that it could be duplicated. I must say, however, that I myself could not bear such a silent, dull, dry, decadent son [as I am]. If I had no other option, I would flee, that is, emigrate, as you wanted to do on account of my marriage plans.

But the most important obstacle to a marriage is the indelible conviction that maintaining and even more so, heading a family requires all the qualities I recognized in you, that combination of good and evil which is organically united in you:  inner strength and outward derisiveness, health as well as a certain grandiosity, the gift of oratory as well as reserve, confidence in oneself and dissatisfaction with everyone else, a sense of universal superiority and a tyrannical spirit, knowledge of people and distrust against most of them; in addition the assets that have no disadvantages such as industry, stamina, ready wit, courage. Of all these qualities I had comparatively few or hardly any. I this state I did not want to take the risk of marriage, when I saw that even you had to fight hard in your marriage and even you failed with respect to your children.

But naturally I did not explicitly phrase the problem like that in my mind and did not expressly respond to it, or the usual thought process would have taken over and proffered me examples of other men, different from you (my uncle Richard to mention one man close at hand and very different). I would have thought of the men who married nevertheless and at least did not collapse under the burden, which is already a great achievement and would have amply satisfied me. But I did not approach marriage in this questioning manner. I experienced your marriage from childhood on…and your example persuasively proved that I was incapable of marriage.
How then can I go ahead and marry without going mad! – And that is the conclusion of my life with you up to now, and that is the outlook for the future it carries within it.

(Source: Letter to my Father, text on www.kafka.org; my translation)

Friday 4 December 2015

#AMREADING M.O. Walsh, My Sunshine Away: Keep your fantasies locked up.

The man who hurt your mother and left your family gives you relationship advice:
Was this a man who didn’t understand irony? Was this a man so devoid of perspective, so unaware of the craters he’s left in his wake, so oblivious to the fact that I knew what he’d done, that he thought his comments were acceptable?

A clarification:
What are you saying, dad? A real man only hurts women by accident?
Bingo, he said.
I felt some nameless air clear between us. But this was as far as we got.

Understanding adults.
For every adult you look up to in life, there is trailing behind them an invisible chain gang of ghosts, all of which, as a child, you are generously spared from meeting.

First love. What do you want from her?
Maybe she could tell me something funny.
And then what? he said. I mean that’s just a start. What comes next?
Then maybe she could tell me something sad.
Ouch, he said. You’ve got it bad.

Monday 30 November 2015

#AMREADING Herman Koch, The Dinner. The chasm between the dish and its price.

At the restaurant.

  • The menu: I was amazed at the yawning chasm between the dish itself and the price you have to pay for it.
  • The head waiter: He stuck out his little finger and pointed at something on the table: These are Greek olives from the Peloponnese, lightly doused in first-pressing, extra-virgin olive oil from Sardinia, and polished off with rosemary…Polished off? I said.
  • The main dish: What struck me about the plate was its vast emptiness. There are voids and then there are voids. The void here had clearly been raised to a matter of principle.
  • The narrator: For a while he had taken tranquillizers. Life was more constant, more muted, but something was missing. It was like the loss of smell or taste. I looked at life like a warm meal I had to eat or else I would die, but I had lost my appetite.
  • The conversation. Playing around her lips was something outsiders would not have recognized as a smile, but which was in fact a smile…quivering at the corners of her mouth, invisible to the naked eye.
  • The men’s room. At the stainless steel peeing wall stood a man with a big cock of the shameless variety, with thick blue veins right below the surface of darkish gray skin that was ruddily healthy yet still rather rough.
  • People who don't use deodorants. There was an odor about him. Maybe he didn’t use deodorant, in order to spare the ozone layer, or else his wife washed his clothes in environmentally friendly detergent. As everyone knows, detergents like that turn white clothes gray after a while – clean is one thing they will never be again.

Monday 23 November 2015

#AMREADING Per Petterson, I REFUSE. Spinning a coin in the asylum.

  • On medication. As long as I remembered to take my pills, one day slid nicely into another. If I don’t take my medication, panic sets in. I cry. I hold my mouth wide open, the noise wasn’t as loud then, and the air flowed easier in and out, and I didn’t groan as much.
  • The helicopter ride to the hospital: The sky wasn’t as blue up there as it was when you were down on the ground looking up. It was greyer, more indeterminate, more undefined.
  • In the hospital. There was a phone booth with Plexiglass walls. You couldn’t hear the person on the phone crying behind those sound proof walls, but you suspected it, you almost heard the silent gasp before the wails begin. You saw a man’s mouth open without a sound and it was wide and dark as a deep dish.
  • Do I or don’t I visit my friend in hospital? A Proustian description of a coin toss.He spun the coin into the air, and it rose and rose until it hung there up beneath the ceiling and was spinning and didn’t want to come down…It was whistling and flashing and wouldn’t come down, it was Newton suspended…Everything was frozen and then the Krone began to fall, slowly at first and then faster and faster…and Jim’s hand was a funnel, a glove, and he grabbed the coin from the air…and closed his hand around it and held it for a moment before slapping it against the back of his left hand and stood still.  He stared at this hand. Then he raised it slowly. “Tails,” he said.

Monday 16 November 2015

Kafka's parents

Marriage is certainly the clearest proof of self-liberation and independence [from one’s family]. It would give me a family of my own – the highest of all achievements in my opinion, and indeed your highest achievement. It would make me your equal. All the old and new embarrassments and your tyranny would be no more than past history then. That would be like a fairy tale, and that is what makes it questionable. It is too great an achievement to be attainable. I would be like a captive who had intentions not only to flee, which might be attainable, but who intended at the same time to remodel his prison and make it into a pleasure dome. But when he flees he cannot remodel it, and if he wants to remodel it, he cannot flee.

If I want to free myself from my particularly unhappy relationship with you and become independent, I must achieve something that has, if possible, nothing whatsoever to do with you. Marriage is the greatest achievement and offers an honourable way to become independent, but it is also most closely associated with you. To escape in this manner has an element of madness about it, and every attempt therefore carries a penalty…

The way things are between us blocks my way to marriage, because it is your most personal area of engagement. Sometimes I imagine a map of the world laid out before me, and you lying stretched across it. Then I have the feeling that the only areas feasible for me to inhabit are those you do not cover, those that are outside your reach. That is, roughly, my idea of your greatness. There are not many or very comfortable areas left, and marriage is among the areas [covered by you]…

Your marriage offered me in many ways an exemplary model, exemplary in loyalty, mutual support, and number of children. Even after the children grew up and increasingly disturbed the peace, your marriage remained untouched in its essence.  It may have been exactly this example that developed in me a high opinion of marriage. There were other reasons that made me powerless to realize my own desire to marry. They had to do with your relationship to your children, and that’s what this whole letter is about. 

(Source: Letter to my Father, text on www.kafka.org; my translation. Image: slidesharecdn)

Thursday 12 November 2015


Richard Ford revives Frank Bascombe’s character for these linked novellas about the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, failed marriages, and fraying friendships.

He looks at the devastation caused by the hurricane and sees a palpable ghostly image to put back what was. People have lost their belongings, and Frank himself feels that life is a matter of gradual subtraction. You arrive at a solider, more-nearly-perfect essence. It’s the same with language: A reserve of fewer, better words would help.

A 68, Frank is trying to hang on to his increasingly rare and vagrant thoughts. But what’s really missing is hope, daydreaming about the possibility that somewhere, somehow, some good thing was going on that would soon affect me and make me happy, only I didn’t know it yet.

He has a sensation of dread more often than he cares to admit: Something bad is closing in, like the advance of a shadow over a square of playground grass where I happen to be standing…the air suddenly goes chill and still, and all is up for me.

All is not up for Richard Ford. He still has the power of words. Love his description of cop gear: the man is kevlar’d with heavy combat footwear, outfitted with a waist-harness of black leather, scorch-your-eyes perpetrator spray, silver cuffs, a walkie-talkie as big as a textbook, a head-knocking baton in a metal loop, extra ammo clips…a pair of sinister black gloves.

Monday 9 November 2015

Kafka's fiancee Julie Wohryzek

More from Kafka's Letter to His Father:

When Kafka first talked to his father about sex, he advised him to use a condom.I can’t remember how old I was at the time, certainly not older than sixteen… It was the first direct lesson in life which I got from you.

But Kafka found his father’s advice morally offensive and was unable to believe that his father had ever followed his own advice. He was pure, above such things. This idea crystallized in my mind perhaps because marriage seemed shameless to me, and I was therefore unable to apply what I had heard about marriage in general to my parents in particular.

For Kafka this incident was proof that neither he nor his father were at fault for their alienation. It was a case of A speaking openly to B, giving him advice hat is not nice but quite usual in the city and perhaps preventing health problems. This advice is not exactly edifying for B, but there is not reason why he could not overcome this disadvantage over the years. In any case he need not follow the advice, the advice by itself is not reason why the whole future world should collapse. And yet something like this happened, but only because you are A and I am B.

Kafka connected this encounter with another one which happened twenty years later, a conversation after he had informed his father that he was going to marry Julie Wohryzek. In a letter to Max Brod he describes her as Jewish and non-Jewish, German and non-German, loves the cinema, operetta, and comedies, loves make-up and veils, has an unusual and continuous supply of the sassiest jargon, is on the whole ignorant.
Kafka’s father was totally against the marriage. He said: She probably put on a special blouse – the Jewish girls of Prague usually know how to go about that –and so you naturally decided to marry her as soon as possible, in a week, tomorrow, today. I don’t understand you. You are an adult. You are urbane, and you don’t know better than to marry just anybody? Is there no possibility to get out of it? If you are afraid, I’ll come with you.

He was clearly contemptuous of the man who seemed to him just as inexperienced and foolish as twenty years ago when they had the conversation about the use of condoms.

(Source: Letter to my Father, text on www.kafka.org; my translation)

Thursday 5 November 2015


Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry  is the story of a sweet-tempered old man on a pilgrimage to save his friend – or rather on a pilgrimage through his past life and his marriage.

Alternate chapters tell of his progress and of his puzzled wife Maureen, who has been left behind and is waiting for him to come home:
Now, without Harold, the endless passage of days flowed one into the other and she watched them with apathy, not knowing how to fill them.
I too am sometimes waiting for my man to come home, refusing to believe that there is no return from death.
On his journey, Harold becomes aware of his mortality:
With or without him, the wind would go on, rising and falling. The land would keep stretching ahead until it hit the sea…He looked back, and already there was no trace, no sign of him anywhere.
Harold does come home in the end, and Maureen takes his hand in hers. Despite the strangeness of the past weeks, she knew this hand so well.

How does Rachel Joyce manage the twists in the story?
I draw on what I know, she says. I fabricate and weave from there… Those small pieces of truth play in my head, I suppose, and rearrange themselves however man years later into a story. It’s a gentle story, perhaps too gentle to be more than wishful thinking.

Wouldn’t it be nice if every pilgrimage ended in enlightenment?

Thursday 29 October 2015


More from Kafka's Letter to His Father:
Of course you could say quite a bit about my attempts to marry, and you did. You were unable to show a great deal of respect for my decisions since I broke off my engagement with F[elice Bauer] twice and twice renewed it again, when I dragged you and mother needlessly to my engagement party in Berlin, etc. All that is true, and how did it come about?

The basic idea behind my attempts to marry was sound: to form a household, to become independent, an idea which is agreeable to you but in reality works like the game children play, in which one holds on to the other and even presses his hand, calling out: "Go then, go already, what’s keeping you?" In our case there is a complicating factor: you truly meant the exhortation “Go already!” At the same time and without being aware of it, you held me fast or rather you held me down because of who you are.

Kafka's father wrongly thought he had acted impulsively in taking up with Dora Dymant.You thought I could decide to marry in one fell swoop, just because of a blouse [Dora was wearing] – I who was so anxious, hesitant, and suspicious. If he had married either woman, it would have been the result of a rational decision. 

Neither of the girls disappointed me, although I disappointed both. My judgment concerning them is exactly the same today as it was then when I wanted to marry them. Why, then, did I not marry? There were several roadblocks, as is always the case, but life consists in surmounting those roadblocks.  The main roadblock, however, had nothing to do with the women specifically. Apparently it had to do with my mind, my inability to face marriage, which manifests itself in this form: from the moment I decide to get married, I can’t sleep. My head is glowing hot day and night. I can’t stand to live like that. I am undecided and in despair.  This is not caused by actual worries. Although worries are a constituent part of my melancholy and pedantic mind, they are not the decisive element. Yet, like worms in a corpse, they complete the destructive work. The decisive element is something else: the general pressure caused by anxiety, weakness, and lack of self-respect.

(Source: Letter to my Father, text on www.kafka.org; my translation)

Monday 26 October 2015

Teaching in a one-room school

Millie Morton’s biography of her mother is, as the subtitle says, about: A teacher’s life, one-room schools, and a century of change in Ontario.

Here a few features of teaching in the early 20th century:
THE STRAP: a black strip of heavy leather about two inches wide, eighteen inches long, and a quarter of an inch thick. One of Grace’s teachers had a terrible temper and used the strap often, especially on a boy named Roger. Since he wasn’t a willing victim, she had to chase him around the room and catch him before landing sharp whacks on his hands.

KEEPING THE SCHOOL CLEAN: When Grace was interviewed for a job, the trustees explained: We pay one of the pupils to sweep the floor each day and light a fire in the stove. The caretaker cleans the school on a regular basis, but after concerts, we’d like you to be responsible for the cleaning.

A LETTER OF RECOMMENDATION: Miss Grace Dayman has given splendid satisfaction. She takes a great interest in all children and children’s work, gaining the respect and love of them al. The Inspector also reports that “Teacher gets splendid results, has a pleasant classroom manner, and that discipline is excellent.” She also takes a very active part in all church and Sunday school work and is a good example in any community. 

For more info on the book: https://milliemorton.wordpress.com/

Thursday 22 October 2015

Rugelach - the ultimate comfort food for #widows

Here are some things that made me laugh, maybe inappropriately:

The things my book group members in L.A. sent to comfort me:
  • A plant labelled “durable” – it better be, I’ve got a brown thumb!
  • A video of Caroline Rhea— to remind me that men are a pain? So why miss him?
  • A pillow – just one! To remind me why I miss him?
  • Smoked salmon, bagels, bean-and-barley soup, rugelach – to fatten me up? Their concern is totally misplaced, but it was nice to see my kitchen look like a Jewish deli counter.

My four-year-old grandson’s reaction to my explanation of death: “Oh man!” (said in the tone  men use when speaking of a lost Blue Jays game – genuine regret at what was lost and what could have been)

The plaque on the urn of my husband’s ashes with his name misspelled
 – but they can’t fool me, I know who he is.

Monday 19 October 2015


This is an intellectual autobiography by a woman who grew up in East Berlin.
She was born in 1943, a furlough child, that is, conceived when he father was on furlough as a kind of souvenir in case he died in the war.

After graduating from high school, she studied philosophy while working the nightshift at a lightbulb factory: I had found for myself a manageable balance between work on the production line and existential philosophy, and things inside me were pretty much on the right track.

What was her goal in studying philosophy? I was looking for God in the form of an absolute, a pure theory. It would be big enough to be able to withstand the contradictions of the present and those of the past…to pave the path with reason!

Eventually she realized that the department of philosophy was a breeding ground for apparatchiks. Students were interested primarily in learning the political philosophy of the East German regime. They were admitted even if the applicant’s academic qualifications were substandard. They were replaced by the criterion of political reliability…The foremost concern here was the formulation of political argumentation strategies.

Kuczynski was repeatedly rejected for party membership because she was seen as too critical. A well-meaning friend counselled her: One could not say such things in that way. I had to learn to say what I wanted to say in a way that did not leave me open to attack.

I live in a democratic society. In Canada, critiquing the powers that be will not land a person in jail. Our society has subtler ways of punishing people who have not learned to say what they want to say in a politically correct way. 

Thursday 15 October 2015

Bandaid hoarder? Post-its hoarder?

Is there an upside to widowhood? Yes, if you were married to a hoarder, you can now start throwing out food that was best before 2005, moldy clothes stashed in a crate in a dark basement corner, fourteen pairs of men’s shoes acquired in Argentina ca 1985 and suitable for a tango dancer, also 226 ties, one with dancing polar bears.
BTW someone should come up with classes in “tie craft”. Where is Martha Stewart when we need her?

I was about to throw out 8 boxes of photos but was suddenly hit by a wave of nostalgia for my handsome husband, even though I’m not photogenic myself and always look like a hag beside him. But I did throw out my father-in-law’s home movies of Christmas cheer in which we all look like does caught in the headlights of a car.

I hope I can sell all the drill guns, saws, screwdrivers sets, and wrenches I have in quadruplicate, and it looks like I’ll never have to buy another roll of duct tape or another paint tray.

Did I mention the cans of paint on the shelves? There is one with a hardened residue of mauve to match the mauve walls we had in the bathroom ca. 1995. There is also a can of spray paint to repair scratches on the red Jeep we had 1996-1999. Actually there was never an occasion to fix scratches. We totaled the car.

Cleaning the basement can be a history lesson. Playboy magazines anyone? I have two dozen from the 60s, slightly water damaged. Or is that drool?
Then there are the stacks of course notes –  including one in Fortran from the time when computers were the size of a room and had to be fed punched cards. Not to forget the drawer of old cell phones which amounts to a history of hand-held devices.

After you’ve thrown out everything, the house will feel empty.
Not a good punch line? I know. There isn’t a good punchline for death.

Monday 12 October 2015

I feel like bitching

INEVITABLY, things are worse now. 
-If you are an impatient driver, there will be many lane closings in your area and the lights will turn red on you more often than ever.  
-If you were looking forward to the gorgeous fall colours depicted on every Canadian postcard, just to spite you, fall WILL be gorgeous although you no longer care.
-If your husband was the kind of guy who could repair anything, your taps will begin dripping, your furnace will go on the frizz, and your car will develop an unidentifiable noise.

the government will find a reason to tax you. My husband was worth a great deal to me, but I’d be hard pressed to put a Dollar value on him. Not so Customs Canada. They knew his value as I discovered when I picked up his ashes. The duty on the goods came to $ 72.00.

people will ask: How did he die? I suggest preparing a CD outlining the circumstances of his death (hotel room, Madrid), the exact cause (aneurysm of the aorta), his age (76), treatment he received (autopsy), treatment I received (amazing offers of assistance from hotel management, consulate, AND Air Canada, an organization not widely known for its amazing offers of assistance).  When The Question is asked, hit “play” and leave the room unless masochism is one of your dominant character traits.

INEVITABLY, you will want to bitch about life. Now you can do it with impunity! There is a period of grace for widows. No one will dare accuse you of being a bitch, even if you are.

Thursday 8 October 2015


I’ve recently been widowed and am wondering: Should I start an advice column for people in my position? I don’t mean advice about dealing with grief – there’s plenty of that on the web, none of which helps. No, I mean, about the practical stuff that goes with being widowed. Here are some observations.
-       You will be making many phone calls to cancel things the dead man no longer needs and to put into your name things you continue to need, such as electricity, heating, the car, insurance…
-       This name-changing process involves calling numerous companies and government agencies, which in turn involves listening to a great deal of Muzak and being told that your time is greatly valued, but no agent is available at the present time. BTW: No matter when you call, they will experience a higher than usual volume of calls.
-       After pressing 1 for English, you will be listening to a long list of options, none of which fit your case. And even if one of them does, the robot will not understand your answers. When you finally reach a live agent, the conversation will begin with velvety condolences, but end with the usual chirpy signoff: Have a good day! Do NOT make the mistake of asking how you can have a good day when you are devastated. You will be put on hold to speak to a specialist, which involves listening to more Muzak…
-       Death certificate: Scan it into your PC. You’ll need many copies. Absolutely everybody needs to see it. You will be asked a dozen identifying questions to make sure you are not a crank caller.  But even if you know the name of your husband’s first pet and the maiden name of his grandmother, Mother Bell will not cancel the dead man’s cell phone unless you send in that certificate!

To be continued, as I accumulate more experience as a recent widow.

Wednesday 7 October 2015

James Hawes on Kafka

Continuing with Kafa’s Letter to His Father:
Getting married, establishing a family, accepting all children that happen to be conceived, to support them in this uncertain world and give them even a little guidance – I am convinced that is the utmost a human being can achieve. It is no counter argument to say that many people appear to achieve those things with ease, for first of all only few people achieve it in truth, and secondly those few do not actively seek that result. Rather it happens to them. It may not be the ultimate, but it is nevertheless a great and honourable achievement (especially because action and happenstance cannot be strictly separated). And in the end the point is not to reach the ultimate goal, but to approach it, yet go a respectable distance. It is not necessary to soar to the centre of the sun, as long as one manages to crawl to a clean little spot on earth, which is reached by the rays of the sun occasionally and where one can find a little warmth. How was I prepared for that step? As poorly as can be.

I remember an evening walk with you and mother. We were at the Josefsplatz near what is now the Länderbank, and I started to talk of those “interesting things” [i.e. sex] in a foolish, bragging, superior, proud, cool (feigned), cold (in truth) manner. I stuttered the way I often did in your presence, reproached you for leaving me unprepared, so that my classmates had to take care of me. I came close to being in great danger (here I lied shamelessly, as was my habit in order to appear daring). In fact because of my timidity I had no clear idea of the “great dangers”, knew only the usual sins city boys commit in bed, yet I indicated in the end, that luckily I knew everything by then, needed no advice, and everything was alright. But I had started on this topic primarily because it gave me pleasure at least to talk of the subject, also out of curiosity, and finally to avenge somehow whatever you had done to me. You simply accepted my words, as was your way. You said only that you could advise me on how I might engage in these things without risk. Perhaps that was the kind of reply I was fishing for. It suited the lasciviousness of a child fed on meat and all good things, physically inactive, and forever focused on himself. Yet my sense of decency was so hurt, or at least I thought it had to be hurt, that against my own inclination I could no longer speak with you about that topic and arrogantly or insolently broke off the conversation.
(Source: Letter to my Father, text on www.kafka.org; my translation)

Monday 5 October 2015

Irene Nemirovsky

The setting: France during WWI.
Soldiers in the trenches. He had been prepared to die a heroic death, but soon the idea of death terrified him…as he looked at the little blackish heaps lying between two trenches, dead bodies as numerous and insignificant as dead flies in the first cold snap of winter.
Returning soldiers: All they wanted to do was eat as much as possible, get drunk, go wild…The beast would be released, the beast you had carried within yourself and kept under control for four long years.
A woman in the post-war years:
Marriage: Mediocre marriages are based on partial confidences, she thinks: one of you lets slip a confession, a sigh; a fragment of some dream or desire is shared, but then fear sets in; it is retracted…but it is too late. The other has seen your tears, a certain smile, an expression that is hard to forget.
The superiority of men. I have to give in, she thought. After all, men are stronger, more intelligent than we are. If he thinks that this is what love is, nothing more than sleeping around, he must be right. I can’t stand up to him, I can’t. I couldn’t prove to him that he’s wrong.
Married love. His boredom, a kind of gloomy inertia of the soul, had set in very soon after they were married…He doesn’t love me any more, she thought, but when reality is too bitter, we reject it; the heart protects itself against the truth and tirelessly invent its own dreams. It will all pass, she told herself.

Despair. We don’t give in easily to despair. We put up barriers of hope, which we have to remove one by one, and only then does despair penetrate to the heart of man who gradually recognizes the enemy, calls it by name, and is horrified.

Thursday 1 October 2015

KAFKA AND MARRIAGE. Frailty, lack of self-confidence, and guilt feelings.

I had almost no sense of the meaning and possibility of marriage for me…As a child I developed very slowly. These things were too external, too far removed from me. Occasionally there was a need to think of marriage but there was no indication that I was up for a continual, decisive, not to say, most bitter test. In reality my attempts to marry became the greatest and most hopeful attempt to escape you, and my failure was correspondingly great.  Since everything in that area is a failure, I fear I will not succeed in making you understand the significance of my attempts at marriage, and yet the success of this whole letter to you depends on it, for on the one hand all positive strength available to me was concentrated in those attempts, on the other hand all negative strengths accumulated in them too, and with a passion – all the results of your education, which I have described, that is: frailty, lack of self-confidence, and guilt feelings. They formed a kind of barrier between myself and marriage.  It is difficult moreover to offer an explanation because I have spent so many days and nights digging through and thinking about this subject that I am momentarily disoriented. The only element that makes my explanation easier is your complete misinterpretation of the matter, at least in my opinion. It does not seem to be difficult to introduce at least a small correction in this complete misinterpretation of yours.

First of all, you place my failure to marry among my other failures. I wouldn’t object to that, as long as you accept the explanation for my failures which I have offered.  My failure to marry is part of that chain, but you underestimate the significance of this matter to such an extent that when we speak of it, we actually speak of different things. I dare say nothing ever happened to you in your whole life which had such significance for you as my attempts to marry had for me…

(Source: Letter to my Father, text on www.kafka.org; my translation)

Monday 28 September 2015

Image: Kafka and Protocol, baruchfoundation.org

When Kafka began to engage with Judaism, his father disapproved of his interest, as he did of all his interests. In fact, because Kafka turned to Judaism, his father turned away from it:
Through me, Judaism became revolting to you, you could no longer read Jewish writings. They “disgusted you”. That may have meant that you insisted on the kind of Judaism you had shown me in my childhood, considering it the only correct Judaism and regarding anything beyond as nothing. But such an insistence is hardly credible. If so, your disgust – not directed against Judaism itself but rather against my person – could mean only that you were aware subconsciously that your kind of Judaism and my Jewish education was frail, and you did not want to be reminded of that and responded to all reminders with open hatred. In any case, your negative assessment of my new Judaism was quite exaggerated…

You were more on track with your dislike of my writings and their context, of which you were not aware. Through my writing I had indeed managed to distance myself and gain some independence from you, even if I was reminded of a worm that had been stepped on and whose back was crushed, although it managed to wrench away its front section and drag itself to the side. I was safe to some extent, there was a certain relief. Your immediate dislike for my writings was welcome for once. My ambition and my pride were hurt, however, by your reception of my books (notorious among us). “Put it on the night table,” you said. (Most of the time you were playing cards when the book arrived). But deep down I was content, not only out of rebellious maliciousness, not only because I was pleased that my view of our relationship had been confirmed, but spontaneously because that phrase sounded like “Now you are free!” But of course that was a mistaken notion. I was not free, or at best, not yet free. My writings were about you. I lamented there what I could not lament addressing you directly. It was a purposely drawn out farewell from you.

(Source: Letter to my Father, text on www.kafka.org; my translation)

Monday 21 September 2015

Roberto Bolano on what is irretrievably lost

WRITING. Exercising the memory by focusing deliberately rather than randomly on images.
DESIRE FOR SOLITUDE. Now, in a dark and inescapable way, we’re alone, which until recently was something that I desired, though certainly not in the way it came about.
MELANCHOLY. I was gripped then by a vast melancholy that seized my belly, my spine, my bottom ribs, until I doubled over.
HIS FACE. He was tall, skeletal and faceless, or with his face weathered in a kind of dark and shifting cloud.
FACES.  They look at me with the disapproving faces of people who can hardly grasp that there are those who rise after noon.

THE TILTED MIRROR. Looking into the mirror above the bar, I suddenly realized that my own reflection wasn’t visible. Slowly and fearfully I slid to the left along the counter. Gradually my image began to appear…and though what I saw was rather unpleasant (wrinkled clothes, flushed cheeks, tousled hair), it was still me, alive and tangible. I felt relief and a deep weariness.

Friday 18 September 2015


OMENS. They say that in the hour before an earthquake the clouds hang leaden in the sky, the wind slows to a hot breath, and the birds fall quiet in the trees of the town square.   – No, real disaster will announce itself by hardly moving its lips.
POLICE MEN. Nice lips. Quite full, and rather juicy –looking. He wasn’t beautiful, but I was  transfixed by the way he stood and cast his eyes down deferentially when he spoke.  And of course there’s always something about a uniform. You wonder if the protocol will peel off with the jacket, I suppose.
DAWN. The orange glow of the night [cast by the distant city] faded, and I started to see the fields and the hedges around us.  Everything was gray at first by then the colors began to come into the land – blue and green, but very soft, as if the colors did not have any happiness in them.
FINDING GRIEF. I am drilling down through the memories, searching for the capstone, the memory which when cracked would release some symptom of anguish…It was exhausting prospecting for grief like this, unsure if grief was even there to be found.
OFFICIALS. The men seemed limp, half-garroted by their ties. Everyone stooped, or scuttled, or nervously ticked. They carried themselves like weather presenters preparing to lower expectations for the bank holiday weekend.
AN AFFAIR COMING ON: It became a possibility, albeit in a relatively controlled form that both of us could still step back from. Here it was, if we wanted it, hanging from a taut umbilicus between us: an affair between adults, minute yet fully formed, with all its forbidden trysts and muffled paroxysms and shattering betrayals already present, like the buds of fingers and toes.
THE LOOK OF GASOLINE. The hose went right inside the fuel tank, so that the transfer of the fluid was hidden. I still do not know what gasoline truly looks like. If it looks like the way it smells, it must flash like the most brilliant happiness, so intense that you would go blind or crazy if you even looked at it.  Maybe that is why they do not let us see gasoline.

DISAPPEARING IN THE CROWD IN LONDONI was inside the crowd, getting pushed this way and that way. I did not mind and I did not look back. I let myself be taken along by this river of human souls that flowed beside the water. I was happy. I smelled the mud on the banks of the river and the dust of the gray pigeons’ wings and the flat dry smell of the ancient stone buildings and the hot breath of cigarettes and chewing gum that floated through the crowed.

Sunday 6 September 2015


So what was new on 10 July 1894?
GENEROSITY. Their Majesties, the Emperor and Empress of Austria, donated 100 florins to the Club for Beautification in Lainz as well as 50 florins to the Volunteer Fire Brigade in Magyabony, Hungary.  What misers compared to the Union of Banks in Vienna which donated 500 florins to the victims of a hail storm. Then again 50 florins is better than what the Archduchess Stephanie gave in support of a publication, The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in words and images. She merely contributed a long telegram: I shall continue to take a deep interest in every one of your forthcoming volumes. You efforts and persistent labour fills me with patriotic pride and sincere joy. That’s very kind of you, archduchess!
WEDDING & CAREER. The music critic of the Presse married the opera singer Emmy Karlona, who therefore resigned her post with the Court Opera.
CRIME. Franz Seidl, known as a rough individual and violent when drunk, without provocation punched a security guard. When the guard attempted to arrest him, he became so angry that he abused two other security guards coming to their colleague’s help, punching one in the nose and demolishing the other’s helmet. Seidl was taken into custody.
Meanwhile Anton Cerbik and his friend Ignaz Fussthaler were arrested under suspicion of having stolen veal and other kinds of meat on numerous occasions from the market hall. Well, at least they didn’t abuse the animals.

(Source: Wiener Zeitung of 4 July, 1894; my translation)