Thursday 30 April 2015


Anna Katharine Green, pioneer of American detective novels, wrote her whodunnit , THE LEAVENWORTH CASE, a decade before the debut of Sherlock Holmes. Here is a taste of her writing: 
  • The victim: The horrible, blood-curdling IT that yesterday was a living, breathing man.
  • The suspects: Eleanore and Mary, who will inherit the dead man’s money.
  • The butler’s testimony:

The young ladies were attached to their uncle?
Oh, yes, sir.
And to each other?
Well, yes, I suppose so. It’s not for me to say.
The jury respected the reticence of the servant.
  • The detective: Who do you suspect? I whispered. Everyone and nobody, he said. It is not for me to suspect but to detect.
  • Eleanore despairs: Once a suspect, always a suspect: The finger of suspicion never forgets the way it has once pointed. My name is tainted forever!
  • The dead man’s secretary, another suspect?: He had the habitual expression of one who in his short life had seen more of sorrow than joy, less of pleasure than care and anxiety.
  • Another victim: The pallor and fixity of the pretty Irish face staring upon me from amidst the rumpled clothes of her bed struck me with so deathlike a chill, that had it not been for one instant of preparation, I should have been seriously dismayed.
  • The surprise ending: If a bombshell had exploded at my feet, or the evil one himself appeared at my call, I should not have been more astounded!

Green went on to publish 36 novels and a volume of poems described by Harper’s magazine as “vigorous productions”.

Sunday 26 April 2015


  • It never crossed his mind that he could follow any other calling.
  • He viewed death in the field as a necessary consequence of warrior fame.
  • He wore a gleaming officer’s scarf, a lacquered helmet emanating its own black sunshine, smooth fiery waxed riding boots with glittering spurs, two rows of lustrous, almost blazing buttons on his coat, and the blessing of the ethereal power of the Order of Maria Theresa.
  • He loved the Radetzky March, the roll of drums, the tattoo accelerated by the march rhythm, the shattering smile of the lovely cymbals, and the rumbling thunder of the kettledrum – the brief and jolly storm of military music.
  • Her spoke a nasal German that vaguely recalled distant guitars twanging in the night and also the last dainty vibration of fading bells. It was a soft but also precise language, tender and spiteful at once.
The Austrian Empire was about to collapse, but
  • His ears were not sharp enough to discern the whirring gears of the great hidden mills that were already grinding out the Great War.
  • Only the tavern-keeper knew and felt no more need to prove himself a loyal subject to the Kaiser. He moved the official portrait from the taproom to the kitchen. And there it was, with the emperor’s snow white uniform densely flyblown as if riddled by minute grapeshot.

(Source: Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March, trans. J. Neugroschel)

Thursday 23 April 2015


As a child Franz Kafka was intimidated by his father, who was a big man. He hated getting undressed in front of him in the change room of the public bath:

I was bony, weak, and thin; you were strong, big, and square. Even inside the change room I thought of myself as a miserable creature, and not only before your eyes, but before the whole world, for you were the measure of all things to me. When we stepped outside and mingled with the crowd, I holding your hand, a little skeleton, insecure, barefoot on the deck, afraid of the water, I was seized with despair because I was unable to imitate your swim strokes, which you kept demonstrating to me with the best of intentions, but to my deepest embarrassment…
Your physical superiority was paralleled by your intellectual supremacy… You ruled the world from your armchair. Your opinion was correct. The opinion of others was crazy, exaggerated, meschugge, abnormal. Your confidence was so great that you did not even have to be consistent and still prevailed in your opinion...  For example, you were able to abuse the Czechs, the Germans, the Jews, and not in selected cases but in every respect, and finally there was no one left standing except you. You became for me the enigma that characterizes all tyrants, whose right is based on their person rather than on reason…
As a child I was mainly in your company at dinnertime. Thus your education focused largely on correct table manners. Everything that was on my plate had to be eaten. No one was allowed to speak about the quality of the food. You yourself, however, often found the food inedible and called it “fodder”. “That animal”, the cook, had spoiled it.  Because you usually had a healthy appetite and you liked to eat everything quickly, hot, and in large bites, I had to hurry up. Dark silence prevailed at the table, interrupted only by admonitions: “Eat first, talk later.” Or: “Hurry, hurry, hurry.” Or: “Look here, I’ve already finished my dinner.” Others were not allowed to chew on bones. You were allowed to do it. Others were not allowed to slurp. You were allowed to do it.  The main thing was to cut the bread straight. That you cut it with a knife dripping with sauce was unimportant. Others had to watch out not to drop any crumbs on the floor. The largest amount of crumbs accumulated under your seat. During dinner, others had to concentrate exclusively on the food. You cleaned and cut your nails, sharpened pencils, reamed out your ears with a toothpick. Father, please understand, that these things are insignificant details in themselves. They were only depressing for me because you were such a hugely important person in my eyes and did not observe the commandments which you imposed on me…and I could not obey because I didn’t have your strength, or your appetite or your skill…That is how it appeared to me as a child – not in my thoughts, but in my feelings.
(Source: Letter to my Father, text on; my translation)

Sunday 19 April 2015


This is Part 3 of Kafka’s Letter to his Father. For Parts 1 and 2 see my posts of 9 and 12 April.

I was a timid child, but at the same time obstinate, the way children are. Certainly my mother pampered me, but I cannot believe that I was especially difficult to guide. I cannot believe that a friendly word, a quiet taking-by-the-hand, a friendly glance would not have obtained from me anything anyone wanted.
[But Kafka’s father tended to be “loud, forceful, and quick to anger”]
I remember one incident from the first years of my life. Perhaps you remember it too. One night I yowled continuously for water, not because I was thirsty, but partly to cause trouble, and partly to amuse myself. When a few strong threats had no effect to stop me, you took me out of my bed, carried me into the corridor, and left me there for a while in front of the closed door, alone and dressed only in my nightshirt. I won’t say that your action was wrong. Perhaps there was no other way of restoring quiet. I only want to characterize the methods of education you used and their effect on me.  In the wake of that experience I became obedient, but I was harmed internally. My nature did not allow me to properly connect the senseless begging for water, which seemed ordinary to me, with the extraordinary terror of being carried out of the room. For years I suffered from the painful idea that a giant man – my father and the highest instance – would come practically without cause and carry me from my bed into the corridor, and that I was a complete nothing to him. That was only a small beginning, but the feeling of worthlessness which often dominates me (which in other respects may be a noble and productive feeling) came about through your influence. I needed a little encouragement, a little friendliness, a little opening up of my path. Instead you closed off my path, perhaps with good intentions, to make me take another.
But I wasn’t cut out for that. You praised me, for example, when I saluted or marched well, but I was no future soldier, or you encouraged me to eat well and even to drink beer with my meal, or you praised me when I repeated songs I didn’t even understand or copied your favourite expressions, but none of that had any reference to my future.
(Source: unpublished works on; my translation)

Thursday 16 April 2015

Lawrence Osborne

This is what I have been reading/tweeting lately:
  • Backpacking: just another twist in the history of Western voyeurism and exploitation (Tessa Hadley)
  • Making love to an older man: you get the heavy hinterland of his worldly experience driven in behind the fine point of the moment (Tessa Hadley)
  • Old carpets: have a sweet rancid sponginess that my English shoes like (Lawrence Osborne)
  • Rowing: warmed him and made his back feel strong as if his shoulder muscles extended from his neck to his waist (David Mamet)
  • End of story: The listeners felt as if they had let out a breath…and slowly began to rearrange themselves (David Mamet)
  • Wealth: We wanted our American plenty to show, but not too much. We wanted to make it clear that our tastes were simpler than our means would have permitted (Wallace Stegner)
  • People without a past of their own: Americans hang around national parks that enclose other people’s archeology (Wallace Stegner)
  • Autism? He adopted an avuncular expression and squeezed my shoulder, one-two-three, an autistic mime of sincerity (Hari Kunzru)
  • Intolerance: An address book filled with scribbled-out names (Hari Kunzru)
Stay tuned for another instalment of Kafka's letter to his father. Will post on Sunday.

Saturday 11 April 2015


In 1919 Kafka addressed a letter to his father, discussing their alienation. This is Part 2 of my translation. For the beginning of this letter check my post of 9 April.
I’m not saying that I am what I am solely because of your influence. That would be a great exaggeration (and I am inclined to exaggerate). Even if I had grown up entirely free of your influence, it is quite possible that I would still not have turned out a man after your heart. I might still be a weak, anxious, hesitant, uneasy man, neither like [uncle] Robert Kafka, nor like [uncle] Karl Hermann, yet different from what I am now, and we might have gotten along very well. I would have been happy to have you as my friend, superior, uncle, grandfather, indeed (though I hesitate a little) as my father-in-law. But as a father you were too overpowering for me, especially because my brothers died in childhood, and my sisters were born long after me. And so I had to stand up to the first push all by myself. I was much too weak for that. Compare me to yourself: to say it briefly, I am a Löwy [his mother’s family] with a certain Kafka element, which is not activated, however, by the Kafka will to live, to act, to conquer, but by a Löwy jab, which works more stealthily, more reservedly in another direction. Indeed, it may often be in abeyance altogether. 
Kafka's mother, Julie Löwy

You, by contrast, are a true Kafka in your strength, health, appetite, loud voice, eloquence, assurance, superiority, endurance, ready wit, knowledge of humanity, and a certain generosity – naturally those assets go together with certain faults and drawbacks, brought on by your temper and sometimes your quick anger. …
In any case we were so different, you and I, and posed a danger to each other in our difference.
Calculating in advance how we would relate to each other – the slowly developing child, and you, the grown man – one might have thought you would trample me down until nothing was left of me. That did not happen. One can’t calculate life in advance. But perhaps something more terrible happened to me. As I say this, I keep begging you not to forget that I never in any way thought you were to blame. You had the effect on me that you were bound to have, and you must stop thinking that it was out of a special kind of spite that I succumbed to this effect.
Cont. next Sunday.

(Source: unpublished works on; my translation)

Thursday 9 April 2015


Dearest Father,
Some time ago you asked me why I claim to be afraid of you. As usual, I could give you no answer, partly because of that very fear I have of you, partly because there are so many distinct aspects to the explanation of my fear that I cannot gather them, even loosely, in a conversation.  And if I answer you here in writing, the explanation will still be rather incomplete because fear and its consequences get in my way even as I write to you, and because in any case the breadth of the material surpasses my memory and my intelligence.

You always thought of this matter in very simple terms, at least when you talked about it to me and indiscriminately to many others. In your view it was like this: You worked hard all your life, you sacrificed everything for your children, especially for me, whereupon I lived “the life of Riley”, was completely free to study whatever I wanted, had no reason to worry about food, or any reason to worry at all. You did not ask to be thanked for that. You know all about the “gratitude of children”, but you expected a certain good will, a token of sympathy. Instead I always hid away from you in my room, taking refuge in books, in the company of crazy friends, in extravagant ideas. I never talked to you sincerely, I never went to temple with you, I never visited you in Franzensbad, I never showed a sense of family in any other respect, or an interest in our business, and I never cared about your other affairs. I burdened you with the factory and deserted you in the end. I supported Ottla in her stubbornness, and while I don’t lift a finger for you (not even bringing you a ticket to the theatre), I do everything for strangers. To sum up your judgment of me, you do not exactly accuse me of indecency or evil (except perhaps lately concerning my intended marriage), but rather of coldness, alienation, and ingratitude. And you act as if that was my fault, as if I could have arranged everything quite differently with a turn of the wheel, whereas you are not to blame in the least, except perhaps for being too good to me. I consider this account – your usual account —correct in one point: I agree that you are not in any way to blame for our alienation. But I, too, am completely blameless. If I could get you to acknowledge that, we might achieve a kind of peace.
To be continued in my next post on Sunday.
(Source: unpublished works on; my translation)

Sunday 5 April 2015

Seidler's painting of Goethe, 1811
After meeting Goethe in Jena in 1806, Luise Seidler saw him again four years later, when she was painting at the gallery of a friend in Dresden.

The news of Goethe’s arrival in the city struck our gathering like a lightning bolt. Everyone wanted to see him, speak to him, hear him, enjoy his company. He will come, Fromman said, taking great pride in his friendship with the great poet. I’ll invite him. Surely he will come and, as formerly in Jena, spend his evenings here, and my friends will be happy to greet and get to know him.

One morning, as I was working in the gallery, I heard the news: He is here. He is in the gallery! I’ve seen him, Fromman announced. I talked to him, and he is in a very good mood.

The prince of poets appeared at the very end of the gallery, an imposing figure and in spite of his 61 years, glorious in his masculine beauty. The others rushed forward. I alone remained behind, taken by surprise. With childish embarrassment because I had let the moment slip by to greet him, I took refuge in a recessed window. There I heard Goethe approach and stop at the easel that held my painting. That is a very nice piece of work, he said. -- St. Caecilia after Carlo Dolce. Who painted it? He was told my name. He looked around the corner and saw me standing in my hideout. I felt the blood rushing to my cheeks as he offered me his hand. In a fatherly and well-meaning tone he told me how nice it was to see me again and hear of a talent he never knew I had.
And where do you live? he said.
In Ostra Street, near the botanical garden.
Then I’ll call on you, and we will go to the botanical garden together and enjoy those wonderful August evenings. Only he did not want it to be talked about.

He frequently came to the gallery and took me for outings in the surroundings of Dresden.
People often asked. Where does Goethe spend his evenings? I  stuck by my promise and was careful not to give anything away .. I was pleased and proud that a poor hanger-on like me was secretly favoured by this widely admired man.

(Source: Luise Seidler. Erinnerungen und Leben; my trans.)

Thursday 2 April 2015


[As told by Weimar painter Luise Seidler]
I saw Tsar Alexander and Napoleon driving through the streets of Weimar in a small open hunting carriage, Napoleon on the right side, Alexander on the left. Napoleon had brought French actors with him. As a gallant gesture to Duchess Louise, he had Racine’s The Death of Caesar performed in Weimar. The tickets were not for sale, but handed out by the court.

[An acquaintance gave Luise his ticket]
As each of the rulers entered, there was a drum roll befitting his rank. The stage was carpeted. The play was performed without intermission. The curtain wasn’t even lowered. The two emperors sat in red velvet chairs on a raised platform at the front. To their right and left sat the kings of Wurttemberg, Westphalia, Bavaria, and Saxony…and behind them the counts and dukes…diplomats and generals. Starry medals glittered and ribbons glowed on the embroidered uniforms. Everything was splendid and sumptuous.
[The ladies sat in the loges and in the balcony.]
In spite of the masterful performance, Napoleon fell asleep…the rest of the noble audience made an effort not to offend against etiquette.

A day earlier there had been a hunt on the Ettersberg, which I also watched. A hall had been erected on the plateau of the mountain and decorated with branches of fir trees. They were festooned with red berries to lighten the gloomy dark green. On three sides of the hall bleachers had been set up for the audience to watch the proceedings. The monarchs stood at the open end of the hall, and behind them hunters who loaded their guns. The quarry was driven past them within shooting range. First came a beautiful doe. When the poor animal collapsed in its blood, I felt so sad in my heart that I sobbed loudly and hurried back to the city.

(Source: Luise Seidler. Erinnerungen und Leben; my trans.)