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; 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; 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?