Saturday, December 19, 2009

"At last I understand Kafka"

Since the beginning of this blog, I've been ostentatiously listing on the sidebar the books I've read in the current year, which I then convert into a mammoth end of year round-up of sorts. I don't really know why I do this, other than I enjoy lists and like keeping track of my reading. Regardless, there is a tension even in such a simple exercise as this. If I've read a book, do I claim to have read it well? Or to have understood it? Some weeks ago, I added Blanchot's Friendship to the list; given my admitted struggles with Blanchot's writing, how did I do with this particular book? I confess that I was unable to get much of anything out of some of the essays, whereas others I found myself able to read and profit from. I don't pretend to have a full grasp of all of Blanchot's major themes, but the best of the essays are remarkably supple and subtle pieces that I hope to return to again and again.

This reminds me of a passage from William H. Gass' marvelous introduction to William Gaddis' imposing novel, The Recognitions. It is one of the great introductions, and I've read it several times. Here is Gass:
No great book is explicable, and I shall not attempt to explain this one. An explanation—indeed, any explanation—would defile it, for reduction is precisely what a work of art opposes. Easy answers, convenient summaries, quiz questions, annotations, arrows, highlight lines, lists of its references, the numbers of its sources, echoes, and influences, an outline of its designs—useful as sometimes such helps are—nevertheless very seriously mislead. Guidebooks are useful, but only to what is past. Interpretation replaces the original with the lamest sort of substitute. It tames, disarms. "Okay, I get it," we say, dusting our hands, "and that takes care of that." "At last I understand Kafka" is a foolish and conceited remark.
(Keeping with the theme of this post, yes, I have "read" the novel, too, some ten years ago, though I was under no illusion at the time that I was equal to the task; a second reading, in the context of the seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time Gaddis Drinking Club group blog, was aborted about halfway through (and my only two posts at the blog weren't even about the reading itself but about introductory material). Ours was not the only well-intentioned but short-lived group blog devoted to reading The Recognitions; there was also Reading Gaddis from last year, and no doubt there are others. The book seems to inspire such projects. Lately the gang at An und für sich have themselves embarked on what looks like a fruitful group reading, which isn't too surprising given that blog's particular focus on theology and philosophy; the relevant posts are collected here.)

1 comment:

Jacob Russell said...

That quote from Gass, I wish I had the moxie to recite that every time I'm asked, "what is your novel about."