Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Note On Ozick On Stach On Kafka

A conceptually troubled but basically illuminating review by Cynthia Ozick on V 1 of a massive biography of Kafka, and then my comment on it:

.....I find that Ozick's initial hyperventilated prose is of a piece with her hyperventilated and confused initially stated thesis: that after all the oceans of ink spilled over Kafka, biography and her review of biography--"secondary exhalation"--are justified by the need to rescue Kafka from twin vulgarities of "Kafkaesque" and "transcendent: the first a gross distortion of his work at one with the degeneration of the imagination of anyone saying it; the second a thin and abstract attenuation of the concrete reality and hard particulars of Kafka's life, times, and his specific being.

Her complaint about "Kafkaesque" is too precious by half. The word has simply entered the culture as a free standing descriptor suggesting something like "having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality and the denatured, impossible tangle of bureaucratic mazes." (There's a whole funny riff on Jesse's using it without understanding it in Breaking Bad.) That descriptor clearly has roots in Kalfka's fictional worlds and isn't a bad *very general* approximation of them. But, really, what person reading, Kafka and thinking and writing seriously about him will resort to, or be imprisoned by, "Kafkaesque?" Why, nobody, I'd argue, which measures the precious silliness of Ozick's complaint on this score. Simply put, she makes no case for the descriptor's "...reductiveness posing as revelation."

In Ozick's second complaint, "transcendence," equally exaggerated, Ozick confuses art and life. She wants to disabuse us, for example, and as an example she uses, of Updike's interpretive argument from transcendence. She quotes him:

....Kafka, however unmistakable the ethnic source of his ‘liveliness’ and alienation, avoided Jewish parochialism, and his allegories of pained awareness take upon themselves the entire European—that is to say, predominantly Christian—malaise....

And herein precisely lies her massive category error: Updike is talking about Kafka's fiction, "his *allegories* of pained awareness." (My asterisks) Ozick is talking about Kafka's life. Just as the descriptor "Kafkasesque" is of no use or interest to anyone seriously reading, thinking about, writing about Kafka, so to that same person, there is, I'm confident, no confusion about the allegoric and nightmarish fantastical nature of Kafka's fictional worlds, surreal, disembodied, and the specifics of his own, life times and being. Reinforcing her error is her own thankfulness and acknowledgement that Stach isn't a literary critic. He's faithful to wanting to mine accurately and deeply from the depths of Kafka's lived life and his times.

For Ozick to be consistent with her thesis, and in opposition to her complaint about, for example, Updike here, she would have needed to make case how all those specifics figure concretely and thematically in his work. Mission impossible, I'd think. And she doesn't touch that.

But here's a huge saving grace, IMO: once she gets into offering her reviewer's synopsizing reprise of Stach's first volume and leaves her ponderous, overheated and wrongheaded theorizing behind, her prose settles down becomes plainer and richer in its eloquent and accessible concreteness. That part of her review, the travel through Kafka's life, is illuminatingly excellent. 

Last note: the thread comments complaining that Ozick's writing need in some measure approximate the quality and entertainment of Kafka's own writing are absurd. And, as noted, once Ozick settles into the meat of her review, her prose needs no defending. 

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