Friday, June 23, 2017
I need to start out this review with a confession. In the past I've exhibited a few misogynistic tendencies, perhaps in part as a tongue-in-cheek backlash to the majority of my female friends who seem to identify as feminists, but more likely as a result of not being "successful" with women. I watched I Shot Andy Warhol about ten years ago and thought about writing an anti-S.C.U.M. manifesto, shortly before the phrase "men's rights" could cause someone to be "triggered." This was no doubt a result of the general frigidity that I felt from girls around this time, shortly after finishing college and entering the real world. My feelings in retrospect are perhaps best summed up (as they often are) by a sketch from Mr. Show.
Girls didn't want to talk to me, and sometimes still don't want to talk to me. There is something creepy or sleazy about me underneath. My motives appear one-dimensional. I am not confident enough. I am not an alpha male (I am not even a beta male). I do not make a lot of money. My facial hair doesn't grow in the right way. I am shy and do not make good eye contact. I do not seem interested. I seem too interested. I have not, however, told anyone to smile, nor ever engaged in street harassment. (Except the time my friend and I were drunk in a cab and we thought the girl in the next car over looked like Britney Spears and we tried to inform her of such as she inched away, and rolled up the window.)
Perhaps the reason most of my female friends are feminists and why I have scoffed at "typical girls" in general is, the girls that couldn't bear to waste their time on me haven't properly absorbed feminist values? Or there is something legit wrong with me. Probably the latter. In any case, I think it's the type of girls that really just want to be a stay-at-home mom and have her husband provide for their family that have been most disinterested in me, followed by the girls that are extremely successful in their careers and sense that I would really just prefer to be a stay-at-home dad and have them provide for me and write in my free time. So maybe I unfairly rejected the entire gender five years ago? It was an immature position to take, that I could do that sort of thing in retaliation, or out of despair, and not out of a more basic understanding of orientation and acceptance of one's feelings going back to childhood. It took a very long time to understand that all of these confusing emotions could be tidily ensconced within the "B" of LGBT.
I say all of this in the way of an apology, and to acknowledge that the reason many men treat women the way we do is wrapped up in our own issues that we haven't recognized or resolved. That, and yes, the societal expectations that this book addresses.
Full disclosure: Jill Filipovic and I are friends on Facebook and went to NYU together. We have a great deal of mutual friends (24 to be exact) but I am struck by a lack of independent recollection of personal interaction with one another. We probably met briefly at a party or two. Regardless, she is the third alum of the Class of 2005 to be featured on FH after Tao Lin (our mutual friend) and Aziz Ansari (we wish). My short version opinion on the book is this: while it is fantastically written, and quite compelling overall, it is stymied a bit by its semi-clinical stance, teetering somewhere between a law review article and selective memoir. And this is the right place to start the review for me, as an attorney in practice four years now that would like to leave the profession and write full-time. If I could be so lucky! I am not aware of where Jill went to law school, but I am assuming it was a very good one and that she did very well and that she got the Summer Associate 2L gig and made bank at a large firm and was able to retire her loans in short order, but maybe I'm misreading things or being presumptuous. I'm sure she didn't go to a second-tier school, finish outside the top 50% of her class, and flounder from one horrible situation to the next after passing the bar, all while loans accrue at an outrageous interest rate and effectively become a perpetual burden. But she earned it, and I applaud her for the decision.
Like the recently reviewed Letters to Felice, I have something to say about the end notes. In this case, I say they are well-placed. I also think if they were posted as footnotes on each page like a law review article, they would lose some of their impact. Some of the sources are not exactly paragons of erudition. But let's be clear about something in this law review comparison thing: law review articles have a citation for practically every sentence, and this is why their appearance becomes cartoonishly distinct. The H Spot is sort of like a sloppily written law review article, and I mean that as a compliment. Nobody likes to read those. They're a perfect example of doing for the sake of doing, because it's the necessary thing to have on your resume. Though students and professors may have a passion for the topic they write about, their composition is generally a tedious miserable exercise. By contrast, The H-Spot is light enough to be read on a beach this summer. Much of the time, it is very entertaining. Sometimes it veers into preachy territory, but I was struck by the virtual absence of male-bashing for which feminism is often derided. Jill opens up about her personal life just enough to give the reader insight into how she came to her perspective on these issues. Something seemingly innocuous, like female partners in law firms being in charge of ordering lunch, inspires miniature outrage. Also that most paralegals are female. I would love to be a paralegal and be in charge of ordering lunch! Is it a path towards assured financial success and growth? At a large firm, probably! But I digress.
The book opens up with an Introduction, which lays out its thesis, which is neatly summarized in the conclusion and its public policy proposal:
"One of the goals of this project was to show that there is no one definition of womanhood, no singular experience of pleasure seeking, and no individual things that will bring happiness for all women, but there are a great many commonalities, and a great many ways to improve the status quo. My hope is that this book offered a little peak into the overlapping struggles of so many women, as well as the many joys--however unsupported and individualized." (267)
The best thing I can say about this book, I think, is that it made me want to be a better person. It offers great insight into womanhood and all of its attendant anxieties, and it may cause men (such as myself) who have been insensitive in the past to think twice before making what seems like a harmless joke. The only real criticism I can make is that "law review" thing mentioned above, and the statistical methodologies employed by the author. The thing about the internet is that one can find pretty much any source to back up one's opinion, even if it's particularly odious or unreasonable (and just to be clear, this book is neither). Maybe I don't know what I'm talking about, but I feel like, when you sit down to start a law review article, you write up the position you want to take, and then you find your sources later to back up that position. Maybe your initial position is informed by everything you have read and digested, but there is still sometimes that lingering feeling of padding by citation, as if you are not quite confident enough just to make an assertion without citation to any greater authority. In law review contexts, it's because that's just not allowed. In the context of a book, however, I feel like this book is most powerful (but also most challenging/slightly irksome) when it enters into "manifesto" territory. I am thinking of Great Books from the past, like The Prince or Utopia, where the author simply writes down their thoughts, damned if anyone agrees with them or not.
Basically, in my opinion, the book is at its weakest when it is relying on statistical methodologies to define happiness, primarily because it makes me feel very anxious and insecure. There are dozens of passages that made me curse my fate (but then again there are dozens of moments a day, dozens of things I see, that make me do the same), but here is just one:
"This new standard, of marrying an autonomous individual only once you're an autonomous individual yourself, is what marriage researchers call the 'capstone' model: marriage as the final marker of a solid, stable life, as opposed to a cornerstone of one. Educated young people today see marriage as something they do after most of their other ducks are in a row: they have a college degree, they're working at a stable job, they can afford a wedding [Yes, No, No]. And most crucially, they want to marry someone who is a great match and from whom they derive emotional and sexual fulfillment [Gulp], not simply someone who plays a complimentary role--that is, an employed man looking for a woman who would be a good mother and homemaker, and vice versa. Americans say a happy sexual relationship is one of the primary things that makes a marriage work, second only to faithfulness; more than 60 percent also agree that sharing household chores is crucial to a successful union [YES]. Of unmarried young people today, about a third say they haven't tied the knot because they're looking for the right person. About the same number say they don't feel financially ready.
That capstone model means that women and men are marrying later than ever before [thank God], if they marry at all--and many don't. The most well educated and financially prosperous, [fuck them] though, continue to wed, building their families like the children's rhyme: first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage. [That's not all, that's not all, Jack is drinking alcohol]." (141, bracket parentheticals mine)
I could do this all day, as the book often caused me to reflect upon my own wretched state. At the same time, however, I must admit that it felt very "cozy" and comforting at times, because Jill and I are the same age and went to the same school and know a lot of the same people and our experiences are sort of spiritually intertwined to an extent. Moreover, Jill's own experience as a lawyer-turned-writer give me hope that a happier life is not necessarily a rank impossibility.
This review needs to be wrapped up, and I haven't given an appropriate road map of the territory this book covers. Basically, there is an introduction and conclusion, and eight chapters in between.
The first is a sort of history lesson, which was one of my favorite parts, particularly when it was revealed that Mary Shelley's mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a feminist pioneer (and not actually the same person, which made me feel very dumb as a person that loved Frankenstein). The second is about female friendship, and adequately covers the topic except for maybe not addressing the phenomena of girls going to the bathroom together. The third will probably become the most infamous in the book, and is about female sexuality and pleasure. The fourth is about women as mothers, the fifth is about women as wives, and the sixth is about women in the workplace. The seventh is about female body issues and food, and was another one of my favorites (as a person with an unhealthy diet and a bizarre relationship with food). The eighth is about the (fading?) tradition of women taking their husband's last name after marriage.
Jill does devote a fair portion of the book to primary sources, interviews she had with women and couples in several different states. Generally, these are some of the best parts of the book, but there is no more noteworthy subject than Janet. Janet's story is brutal and outrageous, but also ordinary in many poorer, predominantly black communities. Her struggle is not uncommon, but the specifics are extreme:
"The one thing that keeps Janet afloat is her children. The dream, Janet said, is a combination of basic financial stability and that coveted 'balance': that she could both enjoy time with her children and work full time at a job that would actually bring in enough income to support her family. Both time and money, though, have proven elusive, no matter how hard she tries and no matter how much she sacrifices one for the other.....She was there when her second daughter walked, but only because she was unemployed. She had found a new job by the time she had her son, and so she missed his first steps, too. 'When I work, I get up at 4:30 in the morning,' Janet said. 'I work. And then normally I'd do doubles and get home at about one o'clock in the morning and my babies were asleep. This is the most time I've ever spent with my kids. And I've been sitting here thinking about that. I worked all of these years.'" (202)
It's pretty much a terrible world in terms of the amount of time that people are expected to spend working to make a living, but Janet's case is simply too much. You hear about people getting 5 or 6 hours of sleep a night, but 3.5? Insane. In a way this book is also about the impossibility of time management, and that hit me particularly hard as a person that doesn't think he ever has enough of it and has no spouse or kids to consume it. Actually, a spouse should help with that time crunch, and the idea of better equality in relationships between spouses and partners is one of the most effectively presented in this book. While The H-Spot is not necessarily perfect, it is a big-hearted contribution to the world, and one that will hopefully play some small role (if not as large as say, The Feminine Mystique or The Second Sex) in bringing about a more just and equal understanding between the sexes.
Monday, June 19, 2017
I picked up Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London by Lauren Elkin shortly after it was published last year, because I assumed that Elkin’s book was yet another in the subgenre I like to call “European Romance”—a subgenre that, for better or for worse, I find unwaveringly irresistible: the story of a young woman who moves to Paris (or, really, anywhere in France) to begin life anew. Despite the initial foibles that come from reorienting one’s existence in a foreign land, there her life is transformed by finding a new passion (whether it’s for cooking, walking, renovating a crumbling farmhouse, or, most often, for a man), and, aided by a cast of charming locals, she begins to live what Oprah would call her “best life,” but with the style and elegance of la vie européenne. At the end, she stays in France, often with her new lover and/or husband, and usually with a baby on the way. I’ve read more than twenty of these books, and while they’re all repetitive and formulaic, I’ll be damned if I don’t love them, and will read them entirely the instant they meet my hot little hands.
But Elkin’s book is nothing of the sort. This is hardly the story of a woman floundering in America who decides to run off into the Parisian sunset. Elkin went to Europe with a sense of purpose: first, as an undergrad to study abroad, then as a graduate student to receive her MPhil in French literature from the Sorbonne, then as an adult to live. And while Elkin relays some stories of romantic interludes, the relationships she details are all disasters: men who take her away, and not toward, her “best life,” which, she believes, exists squarely in Paris. A relationship isn’t the solution to Elkin’s problems the way it is in so many of this genre; neither is a new patisserie, or a gorgeous pair of shoes, or an even more gorgeous, if condemned, farmhouse. The purpose of Flâneuse is more complicated than that.
Elkin’s true love is cities, and, more specifically, walking through them. A native of New York from the Long Island suburbs, Elkin came into Manhattan to study at Barnard, and then went to Paris to study abroad, and then had stints in Tokyo, Venice, and London. In each city she walked—to explore, to get what she needed, and to get to and from work, but most of all she walked to get a feel for the city from the pedestrian’s perspective. What she desired most was to gain that slow specific view that comes only from being on the street, that takes in the height of the buildings and the whir of traffic, but also the small moments that are only visible from the ground—the graffiti hidden behind some stairs, the overlooked monument in the overgrown park, the mother and child holding hands as they sit on a bench, feeding the birds.
But Flâneuse has an explicitly political purpose as well, one that jibes nicely with our culture’s recent rediscovery of feminist critique. “Flâneuse” is the feminized version of the French word flâneur, which refers to “one who wanders aimlessly,” and which came about in the first half of the nineteenth century, when Paris’s medieval narrow streets and alleys were being demolished and redesigned by Georges-Eugène Haussmann with the express purpose of creating the vibrant, walkable, wide-boulevarded city that many of us know today. A flâneur was defined as a “figure of male privilege and leisure, with time and money and no immediate responsibilities to claim his attention,” who plunges himself into the city’s street life with the implicit understanding of his dual freedoms: a man walking the street can either command respect, or he can wander anonymously, with few bothering him as he walks (3). A bourgeois male, with the implicit means and privileges of moneyed masculinity, a flâneur could come and go, transforming his ambles into art. A woman, Elkin notes, lacks this ability, by the sheer and natural force that she is a “she.”
A single woman wandering alone with no specific destination or purpose in mind—a flâneuse—is, and long has been, an object of speculation: she is immediately coded as either a prostitute or a beggar. Her body is gazed at wherever she goes; Elkin includes the startling photo of a young woman walking through Florence in 1951, leered at by no fewer than eight men. One blocks her path, another shouts at her with a contorted face, his hands unmistakably grabbing his crotch. It is an experience most urban women know well: street harassment, the practice of being a woman in public, means that you are inevitably made subject to the male gaze, and subject to the probing, hyper-sexualized attacks that men feel comfortable enough to bestow upon any passing woman they deem attractive enough to warrant their attentions.
But Elkin also turns this idea around. “Space is not neutral,” she writes. “Space is a feminist issue” (286). Simply being in public—or, more appropriately, simply being—is a feminist act, because it allows for the opportunity to gaze back, to reclaim space and reclaim structure and (finally) claim the ontological nature of existing on a level equal to a man’s. And so she makes the purpose of her book to detail both the cities she has walked in, as well as the women who walked there before her.
The book primarily is set in Paris, the city that Elkin loves the most. In the four chapters set in France, Elkin writes about other female artists who made the city their home, many of them transplants like herself, and all of them artists as well. Jean Rhys, the writer first known as Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams, was born in the West Indies to a Welsh father and a Scottish-Creole mother, but came to Paris in 1919, at the age of 29, where she wrote stories of tragic women involved with equally tragic men. George Sand, born Amantine Lucile Arurore Dupin, came to Paris in 1831, leaving behind her husband and two children in Northern France to live a life of culture, novel-writing, and a remarkable number of high-profile affairs. Agnès Varda, the Belgian director, screenwriter and actress, came to Paris for university and never left, and her work in the French New Wave, especially with features like Cléo de 5 à 7, gave a pointedly feminist perspective to an otherwise heavily masculine movement in film.
All of these women were, like Elkin herself, given to wandering around Paris, exploring the city entirely by foot, and finding new things about themselves as they discovered new things about the French capital. Within each chapter, Elkin sprinkles in anecdotes about herself—the failed relationships with a couple of men, how strange her suburban family finds her desire to live abroad. In this sense, the book is part memoir, part cultural history, all of it centered around the idea of urban involvement and emancipation, and the benefits of the lifestyle of flâneuserie, with its emphasis on freedom, speculation, and creation.
There is one city where her desire to walk is heavily curtailed, however: Tokyo, one of the most densely-populated human capitals in the world. Elkin follows a relationship to Tokyo, living abroad from the life she had already made abroad, and finds herself miserable there. Tokyo is too big to cover on foot, and the city is strangulated by major highways, too unfriendly and dangerous for pedestrians to traverse by foot. She wanders through her long-term business hotel, wanders through shopping malls, wanders through her Japanese classes, too angry and disappointed both in her failing relationship and Tokyo’s inaccessibility to connect with the lifestyle there at all. She felt “marooned in Tokyo,” traveling back to Paris without her boyfriend, traveling back to New York to visit family, who now thought her exploits were even more strange (152). She eats at a French restaurant but hates the food, tries to find an English bookshop but can’t locate the store, feels compelled to quarantine herself inside. For a woman who prided herself on her urbane lifestyle, Tokyo was a city too much. She leaves both the city and the relationship, and returns to Paris far happier and more free.
There are other interludes—a section about London and Virginia Woolf, a chapter on Venice and Sophie Calle—but these are distractions from Elkin’s larger mission, which is to detail and celebrate the flâneuse’s long-held, if long-unacknowledged, relationship with Paris, the city that created flânerie, and work to expand it to include the rest of the world. As with much of feminist literature, there is the need to write women back into this history, to replace them where they’ve consistently been written out. And Elkin does this, in her literary way. She writes of women who have traveled the globe—Martha Gellhorn; my beloved Joan Didion—but who continue to thirst for to know more, to see more. “I’ll never see enough as long as I live,” Gellhorn wrote to her then-husband Ernest Hemingway in 1943, the year before he sent her a deeply asshole-ish telegram at the Italian front, begging her to return home (“Are you a war correspondent or wife in my bed?”) (266, 250).
For Elkin, these are woman to be celebrated, not scolded, and the remonstrations from their husbands seem silly and jealous to a fault. But, from her own stories, as well as from the biographies of the women she details, it’s clear that there has long been, and long will be, hesitancy and anger directed toward women taking their public place in the world. It is a brave act to put oneself out there into the world and walk, unarmed and alone, through its streets, and Elkin wants to expand the female sex’s mission to take up space, to find a woman’s place in the world, and to allow her the ability to walk within it, through it, and, one day, beyond it.
But this may require as much a change of mindset for the flâneuse as it does for the rest of the world. Elkin closes with a surprising story: the woman in the 1951 photograph in Florence was named Ninalee Craig, but she went by the nickname “Jinx Allen.” She was single and traveling through Europe alone, exploring and meeting friends along the way—the epitome of the flâneuse. And in 2011, when she was interviewed on NBC’s Today Show for the sixtieth anniversary of her famous photograph, Craig said that the image was being vastly misunderstood. As much as modern audiences want to code the picture with patriarchy, chauvinism, and rampant misogyny, “it’s not a symbol of harassment,” Craig said. “It’s the symbol of a woman having an absolutely wonderful time!”
One final thought: I really hate the picture on the book’s cover. It’s the image of a typical flâneur with his top hat, coat, and cane. But laid over this sketch is a fucking ridiculous pink flowy skirt, transforming a bearded flâneur into a poorly cross-dressed flâneuse. For a book as philosophical and intellectual as Elkin’s, this image feels shitty and cheap, a real underselling of the message inside. A clear illustration of how we should literally never judge a book by its cover but, if possible, read Flâneuse with the dust jacket removed.
- Emily Dufton
- Emily Dufton
Friday, June 9, 2017
Oeuvre rule: I have read "Metamorphosis" and The Trial by Kafka. As a liberal arts student at NYU, I was somewhat heavily exposed to him. "Letter to His Father" was also read in the course "The Letter as Literature," and he is casually mentioned by everyone in academia constantly. He is, in fact, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, and one of the most important artists in history, period. Giving him this designation when his oeuvre is quite small (I still need to read Amerika, The Castle, and some short stories like "In the Penal Colony" and "The Judgment") puts him on similar ground to J.D. Salinger, but it even feels blasphemous to compare the two. Do not forget that Kafka died at a young age (40), whereas Salinger lived on to age 90. Kafka's work is classic, everlasting, whereas Salinger's influence may, or may not, be waning. It is too early to tell with the latter.
So we come to Letters to Felice. First, some background. I was offered a review copy of this book in mid-November 2016. I love Kafka, but I was not sure the book would be for me. For one, it is a book of letters, and second, I still felt there was more of his fiction to digest. Yet it seemed like an interesting book, so I requested a copy 8 days after receiving the e-mail. Then it came quickly, and it is a beautiful book, but I was immediately shocked by its size. There are 550 pages of letters alone in this volume, to say nothing of the introduction, the end notes, and other appendices. I took me a long time to read, but I supplanted it with about five other books as they arose. While I am tempted to name it one of the Best Books, ultimately I must deign to the notion that it will primarily appeal to the academic community. Still, there are so many classic moments in these letters that there is much to discuss in this review.
Let us start with "Kafka's True Will, An Introductory Essay," by Erich Heller, who also edited this volume along with Jurgen Born. I needed to read it a second time after finishing the book to try to understand what I had just read. It begins by discussing Kafka's testamentary wishes, which famously directed that his unpublished writings be burnt. Kafka had shown this will to his friend, Max Brod, in 1921, and Brod had told him he would not carry it out. There is brief mention of another will, written in pencil (the first was written in ink--both appear to be holographic) that dictates six stories should not be burnt, though they had already been published. In any case, had Kafka's wishes been honored, Amerika, The Trial, and The Castle would never have seen the light of day, to say nothing of his diaries, or Letters to Felice. One imagines Kafka rolling over in his grave, but then perhaps, being secretly pleased that his life's work had not been done in vain.
Kafka's first letter to Felice Bauer is dated September 20, 1912. The last letter reproduced in this volume was sent October 16, 1917. Thus, five years, averaging out to 100 pages of letters per year-- yet the first year alone takes the reader to page 320. Over the course of these five years, Kafka asked Felice to marry him twice. As the book ends, the reader does not witness the breaking off of the second engagement, but it apparently happened in December of 1917.
It is very difficult to review a book of letters, and I have not read many books of letters. I read a book of letters between F. Scott Fitzgerald to Ernest Hemingway, and that was very readable and entertaining. Of course, The Sorrows of Young Werther is a beautiful epistolary novel. But Letters to Felice was not meant to be published, and as noted above, will be unappealing to most readers except those seeking a greater understanding of Kafka's psyche. It is documentary evidence of his inner state and replete with extreme honesty.
Owing to this difficulty, there are only a few more things I can say about this book. First, I have put asterisks or smiley faces next to many of the passages in my copy (the benefit of avoiding twerpery), and I will excerpt several of these. Second, if there is one thing that comes across more clearly than anything else, it is this: Kafka became very insecure and paranoid when Felice did not respond quickly. He often remarks upon this in his letters, and it led me to feel this was an acceptable practice with texts. For some reason, I kept imagining Kafka living in the world of smartphones and text messages, and freaking out when Felice would not text him back, and asking, "What were you doing with your time that made it impossible for you to reply?"
There is also the matter of Kafka's profession, which appears to be a claims consultant or adjuster for an insurance company after obtaining his law degree. Of course this holds great personal interest for me, and it was difficult at times to not want to act like Kafka. That is, as a writer that makes his actual living (or wants to) in an offshoot of the legal profession. His comments on his job, and the few times he has to go to court, are hilarious.
Since we are addressing a legal aspect to this book, I have to mention a sincere annoyance of mine, and one thing law journals get right: use footnotes instead of end notes! There are 27 pages of end notes, and over 500 individual references. Much like Infinite Jest, it drove me nuts to have to constantly flip back and forth between them, perhaps because I tended to read the book during my lunch hour, with it sat propped in a silver, standing holder, and I would need to flip back, causing the holder to topple over. Now as terrible as law review articles tend to be, and as ridiculous as they look, what with half of their page being taken up by the text of footnotes, I wish that larger volumes such as this would put the explanatory note on the same page. This may be a petty thing, but I needed to point it out. In fact, to mention him again, I do believe Salinger used an occasional footnote or two in Seymour: an Introduction, and kept them on the same page.
I also enjoy his remarks on Napoleon:
"Only last Sunday afternoon Max said to me on a similar occasion: 'You talk like a girl,' But this is not quite true, for in an excellent collection of Napoleon's sayings (Note 126), which for some time now I have been dipping into whenever I can, these words are recorded: 'It is terrible to die childless,' and he was by no means sorry for himself; friends, for instance, whether by choice or necessity, were not indispensable to him. He once said: 'I haven't a friend other than Daru, who is callous and cold and suits me.' And to judge the true depth this man had access to, take this remark: 'He who knows from the beginning where he is going, will not get far.' So that when he talks of the terror of childlessness, one may believe him. And I have to be prepared to take this upon myself, for apart from everything else I would never dare expose myself to the risk of being a father." (134, December 30 to 31, 1912).
There is another passage about Napoleon too, but this review runs the risk of being interminable if I am going to excerpt every entertaining quote. As a whole, this book is not very entertaining. The love affair between Franz and Felice is quite mundane. They met at the home of Max Brod in August of 1912, and they saw each other 2-3 times a year, in a sort of long distance relationship. In June of 1913, he asked her to marry him, and she remained evasive and did not agree until April of 1914. In July of 1914 the engagement is broken off in what seems the most dramatic "action" in all of Letters to Felice, the scene at the Hotel Askanische Hof. Yet they remained close, and the next three years seem to pass by in a blur, as they become engaged a second time in July of 1917. As has already been shown, the majority of this book consists of letters in their first year of knowing one another. Kafka was a prolific letter writer, sometimes sending off multiple letters a day, and expecting, if not the same depth of effort, at the very least a timely reply. Again, though, an absurd amount of this book is Kafka being like, "Why haven't you written yet?!"
Along the way, however, there are tons of beautiful quotes, and hilarious observations and confessions. And my comparison to texting is not totally without precedent. Felice works for a company that sells parlographs, and Franz offers a list of ideas:
"5. Invent a combination of telephone and Parlograph. This really can't be too difficult. The day after tomorrow, of course, you will tell me that this has already been accomplished successfully. But it would really be of immense importance for the press, news agencies, etc. More difficult, but surely quite possible, would be a combination of gramophone and telephone. More difficult, simply because one can't understand a word the gramophone says, and a Parlograph can't very well ask for clearer pronunciation. A combination of gramophone and telephone would not be of such great universal importance; it would only be a relief to people who, like me, are afraid of the telephone. People like me, however, are equally afraid of the gramophone, so for them there is no help whatever." (168, January 22-23, 1913)
As I flip back through the pages of this book, looking for marginalia, I am struck by the feeling of familiarity with the character of Franz. He is such a humorous and sardonic fellow! It is as if his life is a great absurd comedy in which he generally does not want to live, except to write. A recent co-worker of mine had referred to him as neurotic. I would describe his style as consciously absurd and pseudo-dramatic.
"I have only just started reading the book; on the whole I stay away from everything, including books. It is extremely clumsy; but it does manage to produce one distinctive character, of whom for the time being I really don't know what to think. In any case I am not a critic, am no good at analyzing, easily misunderstand, frequently miss the point, and am left in doubt as to the overall impression." (463, March 1916)
There is really something of a surprise dramatic "twist" in the book, which I shouldn't spoil, but the letters to Grete Bloch merit mention, because they are introduced so fucking ridiculously:
"Grete Bloch and Felice Bauer met probably in 1913. Their friendship lasted a great deal longer than their relationship with Kafka. As late as 1935 Grete Bloch, as a refugee on her way to Palestine and finally to Italy, visited her friend who at that time was living with her family in Geneva. It was then she handed over to Felice some of the letters she had received from Kafka." [While we are on the subject of historical background, allow me to mention that Felice Bauer eventually moved to the United States in 1936 where she lived until she died in 1960.]
"Kafka met Grete Bloch for the first time at the end of October 1913 when, at Felice's request, she went to see him in Prague to act as an intermediary between them. The following represents all that has survived. In the third revised edition of his biography of Kafka (English edition, p.241), Max Brod published part of a letter from Grete Bloch to a friend in Palestine; this was written April 21, 1940, from Florence, where she was then living. In it she says that years ago she had an illegitimate child, a son who "when nearly 'seven years old died suddenly in Munich in 1921.' If this is correct, the child must have been born about 1914. Although the father's name is not mentioned it was clear to the recipient, Max Brod's sole informant on the subject, that she attributed the paternity to Kafka." (323)
What! The editors then go on to say that the tone of the letters to Grete does not suggest that Kafka had an intimate relationship with her--but I'm not quite sure I agree! It's almost like, he and Felice are going through a rough patch, and all of the sudden Grete comes through, Felice's friend, and Kafka is like, oh damn this girl is pretty special too.
"Once, in Dr. Weiss's company (when she happened to be lively and very friendly toward me), she said jokingly (I had been telling them that you had very much liked the Galley): Frl. Bloch seems to mean a great deal to you.' I could only answer in the affirmative. I can really say nothing about F.'s attitude toward you, less even than about her attitude toward me." (358, March 7, 1914)
Some of his letters to Grete Bloch seem more lively and interesting to read, as if he does not get bogged down by his feelings of anxiety and paranoia expressed in the letters to Felice. So there are quotable observations such as this:
"The last of my closer, unmarried, unengaged friends [Felix Weltsch] has got engaged; while I have foreseen the engagement for 3 years (for the outsider, no great perspicacity was required), he and she have known of it for a mere fortnight. Thus to some extent I am losing a friend, for a married friend isn't a true one. Anything he is told will be revealed to his wife either silently or explicitly, and the woman in whose head all information doesn't become distorted probably doesn't exist. Moreover, even if this were not so, one can no longer think of him alone, cannot expect from him that intimate comfort and help, nor even assume the possibility of such comfort or help, for now, whatever happens, one is faced by a partnership. But apart from the fact that I naturally wish him the best of everything." (349-350, February 19, 1914)
Oh, snap--Kafka dishing it out on people getting married and growing distant!
Here, he writes to Grete Bloch on the topic of her imminent departure from Vienna (which is a city he expresses no great affection for, apart from the Grillparzer Room):
"Incidentally, I don't believe that one's sadness at leaving is due to one having loved the thing one is leaving. One's sadness is probably due to the opposite. One feels that the connection are severed too easily, also that others part from one too easily; the superficial relationships which were established in the course of time and which, because they have not been closely examined during that time, almost seemed to represent intimate relationships, now prove to be as insignificant as they actually are. Sadly one remembers the pseudo-relationships that were formed, and sadly one foresees the pseudo-relationships that will be formed. Indeed, one needs both freedom and dependence, but each in its own place, and one feels very uneasy on realizing that one has got the places mixed up. It has often happened to me; it doesn't matter, rejoice with me that you are about to leave Vienna." (397-398, April 26, 1914)
It is not surprising to me that, because I often seem to internally feel something about the book I am reading, and allow it to unconsciously affect my life, I went through my own bouts of paranoia about a significant other not returning a text, and became afraid of commitment, at one point sending the following excerpt in an e-mail:
"But--please listen to me quietly--what I wanted to give you was time to consider carefully your relationship with me--for, to judge from what you have said since Easter (with the possible exception of the first two letters), I was forced to believe (please, Felice, just put yourself in my place for one moment and look at everything in the way I am forced to see it) that I am now able to keep you only be artificial means, by dispatching one letter after another, and thus not giving you time to come to your senses, and thereby urging you in your haste to use old words deprived of their old meaning. This is not my final word, for with each new letter from you even my strongest convictions begin to waver anew, but if it were so, it would really have been the only way in which you had ever disappointed me, because candor is the one thing I have expected from you at all times. I wouldn't have been surprised if at some time you had dismissed me, because you could not immediately have known me for what I am, indeed this was impossible; it was almost as though I had approached you sideways and it took some little time before we turned to face each other. Now of course I don't know what your final decision may be, but only imagine that I can sense it in your recent letters, and the one thing I cannot understand, Felice, is that you yourself shouldn't know how you feel about it. You must not imagine that all I am saying is due to your letters being short and infrequent; you used to write short letters every now and again and I was quite happy and satisfied. But your recent letters are different. My affairs are no longer as important to you, and what is much worse: you no longer bother to tell me about yourself. So what am I to do? I could no longer reply to these recent letters, and pictured you at the office on Thursday morning, sighing with relief on discovering that at long last there was no letter."
-Franz (4/26/13) (246-247)
So yes, I began to feel what Franz felt, and I had a great desire to live his sort of life--to live with my parents (to soften the weight of my soul crushing loans--something that Kafka thankfully did not have to suffer) and work as a claims consultant at an insurance company and to write in all my spare time. And I began to feel that my life was too complicated, and that I don't do nearly the amount of writing I wish I could. And I read this book very slowly, as I transitioned into a job which made me very depressed, in part perhaps because I had to commute by car and could not read on the train. I would stare at the line of cars ahead of me, holding down the brake and hitting the gas erratically. How much better it was to become lost in Kafka's idiosyncratic mind than to observe and participate in the dull monotony of highway traffic.
The other part of the book that strikes one as most notable is the scene at the Hotel Askanische Hof, which is told circumstantially through letters to Grete Bloch:
"You would be doing me a great favor if you sent me the letter that was so disastrous, for I cannot imagine what was in it that can have been so terrible." (434, July 20, 1914)
"53. Possibly one of the letters to Grete Bloch between early May and the end of June 1914. In these letters a number of lines in which Kafka voices strong doubts about the feasibility of a marriage to Felice are underlined in red, probably by Grete Bloch for the purpose of quoting them at the 'tribunal in the hotel' (Askanische Hof). See Kafka's letter to Grete Bloch of July 3, 1914: 'You needn't have quoted from the letters.'" (568, FN 53)
Signs of Kafka's illness become evident at certain points throughout the text, which includes stays at sanatoriums. There is an ominous letter near the end where he mentions coughing up blood, but one particular item written while he was in, or about to go into convalescence, struck me.
"Dear Felice, I spoke to him quite frankly, as you would have done, and eh also answered me frankly. I said 'Why don't you write? Why are you tormenting F.? That you are tormenting her is surely quite obvious, from her postcards. You promise to write, and don't. You send a telegram "letter on way," but there is no letter on the way; it doesn't get written until 2 days later. Once in a while and as an exception, a girl might be permitted to behave in this way, it could even be innocent, provided it is in keeping with her character. But in your case it is not innocent, for your silence can only mean concealment, so cannot be excused.'
He replied: 'But it can be excused, for there are circumstances in which there is little difference between expressing and concealing. My suffering is fourfold:
I cannot live in Prague. I don't know if I can live elsewhere, but that I cannot live here is the most definite thing I know.
Furthermore: This is why I cannot have F. at present.
Furthermore: I cannot help (it is even in print) admiring other people's children.
Finally: At times I feel I shall be crushed by these torments on every side. But my present suffering is not the worst. The worst is that time passes, that this suffering makes me more wretched and incapable, and prospects for the future grow increasingly more dismal." (456-457, August 9, 1915)
And on it goes. I was quite confused and wondered whether Kafka was writing about himself in the third person, or what. It struck me as being the most "unhinged" letter in the book, like seemingly schizophrenic.
There are many other beautiful passages and droll witticisms scattered throughout the text, and if this review has run long on excerpts from the text, it is only because I do not think many readers will actually seek this out for pleasure reading, unless they are writing a paper about Kafka. It does offer sometimes revealing looks into the creation of his literature, but yes, it is primarily an exercise in repetition and exasperation on the subject of Felice's responsiveness. Still, it is a beautiful book, and I am glad I read it. I do not know if, or when I will ever return to it, but I am proud to stock it in my library.