Recently released by Princeton University Press, Kafka’s Office Writings may well be the last of the last of the Kafka texts to appear in English. Kafka’s writings as a professional lawyer with the Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute, may not seem to hold a lot of promise, but the description of the contents sounds strangely intriguing (though I may just be seduced by the jacket copy):
These documents include articles on workmen’s compensation and workplace safety; appeals for the founding of a psychiatric hospital for shell-shocked veterans; and letters arguing relentlessly for a salary adequate to his merit. In adjudicating disputes, promoting legislative programs, and investigating workplace sites, Kafka’s writings teem with details about the bureaucracy and technology of his day, such as spa elevators in Marienbad, the challenge of the automobile, and the perils of excavating in quarries while drunk.
(And I always heard you excavate quarries better after having a few . . . )
To celebrate this release, Nextbook has been running a five-part series by Joshua Cohen about the office writings and its relation to Kafka’s other works:
Kafka’s office writings, as presented here, cannot be read on their own (they are incomprehensibly boring) but, instead, must be read as companions, to demystify the three novels and stories (which are anything but boring). Taken together, though, both workaday fact and masterwork fiction create a network of connections that exposes not just the concerns of a single writer, but also that of a singular culture—the culture of the Office, which has imposed itself on what used to be our lives.
[Update: Part 5 — Conclusion is now available.]
Over the next week or so, I’ll be unveiling all six of Open Letter’s spring 2009 titles. Our finished catalog will be back from the printer in the not-too-distant future, and on our website before that, but I thought it would be fun to give a bit of special attention to each of the titles.
First up is a reprint of Jakov Lind’s Landscape in Concrete, which will come out in March. (We’re also bringing out Ergo next fall, around the same time that the New York Review Books brings out Soul of Wood.)
Lind died last February, and it was the wave of fascinating obituaries that caught our editorial interest. Before picking up a single title, I was intrigued by his very strange biography. From the eulogy Anthony Rudolf gave at Lind’s funeral:
Where does the story begin? Jakov was born in 1927 in Vienna into an assimilated Jewish family. A few months after the Anschluss in 1938, his parents sent him on a children’s transport to Holland. There he joined one of many Zionist farms or training centres across Europe, in preparation for kibbutz life in the Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine. As we know from his fascinating and sophisticated autobiographies written in English, the tough-minded teenager, at odds with those Dutch Jews who did not resist deportation, went underground. He survived the war in Germany as a Dutch merchant seaman on a barge. He tells us that it was safer for a Jew to be in Germany “inside the lion’s mouth” rather than in Holland, where you would feel “its teeth and claws”. He even survived a physical examination when he checked into a hospital for venereal disease. “What, that too?” said the male nurse with a laugh, after inspecting the culprit.
The mutability of identity is a common theme throughout Lind’s life and work. In fact, Jakov Lind is actually a pseudonym—as Sasha Weiss details in her excellent essay, he was born Heinz Landwirth, changed his name to Jan Overbeek when he pretended to be Dutch seaman, and then became the author Jakov Lind.
In addition to his works of fiction—which are strange, brilliant books that can be a bit disturbing, but are also very funny in a sort of Beckettian way—he also wrote a “memoir trilogy” consisting of Counting My Steps, Numbers, and Crossing. And relating to his shifting identity and background, he wrote all of these in English.
Landscape in Concrete is set during World War II and features Sergeant Gauthier Bachmann, a totally unhinged German soldier who was discharged for insanity. The book opens with him wandering the forests searching for any company that will take him and let him participate in the war—as a German man it’s his duty to fight. Along the way he literally stumbles into Schnotz, a deserter and poisoner who is hiding in a hole in the woods waiting for the war to end. This excerpt features the beginning of their conversation.
The book gets darker and more odd as it develops, and as various people manipulate the hapless Bachmann. He’s very innocent at the beginning of the novel, but war can change people . . .
For more information about Lind and his works I’d also recommend checking out Joshua Cohen’s article Paying Tribute to a Living Legend, written shortly before Lind’s passing.
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .
In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .
There are books that can only wisely be recommended to specific types of readers, where it is easy to know who the respective book won’t appeal to, and Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water is one these. What makes this neither. . .
Imagine the most baroque excesses of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Poe, blended together and poured into a single book: That is The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. Ophelia and Hamlet fall in love in a madhouse, suicidal young men deliver mournful and heartfelt. . .
In 1899, Maurice Ravel wrote “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) for solo piano (a decade later, he published an orchestral version). The piece wasn’t written for a particular person; Ravel simply wanted to compose a. . .
Fiston Mwanza Mujila is an award-winning author, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who now, at 33, lives in Austria. From what I could find, much of his work is influenced by the Congo’s battle for independence and its. . .