Archive for January 19th, 2012

Roberto Bolaño on Neruda, Kafka, and the abyss

Thursday, January 19th, 2012
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"A certain composure" (Photo: Creative Commons)

After reading my post on Pablo Neruda a few days ago, Daniel Medin sent me this insightful snippet from a Swiss journalist’s  interview of Chilean poet and novelist Roberto Bolaño, in the year before the writer’s death. Neruda is the least of it, really:

Which authors would you number among your precursors? Borges? Cortázar? Nicanor Parra? Neruda? Kafka? In Tres you write: “I dreamt that Earth was finished. And the only human being to contemplate the end was Franz Kafka. In heaven, the Titans were fighting to the death. From a wrought-iron seat in Central Park, Kafka was watching the world burn.”

I never liked Neruda. At any rate, I would never call him my one of precursors. Anyone who was capable of writing odes to Stalin while shutting his eyes to the Stalinist terror doesn’t deserve my respect. Borges, Cortázar, Sábato, Bioy Casares, Nicanor Parra: yes, I’m fond of them. Obviously I’ve read all of their books. I had some problems with Kafka, whom I consider the greatest writer of the twentieth century. It wasn’t that I hadn’t discovered his humor; there’s plenty of that in his books. Heaps. But his humor was so highly taut that I couldn’t bear it. That’s something that never happened to me with Musil or Döblin or Hesse. Not with Lichtenberg either, an author I read frequently who fortifies me without fail.

Musil, Döblin, Hesse wrote from the rim of the abyss. And that is commendable, since almost nobody wagers to write from there. But Kafka writes from out of the abyss itself. To be more precise: as he’s falling. When I finally understood that those had been the stakes, I began to read Kafka from a different perspective. Now I can read him with a certain composure and even laugh thereby. Though no one with a book by Kafka in his hands can remain composed for very long.

Postscript on 1/25:  Thanks to one of our readers, F.H., we have a link for the full interview.  It’s in German, here.