When I was asked to write a digital literary essay, I had been reading Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory as part of the research I was doing for my next novel, Umbrella. In his book, Fussell proposes the idea that in the first few weeks of the First World War there was manufactured – along with the industry of death itself – a quintessentially new form of mass sensibility: that in the juxtaposition between the armies of the Great Powers marching off to war, seemingly assured of their own speedy and righteous victory, and the quagmire of mechanised annihilation, lay all the absurdism, the compulsive ironising of Western culture in the remainder of the 20th century.
Fussell adduces many examples of this ironic consciousness being spawned in the trenches of the Western Front, but he also cites the pivotal scene in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 as evidence of how – by the time of the Second World War – it had pullulated. The action in Catch-22 concerns the protagonist, Yossarian, trying to help the new tail gunner, Snowden, who joined their bombing mission within hours of arriving at the squadron and was subsequently hit by anti-aircraft fire. Yossarian thinks he has found the wound on Snowden’s chest, and treats this with antiseptic powder while comforting the young man, but he then notices bleeding from Snowden’s armpit, and on unbuttoning his flak jacket is appalled as Snowden’s guts fall onto the deck of the aircraft.
At around the same time I was reading Fussell, I was also rereading Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Other Stories in a new translation by Michael Hofmann. Hofmann’s translation had been published by Penguin, but I was writing a new introduction to it for a Folio Society edition. In the story ‘A Country Doctor’ I came across this description of a fresh wound, unexpectedly discovered by the eponymous narrator in the torso of a young male patient: ‘Pink, in many shades, a deep carmine at the centre, lightening towards the periphery, with a soft granular texture, the bleeding at irregular points, and the whole thing as gapingly obvious as a mine-shaft. From a distance, at any rate. Closer to, there’s a further complication. Who could take in such a thing without whistling softly? Worms, the length and thickness of my little finger, roseate and also coated in blood, are writhing against the inside of the wound, with little white heads, and many many little legs.’
Snowden’s wound and the country doctor’s patient’s wound: surely there was an equivalence here? Kafka is silent on the subject of the First World War – and yet the great efflorescence of his literary achievement begins in its immediate stages. Was Kafka perhaps the greatest proponent of the hollow laughter that rings down the decades – and is this also why we are so driven to regard him as the prophetic voice of the European 20th century, the scryer of its hecatombs and charnel houses? And as for that laughter, Hofmann, following Ernst Pawel, relates how Kafka would actually corpse while reading his own stories and fragments, his listeners also incapacitated with laughter. Yet such humour as exists in Kafka in translation is beyond hollow – it is an aftershock, the booming silence in which laughter once rang out.
These then were the bare bones of my thinking: the two wounds, their ironic causality and the impossibility for me – not a reader of German, let alone one sufficiently attuned to the nuances of Kafka’s Prague German dialect – of ever piercing his humorous vein. Like all literary essays I conceived of this one as taking the reader – and myself – for a walk through a thicket of ideas: like so many writers of my generation, I feel myself to have been crucially influenced by Kafka. Of the writers with their own adjectives he is the most plangent – yet it seems to me that I hear the ascription ‘Kafkaesque’ less and less as the years pass. Have we finally crossed the border from that mittel-European, mid-century land of the absurd and the fabulous? Was it that we needed the existence of the Soviet Bloc to adumbrate our notion of the Kafkaesque and so throw it into relief? And if Kafka – while being the most accessible of writers, his tales having no sort of literary hinterland – nonetheless remained to me both ineffable and perversely gnomic, was it the case that I never really understood his writing at all?
My first thoughts on the digital components of the essay were that they were bells and whistles to be accessed via the text. But in the first few weeks of the project I find I have changed my mind. As writers we have our own methodology, and although we may draw on the visual, the aural and spatial – while a literary essay is not necessarily literary criticism – nonetheless the text is where it happens for us: texts, and our silent contemplation of their rustling together. Now that I’ve been called upon to talk to games designers, archive researchers, dramatists, graphic artists, to arrange interviews with translators from the German, and to contemplate a trip to Prague as well, it dawned on me that this would be a truly collaborative undertaking, that far from thinking in isolation, I would be embroiled in a continuous and multivalent discourse, in which work generated by others would feed back into my own.
In the days and weeks to come, until the completed essay is posted here, I will be writing a regular blog to keep those interested up to speed on my progress – and on whether the white and questing worms can be withdrawn from the inchoate mass of Kafka’s wound.