A little spring cleaning this afternoon led to catching up on my reading; I excavated some New York Times Magazines from Sundays past, and finally got around to Elif Batuman’s marvelous piece “Kafka’s Last Trial.”
By now you’ve probably heard the story: Kafka left his papers to his editor Max Brod, who left them to his secretary and presumed lover Esther Hoffe, who left them to her two daughters, Eva and Ruth, who divided it between ten safety-deposit boxes and an apartment in Tel Aviv inhabited by Eva and, in Batuman’s estimate, “between 40 and 100 cats.” Kafka asked Brod to destroy the papers, though given Brod’s zealous promotion of his friend’s work, at times attributing it a transcendent quality he easily (and feverishly) conflated with his Zionist ideals, it’s hard to imagine Kafka believing Brod would do any such thing. (“I never once threw away the smallest scrap of paper that came from him,” Brod wrote, “no, not even a postcard.”)
Batuman has a wonderful feeling for the Kafkaesque ironies of the trial, as well as for its human drama – she’s a critic-turned-journalist, in the tradition of Janet Malcolm (who is actually a journalist-turned-critic), and she’s erudite, funny, sensitive and winning. (Not least because in the scene where she skulks around Eva Hoffe’s house, she brings cat toys.) I also like her blog, which you can find here. I will be reviewing her book The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them for this site, and I can’t wait to sink my teeth into it.
April Bernard’s piece on Elizabeth Bishop in The New York Review of Books, called “A Genius Ill-Served,” tackles the new editions of Elizabeth Bishop’s oeuvre – released last month by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux – as well as a new volume of her correspondence. Maybe you remember that back in 2006 FSG published Edgar Allen Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts and Fragments, a collection of work Bishop elected not to publish in her lifetime, never finished, or deliberately abandoned. Bishop is twentieth century poetry’s most notorious perfectionist – it took her ten years to finish her famous villanelle “One Art” – and, like her mentor Marianne Moore, she refused to publish work that was anything less than immaculate (much to the frustration of her editors).
The Uncollected Poems is perhaps a more controversial breaching of artistic legacy than Kafka’s trial, at least in academic communities (does anyone really believe we shouldn’t have access to Kafka’s papers?), and Bernard reads the new volumes against this recent history of over-exposure. She cites them, and their inclusion of material from the Uncollected Poems, as casualties of “the new biographical fallacy,” which “results from the impulse to lumber an artist’s work with the detritus, literary and otherwise, of the artist’s life.” It’s an expert essay, and the final section, a paean to Bishop’s best lyric work, is instructive and delightful. (A sentence like this, for example: “She rhymed so playfully, so variably, it was as if she were adding little waving gestures to a dance.”)
Check back in April for Anna-Claire Stinebring’s essay on the new Bishop anthologies. I know I’m looking forward to it.