Thursday, February 02, 2006

Festina Lente

"The time has come for me to look for an overall definition of my work. I would suggest this: my working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language"

- Italo Calvino, 'Six Memos for the Next Millennium'

Reading Jabberwock's post (via Aditya) about a list of 100 best opening lines put together by the folks at the American Book Review, a topic I, and others, have blogged about before (talk about six degrees, huh), made me think of this glorious line from Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso that Calvino quotes in his book:

When I woke up, the dinosaur was still there.

This is not just the first line of a story. It is the only line of the story.

Isn't that brilliant? Calvino cites this as an example of what he calls quickness, though the term is, I think, ill-chosen. What he really means, I suspect is an almost zen-like perfection, the process of polishing something down to its very essence, of removing everything extraneous. (Calvino writes: "I began this lecture by telling a story. Let me end it with another story, this time Chinese: Among Chuang-tzu's many skills, he was an expert draftsman. The king asked him to draw a crab. Chuang-tzu replied that he needed five years, a country house, and twelve servants. Five years later the drawing was still not begun. "I need another five years", said Chuang-tzu. The king granted them. At the end of these ten years, Chuang-tzu took up his brush and, in an instant, with a single stroke, he drew a crab, the most perfect crab ever seen.")

Thinking about first lines in that context, the one I'm most drawn to is the opening to Kafka's Metamorphosis:

"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect."

Kafka could stop right there (and I almost, but not quite, wish he had). What follows is brilliant, but in some sense unnecessary - in that one line Kafka has captured the essence of a feeling, gone straight to the heart of existential fear.

His ability to do this, and do this better, IMHO, than anyone else (Calvino himself would probably be the closest contender - see Invisible Cities, for instance) is one of the reasons I love Kafka as much as I do. Not to take away from his longer work - I have nothing but awe for The Trial, for The Castle - but what I've always treasured most about Kafka is his short short stories [1]. The stuff in Meditation, for instance, or the really short pieces in The Country Doctor. On the surface, these are slight pieces, little more than a single scene, sometimes a single paragraph - the description of a single moment, a single image, a passing feeling. And yet staring at them, reading them over and over, you realise that they are as perfect and multi-faceted as diamonds, that they contain an incredible depth of meanings, that every word in them is carefully chosen to offer a new perspective, a richer understanding. I could spend hours thinking or talking about each one of these stories, I could write pages that try to convey its 'meaning', and I would never come close to the aching clarity of the way Kafka puts it.

Calvino, in speaking of the importance of Lightness in fiction, quotes one such story - The Bucket Rider. The one he misses though, and that seems stunningly appropriate to his notion of Festina Lente (Hurry slowly) is this one, that I quote in its entirety:

My Grandfather used to say: "Life is astoundingly short. To me, looking back over it, life seems so foreshortened that I can scarcely understand, for instance, how a young man can decide to ride over to the next village without being afraid that - not to mention accidents - even the span of a normal happy life may fall far short of the time needed for such a journey."

- Franz Kafka, 'The Next Village' [2]


[1] I can't help drawing the parallel, in my head, with the other Franz - Schubert. While I love Schubert's symphonies, what makes him stand alone among the great composers for me is Winterreise, is Schwanengesang.

[2] The Calvino quotes in this post are from the translation by Patrick Creagh. The Kafka from the Willa and Edwin Muir translation.

[3] On a lighter note, paring down language can be fun as well. One old chestnut of a joke I was really attached to at the age of 7 goes like this: "A man walks up to a shopkeeper who is putting up a board that says 'Fresh Fish Sold Here'. Man stare as the board in concentration and frowns. Then he tells the shopkeeper: "You don't really need the 'here' do you? I mean, you're not selling it anywhere else, right". The shopkeeper thinks about this, nods, and erases the 'here'. "And why say 'Fresh'?", the man continues, "you wouldn't really be selling it if it weren't fresh, would you?". The shopkeeper agrees vigorously (and a little too quickly) and quickly removes the offending 'Fresh'. "And isn't it obvious that it's being 'Sold'? I mean, this is a shop, after all, and why would you be advertising something if you didn't mean to sell it?". Again, the shopkeeper acquiesces. "And now that I come to think of it", the man says, "you don't actually need the 'Fish' either - you can smell it halfway down the street".

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Alok said...

You are right about those short Kafka stories/parables. Read it once and the words and ideas will keep bouncing in the head for ever afterwards!

What is missing in those works as compared to the novels is his descriptive ability which I think is even more awe-inspiring than his grasp of the "essential truth" beneath the specifics. Expressionism isn't something that comes easy with the written word but Kafka does it effortlessly.

btw, I was reading this article by Zadie Smith only today. Some of it went above my head but worth reading if you haven't done it already!

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