Thursday, June 19, 2008

K is for Kafka--who else could it be?

If asked by a professional in the area of psychology what would first come to mind when shown the letter "K" on a flash card, mine would be an immediate response--and a telling one: Kafka.

Who else could it be?

If asked for other choices, there would be contenders. Kierkegaard is in the shadows, neither in, nor out. Kleist with a ghost-like whisper, is a possibility if pressed. Keats even. But all are in the shadows, so to speak, of Franz Kafka and his Josef K., whose very existence and literary work inhabit the letter, indelibly--at least for me.

I realise it reflects my culture, my judeo-christian background, my literary interests, my education--my alphabet. For others, the letter, or its equivalent, would have a kaleidoscopic variety of responses, from Kiev to K-Mart, from Kilt to Kangaroo, from Kalamazoo to Kathmandu, from Kandahar to Kuala lumpur, from Kawabata to Kurosawa, from Kinshasa to Kansas, from Koontz to King. . . . Other perceptions, other preoccupations, other permutations, other possibilities of this world's rich variety.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

J is for Jules and Julian (and cause for delay).

Nothing To Be Frightened Of
by Julian Barnes
(Random House Canada, 2008)

There is a design feature of Julian Barnes' latest offering--or is it a lack of one--which is at once appealing and challenging: it is a book without formal chapters. Appealing, for I found myself immediately involved in the non-fiction narrative as if I was sitting in a cafe listening to an erudite, sharp, funny, insightful and philosophical friend recount his views on death as seen through the prism of his family, friends and his non-blood relatives, the great writers, musicians and thinkers of the ages from Montaigne to Maugham, from Daudet to Devo (ok, maybe not Devo) in a style both eloquent and vigorous. An extremely well-written piece of work--but I gather one doesn't want to disappoint death.

And challenging due to this very openess. Though furnished with 67 decorative printer's devices to designate informal rests along the way--most sections but a few pages long--it moves back and forth between revelations of friends and family history to references to famous writers, musicians, philosophers and other creative types and their beliefs or views on death, making it a book with a labyrinthine, discursive quality. A book so replete with interesting stories that one wishes there was an index! This long philosophical essay with its light-hearted tones of a cafe-au-lait to the darker tones of an absinthe (we are sitting in a cafe after all, and it's Julian Barnes, so a French cafe) could be subtitled, "or, variations upon a theme of death, and what you may want to know when you get to the end--perhaps."

Quite simply, it is a wonderful read. A book to own and return to--there is a lot of meat on the bones so to speak.

And talking of bones, the book design for the Random House Canada edition--pictured above--was by the hand of C. S. Richardson, and it sports a skeletal hand and forearm reaching down from the head of the spine of the book jacket, pointing towards the author's name, which to me, echoes the hand of Adam in Michelangelo's famous Sistine Chapel painting--seen in a boney light. Another design feature is Richardson's choice of lower case letters for the title which underscores the meaning very nicely too.

There is a richness to this book that a few quotations or comparisons in this brief musing can do no justice. I leave it to readers to discover the pleasures themselves.

As for Jules, it refers to one of Julian Barnes' interests, Jules Renard who said: "It is when faced with death that we turn most bookish."

-Mais evidement, c'est ca mon ami, a cause for delay.
-Sans farce?
-Sans farce.
-Ah, bon.
-Le Fin.