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Tuesday, 12 September 2017

A Film in Dark Times

The camera is pointed at the window, out of which we see a moonless night and an empty street with one flickering streetlamp. In the center of the street a figure is approaching. It is a long way off yet, but just by the heavy insistence of its steps we are sure that it is headed for us. Urgent music is playing as evidence—a choral piece like that one from the Lord of the Rings, “Knife in the Dark,” which starts off slow and brooding with the timpani drum and the choir in hushed voices delivering an indecipherable message in Tolkien’s invented Adûnaic, but which builds into a vocal intensity that never seems to tip over into a climax. It’s terrifying and makes you think of cosmic battles and Lovecraftian secrets. The figure is getting closer. We begin to grow uncertain about just what it is; its contours are shifting and unstable. Then, as it reaches about midway down the street—and this is after some two full minutes of shooting—the camera pans to the side of the window, then down along the wall until it hits the floorboards. 

There, we see a mouse. It is backgrounded by white wainscoting and is crouched on all fours. It seems to be listening to the music. Its eyes are shut tight, as though in concentration, and its head is bobbing along with the insistent beat. The camera zooms in. The mouse seems to be oblivious of everything but the music, which at the moment has achieved a frantic new height and which we now discern is in Latin. He is coming, we might translate. He is coming for my soul. With its little whiskers a-twitch, the mouse mouths the choir’s words. The camera just lingers. Its eyes are squeezed tight, its tiny hands are clenched. It is so earnest; it does not know what is coming, it does not know we are there.


Thursday, 17 August 2017

God's Love

God died for us, Holy Scripture says. You know what that means? He laid down his life for us sinners; died in our place. That’s love. It is a great mystery.

And it was for all of us?

For all of us.

Would He have still have died if it wasn’t for everyone?

How do you mean?

I mean, would He have died for just half of us?

Well, He didn’t have to. He chose to die for us all. Each and every miserable sinner. Me. You. Everyone.

But just say

Yes, yes, He would have died for half of us.

And would God have died for a quarter of us?

I’m certain so. God would have died for a quarter, even an eighth, of the human race, if it meant He would save them and take them up into Heaven to dwell with Him for eternity.

What’s an eighth?

Half a quarter.

How many people would that be?

Oh, the earth’s pretty darn full. Maybe a billion.

Wow.

God is pretty special huh?

Yeah.

He loves us a whole lot.

Would God love us enough to save just a thousand people?

Just a thousand? Why sure, I don’t see why not. His love isn’t slave to numbers. A soul is a soul.

Would God have died for just one person then?

Yes.

Really?

Yes.

Doesn’t it matter that He’d have to leave the rest behind?

Of course. Never say that it doesn’t hurt Him to leave a sinner behind, you understand? It would hurt Him a whole lot. But He’d do it, if it meant saving just one.

What if that one person was really really bad? A really bad person.

...

Dad?

Yes, I suppose.

He’d die for the worst person who’s ever lived?

Yes, I suppose that’d have to be the case.

God is strange.

His love is so great, kiddo, we can hardly understand it.

Is there anything he wouldn’t die for?

Not a thing. His love is that great.

Wow.

You can say that again. Wowee.

What if it was only a duck?

What’s that?

Would God have died if He couldn’t have saved anyone but a duck?

A duck?

Yeah.

...

Dad?

No, kiddo. I don’t think God would have died for just a duck.



Friday, 16 June 2017

Daisies

I was in the meadow, as I often am around sunset, when I saw a man come in from the south side where the public entrance is. It’s a quiet meadow; usually I’m alone. He came right to the center and, as he didn’t see me, and as I myself wasn’t doing anything in particular, I watched him.

He looked melancholic. There was an air of confusion about him, too. One wanted to give him a hug, yet at the same time felt he would certainly have refused it. For a while he simply stared at the birds, and I began to grow bored. Then his eye landed on a daisy. All the buttercups were gone; just daisies at this time of year. He plucked it.

“She loves me,” he said, and pulled a petal.

“She loves me not.”

The man went through each petal carefully, thoughtfully—and ended with “not.” He sighed.

So, it’s another heartbreak, I said to myself.

But then I had to duck—the man was looking around him, as though wondering if he were being watched. Perhaps I shouldn’t have; perhaps I can only blame myself for what followed. Feeling himself alone, he plucked another daisy. He went through the whole thing all over again, quicker this time. 

It also ended with “not.”

He smiled to himself wryly then, and let out a thin chuckle. “Ah,” he seemed to say; “so it is.”

Then he frowned.

Slowly, his hand reached out. It seized another daisy and methodically dismantled it, alternating like the tick of a clock. Receiving the same answer, he tossed it and went through another. And another. I watched him do this four or five times, and then I stopped counting. The man grew more and more desperate, even hysterical; he was practically ripping the flower petals apart. All ended: “She loves me, loves me not, loves me—loves me not.” What were the chances?

Finally, with a small shriek he hurled the last stripped flower from his hand. Slowly, he lifted his head; slowly, he looked about him.

He was in a field of daisies. There were hundreds of them. Thousands.

Each quivered imperceptibly in the wind.


Saturday, 13 May 2017

The Other Side of the Hedge

Elena Potter, a widow of ten years, lived in the house her husband had built on the edge of a public park. Here, one could listen to the games children played; one could nourish an imagination starved by the meagre library a dead husband’s insurance allowed one to afford; one could eavesdrop on talk of such wildness—of being gun slinging heroes, of inviting famous personalities to tea and mudcakes—that, to a woman who’d had no kids of her own, might suggest a realm of freedom to challenge life at its own level.

An afternoon in early June, while she was trimming her laurel hedges, Elena heard two boys on the other side.

“Where were you?” said the one.

“I was being a squirrel,” said the other. “As a squirrel you have to collect enough nuts for the winter. Not like a rat. I was also a rat.”

“Oh, I hate rats.”

Elena’s aim was to cut her hedges just so thin that one could almost see the light come through. (A garden book said this would keep them from growing too twiggy.) Mindful of this, she brought her shears snip by snip closer to boys.

“But you haven’t answered my question,” said the first boy. “Where were you? I was looking.”

“Well if you want to know, I was a gnat, then an old tree, and then for years I was a frog on the Nile. It was great! Everything was just slow, and right, and full of flies. I was many other things too. Oh, don’t be mad,” he said after a pause. “Come on, you haven’t told me what you were.”

“Oh, I don’t know... I tried out being a moonbeam.”

“And?”

“There’s not much to say.”

“Anything else?”

“I was black mold. I was a cloud. I was a dying sun. I was one of the black holes at the end of time. I was a lost tachyon particle.”

“Jeeze. That’s why you’re so glum.”

There was a long silence.

Who were these boys, Elena wondered? Not the Hutchinsons—those hooligans did not use so many words. Perhaps they were the Grays. Those boys often stole her crab-apples while they were yet unripe and played straight-face competitions against the sourness; they were a cleverer sort. Only, they were a bit old—

Oh, now look what she’d done! She was seeing far too much light through the hedge. But Elena stopped herself cussing, for the boys were talking again.

“Well, doesn’t matter,” said the first boy. “I’m tired. Can we go back?” 

“But there’s still so many things I want to try! I want to be the universe’s biggest, loudest supernova. And a blue whale, singing in the deep. And a raindrop falling into a desert.”

“Everything, I suppose.”

“Yes! Everything! And—there’s another thing, too, but it’s not a something. It’s... I have to show you. More like a place.”

“Oh, not again.”

“But it’s so weird! It’ll only take a second, I promise.”

“You said that last time.”

“I did? Well, you liked it here, didn’t you? I mean, right now, you enjoy being a kid?”

“Yeah, sure. But I don’t want to be a kid much longer.”

A pause.

“Where is this place anyway?”

“I discovered it a few million years ago, when I was being God.”

Here Elena closed the shears with a loud snap and startled herself. The boys went quiet.

After about a minute of absolute silence had passed, Elena stooped to align herself with the spot at which she had last heard the boys. It was hard to say precisely where that was; towards the end, they had been talking in near-whispers. Here, she made a few large cuts, then peered through. They were gone. For a moment in her puzzlement, Elena had the peculiar sense that the voices had come from behind something more than her hedge.

But of course, boys are very good at hiding.

An hour later, Elena sat on her patio with a bit of almond cake and a cup of tea, surveying her work. She was in a strange mood; it was probably the thunder in the air. Elena gave a test sip to her orange pekoe, and it felt as though, along with her tea, she was trying out something more: her life perhaps. Trying out being seventy-year-old Elena, resting from yard work. 

Ah, and what a poor job she’d done of it! All along the hedge a hasty, too-thin trim that caused a patchy, golden daylight to filter into her yard from the other side.




Thursday, 11 May 2017

This is the Village of Beynac

This is the village of Beynac in the southwest of France. Here, everyone has one goat. 

They take care of their goat scrupulously, for they have only one. Some villagers care for their goat to the exclusion of everything else, grooming their goat, feeding it grapes and figs, and sometimes the milk of other goats. Villagers make cheese from their goat and sell it at the market on Saturdays, competing with other sellers who are their neighbours, since everyone in the village has a goat. 

Some goats make better cheese than others. There are a very few goats that produce a cheese their owners can sell for ten times what other villagers can ask for their goats’ cheese, it is that good. This is a very great accomplishment, perhaps the greatest. Above all, a villager prizes what his goat does. For that reason the villagers never go anywhere without their goat. On walks they bring a leash. At church they sit together in the pews. Some sleep with their goat. 

Every new villager must get a goat if they do not have one already, and this involves a ceremony of binding—just a small ceremony, you will see, if only to bind the villager to his goat. For it is a serious thing, owning a goat, caring for a goat. 

When a goat gets sick, you must nurse it. When a goat is healthy, you may show it off, and collect its milk for yoghurt and cheese, and sell it at the market on Saturdays. Your happiness depends on your goat, your sadness too, and a variety of other moods that you will come to know and experience. You are only half of yourself without your goat, and more than your whole self with your goat. Your goat is you; you are your goat. There is nothing that can happen to you that does not happen through your goat; it is everything, it is the answer and it is the question, it is the problem and it is the solution. 

This is the most important day of your life. Are you ready for your goat?



Saturday, 6 May 2017

Eleven Fantasy Novels: Resisting Fantasy’s Pulp Past

This post is for readers of fantasy fiction who, at least now and then, wish for something different from the genre; for readers who might want to escape "genre-ness" itself, without escaping fantasy. 

I have a deep fondness for fantasy fiction. I grew on Robert Jordan, Terry Brooks, Stephen King’s Dark Tower, etc., and one of my greatest experiences reading, ever, were the days spent reading Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus books. But one cannot love something so blindly without, sooner or later, getting hurt. My wound came the day I sat down with Raymond E. Feist’s Magician, which I had just bought in a brilliant gold soft cover edition, and which I was so wanting to like. “A boy's will is the wind's will, / And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts,” went the epigraph by Longfellow, and I shivered. Then, after struggling some two hundred pages, I blinked with déjà vu. I put it down. It’s still unfinished today.

Here’s what’s stultifying. Fantasy literature has two lineages: the pulps and the myths. Leaving aside this latter parent, which is broad and ill-defined (we might include anything from folklore to Tolkien to religious texts), what is the legacy of the pulps? Not cover illustrations of bikini-clad spacewomen on the getaway from tentacles, thankfully. The answer, rather, is immediately apparent to anyone coming to genre fiction after exposure to the classics (Marcel Proust, Jane Austen, Henry James...) or writers in the upper echelons of the literary mainstream (Annie Dillard, Marilynne Robinson, Julian Barnes, George Saunders...): the prose. From the pulps, fantasy inherits an incredibly low bar in regards to the actual craft of writing, which makes comparatively little effort to take up formal or syntactical concerns as more than tools of story but for their own sakes.

For fantasy authors wanting to write prose with literary merit, everything hinges—everything has always hinged—on how they cope with, or shake off, this pulp heritage. Yet no one really talks about this.

Take China Mieville’s break out novel, Perdido Street Station. One can read any number of reviews that praise its intense, startling prose. I found the writing so-so at best. Moreover, in this novel Mieville exercises a tween’s imagination: he’s impressed by big guns, “gangster boss” psychology, and weird sex. Whenever there must be violence, it must be the goriest violence; whenever there must be sinister intention, it must be the cackle-gloating sort. One wonders where that far more tasteful, deftly handled noir The City and the City came from, because, at least here, the pulp roots are absolutely breaking through the concrete. 

Or take the more recent secondary-world fantasy by Sofia Samatar, A Stranger in Olondia. The book has been praised specifically for its lavish, sensual prose. Here’s a sample: “His [a guest’s] presence brought an air of excitement that filled the house like light, an air that smelled of festivals, perfume and tediet blossoms, and drew in an endless stream of curious, eager visitors, offering gifts to the stranger: yams baked in sugar, mussels in oil.” But the ornate style masks a mundane heart: this is Samatar’s only literary register. Everything is given this same treatment of the exotic, so that it very quickly becomes a monotone. While reading I wondered, Who could be deceived by this? Well, the novel won the British Fantasy Award for Best Novel for 2014, beating Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I'm open to being swayed, but in my opinion only in a climate still judging by pulp-fiction standards could this happen.

Now here comes M. John Harrison, a self-named “genre contrarian” who wants to poke his head into this echo-chamber. Every genre “needs constantly reminding that it isn't the centre of the world,” he says. How does he propose to do this? By subverting genre conventions. For example, in the Viroconium books he changes around place and character names, destabilising the sense of an existing secondary world. Or in The Course of the Heart, he undermines fantasy’s impulse towards a monological interpretation. He also just writes killer sentences. However, though much literary finesse is demanded by this approach, it is still situated in the genre camp, since it presupposes awareness of those conventions for it to work in the first place. 

What I want to do now, then, is suggest a different way that one might graciously expose genre-fantasy’s over-determination by its pulp past. This is to look to those books that employ the fantastic, but which do so from outside the genre tradition—isomorphic fantasies, in other words.

It is an untenable differentiation, to be sure, and one made more by feeling than by any exact taxonomical science. Yet I think that it holds enough of its water that we’re not slipping on the ground. By “genre-conventions,” I mean more than tropes (the Dark Lord, the Hero, the deus-ex-machina...); I mean also, and primarily, the matrix of expectations of fantasy fiction which exert hidden pressures on the plot, voice, characterization, etc. I mean, for example, things like the reliance on a “guide” figure or “oracle” in portal fantasy for an authoritative interpretation of the world, and the consequent non-negotiability of history. Farah Mendlesohn explores such conventions in her book, The Rhetorics of Fantasy, and I couldn’t hope to cover them all. Those readers who are interested in enough in fantasy to have made it his far no doubt will have a feel for them and know what I mean.


Eleven Fantasies

Authors in this list are either pre-genre-distinction (in the way that H. G. Wells wasn’t writing “science-fiction” per se) or have worked outside its tradition, rendering the fantastical without leaning on genre conventions. This list isn’t meant to be definitive. It’s meant to trouble the foundations (a little bit) of fantasies ossified genre-ness. It’s meant as a kind of “bouquet of suggestions” for readers who have been looking for fantasy that operates by different literary rules.

1) Lolly Willowes; or The Loving Huntsman (Sylvia Townsend Warner)

A story about a woman’s search for independence and her unwitting journey into... witchcraft. It was published in 1926, one year after Mrs Dalloway, and has prose to rival that great modernist novel.  




2) The King of Elfland’s Daughter (Lord Dunsany)

One-hundred years ago, Dunsany achieved the kind of heightened rhetoric that fantasy authors only fumble after today. This is a book about longing and about beauty, written by an author who knew what faery was.




3) Grendel (John Gardner)

A sad, energetic, deeply curious narrative told from the perspective of the monster of the Old English poem Beowulf. This is fantasy at its grittiest.





4) Lud-in-the-Mist (Hope Mirrlees)

Another exploration of faery, written by a friend of Virginia Woolf’s. I love the humour, the wit, and the premise: two rivers flow into the town, the Dapple and the Dawl—and on the Dapple forbidden fairy fruit is smuggled in from fairyland, which if eaten will awaken a great longing...




5) The Once and Future King (T. H. White)

A retelling of the Arthurian cycle. Despite its general jocularity of tone, White’s reflective, deeply wise interludes give the work a profound pathos. Arthur’s relationship with Merlin is a delight, and gives the story much of its energy.


6) Hobberdy Dick (Katherine Briggs)

A gem of a book, with the most lovable protagonist of all: a brownie. What’s a brownie? You may know them by the name “house elf,” or hobgoblin. This creature presides over a country manor when a certain Puritan family moves in...



7) Bridge of Birds (Barry Hughart)

A tale of “an ancient China that never was,” told with great warmth and a storytellers pure delight in event. There is no excess in the prose, and each page has something to make you grin.





8) The Crock of Gold (James Stephens)

“In the center of the pinewood called Coilla Doraca there lived not long ago two philosophers...” So begins this little book of fantasy in the Irish folkloric tradition; its humour and philosophy are beautifully understated through small moments of human connection.




9) Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson)

Watch a group of ghost-hunters in a rambling old mansion go to pieces with all the psychological subtlety and chilling care that characterizes Jackson’s fiction. This book is genuinely scary.



10) Lilith (George MacDonald)

“I am sorry I cannot explain the thing to you,” says the Raven to Mr. Vane at the narrative’s commencement: and I am sorry too. If the reader is able to put up with MacDonald’s inchoate dream imagery, they will be taken for a drug-trip through a kind of purgatory and into deep theology.


11) The Green Child (Herbert Read)

An restless youth strays far from the English countryside into a political revolution, then returns to discover an underground utopia. One critical calls it a “philosophic myth... in the tradition of Plato.” Wonder being both fantasy’s and Plato’s primal category, it is a fitting comparison.

Bonus: Three Poetical Fantasies

12) Prometheus Unbound (Percy Shelley)

This is a four-act lyrical drama. The work of mythopoesis that Shelley accomplishes here is impressive. Most terrifying of all his gods is Demogorgon, who is “Ungazed upon and shapeless; neither limb, / Nor form, nor outline; yet we feel it is / A living Spirit.” Most beautiful are his descriptions of nature in the after-world of Prometheus’s victory.

13) Idylls of the King (Alfred, Lord Tennyson)

King Arthur and his knights again, this time in a series of twelve narrative poems in blank verse. Elegiac and haunting, reaching its most tragic heights in, surprisingly, the section on Sir Balin.  




14) The Faerie Queene (Herbert Spencer)

Lavish Elizabethan poetry recounting the deeds of several knights who each embody a virtue. The story is an allegory—or rather, it gives ideas life. This is what, for example, one hero encounters in dragon Errour’s den: “she lay upon the durtie ground... Of her there bred A thousand yong ones, which she dayly fed, Sucking upon her poisnous dugs, eachone Of sundry shapes, yet all ill favored.”


Notes:

1) I haven’t included short story collections for a number of reasons. First, the form being far freer than the novel, it is also without as traceable a tradition (at least I’m not so expert as to do so). There is also the fact that many authors who are considered “non-genre” have nevertheless made use of the fantastic in their short fiction. For example, E. M. Forster, known primarily for his social novels, has a number of fantastical narratives in his collection The Celestial Omnibus. Truman Capote, Joyce Carol Oates, Italo Calvino, and John Collier, are some more examples.

2) I have avoided listing authors whose work is considered to be in the tradition of “magical realism,” not wanting to claim them for fantasy’s own. Some of these include Jorge Luis Borges, Isabel Allende, Gabriel García Márquez, and Salmon Rushdie. I have used the same principle of non-interference with Absurdism, e.g., Gogol, Gombrowiz, Kafka, and Flann O’Brien.

3) There may be a number of Japanese authors whose use of the fantastic falls well outside genre conventions. I happen to know only a few: Natsume Sōseki, Kōbō Abe, and Haruki Murakami (that latter’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles is among my favorite books). But again, I don't want to claim these as "fantasy."

4) I haven’t included the Inklings in this list (C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien) because they are on every other list.

5) Some books came close to making it and are worth mentioning. They aren’t perfect fits either because (a) there are trace amounts of genre conventions present that technically disqualify them, (b), there isn’t enough fantasy, or (c) I simply didn’t enjoy them enough. They are:

(a)
A Face in the Frost (John Bellairs)
The Last Unicorn (Peter S. Beagle)
Little, Big (John Crowley)
Howl’s Moving Castle (Diana Wynne Jones)
The Wizard Knight (Gene Wolfe)
The Wood Beyond the World (William Morris)

(b)
The Turn of the Screw (Henry James)
Orlando (Virginia Woolf)
A Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde)
Steppenwolf (Hermann Hesse)

(c)
The Lives of Elves (Muriel Barbery)
The Worm Ouroboros (E.R. Eddison)
Decent into Hell [or any other novel] (Charles Williams)
Phantastes (George MacDonald)
The Buried Giant (Kazuo Ishiguro)
Titus Groan (Mervyn Peake)
The Temptation of St Antony (Gustave Flaubert)


Monday, 30 January 2017

Kafka's Prague


I decided to visit Prague this weekend—because it’s only four hours away from Berlin, where I’m living, and because it was Kafka’s home city. I didn’t plan anything, I just booked a room and prepared myself for a weekend of meandering. On the train ride there, it struck me: this spirit of decisiveness, which we know now and again and revel in, was described by Kafka himself in one my favorite of his short vignettes, “The Sudden Walk.” He writes:
When it looks as if you had made up your mind finally to stay at home for the evening, when you have put on your house jacket and sat down after supper with a light on the table to the piece of work or the game that usually precedes your going to bed, when the weather outside is unpleasant so that staying indoors seems natural, and when you have already been sitting quietly at the table for so long that your departure must occasion surprise to everyone, when, besides, the stairs are in darkness and the front door locked, and in spite of all that you have started up in a sudden fit of restlessness, changed your jacket, abruptly dressed yourself for the street, explained that you must go out and with a few curt words of leave-taking actually gone out, banging the flat door more or less hastily according to the degree of displeasure you think you have left behind you, and when you find yourself once more in the street with limbs swinging extra freely in answer to the unexpected liberty you have procured for them, when as a result of this decisive action you feel concentrated within yourself all the potentialities of decisive action, when you recognize with more than usual significance that your strength is greater than your need to accomplish effortlessly the swiftest of changes and to cope with it, when in this frame of mind you go striding down the long streets - then for that evening you have completely got away from your family, which fades into insubstantiality, while you yourself, a firm, boldly drawn black figure, slapping yourself on the thigh, grow to your true stature.                                                                                              All this is still heightened if at such a late hour in the evening you look up a friend to see how he is getting on.
In the German there is a line which seems to bring together the meaning of the story: “wenn man durch diesen einen Entschluss alle Entschlussfähigkeit in sich gesammelt fühlt.” This is the line, “when as a result of this decisive action you feel concentrated within yourself all the potentialities of decisive action,” but the marvel that is lost in English is the word “Entschlussfähigkeit” (which means not the decision but the power that makes the decision) and its juxtaposition with “Entschluss” (decision). In a word-for-word translation we get: “when you through this one decision all the power of decision gathered in you feel.”


Prague's official monument to Franz Kafka.
This is what I love about Kafka—he sees all the little ways in which our freedom is expressed, or trapped.

In Prague, the first thing I did was visit the Kafka museum (despite my resolution not to spend a dime, I couldn’t not go). I was impressed by the exhibition; it gave me a real sense for life in Prague at the time Kafka was writing. His books and letters and diary entries lined the walls, and after a while one began to feel that this peculiar man was nothing but words. He said it himself: “I do not have literary interests, I consist of literature, I am nothing else and cannot be anything else.”

Now, it was always this declaration that made me uneasy about Kafka. After all, isn’t literature supposed to be a way deeper into life? Isn’t it supposed to illuminate things, enhance experience, lift our eyes so that we see life-itselfand not some facsimile? Why does he construct this binary between the two? Surely that’s pathological. 

I left the museum, however, with quite a different sense.

It was the emerging that did it; I came out, and there was the familiar world. Don’t get me wrong; Prague is not familiar in the regular sense of the word. For starters, it’s a city with so many statues, many of them crouching or hunched, that you can’t walk around without feeling like you’re looking over the shoulder of some saddened Saint or other. But though Prague is exotic, it’s a city—and I’ve been to cities before. That’s what I mean. I was in another city, while in the Kafka museum there stood in large white letters on a black wall a fragment from Kafka’s notebook: “Some people came to me and asked me to build a city for them.”

Another monument to Kafka, with moving parts.  
And so I began to wander around Prague, looking at buildings and into shops. I saw St. Charles Bridge. I saw Prague Castle (you know they had the world's only indoor jousting inside?). I found the Café Louvre and had a coffee—another financial capitulation, forgive me, but it was the cafe in which Kafka’s literary circle met regularly. I had a very long and very normal conversation with another tourist who shared my table, the place being so crowded for the very reason I was there. I went out again, tracked down Kafka's old office. I had a sense that freedom lay elsewhere for the moment.

This is the best I can do to describe the feeling: it was the conviction that it’s in language that we are free or not free, that the state of a person will show up somehow in their words, and that language is the way we exercise our souls.

I don’t know whether Kafka felt this, or believed this, but I think he must have. He wrote, “I do not have literary interests, I consist of literature,” and though there may be a little despair, escapism, or discomfort with his body in the statement, there is in it also the very reason why writing was so urgent, so exciting, for him. At the office, Kafka served the bureaucratic state he wrote about in his nightmarish novels; at the writing desk, he did not need to serve anybody. He knew where he could exercise his soul, and it has me thinking—though maybe Kafka would cringe at being so crudely inserted into the political field—that there is at least one clear and easy way to be counter-cultural: read. Exercise yourself in an unusual direction. Imagine differently. Make a metaphor. Comprehend something.