Sunday, January 17, 2016


As is often the case, I have been reading books that tie in with other books and make interesting connections in my head.  Even though I feel the stakes are incredibly low in Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading (not least of which is the publisher's decision to highlight how artificial the ending is -- thanks!), I will soldier on.  I should wrap it up tomorrow and then tackle a few of the short modernist pieces I was mentioning yesterday.  It is interesting that Nabokov complains a bit that everyone assumes he was cribbing off of Kafka's The Castle and particularly The Trial.  I agree it does seem unfair to not get credit for one's ideas.  It is interesting, however, that he doesn't mention Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, which seems another potential ur-text.

The detailed attention to the prison cell triggered some memory I had of a short story where a man's room grows (more or less in the middle of the night) and then he has to hide this from the landlady (and especially his fellow tenants) and minor hilarity ensues.  After turning it over a couple of times in my mind, I still couldn't put my finger on it, so I started sleuthing, hoping to avoid having adding one more item to the What's That Book list.

One minor advantage is that I know this is something that I had read in the past six months or so.  I starting working backwards.  I had just reread Kafka's The Trial, and it is still fairly fresh (so I didn't need to flip through any pages).  While there is a bit of strange displacement in K's neighbor's room (taken over for one day by a tribunal) and then all kinds of weird proceedings in upper story apartments in other apartment buildings, I knew this wasn't what I was thinking about.  And it wasn't from Metamorphosis and Other Stories either.

I considered Emmanuel Bove's My Friends (Mes Amis).  While there is certainly a bit of interaction with the landlady, this is primarily a realist book.  (I've read a few books by Patrick Modiano and they are ok (if a bit repetitive), but I'd much rather read Bove, who was actually in Occupied France (though he escaped to Algiers) and tackles more varied subjects.  I'll probably do a bit of a trip through Bove's translated (and perhaps even untranslated) novels in 2017 or 2018.  It looks like slightly over half of his novels are available in English.)

Joseph Roth's Hotel Savoy has flashes of magic realism, but is clearly set in a hotel not an apartment building with a landlady.  (Great book though.)

I thought a likely contender was Bruno Schulz (and I still mean to post on his works in the near future) but I recalled that most of the stories are set in an apartment building but one which the narrator's family owned and rented out some of the rooms.  The narrator's father is a key figure (not some impersonal landlady).  Nonetheless, the image of the growing room could have fit in the context of these stories, which have an undercurrent of magic realism running through them, particularly the ones in Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass.

Robert Walser was also a likely candidate, and I flipped through Berlin Stories and A Schoolboy's Diary but didn't see quite what I was looking for.  He is definitely writing about urban life, though I only saw one or two where the action was limited to an apartment building or a rooming house.  Walser was more of a flaneur, more interested in what happened on city streets (very much like Frank O'Hara several decades later).  Still, it is interesting how thoroughly urban so many of these European authors, from my recent forays, were.  That's one reason there are so many connections between them and why it can be so hard to track down a specific story.

I wondered if it could possibly be one of the Russians I had read.  It didn't quite seem to match what I recalled of Platonov's Happy Moscow, so I turned to Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky.  Sure enough the very first story "Quadraturin" is the one I was thinking of.  (It's quite Kafkaesque, though as with Nabokov it would essentially have been impossible for Krzhizhanovsky to have heard of Kafka by 1930, when the last of the stories in Memories of the Future was completed.  Kafka wasn't particularly well-known to readers of German in 1930, and he wasn't translated into English until 1934.  I'm not at all sure when he would have been translated into Russian.)  At any rate, this is quite a good collection of stories, though I might even say Krzhizhanovsky's Autobiography of a Corpse is better.  It is really quite amazing that NYRB has brought these short story collections out, and I would also encourage interested readers to check out Happy Moscow and Soul by Andrey Platonov.

I believe there is some literary monograph out there that looks at how 20th Century European literature (and eventually U.S. literature) started dwelling on apartment life and landlords/landladies/superintendents in particular as the population become more urbanized.  One monograph that is more properly cultural studies than literary analysis (and is limited to examples European fiction) is Apartment Stories by Sharon Marcus, though it is a shame she doesn't touch on the way this unfolded in the U.S.  It was particularly an effort for Americans to accept (or even picture) multiple families living together under one roof (and naturally quite a few authors dwell on the erotic possibilities of single females in these rooming houses, whether celebrating this (Patchen's Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer) or more frequently condemning it, as in Dreiser's Sister Carrie).  This is not something I ever plan to undertake, but if I come across any other interesting articles on the subject I will try to remember to put them down here. 

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