Welcome to Project Dog-eared. As avid readers we realised that we go through a multitude of emotions and thoughts at different stages of reading any book. But, once we have finished the book, our impression of it was often based on one predominant emotion or memory of the book rather than our whole reading experience. We wondered if this could be improved upon , and came up with the idea of Project Dog-eared.

Here, we intend to choose a book - any book - some times agreed, but mostly our own individual choices and document our thoughts and emotions as we read along. We then intend to collate it all together at the end, possibly into a review.

In other words, this is just the good old scribble at the corner of the book, but more organised and shared live on the net. We must point out the reading is not collaborative but only a collective assortment - that is - unlike book clubs you don’t discuss the books as you read along. However some of you might want to follow what others are reading and comment on others’ posts and interact. So if you feel this is something that you would be interested in, give us a shout. We will log you on here. Then all you have to do is pick up a book of your choice and start reading and posting.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

The Castle by Franz Kafka, 4

   From the mouthpiece came a humming, the likes of which K. had never heard on the telephone before. It was as though the humming of countless childlike voices—but it wasn’t humming either, it was singing, the singing of the most distant, of the most utterly distant, voices—as though a single, high-pitched yet strong voice had emerged out of this humming in some quite impossible way and now drummed against one’s ears as if demanding to penetrate more deeply into something other than one’s wretched hearing. K. listened without telephoning, with his left arm propped on the telephone stand he listened thus. 
   He had no idea how long, not until the landlord tugged at his coat, saying that a messenger had come for him. “Go,” shouted K., beside himself, perhaps into the telephone, for now someone answered. (20, emphasis added) 

Someone was able to answer the phone even if K. never dialed a number in the first place. What principle is operating here? Dream logic? The unconscious? Magical realism? Science fiction? Or is it simply a well calculated joke? From humming to singing, from children’s voices to distant singing, from listening to waiting, from static to a definite reply: there’s an apparent breach of the fundamental laws of nature here. Or is there only error in observable dimensions? A warping of spacetime, “in some quite impossible way”. But as suggested in one of the previous quoted passages, no errors ever occur; if one does occur, who can say that it is an error? 

The Castle is a palpable example of spontaneous realism, a tendency in writing characterized by shifts in narrative direction. The scene shifts may be dreamlike or not, they may be logical or not, and magical or not. Whatever the case, a spontaneous realist novel is a record of transformations: of characters, scenes, and details. The changes in the appearance and attitudes of characters may be gradual or sudden—without due warning, without being prefigured—and irrevocable.

Frieda’s disposition changes from a resolute lover to a wronged woman. Jeremias, one of the assistants, suddenly changes appearance from a youthful person to an old, infirm man “whose flesh sometimes gave one the impression that it wasn’t quite alive” (237). Some major changes are explained in flashback stories of the villagers, where a family’s economic standing suddenly plummets, their vigor turning into wretchedness, and their health deteriorating to a pitiable state. The witness to all these instabilities is tenacious K. whose search for work and recognition is rebuffed by the Count’s authorities.

“We are not your guardian angels and don’t have to follow you every single byway. Well, all right. The chairman thinks differently. Of course the actual decision, which is handled by the Count’s authorities, is not something he can speed up. But within his sphere of influence he seems to want to arrive at a truly generous temporary settlement, which you are free to accept or to reject, he is offering you temporarily the post of school janitor.” (90-91) 

To be more precise, K. was reprieved from unemployment and was now faced with underemployment. He was offered a temporary job as a school janitor. For someone trained in a technical job as a land surveyor, this was an absurd proposition. K. refused the offer. But consistent with the novel’s spontaneous absurdity, he was later made to accept the job. By the end of the book, the landlady fancied another job for him, a plausible job but utterly incompatible to his skills as surveyor. Given the serious comedy of what came before, the kind of job he was offered by the landlady adds laughter to injury.


For all the ridiculous tangles K. found himself in, his uncompleted journey to the Castle can be read as a heroic effort.

Certainly, I am ignorant, that at least is true, sadly enough for me, but the advantage here is that those who are ignorant take greater risks, and so I’ll gladly put up with my deficient knowledge and its undoubtedly serious consequences for a little while, for as long as my energy holds out. (55) 

The irony is that K.’s journey also represents a missed opportunity. At the moment when he stumbled on a Castle authority, someone who could assist him in his troubles, he was not able (the author will not let him) to seize the day. Kafka presented a possible way out for K. but he did not allow him to even consider it. At the precise moment when a light is proferred K., he collapsed in exhaustion. Whatever K. (a person, a cog in the wheel) does is answerable to the built system in place. He elected to go through the motions even if there’s a stronger and stronger indication that all his efforts are doomed.

Thus the novel is destined to be an open metaphor, concerned as it is with the collapse of meaning and representation. Its cathartic encounters and transformations tend to emphasize the tragic comedy of human existence. It is a deeply religious text in the hermeneutic sense as it takes as its object the naked individual in the face of societal (and authorial) manipulations, in the face of machinations by an inscrutable power structure. But as a secular text, the novel is more open to inquiry, more robust in its possibilities. For example, the Castle can be seen as a metaphor for metaphors, a projection of all of man's yearnings and desires.

How suicidal happiness can be! (269) 

A metaphor for happiness, if you will. Metaphors are worth pursuing. Interpreting then becomes an exercise of freedom, even if the same appears as elusive and illusory as a hulking structure enclosed in fog.

“It isn’t easy to understand exactly what she is saying, for one doesn’t know whether she is speaking ironically or seriously, it’s mostly serious, but sounds ironic.” “Stop interpreting everything!” said K. (205) 

You said it, K.

(Note: This is my last post on the novel. All quotes are from Mark Harman’s translation of The Castle (Schocken Books, 1998).)

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The Castle by Franz Kafka, 3

In reality Hans was looking for K.'s help against his father, it was as if he had deceived himself, for he had thought that he wanted to help K. whereas what he had truly wanted, since nobody in their old circle could help them, was to determine whether this stranger, whose sudden appearance even Mother had noted, might perhaps be able to help them. (147)

Yet another interpretation of K's struggles around the Castle was messianism, the belief in a savior or redeemer. K. was ostracized by some Castle villagers and not given a chance to practice as a surveyor, but he was also embraced by others as someone who could be the answer to some of their problems. The Landlady, the Chairman, and the Teacher were the ones who wanted to drive him out. Hans, Barnabas, Frieda, and Olga, all seemed to need something from K.

With K.'s unannounced arrival, the deep rifts among the villagers and their back stories were brought back to the surface. He was seen as a kind of an answer to some of their problems. Consulting with K., the characters appeared to carry the burden of their existence. In the the same way K. wanted to establish himself in the village, they wanted something from him. While speaking to him, they were either solicitous and extremely cautious of the Castle's power over them, or they were prone to badmouthing and backstabbing others. They seemed to be emboldened by K.'s presence.

This K.-type messianism was exaggerated and used more overtly in Kazuo Ishiguro's novel The Unconsoled, wherein a pianist was assaulted by requests from different personages left and right prior to his performance.


“Surveyor, in your thoughts you may be reproaching Sordini for not having been prompted by my claim to make inquiries about the matter in other departments. But that would have been wrong, and I want this man cleared of all blame in your thoughts. One of the operating principles of authorities is that the possibility of error is simply not taken into account. This principle is justified by the excellence of the entire organization and is also necessary if matters are to be discharged with the utmost rapidity. So Sordini couldn’t inquire in other departments, besides those departments wouldn’t have answered, since they would have noticed right away that he was investigating the possibility of an error.”
   “Chairman, allow me to interrupt you with a question,” said K., “didn’t you mention a control agency? As you describe it, the organization is such that the very thought that the control agency might fail to materialize is enough to make one ill.”
   “You’re very severe,” said the chairman, “but multiply your severity by a thousand and it will still be as nothing compared with the severity that the authorities show toward themselves. Only a total stranger could ask such a question. Are there control agencies? There are only control agencies. Of course they aren’t meant to find errors, in the vulgar sense of that term, since no errors occur, and even if an error does occur, as in your case, who can finally say that it is an error.” (64-65)

K. is the typical outsider. His arrival at the Castle has upset some kind of balance in the Castle's domain. He is like a brand new idea that is stubbornly rejected by tradition, someone who dared to ask questions and hence must be put in his proper place. His very presence is attributed to a clerical error. He is even reproached for being "a total stranger".

The Castle is necessarily an unattainable goal. Based on the characters' description of its inner workings, even if K. is granted audience by the Castle authorities, the layers of bureaucracy and red tape will not take him further afield. His journey or wandering is presented as Sisyphean. In that case, his desired destination (the Castle), as well as his starting point, does not matter; only his journey is important. This worldview is one shared by Javier Marías who said in an interview, "Conclusions and final explanations are often the most irrelevant—and disappointing—parts of a novel. What counts the most—and what we remember the most—is the atmosphere, the style, the path, the journey, and the world in which we have immersed ourselves ... What matters, then, is the journey along the horizon—in other words, the journey that never ends." Another modernist novelist, João Guimarães Rosa, put it another way: The truth is not in the setting out nor in the arriving: it comes to us in the middle of the journey. The novel being an unfinished novel already implies that Kafka didn't care in the least how the story proceeds. He has already written the meat of his vision through K.'s eternal struggle to settle down in the village despite being prevented from doing so.

(Note: This post is benefited by an online discussion of the novel.)

Sunday, 12 February 2012

The Castle by Franz Kafka, 2

He speaks to Klamm, but is it Klamm? Isn’t it rather someone who merely resembles Klamm? Perhaps at the very most a secretary who is a little like Klamm and goes to great lengths to be even more like him and tries to seem important by affecting Klamm’s drowsy, dreamlike manner. That part of his being is easiest to imitate, many try to do so; as for the rest of his being, though, they wisely steer clear of it. And a man such as Klamm, who is so often the object of yearning and yet so rarely attained, easily takes on a variety of shapes in the imagination of people. For instance, Klamm has a village secretary here called Momus. Really? You know him? He too keeps to himself but I have seen him a couple of times. A powerful young gentleman, isn’t he? And so he probably doesn’t look at all like Klamm? And yet you can find people in the village who would swear that Momus is Klamm and none other than he. That’s how people create confusion for themselves. And why should it be any different at the Castle? (181)

The deliberate objective of the people around K. seems to be to confuse him, to speak to him in circuitous circumlocutions. Why shouldn't it be any different from what the Castle stands for? Why shouldn't the entire novel be a novel about duplicity, misunderstanding, miscommunication, and fraud? What's interesting is that K. himself seems to be aware that he is being had from the beginning. He's playing the game even if he's acting naïve about it the whole time: "It amuses me ... only because it gives me some insight into the ridiculous tangle that may under certain circumstances determine a person's life. (63)"

Of course to think of The Castle as the odyssey of the unemployed is also a simplistic reading. The scenes are just too rich with meanings and innuendos. Nothing is as it seems. The man called Klamm may not be Klamm at all. The surface appearance of things is deceitful. Anything unexpected can happen and it does happen. Time collapses. And snow, bad weather, will fall on a beautiful day.

“How much longer is it till spring?” asked K. “Till spring?” repeated Pepi, “the winter here is long, a very long winter, and monotonous. But we don’t complain about that down there, we’re safe from the winter. Of course at some point spring does come and summer too, and they certainly have their day, but in one’s memory spring and summer seem so short, as if they didn’t last much longer than the two days, and sometimes even on these days, throughout the most beautiful day, snow falls.” (311-312)

Thursday, 9 February 2012

The Castle by Franz Kafka

   The Castle, whose contours were already beginning to dissolve, lay still as ever, K. had never seen the slightest sign of life up there, perhaps it wasn't even possible to distinguish anything from this distance, and yet his eyes demanded it and refused to tolerate the stillness. When K. looked at the Castle, it was at times as if he were watching someone who sat there calmly, gazing into space, not lost in thought and therefore cut off from everything, but free and untroubled; as if he were alone, unobserved; and yet it could not have escaped him that someone was observing him, but this didn't disturb his composure and indeed—one could not tell whether through cause or effect—the observer's gaze could not remain fixed there, and slid off. Today this impression was further reinforced by the early darkness, the longer he looked, the less he could make out, and the deeper everything sank into the twilight. (98-99)

The obvious mystery of Franz Kafka's unfinished novel was whether the Castle is a symbol for something and whether the novel is a kind of allegory. Many interpretations were put forward. Max Brod and the Muirs, according to Mark Harman (the translator in my edition), favored a theological/religious/spiritual interpretation of the Castle as a source of "salvation" or "divine grace" that K. desperately seeks. Harman tended to dismiss or at least downplay this interpretation, calling it "simplistic." I tended to agree with him. A theological interpretation can only get you so far. I think that an atheistic interpretation of the Castle can say more about the whimsical and inconsistent attitudes of the characters, the unpredictable plot, and the dense "bureaucratic" prose stye.

If anything, the Castle, perched high up on a hill, at least represents the seat of political power. At the basic level, K. wanted to practice his profession of surveying and earn his worth. But people get in the way of his desire to work. The "system" wouldn't let him be a productive individual. The Castle is basically a story about unemployment. But the prose of Kafka, which is closely tied to his politics, and which is also his poetics, obscures a lot through monolithic boredom. In the process, it gains excessive meaning through various interpretations and readings.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Girl with Curious Hair

There is no dearth of people who have read David Foster Wallace or DFW. His works have been looked and re-looked and re-re-looked into several times over for clues to understanding modern/post-modern lives. His iconic work Infinite Jest has appeared in at least 50 of the articles I have read since I subscribed to some literary magazines in my Google reader feed.
The reason I still did not pick up DFW after so much fuss over him was a certain hesitation I have towards American literature. From earlier writers to contemporary ones, I have hardly enjoyed an American author other than Steinbeck. The American books seem too dense, intentionally obscure and always spreading to 500 plus pages. It is almost as if the authors don't want people to read their words.
And Infinte Jest is certainly not inviting with its 1000 plus pages - it seemed to fall right into the category which I have come to identify with American literature. So I thought, let me ease into Wallace with a short story collection (a trick I tried with Joyce and it worked for me) - who knows may be I might end up liking him.
A few stories down in Girl with curious Hair, and my feelings have positively tilted in favor of DFW. And yet, there is some hesitation that remains. Some of the stories are brilliant. Take Here and There for example. A guy and girl narrate the story of their relationship (which is now over) simultaneously, going over the same summer and the same incidents. Eerily, it was almost as if it were two different stories - each of them seem wrapped up in their own worlds, disconnected from each other, living only with a perception of each other. The end summarizes it succinctly. The boy, an expert is theoretical electronics, falls to pieces while looking at a real circuit. A rather too obvious metaphor, perhaps. Yet, it uncannily describes that distance I feel with reality sometimes. Everything ends up as a concept inside the head, and while I conceptually know how to behave with a person, when to apologize, in reality things almost never go that way. Alienation, and the anxiety emanating from it could not be put more simply.

The other two engaging stories from the collection are - Little expressionless Animals and My Appearance. Both of them are doused in the world of television. Strictly speaking, the stories are perhaps a little out of date today, when television has already lost its ground to internet for devouring people's time and energy. But then, you only have to replace Jeopardy with Tumblr and Lettermen's show with Twitter, and the theme of the stories will become relavant to personal lives. There is a conversation in 'Little Expressionless Animals", where characters attempt to offer explanations about their lives to an imaginary TV audience. All of 'my Appearance' is about building and living a fake life, which is sensible and consistent. In both places, an artificiality, a simplification/justification arises because of the over-powering presence of media, because through it, you are now open to the world. (This also forces you to look into your own lives, analyze them more critically, do more, be more so that you could look better from that window, so in a way DFW is also celebrating media).
But then there are other stories which scare me - the title story for instance. Even though short, I found it tedious. It is about the punk life of a democrat and it appears to be written to shock. There is alienation of a kind in this story, a psycho-analysis and duplicity of life, but overall, it seems undeserving of being the title. Yet, DFW chose this as the title. It is this quirkiness that scares me from picking IJ - what if there is a lot of this quirkiness splashed over 1000 pages.
Nevertheless, his penchant for creating complex characters and have them come face to face with real ones is brilliant. And unlike the other Americans, his writing is clear, and written to be read.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Flash Notes on John Berger's Ways of Seeing

Ways of seeing, a popular college text now, is perhaps one of the all time must read small books ( less than 200 pages). I revisited  it for a reference and ended up rereading the whole thing again . As fascinating as it is pioneering ( considering it was written in 1972, way back in capitalism's childhood, well before the capitalism grew up and cast it's powerful grip around the idea of human life).

Berger and co. essentially chart the history of visual imagery in art, from the era of oil painting to television, slowly peeling off layer after layer, teasing out the implicit messages and societal subtexts hidden within the images, and quite remarkably without preaching a communist manifesto in the process! There are 7 essays in total - four with words and images, and three just images. Berger and team take you through how art has been influenced by many variables in the society, from wealth and class to religion and sexuality; how their interplay produced art as we know it (the oil paintings, nudes and portraits of colonial Europe, in the middle ages) as well as how, now, we are compelled to consume it (capitalism - here Berger understandably moves into photography, Design and Advertising)

Berger is still alive and kicking, I remember he wrote a recent article for n+1 or Guernica recently. I would be really curious to know his views on modern-age consumerism as a culture. It would be just wonderful if he takes time out to write a sequel the Ways of Seeing- possibly  commenting on the new era capitalism - from designer handbags, high definition televisions to Tumblr reblogs and FB like buttons. Perhaps not on the idea of compulsive consumerism as such ( which has been already covered here)  but more on the consumers themselves as a cultural cohort.  The need for the consumerism and perhaps suggestions about alternatives?

If you haven't read The Ways of Seeing, you must -  pronto. If you can't  get hold of the book, you can find the parent BBC series on youtube. Here's a quick link,  I haven't checked all those uploads on youtube, so not sure if all of the episodes are available.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Paris Trance, Geoff Dyer

The book jacket identifies the Paris Trance as a romance. I suppose to a large extent it is indeed a romance. Geoff Dyer, who I am getting to scorningly, grudglingly admire ( more for the life he’s lead than his writing, which by no measure is any less admirable) is a writer of themes and images.
The stories of the two couples, on their own and together is developed well. The unique, perhaps even daring aspect of the book is the dedication to idleness. I’ve never come across a book where the characters mooch around as much as they do here. It’s almost as if the book itself had smoked a joint and entered a trance.

Dyer has indeed admitted that one of the two main purposes of the book was to capture this aimlessness (the aimlessness of the 20s to be specific , the other purpose - to capture the drifting away). Dyer does capture it well in wry, informed Dyereseque prose ; a typical Dyer sentence would essentially twist on its tail contradicting its meaning yet conveying a perfect sentiment. And it is for this self flagellating funplay, that one reads Dyer.  But as the book progresses the images and the themes that Dyer specializes in turn monotonous and well, excessive. Somewhere midway through the book I became slightly nonplussed and at pages even lost interest.
Dyer is a core romantic in denial. All his works or rather the books that I've read so far are elaborate sublimation to wrap the romance in a deliberate, middle aged sort of wisdom, even cynicism. But at its heart they are all young wild at heart romances.
Agreed that Paris Trance is a romance and agreed it is Paris, but how often do you meet a woman studying Nietzsche in Paris who also fancies walking past the idle men playing street football everyday at lunch time?  She must be almost unrealistic right? This is where I find Dyer faltering in his fictions, in his conception of his fictions rather (he’s admitted he’s poor at plots).

Most of his characters save for the protagonist ( who are invariably versions of himself) lack the richness of what I would call ‘an original fiction writer’, say Zadie Smith. Often most of his women characters become versions of themselves. I couldn’t tell the difference between Nicole in Paris Trance  and Laura in Jeff in Venice… Dyer seems to fail to look beyond a set template that he seems to have for his women – they are always intelligent, funny, articulate, somewhat attracted to marginalised men, and they are invariably, good at quips!

For these reasons we don’t really know much about Nicole in the book. I mean her own internal mind, her perspective. For the most of the book she is invariably looked at from outside, while pages and chapters go on about Luke. In the story both Luke and Nicole seem equally purposeless and lacking any direction, which is what makes them a great couple, well couple in a first place.  But something’s got to give right? Of the two, Nicole seems more mainstream and integrated. She comes close to questioning Luke about his life once  - What does he want to do? gets a typical I'm living my happiness answer and drifts back into the trance again! I felt slightly disappointed that somehow Dyer leans towards Luke than Nicole, almost overlooking her if not ignoring. I would have loved if Nicole actually broke up with Luke than the other way around. She had reasons to, yet it seemed that Dyer was too preoccupied with Luke which left the ending, in my opinion, one-sided and somewhat confused. I am aware that Dyer was trying to portray the absurdity and the confusion of the breaking up, but again it can’t be absurd without it making no sense to both the parties involved. As far as I know, the separation made perfect sense to Luke and Nicole just went with it. It's symbolized in their parting scene where Luke makes Nicole walk away from him while he watches her leave, as though living a Noir scene of a movie he had memorized in Pariscope. She willfully complies!

Must say was slightly relieved to finish it. And quite aptly finished in travelling in Turkey in the meander river basin, the river that gave us the word meandering just what the book did in its latter half. 
As a plot and characterizations quite thin actually, not one of Dyer’s best, and slightly stretched, otherwise a good read, the usual Dyer positives apply, enjoyable in most parts. I loved some of the Parisian images the book evoked, Dyer's view of Englishness and the coffeeshop flags conversation. Even Dyer can’t convince me that the said conversation didn’t really happened in his life.