December 2008 Archives

Book Review: "The Metamorphosis"
December 29, 2008 6:23 PM | Posted in:

When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.

Thus begins Franz Kafka's novella, The Metamorphosis, as translated from the original German by Stanley Corngold. The rest of the story is spent describing the remainder of Gregor's short and painful existence as a giant bug (the proper translation of the German phrase, ungeheueres Ungeziefer ñ Corngold's "monstrous vermin" ñ is the subject of ongoing debate among those who have too much time on their hands) living in the tiny bedroom of his family's apartment.

I chose to read The Metamorphosis as a part of my Exploring Our Personal Library project. I can't remember when I last read it, but I had forgotten - possibly on purpose - its depressing existentialism. The story, written by Kafka in 1915, exemplifies the narratives of dreary and surreal life that marked his work to the extent that the author's very name has become an adjective: Kafkaesque.

I had also forgotten that this particular translation of the story contains extensive expositions, clarifications, debates, and illuminating material apparently designed to tell us what the author was really trying to tell us. The book is 200 pages in length; the novella itself consumes only 55 of them.

He died of tuberculosis in 1924, and most of his works were published after his death. Nevertheless, entire careers seem to have been built around the study of Kafka's relatively short bibliography, and even today literary scholars continue to debate meanings and implications. I think Kafka would be bemused and amused (if he ever was amused at anything). After all, he gave instructions to a friend to burn all of his manuscripts upon his death. (His friend justified ignoring those instructions with the rationale that Kafka had given them specifically to the one person he knew would ignore them. I sense a promising political career.)

Kafka himself was not impressed with The Metamorphosis. In his personal diary, entries from 1913 and 1914 read, respectively, I am now reading [the story] at home and find it bad. and Unreadable ending. Imperfect almost to the foundation.

Indeed, the story itself is really secondary to the author's single-minded devotion to his craft, and to the almost mystical aura that modern critics have constructed around Kafka's life and motivations.

It's depressing to think that writing greatness requires such depression. I'd much rather think that writing is fun, but I'm apparently too naive to ever become a "serious writer."

Book Review: "Wandering Stars"
December 16, 2008 6:20 PM | Posted in:

Avid science fiction readers are familiar with several common themes: good-humored adaptation to inhospitable conditions by people who didn't ask to be there; unfamiliar languages, customs, and alien or inscrutable jargon; the guiding, intervention, or oversight by unseen-but-powerful forces and/or beings; and the triumph against insurmountable odds by those armed with little more than intelligence and wit. Given those themes, the only question one might have about an anthology of Jewish fantasy and science fiction is, "and for what meshugge reason is it that we should have shpilkess waiting for such a thing?"

Wandering Stars: An Anthology of Jewish Fantasy and Science Fiction is a collection of thirteen short stories originally published in 1974. Via the preceding link you can order the 1998 paperback edition, but I had the pleasure of reading the original hardback version*. This anthology, edited by Jack Dann and with an introduction by Isaac Asimov, contains four stories written expressly for the collection, but the others span a considerable stretch of history, dating back to Horace L. Gold's Trouble With Water which was originally published in 1939.

If you're a sci-fi aficionado, you'll probably recognize all the authors: William Tenn, Avram Davidson, Robert Sheckley, Pamela Sargent, Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, Isaac Asimov, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and more. The stories are uneven in quality, and too many of them feature caricatured aliens who would have been right at home in the Star Wars Cantina scene, but there's enough meat overall to make a satisfying ñ if quick ñ literary meal.

Several of the authors focused on such fundamental questions as what does it mean to be Jewish? and who can rightfully claim to be a Jew? As you might guess, those questions generally involved non-human lifeforms, and the answers generally eventually fell on the side of inclusiveness.

I mentioned the jargon that's an essential part of science fiction. Readers of Wandering Stars would be well served by the ability to read Yiddish and Hebrew, although the context of the scattering of foreign (to me) words generally permits accurate comprehension. Interestingly, while Harlan Ellison provides his "Grammatical Guide and Glossary for Goyim" at the end of I'm Looking for Kadak, that's the final story in the collection. I'd have been better served if it had come first so I could have referred to it while working out the nuances of schlemiel, schlemazel, and schmuck (if you'll pardon my, um, French).

It also helps to have some passing familiarity with the great names of Jewish scholarly and rabbinical history (which, again, I don't) like Hillel and Shammai, and of the great villains like Haman and, of course, he who shall not be named.

I found Wandering Stars to be satisfying on several levels, both as someone who likes a good sci-fi yarn every now and then, and also as one who takes seriously any race designated as God's chosen people (even if some of the authors themselves would scoff at that designation). The pleasure of re-reading this book was enhanced by the fact that I thought I'd lost it years ago.

*Holding a long lost book in your hands is an experience that the Kindle will never replace. Also, finding forgotten handwritten notes inside a book jacket that stimulate memories - or raise questions - is a wonderful thing. Inside this book is this cryptic phrase: "For Siggy Poo, Mitzi, 8/77." My recollection is that I found this book at the old Half Price Bookstore on McKinney Avenue (?) in Dallas, but that note contains enough vaguely familiar meaning to make me second-guess myself.

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