May 302014

MetamorphosisAn adaptation of Franz Kafka‘s story. The Beav and I saw it at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto. The director and main actors were Icelandic.

Metamorphosis is not an obvious text to adapt for the stage. Until its final paragraphs, the text limits its point of view to that of Gregor Samson, who has transformed into a bug, cannot communicate with others, and spends most of the story trapped alone with his thoughts inside his room.

The play obviously has to invent material that can be watched for an hour and a half. It accomplishes this in two ways: by staging Gregor’s experience in his room as a circus played out on the walls and ceiling of his upstairs room and by reading every reference the story makes to the family as a script for a very spare, very modern family drama.

The circus was amazing to watch. Gregor literally crawls the walls and the ceiling of his room. Midway through the first act, I began to wonder how the actor could keep up physically with the performance. It was that intense.

Metamorphosis at the Sydney Theatre

The actors in the family drama sounded very much like Björk does when she gives interviews. Now, I love Björk (and Dancer in the Dark was crazy good) but this accent plus the very stiff but exaggerated action was off-putting. I felt as if Gregor’s world upstairs was imaginative and energetic and the family’s world downstairs was community theatre. And yet clearly this difference was intentional: the family’s performance was controlled and purposeful and slowly evolved, until by the end, the family drama had come alive. Their final moments together in the gardens were quite moving.

Oct 042013

I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you read it? Good God, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves,… A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us…

–Franz Kafka

 Kafka on the Soul  October 4, 2013  Tagged with:
Aug 222011

Explosion in a CathedralI’ve now read enough of Carpentier to have a sense of what he is up to in his fiction. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read, been impressed by its scope. But I am also much more aware of its limits and repetitions.

Carpentier–more than almost any writer I can think of–has a project and develops it relentlessly. The Kingdom of this World, The Lost Steps and this novel are all very much of the same kind, working in the same way, striking the same tone. This is history compressed and told at a distance. It exists as the context to the four or five acts that together constitute the drama of the protagonist’s life. That life is invariably incidental to the history that frames it but is also hopelessly involved in and buffeted by it. Each of these novels read as an album of exemplary vignettes pulled from the life of that character in order to say something (or provide an occasion for the narrator to say something) about history.

(This description echoes definitions of tragedy, but Carpentier is not a tragic writer. I saw Carlos Fuentes speaking of his own novels at Metropolis Blue. He cited Carpentier and Faulkner as his major influences but specifically credited Faulkner with offering him the tragic sense necessary to write about Latin American history.)

Interestingly, the same pattern holds true in a reduced but telling way in Carpentier’s early novella, The Chase. As it is in the novels, the history is withheld from the character. He isn’t sure what is happening to him or why. But unlike in the novels, the same information is also kept from the reader. In fact, there are clues suggesting that the character may know more than the reader. With this shift in the point-of-view, the reader moves through the story without knowledge of its larger context. The character is buffeted and harassed, but his life–and that harassment–appear senseless. The resulting tone is paranoid as befits life in a police state. The obscurity of it all–and this is related to Kafka surely–seems to encourage an allegorical (i.e. mystifying?) reading of the book.

Perhaps the poles of Carpentier’s fiction are ignorance/paranoia and knowledge/escape.

You need to be interested in Carpentier’s historical-political project to be interested in his novels beyond his development of technique or their influence. For now, I’m not.

N.B. Many people believe Explosion in a Cathedral is Carpentier’s best novel. I prefer The Lost Steps. It’s much more humane and suggestive, much less expository.

June 2011. Hospet, India