I am literature – Kafka’s life and extreme ambition

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Reiner Stach: Die Kafka-Biographie in drei Bänden (English titles: Kafka: The Early Years, Kafka: The Years of Insight, Kafka: The Decisive Years). ISBN 978-3-10-397256-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Few non-fiction works have given me the satisfaction that this biography of Franz Kafka gave me. The original German edition counts some 1800 pages, spread over three volumes, and each page was an adventure. Rainer Stach combines a thorough scientific study of Kafka’s life and works with masterful story-telling. His sound knowledge of the history of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire allows him to put Kafka’s life in a precise philosophical, political and sociological context. And Stach’s outstanding literary talent made it possible to write a witty, emphatic biography while maintaining the necessary distance to the subject at the same time.

What shall I say? This is certainly the best biography I have read so far and most likely one of the best books I have read. What impressed me, was the consistency of the ideas that guide the reader through the three volumes. Kafka was an enigmatic person, no doubt, but it is possible to decrypt both him and his works, if not to the last detail then at least well enough to understand Kafka’s states of mind, his motives, his ambitions and the obstacles that prevented him from becoming a successful author during his lifetime, obstacles he set up mostly himself.

The second and third volume are brim-full of bookmarks and annotations of mine, so where should I start? Perhaps with Kafka’s ambition which at the same time was what he considered the purpose of his life. Kafka was looking for the utmost depth of his soul, the hidden truths inside himself, pure and therefore honest. He looked so hard that on many occasions he lost himself. Catapulted into a state of extreme introspection, he found bits and pieces of his essence at the level of his subconsciousness. He combined this with a precise observation of his environment, the society of Prague, the psychological workings of his dysfunctional family and metaphors they inspired to him. And just like in a black box, through an unintelligible process, out came a book, a letter, a note in one of his many drafting booklets.

It could take years until a coherent text took shape, but once the black-box was triggered Kafka would write day and night until total exhaustion. As you may know, he almost never finished a text. Most of his novels end abruptly and leave the reader somewhat speechless, like “The Castle”. Sometimes Kafka wrote chapters for a novel without knowing where to insert them. I remember the chapters at the end of  “The Trial”. They illustrate certain parts of the plot, but you can either read them or not. Kafka himself was unsure.

Kafka intended to replicate life in literature and at the same time literature was his life. As Stach writes, one of the forces that propelled Kafka’s writing forward was “the reciprocal concentration of fantasy and reality”, well visible in Kafka’s novel “Metamorphosis”. This however was an extreme challenge, as Kafka recognized himself. To his fiancée Felice he once wrote: “The outer world is too small, too obvious, too authentic to hold all that is encapsulated in one human being.”

One of Kafka’s central issue was the subject of social exclusion. He always felt like the odd man out – in his family, at school, in his job as an insurance expert, in the literary scene of Prague, in the Jewish community, a stranger among humans. And this was by no means just an attitude. Stach describes it as an affliction, a lifelong burden and a lifelong source of inspiration. More than once Kafka feared to turn mad, trapped by the conflicting forces that tore at his soul, but suicide was never an issue as this would not have been compatible with his ambition. He could not withdraw from the life-long experiment labeled “I am literature”.

Kafka’s desire to write something completely truthful, perfectly reflecting his ideas and emotions let him to hone his writing skill over decades, leading to an aesthetic concept marked by an extreme density, a meticulous choice of words and metaphors and a stark, sober style when it came to descriptions. It was Kafka’s language that enthralled me, it was his symbolism that captivated my mind and it was Stach’s biography that helped me understand both the man and his works. With Kafka I discovered a whole world, his world, and at the same time I received a code to decypher modern-day sociological issues that are not very different from the issues at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Kafka had no interest in classical music and told his friend Max Brod he could not distinguish Franz Lehar’s operette “The Merry Widow” from Richard Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde”. Prague was the geographical centre of Kafka’s life and so I’d like to link this outstanding biography to an outstanding Czech composer, Leos Janacek, who benefited of Brod’s support, and his String Quartet No. 1:

Entangled in Janacek’s tragedies and love affairs

Rescueing America’s Middle Class – A Woman’s Mission

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Antonia Felix: Elizabeth Warren. Her Fight. Her Work. Her Life. ISBN 978-1-4926-6528-1 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ I had no idea how much I would love this book. It was fun to read, and it gave me an excellent insight into the plight of the American middle class, a fundamental factor in understanding how somebody like Donald Trump could become president of the United States. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s story, told by Antonia Felix, reminded me of Karl Marx’ description of how factory owners exploited factory workers in the 19th century and how the proletariat got caught in the trap of low-income, no education and no chance to rise from misery. An informed account of social injustice and the economic mechanism behind it.

Don’t get me wrong. Warren is not a Communist, not even what the Americans call a “Socialist”. She is labeled sometimes a “dangerous liberal”, and her Republican opponents mean it as an insult. But this only adds to her credibility. She is dangerous for selfish, arrogant politicians and bank CEOs, not for common mortals. Actually Warren is very much in favor of the market economy. She is also a staunch defender of the level playing field that should give all Americans a realistic and equal chance to live the “American Dream”. And there you have it: The playing field is not level. As a scholar she studied the income situation of the middle class for decades. She initiated the first large field study to find out why households file for bankruptcy. Investigating what circumstances pushed households over the cliff became her academic mission.

Losers and winners

Globalization divided the United States into losers and winners, it turned Main Street against Wall Street. The unbridled capitalism, marked by a deregulated banking sector and highly fragile financial constructions, proved to be one of the traps in which the middle class got caught. Lay-offs and the lack of adequate social security were part of the problem. Another element was the easy money that flooded US consumer pockets. You have bills to pay? Use the credit card? You default on your credit card? Take another credit card! Never mind that the bank will charge you outrageous fees later. And African-Americans and Latinx become more easily a prey for ruthless lenders as they are more often targeted by such lenders and often lack the education to see the trap closing.

Then there is the housing issue. A house in a good neighbourhood – one with a good school and other public infrastructure – is an expensive investment. Mortgage financing seems to be the quick and easy solution. But many are not aware of the dangers and the expertise needed to work through the paperwork. Add the risk that many take in refinancing their consumer credits through their mortgage. A grim picture. “Americans are drowning in debt”, Felix writes. “One in four families say they are worried about how they will pay their credit card bills this month […] Last year [2017], 1.2 millions families lost their homes in foreclosure.”

On the brink of poverty

A situation all too familiar to Senator Warren. She grew up in a poor family in Oklahoma. Both parents had to work, and at some moment, their home was at risk. Young Elizabeth was expected to marry a good man and not to start expensive studies to become a teacher as she wished. Gender roles were an issue, but already as a young girl, Elizabeth Warren knew how to persist. Persist – it became one of her winning formulas and quite a few members of Congress and staffers at the White House have experienced Warren’s tenacity. She became an outstanding researcher and teacher wining multiple awards.

Warren’s desire to learn and to teach brought her to the pinnacle of law studies in America: Harvard. However Warren’s career did not stop there. Having situational awareness is one thing. Finding ways and means to remedy the situation is another. But is it the job of a Harvard scholar? Warren’s expertise, her savvy use of TV shows and her publications made her a well-known person all over the United States. And soon after the financial crisis, Democrats from Washington started to reach out to her. In her youth she had been a Republican, her study of the consequences of “laissez-faire” capitalism have converted her.

A scholar turned politician

In October 2008, Congress authorized 700 billion US dollars to stabilize the economy through the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). It targeted the failing banking sector, and Warren joined the Bankruptcy Review Commission to supervise the implementation of TARP. She got a first taste of Washington politics and was appalled. It was all about saving the banks, and still no one cared about those who had their savings and pensions wiped out. She wrote a brilliant article with the title “Unsafe at Any Rate” and requested safety standards for credit card contracts and mortgages similar to those in force for electrical appliances, toasters for example. At the end of a long political battle stood the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, announced by President Barack Obama in 2011.

Partisan infighting prevented Warren to become the agency’s first director as Republicans had vowed to take the agency down, no matter what the political costs were. And a retired senator, Barbara Mikulski, gave Warren a piece of advice: “Don’t get mad; get elected.” What she did. After some hesitations, she resigned from her post in Harvard and went on an election campaign targeting the people who were the subject of her studies: the impoverished and weakened middle class that did not seem to have a champion in Washington.

Serving the people

Warren’s desire to serve the average American has become her hallmark. She appears genuine in championing this cause, and it’s a worthy, noble cause. She knows as much about the issues at hand as anyone in the United States. As a senator she forged bipartisan bills by reaching out to other female senators with common sense. She has a strong sense of community, visible to anyone who cares to watch, and being elected twice to the Senate proves that she stands a chance to accomplish even more. A “Washington Post” writer has her in the first slot of the Democrat’s candidates for the presidential elections in 2020. People like Elizabeth Warren do not claim to make America great again. People like Elizabeth Warren actually make America a better place.

Female heroes are not exactly abundant in classical music, but this does not mean that they do not exist at all. Judith, who gave her name to a chapter of the Old Testament, is such a hero, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed at the age of 15 “La Betulia Liberata”, an oratorio about Judith’s deeds:

A Mozart oratorio about women empowerment

Controversial Notes About an Embattled Composer

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Solomon Volkov (Ed.): Testimony. The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich. ISBN 978-0-571-22792 ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Such a thrilling book! Brimfull with interesting details and funny anecdotes. Written in a riveting style. My insight into the motives and emotions, my understanding of the brilliant mind of one of my favourite composers grew in leaps. A fascinating life, full of contradictions, marked by sorrow and joy, desperation and optimism, narrated by Dmitry Shostakovich himself. If only I could be sure that these memoirs are authentic.

Since the book was published by Solomon Volkov in 1979, the discussion has been raging. Is the story, as Volkov renders it, true? Volkov claimed it all happened very quickly, since the composer wanted to give his version of the story as he sensed hus own death. He and Shostakovich would have met between 1972 and 1973 for several lengthy interview sessions, and Volkov claimed to have scrupulously noted the composers memories, explanations etc. The manuscript apparently was smuggled into the West, and was to be published after the composer’s death. Volkov has been challenged by musicologists to share the original notes, which he refused to do.

So did Volkov make it all up? He and Shostakovich were well acquainted, and several witnesses confirmed that the two met several times to write Shostakovich’s memoirs. The common project’s goal was to portray composer caught between party loyality and creativity. To shed some light on the ideological constraints that Shostakovich sometimes accepted and sometimes overcame, at great personal risks, at least as long as Stalin lived.

Volkov shows the composer as a clandestine opponent to the Soviet system, his music being full of hidden allusions about Stalin’s tyranny. He casts Shostakovich as an implaccable accuser of Soviet (un)cultural policies, an eyewitness of the destruction of Russia’s artistic heritage in the name of “Socialist Realism”, the official cultural ideology. A riskless endeavour once Shostakovich was dead – he died in 1975 – and Volkov safely lived in the United States.

But is this Shostakovich narrating his life or Volkov narrating Shostakovich’s life? The New York musicologist Laurel Fay identified eight passages in the book which she asserts had been copied by Volkov from articles or speeches previously published by Shostakovich. This casts a shadow over the authenticity of the whole book. Volkov’s refusal to share the original notes, apparently reviewed by the composer, makes it hard to tell where Shostakovich ends and Volkov begins.

In 1990, the biographer Ian MacDonald published “The New Shostakovich” explaining the composer’s life and work within the context of Soviet history. The picture painted by Volkov gains some credibility, but it doesn’t mean Shostakovich said what Volkov wrote. MacDonald pointed out that the composer’s son Maxim, who had repudiated Volkov’s account while he still lived in the Soviet Union, had endorsed “Testimony” after his emigration.

Testimony, pitching the personal memory of an embattled individual against the official memory of an all-powerful state, is contentious to the last full stop”, MacDonald writes. He recommends to approach it with caution. The Soviet Union officially denounced Volkov’s book as a fabrication, MacDonald sees it as a provoking piece of counter-propaganda. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle and remains fuzzy. That was the state of play then, and it will remain so for the near future, I guess. It doesn’t matter actually. Reading this book gave me a lot of pleasure, and, as they say in Italy: Se non e vero, e ben trovato.

Since Shostakovich’s memoirs are such a controversial issue, let’s see, here is a controversial piece, Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77:

Shostakovich crosses the desert of solitude

Life and Works of an Avant-Garde Composer

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Jean-Michel Nectoux: Fauré. ISBN 978-2020234887 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ I recently fell in love. With the music of a composer I had chosen to ignore for reasons I can’t quite understand. Gabriel Fauré. An outstanding composer. A man who most of the time underrated himself and his music. A man, trained as a church musician dared to fuse the compositional traditions of Renaissance and Baroque music with modern symphonic or chamber music.

The discovery of Fauré led me to buy a number of recordings – and on my music blog you will soon see more about that – and to look for a short introduction into the life and works of this man. I found this short book (256 pages) by Jean-Michel Nectoux, a condensed version of a more substantial biography (847 pages) he wrote. An excellent choice. I read it in one stretch, over a weekend. Worth the money for anyone interested in this avant-garde composer.

To get a feeling for Fauré’s music I suggest you try his Cello Sonata No. 2 in G minor:

Fauré builts a bridge into musical modernity

Portrait of an Unknown Composer and Pianist

Cora Irsen: Die charmante Unbekannte – Marie Jaëll. ISBN 978-3-7374-0241-5. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Those of you who follow my music blog are aware of the fact that I am currently promoting female composers to do justice to their undeniable talent and to reflect a more accurate picture of music history. The dominance of male composers from the 17th century until today may reflect men’s dominance in society, but intellectual integrity commands me to present the other facet of the creative process in music.

The German pianist Cora Irsen (born in 1974) has championed the cause of the French pianist and composer Marie Jaëll. She has recorded all of Jaëll’s piano works and through arduous research work compiled a small, but highly instructive biography. Let me just sketch a few highlight’s of Jaëll’s life: She was born in eastern France (Alsace), a region traditionally bilingual (French/German). She was a child prodigy and performed as a young girl works by Ludwig van Beethoven and Robert Schumann. Later she became acquainted with Franz Liszt and Camille de Saint-Saëns, two composers that encouraged her to become a professional composer.

As long as Marie was married to Albert Jaëll, a virtuosic pianist and a friend of both Liszt and Saint-Saëns, she would however stick to her pianist career; husband and wife would often perform together. The French-Prussian war in 1870/71, the loss of Alsace to Germany and the humiliation of France put Marie Jaëll at the centre of a personal dilemma: Can you love German music when German troops occupy your home country? She would stay away from Germany from some time, but another dilemma occupied her mind: Performing with her husband kept her from composing.

After the death of her husband, Marie Jaëll was free to embark on a new life and I will stop here, otherwise you will have no reason to read the book or to follow my posts about Marie Jaëll on my music blog. What is remarkable about Jaëll is her passion, the courage she mustered to pursue her dream in a society that frowned upon the strange relationship between Marie and Albert, an intellectual and an emotional one, and who must have frowned even more upon the liberty Marie claimed for herself to associate with other male composers and the intimate friendship she developed with some like Liszt, who not only was a composer and star pianist, but also an ordained priest.

Cora Irsen has rendered musicologists and music students a great service in digging through Marie Jaëll’s correspondence and diaries to investigate the life of an exceptional woman. A woman celebrated at her time, but quickly forgotten after her death. One of Jaëll’s masterworks is a piano cycle inspired from Dante Alighieri’s “Divina Commedia”:

Piano music from paradise, written by a woman