Sunday 29 October 2017

Kafka, Rosamond Lehmann, Madame de Sévigné

I feel like reading Kafka's story The Great Wall of China for its irremediable joy and remove. Why are we building this wall? Does anyone know? There is, they say, a director far away. Instead I am reading Rosamond Lehmann's The Swan in the Evening, english literary memoir circa 1960, cushioning myself in an era just before mine, the one to which my parents aspired. I am always one step ahead or behind.

The letters of Madame de Sévigné to her daughter would not come amiss right now. I like to imagine Madame en carosse through France in the seventeenth century, always a long way from her daughter. My copy, leather-bound and marbled, second in the series "L'âme de la femme" published in 1927, came to me from a woman who invited me to tea when I was newly arrived in Paris in 1968; she lived in the rue de Vaugirard, the longest road in Paris, for many years. Along with the letters of Madame de Sévigné, I inherited ten years later three white linen cushion covers. I don't often read french any more, but when I do there's a clarity like late Mozart, with a dose of Proust, who adored Madame de Sévigné, and the length of the rue de Vaugirard, as I walked toward tea. Open Madame de Sévigné anywhere and there's her daughter.
A Vichy, dimanche 24 mai 1676 
Je suis ravie, en vérité, quand je reçois de vos lettres, ma chère enfant: elles sont si aimables, que je ne puis me résoudre à jouir toute seule du plaisir de les lire
Rosamond Lehmann had a daughter who died of polio in Java aged 24. After that she everything she wrote was a form of resurrection. I can go along with that in the middle of the night, for a night or two, but not in the afternoon.
Kafka wrote in 1904 to his friend Oskar Pollak: "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 on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God we would be 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 we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.

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