The Girl With Another Book on the Shelf

Mostly when I read what I am looking for is challenging, interesting, deep, thoughtful writing that affects and changes me by the act of reading it. But sometimes I am tired and there is only so much examination of the human condition a person can take. Sometimes you need a break, sometimes you need a little junk food, and this is my junk food of choice.

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I read the first of the Millennium trilogy and thought it was merely okay, then read the second and third and got hooked on it. The first book is like a really sadistic episode of Murder She Wrote, but the rest of the series gets really good when it focuses on Salander’s history and the tangled mess she is in the middle of. I knew that Larsson had died after writing these books, but I had also heard that he had sketched out ideas for a whole series of further books. As it turns out the first three books form a complete narrative and if there had never been any more than those they would still stand alone as a finished trilogy. I was glad it was so complete, but would have loved to have had some more.

So then a couple of years later David Lagercrantz was invited to carry on the series and we do in fact get some more. I was talking to a friend of mine who had really liked the originals and I was saying that I had enjoyed the new one. He said it wasn’t anywhere near as good as the originals. And he’s right, it wasn’t. But it was good enough. Some of the fire seems to have gone out of them and they read like The Further Adventures of Lisbeth and Mikael – like high quality fan-fiction – but still, good enough.

What I hadn’t realised when reading the first of the Lagercrantz series, was how much controversy there was surrounding these books, with his partner opposing them being written at all, and his family, who inherited the estate, allowing the publisher to go ahead with more.

The posthumous wishes of writers not being honoured is an interesting subject. Ever since I heard about Max Brod completely reneging on his promise to prevent a load of Kafka’s work being released, it’s hard to read those books without a sense of transgression. Of reading something you shouldn’t be reading. It makes me feel a little naughty. But The Trial has been such a touchstone for me as a writer, such a source of inspiration and courage, that I’d be a lot poorer without it.

And then recently there was the story about Terry Pratchett’s wish to have his computer smashed with a steamroller so that the unfinished work would never be seen. His wish was carried out, and this seems entirely fair and respectful. I have some crappy half-finished stories on my hard drive that I’d rather people didn’t see. Of course reading Pratchett’s half-finished, unpublished work would be interesting for anyone that loves his books, but would it diminish him? Letting him define his own legacy seems a pretty reasonable thing to do.

But the Larsson/Lagercrantz books are a different kind of thing. Whatever these new Millennium books might be, they have almost nothing to do with what Larsson would have written had he been around to do so, and it’s worth keeping the separation between them clear. A bit like the Anthony Horowitz Sherlock Holmes books. They are good and all, but not canon. Larsson’s original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy deserves to be thought of in its own terms, and these new books are like a little extra treat for anyone that wants it. And I want it, because there aren’t many books of this type that I really enjoy and like I said, I need a break from the ongoing examination of the human condition.

Spurious, by Lars Iyer

I found this book while browsing in Waterstone’s one afternoon last year. I was just picking up books at random and flipping through them and read a chunk of dialogue in this one wherein two characters are talking about Kafka. That’s all it took for me to want to buy it. Then it sat on my shelf for ages while I was reading other things before I finally got around to it.

It’s a simple set up; two intellectuals – clever enough to recognise how clever they aren’t – chattering away for two hundred pages. If that sounds dull, it really isn’t. One, Lars, is battling with an ever worsening damp problem that is slowly taking over his flat. The other, his friend W., spends his time reading books in languages he doesn’t understand very well and pontificating endlessly. It reminded me of Waiting for Godot and Withnail and I. W. spends a good deal of the book belittling Lars, which is tempered by the fact that he is equally critical of himself. He says they are both Max Brod in search of a Kafka. They are not geniuses, but are merely equipped enough to recognise genius when they see it.

It’s very funny in places and plain unsettling in others. The damp problem that reaches epic proportions by the end of the novel runs parallel to the stagnation of their lives. The characters end the book in much the same position that they started it, but in that time the walls of the flat have become irreparable and all the rusted kitchen appliances are strewn about the place.

The humour resides in W.’s pomposity and is entertainingly written. He’s an odd character, sharply critical of others but taking an unusual amount of pleasure in his own failures. A scene in which he finds the shoddy publication, distribution and promotion of his own book hilarious shows a man not only resigned to a lack of success, but almost deliberately planning for it. By deciding that what is required is genius, something you either have or do not, he can revel in the absurdity of his own life.

Very enjoyable, well written and funny. It supports my theory that if you open a book at a random page and see the word ‘Kafka’ you should buy it instantly.

Would Kafka get published today?

I read a really interesting quote in this article. Attributed to a nameless leading literary agent, it said that he or she doubted that Kafka would get published in today’s publishing world. I don’t want to openly disagree with a professional, especially not a leading one, but I do wonder if this would really be the case. Maybe it is my fan-boyish love of Kafka obscuring what is perhaps a very sound, industry-savvy opinion, but his writing doesn’t seem, to me anyway, to conform to the commonly held view that literary fiction is less accessible now than it was in years gone by.

Reading through pages and pages of writers tips and advice, such as I do, tells me that all writing needs to begin right in the thick of the action. That any sort of meandering exposition, colourful scene-setting or decorative writing that doesn’t make the story happen right now will mean that the bookshop browser will never read beyond the first sentence because a jaw breaking yawn will immediately occur. In fact, according to those same websites, that could never happen because a book that takes its time over getting the story started won’t ever make it as far as a bookshop. If it sounds like I disagree, well, I don’t. Conflict and characters are the main components of fiction and any book that drags its feet runs a very serious risk of being boring. And no one likes boring.

But the thing is this isn’t a new idea. This isn’t the product of two decades of MTV, videogames and the general degradation of our attention spans. Boring is as boring now as it was before and so beginning a story in the thick of the action is a pretty old method of getting a story going. It even has its own name. In media res. That’s Latin for ‘into the middle of things’ and Latin has been a dead language for a really long time. That’s how old an idea it is. Certainly old enough for Kafka to know about it.

‘Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.’

That’s the opening line to Kafka’s The Trial. Seems fairly immediate to me. The rest of the book hangs off of that opening line. The Trial is essentially a high-concept novel. When I was at college high-concept was a fairly derisive term, used to describe films like Groundhog Day. Entertaining, easy, but with no particular artistic merit. But high-concept does not have to be synonymous with lack of depth. In fact, conversely, high-concept can yield greater depth. By focusing sharply on that which is important you can drill down much deeper.

If immediacy, plot and conflict are the components of a successful contemporary book I think The Trial would fit in just fine. But is it as simple as that? I might have a love of high-concept-high-depth (high-depth? might need to re-think that…) but it’s not like those are the only types of stories that are being published and finding their way onto my shelf of books I liked enough to not give away to a charity shop. Another of my favourite books, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle  by Haruki Murakami, is glacially paced and has a plot so obscure it is hard to describe it to people in any sort of way that makes it sound appealing.

Possibly pace isn’t the only contributing factor. There might be other reasons why Kafka wouldn’t be published today. Classics can be inaccessible when the language used is dated and obscure, when the fictitious world isn’t recognisable to us and when the tropes the writing assumes are no longer automatically present in the readers heads. There’s not really a lot we can do about that. Cultural shifts will inevitably cause a disconnect between writing and an audience that didn’t exist at the time of its creation. Even when writing focuses on fundamental themes the gradual evolution of language makes those themes harder to uncover.

So perhaps Kafka would have been published today and perhaps he wouldn’t. Anyone working in the publishing industry would be better placed than me to make a judgement on that. Today’s book releases might well have such a bias toward commercial, salable fiction that there wouldn’t have been any room for him. Anyone seeking to write a book that sells a million copies probably isn’t looking to Kafka for inspiration. But I’d like to think that selling a million copies isn’t the only reason to write a novel.