Two Short Talks by Anne Carson: An Appreciation
In 2010 I purchased a copy of the seventh edition of Anne Carson’s first poetry collection, Short Talks (Brick Books, 1992), at Toronto’s Word on the Street. I opened the slim book as soon as I stepped away from the Brick Books stall and stood reading under an oak. I was rapt from the first page of the Introduction:
“In a good story, Aristotle tells us, everything that happens is pushed by something else …the plant called audacity that poets mistake for violets… I will do anything to avoid boredom… You can never know enough, work enough, use infinitives and participles oddly enough….” I felt pushed, prodded, pressed. Oddly undressed.
Carson’s short talks have been called essays, narrative verses, riddle-poems. To me they read as micro truths, sometimes tiny splices of auto/biography. Of the 45 pieces in the volume, none is longer than one page and several no longer than a few lines. The shortest, “Short Talk on Gertrude Stein at 9:30 p.m.,” is nine words. They look like prose—set in narrow, justified columns—and speak mostly in a plain, laconic voice, yet wax lyrical too, and command the galvanic authority of a prophet on a mountaintop. The topics are as unstrung and quirkily diverse as “Homo Sapiens,” “Hopes,” “Housing,” “Hölderlin,” and “Hedonism.” In other words, as broad as history and evolution, philosophy, travel, art, illness, and Who You Are.
The whole small volume is an astonishment. But two talks in particular have accompanied me: “Short Talk on Rectification” and “Short Talk on Waterproofing.”
Short Talk on Rectification
Kafka liked to have his watch an hour
and a half fast. Felice kept setting it
right. Nonetheless for five years they
almost married. He made a list of
arguments for and against marriage,
including inability to bear the assault of
his own life (for) and the sight of the
nightshirts laid out on his parents’ beds
at 10.30 (against). Haemorrhage saved
him. When advised not to speak by
doctors in the sanatorium, he left glass
sentences all over the floor. Felice,
says one of them, had too much naked-
ness left in her.
Short Talk on Waterproofing
Franz Kafka was Jewish. He had a sis-
ter, Ottla, Jewish. Ottla married a
jurist, Josef David, not Jewish. When
the Nuremburg laws were introduced
to Bohemia-Moravia in 1942, quiet
Ottla suggested to Josef David that
they divorce. He at first refused. She
spoke about sleep shapes and property
and their two daughters and a rational
approach. She did not mention,
because she did not yet know the
word, Auschwitz, where she would die
in October 1943. After putting the
apartment in order she packed a ruck-
sack and was given a good shoeshine
by Josef David. He applied a coat of
grease. Now they are waterproof, he
Both poems are about Franz Kafka (1883-1924)—the first about Franz and his two-time fiancée Felice Bauer (1887-1960); the second, by extension, about his youngest sister Ottla (1892-1943). When I first read Short Talks, I happened to be researching Kafka for a biography course, so the content of the talks was familiar to me, and very resonant. Struggling as I was to distill his life for a projected one-hour presentation, I was amazed anew by what could be contained and conveyed about a subject (and its presenter) through spare foregrounding of information, and ellipsis. Carson’s choice omission of detail exerts a potent force, the unsaid looming over the said. And a large part of my experience of these pieces has been to ‘live into’ the unsaid, the alluded to. To reconstruct the bigger picture.
The “Short Talk on Rectification” is a sonnet-length piece of fourteen lines comprising five sentences. ** The first two sentences address a Kafka idiosyncrasy and his girlfriend Felice’s way of dealing with it: “Kafka liked to have his watch an hour / and a half fast. Felice kept setting it / right.” These lines are a rephrasing of Kafka’s own words from his diary entry of January 24, 1915. He and Felice were vacationing in Bodenbach, Germany at the time of this snippet and Kafka spoke openly about it in his ‘private’ writing, which he frequently did of such things—in contrast to his restrained and enigmatic meant-for-public work. The actual entry says: “I think it impossible for us ever to unite… I yield not a particle of my demand for a fantastic life arranged in the interest of my work, she, indifferent to every mute request, wants the average: a comfortable home… good food, bed at eleven, central heating; sets my watch—which for the past three months has been an hour and a half fast—right to the minute….” (Diaries 1910-1923, edited by Max Brod, Schocken Books, 1948; 1976).
“Nonetheless,” writes Carson in her next sentence, “for five years / they almost married.” The adverb “nonetheless” sums it up. Despite significant differences in personality, values, and goals, Franz and Felice were engaged to be married twice. They carried on a tortuous, mostly epistolary five-year relationship—meeting only briefly for a few days here and there. Felice saved more than 500 of Kafka’s letters (Kafka saved none of hers), which she sold to Schocken Books of New York in 1955, after ill-health left her in dire straits. They were published in English translation in1973. At nearly 600 small-print pages, they exceed the length of Kafka’s novels combined and provide a wealth of biographical information. They are also recognized as a uniquely imaginative creation in which Franz and Felice are the main dramatis personae.
At the beginning of the relationship, Franz was the wooer and Felice the pursued. He admired her strength and self-sufficiency—qualities he felt lacking in himself. Felice bolstered his confidence as a writer. She was his muse. Days after his first letter to her, he penned his ‘breakthrough’ story “The Judgement,” which he dedicated to her. This gave way to an intensely productive writing period that included the completion of “The Stoker,” “The Metamorphosis,” and “In the Penal Colony”—works he was sufficiently satisfied with to publish.
Yet even as Kafka wooed Felice, he dithered. She was a straightforward young bourgeois woman who wanted to marry, have children, and enjoy a stable home life. In this she embodied the conflict Franz carried within—between himself, his family, his class, and society at large. As soon as she drew too near, she became a threat to his life as writer, and he wavered. Carson addresses his indecision in her fourth sentence: “He made a list of / arguments for and against marriage, / including inability to bear the assault of / his own life (for) and the sight of the / nightshirts laid out on his parents’ beds / at 10:30 (against).” The arguments are listed in Kafka’s diary entry of July 21, 1913. Seven in all. And even the argument “for” comes with a hedge. In Kafka’s own words: “I am incapable, alone, of bearing the assaults of my own life, the demands of my own person, the attacks of time and old age… sleeplessness, the nearness of insanity—I cannot bear all this alone. I naturally add a ‘perhaps’ to this…” —“perhaps” being the operative word. Kafka was aware of his “block and tackle” maneuvers. He may have admired Felice’s strength, and in argument 6 allows that “through the intermediation of [his] wife,” he [too] could be “fearless, powerful, surprising, moved as [he] otherwise [is] only when [he] writes… But then would it not be at the expense of [his] writing? Not that, not that!” Kafka is exclamatory.
Carson is terse. She cuts to the nub of his argument against marriage in the second clause of sentence four; namely, “the sight of the / nightshirts laid out on his parents’ beds….” The nightshirts signal Kafka’s deeper reason for holding onto aloneness: “the fear,” as he puts it more explicitly in argument 5, “of passing into the other.” Kafka’s fear of intimacy, specifically sexual intimacy, dogged him his whole life and the nightshirts on the bed are a shorthand for it. Felice was fine as an ideal figure, kept at a distance. When she was in sight of arriving in flesh and blood, Franz’s angst was activated.
Carson distills Kafka’s torment to nine lines, and in her fifth sentence, names the ‘grace’: “Hemorrhage saved him.” The longer version of this is that during the night of August 9-10, 1917, Kafka suffered a pulmonary hemorrhage that led to a diagnosis of tuberculosis. He did not view the disease so much as a disease of the lungs as an indictment of his life: part punishment, part penance. Also, more immediately, as sweet deliverance from Felice. On September 4, 1917, he wrote to Ottla: “There is no doubt justice in this illness; it is a just blow, which, incidentally, I do not at all feel as a blow but as something altogether sweet in comparison with the average course of these last years….” On September 15, 1917, he wrote in his diary rare words of self-encouragement: “You have a chance, as far as is possible, to make a new beginning. Don’t throw it away…. If the infection in your lungs is only a symbol, as you say, a symbol of infection whose inflammation is called Felice and whose depth is its deep justification; if this is so then the medical advice (light, air, sun, rest) is also a symbol. Lay hold of it.” Kafka was granted a leave of absence from his work as a lawyer at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute and went to stay with Ottla at their brother-in-law’s farm in Zürau, northwest of Prague. He broke the news of his illness to Felice, only when the Zürau plans were set; he meant to orchestrate his escape, and discourage her from coming to visit. She made the journey to Zürau anyway, hoping to help out. In his diary entry of September 21,1917, he wrote: “Felice was here, travelled thirty hours to see me; I should have prevented her. As I see it, she is suffering the utmost misery and the guilt is essentially mine… she is an innocent person condemned to extreme torture.” In his last letter to her, dated October 16, 1917, he gave her the self-abnegating version of his disease: “I don’t believe this disease to be tuberculosis, at least not primarily tuberculosis, but rather a sign of my general bankruptcy.” Three months after their second engagement had been solemnized, the relationship was over.
Kafka lived seven years with tuberculosis and continued to have troubled relations with women —including another broken engagement from a young woman he met at a sanatorium—before meeting his last love, Dora Diamant, in 1923. But by then his health was in rapid decline and he had little strength left, either for writing or for physical intimacy. He and Dora lived together for seven months in Berlin, and she was at his side as he succumbed to the laryngeal tuberculosis that brought him to starvation on June 3, 1924, at a sanatorium in Kierling, Austria. Carson goes straight to these end-of-days in the final lines of her poem—referencing the ‘conversation slips’ that Kafka wrote in lieu of speaking at this stage. The pain of speaking was so great that silence was prescribed as part of the treatment. The slips record his treatment needs and express his observations and feelings as he lay dying. His friend and attending physician, Dr. Robert Klopstock, kept the slips after Kafka’s death and later gave them to Max Brod, Kafka’s closest friend and literary executor, who included some of them in the collection of correspondence, published in English in 1958 as Letters to Friends, Family and Editors.
In the declamatory deadpan of the last two lines of her talk, Carson writes: “When advised not to speak by / doctors in the sanatorium, he left glass / sentences all over the floor. Felice, / says one of them, had too much naked – / ness left in her.” This is fictional. What Kafka actually wrote on a slip in speaking of Felice, likely to Dora, was: “She was not beautiful, but slender, fine body, which she has kept according to reports.” The most fictionalized part of Anne Carson’s short talk is the “glass sentences.” It is also the most revealing and poetically true.
What is glass? A hard yet brittle substance with an irregular atomic structure. Transparent, translucent, shiny and ice-like. Like Kafka. Like Carson, too, who put glass in the title of her long poem, “The Glass Essay,” published in the collection Glass, Irony and God by New Directions in 1992, the same year as Short Talks came out with Brick Books. “The Glass Essay”— a rich and searing piece about the narrator’s loneliness in wake of rejection by a lover called Law—bears traces and shades of Kafka. But this is a different topic and I won’t digress, other than to say that glass in “The Glass Essay” is a substance of transparent entrapment where soul is exposed and has no shield. In the short talk, the “glass sentences” that Carson imports to Kafka are more like shards. Sharp, hard verdicts—one of which signals the final rejection of Felice by Kafka, because of her “naked – / ness.” The “nakedness” attributed by Carson to Felice also has a parallel in “The Glass Essay,” in the synonym “Nudes.” Carson writes: “I find no shelter. / I am my own Nude. And Nudes / have a sexual destiny.” Nudes and nakedness are about sexuality in both poems. In “The Glass Essay” the narrator is rejected and sexually humiliated. In real life, Felice was also humiliated—though this is part of the unsaid in the “Short Talk on Rectification.” Felice’s sexual destiny could not be rectified.
As it happened, while reading Carson alongside Kafka, I also read Kafka’s Other Trial: The Letters to Felice (Schocken Books, 1974), Nobel laureate Elias Canetti’s fascinating essay on Franz and Felice’s correspondence and the source of Kafka’s voice as a writer. I could not help but notice that three of the key words in Carson’s talk also appear in Canetti’s work—two of them in italics. The first is rectification, on page 79, where Canetti uses the term to refer to the period of Franz and Felice’s relationship after the so-called “tribunal” at The Askanische Hof Hotel in Berlin in July, 1914, at which Kafka was confronted by Felice and her friend Grete Bloch. Grete had been recruited by Felice in fall of 2013 to mediate between herself and Franz in the uneasy period leading up to their first engagement (June 1, 1914), and ended up becoming a second love interest to Franz. Kafka was accused and exposed by the two women at The Askanische Hof. He had no defense: he had been maintaining a double relationship. His engagement to Felice publically came to an end. But they didn’t break off contact altogether, and Kafka began writing his novel The Trial in August, a month later. Canetti argues (page 63) that the emotional substance of Kafka’s engagement and the “tribunal” at the Askanische Hof both entered directly into the novel: the engagement became the arrest of Josef K. in the first chapter and the “tribunal” the execution in the last. The post-“tribunal” rectification period, according to Canetti, was characterized by Franz’s attempts to “rectify” Felice—to improve her, to make of her a different, less bourgeois person: to ‘purge her of the heavy furniture’. But, as Carson gets at in her short talk, the bourgeois in Felice was second to the more basic problem of her sexuality, and she could not be purged of that. As for Kafka himself, rectification would only come through illness, and ultimately death.
The word “naked” is also italicized in Canetti, on page 83, though here naked is used in the sense of bare, clear, exposed and exposing—more like “glass.” Glass” appears in Canetti too, on page 117, where he writes of Kafka’s last letter to Felice: “his glassy statements” (close to Carson’s “glass sentences”) do not include her [Felice] and are addressed as to a third person.” Canetti calls Kafka’s description of his and Felice’s last visit (at Zürau) “cold as ice” (page 118) and the final letter, as a whole, the “most disagreeable he ever wrote” (page 115-16).
The concurrence of these key terms—rectification, naked/ness, and glass sentences/glassy statements—in Canetti and Carson is unmistakable, and indicates how keen interest in a life can bring authors to similar decisions. How the plane of reading and writing, like skin, can be continuous.
In her “Short Talk on Waterproofing,” Carson continues—shifting from Kafka’s (troubled) love life to his (troublesome) background. “Franz Kafka was Jewish,” she writes in the first sentence of the 18-line piece. It’s ironic, as an aside, that 18 is the numerical value of the Hebrew word “chai” which means “life”—as in the toast “L’Chaim, “To Life”—whereas the poem addresses the relationship of Jewishness to death. Carson surely did not intend any Hebrew number symbolism for her poem, but there it is.
The first three sentences are the setup: “Kafka was Jewish. He had a sis- / ter, Ottla, Jewish. Ottla married a jurist, Josef David, not Jewish.” Josef David, despite his Hebrew-sounding name, was a Czech Catholic nationalist. Whereas Kafka, partly due to his non-Hebrew-sounding name, was not so readily identifiable as a Jew. Neither did his published fiction mark him out as a Jew: nowhere does he mention Jews or Jewishness. In fact, references to religion in Kafka’s fiction are distinctly Christian—reflecting the society he lived and wrote in. But in his diaries and letters—which were not meant for publication—he bared his soul as a Jew in search of an authentic Jewish experience. Kafka was deeply interested in Yiddish theatre, Jewish mysticism, folklore, Hebrew language, scripture and history, and late in his life, also Zionism. Had he not succumbed to tuberculosis, he and Dora might well have migrated together to Palestine/Israel. This was their plan. Ottla might have been persuaded to go that route too. She had a similar interest and would have thrived on a pioneering agricultural collective. Ottla was fiercely independent. She broke away from her parents’ designs for her, studied at an agricultural college in Germany and tended to her brother-in-law’s farm in Zürau, where she cared for her ailing brother in1917. She took the even more radical step of marrying out of the faith in July, 1920, in opposition to everyone in her family—apart from Franz who supported her like an ally. Kafka and his parents did not live to see the rise of Nazism. His three sisters were deported and murdered.
But Carson comes in, in sentence four, “When the Nuremberg laws were introduced to Bohemia and Moravia in 1942….” At this time Ottla had been married to Josef David for twenty-two years and they had two grown daughters, Vera—twenty-one, and Helena—nineteen. Most of what is available on Ottla in English comes from a few sources. The main source is Franz’s Letters to Ottla & Family, published in English translation in 1977 by Schocken Books with an introduction by editor Nachum Glatzer. This is where Anne Carson draws details for her short talk. Glatzer describes Franz’s youngest sister as “reticent, shy, kind, obliging, friendly, gracious;… living in quiet opposition to the bourgeois society and the petit bourgeois regimen of her family.” From this list Carson chooses the word “quiet” to describe Ottla, and completes the fourth sentence: “…quiet / Ottla suggested to Josef that / they divorce.” And this, says Glatzer, is where Ottla’s “real story begins”—which he knows only through an old friend of Ottla’s, one Anna Maria Jokl, who published what she knew about Ottla in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in 1969. And so it goes: Ottla to Jokl to Glatzer to Carson: “Ottla suggested to Josef that / they divorce. He at first refused.” But brave, self-sacrificing Ottla, who put the protection of her daughters and their father before herself, “advanced the argument,” relates Glatzer, “that after the divorce, their daughters would retain rights to the elder Kafkas’ property. This the lawyer David recognized as a ‘rational approach’ and the divorce was effected.” Carson renders it thus: “She / [Ottla] spoke about sleep shapes and property / and their two daughters and a rational / approach.” The “property” and the “daughters” and the “‘rational approach’” from the Jokl/Glatzer account, Carson retains. But she inserts the enigmatic “sleep shapes,” giving the passage a liminal quality and augmenting its bizarreness.
In sentence seven Carson steps out of Ottla’s purview and tells the readers what s/he already knows: Jews were murdered at Auschwitz. But “she,” [Ottla], “did not mention, / because she did not know the / word, Auschwitz where she would die / in October 1943.” Carson is very good at pathos in plain-face. The back story, she does not impart, because the talk is short, and adding would dampen the effect. But in real life, Ottla, the ever-good-hearted Ottla, interned at the Nazi ‘show-camp’ Theresienstadt (north of Prague), was one of 53 guardians who volunteered to accompany a transport of 1260 Jewish children to what she and they believed would be safe haven abroad. They were all gassed the day they arrived at Auschwitz.
The final three sentences of the short talk return to the days before Ottla was transported to Theresienstadt, after she divorced Josef David in August, 1942, went to the police and registered as a Jewess. Vera and Helena begged to stay with their mother, but they were turned away since the ‘law’ did not apply to them as daughters of a Czech Catholic father. And Ottla went to Theresienstadt alone. In what must be the most grimly ironic passage in her book, Carson draws from Glatzer’s introduction and Anna Maria Jokl’s report, barely altering a word: “After putting the / apartment in order she [Ottla] packed a ruck- / sack and was given a good shoeshine / by Josef David. He applied a coat of / grease. Now they are waterproof, he / said.”
Rectification and waterproofing. Two longish, positive words. Rectification, by definition, is about improvement, replacing a mistake, repair. Waterproofing means making something resistant, impervious, safe against water. But there is no “safe against” at a Theresienstadt or an Auschwitz. And what might have been the tenderest gesture of love and affection on the part of Josef David, one small thing that he was able to do in seeing Ottla off, appears almost as a nod to savagery. Carson brings the record to its barest, glassiest, brittlest pith in these two talks. There is brokenness, and rectification, or repair, seems a long way off. The Hebrew term for repair is tikkūn, which, through mysticism, has come to possess connotations of healing-work and transformation. It also implies shared responsibility. There’s a line in Anne Carson’s poem “God’s Work” from Glass, Irony and God that reads: “From these diverse signs you can see / how much work remains to do.” This echoes the close of her Introduction to Short Talks, where she writes: “Well you can never work enough.”
—Elana Wolff, December 2014
** Note from the publisher: Please note that these short talks are prose poems. Their spacing will appear differently in different editions of the collection. For the purposes of this essay, line-breaks have been added to mirror the appearance of these 2 poems in the original edition of Short Talks by Anne Carson published by Brick Books in 1992.
Brick Books has published a new edition of Short Talks by Anne Carson in its Brick Books Classics series, with new introduction by Margaret Christakos and new afterword by Anne Carson. This book is now in print.
Elana Wolff’s collection of selected poems, Helleborus & Alchémille (Éditions du Noroît, 2013; translation by Stéphanie Roesler), was awarded the 2014 John Glassco Prize for Translation. A collaborative first-time translation, with Menachem Wolff, of Georg Mordechai Langer’s Poems and Song of Love—part of a Langer/Franz Kafka flipside book, The Hunger Artist & Other Stories (translation by Thor Polson), is her newest release (Guernica Editions, 2014). Visit Elana and read more about her most recent book A Hunger Artist & Other Stories; Poems and Songs of Love.