Thursday, 10 May 2012
Getting all of my books out of storage means that I get to see a record of my reading habits over the last how ever many years. It is not complete, of course. Many of the books I read at college I simply left behind or gave away. Others have been borrowed and never returned or damaged and discarded or incorporated into the collections of other people I have shared a house and life with.
I have a very imperfect memory of the plot of these books, but an almost perfect recall about where I was and who I was with when I read them. They are like little memory triggers. I look at a spine and a whole world opens up.
There are books for which this is the main appeal, in that the book itself means little to me in terms of quality or the effect it had on me when I read it. Other books - other authors - are very different.
When did I first read Franz Kafka? I don't know, although I'm fairly sure that Metamorphosis was the first thing I read - maybe at school. I know that that story did something to me. It was unlike anything I had ever read before and yet it seemed to speak very clearly to me. It was bizarre and yet it also seemed to get to grips with something a more literal book could never have hoped to.
I became fascinated by Kafka and read books about his life and critical essays about his writing. The iconic black and white photographs of him became a fixture in my consciousness - as they have for so many others of course.
Many more have no interest in Kafka of course and though they know about Metamorphosis and its famous opening line, they might not actually have read it and certainly haven't read anything else by this patron saint of the misfit.
Kafka is a reference point for me and this can be difficult. I have said before how children's fiction is very plot-based - proudly so, in fact. Writing supernatural fiction, a writer will occasionally hear an editor say that a story must have an 'internal logic'. That is to say that however odd the goings on in the tale, they must make sense within the narrative.
And for a certain type of story this is undeniably true and it is the satisfying aspect - to learn why the main character was behaving so oddly, to discover the reason behind the curse, to know why the haunting is occurring at that time and place and so on. But not all stories have this form.
There is no logic behind Gregor Samsa awaking one morning to discover that he has been transformed into a giant insect. He did not incur the wrath of an insect god. He is not being tested. He does not revert to human at the kiss of a beautiful woman. It just happens.
This lack of logic is what some people find unsatisfying about Kafka - or other writers of this type - but it is exactly what I like about it. All that is required of a writer is that he holds the reader's attention and makes the story work, in his or her terms. To make a reader accept a fantastical premise like the one in Metamorphosis you have to be a very good writer as well, of course.
But it simply is not true that a story has to make 'sense'. There does not have to be a reason for everything. In fact for some stories, that kind of tying off of loose ends is the kiss of death.