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From Kafka to Sebald: Modernism and Narrative Form. Sabine Wilke, ed. London: Continuum, 2012. Pp. xxii + 184. $110.00 (cloth).

The essays collected in this volume seek to analyze examples of German-language modernist fiction from a range of narrative perspectives. Tending notably to a psychoanalytic model of literary theory, they are particularly interested in the ways in which twentieth-century literature constructs—or deconstructs—the authorial self. While the volume arguably lacks overall coherence, a number of the individual contributions ask sophisticated questions of complex texts.

Including essays by some of the leading American Germanists, the collection opens with two pieces on Franz Kafka. Stanley Corngold’s thoughtful contribution considers the notion of what he terms “Kafka-memes” in The Castle, presenting them as a key component of the “hermeneutic allure” of Kafka’s work (12). For Corngold, it is these “memes”—epistemological leitmotifs that both stabilize and destabilize the reading experience—that create the loose, impressionistic structure of the novel; their recurrence, he argues, produces a “vertigo of indetermination, a perfect ritardando, not yet a message: and that is the message” (18). By way of example, Corngold suggests that this deferred meaning finds expression in the counterfactuals and conditionals of Kafka’s slippery syntax: what, he asks, is the cognitive force of Kafka’s similes?

Imke Meyer, like Corngold, is aware of the hermeneutic trap of reading Kafka too allegorically, as though his texts could be interpreted once and for all if only the reader were clever enough. Yet her contribution nonetheless argues that “The Hunger Artist” can be read “as an allegory of the performative contradictions of bourgeois subject construction” (29), as an exposition of the ways in which “the subject … must consume itself in the very process of its constitution” (39). This aporia of the incommensurability of the bourgeois subject/artist resonates through many of the subsequent essays.

In the second section of the volume, Jens Rieckmann approaches late Hofmannsthal through the prism of Walter Kappacher’s novel Der Fliegenpalast (2009). Kappacher’s elegant reconstruction of Hofmannsthal’s creative crisis in 1924 revolves around the conflict between artist and [End Page 617] Bürger; Rieckmann’s exposition, while biographically informative, might have benefited from greater cross-reference to Hofmannsthal’s own work. For instance, when Kappacher’s protagonist H. states, “I was lost in the years of the war,” the German term “verschüttet” might productively be related to the hero of Hofmannsthal’s play Der Schwierige, who uses precisely this key word to describe his quasi-mystical experience in the trenches. Meanwhile, Rolf J. Goebel’s reads Yvan Goll’s Die Eurokokke (1927) through the lens of Walter Benjamin’s Passagen-Werk and makes a convincing claim for the importance of Goll’s overlooked novel in modernist debates about the Großstadtroman. “Like Benjamin’s notion of boredom,” notes Goebel, “the eurococcus disease is but the reverse side of the illusion of technological progress” (71).

The third section is devoted to narrative theory. The first of three essays compares Freud’s analysis of the hysteric “Dora” with Arthur Schnitzler’s short story Fräulein Else (1924). Surveying the standard models of trauma theory, Gail Finney follows Dominick LaCapra’s terms in arguing that where Freud writes about trauma, Schnitzler writes trauma. Heidi Schlipphacke contributes a sophisticated essay on Robert Menasse, persuasively contending that Menasse’s emasculated male protagonists—reminiscent, as she notes, of Philip Roth’s characters—embody, through their transvestism and adoption of “female” characteristics, the Austrian postwar politics of “social partnership” in which the two main parties adopted each other’s policies as a way of creating a “stagnating harmony” (100). According to Schlipphacke, Menasse shows that the “Austrianization of the world” needs to be replaced by a post-dialectical model of masculinity. Judith Ryan’s essay on Sebald, meanwhile, is equally persuasive, using the young Sebald’s annotations of a number of French writers—and, in particular, of Michel Butor’s L’Emploi du temps (1957)—to argue that his narrative structures describe a “double movement, centrifugal and centripetal” (136). Such an approach illustrates the value of using Sebald’s library as a hermeneutic tool for appraising his...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6601
Print ISSN
1071-6068
Pages
pp. 617-618
Launched on MUSE
2013-11-13
Open Access
No
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