My mind is far too scrambled to write anything coherent today. My son has taken to watching The Mentalist. Last week we did series one and these past couple of days, series two. I must have watched about thirty-five episodes in quick succession. Everything I’ve read has become interspersed in my memory with Mentalist plotlines. They’re good programmes, though, with a consistently high level of quality and I’m now longing to learn mentalist tricks; to be able to read my student’s minds, even in a charlatan way, would be so cool.
Most of the rest of the time, I’ve been swimming in a sea of Kafka, which is no more conducive to mental clarity. What is it about Kafka that makes him such a hypnotic writer? When you think that the majority of his published works are unfinished or at least barely edited, it is astonishing that he is nevertheless regarded as one of the greatest twentieth century authors. And no kidding, he is amazing; there’s no one else like him, no one who comes close to the intensity and the surreal power of his stories. The other remarkable thing about him is the disparity between his sense of himself – weak, ineffectual, cowardly, untalented – and the self he presented to the world: charming, reliable, tactful, sympathetic. Kafka manoeuvred himself into an impossible position. At first he felt there was an absolute choice to be made between ‘real’ life, which meant marriage and fatherhood; and writing, which required silence, peace, complete concentration. He felt that writing might justify his existence in some way but later on he changed his mind, and believed that writing was killing him. He had tuberculosis by that time, and three failed engagements behind him. Whatever he did, he couldn’t win, because not writing made him feel even worse than anything else. At every twist and turn of his psyche, the view became darker.
Oh, one book I did read: Darcy O’Brien’s A Way of Life, Like Any Other. This is a classic bildungsroman of a young boy growing up in Hollywood. His life begins in a privileged paradise with loving, handsome, rich parents dedicated to his every desire. But by the second chapter, his parents have split, and life is growing ever more difficult. Initially, he remains with his mother, who is hopelessly inappropriate with him, telling him about her love life while she’s in her bath. She makes a new liaison with a Russian artist and the three of them head to Europe, with disastrous consequences. Eventually, he returns to America, to live with rich Hollywood friends, but when they hit hard times he’s forced to move on again. Finally he ends up living with his father, who has never recovered from the breakdown of his marriage and who is in a pretty desperate state. It’s a sort of picaresque tale as this young man lurches from one dysfunctional situation to another, growing up all the while, but it’s told in the most extraordinary deadpan style that is often very funny. I was extremely impressed by this strange, laid-back voice and the personality of the young man, not exactly wise beyond his years, but self-preserving, clear-sighted, calmly accepting. The novel is a classic tragic-comedy, with a bittersweet ending. And apparently based quite heavily on the real autobiography of Darcy O’Brien himself. Anyway, a very good read, in a very nice NRYB edition.