Jul. 3, 2010

The Evening is Tranquil, and Dawn is a Thousand Miles Away

by Charles Wright

The mares go down for their evening feed
                                                              into the meadow grass.
Two pine trees sway the invisible wind—
                                                          some sway, some don't sway.
The heart of the world lies open, leached and ticking with sunlight
For just a minute or so.
The mares have their heads on the ground,
                                 the trees have their heads on the blue sky.
Two ravens circle and twist.
              On the borders of heaven, the river flows clear a bit longer.

"The Evening is Tranquil, and Dawn is a Thousand Miles Away" by Charles Wright, from Sestet Poems. © Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the writer Franz Kafka, (books by this author) born in Prague (1883). A writer associated with doom and gloom, the word "Kafkaesque" has come to mean absurd, dreamlike, and even sinister. In a letter to his fiancée, Kafka wrote: "The life that awaits you is not that of the happy couples you see strolling along before you in Westerland, no lighthearted chatter arm in arm, but a monastic life at the side of a man who is peevish, miserable, silent, discontented, and sickly." He had sexual anxiety, and felt inferior to his father. And it is easy to summarize his life as tragic: He only published a few short stories during his life and never finished any novels (besides his novella Metamorphosis); he had a few love affairs, but was never married; and then he died at the age of 40 from tuberculosis.

But there are some cheerful elements to Kafka's life story. For one, he was a competent and dedicated employee of an insurance agency, the Workers' Accident Insurance Institute. He started there in 1908 and worked there steadily for 14 years, compensating injured workers. He had a good salary, worked six-hour work days, from 8:00 a.m. to 2 p.m. and worked his way up over the years. He kept records, wrote letters and articles, dealt with statistics, assessed his own business and others, processed claims, and represented the organization as a lawyer. Kafka himself tended to dismiss his work when he talked or wrote about it. But he showed up every day, and he wrote up the official annual reports, and was apparently proud of them because he sent copies to his family and friends. His friend the writer Max Brod wrote a biography of Kafka, and he wrote: "I spoke to one of the head officials who once worked with Kafka. Franz Kafka, so the gentleman told me, was popular with everyone; he hadn't a single enemy."

Kafka also had a great, even obsessive, respect for health and physicality. There is much made of Kafka's time in coffee houses, but no evidence that he ever drank coffee himself, and he did not drink alcohol at all. He slept with his window open all the year round, always in fresh air, did calisthenics every evening at exactly 7:30 p.m., and he liked all sorts of exercise. He wrote in his diary in 1910: "I row, ride, swim, lie in the sun. Therefore my calves are good, my thighs not bad, my belly will pass muster, but my chest is very shabby."

And Kafka's last love affair, with a 25-year-old woman named Dora Diamant, seems to have been a happy one. They met at a Baltic resort, where she was working in the kitchen. He entertained her by performing shadow puppets on the wall, and he read aloud to her. They played together and teased each other. He wanted to marry her, but her father refused, on the grounds that Kafka was not an Orthodox Jew. They were only together for a year before he died of tuberculosis. Dora said later, "Everything was done with laughter," and, "Kafka was always cheerful. He liked to play; he was a born playmate, always ready for some fun."

It's the birthday of humorist Dave Barry, (books by this author) born in Armonk, New York (1947), who said: "I always wanted to write when I was a kid; it just never occurred to me that you could have a job that didn't involve any actual work. ... I felt it would be fun to have a job like that where you could make stuff up and be irresponsible and get paid for it."

It's the birthday of playwright Tom Stoppard, (books by this author) born Tomas Straussler in Zlin, Czechoslovakia (1937). When he was two years old, his family fled Czechoslovakia to escape the Nazis.

Stoppard was a drama critic, and while watching a performance of Hamlet he began thinking about the minor characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are hired by King Claudius to spy on Hamlet.

Stoppard decided to write a play that would tell Hamlet from the point of view of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In Stoppard's version, they spend the play worrying that their lives have no meaning, and it's only by participating in Hamlet's story that they find any purpose. The play was called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1967), and it made Stoppard the youngest playwright ever to have a play staged by the National Theatre in London. He was just 29 years old. When it had its premiere in New York, Stoppard was asked what the play was about. He said, "It's about to make me rich."

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