This copy of The Trial belonged to one of my mentors, Gene Dawson, whom I wrote about, inadequately, I’m afraid, earlier on this blog. (Please see Mentors Series 2: Gene Dawson, September, 2012.)
When I began this series on the objects in my apartment that tell my life story, I asked the hypothetical (hopefully) question, “If your house was on fire and you could only take one object, what would it be?” One of my bookish friends asked me specifically which book would I take in the face of that same all-consuming fire; my answer would be this copy of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, the Modern Library edition from 1956, coincidentally the year I was born.
I have read this copy of the book once. I have also read, several times now, the Schocken Books edition of 1968, which you would think would be the same, but contains some subtle differences. Both editions use the Willa and Edwin Muir translation, but in this edition the text has been revised by E.M. Butler.
So I suppose it was Butler who changed the famous opening sentence from “Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning,” to “Someone must have traduced Joseph K . . .”
Why would he do that? Did he think that was better? Traduced? Really?
As we all know, there are many different kinds of books and many different approaches to reading them. These days, for example, I am indulging in a bit of summer reading, a guilty pleasure, with Inferno by Dan Brown. I feel kind of cheap and sleazy reading this. I didn’t even buy the book, I didn’t want it in my place, so I put it on my Kobo instead. Still, he’s got me hooked and I am learning a lot about Dante and Florence and the Divine Comedy and all the rest of it.
So there’s summer reading, which is allowed. And there is skimming and there is analytical reading and there is devotional reading to name but a few. I would like to propose a new category of reading. Unlike most reading experiences which I would call reader-based reading, there is an entirely different way that some of us read, those of us who are writers, and I would call this writer-based reading.
This type of reading is not recreational or escapist, in fact it’s part of the work we do, and we do work, even though some people are convinced that we really don’t and the words just appear by magic in our word processors as we sleep at night.
Writer-based reading is actually hard work. What we’re looking for as we engage in this exercise is not so much ideas – hopefully we have those, although again, many people seem to be convinced that we don’t, so we often hear things like “Hey, I’ve got a great idea for you!” or “Here’s a really good idea for a play!” implying that all of our own ideas for plays thus far have not been very good at all.
In writer-based reading, one could say we are looking for examples of the very best technique to express things in a way that will resonate as deeply and hopefully universally as possible. And then these things we steal. By the time we actually employ them, no one would dream what the source was, because it’s not so much a source in terms of content as in form.
For example, is it possible that Bob Dylan had read The Trial, and when he began his song “The idiot Wind” with the line, “Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press?” it was actually a veiled and probably unconscious reference to the novel, even though he himself may not have been aware of it? We will probably never know unless Mr. Dylan happens to read this post and lets us know, if he even knows himself. (That’s the beauty of the internet, he could.)
The point of writer-based reading is that we engage in the exercise like kleptomaniacs in a dollar store. We take this, that and the other thing with no real sense of purpose other than the fact that we like it, it touches something inside us, we think it might be of use somewhere down the line. And yet, by the time we do use it, if we ever do, we have probably long forgotten where is came from in the first place. It’s not plagiarism, it’s literary recycling and it’s been happening forever, with its most famous practitioner being William Shakespeare.
The book, then, becomes a workbook. It shows evidence of having been read interactively. Coming back to this specific copy of The Trial, Dawson was the best I have ever seen at this. In this sense he taught me how to read as a writer reads. I can’t show you every page, obviously (unless you want to buy me a glass of wine) but here’s a sampling of a few pages, complete with Dawson’s complex method of using paper clips to mark – well, who know what he was marking, or why? (Of course, when I was a young student and in awe of my favourite professor, I too marked everything with paper clips, but I’m over that habit now. Mostly, I’m over it. Sometimes . . . Oh, never mind.)
Here’s a few sample pages. They are thumbnails so you can click on them to enlarge them.
So you can see that this book is bound up in my mind with my journey of becoming a writer, and in this regard it truly is one of the objects I have around my that helps tell my story. Beyond theories of how we read, I love the book. It helps me through hard times, through trials of my own. Joesph K. is probably my literary hero.
Finally, in my search for the lyrics to “The Idiot Wind” I found this song that begins with the same line by the band James. There’s also a great version on YouTube of them doing this same song live at the Albert Hall. They are thought to be one of the most underrated bands of all time, so I am pleased to do my part to change that and share this video with you here. Enjoy!
Thanks for reading.