A simulacrum of and for the times in which it was written, I first came across Anatole Broyard’s “Kafka was the Rage” when I accidentally web-crawled my way into an episode of “The Bowie Book Club Podcast.” The Bowie Book Club founded by two David Bowie fans, organises a monthly reading of the books that the legendary artist loved, and was inspired by. The reading of “Kafka was the Rage” piqued my interest no end, and I enthusiastically plunged into the book. Interested readers can access the podcast here:
Suffice it to say it was an immersive experience like no other. The feeling one gets, or rather the one that I personally experienced was akin to being sucked into a quicksand in a most methodical of fashion. Unlike the bewilderment and raw fear of a person who accidently stumbles into a marsh and before he can fully realise his predicament he is already halfway below the sticky abyss, Broyard dragged me into his book one nail at a time, one toe followed by the next and so on.
The year is 1946 and World War II has just ended. America was in a churn as it was time for rediscovering both art and life. Broyard arrives at Greenwich Village from Brooklyn hoping to assimilate the twin changes that were fast constituting a norm. The lure of sexual freedom and a move towards abstraction not just in art and literature, but in life itself. It was an era where the GI Bill and Gestalt philosophy were in perfect symmetry, and in lockstep with one another. As Broyard informs his readers by juxtaposing humour with hindsight, he seems to have got his fair share of both the changes. Moving into No.23 Jones’ Street with the eccentric abstract painter Sheri Donatti – a protégé of Anais Nin, a French-Cuban-American essayist – Broyard is sucked into a life that oscillates between experiential sex and existential thinking. “She made love the way she talked—by breaking down the grammar and the rhythms of sex. Young men tend to make love monotonously, but Sheri took my monotony and developed variations on it, as if she were composing a fugue. If I was a piston, she was Paul Klee’s Twittering Machine.” There are dollops of references to sex in the book as Broyard seems to have had no impediments whatsoever in satiating his primeval needs and carnal urges.
Broyard however is forced to abandon Sheri after the latter attempts suicide by turning on the gas. She also facilitates an uncomfortable journey to a police station for Broyard, after he takes an abstract painting along with him. Originally intended by Sheri as a gift to Broyard, she ‘betrays’ her former lover by alleging that he decamped with the work of art. Following a terse and almost metaphysical conversation with a constable, Broyard reluctantly abandons it.
Greenwich Village, which Broyard compares to the Paris of the 1920s has no shortage of intellectuals. This intellectual fervour was to a great extent, lubricated and greased by the excitement of education accorded by the GI Bill post the War. As Broyard recalls, the New School educational institution that he finds himself in was populated by some formidable German professors. “The building resounded with guttural cries: kunstwissenschaft, zeitgeist and weltanschauung, gemeinschaft and gesellschaft, schadenfreude, schwarmerei.” The German sociologist Erich Fromm and the Gestalt philosopher Rudolph Arnheim, amongst others taught courses in the school. Broyard also undergoes a voluntary spell of psychoanalysis therapy under Ernest Schachtel, a professor of Rorschach interpretation. Broyard has his own set of Village intellectuals such as Milton Klonsky, Delmore Schwartz, Dwight Macdonald as his accomplices and with whom he gets into invigorating discourses and abstract deliberations. In fact, Broyard finds Delmore Schwartz to be so abstract that he suspects the latter may have “read himself right out of American culture.”
Crazy intellectuals and crazier artists keep appearing and disappearing throughout the book in a perpetually dizzying whorl. The poet Dylan Thomas at a party hosted by American film maker Maya Deren, is faced with an acutely embarrassing predicament. Thomas’ wife Caitlin, an author herself gets into a spontaneous frenzy and starts smashing Deren’s antique collection to bits. Dylan Thomas and Broyard are forced to not just drag Caitlin away from the site of destruction, but to swing her atop a bed and physically sit on her to calm her down! Yet another occasion finds the world famous poet W.H.Auden lying sprawled atop the slender visage of Sheri Donatti after he inadvertently barges into her in a bustling street whilst heading on his errands in a tearing hurry. The first thought that comes to Broyard’s mind is the public spectacle that might be caused not because of the collision itself, but due to a peculiar conviction of Sheri that made her never wear any sort of undergarments!
It is extremely unfortunate as well as puzzling that a restless intellectual such as Broyard hardly wrote any books. Even though he churned out many a thought provoking essay and a number of stories, a hard to imagine “writer’s block” contrived with a perpetual self-criticism to put paid to all hopes of a career as a novelist. Broyard however, distinguished himself in exemplary fashion as a daily book critic for the New York Times for many a year. The young veteran who was managing a second-hand book shop on Cornelia Street in Greenwich Village had traversed a long path indeed. But nothing could separate Broyard from a love of books. The man and his books were a single indivisible, immutable phenomenon. As Broyard himself writes, “It was as if we didn’t know where we ended, and books began. Books were our weather, our environment, our clothing. We didn’t simply read books; we became them. We took them into ourselves and made them into our histories. While it would be easy to say that we escaped into books, it might be truer to say that books escaped into us. Books were to us what drugs were to young men in the sixties.”
It is this love that manifests itself in a resplendent manner in “Kafka Was The Rage” and regales its reader no end.