Chance and coincidence can sometimes contrive in the unlikeliest of fashion to produce experiences notable and lasting. The most memorable book that I have read this year also happens to be a product of sheer chance. In a welcome interval between two forgettable and energy sapping meetings, I whimsically began surfing the net. Little did I realise that I would stumble upon a treasure trove that would make my brief respite, momentous. Web-crawling my way into an episode of “The Bowie Book Club Podcast”, a podcast produced by two David Bowie fans that organises a monthly reading of the books that the legendary artist loved, and was inspired by, I found my attention being drawn to a book titled “Kafka Was The Rage” by Anatole Broyard. Making a mental note to revert to the podcast at a later point in time, I got back to doing what I despise doing the most. The miseries and mundanity that characterizes the day of a professional led to me conveniently forgetting about both the podcast and the book. A couple of days later, a mention of Franz Kafka appeared in a book that I was occupied with. Such a reference triggered a repeat visit to the Bowie Podcast and ultimately, the purchase of Broyard’s work.
Suffice it to say, “Kafka Was The Rage”, has been one of the best investments that I have made on books till date. The author Anatole Broyard, dwells in an enchanting manner on a Bohemian counterculture that took roots in post-World War II America. The GI Bill opened educational and experiential avenues hitherto imagined as a new wave of gestalt philosophy gripped the nation. Greenwich Village was no exception to the norm. A bacchanalian revolution took over the otherwise sleepy village. While poets and authors wandered the streets, occupied the parks and filled the halls of universities, a heady atmosphere of gaiety debauchery became a normative mode of living. What to a conventional soul, might have represented an absolute repudiation of values, was to an inhabitant of Greenwich Village, delectable mores that had the effect of transforming him into a child of liberty.
Broyard, who would go onto become a professional writer, literary critic and a celebrated editor writing for the New York Times, finds himself bang in the middle of this bewildering culture. A war veteran himself, the young man is taken in by the avant-garde painter, Sheri Donatti. A protégé of the French-Cuban-American essayist, Anais Nin, Donatti has a voracious appetite for both abstract art and sex. Broyard, experiences the full force of both canvas and carnal urges before Donatti ditches him for reasons only known to her. Broyard’s eventful dalliance with Donatti is captured in these revealing lines. “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.” Broyard also finds himself swept away in the dizzying company of Village intellectuals such as Delmore Schwartz, Maxwell Boderheim, Max van den Haag, and Chandler Brossard. A confident Broyard commenced sending his pieces to reputed magazines and publishing houses such as The Partisan Review and Commentary. However he announced himself on the grand stage of writing, courtesy a 1954 article published in Discovery, Carrying the heading “What the Cystoscope Said,” the piece held forth of Broyard’s ailing father ultimately succumbing to a battle with cancer (the insidious disease would cut short Broyard’s own life as well many years later).
A phalanx of eccentric individuals and quirky artists waft in and out of Broyard’s astonishing book. The poet Dylan Thomas at a party hosted by American film maker Maya Deren, is faced with an acutely embarrassing predicament. Thomas’ wife Caitlin, a reputed author in her own right, works herself into a gradual frenzy before proceeding to smash 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 abhor undergarments!
It comes as an unfortunate surprise that a writer of Broyard’s calibre hardly churned out books. A restless intellect was alas muted by a preternatural syndrome of “writer’s block”. However many a thought provoking essay and short stories regaled his fans. The quality of Broyard’s writing was encapsulated by Norman Mailer in an emphatic fashion that left no room for any kind of ambiguity. “I’ve read two stories by Anatole Broyard. They are each first-rate, and I would buy a novel by him the day it appeared.”
Broyard however could never be separated from a maniacal love for books. For a brief period, Broyard owned a bookshop for sustenance. 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.”
“Kafka Was The Rage”, due to its raw and savage candour would shock many readers. However it would also succeed beyond imagination in lending an invaluable insight into times where intellectual foment collided with sexual liberation and abstraction in the realms of art. This improbable trifecta spawned a brand of literature the likes of which are yet to be surpassed.