The Book of Fantasy: A Review: Part 7

February 2, 2021

Previous post: The Book of Fantasy: A Review: Part 6.

“What is a Ghost?” and “May Goulding” by James Joyce

These are listed as two separate entries in The Book of Fantasy but they’re both excerpts from Ulysses so I’m grouping them together.

I dunno man. I tried reading Ulysses a while ago, maybe like eight or nine years at this point. I got about 100 pages in. I could see myself enjoying it if I understood the references, but I am not excited about reading it with a “reader’s companion” or whatever. I spend all day every day context-switching between tabs and windows on my computer. I continually distract myself by Googling every half-considered whim that flits through my shambly brainpan. I prefer to read paper books because they are detached from the internet; when I sit down to read a book, I do it to achieve a kind of focus that I lack moment to moment. Like, I used to love footnotes in books. Now I most find them exhausting. I just want to read a thing in one direction! Is that too much to ask?[1]

So what I’m saying is that even if Ulysses is super great, the actual experience of unpacking that greatness into my brain seems like it will be … not super great. Put another way, it seems like it will take a lot of work to read Ulysses and I don’t want to do all that work.

Oh right I am supposed to be reviewing these stories. Well I can say that they are not my favorites. Let’s move on.

“The Wizard Passed Over” by Infante Don Juan Manuel

This story reminds me of “Roy: A Life Well Lived”, the Life Simulation game from Rick and Morty:

It’s interesting to note that Don Juan Manuel was writing in the 14th century, yet the story still feels strikingly fresh. Perhaps this is to do with the translator, Norman Thomas di Giovanni, a longtime collaborator of Borges,[2] who apparently did this translation in 1970. But I suspect this freshness is all there in the original, because if this collection has impressed upon me anything it’s that modernity isn’t actually so modern as one might think, and the human imagination should not be underestimated.

“Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk” by Franz Kafka

This is Kafka’s last short story, so if nothing else this is a significant piece of literary history. It’s also a brilliant piece.

To be honest, I don’t remember the details of this story very well. I remember that the narrator constantly undermines all the nice things he says about Josephine, until it is clear that he doesn’t really think very much of Josephine at all.

To give you a sense of why this effect is of note, let me share with you the first few lines of the story:

Our singer is called Josephine. Anyone who has not heard her does not know the power of song. There is no one but is carried away by her singing, a tribute all the greater as we are not in general a music-loving race.

So the fact that this story turns out to be a systematic dismantling of Josephine and her abilities is impressive.

Skimming through the pages reminds me that this story is, in a larger sense, a critique of the self-importance of artists in general, and perhaps even an attack on the importance of art itself.

Curiously, how mistaken she is in her calculations, the clever creature, so mistaken that one might fancy she has made no calculations at all but is only being driven on by her destiny, which in our world cannot be anything but a sad one. Of her own accord she abandons her singing, of her own accord she destroys the power she has gained over people’s hearts. How could she ever have gained that power, since she knows so little about these hearts of ours? She hides herself and does not sing, but our people, quietly, without visible disappointment, a self-confident mass in perfect equilibrium, so constituted, even though appearances are misleading, that they can only bestow gifts and not receive them, even from Josephine, our people continue on their way.

Josephine’s road, however, must go downhill. The time will soon come when her last notes sound and die into silence. She is a small episode in the eternal history of our people, and the people will get over the loss of her. Not that it will be easy for us; how can our gatherings take place in utter silence? Still, were they not silent even when Josephine was present? Was her actual piping notably louder and more alive than the memory of it will be? Was it even in her lifetime more than a simple memory? Was it not rather because Josephine’s singing was already past losing in this way that our people in their wisdom prized it so highly?

So perhaps we shall not miss so very much after all, while Josephine, redeemed from the earthly sorrows which to her thinking lay in wait for all chosen spirits, will happily lose herself in the numberless throng of the heroes of our people, and soon, since we are no historians, will rise to the heights of redemption and be forgotten like all her brothers.

Yes, yes, it’s really quite brutal.

“Before the Law” by Franz Kafka

This is a zippy and uplifting little piece that is sure to put a smile on a reader’s face.

No! Of course it’s not! Look at who the author is!

The story: a man attempts to enter a gate leading to “the Law” (whatever that is; perhaps it doesn’t matter so much; perhaps it is sufficient to interpret it as a placeholder for any sort of fulfillment of ambition or destiny or Edenic bliss you might like to imagine) but is denied entry by a gatekeeper. The man waits his entire life for admittance; it goes about as well as you would expect from a Kafka story.

It’s a sad tale but it’s also the human condition? Probably??

Apparently this appears as a story within The Trial, which I tried reading once but gave up on for reasons I don’t really remember.

Continued at The Book of Fantasy: A Review: Part 8.


[1] Yes.

[2] But whose translations of Borges’s work are no longer in print; it’s a whole sad, infuriating thing.

The Book of Fantasy: A Review: Part 7 - February 2, 2021 - Greg Poulos