Kafka Executes Josef K.

Josef K. is arrested for no reason at the beginning of Kafka’s The Trial, and at its conclusion he is put to death for no reason as well. Kafka, who worked by day as a lawyer at a Prague insurance company, was well able to illustrate not just the absurdity and inscrutability of bureaucracy, but also its deep cruelty and […]

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Kafka’s Great Fable: “Before the Law”

From Kafka’s novel The Trial: Before the Law stands a doorkeeper. A man from the country comes to this doorkeeper and requests admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he can’t grant him admittance now. The man thinks it over and then asks if he’ll be allowed to enter later. “It’s possible,” says the doorkeeper, “but not now.” […]

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Virginia Woolf Meets T. S. Eliot

From Virginia Woolf’s Diary on November 21, 1918: I was interrupted somewhere on this page by the arrival of Mr Eliot. Mr Eliot is well expressed by his name – a polished, cultivated, elaborate young American, talking so slow, that each word seems to have special finish allotted it. But beneath the surface it is fairly evident that he is […]

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A Twelfth Century Love Letter: Heloise Remembers Abelard

An amazing passage from a letter of Heloise to Abelard, those twelfth-century lovers who ended up in a nunnery and a monastery after their affair was discovered. Strip away the contemporary details (their religiosity and its attendant guilt, etc.), and Heloise might be writing a blog today: In my case, the pleasures of lovers which we shared have been too […]

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The best job application letter that didn’t work

James Murray (1837-1915), the Scottish lexicographer and philologist, sent the following letter regarding a job at the British Museum in late 1866. Largely self-taught, he later became the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. Before then, this letter somehow didn’t get him the British Museum gig: I have to state that Philology, both Comparative and special, has been my […]

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Ted Hughes: “Devon Riviera” (poem)

Strange to find a Hughes poem more populated by people than animals; & you can tell he’s not happy about it: Devon Riviera Under the silk nightie of the August evening The prepared resort, a glowing liner, Leans toward happiness, unmoving. The whole vessel throbs with dewy longing. Grey, dazed heads, promenading their pots, Their holiday shirts, their shrunk, freckled […]

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Nero & His Mother (poem)

Nero & His Mother I arranged to have her murdered at sea but she just swam to shore as the boat sank; I can see her doing that, unsurprised at the attempt but determined to live even the worst life. When the assassins showed up she screamed to put the sword lower, lower, thinking of her months of heaviness with […]

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Picasso & the Gestapo

from Simon Schama’s Power of Art In the winter of 1941, Pablo Picasso was living and working at the top of an old house in the rue des Grands Augustins in Paris. The Seine was a stone’s throw away. Hard northern light swept in over the rooftops. Pigeons perched on the sills. But Picasso’s Left Bank life during the Occupation […]

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Hart Crane & His Father

In early January, 1924, the poet Hart Crane, twenty-four and basically broke, received a letter from his father offering to hire him into the family business. To a friend, Crane wrote, “Along comes a letter from my father this morning offering me a position with him as travelling salesman! This is unacceptable, of course, even though I now can’t complete […]

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T. S. Eliot & His Father

Here is a favorite bit from a youthful T. S. Eliot (he’s just turned thirty but that’s young to me now). After leaving America for England and abandoning the job at Harvard his family was expecting of him, he made an unfortunate marriage and started a literary life of day job, essays and reviews. He eventually had enough essays for […]

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Fire Houses (poem)

If forced to choose a favorite short poem of mine, one that brings together nearly everything I’m interested in, it would have to be this one: Fire Houses All the old stories have their fire houses: hostels, banqueting halls, stopping places, some leading to the Otherworld, some made of iron, and all of them set afire, mansions made into ovens, […]

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