02 May 2009

The Old and the New, by Marthe Robert

This is probably pretty much for specialists only, but it's a really fascinating book, and wonderfully written. Old school criticism.

Robert sets out to compare Don Quixote and Kafka's Castle, using Homer as a kind of bridge between them. It's incredibly persuasive, and really interesting. In essence, she's tracing an alternate genealogy of the modern novel and its relationship to epic. But more intriguing, she contemplates what this says about the relationship between literature and reality, delineating two strains of thought, one that says that books mirror reality, and another that says they create an illusion of it. Related to that, two approaches to literature - one that demands naive faith, regardless of the context or pragmatic value of a work - in other words, a view that espouses a work's epic truth, even if this truth is not literal or readily discernible,  and another that demands skepticism, seeing books as dangerously seductive, and leading one to error or sin. She then examines how Don Quixote and The Castle sort of struggle between these two perspectives. Really incredible stuff.

Though I will say, the section on Kafka was weaker, in my mind, then the rest. This may also be because I had just read this article, and was feeling somewhat annoyed with how often reflections on Kafka's personal life bleed into readings of his works. But I did think it went a bit too far in this work, though not nearly as far as many others go. Also, I haven't read The Castle in a good couple years, so it was less fresh in my mind. And a lot of what she said about it was really compelling, it just struck me as less absorbing then the rest of the text. All in all though, a really wonderful book.

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