Post Road Magazine #26

Anatole Broyard's KAFKA WAS THE RAGE

Rachel Shteir

I first taught Kafka Was the Rage in 2000, the year I moved to Pittsburgh. It was a year of terrible sadness and loss. I had left New York rashly, sort of on a dare with myself, sort of out of desperation. I was separated from my then husband and I had accepted a job teaching in the School of Drama at Carnegie Mellon. It was a job I didn't really want. But I was having terrible money problems and I was in a tumultuous love affair with someone I always suspected of being on the verge of abandoning me. I needed a job.
    I won't say that I went mad, but I remember driving madly west across the winding section of Route 80 in Pennsylvania, with my possessions rattling around in the back of the U-Haul. I arrived at the rather large house that I had rented and parked in the back, on a hill. I opened the back door of the U-Haul, and the beautiful glazed ochre-colored tableware with black fishes on it that I had lugged on the plane from Tunisia years earlier—and packed somewhat carelessly—slid out of the truck and shattered. An entire service for four lay in shards on the asphalt. Everything except for a pitcher and a large bowl. It seemed like a sign.
    Although I loved my students, I hated Pittsburgh. When the sun went down, the whole town went dark, as if someone had switched off a light. It did not seem like the robber barons had thought to install streetlamps. They probably figured the workers could just pass out at dusk.
    As far as I could tell, not much had changed since the nineteenth century. Restaurants closed early, you couldn't get Chinese food, and there was basically one street of charming boutiques. There was a dreary little three-floor Sak's Fifth Avenue in the dreary downtown. You had to drive everywhere, even to pick up a quart of milk. If you went to a restaurant, any restaurant, the portions were gargantuan, explaining why people were fatter here. I got a tattoo on my shoulder: the Chinese symbol for owl. That's how desperate I was.
    I found Pittsburgh melancholy and broken and because I felt melancholy and broken, too, it not only felt redundant to be there, it irritated me. The irritation grew because Pittsburghians tried so hard to convince— me?—themselves?—that their city was, as Chamber of Commerce literature says about so many depressed places, undergoing a renaissance.
    I remember one of my colleagues saying: you can get a three-bedroom Victorian for the same price as a studio condo across from Lincoln Center, as if that proved the town's superiority to New York. To which my silent response was: duh, if you have the studio apartment, you're across from Lincoln Center, whereas here you are an eight-hour drive from a major city.

    I write all this to explain how it was inevitable that I would fall in love with Kafka Was the Rage that year. The book is a love letter to New York—a New York that I never lived in, but had read about, a literary 1940s New York which, because of my gender and ethnicity, I would probably have been barred from entering anyway. But. Then. Realism. Was. Less. The. Point. Than. Longing. And longing is something Kafka Was the Rage is full of.

    I cannot remember the important detail of how I came across Kafka Was the Rage in the first place. I cannot remember if I knew about the book before I moved to Pittsburgh or if I first read it then. I cannot remember who told me of it. I do remember, however, that my students—undergraduate directing students forced for some reason to take a year-long writing seminar with me—loved it as much as I did.
    One thing they loved was the way Broyard writes about sex. They were twenty years old and it was revelatory for them to read writing about sex without sentiment, without preaching to them. It excited them and they tried to imitate it in their writing.
    I liked the sex parts, too. What Broyard does is summon all of sex's meaning without being either coy or pornographic. He is not literal but neither is he sentimental. Sex is not the problem or the solution. It is a fact, like eating, drinking, and breathing. And yet it exalts, complicates, and saddens.
    Also, Broyard makes the reader see how new it was to write about sex as he does. How it arose as part of the new freedoms after World War II, freedoms which also included, as he writes in the first chapter, modern art and psychoanalysis. About his sexual obsession with the mythical Sheri, Broyard writes:

She made love the way she talked—by breaking down the grammar and 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. [AB 11]

    This is funny, literary, and imaginative. Not realistic, perhaps. But who cares? But also, these sentences brilliantly tell a radical—because true—story about men and women. Broyard shows the imbalance between the sexes, their terrible need for each other, and also the terrible tragedy and comedy of that need.

    I taught the book again this year, in Chicago, where I have now lived for thirteen years, since fleeing Pittsburgh in 2000. I found that thankfully, I still liked the sex, but I also liked the fact that Broyard turns on himself as a narrator. Ultimately, however much Broyard flirts with the avant-garde, he retreats to childhood conventions in taste and upbringing; that he knows he is unable to escape these prejudices is one of the things that makes the book so charming:

It was the same way with the bathtub in the kitchen. I could never take a dispassionate view of it; it always remained for me a kind of exhibitionism to sit in a bathtub in front of somebody else. I was the only son of a Catholic family from the French quarter in New Orleans, and no one is so sexually demented as the French bourgeoisie, especially when you add a colonial twist. [AB 9]

    I also liked that Broyard does not try to bend the story to a resolution, that he accepts life's insanity and gentleness. He quotes the Surrealists: "Beauty is the chance meeting, on an operating table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella." [AB 13]
    This time around, my students—graduate students in writing— liked, but did not seem crazy about the book. Certainly not as much as I wanted them to be. Maybe students in our century have trouble loving books from the twentieth. Or maybe I have been away from New York too long to know what books students from another city love.

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