Hey Kafka (Or, Ruminations on Dead Authors and Duties Owed to Them)

Five years ago I wrote a post about dealing with requests from writers to destroy their unfinished (or other) work upon their death. It was sparked by the destruction of the recently passed Terry Pratchett’s hard drive by running it over with a steamroller, per his desire. As I wrote then:

The comments I read when the news came out was mostly amusement and pleasure at Pratchett’s wishes being so scrupulously honored. After all, if he was so specific as to how his literary executor was to deal with his unfinished work he must have felt fairly passionately about it never seeing the light of day. Who could argue that the right thing to do is precisely what the author wants?

I got to thinking about this again reading Richard Ovenden’s Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge.

What I thought was going to be a particularly timely look at the social or political factors behind drives to ban books was actually a love letter to libraries and archives and the need for society to protect and support the collection and retention of knowledge. No great surprise, I suppose, given that Ovenden is the librarian at the famed Bodlean Library at Oxford.

In a couple of chapters, Ovenden discusses particular situations where authors either took affirmative efforts during their lives to destroy their unfinished work or asked executors/family to do the destroying once they were dead. In some instances (like Franz Kafka) it was unfinished work, where some others involved personal papers like letters or notes. Ovenden’s point of view is clearly that any loss of this information is a cultural travesty and implies that the heroes here are people who go against the wishes of their friends/loved ones and preserve their work anyway.

I get that, on the one hand. Destroyed knowledge is pretty much gone, after all, without any hope of getting it back. The world is undeniably richer for having Kafka’s unfinished work or the papers of someone like Sylvia Plath that gives insight into a writer’s life and process. But whose decision is it to make that determination?

The author’s wishes deserve at least some consideration, right? Maybe because in one side of my life I’m a writer and in another I fight battles to vindicate the Fourth Amendment and rights to privacy (usually unsuccessfully, alas), but airing things the original author never wanted to see the light of day seems like a violation. I’m not sure the world is entitled to anything the author doesn’t want to show it.

As is happens, after Burning the Books, I decided to read one of the most famous posthumously published works, Kafka’s The Trial.

I’d had it in my collection for a while but never got around to it. I’m glad I did, just to have been able to say I’ve read it. As a lawyer, you’d think it would be required reading, although the deep secret buried in The Trial is that there never is an actual trial that takes place. I sort of know that’s the point, but I expected a little bit more procedural chicanery – the kind of stuff that happens in regular courtrooms that get dubbed “Kafkaesque.”

The Trial definitely feels unfinished. My understanding is that the first and last chapters were actually written and designated as such by Kafka, but the rest was assembled by his executor, Max Brod, after his death. That said, it does have a memorable ending, so it doesn’t just peter out. I also found the atmosphere to be more dreamlike than nightmarish. The main character, K, is more frustrated and aggravated by the situation than he is terrified. In a way that makes it worse.

While there is no trial per se in The Trial, lawyers and the court system come off pretty badly. The part that stuck with me the most is a scene where K is in the court building and passes a group of litigants just huddled around not doing much of anything. It’s explained that they’re waiting for rulings in their cases, some of them for years, and that all they can do is continue to wait. That put me in mind of several of my clients who have watched their cases languish in court, just waiting for the judge to make a decision. They’d rather the judge get it wrong but actually get it done – at least then they could move on to the next phase of things.

My ultimate conclusion about The Trial is that I think K was dead the entire time. The suddenness of the accusation, the ultimate futility of fighting the charges, and the references to K needing to defend his entire life make me think that he’s in some kind of limbo (from which he’s ultimately released in the end). The way “the law” is discussed, too, sounds more like a religious concept than a purely legal one. It doesn’t ultimately matter, but it’s what jumped to mind while reading it.

Since I was on a Kafka kick, I decided to wrap things up with a book that dove more deeply into the battle over his literary legacy, Kafka’s Last Trial, by Benjamin Balint.

The titular trial here took place in Israel in this century and was a battle over where Kafka’s literary legacy would have its home. It stems from how Brod dealt with Kafka’s literary estate and whether it should be retained by the descendents of his secretary or should be taken into the National Library of Israel as a cultural treasure of the Jewish people (or even in an archive in Germany). The legal wrangling isn’t that interesting (it turns on technical distinctions between different kinds of gifts – you can read up on it here), but the question of legacy is really fascinating. There’s an entire chapter dedicated to the issue of whether Kafka was a German writer (though he lived in what is now the Czech Republic) who happened to be Jewish, or a Jewish writer who happened to write in German and what the answer to that question means.

Of course, that issue could be hashed out regardless of whether Brod had destroyed Kafka’s unfinished works as asked (assuming Kafka became a big enough name without it). And it would have avoided an awful lot of expensive litigation generations later. So, in the end, is it better to encourage executors, friends, and families to abide by the wishes of the writers who trust them to do so?

I’m inclined to think so, but I also think that the question may be moot. After all, once a writer is dead he or she isn’t going to know what their executors do one way or the other. One pleasant thing about death is you don’t have to worry about your reputation. Weighing all the considerations, maybe Brod was on to something in the first place.

The Gagarin Nonsense

A couple of weeks ago I talked a little bit about how, in reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, people and businesses had been cutting ties with all things Russian. Some of these make sense, as a way to starve the Russian economy and isolate/shame people with close ties to Putin, but some of them are pretty stupid, like pouring out (presumably quality) Russian vodka that you’ve already paid for. That’s a fairly pointless gesture, after all.

Which brings us to the weirdness revolving around Yuri Gagarin. Gagarin, of course, was the first human in space, an icon of the Space Race . . . and died in 1968. Putin was a teenager when Gagarin died, so it’s fairly safe to say he had nothing to do with the decision to invade Ukraine.

So imagine my surprise when I saw on Twitter over the weekend that Gagarin was being cancelled. Actually, what Tweet after Tweet said was that he had been “stripped of his honours” – complete with British spelling:

Where was this coming from? Even during the height of the Cold War I don’t remember Gagarin being treated as anything other than a pioneer. What would lead to his cancellation due to a war that started four and a half decades after he died? Turns out it’s slightly more complicated, at least in terms of the reach.

As it happens, there is a thing called the Space Foundation, which, according to Wikipedia, “is an American nonprofit organization that advocates for all sectors of the global space industry through space awareness activities, educational programs, and major industry events. It was founded in 1983.” At the beginning of April they’re having a Space Symposium (apparently a yearly event) that, according to Futurism, was supposed to have a night or panel called “Yuri’s Night.” Now, per a now deleted Tweet (cowards) it’s been renamed “A Celebration of Space: What’s Next.”

He’s a description of the event, from the Space Foundation website:

So it’s a schmoozy meet and greet cocktail party thing and, to me, sounds like it’s primarily geared toward fund raising. As explained in the Futurism story:

The nonprofit Space Foundation announced  in a now-deleted note that ‘in light of current world events’ it would be changing the name of a fundraiser from ‘Yuri’s Night” to ‘A Celebration of Space: Discover What’s Next’ at its Space Symposium conference.

‘The focus of this fundraising event remains the same — to celebrate human achievements in space while inspiring the next generation to reach for the stars,’ the deleted update notes.

I agree with the author of the Futurism piece that this is a “rather dubious show of solidarity with the Ukrainian people” and is ultimately a dumb move, but I can see how it happened. In an environment when every corporate entity has to take a stand on current events, you’re going to have places that decide to avoid any hint of controversy as much as possible (and trigger the inevitable backlash).

But let’s keep in mind what this is not – there is no cancelling of Gagarin going on here. He’s not being erased from history books. There are no “honours” the Space Foundation has bestowed upon him that they could now revoke. How could they? Gagarin will always be the first person in place.

My point here is not that the Space Foundation was the right one. I think it’s pretty stupid, but I think equally stupid, or maybe even more so, is the reaction to it which is fairly divorced from the initial decision. It feels to me like it’s one of those minor stupidities that blows up over social media based on details that aren’t accurate. Dealing with the fallout from the Russian invasion is hard enough without reacting to stuff that didn’t actually happen.

Who Does Your Main Character Work For?

A little white back, my wife and I saw The East, a 2013 film starring and co-written by Brit Marling:

Marling’s character infiltrates an off-the-grid terrorist organization that’s been striking out at corporations that have gotten out of hand. One is responsible for an oil spill, another for despoiling a town’s water supply, and a third for releasing a drug onto the market that has horrible side effects. Part of what makes the movie interesting is that Marling isn’t a cop or a crusading journalist, but rather an agent for a private security firm. It made me think about the importance of who your main character works for in a story and what it means for their development (or lack thereof) as a character.

A lot of stories are about main characters solving some kind of mystery, figuring out the solution to some problem. It’s no surprise, then, that lots of stories have main characters whose jobs require them to solve those mysteries – cops, private detectives, journalists. It gives them not just a motivation for getting into the problem in the first place but a destination as well – an arrest, the confirmation of a dark secret, an expose article. But it can also give them interesting limitations, blinders, or obstacles to overcome.

The natural job for a character like Marling’s in The East would be a cop of some variety – a person tasked by society with taking down bad guys. A person who should, at least in theory, be motivated to serve justice and help people. We’ve seen that story before, however, so making Marling’s character a private security operative boxes her in interesting ways since she’s not working for society in general, but for specific clients.

There is a scene, for instance, where she winds up in a middle of a plot the group is pulling that will poison dozens of people at a drug exec’s party. When she realizes that and calls her boss for guidance, she’s gently reminded that the drug company is not their client, so she shouldn’t try to stop what’s happening, just keep gathering info for the client that actually hired her. It creates an extra amount of tension over what she’s going to do and why, which I thought worked pretty well.

I’ve been thinking about this as I work on the sequel to Moore Hollow.

Yeah, so, I’m doing a sequel to Moore Hollow, the first of many, I think (currently now being worked on around the final volume of the Unari Empire trilogy, Heroes of the Empire).

For the books going forward, Ben Potter, the disgraced journalist who is the main character of Moore Hollow, permanently relocates to West Virginia and throws himself into investigating the area’s rich tradition of beasties, legends, and general weirdness. In the second book, though, he hooks up with a lawyer to help represent a particular client. That will give him different motivations and restrictions than his normal work as a paranormal journalist. I hope to explore how those roles are different as the series goes forward and Ben sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t work with that attorney.

Of course, those choices don’t always work for every reader/viewer. Consider this view, from a review of The East:

Yet the biggest issue with The East is that Batmanglij and Marling so thoroughly rig the script in the environmentalists’ favor. By casting Marling as a corporate spy instead of a government agent, it sets up a fatally compromised situation where her bosses have the same profit motive as the companies being jammed. So choices that might be made in the name of justice are instead a matter of loyalty to one set of values that’s clearly more compromised than the other. Environmental activists like the ones in “The East” live by a code, but the same can’t be said of Sarah’s employer. Going native is easy when you don’t have to follow the letter of the law.

But for me, it’s precisely that lack of direction that makes the character (and her journey) interesting. In the end, I think she finds a lot of commonality between her employer and the would-be do-gooders.

What I’m saying is that, oftentimes, our main characters born out of what they’re going to do in our story. Still, it’s useful to think about the context in which they’re going to do it, which includes how they’re making a living. It can open up some interesting storytelling avenues.

Will the Other Shoe Drop?

When Russia invaded Ukraine a few weeks ago, the world responded pretty quickly to isolate Russia and exclude Russians around the world from various things. A major Russian conductor was dropped for concerts at Carnegie Hall because of his close ties to Putin and unwillingness to criticize the invasion (a similar result came with an famed opera singer a little while later). Bars stopped serving Russian vodka. Hell, even rapacious companies like BP decided that being in business with Russia was a no-go.

Soccer was one of the first parts of the sporting world to respond. UEFA, the European federation, announced that it was moving the Champions League final, the capstone of its most important club competition, from St. Petersburg to Paris. In the wake of that, several countries – notably Poland, Sweden, and the Czech Republic – announced they would not play Russia under any condition. That was important, as they were all involved with Russia in the same playoff round of World Cup qualifying and so were, potentially, forfeiting a chance to make this year’s World Cup Finals (other federations with less skin in the game, including the US Soccer Federation, made similar statements). Eventually, FIFA stepped in and banned Russia from further competition, leaving the Swedes, Poles, and Czechs to fight it out for World Cup berth with clean hands.

Sort of.

It was a shock, to say the least, when Qatar beat out Australia, Japan and others to win the right to host the 2022 World Cup (in the same process that awarded the 2018 World Cup to . . . Russia). The Qatari heat would require the tournament to take place in November and December, rather than in the middle of the summer. Beyond that, of course, Qatar is not a democracy and has a shady human rights record.

But specifically, the numerous new stadiums the nation needed to build for the World Cup, are killing workers at an alarming rate, up to 6500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, and surrounding areas alone. A minimum wage for those workers only came into effect in 2021. A good idea of what laboring to build the stadiums is like can be found here. So not only are there ethical questions about the host nation for the World Cup in general, but specifically linked to the competition itself.

So what should the countries that have qualified do about it? The invasion of a sovereign nation by a neighbor, in a way that wrecks the equilibrium of modern Europe, may be sui generis. After all, the nations who initially stepped up to say that wouldn’t play Russia could find themselves in Putin’s crosshairs sooner rather than later. Lots of the other countries, including the United States, are doing everything they can to stop the war without it blowing up into World War III.

What’s gone on in Qatar isn’t that, but it isn’t good. More and more, repressive regimes are using sports to try and launder their reputations. Called “sportswashing,” it’s probably a driving force behind the fact that there are now things like a Formula 1 race in Saudi Arabia and the recent Winter Olympics (and current Paralympics) in China. Letting Qatar host the World Cup is more of the same.

But it’s very likely that they are going to host, so what to do about it? Is the reaction of the sporting world to Russia’s aggression the beginning of a new era in sports activism? Or is it so beyond the pale of the modern world that it won’t impact anything else? I wish I knew, because I struggle with what to do about the World Cup, too. I watched almost every game of the 2018 version in Russia and the Americans didn’t even qualify. If we make it this time? You bet I’ll be paying attention, but won’t feel good about it.

Let me address the elephant in the room – if global sports is going to develop a conscience about things like human rights and violating international law, won’t that standard mean excluding the United States from certain things? Maybe. People asking “what about Iraq?” have a very good point. There are differences between the two situations, but I’m not sure they make a difference. Nor is invading Iraq without cause our country’s only sin when it comes to international relations. If that means we get punished for it, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.

For most of us, sports are a distraction, a fun way to spend free time and we try to keep that frame even when we’re engaging with multi-billion dollar competitions that span the globe. We want them to an escape from the regular world, from the conflicts that rage in “real” life. But they’re part of our world, in all its pain and joy, and that means inextricably entwined with world affairs.