Jonathan Franzen on Influence, Connection, and Kafka (not to mention Intimacy, Control and David Foster Wallace)

Piggybacking off of Ethan’s wonderful post on The Art of Fielding, here are two phenomenal quotes […]

David Zahl / 6.12.12

Piggybacking off of Ethan’s wonderful post on The Art of Fielding, here are two phenomenal quotes from Jonathan Franzen’s recent collection of non-fiction, Farther Away. The first comes from a lecture he gave “On Autobiographical Fiction” in which he tackles the four questions writers dread most, the first of which is the question of influences:

It would be somewhat more meaningful to say that I was influenced by Franz Kafka. By this I mean that it was Kafka’s novel The Trial, as taught by the best literature professor I ever had, that opened my eyes to the greatness of what literature can do, and made me want to try to create some literature myself. Kafka’s brilliantly ambiguous rendering of Josef K., who is at once a sympathetic and unjustly persecuted Everyman and a self-pitying and guilt-denying criminal, was my portal to the possibilities of fiction as a vehicle of self-investigation: as a method of engagement with the difficulties and paradoxes of my own life. Kafka teaches us how to love ourselves eve as we’re being merciless toward ourselves; how to remain humane in the face of the most awful truths about ourselves. It’s not enough to love your characters, and it’s not enough to be hard on your characters: you always have to try to be doing both at the same time. The stories that recognize people as they really are–the books whose characters are at once sympathetic subjects and dubious objects–are the one capable of reaching across cultures and generations. This is why we still read Kafka. (pg 122-123)

Second, a heartbreaking portion from the remarks he gave at friend and colleague David Foster Wallace’s memorial service in October of 2008:

People who like to be in control of things can have a hard time with intimacy. Intimacy is anarchic and mutual and definitionally incompatible with control. You seek to control things because you’re afraid, and about five years ago, very noticeably, Dave stopped being so afraid. Part of this came of having settled into a good, stable situation at Pomona College. Another really huge part of it was his finally meeting a woman who was right for him and who, for the first time, opened up the possibility of his having a fuller and less rigidly structured life. I noticed, when we spoke on the phone, that he’d begun to tell me he loved me, and I suddenly felt, on my side, that I didn’t have to work so hard to make him laugh or to prove that I was smart. (pg 166)