With the spread of book groups and interactive reviewing sites, not to mention continuing pressure of literary high priests like George Steiner and Alberto Manguel, the art of reading is in better shape now than it was during most of the last century. Which is not to say that it is in good shape. Look at many of the common expressions used to recommend books – “a page turner”, “I read this book at a sitting”, “I defy anyone to put this book down” – and the assumption emerges that the ideal book is one which takes the reader by force, drags him through from start to finish , fired solely by the desire to know what happens next: and then vanishes from his mind, in readiness for the same thing to happen all over again with the next book.
Whether or not by conscious design, this is the notion of reading preferred by the publishing industry; with the author as the producer of something appetizing, and the public as its insatiably guzzling consumer.
This has nothing to do with the art of reading: a process in which the reader figures as the author’s partner rather than his receptacle; and in which the reader goes to books to exercise his own capacity to discover meaning and beauty in the world, rather than to have it fed to him by some superior talent. Some books are designed to encourage this approach to the written word. At the top end of the scale one example would be Manguel’s A Reading Diary which consists of parallel accounts of the world events of 2002 spliced into an account of what Manguel was reading at the time – so that literature and living feed into one other.
At the opposite end of the scale – in terms of literary experience – is Michael Major’s Kafka – for our time. Mr Major is introduced as a “working-class man” who, never having heard the name of Franz Kafka, happened to come across Kafka’s Before the Law and became so engrossed in that story that he was driven to put down on paper what it meant to him, and then went on to devour another 23 Kafka stories and equip them with the “Interpretations” which now appear in his own book.
Kafka is a darling of academe. But the point of such writings – ignited by the flint-spark contact between text and reader – is not whether they carry any academic credentials, and still less whether or not they are “right.” Their justification is the basic raison d’etre of the whole reading transaction: do these words carry any meaning for me; if so what is that meaning?
The best known recent example of this transaction is that of Samuel Beckett: another “difficult” and academically revered artist, whose work escaped the official cultural apparatus and became beloved among the wretched of the earth – victims of apartheid, prisoners on death row – because it had a meaning which they understood better than any Professor of Beckett Studies.
In the case of Mr Major’s book, numerous academically familiar images appear – the man waiting for his whole life at a gate that will admit him to the law; the man who awakens to find himself transformed into an insect; the idealists who set out to build a tower to the heavens, only to fall into strife between themselves over who was to be in control. There are also less familiar but equally resonant figures: such as that of Poseidon, god of the sea, who leads the life of a drudging bureaucrat; or Bucephalus, Alexander’s war horse now turned lawyer since that is where the power lies; or Sancho Panza, a man of the earth who nevertheless needs his “demon” Don Quixote, to lead him to places that his common sense would never have envisaged .
On these and other perpetually astonishing products of that matchless Central European imagination, Mr Major has points to make that make you pause and put the book down (it is emphatically not a page turner).
On some of them you could quibble. Too much space, I think, goes on finding Kafka’s own family and literary life reflected in his fiction and parables. But even here, it is never in doubt that this is an important meaning to Mr Major; as is every insight he has to offer. There are no bright ideas in this book. Only ideas that hold weight for the writer and help him to proceed with the business of living. That is what I gratefully take away with me from this act of reading.