Forgiving the Angel by Jay Cantor
Published by Random House LLC on 01.14.2014
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Literary, Short Stories (single author)
Source: Random House
From one of our most thought-provoking and admired writers, a brilliant, beautiful, and sometimes heartbreaking group of stories based on a circle of real people who are held together by love of their friend Franz Kafka. The sequence opens with Max Brod, Kafka’s friend and literary executor, telling us about Kafka and Dora Diamant, their love growing stronger even as Kafka is dying of tuberculosis. Kafka talks with Brod about forgiving the Angel of Death, but Brod wonders if Franz is really talking about Brod’s forgiving Kafka for the predicament he’s put him in, having instructed Max to prove his love for Franz by burning the work Brod most admires: Franz’s unpublished stories. Next there is a brief interlude—perhaps a lost Kafka story, or is it a story about a lost Kafka story which is perhaps itself masquerading as one of the things that in anger Brod neither burned nor published? The story that follows tells of Dora’s marriage to the militant German Communist Lusk Lask and his attempt to break the hold of the angelic Kafka on his wife’s imagination by giving her a daughter. We watch this family in its move to the Soviet Union to escape Hitler, and as Dora and her daughter flee the Soviet Union to escape Stalin, leaving Lusk behind in the Gulag. Later, when Lusk tries to connect with his daughter again, the Angel Kafka seems once again to stand in his way, a force in his daughter’s life that seemingly destroys as it sustains. In the last story we meet Milena Jasenska, another of Kafka’s lovers, and Eva, the woman who, after surviving Stalin’s camps, meets Milena in a Nazi concentration camp and is reborn in this hell through her love for her, though perhaps trapped there in memory because of that love as well. By the end, these moving love stories with Kafka as their presiding ghost have told the calamitous story of Europe in the Century of the Camps. Imbued with a gravitas and dark irony that recall Kafka’s own work, these stories nonetheless also bear the singular imaginary stamp and the keen psychological and emotional insight that have marked all of Jay Cantor’s fiction.From the Hardcover edition.
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My first exposure to Kafka’s writing was in a class on the uncanny in Spring 2012. One of the stories assigned to us was The Metamorphosis and, as you can imagine (or perhaps have experienced), I was understandably both confused and perturbed at the same time. As I read that story, and the others assigned in that class, I couldn’t help but wonder about the author. What would it be like to live in his head, to experience the ideas and then follow through into writing them down. But, like all busy college students, I had neither the time nor the inclination to scout out more information and so that story faded away into a memory that, every now and then, emerges when I see Kafka’s name. Jay Cantor took that idea further and, in Forgiving the Angel, he explores Kafka not from inside of Kafka’s head, but rather through the relationships formed around him.
I will admit that much of this book felt over my head. I was reminded of reading Kafka’s story (I think that was the point) a number of times, especially as I dove into the first story of the book. I experienced an odd feeling of deja vu as well, which I also think is tied to my memories connected to my first reading of Kafka. But soon those feelings and memories were pushed aside and I began to explore the story of Kafka’s friend, Max Brod.
It’s really a psychological thing, writing stories like The Metamorphosis and I think that Jay Cantor understands that well. I felt the manipulation happening while reading about Max and his experiences with his friend. There is a brilliant moment when Cantor writes of a cat and mouse and explains the reasons why a cat plays with the mouse and then lets it live (although my cats definitely wear their mice out). The idea is simple: you torment something to ensure that you are remembered, even if that memory is one of the bullying. This book, ultimately, speaks to that deep need that we all have. Afterlife, no afterlife, it doesn’t really matter when you think about it, because while we are here, on this earth, we want to be remembered. We don’t want to fade into memories that will then fade into memories of their own children. And, so, therein lies the root of the first story in Cantor’s book.
I’d like to talk about each story in this collection, but I really do think the first story sets the tone quite well. I found Cantor’s writing to be beautiful and feel as if he captured the tone of Kafka extremely well. There were times I felt, as I stated earlier, as if I was a bit over my head, but I would imagine that a Kafka enthusiast would be more than happy with what is going on in Forgiving the Angel. If nothing else, Cantor has awoken a desire in me to learn more about Kafka the author and this time I don’t have bothersome schoolwork to get in the way of that pursuit.
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