A Hunger Artist and other stories by Franz Kafka

A Hunger Artist is a collection of four short stories by Franz Kafka published in Germany in 1924, the last collection that Kafka himself prepared for publication. Kafka corrected the proofs during his final illness but the book was only published several months after his death. The first English translations of the stories, by Willa and Edwin Muir, were published in 1948, in the larger collection titled The Penal Colony.

They are all relatively short stories (compared to the 60 or so pages of The Metamorphosis). They are all odd, peculiar, non-naturalistic stories, having the feel of dreams or fables. They all seem to point to a truth or meaning beyond themselves, just out of reach. And it’s noticeable that three of the four have a circus setting, or involve animals, as did some of the stories in A Country Doctor.

First Sorrow (3 pages)

An account of a trapeze artist, married to and obsessed by his trade. It is typical of Kafka that the man lives in his trapeze, that food has to be hoisted up to him in special containers, merely retiring to one side when other performers perform, that he loves the height, the sense of freedom, specially when the windows round the top are opened.

But he hates travelling of any kind, in the city will only submit to being taken anywhere if it’s in the manager’s sports car, and from city to city, when travelling by train, has such sensitive nerves that he and the manager take a whole compartment to themselves and the trapeze artist sleeps in the luggage rack.

On one train journey the trapeze artist surprises the manager by asking for two trapezes to be set up for him to use. The manager, who clearly pampers the trapeze artist, immediately agrees. Nevertheless the trapeze artist is sad, and for the first time the manager sees worry lines and tears trickling down his face as he sleeps.

So that’s what the title, First Sorrow, turns out to mean. It is an elusive, elliptical story.

A Little Woman (8 pages)

This is very reminiscent of the fabric and feel of Kafka’s longer fiction, The Castle in particular, in the way it consists of a long, convoluted and tortuous meditation on a relationship between the narrator and one other character.

It simply starts off by describing a thin woman known to the narrator, and then explains that, for some unknown reason, she is permanently vexed and irritated by him, and from there passes into ever-more complex over-thinking of why that might be, and what it might mean, and the many possible reasons for her vexation, and whether it’s a performance solely for public consumption, and so on and so on and so on.

It is all done in Kafka’s characteristic block paragraphs which I find challenging to read.

Perhaps she hopes that once public attention is fixed on me a general public rancour against me will rise up and use all its great powers to condemn me definitively much more effectively and quickly than her relatively feeble private rancour could do; she would then retire into the background, draw a breath of relief, and turn her back on me. Well, if that is what her hopes are really set on, she is deluding herself. Public opinion will not take over her role; public opinion would never find me so infinitely objectionable, even under its most powerful magnifying glass. I am not so altogether useless a creature as she thinks; I don’t want to boast and especially not in this connection; but if I am not conspicuous for specially useful qualities, I am certainly not conspicuous for the lack of them; only to her, only to her almost bleached eyes, do I appear so, she won’t be able to convince anyone else. So in this respect I can feel quite reassured, can I? No, not at all; for if it becomes generally known that my behavior is making her positively ill, which some observers, those who most industriously bring me information about her, for instance, are not far from perceiving, or at least look as if they perceived it, and the world should put questions to me, why am I tormenting the poor little woman with my incorrigibility, and do I mean to drive her to her death, and when am I going to show some sense and have enough decent human feeling to stop such goings-on — if the world were to ask me that, it would be difficult to find an answer. Should I admit frankly that I don’t much believe in these symptoms of illness, and thus produce the unfavourable impression of being a man who blames others to avoid being blamed himself, and in such an ungallant manner? And how could I say quite openly that even if I did believe that she were really ill, I should not feel the slightest sympathy for her, since she is a complete stranger to me and any connection between us is her own invention and entirely one-sided. I don’t say that people wouldn’t believe me; they wouldn’t be interested enough to get so far as belief; they would simply note the answer I gave concerning such a frail, sick woman, and that would be little in my favour. Any answer I made would inevitably come up against the world’s incapacity to keep down the suspicion that there must be a love affair behind such a case as this, although it is as clear as daylight that such a relationship does not exist, and that if it did it would come from my side rather than hers, since I should be really capable of admiring the little woman for the decisive quickness of her judgment and her persistent vitality in leaping to conclusions, if these very qualities were not always turned as weapons against me.

It amounts to a brief specimen of the kind of endlessly self-questioning, over-ratiocination which makes the novels so very long and, often, such hard going, a fine example of the way Kafka can spin an inordinate amount of verbiage out of the simplest relationship.

In a sense this short excerpt demonstrates the technique by which Kafka assembles the longer texts to create the structure of the novels: the technique being to line up a series of encounters with officials from the Court, and then subject each one to a mind-bogglingly over-elaborated, hyper-sensitive, and rather menacing over-thinking of every possible nuance and conceivable double, triple and quadruple interpretation of all possible permutations of thinking and worrying about it.

Until you end up with entire paragraphs which appear to be saying something but which are, on closer examination, almost empty, as the narrator himself at one point acknowledges.

And on closer reflection it appears that the developments which the affair seems to have undergone in the course of time are not developments in the affair itself, but only in my attitude to it, insofar as that has become more composed on the one hand, more manly, penetrating nearer the heart of the matter, while on the other hand, under the influence of the continued nervous strain which I cannot overcome, however slight, it has increased in irritability.

A Hunger Artist (11 pages)

As I’ve noted in my reviews of the novels, a key element of the Kafka style is entropy, meaning that everything, large and small, literal or symbolic, falls away, declines, decays and dies.

The protagonists of The Trial and The Castle and The Metamorphosis die in the end, the Officer of In The Penal Colony dies, the man waiting at the door of the Law dies. And thus it is that, following the general pattern, the Hunger Artist as well wastes away and dies.

And, just like in The Trial or the Penal Colony or the Door of the Law, his last words contain a message pregnant with meaning and poignancy.

The text is told by a narrator looking back wistfully at an earlier time, a tone which immediately reminds us of The Great Wall of China. Back in those days, back in the good old days, fasting was an art which was widely appreciated and the Hunger Artist was the leader in his field. He was paraded around in a barred cage, wearing a black swimsuit, his ribs sticking out, setting up in a new town or city every forty days, and charging admission to admiring crowds who came to point and ooh and mock or admire his heroic efforts to survive on no food for forty days.

Why forty days? Well, on an interpretative level this is obviously a number fraught with religious meaning, since Jesus went into the wilderness to fast for forty days and nights, and this story itself was possibly invented to mirror the forty days and nights of the Biblical flood told in the book of Genesis.

But in the story it is simply because the artist’s commercially minded manager has discovered that forty days is about as long as you can milk an audience in any given own or city before they start to get bored and he has to move on.

The middle part of the text describes the Hunger Artist’s unhappiness and disgust at the way people don’t believe he’s really fasting, the way the guards set to watch over him don’t really believe him, and so on.

But then the narrator describes how a great change comes over society, fashions change, pastimes change, and people lost interest in fasting as a spectator sport. The manager tries a last whistle-stop tour of cities to rouse audiences, but people just weren’t interested any more. Should the Hunger Artist take up a new profession? He’s too old to learn new tricks. And anyway, it is his life’s work.

So he signs up to join a circus, although he finds his cage being set up in the narrow walkways the crowds walk along to get to the far more exciting animal cages. He has become a back number. People hurry past his cage or stop to mock.

Strictly speaking, he was only an impediment on the way to the menagerie.

Children ask their parents what it means and what he does. But the parents struggle to explain:

You try explaining fasting to someone! Unless a person feels it he can never be made to understand it.

His keeper initially marks a record of the days fasted on a wooden plaque stuck on the bars of his cage, but eventually forgets to do this, then forgets about the artist altogether. See what I mean by entropy.

One day a new supervisor demands to know the purpose of this empty cage and no-one can remember what it’s for. Mixed in with the straw is a stick. When they poke it the stick it talks. It is the Hunger Artist. The rough proley nature of the workers is well conveyed in the J.A. Underwood translation, as the workers listen to the Hunger Artist’s last confession. He only fasted, he explains in a weak whisper, because he never found anything he wanted to eat.

And with this poignant confession he expires, the circus labourers clear out his cage and instal a virile young panther in it which draws the crowds with its awesome power.

The Hunger Artist feels like a fable or parable or allegory of awesome importance, with Biblical resonances and some deep meaning for all of us. But what is that meaning exactly, is it historical or psychological or political or sociological… Kafka has left a century of critics and commentators to discuss.

Coming with a deep interest in history I note that the final years of the Great War saw widespread starvation in Germany and Austro-Hungary due to the Allied blockade on all shipping which prevented the importation of foodstuffs. And one of the Axis powers’ grievances was that the blockade continued for seven months after the armistice of November 1918, up until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919.

Thus real hunger, the actual starvation of men women and children was a spectacle Kafka and all Germans would have been bitterly familiar with.

Then again, those who prefer biographical explanations will point to the fact Kafka himself throughout his adult life subjected himself to an increasingly strict diet, which began with vegetarianism and became progressively more strict and self denying until he in fact died of untreatable laryngeal tuberculosis, which closed up his throat until he could neither eat nor drink and literally starved to death.

But you don’t need to know either of these background facts to respond to the power of the story. It is the way the subject has been turned into not just fiction, but into a story with the roundedness and finish and fairy tale perfection of a fable or allegory or parable, which counts.

Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk (19 pages)

The narrator writes like a person drafting a long critical essay examining a contemporary artist from a variety of sociological angles, except that, as the story progresses, the reader realises that the narrator is a mouse and that he is talking about the ‘famous’ mouse singer Josephine.

I’ve repeatedly mentioned the way things in Kafka’s stories decline and fall away, and the way this even happens within individual sentences, in the way a sentence sets off to make a statement and finds itself contradicting its opening, qualifying and balancing and introducing doubts and numerous clauses which successively weaken the opening until it is often abolished and erased.

Even Kafka’s sentences display a death wish.

That pattern is very visible in this, Kafka’s final story. The narrator opens by telling us that Josephine is the mouse people’s greatest and most popular singer and makes a few supporting statements about how important she is to her people.

But this breezy opening is then subjected to eighteen pages of criticism and undermining. It comes out that her ‘singing’ might in fact not be strictly speaking ‘singing’ after all. In fact it might very much be like the sound every other mouse makes, which is a common or garden squeak. In fact Josephine’s squeaking might, in fact, even be weaker and less impressive than the average mouse’s. If this is so, what on earth gives her the extraordinary power and influence she holds over mousekind?

And it is to the investigation of this apparent mystery, with long, multi-claused sentences, hedging his own conclusions, balancing interpretations and weighing possible theories, that the narrator turns to ponder with all the weighty orotundity of a learned German professor.

How to explain that at some public concerts, other mice have gotten excited and let out squeaks, and those squeaks were every bit as good as Josephine’s if not better? Is her popularity something to do with the history and struggle of her people, his people?

A thought which gives rise to a long series of reflections on the life of mice, how they are born into struggle, into a life of anxiety, small and weak and surrounded by enemies, by ‘the enemy’.

It was impossible, for me at any rate, not to think about Kafka’s Jewishness and wonder to what extent these repeated and heartfelt descriptions of a scattered, weak race oppressed by stronger neighbours, is a not very coded reference to his Jewish peers.

Our life is very uneasy, every day brings surprises, apprehensions, hopes, and terrors, so that it would be impossible for a single individual to bear it all did he not always have by day and night the support of his fellows; but even so it often becomes very difficult…

This mass of our people who are almost always on the run and scurrying hither and thither for reasons that are often not very clear…

Laughter for its own sake is never far away from us; in spite of all the misery of our lives quiet laughter is always, so to speak, at our elbows…

One might think that our people are not fitted to exercise such paternal duties, but in reality they discharge them, at least in this case, admirably; no single individual could do what in this respect the people as a whole are capable of doing. To be sure, the difference in strength between the people and the individual is so enormous that it is enough for the nursling to be drawn into the warmth of their nearness and he is sufficiently protected.

But for all the occasions that the reader can impose onto sentences like these a meaning to do with the Jewish community of Prague or Berlin or Central Europe, there are plenty of other sections which are patently just descriptions of mice, with their impatience, tendency to gossip and to squeak at the slightest provocation.

In other words, the narrative sometimes approaches what you could call a real-world interpretation but then veers away, into fiction, subsumed into the vividness of the allegory or fable.

Whenever we get bad news – and on many days bad news comes thick and fast at once, lies and half-truths included – she rises up at once, whereas usually she sits listlessly on the ground, she rises up and stretches her neck and tries to see over the heads of her flock like a shepherd before a thunderstorm…

The more you read on, the more you realise the text is as much or more an analysis of The Mouse Folk as of Josephine herself, and hence its sub-title. And, while you read on, the figure of Josephine becomes less and less of a singer and more and more of a unifying symbol of hope for an embattled people.

Josephine’s thin piping amidst grave decisions is almost like our people’s precarious existence amidst the tumult of a hostile world.

But by half-way through you have come to realise that the story is more like a parable about art and the artist and the artist or storyteller’s ability to give comfort and solace to his ‘people’ no matter how inadequate and ordinary his voice.

It is more the symbolism and the staging of the artist’s performances and what they mean for his or her listeners or readers which matters, it is the psychological unifying and healing it offers, than the actual ‘quality’.

Squeaking is our people’s daily speech, only many a one squeaks his whole life long and does not know it, where here [in Josephine’s performances] squeaking is set free from the fetters of daily life and it sets us free too for a little while…

And where he writes squeaking, he means speaking, and in fact means writing.


Related links

These are links to modern translations of the stories available online.

Related reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

A Country Doctor and other stories by Franz Kafka (1917)

A Country Doctor is a collection of short stories written mostly in 1917 by Franz Kafka, and containing the story of the same name. It was published in 1919, the second collection of short stories published by the German publisher Kurt Wolff, following Contemplation of 1912.

The Contemplation pieces were very short, some of them less than a page long, and the stories here are of the same style, also very short and punchy and dazzling. Some have touches of humour but what characterises most of them is how weird, visionary or dreamlike they are.

1. The New Advocate

One page long. The new advocate is Alexander the Great’s old horse Bucephalus. With Alexander long dead and his great goal of reaching the gates of India now remote and impossible, yes, it probably makes sense for his favourite horse to take up a career in the law. After all, it’s a steady profession.

2. A Country Doctor

This really is a dream-like narrative: told in the first person the doctor is called to an emergency on a snowy night but can’t find a horse but then his groom finds two horses in the pigsty and attaches them to the cart and the horses race off before the doctor can warn or protect his housekeeper who he knows the groom wants to rape and watches run for the house and lock herself in but as the cart gallops off he hears the groom smashing the door down with an axe, the doctor arrives instantly (as in a dream) at the house of the sick man with his relatives gathered round and pronounces him perfectly fit, maybe overfull of coffee which his solicitous mother has given him, all the time worrying about the fate of Rosy the maid, the two horses push open the windows of the room and watch the doctor and a choir of local children gathers outside and sings a song about stripping the doctor and next thing he knows he is being stripped, held up then carried over to the sick man’s bed and thrown into it where he discovers the man has an enormous gaping bloody wound in his side which is infested with finger-sized worms and seems to attribute this to standing still in the woods and having been chopped at by men with axes as if he were a tree, then the doctor escapes from the bed, flees the house, throws his things onto the carriage and whips the horses to flee although they in fact plod off at the walking pace of an old man.

I’ll never come home at this rate. My flourishing practice is lost. A successor is robbing me, but to no avail, for he cannot replace me. In my house the disgusting groom is wreaking havoc. Rosa is his victim. I will not think it through. Naked, abandoned to the frost of this unhappy age, with an earthly carriage and unearthly horses, I drive around by myself, an old man. My fur coat hangs behind the wagon, but I cannot reach it, and no one from the nimble rabble of patients lifts a finger. Betrayed! Betrayed! Once one responds to a false alarm on the night bell, there’s no making it good again – not ever.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a literal transcription of an actual anxiety dream Kafka had had.

3. Up in the Gallery

A one-page description of attending the circus to see a lady in white and red come through the curtain and be lifted by the ringmaster onto a dappled grey horse and ride round the ring to tumultuous applause. But Kafka uses a technique he’s used in other stories, which is to open the entire description with a conditional phrase, making the whole thing seem provisional and dreamlike.

If some frail tubercular lady circus rider were to be driven in circles around and around the arena for months and months without interruption in front of a tireless public on a swaying horse by a merciless whip-wielding master of ceremonies, spinning on the horse, throwing kisses and swaying at the waist, and if this performance, amid the incessant roar of the orchestra and the ventilators, were to continue into the ever-expanding, gray future, accompanied by applause, which died down and then swelled up again, from hands which were really steam hammers, perhaps then a young visitor to the gallery might rush down the long stair case through all the levels, burst into the ring, and cry ‘Stop!’ through the fanfares of the constantly adjusting orchestra.

So it’s the gallery of a circus.

4. An Old Manuscript / A leaf from the past

Two and a bit pages. The narrator owns a shoemaker’s shop in some distant city from fable, from the same kind of fairy tale world as Kafka’s China. The nomads from the north have invaded and now control the city, which is a mystery since the frontier is so very far away (as in The Great Wall of China). They make free with the shoemaker’s stock, but they really infest the shop of the butcher opposite, and go mad when he brings to the shop a live bullock, which they promptly set about dismembering and eating live, with their bare hands and teeth. Occasionally you see the emperor at the windows of his palace but then, that can’t be right, he never leaves the inner gardens of the palace.

You can see how Kafka has reimagined China into his own image, a vast land which messengers can never cross, which has been inexplicably conquered by people no-one understands, whose leader has retreated to the innermost sanctums of his inaccessible palace…

5. At the door of the Law

This is a terrifying fable, barely two pages long, in which a man from the country arrives at the door of the law and asks the doorkeeper if he may enter. The doorkeeper says no, and the man spends the rest of his life camped out there, asking the doorkeeper repeatedly for permission to enter, until, in fact, he grows old and weak and, as he is on the verge of dying, the doorkeeper explains that this door was for the man alone, for him only, and now, as he expires, the doorkeeper will close it. He will never gain admission.

In its portrayal of the hopeless prostration of a victim-protagonist before implacable and unknowable higher powers , it is a two-page summary of the plots, or aims, of The Trial and especially The Castle.

6. Jackals and Arabs

Four pages. The narrator is a European camped in an oasis in the desert with some Arabs. they refer to him as master. It is a colonial situation. Austro-Hungary, despite being called an Empire, had no colonial territories so this is as much a fantasy projection as his stories about remote China or cowboys and Indians.

The story, such as it is, is that the jackals nosey up to the narrator and explain how much they want the Arabs to be cleared out of their land so it will be purified. Incongruously, they offer the narrator a pair of scissors (hanging from one of the jackals’ teeth). But at that moment an Arab appears and whips them back and recognises the scissors and says, ‘Oh yes, the jackals are always offering these to Europeans in the hope the European will use them to drive out or annihilate the Arabs (!)’

He drags over the corpse of a camel which has died in the night and the jackals start tearing it to bits, until the Arab starts whipping them. Both sides are trapped in a horrible hate-hate relationship.

7. A Visit to the Mine

The narrator is a miner. Some engineers have come to inspect his mine. That sounds like it ought to make sense, but it really doesn’t. Instead of giving any kind of account of what they do, the text simply lists each of the ten engineers, emphasising the way each one looks and behaves differently and is engaged on a different activity (exactly the format of the story titled Eleven Sons) then a concluding paragraph describes how they are all followed by an Attendant, formally dressed, inscrutable and superior.

8. The Next Village

This is a brilliant slice of…. of what? Fantasy? Dream prose? A sense of entropy and futility? Here’s the ‘story’ in its entirety.

My grandfather used to say: ‘Life is astoundingly short. To me, looking back over it, life seems so foreshortened that I scarcely understand, for instance, how a young man can decide to ride over to the next village without being afraid that – not to mention accidents – even the span of a normal happy life may fall far short of the time needed for such a journey.’

9. A Message from the Emperor

This is the one-page-long parable which is embedded in the longer story, The Great Wall of China about the emperor consigning a message to a messenger to bring to ‘you’ but how the vast and multitudinous challenges of even getting through the first courtyard of the imperial palace, let alone the second courtyard, let alone through the thronged streets of the capital means that the messenger will never arrive.

Placing the Next Village and the Message next to each other brings out their similarity, in fact the fundamental identity of the insight they deal with. It’s difficult to put into words what they’re saying – maybe you just have to ‘get’ it, but it feels like both of them are saying something very profound about human experience.

10. The Cares of a Family Man

Odradek is a weird creature which looks like a star-shaped spool of thread.

At first glance it looks like a flat star-shaped spool for thread, and indeed it does seem to have thread wound upon it; to be sure, they are only old, broken-off bits of thread, knotted and tangled together, of the most varied sorts and colours. But it is not only a spool, for a small wooden crossbar sticks out of the middle of the star, and another small rod is joined to that at a right angle. By means of this latter rod on one side and one of the points of the star on the other, the whole thing can stand upright as if on two legs.

The narrator tries to communicate with this creature and is troubled by him, most of all by the knowledge that Odradek will outlive him.

Am I to suppose, then, that he will always be rolling down the stairs, with ends of thread trailing after him, right before the feet of my children, and my children’s children? He does no harm to anyone that one can see; but the idea that he is likely to survive me I find almost painful.

11. Eleven Sons

The narrator lists his eleven sons and gives paragraph-long descriptions of all of them which start out positive and all end with the ways they disappoint him and fall short.

12. A Fratricide

This feels like the most ‘German Expressionist’ of the stories, because it describes the Expressionist subject par excellence which is a brutal murder. Schmar waits at a street corner on a moonlit night. Wese emerges from his work and walks down the street towards the fateful corner. What makes it so Expressionist is the way it is stagey, it could be played out on a stage with a crazy angular Expressionist set, for Mrs Wese stands at the door of her house further down the road waiting for her husband, while the private investigator Pallas, leans out of his window to get a better view of the scene.

Wese walks round the corner and right into Schmar who stabs him three times, twice in the throat and once in the belly, screaming at him, screaming about the joy of murder.

‘Done,’ says Schmar and pitches the knife, now superfluous blood-stained ballast, against the nearest house front. ‘The bliss of murder! The relief, the soaring ecstasy from the shedding of another’s blood!’

This irrational glee reminds me of any number of Expressionist painters (and writers and composers) with their mad murder lust; reminds me of the widespread topic in early Weimar Germany of the murder of women, and the utterly irrational way this was titled, by many artists, Murder, The Hope of Women.

13. A Dream

Two and a half pages in which Joseph K. (the protagonist of The Trial) has a dream. In it he arrives in a cemetery before a big mound of earth, two big men plonk a headstone down at the end of it and then another man, a roughly dressed ‘artist’ pops up, and, leaning uncomfortably over the mound, takes a pencil and begins writing words which become instantly deeply incised into the stone and burnished with gold, he writes HERE LIES but then becomes blocked, stuck, stymied and looks at Joseph K. in embarrassment, both of them unsure what to do next, until it comes to Joseph in a flash and he leans down and begins clawing through the earth which opens up to reveal a vault and he descends down into it as if by magic, turning till he is lying on his back and, looking up, watches the artist complete the inscription by writing his name and then –

He wakes up.

14. A Report to an Academy

The longest story at about ten pages, this is a spoof or parody of a presentation to a learnèd academy given by an ape who has transformed himself into a man. He describes how he was caught in the jungle by a hunting expedition, thrown into a cage on a ship and brought back across the sea and how he learned to be human from observing and copying the sailors. But that makes it sound too sensible. It is full of uncanny or strange details, for instance the thing which motivates him to transform is the layout of the cage which has iron bars on three sides but is bounded on the fourth by a crate. Something about this really upsets him and he repeats it again and again as if this was his prime motivation. Also he begins by imitating the lumbering walks of the rough sailors but there is satire in the fact that the decisive moment in his steps towards becoming a ‘man’ are when he learns to drink deep from a bottle of whiskey they give him.

Short and weird

Initially I based my definition of the ‘Kafkaesque’ on a deep immersion in the two novels The Trial and The Castle, which are long, long-winded, and focus on the nightmareishly impossible efforts of the young professional protagonists to understand the convoluted legal and bureaucratic processes administered by a vast hierarchy of officials, which they seem to have become embroiled in through no fault of their own.

Reading these stories makes me realise there is another entirely separate strand to Kafka’s output, which is the fantastical. If the characteristic quality of the novels is how long-winded they are, and how filled with immense, tortuous speeches about the inaccessibility of the Law and the Court then, on the whole, the leading feature of the stories is how short they are, how they manage to convey a whole hallucinatory scene, event or view of the world in a handful of, or even one, page.

Animals

Another striking element is the prominence of animals. The country doctor’s horses poke their heads through the windows to watch their master at work (that’s the detail from that story which really spoke to me, like the horse’s head in the paintings of Fuseli). More strikingly, Bucephalus the horse becomes a lawyer. Jackals talk to the narrator. And an ape addresses a learnèd academy. (And among his last short stories would be one about a giant mole and about an investigating dog.)

Two types

Broadly the stories can be divided in two types, the fables – which the reader understands straight away, which feel as immediate and accessible as Aesop’s fables – and the others, which are more troubling and perplexing.

Easy fables include Bucephalus becoming a lawyer, the message from the emperor, the nomads having conquered the city, and at the door of the law – these have the depth and resonance of ancient myths. The dream of Joseph K. falling into his grave is easily comprehensible as a dream-vision. These ones have a meaning and a point.

But what are we to make of the convoluted account of the country doctor? This also is a dream, I suppose but it is completely pointless, it amounts to a series of anxieties. Just as the account of the ape who became a man ought to resonate like an Edwardian science fiction story, but doesn’t: it’s more eccentric and odd than that, all the details seem off-kilter and troubling.

And then what to make of the two numeration stories, the list of eleven sons and ten engineers? These are not fables or dreams, they are something else again, something weirdly compelling. The page and a half about Odradek – is that a weird distorted comment on the relationship between fathers and sons? And the fratricide? That’s a rich slice of German murder Expressionism.

So there are more than two types. What a dazzling collection. What immense trouble and unease they convey.


Related links

These are links to the modern translations of these stories, some made by Ian Johnston and generously posted online for anyone to use, some from other sources.

Related reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

Laura Knight RA: A Working Life @ the Royal Academy

Laura Knight was the first woman to be elected to full membership of the Royal Academy of Arts (in 1936) and the first woman to receive a large retrospective exhibition at the Academy, in 1965. She was awarded a Damehood in 1929.

Born in 1877, Knight had a long life (passing away in 1970) and a long and successful career, working in oils, watercolours, etching, engraving and drypoint until well into the 1960s.

She never departed from the figurative, realist tradition of her youth and was, for this reason, in her heyday, one of the most popular painters in Britain.

Portrait of Joan Rhodes by Laura Knight (1955) © The estate of Dame Laura Knight. Photo credit: Royal Academy of Arts

Given Knight’s mid-century fame, and her role as a pioneering woman artist, it is a little surprising that this FREE display of some of her work is a) so small and b) tucked away in a dingy room through a doorway off of the main first floor landing. There was no signage, I had to ask an RA staffer where it was hidden.

If you google Knight or look at her Wikipedia article, you immediately see a series of highly realistic and vivid oil paintings, starting with the cracking Self Portrait with Nude of 1913, and including the evocative paintings she did during the Second World War (she became an official war artist at the outbreak of war, and her portrait of Ruby Loftus operating industrial machinery was picture of the year at the Academy’s 1943 summer exhibition).

As you explore further online you come across lots and lots of oil paintings of chocolate box scenes of the countryside, especially of the Cornish coast, featuring soulful looking ladies with parasols (before the First War) or in flapper style dresses and chapeaux (after the First War).

In this little display there are only three oil paintings on display here, although they include the very striking portrait of Joan Rhodes (above) and an equally realistic and sensual double nude, Dawn. (It is hard not to be struck by the firm pink bosoms in this painting, though maybe I am meant to be paying attention to the women’s soulful gazes…)

Dawn by Dame Laura Knight (1932-33) © The Artist’s Estate. Photo by John Hammond

No, the bulk of this display is made up of display cases of Knight’s drawings and sketchbooks of which the Academy holds a substantial collection – small, monochrome, often unfinished sketches, which are – to be frank – of variable quality and finish, some were very appealing, some seemed, well, a bit scrappy.

The works are grouped into three distinct themes from Knight’s long working life – the countryside, the nude and scenes from the theatre, ballet and circus.

Countryside

Knight had several spells of living in the countryside – in the 1890s she moved to the Yorkshire fishing village of Staithes and painted scenes of the coast and life among the fishermen and their wives. In 1907 Knight and her husband moved to Cornwall and became central figures in the artists’ colony known as the Newlyn School. In the 1930s she and her husband settled in the Malvern Hills, where she remained for the rest of her life.

Thus the exhibition includes sketches she did of Mousehole in Cornwall, alongside sketches of a ploughed field, trees beside a river, Richmond Park, Bodmin Moor, two land girls in a field, seeding potatoes, and so on.

Mousehole Harbour, Cornwall, with Figures in Foreground by Laura Knight (mid-1920s or early 1930s) © The Estate of Dame Laura Knight. All Rights Reserved

It was only later, when I googled her many finished paintings of Mousehole and other Cornish scenes that I realised where these sketches were heading, and what I was missing. I wish the exhibition had included at least one finished painting of this kind of scene alongside the sketches, to help you understand the process better, and the purpose of the sketches.

Nude

We’ve already met the two dramatic nude women in Dawn. There are a small number of other nude sketches and studies on display, which I thought were a bit so-so. Like the countryside sketches, they strongly suggest that the ‘magic’ of Knight’s paintings was precisely in the painting, in her skill at creating an airy, light and luminous finish with oil paints.

Standing Nude with Her Arms Behind her Head by Laura Knight (mid-1950s) © The Estate of Dame Laura Knight. All Rights Reserved

Theatre, ballet and circus

This broad subject area contains the largest number of sketches and drawings. Knight sketched ballet dancers, and circus performers, there are drawings of boxing matches held among soldiers training during World War One, and ice skaters and trapeze artists and many other performers. The wall labels tell us that she even spent some months travelling with famous circuses of the Edwardian era, drawing and sketching every day.

Trapeze Artists by Laura Knight (1925) © The Estate of Dame Laura Knight. All Rights Reserved

They’re all competent. Some of them piqued my interest. But none of them seemed to me as vivid as the drawings of, say Edward Ardizzone, who had a comparable sketching style, using multitudes of loosely drawn lines to build up form and composition.

The Lion Tamer by Edward Ardizzone (1948)

Maybe I’m mixing up fine art (Knight) with book illustration (Ardizzone) and maybe I’m giving away my failings of taste in saying so, but I much prefer the Ardizzone. It’s more vivid, more evocative, more physically pleasing (more tactile), more fun.

Also, as with the nudes and landscapes, a quick search online reveals that Knight converted her sketches into scores and scores of paintings of the circus, and I immediately found the paintings much more pleasurable than the sketches – a little cheesy and old-fashioned, like vintage Christmas cards, but much more finished and complete than the sketches.

Grievance

The introductory panel and all the wall labels exude what you could call the standard feminist spirit of grievance and offence. The curators point out that Knight, despite her success with the public, was only granted membership of the Royal Academy in 1936! That she was the first woman to achieve this accolade (why so late Royal Academy)! But that, even then, she wasn’t invited to Academicians’ Annual Dinner until 1967! We are told that, as a woman art student before the Great War, she was forbidden to paint or sketch from real naked models, but had to work from sculptures and statues! It was only in the 1930s in Newlyn that she paid local people to pose nude for her! And so a work like Dawn was an act of defiance against a male-dominated art world! Down with the patriarchy! #MeToo! Time’s Up!

Well, I’m sure all of this and much more along the same lines, is true and scandalous and we should all be up in arms about it. But, seen from another perspective, all this righteous indignation amounts to a skillful evasion of asking the rather obvious question, which is whether Knight’s art is any good – or is of anything other than antiquarian interest designed to bolster the outrage of righteous young feminists.

This tricky question is not addressed anywhere in the (very informative) wall labels, but, when you think about it, is amply answered by 1. the Academy’s choice of location for this little ‘exhibition’ – tucked away in a dark and dingy side-room – and 2. by the fact that it is more of a ‘display’ of half a dozen notebooks, three paintings and a poster, than a full-blooded exhibition.

If Laura Knight is so eminent and so worthy of consideration, why didn’t the Academy give her a larger exhibition in a more prominent space?

Ironically, the curators who complain that Knight was overlooked and patronised in her own time, have done quite a good job of repeating the gesture – displaying only a small and not very persuasive part of her output, and even that in a side room which nobody in a hurry to see the blockbuster shows on Anthony Gormley or Helena Schjerfbeck or Félix Vallotton is in too much danger of actually stumbling across.

Suggestion

In all seriousness, why not give Laura Knight a much bigger exhibition? If you look at the paintings embedded in the Wikipedia article or all across Google, it’s clear that she painted absolutely brilliantly, but in a straightforward naturalistic style which was completely outdated and provincial by the 1930s, let alone the 40s or 50s – in a style which carried on its Edwardian naturalism into the atomic age as if the rest of modern art had never existed.

But despite that – or more likely, because of it – Knight was very popular and successful with the public. Her paintings of Edwardian children playing on the beach or soulful ladies standing on clifftops sold by the dozen and – from a Google search of them – look immensely pleasing and reassuring in a lovely, airy, chocolate-box kind of way. And her wartime paintings perfectly capture the earnest heroism of the conflict, and of the social realism, the committedness, of the wartime artists.

To me this all suggests a whole area of investigation, an enquiry into why British artistic taste remained so isolated and uncosmopolitan for so long, which would reference:

  • the way the director of Tate in the 1930s could proudly say that Tate would only buy work by the young whippersnapper Henry Moore ‘over his dead body’
  • or Sir Alfred Munnings, the horse-painting president of the Royal Academy, addressing the academy’s 1949 annual banquet, delivered a drunken rant against all modern art and invoked the support of Winston Churchill (sitting next to him) who he claimed, had once asked him: ‘Alfred, if you met Picasso coming down the street would you join me in kicking his … something, something?’ ‘And I said ‘Yes, sir! Yes I would!’

A big exhibition of Knight’s work would:

  1. put to the test any claims about her importance and relevance
  2. be very popular among the sizeable audience, who still like their art extremely traditional (think of the sales of prints and other merchandise!)
  3. allow the curators to explore and analyse the long-lasting appeal and influence of the anti-continental, anti-modernist, anti-avant-garde tradition in 20th century English art of which, for all her skill and ability, Laura Knight appears to have been a leading example

This – the philistinism of English art, the determined rejection of all 20th century, contemporary and modern trends in art and literature in preference for the tried and tested and traditional – is something you rarely hear discussed or explained, maybe because it’s too big a subject, or too vague a subject, or too shameful a subject. But it’s something I’d love someone better educated and more knowledgeable in art history to explain to me. And I’d really enjoy seeing more of Laura Knight’s lovely airy innocent paintings in the flesh. Why not combine the two?

For once mount an exhibition which is not about a pioneer or explorer or breaker of new ground, but about a highly capable painter of extremely traditional and patriotic and reassuring paintings, and explain how and why the taste which informed her and her audience remained so institutionally and economically and culturally powerful in Britain for so long.


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Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

diane arbus: in the beginning @ Hayward Gallery

Diane Arbus was born in 1923 into a rich and cultured Jewish family in New York City. Her older brother, Howard, would go on to become the American poet laureate. She was sent to a series of private schools. In American terms, it would be difficult to be more privileged. But her father was rarely involved in her upbringing, absorbed in running the well-known Russek department store on Fifth Avenue, and her mother suffered from depression – so Diane and her siblings were raised by a succession of maids and governesses. It was a childhood of alienation and loneliness.

Indeed, Arbus suffered depressive episodes throughout her life and in 1971, at the age of 48, she took her own life while living at an artists community in New York City, swallowing barbiturates and slashing her wrists with a razor.

By that time she had established herself as one of the most influential, visionary and powerful photographers of the post-war period, and her reputation has grown steadily ever since.

The exhibition layout

This exhibition at the Hayward Gallery includes nearly 100 photographs taken during the first half (‘in the beginning’) of Arbus’s career, from 1956 to 1962, giving you a powerful sense of how she started out, of the incredible gift she began with, and how she developed and crafted it into something really distinctive.

All the photos are black and white, and consist of vintage prints from the Diane Arbus Archive at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. They are generally quite small, discreetly framed. The earlier ones are often dark and grainy in texture, shot on the hoof as she captures street scenes. By the early 60s this has changed a lot, the images gain clarity, the prints become larger, more lucid, the subjects more obviously posed and engaged, rather than caught on the fly.

But the first and most striking thing about the exhibition is how they’ve all been hung. The images are attached to the sides of square pillars which have arranged in a grid pattern in two big rooms.

The images are not in any particular chronological order, and so this ‘pillar layout’ allows you to wander past them in a number of directions: from front to back, or from side to side, diagonally, or to shimmy through the pillars in a random pattern.

Installation view of diane arbus: in the beginning at Hayward Gallery, 2019. Photo by Mark Blower

Installation view of diane arbus: in the beginning at Hayward Gallery, 2019. Photo by Mark Blower

If you saw them from above they would make a grid pattern and I suppose this could be said to echo the grid-like layout of the streets of her home town, Manhattan, the pillars representing city ‘blocks’.

Themes

The result of roaming freely through this forest of images is to make you notice recurring themes and subjects and thread them onto your own strings. Three large themes stick out:

  1. They’re all set in the city – urban scenes, streets and cars and shops, snack bars, inside people’s homes (generally shabby front rooms and cramped kitchens of cheap apartments) as well as various places of entertainment
  2. They’re all black and white, the earlier ones especially (i.e. mid-1950s) having a gritty, late-night film noir feel, almost like the crime scene photos and artless street scenes of someone like Weegee
  3. They’re almost all of people. Only three out of the hundred don’t feature people as their central focus, and in all three the absence of people is their main affect.

To be more specific, the images include the following recurring subjects:

  • night-time street scenes, people standing in the daytime street, taxi cabs, passersby
  • looking into shop windows, down a passage into a barber shop, an empty snack bar
  • scenes from films and shows broadcast on her television
  • circus performers
  • freaks: dwarves, giants, identical twins
  • a waxworks museum
  • Coney Island, famous for its entertainment and sideshows
  • the changing rooms of female impersonators
  • unnerving children
  • fathers holding babies
  • upper class women, in the street, in art galleries, in restaurants
Jack Dracula at a bar, New London, Connecticut (1961) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Jack Dracula at a bar, New London, Connecticut (1961) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Performers

The subjects most associated with Arbus are circus performers, midgets, giants, freaks and grotesques, transvestites and other ‘outsiders’ – so we have photos of ‘the human pin cushion’, of a circus strong man, a contortionist seen over the heads of a watching crowd. These might all come under the heading ‘Performers’, along with shots of:

  • Andy ‘Potato Chips’ Rotocheff doing his impression of Maurice Chevalier
  • the man who swallows razor blades
  • the Russian midget
  • The Jewish giant
  • the Mexican dwarf

Outsiders, people who perform exaggerate versions of themselves for entertainment.

Female impersonators

Another recurring subject is images of men who made a living as female impersonators in various states of undress in their backstage dressing rooms. I guess they have a combination of cheap glamour with pathos.

Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, Long Island (1959) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, Long Island (1959) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Circus acts, sideshow entertainers, female impersonators. They are all people who dress up and perform versions of themselves, who create their identities.

That summary might give the impression Arbus is attracted by the glamour of show business, or be a relative of the countless photographers of Hollywood film stars or Broadway actors. Far from it.

Poor and shabby

Because what all these subjects have in common is that they are poor.

Arbus was born into a wealthy family with nannies and maids, but emotionally stifled, repressed, alienated. The photos indicate that she went out looking for trouble, for worlds which represented the opposite of her privileged, Upper East Side, private school bubble. Slumming down among the proles in their shabby bars, pool halls and bizarre Victorian entertainments.

It’s in this spirit that there’s a strong thread of grainy, gritty shots of ugly working class people snogging, getting drunk and generally being lowlives at the poor man’s seaside resort, Coney Island in Brooklyn. As distant in terms of class, culture and manners, as it was possible to get from her privileged Manhattan background.

Note the grainy, foggy quality of the images. There’s a good cross-section of her photos in this New York Times article.

The Macabre

Alongside the depictions of living freaks and performers, there are several images of the dead. For example, a handful of shots from a New York waxworks museum, including a really gruesome one of an elaborately staged crime scene with fake blood spattered over the waxwork figures (Wax Museum Axe Murder).

Nearby is a shot of a corpse at a mortuary, shot from behind the head and showing the rib cage broken open to perform an autopsy.

The Surreal

As a grace note to these images of the grotesque and morbid is a handful of images of the genuinely surreal. Thus she made a trip to Disneyland where she saw a number of stage set ‘rocks’ parked on the trailers or trolleys which were used to move them around.

But this kind of deliberate and rather obvious surrealism was not her thing, not least because these are objects. Arbus is a people person: weird, disturbing and unsettling people, maybe, but it the strangeness of humanity is her subject, not the wide world of odd objects.

TV and film

Related to the idea of performance, and of the grotesque, is a whole series of black and white photos she took of films or TV shows. As far as I could tell a lot of these were shot directly off her TV while they were being broadcast, although some also seem to have been shot at the cinema, the camera pointing up at a distorted image on the screen.

Either way, these film still photos are clearly related to the themes discussed above in being hammy or kitsch. Thus we have:

  • Bela Lugosi playing Dracula
  • Man on Screen Being Choked,1958
  • a blonde woman on screen about to be kissed (and looking terrified)
  • a kiss for Baby Doll (from a movie)
  • a screaming woman with blood on her hands

As you can see, she’s chosen subjects which are cheap, melodramatic and pulpy. They should be funny except that something in Arbus’s framing, exposure and printing stops them being funny. Somehow they all suggest an imaginative world of genuine trauma, no matter how hokey its trappings.

Behind the cheap histrionics of Bela Lugosi or the woman screaming, behind the appalling bubblegum world of American culture, Arbus manages to identify something much deeper and genuinely disturbing.

How the weird infects the everyday

And this, I think, was the one big idea which gradually suggested itself as I circulated round the pillars and viewed and re-viewed this jungle of images: it dawned on me that Arbus took the same sensibility which had plumbed the depths of proley entertainment, which had faced the waxwork axe murders, which had tracked down ‘the human pin cushion’ and captured rough, deformed, chavvy working-class people about their entertainments in cheap funfairs and seedy pool halls, in smoke-filled cinemas, arguing and getting drunk and watching gimcrack performers, and…

… she then brought this feel for the weird and the strange and applied it to everyday life. She found herself able to detect the strange and unsettling quality of the sideshow contortionist in random passersby, the pathos of the fat lady in the passengers in a parked taxi cab, the mystery of the circus dwarf in a middle- aged woman on a bus, the glittery pathos of the transvestites in the face of a boy about to cross the road.

Somehow, what should be everyday people and banal scenes become charged, through her lens, with a tremendous sense of weirdness and strangeness.

Lady on a bus, New York City (1957) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Lady on a bus, New York City (1957) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

It’s just a woman of a certain age in a fur coat on a bus, what’s so strange about that?

Well, in Diane Arbus’s hands, lots. Everything about this image has become strange and unsettling. It’s as if she had bottled the weird, edge-of-humanity vibe she had found down among the midnight sawdust and sweaty changing rooms of the circus midget and the transvestite performers, and then come back to the ordinary, everyday world of the bustling city and stealthily blown it onto passersby, transforming everyone she pointed her camera at into the stars of some obscure, unfathomable but deeply eerie storylines.

Through her lens they all become aliens caught in the act of… of doing something… of being something… strange and incommunicable.

Boy stepping off the curb, N.Y.C. 1957–58 © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Boy stepping off the curb, N.Y.C. 1957–58 © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

A boy stepping off a kerb, what could be more mundane and boring, right? Except that in Arbus’s hands – through her eye – transmuted through her ability with camera and print – this kid seems to be a representative from another planet. Or to be hinting at strange unsuspected depths, of mysteries which can never be fathomed, right here, in this hectic, over-crowded city.

And so it is with a huge tranche of these images, even the most thoroughly ordinary – a girl with a pointy hood 1957, a woman with white gloves and a pocketbook 1956, a woman carrying a child in Central Park 1956 – all are super-charged with rare meaning and some kind of fraught but invisible symbolism, felt but not understood.

She was dead right when she said:

I do feel I have some slight corner on something about the quality of things. I mean it’s very subtle and a little embarrassing to me but I really believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them.

Very subtle, but very very powerful.

A box of ten photographs

She didn’t stop photographing the weird and the uncanny. Well into the 60s she was photographing giants and midgets and twins. But as the 1950s turns into the 1960s, you can watch how she perfected her ability to capture the ominous quality of people doomed to be outsiders, losing the grainy look of the 50s and producing images which are much clearer, starker, all the more moving for their bluntness – and at the same time more and more subtly injecting that freak quality into deceptively ‘ordinary’ scenes of everyday life.

In a change to the white pillar layout, a room to the side of the main exhibition is devoted to one of her last works, a limited edition portfolio containing just ten of her photographs which she considered her best. Beautifully printed and presented, the limited edition boxes were priced at a thousand dollars apiece!

All ten of the photos she selected are on display here, and include several of her greatest hits, such as the identical twins.

Also included are A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y. 1970, the Mexican dwarf, the King and Queen of a Senior Citizen dance, and the boater-wearing young man who is a supporter of the Vietnam war.

In just these ten shots you can see her major subjects recapitulated: circus freaks, grotesque chavs, transvestites (the guy with curlers in his hair), the everyday weirdness of the middle-aged nudist couple in their living room.

Posed weirdness against spontaneous unease

So far so obvious. But the image I liked most from the set was of the youngish couple lying on loungers in their big garden while junior plays with a paddling pool in the background.

The wall label tells us that her friend, the photographer Richard Avedon, bought two of the boxes, one for himself and one to give as a gift to the film director Mike Nichol.

Now Nichol has made a whole rack of excellent films, but that image of the couple on their loungers reminded me strongly of The Graduate from 1967, starring then unknown actor Dustin Hoffman, alongside Anne Bancroft and Katharine Ross. The Graduate is set in wealthy suburbia, is a story about people with nice houses with big gardens and swimming pools, and powerfully conveys the smothering politeness of American middle-class life which you only had to scratch the surface of to reveal a seething underworld of jealousies and animosities, lusts and betrayals.

It’s a very uncharacteristic photo for Arbus. Not urban, city streets, not at night. A suburban garden. Yet somehow (to pursue my thesis of her ability to find the weird amid the banal) the couple’s awkward pose and their strange indifference to their rummaging child, conveys – to me, at any rate – just as much un-ease, as much edginess, as a photo of, say, the spooky twins, or another one nearby, the kid with the hand grenade.

This is a famous photo. It has its very own Wikipedia article. After getting talking to him in the park and getting his parents permission to photograph him, she circled him getting to adopt different faces and poses, before selecting the one where he’s pulling the funniest face and looking, well, weirdest.

In the later photos, the exhibition gives us an increasing sense of the photographer arranging, engaging with and posing her subjects like this, a change from the more casual, fly-on-the-wall street photography of the 50s. They become more clearly framed and shot. It’s after the period covered by the show, from 1962 onwards, that she produces the images she’s most famous for.

But this, I think, is why I like the couple in the garden – it’s obviously been set up but it’s not a pose, it’s one among, presumably, a set of shots, and yet it captures very well the quality I’m on about – the more subtle end of her work, the capturing of dis-ease in the midst of the what ought to be the everyday.

Only connect

There’s another aspect to the Child with a toy hand grenade photo. The boy’s name was Colin Wood. Years later he gave an interview to the Washington Post about the experience of being photographed by Diane Arbus.

My parents had divorced and there was a general feeling of loneliness, a sense of being abandoned. I was just exploding. She saw that and it’s like… commiseration. She captured the loneliness of everyone. It’s all people who want to connect but don’t know how to connect. And I think that’s how she felt about herself. She felt damaged and she hoped that by wallowing in that feeling, through photography, she could transcend herself.

It would be easy to take this testimony and what we know about her unhappy childhood, to conclude that alienation and disconnect is the single dominating and defining quality of her photos.

It’s a powerful interpretation because it does, in fact, eloquently express the look in the eyes of all those transvestites, midgets and so on, the taxi drivers, the woman with white gloves and a pocketbook standing marooned on the sidewalk – people who seem somehow abandoned in the middle of their own lives.

But I tend to shy away from interpretations of books or art which focus solely on the psychology of the creator. Obviously it’s important, often decisive, but it is never enough. For me the most important thing is the work itself, the book and the words or the art and the images. The interest for me is in deciphering how it works, why it moves and transports us, in analysing the choice of subject, the maker’s skill with composition, framing, lighting, with contrasting effects of graininess or smoothness and so on.

It may be that the haunted loneliness in Diane Arbus’s personality sought, drew out and depicted the fellow loneliness she found in the people she photographed. But this psychological sympathy isn’t a sufficient explanation for her achievement. The same, the ability to coax secrets from subjects, might be said of social workers or therapists.

Any full explanation of the photographs’ impact must not lose sight of the fact that she was a photographer of genius. It is because she was a superb technician that her personal vision of the world didn’t die with her but is preserved in literally thousands of haunting photographs (some 6,000 at the most recent count).

The rise of weirdness

Looking at all these images of shabby circus performers and seedy changing rooms suddenly made me think of the cover art of The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan. In the same year as Arbus shot the Identical twins – 1967 – Dylan retired to Woodstock where he and the Band made home tape recordings of scores of songs which were later released on the album titled the Basement Tapes.

The album cover (in fact created a decade later) is an effort to depict the surreal cast of characters who wander through the forty or so songs Dylan wrote that summer, a deliberate invocation of the circus world of bizarre and offbeat performers – a ballerina, a strong man in a leopard skin, a harem odalisque, a fire-eater, a midget, a fat lady.

It feels as if the rich vein of American weirdness which Arbus mined in her very personal photos from the late 1950s onwards was somehow destined to become part of the pop mainstream less than a decade later.

Cover of The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan (1975)

Cover of The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan (1975)

Arbus’s photos progress from a film noir and Naked City world of the late 1950s – distilled in her grainy shots of empty bars, barber shops, Coney island fairground lights and so on – to a much clearer, early-60s aesthetic which presents its subjects much more openly, candidly and vulnerably.

But I couldn’t help thinking that in both incarnations, she eerily anticipated what by the mid-1960s had become a very widespread interest in outsiders, freaks, the circus, transvestites and the rest of it.

In 1957 the word ‘freak’ meant someone suffering a deformity of body or mind, unacceptable to the average smartly-dressed, Middle American family. But just ten years later, the word ‘freak’ was being used to describe the pioneers of a new Zeitgeist, the trippy, zoned-out prophets of new ways of seeing and living. As soon as I hear the word ‘freak’ I think of the cartoon characters, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, who first appeared in 1971, and the whole freak aesthetic went on to have a long dwindling afterlife in the 1970s.

From what I read Arbus herself was never anything like a hippy or flower child – but she was certainly way ahead of the curve in her obsession with freaks and outsiders. And in her ability to find the freakish and the uncanny in the everyday, she had nailed and defined a whole thread of Americana before its emergence into broader pop culture a few years later.

Cover of Strange Days by The Doors

Cover of Strange Days by The Doors (1967)

Not just illuminating ‘some slight corner on something about the quality of things’, Diane Arbus pioneered a whole way of seeing America, the world and modern urban life which shed light, not only on the obviously weird and bizarre (what she’s famous for), but also suffused countless banal and everyday scenes with wonderfully strange and ominous undertones.

What a great exhibition. What a brilliant photographer.


Related links

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

Circus by Alistair MacLean (1975)

‘What is it, Bruno? What drives you? You are a driven man, don’t you know that? You don’t work for the CIA and this damnable anti-matter can’t mean all the world to you. Yet I know, I know you’re willing to die to get inside that damnable prison. Why, Bruno, why?’ (p.90)

The setting is, well, a circus, one of the most famous in America, whose top attraction is the renowned trapeze artist Bruno Wildermann, an emigré from an unnamed East European country. The novel opens with two agents from the CIA going to the circus to enjoy the show but mainly to see Bruno and his two brothers, the ‘Blind Eagles’. Afterwards, they approach Bruno and the circus-owner, Wrinfield, to ask if they will cooperate with the CIA and take the circus on a tour of Eastern Europe. One of the stops would just happen to be near a particular prison-cum-research laboratory in the city of Cranau, where our spies tell us that the dastardly communists are working on some kind of anti-matter weapon. Bruno’s mission would be to break into it. Bruno and Wrinfield agree. What could possibly go wrong?

Almost immediately the ‘MacLean mayhem’ begins, namely both the agents we met in the opening pages are murdered: one gets an ice pick through the neck in his apartment; the other is lured back to the circus where he is thrown into the cage full of tigers which tear him to pieces.

Wrinfield and Bruno are visited by the man who appears to be in charge of the operation, discreetly referred to as ‘the Admiral’ and, despite these unfortunate deaths, they assure him they want to go ahead. So the Admiral hustles things along: getting them to cancel their American tour so as to crack on to Europe; inserting a doctor, Harper, into the circus to act as contact; and giving Wrinfield a new ‘PA’, the pretty young Maria. Bruno is told to pretend to fall in love with her. Astonishingly, the pair find themselves falling in love for real.

The circus plays a few more American dates then loads onto a cargo ship and crosses the Atlantic. Wrinfield’s nephew, Henry, has come along for the ride and because he’s taken a fancy to pretty young Maria. Maria and Bruno put up with his harmless flirting, until his snooping discovers that some of the crew are bugging her cabin – and they realise that he’s discovered them – at which point he is coshed and thrown overboard.

In other words, this side-plot shows that someone is seeking to undermine the mission before it’s properly started, though it is never really revealed who. (In fact, by the book’s end I’d completely forgotten that I was meant to be interested in finding out who murdered the two agents, Pilgrim, Fawcett, and loverboy Henry. These earlier sections just don’t hang very well with the later sections: the text as a whole lacks the joined-up narrative suspense of the earlier, successful novels. It feels more ‘bitty’.)

A part of the book’s comic strip superficiality is the way everyone takes this and the earlier murders in their stride ie they have zero emotional impact. Instead, the circus unloads in Italy onto a long, specially-built circus train, and commence their European tour which brings them across the Iron Curtain into the unnamed East European country.

Here there’s a lot more palaver, with the two ‘Blind Eagles’ of Bruno’s act going missing, presumed kidnapped from the circus train. We meet the Head of the Secret Police, Sergius (who has only a sinister hole where his mouth should be, the result of some horrible wartime injury) who visits the circus, greets all the performers warmly, then listens to Bruno’s bugged conversations with Maria (everyone’s phone is bugged in this novel) and is generally shown to be one step ahead of the conspirators. We witness a scene in which Sergius and his deputy eavesdrop on everything Bruno is telling Maria about the upcoming heist, then turn away chuckling, thinking they have these poor American agents completely under control.

Except that, in the big twist of the book, Bruno and his team of experts from the circus (Kan Dahn the strongman, Roebuck the lasso expert, Manuelo the knife thrower) break into the prison/laboratory one day earlier than everyone expected. Ha!

The plan depends on Bruno’s ability to walk – balancing with a trapeze artist’s pole – the 300 yards along a power cable (turned off) from the power station over the barbed wire fence & walls into the prison/lab. Which he does in quite a tense scene. Once there he disables the guards with a poison gas squirter (very Man from UNCLE), helps the rest of the gang shimmy up ropes and then they:

  • move systematically around the watch-towers, disabling & tying up the guards
  • break quietly into the lab
  • find the bedroom of the evil scientist, van Diemen, and extract from him the formula for the dastardly secret weapon
  • move on to the prison where they find not only the two missing acrobats – presumed kidnapped earlier in the story, in fact held by the State Police – but also Bruno’s parents, locked up in his youth. It was their arrest which prompted his escape to the West all those years earlier. Aha. For him, the whole mission has been about releasing them.

BUT – it’s at exactly this moment of triumph that the voice of the Head of Secret Police, Sergius, says ‘Drop your guns.’ Oops. He is standing there with a gun, next to none other than Dr Harper. Hang on! Isn’t this the Dr Harper who ‘the Admiral’ asked the circus to take along as the CIA contact? Does this mean that – Dr Harper is a fiendish double agent? Was it Dr Harper who arranged the murder of Fawcett and Pilgrim back in the States, and of poor Henry on the ocean liner? The cad!

For a moment things look bad for Bruno and our boys. But only for a moment. In a split second of distraction, Manuelo throws a knife at Sergius, Dr Harper shoots van Dieman (who Bruno was using as a shield) at the same moment as Bruno fires one of his poison darts which hits Harper in the neck. Wham! The three baddies – Sergius, Harper, van Diemen – are dead. Quick!

Our boys leg it. As more or less all the guards are gassed and tied up, they simply shin down the rope to street level, and jump into various cars. Bruno and Maria head for the woods where they rendezvous with a helicopter which flies them to a US ship waiting in the Baltic, and so back to the States. The three performers motor back to the circus in time to carry out their performances and thus have the perfect alibi. While the deputy head of the Secret Police is distraught to come across the prison and lab full of tied-up guards and – horror of horrors! – the corpses of his boss (Sergius), the American double agent (Harper), and their leading scientist (van Diemen).

These later MacLean novels all end very abruptly with only a few sentences of wind-up. Same happens here, as Bruno and Maria walk into the office of ‘the Admiral’ back at CIA headquarters, where they announce they got married on the ship back from Europe. Bruno also reveals that he tore up the plans for the dastardly weapon without even looking at them (good chap) and the Admiral is so cross he threatens to fire him. Fire him?

Because of course, dear Reader, Bruno Wildermann is not only the world’s greatest trapeze artist – he is also one of the CIA’s best agents 🙂

This makes a bit of a nonsense of the opening scenes where the CIA agents go along to check Bruno out and ask if he’ll undertake the mission. But this isn’t a book which encourages too much thought, you’re just meant to sit back and enjoy the ride.


In MacLean’s classic novels (Night Without End to Puppet On a Chain) the tension is ratcheted up so high you can hardly breathe while you read them. This one, like the previous couple of novels, mostly lacks that element of nailbiting tension because you know all too well what is going to happen: some brutal murders set the tone, and there may a number of tense and exciting scene – but we know our hero will turn out to know, or to be, more than he lets on and – after handling a few, sometimes quite brutal, setbacks – will manage to defeat the baddies and emerge from the climactic confrontation to the cheers of the crowd and kisses from his new girlfriend. Or wife. This is more or less what happens in Caravan to Vaccarès, The Way to Dusty Death, Breakheart Pass and this one.

Related links

Fontana paperback edition of Circus

Fontana paperback edition of Circus

The first 22 Alistair MacLean novels

Third person narrator

1955 HMS Ulysses – war story about a doomed Arctic convoy.
1957 The Guns of Navarone – war story about commandos who blow up superguns on a Greek island.
1957 South by Java Head – a motley crew of soldiers, sailors, nurses and civilians endure a series of terrible ordeals in their bid to escape the pursuing Japanese forces.
1959 The Last Frontier – secret agent Michael Reynolds rescues a British scientist from communists in Hungary.

First person narrator – the classic novels

1959 Night Without End – Arctic scientist Mason saves plane crash survivors from baddies who have stolen a secret missile guidance system.
1961 Fear is the Key – government agent John Talbot defeats a gang seeking treasure in a crashed plane off Florida.
1961 The Dark Crusader – counter-espionage agent John Bentall defeats a gang who plan to hold the world to ransom with a new intercontinental missile.
1962 The Golden Rendezvous – first officer John Carter defeats a gang who hijack his ship with a nuclear weapon.
1962 The Satan Bug – agent Pierre Cavell defeats an attempt to blackmail the government using a new supervirus.
1963 Ice Station Zebra – MI6 agent Dr John Carpenter defeats spies who have secured Russian satellite photos of US missile bases, destroyed the Arctic research base of the title and nearly sink the nuclear sub sent to rescue them.

Third phase

1966 When Eight Bells Toll – British Treasury secret agent Philip Calvert defeats a gang who have been hijacking ships carrying bullion off the Scottish coast.
1967 Where Eagles Dare
1968 Force 10 From Navarone The three heroes from Guns of Navarone parachute into Yugoslavia to blow up a dam and destroy two German armoured divisions.
1969 Puppet on a Chain – Interpol agent Paul Sherman battles a grotesquely sadistic heroin-smuggling gang in Amsterdam.
1970 Caravan to Vaccarès – British agent Neil Bowman foils a gang of gypsies who are smuggling Russian nuclear scientists via the south of France to China.
1971 Bear Island – Doctor Marlowe deals with a spate of murders aboard a ship full of movie stars and crew heading into the Arctic Circle.

Bad

1973 The Way to Dusty Death – World number one racing driver Johnny Harlow acts drunk and disgraced in order to foil a gang of heroin smugglers and kidnappers.
1974 Breakheart Pass – The Wild West, 1873. Government agent John Deakin poses as a wanted criminal in order to foil a gang smuggling guns to Injuns in the Rockies and planning to steal government gold in return.
1975 Circus – The CIA ask trapeze genius Bruno Wildermann to travel to an unnamed East European country, along with his circus, and use his skills to break into a secret weapons laboratory.
1976 The Golden Gate – FBI agent Paul Revson is with the President’s convoy when it is hijacked on the Golden Gate bridge by a sophisticated gang of crooks who demand an outrageous ransom. Only he – and the doughty doctor he recruits and the pretty woman journalist -can save the President!
1977 – Seawitch – Oil executives hire an unhinged oil engineer, Cronkite, to wreak havoc on the oil rig of their rival, Lord Worth, who is saved by his beautiful daughter’s boyfriend, an ex-cop and superhero.
1977 – Goodbye California – Deranged muslim fanatic, Morro, kidnaps nuclear physicists and technicians in order to build atomic bombs which he detonates a) in the desert b) off coastal California, in order to demand a huge ransom. Luckily, he has also irritated maverick California cop, Ryder – by kidnapping his wife – so Ryder tracks him down, disarms his gang and kills him.

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