As the world became more mobile, so media acquired mobility too.
A revolutionary event in the modern history of media was the 19th century invention of the pocket sized paperback book. Up to this point, media consumption was locked in the library. Think of it as poor media. The paperback is the original Sony Walkman or Palm Pilot. Being able to hide a small book in the privacy of one’s pocket, of carrying somebody’s else world of words wherever one went, not only transformed the act of reading, but also added a third, portable party to the relationship. With the invention of the small paperback, the writer, the book and the reader could go everywhere together – on foot, by bicycle, on trains and buses, eventually even aboard airplanes. Reading became a part of a mobile lifestyle, rather than a hindrance to it. Added to this ménage a trois was a fourth element: the world outside. The act of reading was taken out of the library. It acquired an ever changing backdrop, a mobile set, which transformed the act of reading a book into a complicated form of interactivity. This may not have been digital media – but it was multimedia. It became, to be more precise, rich media.
This thought occurred to me earlier this month while I was in Las Vegas reading a paperback about Franz Kafka. I was seated at a cafe reading a book called Vertigo (1999) by the Anglo-German travel writer W.G. Sebald. My backdrop was Las Vegas’ version of Venice: The Venetian Hotel and Casino’s Grand Canal with its indoor mall of modern stores and restaurants.
Sebald’s Vertigo is a layered, richly historical travel book primarily describing a railway journey the author makes in October 1980 from the Austrian city of Vienna to the Northern Italian towns of Venice, Verona, Riva-del-Garda and Dezenzano. Alongside his own travels, Sebald writes about the Northern Italian adventures of three famous historical personalities: the Marie Henri Beyle, otherwise known as the novelist Stendhal, Franz Kafka and Giacomo Casanova, the 18th century Venetian memoirist. Sebald's Vertigo is as much about Casanova, Stendhal and Kafka as about Sebald himself and sometimes it is difficult to know if Vertigo, which jumpcuts backwards and forwards across time and space, is also a work of biography, autobiography or fiction.
In some ways, it would have been more appropriate to have been reading about Kafka at at Las Vegas’ New York New York resort, located over the strip from the MGM Grande. This theme hotel and casino is a virtual representation of New York with its three dimensional New York skyline, its Brooklyn Bridge and, most memorably, its version of the Statue of Liberty. Seeing the Statue of Liberty from the strip invariably reminds me of Kafka’s book Amerika. Published posthumously in 1927, Amerika is Franz Kafka’s story about a second chance in turn-of-the-century America. It reminds me of the book’s opening sentence has always resonated for its sweeping simplicity. In addition to the words, there is music here, as well as the promise of widescreen cinema. These words transform America into rich media:
As Karl Rossman, a poor boy of sixteen who had been packed off to America by his parents because of a servant girl had seduced him and got herself with child by him, stood on the liner slowly entering the harbour of New York, a sudden burst of sunshine seemed to illumine the Statue of Liberty, so that he saw it in a new light, although he had sighted it long before. The arm with the sword rose up as if newly stretched aloft, and round the figure blew the free winds of heaven.
Imaginative paperback writers – Kafka or W.G. Sebald, for example – possess this knack of transforming places into rich media. Literary traditionalists might object that real writers write books not screenplays or audio shows. But I would argue that we remember images from books, not words. In this sense, then, the paperback book is a more modern version of a Sony Walkman or an Apple iPod.
I don’t know how Kafka would respond to the idea of a paperback book as an interactive media player. In Vertigo, Sebald writes, amongst other things, about Franz Kafka’s visit to Northern Italy in September of 1913. Sebald describes an incident in which Kafka, who he calls Dr K, went to the Cinema Pathe di San Sebastiano in Verona as a “refuge” from his mental unrest. Imagining Franz Kafka at the movies – seated in an audience of Veronese strangers, staring at foreign moving images of his own city on a distant screen – is itself a curious notion. Sebald deduces that Kafka watched a 1913 pioneering German movie by Paul Wegener and Stellan Rye called The Student of Prague (de Student von Prag), the Faustian tale of a student called Balduin who innocently sold his reflection to the devil in exchange for the promise of a beautiful woman. The outcome is a nightmare for Balduin since his doppelganger, the image of him now owned by the devil, wreaks havoc in Prague. The Student of Prague is one of the earliest examples of silent psychological movies and influenced later German Expressionist works like F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu and Fritz Lang’s 1921 Destiny (Der Mude Tod) – which Alfred Hitchcock, in Francois Truffaut’s 1984 book Hitchcock, acknowledges made a “special impression” on him as a student going to the movies in the early 1920’s in his native London.
According to Sebald, Kafka mental state in 1913 was particularly precarious due to a relationship he had begun in the spring of that year in Berlin with Felice Bauer, a woman to whom he would become engaged in 1914. Sebald suggests that Kafka personalized his viewing of The Student of Prague by imagining the fate of the student hero as his own. The idea of losing possession of oneself, of not being able to control one’s own history, is a constant theme not only in Kafka’s writing but also in his life, particularly in his relationships with women. His curse, like that of Balduin, was to always be looking at himself from the outside. His fate was to be a viewer – and he makes us, as his readers, into watchers too. Like Scottie Ferguson, Hitchcock’s fictional voyeur in his 1958 movie Vertigo, Franz Kafka is into looking. Perhaps, then, the movie theater was a sort of home for him and that we should naturally think of Kafka as being at the movies.
Such were my thoughts, earlier this month, while reading about Franz Kafka in Las Vegas.