By Jennifer Levasseur
You don’t go to Shakespeare to learn the history of Henry VIII. That’s what Peter Carey once said to explain why facts didn’t bind him when he wrote True History of Kelly Gang in the voice of legendary, infamous bushranger Ned Kelly. It’s not the novelist’s task to give the reader the absolute truth; the goal must be to tell a good story, to discover (or create) hidden aspects of character, to subvert and to use the historical record in a way that serves story.
If the reader wants to learn the cleanest, clearest version of the “truth,” she should look to histories, to those writers who back up their narratives with footnotes and detailed bibliographies. Not to novelists who are often the tricksters of the trade, who bend and mold the facts to create other possibilities that the bald facts disallow.
Examples of such destabilizing novels abound in literature. Novels about novelists are common enough to have created their own subgenre, including multiple takes on Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Virginia Woolf. But the one that comes to mind while reading Marija Peričić’s new novel The Lost Pages is The Crime Writer by Jill Dawson, a fictional take on Patricia Highsmith that invokes Highsmith’s literary world and rewrites a brief moment of her life in the mode of her crime stories. The Crime Writer remains untethered to reality, but it captures Highsmith’s character, her darkness and playfulness, the spirit in which she wrote her works. It is so clearly not about the factual truth of Highsmith’s life (and throws many winks to readers who know her fiction) that even those who know little about the author will complete Dawson’s novel realizing that they’ve been had—and what a delightful trip it’s been.
Marija Peričić’s new novel, Vogel Literary Award–winning The Lost Pages, constructs an alternate version of the Franz Kafka/Max Brod story, one born from their friendship, informed by the strange afterlife of Kafka’s work and Brod’s demotion from author in his own right to literary executor of a genius lost at age forty to tuberculosis.
Kafka is such a literary titan that even if you haven’t read his most famous story, you connect his name with that character inexplicably turned into a vermin. You might recall that Kafka published little in his lifetime and instructed his friend to destroy all manuscripts upon his death. Brod refused and carried the weight of that decision and all its implications with him through the rest of his life. After his immigration to Israel and his death there in 1968, Brod insured that the intrigue surrounding Kafka’s papers would continue: he left ambiguous instructions about the collection, and the manuscripts and letters remained locked away by his secretary, and then her daughters, in their Tel Aviv apartment and more than a dozen safety deposit boxes in Israel and Europe. Only late last year did legal proceedings finally settle the matter: the National Library of Israel claimed possession of all the remaining Kafka and Brod papers.
The Lost Pages, a thrilling portrait of literary rivalry and subterfuge, purports to be Brod’s unpublished memoirs, finally released as part of the long-contested Kafka papers.
From the first page—in which a haughty Kafka heckles Brod during a lecture about Schopenhauer—Peričić topples our expectations of each of these figures. The young insurance clerk with the gentle face and perfectly coifed hair who would come to demand his life’s work be burned appears as an attention-hungry disruptor, one so confident in his ability and the inevitability of his success that he nearly sabotages his career by blowing off an editor’s advances and repeatedly missing lectures, deadlines and important meetings. Brod, newly feted for his first novel, enjoys his upgraded status, desired by women despite his hunchback and deformed gait, lauded in the street by fans.
While history tells us that Brod and Kafka shared a close friendship, with Brod as supportive mentor, in the pages of this novel we meet two men vying for superiority from the moment they come face to face.
The novel begins: “I still remember the first time I saw Franz; a day that seems now either the beginning of or the beginning of the end of my life’s misfortune.” The first words we hear Kafka speak: “You idiot!”
The Brod we know as a patient facilitator, mentor and savior of Kafka’s work reads those first stories and pronounces his verdict: “All I felt was the sick poison of jealousy, the panic of self-preservation, and a determination to stop Franz at all costs.”
At turns disturbing, page-turning and deeply sad, The Lost Pages serves as a memoir of what might have been, of how competition and insecurity can lead to a form of madness.
But if half way through the novel we think we understand what The Lost Pages is building toward, Peričić upends the story yet again, masterfully rearranging and distorting what we assumed she was constructing of these two entangled lives. To say more would be a disservice to the clever twist.
These men are a Kafka and a Brod we’ve never seen because they are not Brod and Kafka. And this is both the fun and the agitation inherent in this novel. These characters at times show us the worst and most vulnerable and detestable (though understandable) aspects of human interaction: self-hatred, paranoia, jealousy, insecurity. But they do so using two historical figures without regard for those real flesh and blood people.
In the end, we’re faced with a reality so at odds with what we know that we have to understand The Lost Pages as something completely other than a novel about Kafka and Brod. It asks some age-old questions—Who owns stories? Can fiction rewrite history? How flexible are facts, and does it matter if we break them?—that Peričić makes fresh and troubling indeed.