I dreamt I was reading a story about a young writing prospect who was writing a story. His story was a simple one, a mystery of the old-fashioned kind, a crime, a detective. a side-kick, some traveling around in an unknown country, a wise old priest, a solution. When he was finished, it was barely long enough, but was long enough, to be a novel, so he set about finding a publisher. But first he showed it to his friend. The friend showed him the faults, and suggested ways of correcting them. First of all, the novel, if it was a novel, was disproportioned – the opening and entrainment of the narrative took too long, the denouement and proffered solution were too hasty – it felt more like a collapse than a completion. The book had the wrong shape. So it has to be longer. But above all, this novel lacked intellectual and aesthetic significance. Even in a detective story, he said, we want more than plot. We want the sense that what we’re reading is important. Give us this sense.
So the young writer hearkened to his friend, took back the manuscript and set to work. He darkened the story, deepened the characters, brooded on the landscape, discovered wiser things for the wise old priest to talk about, things that actually did seem pretty interesting, about architecture and its effect on churchgoers, about what happens to the soul when people look at trees in autumn, that sort of thing. The young writer was happy, he liked this repacking and embroidering, and soon the novel was twice as long. He showed it to his friend, the friend was satisfied, this is a really good piece of work you’ve done.
It wasn’t long before a publisher took an interest (this is a dream, remember) and gave the young writer a decent contract; soon enough the book was published, the little reviews like Kirkus and Publishers Weekly were raves, the book got into the windows of small bookshops, and had two stacks of itself on a prominent table at every B&N. Sales were impressive, though not remarkable. The young writer walked about in a swoon of delight.
Then the real review came. Big as his ambitions, serious as his novel – was it in the NYRB, or a monthly? – the review savaged the book. It told the writer what perhaps he suspected all along: the plot was compact and intelligible, the characters plausible, the local-color set pieces effective – it was, the reviewer said, a very clever piece of work. It had muscles, good bones, fair reach – but it had no heart. No heart at all. Just clever workshop stuff, a do-it-yourself project with no soul.
So the young writer went home and shot himself. In the head, or the arm, or the belly, but not in the heart. He had learned that he had no heart to aim at. Later that day, an indifferent world received the news of his by now predictable decease.
At this point in the dream, I became aware that the last sentence I had just read was a variation, parody, of the famous last sentence of Thomas Mann’s The Death in Venice, about the shocked and respectful world receiving the news of Aschenbach’s death. I realized that there was more to this sad little story I had read than I thought at first. I realized (how?) that the story actually came from a collection of linked tales, a whole book of them called Kafka’s Brother. And that the ‘friend’ spoken of in the story, who gets the boy to spoil his work with false ambitions, is actually the Kafka’s brother of the title, the unknown accompanist who guides many generations of young writers unerringly towards illusory public success and profound personal despair. It is Kafka’s brother who whispers big plans, who guides the writer’s hands towards plausible solutions and away from the structures of thought and poetry. So it is to escape Kafka’s brother that some writers on their deathbeds cry out No, burn all my work!