Literary Magazines

December 7, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

“We should like to think of the readers as a homogeneous group of friends, united by a common appreciation of the beautiful, - idealists of a sort, - and to share with them what has seemed significant to us.” - Eugene Jolas, editor of TRANSITION: A Quarterly Review

TRANSITION: A Quarterly Review was first published in 1927. Only twenty seven issues exist, all published between 1927 and 1938. This eclectic quarterly (not to be confused with the more contemporary Transition Magazine) published all sorts of work. It intended to support modernist and surrealist writers. In the first issue, Jolas wrote: “Of all the values conceived by the mind of man throughout the ages, the artistic have proven the most enduring. Primitive people and the most thoroughly civilized have always had, in common, a thirst for beauty and an appreciation of the attempts of the other to recreate the wonders suggested by nature and human experience. The tangible link between the centuries is that of art. It joins distant continents in to a mysterious unit, long before the inhabitants are aware of the universality of their impulses.” Though issues of this journal are difficult to find, a friend lent me a copy of the 26th issue, published in 1937. It has many stories to tell.

TRANSITION: A Quarterly Review, Number Twenty-Six, 1937. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

TRANSITION: A Quarterly Review, Number Twenty-Six, 1937. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

The journal includes articles, essays, and literary works in either German, English, and French. In other words, the recipients of this journal were educated and, most likely, tri- or bilingual. Also, I assume that the audience was interested in material that not just broke the rules, but defied them. It includes prints of both art and music, poetry and drama. The Contents page lists the following categories: verse, prose, the ear, the eye, cinema, the theatre, workshop, inter-racial, and architecture. Published in black and white, it does include images from Mondrian, Man Ray, and Joan Miró (among others). I was, personally, most surprised and pleased at the inclusion of a hand-written composition of “Gyp’s Song” from Second Hurricane by Aaron Copland, dated January 21, 1936. He calls this a piece of Gebrauchsmusik, or music composed for an amateur group.

The literature section contains a couple of astonishing things. First of all, it has an original publication of Work in Progress by James Joyce. This was published in periodicals which allowed the artist to continue writing and perhaps fund the remainder of their writing. Joyce calls his piece: Work in Progress, Opening pages of Part Two, Section Three. Of course, Work in Progress was finally completed in 1939 and published as Finnegan’s Wake. That this piece exists at all is one of luck due to the chance meeting of Joyce and Jolas. Furthermore, it is so rare anymore to see a partial work. Either we have less patience or time for serial publications, but it is neat to pick up Joyce’s story at the line which begins: “It may not or maybe a no concern of the Guinnesses but.” Furthermore, the Contributor section says nothing of Joyce himself and reads in a style different from all of the other contributors. It reads:

“The fragment of James Joyce’s “Work in Progress” which appeared in TRANSITION No. 23 (February 1935). “Opening and Closing Pages of Part II, Section II”, will be published in book form early in 1937, under the title of “Storiella as she is Syung”, by the Corvinus Press, London. This edition, which will be limited to 150 hand-printed copies, will include reproductions in color of two illuminated lettrines by Lucia Joyce.

“No further fragments of “Work in Progress” will be published in book form, as the book will appear in its entirety some time in 1937, probably some six months after the issuance of the trade edition of “Ulysses” in Great Britain. One thousand de luxe copies of “Ulysses” were published in London by John Lane on October 3, 1936.”

It should be noted that an edition of “Storiella as she is Syung” was auctioned in 2007 for $14,400, but in 1936, Joyce had trouble publishing this text. He struggled to write Work in Progress due to the poor reception of early chapters, as well as failing health, and rising conflicts prior to World War II. In fact, the first sections of the book had been published by the popular magazine The Dial. The editors at The Dial asked to rewrite his text and finally refused to publish the rest of it. And it is at this time that Joyce happened to meet the Jolas’s who became interested in carrying it in TRANSITION. We are so lucky that they did, considering it allowed Joyce to finish and then publish all of Finnegan’s Wake two years before his death.

Finally, a portion of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis is included in this edition of TRANSITION. While the story is listed in the Contents page, there is no information about Kafka in the Contributors section. While it was surely an oversight, I find this deletion significant. Kafka died in 1924 almost ten years after the initial publication of Metamorphosis and nine years before the first translation into English. Originally translated into English by Willa and Edwin Muir (still very popular today) in 1933, Eugene Jolas, then, translated this version for TRANSITION himself. It is not an easy version to find, perhaps only because it exists in pieces of the serialized magazine.

In looking through this quarterly, I am amazed at the amount of strings attached to each work. There are social, historical, personal, anecdotal, artistic and cultural implications of nearly every aspect. For more fun, I suggest following just one of these threads: research Eugene Jolas, or the Muirs, or publishing in the 1930s, or wartime effects on literature, etc. This edition alone could go in so many different directions. Of course, this is always true. Art of any form interacts with culture in complex ways, some of which seem invisible in the moment of publication. Reflection offers such a deep wonder which impresses me beyond words. Researching this quarterly has turned into a minor obsession, a wormhole of sorts that takes me away from my daily tasks and leads me into the lives of so many others.

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Recap of April's Quarterly Discussion

April 22, 2016

This April, a group of students, staff and friends of Harrison Middleton University discussed Kafka's Metamorphosis. The following thoughts were compiled by Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, from the input of all of the participants. It was a wonderful conversation!

The Metamorphosis centers on Gregor Samsa and it begins: “One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug.” And that's just the first sentence. Samsa (and an omniscient narrator) continue, for the rest of the story, to offer opinions and details of his family, his environment and his past, all while locked in his room, in the shape and skin of a large cockroach.

Instead of being horrified at his own appearance, Gregor responds to the change calmly. He says: “At the same moment, however, he didn't forget to remind himself from time to time of the fact that calm (indeed the calmest) reflection might be better than the most confused decisions.” And then he decides that he'll try to open the door to the family room and gauge their reactions to see how he himself should react. Kafka writes, “He was keen to witness what the others now asking after him would say at the sight of him. If they were startled then Gregor had no more responsibility and could be calm. But if they accepted everything quietly, then he would have no reason to get excited and, if he got a move on, could really be at the station around eight o'clock.” Gregor bases all attempt at self-reflection upon his family's observations. The tight, constrained and controlling environs of his room make for difficult reflection, especially in the shape of a large bug.

Quickly, Gregor realizes that he has no idea how to move his many legs and thick abdomen. He struggles in bed and comes to the conclusion that he should call for help. But the idea sounds ridiculous to him. He says, “Now, quite apart from the fact that the doors were locked, should he really call out for help? In spite of all his distress, he was unable to suppress a smile at the idea.” What is it that makes Gregor smile? Possibly he finds it ridiculous that helpless people who depend upon his financial support should actually try to help him. Is he laughing at their utter ridiculousness, belittling them when, in fact, he is the one who has become a cockroach? Or, has Gregor become the thing that HE most abhors, which he finds ironic and slightly humorous?

Then, Gregor's manager arrives, wondering where his employee is. Gregor attempts to get out of bed and, of course, he falls. The noise startles the manager and he says, “Something has fallen in there.” Though Gregor knocked himself down and made a loud noise in the process, he also has fallen: fallen from esteem, from grace, from the bed. He has simply fallen. Is Gregor most worried about having let down his manager, his family or himself? The narrator interjects: “Gregor tried to imagine to himself whether anything similar to what was happening to him today could have also happened at some point to the manager. At least one had to concede the possibility of such a thing.” Despite his horrifying physical appearance, Gregor cannot make out his own character. Instead, he relies on the reactions of others. With this question, though, Gregor allows the narrative to include everyone – even the reader. Is it possible that we may someday turn into the thing we least desire? Gregor thinks that one must concede the possibility.

This story begins long before Gregor turns into a bug, however. It actually begins with the father's failure to make enough money to support the family. Gregor, then, assumed all family debt. It appears that Gregor did not enjoy his job, his responsibilities, or his coworkers. He rarely socialized and spent more time in his room than elsewhere. Gregor became stuck on the idea of responsibility and the family became accustomed to Gregor's financial 'care'. However, the family relationship devolved into one of convenience and monetary support. From there, unhealthy dependences grew. What was once convenient, necessary and appreciated devolved into mere responsibility, like a monetary transaction. Perhaps this is why the family never questions whether or not the thing inside Gregor's room is, in fact, Gregor. Wouldn't it be more plausible to think that the bug perhaps ate Gregor? Yet no one asks this question. Instead, they react with horror, and eventually, disdain. No one, not even Gregor, asks for a reason. They merely accept it as true.

It is important, however, that Gregor feels trapped. And so does his family. We learn: “Gregor later earned so much money that he was in a position to bear the expenses of the entire family, expenses which he, in fact, did bear. They had become quite accustomed to it, both the family and Gregor as well. They took the money with thanks, and he happily surrendered it, but the special warmth was no longer present.” What is it about growing accustomed to something that also allows it to lose value? Gregor rescued the family in his own mind, in his own way. It just happens that nothing in his own mind is actually rational and his own way left a lot to be desired.

An example of problems in the family's relationship arrives when Gregor's sister and mother decide to move furniture out of Gregor's room, ostensibly to help him move around. He thinks they are too weak and frail. Clearly, he has always thought this and his superiority is palpable. Yet the women do move everything. He continually underestimates his family and thinks them incapable of difficult tasks. The sister took to taking care of Gregor, though she hated it. He notes that she walked into his room “on tiptoes, as if she was in the presence of a serious invalid or a total stranger.” After she begins with such care as trying to figure out what he would like to eat, he determines to be 'less sensitive', and it is for this reason, perhaps, that he has donned the roach-like appearance, the thick shell.

The family lived with the bug-like Gregor for a long time. Why no one left, why Gregor never escapes, is indecipherable. The mother kept hoping for Gregor's return. Gregor casually mentions changing shapes again too, as if to change forms is always possible. It is unclear who controls the shape-shifting: fate, one's own mind, a supernatural being? It is possible, however, that denial and hope can assume the same form. By denying the permanence of this current form, Gregor (and his mother) gives into the idea that we can simply change back. This denies the present experience and yet also, ironically, offers hope for the future.

The ultimate irony arrives at the moment when Gregor's sister begins to play a mini-violin concert for her family and the lodgers. Clearly, she enjoys playing, though she lacks any ability. Gregor listens from within his room. He feels less like an animal as the music plays. This allows him to rationalize that since animals are not able to appreciate music with such spirit, therefore he is not an animal. Fully absorbed with the music, Gregor moves into the living room where everyone notices him and they all freeze. As a result, the lodgers decide to leave without payment and the sister decides that Gregor is no longer worth protecting. The sister demands that the family get rid of Gregor. Of course, Gregor is still listening. Though this was Gregor's attempt to show genuine appreciation and love for his sister, her words leave him unhurt, unfazed. Instead, he simply and slowly turns around to go back into his room. Gregor's next thoughts are of complete contentment. And then he dies at dawn. Released from their burden, the family determines to move immediately. The father and sister have jobs and everyone seems relieved.

However, the story's final sentence leaves many questions for the reader. The enigmatic words read: “And it was something of a confirmation of their new dreams and good intentions when at the end of their journey the daughter first lifted herself up and stretched her young body.” This sentence is a complete inversion of the opening scene, in which Gregor (a young and healthy salesman) attempts to stretch in his bed only to discover that he is a bug. It is hopeful that the family has new dreams and good intentions – but the reader is unclear on how these are different from the pattern established by Gregor, who also had good intentions to fulfill the dreams of his family. He failed. But who is to say that the sister will succeed? Having said that, Gregor chose to make decisions for his family believing them incapable of work. He belittled their existence while supporting it and enabled them to an idle lifestyle.

It is important to note that Gregor is not evil, selfish or mean. He truly believed that he was acting in the family's best interests. Yet, Kafka portrays the absolute disintegration of love and relationship in this story through Gregor's unreflective eyes. The reader is left perplexed, undecided as to whether this pattern will repeat. Perhaps the family (now with love and compassion and, hopefully, communication) will be able to make a better life. Again, the irony appears that the family can only regain happiness (or attempt it) once Gregor has died.

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