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Three Lessons from the Head of Franz Kafka

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Photo credit: Erin F. Slattery

Today’s guest blogger, Erin Slattery tells us how other creative sources such as sculpture can help authors…

Czech artist David Černý creates sculptures on an enormous scale, famously subverting expectations about what public art should be. His super-sized satirical works are scattered around Prague: a pack of giant babies crawls around the side of the Kampa art museum, and another group advances up a giant transmission tower on the other side of the city. Suspended from the ceiling, an upside-down horse sculpture with a larger-than-life, upright rider startles tourists in the Lucerna Palace shopping arcade—it’s a parody of the statue of Saint Wenceslas on horseback, just up the block, at the top of Wenceslas Square. But one of his most recent sculptures, the head of Franz Kafka, erected in October 2014, near a shopping mall next to the Národní třída metro station, offers the most for writers to reflect on.

In Černý’s rendering, Kafka is a 36-foot-tall, stainless-steel head that flashes in the sun as 42 layers slowly rotate, each at a different speed. It’s an arresting Rubik’s cube of mirrors, a silver spinning-plates routine in slow motion. (Among the many videos of the head in motion, there’s this one that gives a great overview of the engineering behind it.) Every so often, all the layers of the head realign, and Kafka’s profile emerges as a gleaming whole for a moment. A tidy visual metaphor for the writing process? Sure, if the writing process were like t’ai chi, and didn’t involve crying, unexpected plot holes, dead ends, or deadlines. Metamorphosis isn’t pretty.

The longer you watch the sculpture, the more mesmerizing it gets. I think there’s a lot to be made of the fluidity of the head’s movement, and of the painstaking work and processes that bolster it. Here are three takeaways from my time spent watching the sculpture, transfixed:

 

  • Listen for the details. The sculpture whirs as it revolves. It ticks. It clicks. If you’re standing at the base, you can hear the various layers as they rotate. (The head of the Siemens mechanical group that worked on the sculpture suggests that the piece is the 2014 equivalent of Prague’s 15th-century astronomical clock, in how it incorporates the most recent technology of its time.) When I edit mysteries, one of the most frequent pieces of advice I find myself writing in the comments section is to listen to the scene: bring in more imagery and more details. What does this character (usually the main character) hear in this scene? What’s the light like? What does the place smell like? Immerse yourself in the scene, and you’ll ground your reader there too.

 

 

  • Trust your process. Be methodical. As an editor, I’m drawn to the sculpture’s precise rhythm and movement—and to the idea of shaping everything into a polished whole. (On the other hand, as a writer who’s 50 percent plotter and 50 percent pantser, I’ll settle for just reaching the daily word count with minimal self-loathing.) But you can’t strive for some kind of polished style without words on the page. So silence your inner critic, and keep going.

 

 

  • Lean in to juxtapositions and tension, which give a scene texture and depth. When I stand in the square behind the shopping mall and watch the head rotate, I’m struck by all the contradictions, visible and invisible: the way this towering, high-tech sculpture makes Kafka, champion of the underdog, an enormous figure. The way two-thirds of a mile of electrical cable allow the sculpture to shift, split, and re-form in an elegant dance of servo motors. The way, far below the base, the sculpture rests on 14th-century Gothic vaults, discovered during excavation in 2009.

The scenes that captivate me when I’m reading or editing mysteries are taut with tension: on a fundamental level, one character wants something, and another character/force tries to prevent that. (Look at any scene from a Susan Wittig Albert or Ellery Adams series for great examples of this.) But you can also play with this in terms of the scene’s atmosphere and setting, using those elements to highlight the dialogue or mood, or to provide contrast to them.

When I lived in Prague, I was working as an English instructor and as a copyeditor, and the spot where Černý’s sculpture sits was then just the top part of the Národní třída metro station—a weather-beaten, Communist-era orange and chrome structure that hardly anyone paid any attention to. It’s more than a little surreal to return there now, as a yearly visitor, and watch this piece of art at work in a space that looks so different from its former self. I guess that’s why the only way I can make sense of the experience is to try to make use of it, and to put it to work, word by word, scene by scene.

About Erin-Erin has lived and worked in Europe and the Middle East, and taught English in the Math and Physics Department at Charles University in Prague. Now based in New York City as a freelance editor, writer, and translator, she is a member of Editorial Freelancers Association, Sisters in Crime, and RWA’s Kiss of Death Chapter, and has been published in Poetry, Crimespree Magazine, and Criminal Element. When not working, she can be found in a bakery, or on Twitter: @efslattery. She regrets not mentioning a single work of Franz Kafka by name in this piece.

 

 

 

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