The biographical note accompanying “Gaslight: Lantern Slides From the Nineteenth Century” describes Joachim Kalka as “an essayist, literary critic, and translator of authors such as Martin Amis, Angela Carter, G.K. Chesterton, Christopher Isherwood, and Gilbert Sorrentino.” Impressive as it is, that list only hints at the extent of Kalka’s literary sophistication. His freewheeling essays — adroitly translated by Isabel Fargo Cole — reveal not only an easy familiarity with the obvious masterpieces of German, French and English-language literature, but also a devotee’s appreciation of ghost stories, mysteries, classic films and comics. His subjects range from Wagner’s conception of the Valkyries in “The Ring of the Nibelungs” to the artistic legacy of Jack the Ripper to a mini-history of anarchist bomb-throwing.
In fact, Kalka belongs to that admirable line of European intellectuals, such as Roland Barthes, E.M. Cioran, Umberto Eco and Simon Leys, who can write interestingly about almost anything. What he doesn’t do, however, is write conclusively. Whereas an American essayist frequently resembles a courtroom lawyer, trying to make an argument or prove a case, Kalka — who is from Stuttgart, Germany — is content to circle around a subject, illuminating it from various angles. Then, instead of closing with a knockout summary of the evidence, he simply stops. This can take getting used to. Still, how can you resist a writer who draws insights from “Mickey Mouse and His Sky Adventure” and Gershon Legman’s “Rationale of the Dirty Joke”?
Kalka’s essays are, in short, anything but conventional. In one he speculates on the erotic implications associated with the title of Balzac’s novel “A Woman of Thirty.” In still another, he reflects on Baghdad’s longtime, and now sadly vanished, connection with Arabian Nights-style romance. “A Good German” relates the career of the ultraconservative 19th-century critic Wolfgang Menzel, who promulgated an intensely Germanophile literature that embraced xenophobia and racism. The 20th-century writer Arno Schmidt argued that one could still use Menzel’s writing as a guide, “because his verdicts are so reliably wrong that each and every book he branded as heretical can be read with pleasure to this day.”
Kalka’s own similarly sharp, though sometimes enigmatic observations dot these pages: “Truth thrives in the margins.” All complex narratives “rest upon an invisible foundation of the untold.” “Nothing can be more necessary than the superfluous.” He quotes well, too. G.K. Chesterton, comparing fiction’s portrayal of policemen and amateur detectives, concludes that law enforcement “is the only trade. . . in which the professional is always supposed to be wrong.” At one point, Kalka casually reminds us that Proust actually fought a pistol duel over a negative review of his first book.
The long essay on Proust and France’s Dreyfus Affair — the notorious case of a Jewish army officer framed for espionage — emphasizes a fin-de-siècle France as politically riven as the United States is now. A right-wing government characterized by jingoist nationalism, fanned national prejudices (anti-Semitism, in this case), suppressed evidence to protect the guilty from prosecution and caused one whistleblower — the eminent novelist Émile Zola, author of the stirring polemic “J’Accuse” — to be vilified, convicted of libel and forced to flee to England.
When he looks at the constantly accelerating advances of modern technology, often described as “breath-taking,” Kalka notes that this only means that “above a certain speed, one is literally unable to breathe.” He then points to the growing gulf between “our inventiveness and our moral imagination, between what we are able to picture somehow, that is, everything, and what we are truly able to picture, to face in our mind’s eye with all its consequences — that is, hardly anything anymore.” Kalka’s critique closes with a surprising view of our rust-belt past:
“We are already beginning to gaze back yearningly at the industrial labor that was seen so long as the epitome of alienation, the destruction of human potential — yearningly, for our society is unable to provide a large segment of its population with work of any kind, and in hindsight the secure assembly-line job appears not as dehumanization but as a guarantee of existential meaning and pride.”
Let me emphasize, again, that Kalka works up fantasias on particular themes rather than systematic articles. His meditation on gastronomy opens by recalling the lost custom of serving elaborate, “edible structures. The only example we are still familiar with (at least from shop windows) is the wedding cake, which combines elements of architecture, sculpture, and occasionally portrait painting.” From here Kalka deconstructs the malleability of cake, Emma Bovary’s kitschy wedding dinner, and the symbolic meaning in Victorian England of mutton chops and celery stalks.
With a comparable sprightliness, “Gaslight, Fog, Jack the Ripper” dances from Dickens to Sherlock Holmes to novelist Patricia Cornwell’s crazed belief that the painter Walter Sickert was the Ripper to Patrick Hamilton’s play “Gaslight” — source of our vogue term “gaslighting” as the deliberate blurring of the truth — to Alban Berg’s chilling opera “Lulu.” Yet another essay considers the ethical implications of a once-advanced weaponry, in this case the submarine. In Billy Wilder’s comic film, “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes,” Queen Victoria reacts with paradigmatic disgust when she learns about an undersea war machine disguised as the Loch Ness monster. This sort of weapon, she says, is “unsportsmanlike, it is un-English, and it is in very poor taste.” Her majesty continues: “Sometimes we despair of the state of the world.”
Don’t we all, at least occasionally? As Joachim Kalka’s “lantern slides” remind us, the fierce hatreds, economic disparities and zeal for new technologies that characterize life today are hardly new. They are simply late growths from 19th-century roots.
Michael Dirda reviews books on Thursday for Style.
By Joachim Kalka
Translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole
New York Review Books. 233 pp. Paperback, $17.95