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3 Posts authored by: Ann Charters

In a previous edition of The Story and Its Writer, we included a page illustrated and written in 2009 by Michael Kupperman titled “Are Comics Serious Literature?”  In the first panel, a cowboy answers in the affirmative, but in the next panel another cowboy answers, “I SAY THEY AIN’T.”  A violent fistfight ensues — a series of pictures illustrating “SOK!” “POW!” “BAM!” “BIF!” and “CLOP!” – as the first cowboy beats up the second. In the last panel, the winner says “NOW WHO ELSE SAYS COMICS AREN’T SERIOUS LITERATURE?” Kupperman is spoofing the comic book style he’s using to make his point, but in the process he shows his reader that supposedly childish graphics can answer serious questions. 


Instructors and students who enjoyed the page-long story “Are Comics Serious Literature?” will be happy to learn that in May 2018 Kupperman published a new book, All the Answers, in which he again asks a serious question and answers it brilliantly.  It’s a graphic memoir, the same genre as the true-life stories told so well by Alison Bechdel and Marjane Satrapi in the recent tenth edition of The Story and Its Writer.  In All the Answers, Kupperman tries to solve the mystery of his father Joel Kupperman’s lack of emotional support during his entire life.  Joel Kupperman, currently living in a nursing home in the last stages of dementia, was a college professor of philosophy when Michael and his younger brother were growing up in rural Connecticut in the 1970s and 1980s.  The family had a secret — the boys were never told that their father had been a world-wide celebrity.  In the decade of the 1940s he had been a child prodigy star on a popular weekly radio quiz show out of Chicago called “The Quiz Kids.” Joel Kupperman refused to talk about or reveal anything about his past life to his children.  This emotional withdrawal had crippling consequences for his family.    


In a recent conversation, Michael Kupperman told me that it was painful for him to return to his memories of childhood and create All the Answers, but it was even more difficult, as he said, “to sell my pain to a publisher” in order to come out with his story. “The Quiz Kid experience went, along with the rest of my father’s childhood, into a kind of locked box.  It was understood that talking about it would cause him pain, so we didn’t bring it up.  It wasn’t until I started really examining it that I started to see what it had done to him – and through him to me and the rest of the family.  His generation and the generations surrounding it were not about talking about stuff and dealing with trauma.”


Kupperman feels that his earlier work, such as “Are Comics Serious Literature?” involved what he describes as “the absence of meaning.” His readers could decide if his drawings were funny or not, but as an artist he was “committed to the painstaking parody and reproduction of pop culture.”  It was only when Joel Kupperman began to suffer from dementia that Michael realized he had a very limited time left to ask his father about his earlier career as a Quiz Kid.  Joel continued to be evasive, but Michael’s questions were answered when he discovered five scrap books created by his paternal grandmother documenting Joel’s ten years as a radio celebrity, from the ages of six to sixteen. His father had hidden the scrap books behind a shelf at home in his library.  The photographs and mementos taped onto their yellowing pages became the source of the richly detailed visual world of the 1940s that Kupperman meticulously creates in All the Answers.


As a precocious child, Joel had the ability to perform complex — if trivial — math problems in his head, and in the process remain unflustered while on the air in a coast-to-coast live radio show.  As an adult he was very modest; he never considered himself a genius because he possessed this talent. His mother had been his tireless publicist, continuously pushing him to meet prominent people who admired his plucky performances on the radio.  His fans were as diverse as the movie comedians Abbott & Costello and the industrialist Henry Ford.  Michael Kupperman believes that his father was promoted as a celebrity by the national radio networks and used as a non-threatening American symbol of the Jewish race to fight anti-Semitism during World War II.  His memoir is more than a personal story about his difficult relationship with his father; it is also about the country’s fascination with celebrities and our long history of religious intolerance.  I entirely agree with what Jake Tapper said about All the Answers on CNN: “Poignant and funny and sad.”


Ann Charters is the author of The Story and its Writer

Browsing in the stacks of my local town library this summer, I was surprised to discover an edition of Kafka’s story that I hadn’t found in 2002 when I began to translate the German text of Die Verwandlung into English as “The Metamorphosis” for inclusion in an early edition of The Story and Its Writer. The copyright page of the book I found on the library shelf informed me that this English translation of the story had originally been published as a single volume in an edition limited to three hundred copies by Aeonian Press in Matituck, New York and reprinted in 1946 by the Vanguard Press, Inc. Its ISBN number was 0-88411-450-3. The name of the translator and the date of the Aeonian Press edition were not included.


I was disappointed I couldn’t find the name of the translator, but further omissions awaited me after I checked out the slim volume and took it home to read cover to cover. “A Note on the Text” before the title page promised “footnotes to this translation,” but after I’d settled into a comfortable armchair to read the book, I realized, much to my dismay, that it was seriously flawed. At the end several pages were missing in their stiff blue library binding. The text of Kafka’s classic story stopped abruptly on page 87 with Greta Sampsa’s words after she ceased playing her violin for the three lodgers, when she told her parents, “Things cannot go on like this. Even if you do not realize it, I can see it quite clearly. I will not mention my brother’s name when I speak of this . . . .”  I flipped over this page to find only one more sheet left in the tightly bound volume. It offered the final paragraphs of a brief biography of Kafka, evidently the end of the afterword.


No name of the translator of Die Verwandlung into English, no conclusion to the story, and no footnotes explaining the changes in the text between the appearance of the original German publication of the story in its first book edition in November 1915, which Kafka evidently read, and its next edition in 1917. No one knows if Kafka read and corrected this second book edition. In the 1946 English version of the story I’d just checked out of the library, someone (perhaps the translator) wrote in “A Note on the Text” at the beginning of the book, that “I count fifty-seven changes between this [1917] edition and the edition of 1915, of which I judge eleven to be degradations, ten to be improvements, and the rest of minimal consequences.” Most of the minimal changes were concerned with orthography and punctuation, but the ten “improvements,” according to this note, were incorporated into “footnotes to this translation.” Alas, these footnotes were nonexistent in the truncated volume my local library had put on its shelves.


So what had I learned from my discovery of this incomplete English translation of perhaps my favorite short story in the entire wide, wide world of short fiction? Despite its flaws, the little book gave me the most important new information that I was looking for — how the opening sentence was translated into English. How had the unknown translator met that challenge? Here is what I read: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from a troubled dream, he found himself changed in his bed to some monstrous kind of vermin.”


“Some monstrous kind of vermin” — those were the words I was seeking. No previous version of the story in English that I’d read had ever started that way. As I wrote in my commentary “Translating Kafka,” the first sentence of “The Metamorphosis” is the one that gives the most trouble to translators. I was a college undergraduate when I first read the story’s opening sentence in an early translation by Willa and Edwin Muir. I still remember how horrible it was to imagine their stark image of Gregor Sampsa transformed into an “enormous bug.” Their words were unforgettable, but years later when I did my own translation, I preferred “monstrous vermin” as being closer to Kafka’s multisyllabic word choice in German. 


I liked the phrase in English of “some monstrous kind of vermin” because its indeterminacy suggested Gregor’s hazy dream-state when he first woke up at the moment of becoming aware of his metamorphosis. In my reading of the story, Kafka created the worst possible nightmare for his protagonist. Gregor’s waking life is already difficult; his job as a traveling salesman gives him little personal satisfaction, and at home he must live with the callous selfishness of his family and the murderous intentions of his father. He can seek peace of mind only in sleep.  But in “The Metamorphosis” the dreamer can never escape his nightmare. Good-hearted Gregor awakens to find himself inexplicably transformed into a state of being worse than his troublesome life itself.


Ann Charters is the author of  The Story and Its Writer.

Ann Charters is the author of The Story and Its Writer.


I’ve been a Kerouac fan since 1958, when I read his just-published novel The Dharma Bums.  In the 1950s, the overwhelming majority of Beat Generation authors were men who rarely wrote about women as independent, equally talented individuals or even as equal partners.  Ironically, in the next generation, the discovery of the freedom of Kerouac’s spontaneous prose style helped some of the women who read his books gain the confidence to become experimental writers themselves.


The tenth edition of The Story and Its Writer includes Kerouac’s experimental prose narrative “October in the Railroad Earth,” his story about his daily life in California in the autumn of 1952. It is considered the best short example of what Kerouac called “Spontaneous Prose.” He wrote the story in San Francisco while he lived in a skid row hotel and worked as a brakeman-in-training for the Southern Pacific Railroad.  In his commentary “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” (also included in the tenth edition of The Story and Its Writer), he described his highly personal method of writing.  In his approach, Kerouac tried to write his mind into a text as directly, honestly, and completely as possible, hoping to capture the free, spontaneous flow of his thoughts and feelings at the moment of putting words down on paper.  


Kerouac composed “October in the Railroad Earth” eighteen months after he created his most famous novel On the Road during an inspired three weeks in April 1951, though he’d tried unsuccessfully for years to write it.  His novel, now considered an American classic, took nearly seven years to be published in 1957, but only after it had been first rejected and then completely revised into conventional prose by his editors.  The 1951 original so-called “scroll manuscript” of On the Road, unpublished for a half-century until 2007, reads much more like spontaneous prose. As Kerouac once told an interviewer, “I agree with Joyce, as Joyce said to Ezra Pound in the 1920s, ‘Don’t bother me with politics, the only thing that interests me is style.’”


Kerouac knew what he was doing. At the time he wrote to his friend Allen Ginsberg that he was “originating. . . a new way of writing about life, no fiction, no craft, no revising afterthoughts.” Later the English critic Michael Horowitz understood that at midcentury Kerouac’s style –“That ingenuous art of spilling the beans – all that’s remembered laced with all that chimes in from the senses at the instant of writing, emptying consciousness as per action painter and jazzman’s delivery” – was to change the direction of American prose.


The woman author I have in mind who was influenced by Kerouac’s writing is the novelist and biographer Chris Kraus.  In 1997 she published her second novel I Love Dick, which elicited heated controversy at the time though recently it has become the basis of a successful American television series released on Amazon Video.  Like Kerouac, Kraus used what was happening in her own life as the basis for her fiction.  As a critic noted on the back jacket of I Love Dick, by “tearing away the veil that separates fiction from reality and privacy from self-expression . . . Kraus forged a manifesto for a new kind of feminism that isn’t afraid to burn through itself to embrace the whole world.”


I Love Dick is full of references to Beat-era writers, not only Kerouac but also less famous figures such as Lew Welch, John Wieners, Ron Padgett and Paul Blackburn —all males.  As Kraus writes in I Love Dick about the married painters Elaine and Willem de Kooning, the 1950s was a period “that believed in the utter worthlessness of Women.” [sic]  It was a time when the commercial success of women authors, even extremely talented writers like Flannery O’Connor who wrote in a conventional prose style, was the exception, not the rule.  The example of Kerouac’s courage creating his autobiographical, spontaneous prose method and following it despite the repeated rejection of his writing by established publishers, inspired Kraus to find her own voice as a writer.  Kerouac’s story encouraged her to create highly original autobiographical fiction in which she too expressed herself as openly, honestly, and freely as she could.