GASLIGHT: Lantern Slides from the Nineteenth Century
by Joachim Kalka
translated by Isabel Fargo Cole
New York Review Books, 233 pages
reviewed by Katharine Coldiron
With a title and subtitle like Gaslight: Lantern Slides from the Nineteenth Century, the reader will be forgiven for thinking Joachim Kalka’s book is a collection of visual art. It is not. Though it does contain a handful of visual descriptions, it bears not one illustration, woodcut, or photograph. No lantern slides, and no visual depictions of gaslight. What it has instead are words, many of them, artfully arranged. Kalka’s words, assembled into eleven essays and a preface, are densely packed and remarkably pointed. Although his purpose is to glance back at the nineteenth century, not to historicize it, or even to theorize about it with a particular agenda, Kalka is a highly organized thinker. His insights prove scintillating, if specialized.
The specialization is the rub. Few of the essays in this book are likely to be suitable for a reader without a preexisting interest in the essay’s subject matter. For example, this reviewer has particular interest in Richard Wagner and Marcel Proust, and so I found the essays about those two topics engaging and novel, appreciating Kalka’s acute insights and nodding along vehemently. On the Ring cycle: “The music so magnificently…unifies the whole complicated narrative of the Ring of the Nibelung that only closer examination of the plot logic reveals how confused and contradictory it is.” This is wholly true, and as a flaw, it both overshadows the work and is easily overshadowed by the work—but if you have never seen or listened to the Ring cycle, how would you know that, and why would you care? It’s unfortunate when prior knowledge is necessary for enjoyment, but in this case, the enjoyment gets ramped up significantly when the prior knowledge is there. The book is focused primarily on German literature and history, which is suitable, as Kalka is a German critic. However, this focus might limit Gaslight’s accessibility for readers of mostly English literature.
In fact, the literary aura of this book is a healthy reminder that for Western literary scholars and readers based in Europe, France is the key wellspring of the canon, more so than is Britain. Kalka speaks of Balzac the way an American critic might speak of Dickens; Proust and Flaubert are foundational figures, rather than Joyce and (George) Eliot. Frankenstein is mentioned here and there as an important novel of the nineteenth century, but a book written by an American critic focused on the same century might position Shelley’s novel as one of the load-bearing posts of the era’s technological excitement/anxiety, not an incidental part of it. Then again, Kalka does point out that the canon itself is a construct:
For us the literary canon, at least up until the late nineteenth century, presents itself as a fixed, well-ordered whole, something we take for granted, almost like a natural phenomenon, and we must exert our imaginations to reconstruct how controversial this canon of our classics actually was, how precarious, how historically contingent.
Though stuffed with adjectives and adverbs (“brilliant” is a particular favorite), Kalka’s writing is highly readable, flowing like a mountain stream. But it hops from one topic to another so quickly, rushing over figures and historical events as if stones at the bottom of the water, that people who have not logged significant time in academic libraries might find themselves bewildered. What’s so unusual about his writing is its in-between nature. It flits between topics so rapidly, and lacks a meaningful thesis so frequently, that it isn’t recognizable as scholarship; however, Kalka writes about such heavily literary topics, and touches on such a wide range of difficult literature, that it’s not really general-interest work. Scholars of the nineteenth century will find this light reading, and civilian readers will find it potentially impenetrable.
Part of the reason for this impenetrability is the organization of the essays. One of the least entertaining essays, about Friedrich Schiller, is the opener, and an amusing essay about cake in Madame Bovary and elsewhere, and British food in a Robert Louis Stevenson novel and elsewhere, comes past the halfway point. The essays are roughly chronological in terms of their primary topic: essays on the early nineteenth century appear toward the beginning of the collection, while later figures like Alfred Dreyfus and Jack the Ripper come toward the end. But the subject matter jumps around so frequently that this chronological sense is not all-consuming. Indeed, the only connecting thread across all the essays is the focus on the nineteenth century itself. Otherwise, only one other topic appears across several of the essays: anti-Semitism.
GASLIGHT is not what it seems, in nearly any way. Non-visual despite its visual title and subtitle, non-scholarly despite the scholarly titles of its essays, lively despite its focus on a period remembered in British and American history as being tightly buttoned up. It’s David Markson without the conciseness, and Harold Bloom without the sourness. Should your interests inhabit the same turf as Kalka, he’ll make your neurons hum.
Perhaps this topic is unavoidable for a German critic writing after World War II about events taking place in or near Germany prior to World War II. The Holocaust may be an unavoidable lens for a look back, even if that look is at something so far back as lantern slides. But Kalka offers useful information and fresh analysis about European anti-Semitism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He explains the Dreyfus affair thoroughly, yet succinctly, and his emphasis on the way the incident tore society apart resonates distinctly with the current right-wing movements here, in the UK, and in Europe. “As with many things we take for granted,” he notes in his essay about Jack the Ripper, “a chance circumstance can open up a chink into the past.” In his long essay about Wolfgang Menzel, Kalka calls Menzel’s appalling caricature of Jews “the mad, racist rejection of all that is ‘foreign.’” The closing essay, “Bucolic Anti-Semitism: A Commentary,” uses folk songs, postcards, and other artifacts of middle-class Germany to trace an odd, “jocular” anti-Semitism woven into the fabric of German culture.
From a purely abstract perspective, the exploration of the history of anti-Semitism […] could be just as entertaining as the structurally comparable lunatic fringes of cultural history: UFOs, the true author of Shakespeare’s works, the pyramid prophecies. But the pages of these pamphlets and books are shadowed by a vast horror…
Of course, it was Hitler who changed the character of German anti-Semitism into something not at all bucolic. But Kalka’s point is useful: bigotry appears harmless until it isn’t. “Lunatic fringes” such as birtherism would, today, be much funnier, had they not evolved into our current predicament. But Kalka does not go that far. And why should he? He is a German critic, as this collection does not allow the reader to forget.
Gaslight is not what it seems, in nearly any way. Non-visual despite its visual title and subtitle, non-scholarly despite the scholarly titles of its essays, lively despite its focus on a period remembered in British and American history as being tightly buttoned up. It’s David Markson without the conciseness, and Harold Bloom without the sourness. Should your interests inhabit the same turf as Kalka, he’ll make your neurons hum.
Katharine Coldiron’s work has appeared in Ms., the Rumpus, Brevity, and elsewhere. She lives in California and blogs at the Fictator.