:: Article

The Gesture of the Text

By Robert Minto.

“I wrote [this story] during the night of the 22nd from 10pm to 6am, in one sitting,” Kafka told his future fiancé, Felice, in a letter. “I could hardly pull my legs out from under the desk; they had become stiff from sitting. … At 2am, I looked at the clock for the last time. As the maid came through the front room in the morning, I was writing the last sentence.”

The story, ‘The Judgment’, was the first product of Kafka’s pen that satisfied him. It was one of the few stories longer than a few pages he ever completed. His letter is precise about the physical circumstances of composition because ‘The Judgment’ was indeed one act, one gesture, a performance: it was important that he hadn’t moved his legs or risen from his desk; it mattered that between 2am and 6am he hadn’t looked at the clock.

Without this continuity of motion, the physical inertia of creative movement, he tended to give up. “Kafka suffered not from a lack of ideas,” writes his biographer Reiner Stach, “but from a lack of continuation.” As a student, he had admired some engravings of Japanese painting on display in Prague, sophisticated art that appeared to have been created with a sweeping minimum of physical movement—a gesture. He was as consumed by his vocation as any writer has ever been, even announcing in a letter to Felice’s father, “I am nothing but literature.” And, perhaps because he thought of himself as an incarnation of literature, he was obsessed with the condition of his body. He was a stern vegetarian despite the mockery of his family, devoted to intense exercise regimes, attracted to nudist colonies. He developed a strange counter-cyclical schedule so he could write while his family slept. He prepared his body like a dancer to face the performance of the page. He seemed to take Aristotle’s unities as a rule, but for the writer not the text: one place, one time, one action. Kafka, of course, never finished a novel.

Georges Simenon, by contrast, finished hundreds. Simenon published so many books that the actual number is uncertain. His biographer, Pierre Assouline, tentatively counts 190 pseudonymous novels, 192 under his own name, and 20 volumes of autobiography. Could a writer be more unlike Kafka? And yet, just like Kafka, Simenon relied upon a concentrated and easily derailed compositional process. He wrote most of his novels in under two weeks. If he took more than two days off, he had to give up the book. Momentum was everything. He would make elaborate preparations to avoid interruption, sharpening five dozen pencils, filling six or seven pipes with tobacco. The act of writing was physically gruelling for him: “He would weigh himself before and after a novel,” writes Assouline, and “he estimated that each one cost him an average of nearly a litre and a half of sweat.” This was unfortunate, because while he was at work on a book he preferred to wear the same clothes every day.

For Simenon, as for Kafka, writing was a gesture. The same imbrication of the physical and the linguistic that drove Kafka to abandon fragment after fragment drove Simenon to produce his improbable number of books.


In our collective imagination, literature is the most disembodied of the arts. Beethoven lying on the floor beside his piano with the sawed-off legs, straining to hear something as he pounded on the keys, fits easily into appreciating the intensity of his symphonies. The artist in her studio, sweaty and disarranged, is not fundamentally disconnected from the artefact she produces, even when it’s hanging, antiseptic, in a white box gallery. But it’s hard to descry the author in a book.

“Woe to the book you can read without constantly wondering about the author,” wrote E.M. Cioran, but the form this curiosity takes is rarely about the physicality of creation. Critics are all too likely to go hunting through an author’s biography for the original of a character, or to wrest a moral from a text by pointing at an author’s life. How do writers write, though? I’m fascinated by this question. I believe, with John Berger, that “the function of the work of art is to lead us from the work to the process of creation it contains”.

It matters to me that Colette wrote the first Claudine novel furtively, at the edge of a table in her boudoir, that Jonathan Edwards accumulated his theological theories by pinning notes to his clothes as he rode through the wilderness of New England, that Balzac played secretary to the human comedy on quantities of coffee that would kill a horse, that Agatha Christie produced her mysteries in the gaps between housework, that Raymond Chandler typed on tiny slips of paper.

Knowing such things does not help us interpret a text. It helps us to see the text at all: to see it as a made thing, an organisation of space and time contingent on the operations of a human body, in a way that our reading, too, is a physical act.


Is the gestural quality of Kafka’s and Simenon’s writing visible in their texts?

Knowing how they wrote, you might begin to notice the place of gesture in their stories. In ‘The Judgment’, postures and bodily movements abound and echo one another in a meaningful but inscrutable way. The disposition of bodies and their movement through space are not incidental beats in the flow of the story, interposed to root his characters in a setting; they are a whole separate, mystifying drama in themselves. Likewise, in the first of Simenon’s Maigret novels, Pietr the Latvian, the most memorable aspect of the story to me is the way every scene is punctuated by Maigret’s efforts to warm himself. He is forever locating, stoking, and pressing close to stoves, keeping an eye on them when they are present, remembering them when they are absent. “Simenon was careful to avoid psychological description,” writes his biographer, “the protagonist exposed his inner state through his acts, attitudes, and reactions.” While he was writing, like a method actor inadvertently channelling a character, he would “unwittingly mimic his [character’s] physical gestures, attitudes, and expressions”.

In Simenon’s case, another sign of his gestural writing is carelessness. In some of his books, especially his earliest ones, the names and occupations of characters change, plots don’t make sense, descriptive details slide like the details of an unrehearsed anecdote. Blasting through a novel in a fortnight without notes, hesitations, or backward glances, he sacrificed meticulousness. His toleration for such defects probably accounts for how much more he wrote than Kafka. Kafka could not tolerate defects, and the feat of flawless yet gestural writing could only be accomplished a few times over the course of a lifetime’s striving.

When I sit down with the words of either of these writers, thinking of the physicality by which they made what I am about to read, I find my propensity to tabulate, cross-reference, and interpret, a habit picked up from too much school, falling away. It is like communicating with a strange child whose garbled speech I do not understand. I resort to mimicking its gestures in the hope that mimesis will convey what hermeneutics did not. And even if I fail, I feel my body dancing, in the text, with the other body that wrote it long ago.


Robert Minto is an essayist. He blogs and tweets.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, February 7th, 2019.