In the Tentacles of the Murmur (The Literature of Crisis)

A podcast about the literature of crisis directed by Jan Bělíček available both in English and Czech version.

“Fluidity, volatility, chaos, confusion, fragmentation, uncertainty, anxiety, crisis, polarization – these words are often used to describe the modern world. And even though we often find them inadequate, we feel subconsciously that they capture feelings we have that can’t be described in any other way. When I looked for a word that best captures our present era, out of nowhere came the strange expression “murmur”. We can understand it as a sort of animal growl, an unarticulated dissatisfaction, an expression of disagreement or frustration that we can’t force into words. A dissatisfied hum without a form has pushed its way into the light of day and has influenced societies across the world and nobody knows what to do with it.” Jan Bělíček

Literature offers an untraditional antidote to uncertainty, chaos, and confusion. It’s one option for protecting ourselves from the disorder. The act of writing creates a different mode of thought and self-expression: when we write or read, time slows down and we try to give some sort of form to our fluid, disorganized thought – or, together with the author, we observe the movement of their complicated, branching thinking. What does our world look like when viewed through contemporary literature? And how can we break free from the tentacles of the Murmur?

Details of the episodes

1st episode Merchants of Sadness

Why does Michel Houellebecq hide his depression behind cynicism and why does he reach for macho jokes when he wants to convince people about the nature [nebo “existence”] of love? How did the octopus become the perfect symbol of human consciousness in late capitalism, and is it at all possible to break free of the stultifying drone of dissatisfied grumbling that envelops us to an ever greater extent? The first episode of Jan Bělíček’s literary podcast In the Tentacles of the Murmur shows us the modern world through the eyes of contemporary literature.

List of literature in the 1st episode:

Tao Lin – Taipei
Michel Houellebecq – Platform
Michel Houellebecq – Serotonin
Ocean Vuong – On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
Kobo Abé – The Face of Another
Sally Rooney – Normal People
Han Kang – The Vegetarian (from original translated by Deborah Smith)

2nd episode Gender Trouble

Gender, sexuality, and the most intimate human relations have today become one of the fiercest battlegrounds in the culture wars. Spreaders of disinformation, right wing ideologues, and conservatives from around the world have been relatively successful in creating a caricature of feminist thought and gender studies. According to them, the primary domain of these “progressive tendencies” is culture, with a special emphasis on Hollywood productions. However, if we take these ideas out of the toxic fog of the murmur and try to apply them to specific works, they slowly start to crumble. Contemporary fiction that takes a feminist stance and is focused on gender shows us a complex, nuanced view of male and female societal roles, and it’s all but impossible to summarize them in a few simple slogans or teachings. Although there are ever more successful, interesting female authors, few of them depict literary worlds that serve as banal illustrations of patriarchal suppression, or, on the other hand, spaces for a utopian feminist imagination. To a much greater extent, they are interested in creating new cultural spaces in which female identity can move around more freely. They offer multilayered views on relationships between men and women, and between women and other women. Perhaps all that can surprise us is the diversity and extreme sophistication of works of contemporary feminist literature. They are indeed quite far from stereotypes, agitprop, and mere ideology. Similarly, there are also men writing books processing toxic masculinity, or else containing expressions of the so-called new masculinity. In the second episode of In the Tentacles of the Murmur, Gender Trouble, we take a slow-motion view of literature to look at how contemporary authors understand gender and the norms of feminine and masculine behavior, the effect of queer perspectives in their work, and what it is that they’re trying to tell us about our sexuality and identity.

List of literature in the 2nd episode:

Kristen Roupenian – Cat Person, a short story from the collection
You Know You Want This
Leila Slimani – Lullaby (translated by Sam Taylor)
Elena Ferrante – The Neapolitan Novels: Book 2, The Story of a New
Name (translated by Ann Goldstein)
Karl-Ove Knausgard – My Struggle: Book 2, A Man in Love (translated
by Don Bartlett)
Maggie Nelson – Argonauts

3rd episode Back to Class

Like gender and race, class is an important dimension of an individual’s place in the world. The options open to people from different social backgrounds are fundamentally different. Perhaps it is for this reason that class has become a popular literary topic. The class perspective fits perfectly into the mosaic-like form of the novel, and brings to literature tensions and motives that can be elaborated on inventively in the narrative. The literary form is able to effectively and affectively communicate the relatively complex dimensions of this issue by touching the reader on a very basic level. So how do contemporary authors approach the topic of class? And what do they offer us that is new?

List of literature in the 3rd episode:

J. D. Vance – Hillbilly Elegy
Didier Eribon – Returning to Reims (translated by Michael Lucey)
Édouard Louis – Who Killed My Father (translated by Lorin Stein)
Sally Rooney – Normal People
Edward St Aubyn – Never Mind

4th episode Entangled in the Traumas of Slavery

In the following episode of In the Tentacles of the Murmur we shall focus above all on how the African American experience is presented in contemporary literature, and how a careful reading of it can broaden our often superficial notions about American society.

List of literature in the 4th episode:

Ta-Nehisi Coates – Between the World and Me
Octavia Butler – Kindred
Colson Whitehead – The Underground Railroad
Octavia Butler – Xenogenesis: Dawn, Book 1
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Americanah

5th episode Through the Eyes of a Double Agent

In the following episode entitled Through the Eyes of a Double Agent we shall focus on how the languid thinking of literature is capable of disintegrating stereotypes and acting as a conduit for complicated and diversified personal stories of refugees and migrants in such a manner that nothing important is lost from them.

List of literature in the 5th episode:

Mohsin Hamid – Exit West
André Aciman – Out of Egypt
Viet Than Nguyen – The Sympathizer: A Novel
Olga Tokarczuk – Flights (translated by Jennifer Croft)
Valeria Luiselli – Lost Children Archive

6th episode A Dark New World

Are we living in an era obsessed with the idea of the end of the world, or is our culture merely soaking up a social atmosphere which is justifiably anxious that we are heading towards extinction? The final part in our series of literary podcasts In the Tentacles of the Murmur is devoted to the various forms of the end of the world in contemporary literature.

List of literature in the 6th episode:

Cormac McCarthy – The Road
José Saramago – Blindness (translated by Juan Sager)
Liu Cixin – Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, The Dark Forest (translated by Joel Martinsen)
Jeff VanderMeer – The Southern Reach Trilogy, Annihilation: A Novel
Kim Stanley Robinson – New York 2140


Author: Jan Bělíček
Translation: Guy Tabachnick
Voice: Michael Pitthan and Rebecca Rose Riisness
Sound postproduction: Jonáš Richter
Music and sound desing: Ondřej Bělíček
Teaser and visuals: Barbora Kleinhamplová
Production: Nela Klajbanová
Special thanks to: Ondřej Mikula

The podcast is published with the support of the Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic and the City of Prague.