The Nightmare of Reason: The Life of Franz Kafka by Ernst Pawel (2)

The doubts and misgivings fought back, locked his head in a vise grip, kept him from sleeping, and once again drove him to the edge of madness.
(The Life of Franz Kafka by Ernst Pawel, page 346)

Pawel’s enjoyable 466-page biography of Franz Kafka falls roughly into two parts. Part one deals with the deep historical roots of the Jewish communities in Austro-Hungarian Bohemia, explaining Kafka’s father, Herrmann, as part of the generation of Jews from poor often rural communities who migrated to the cities, adopted modern urban dress and manners, and tried to make a go of various business ventures. Their children grew up alienated from traditional Jewish culture but not accepted by, in fact often fiercely rejected by, the Germanic minority in Bohemia and the growingly nationalistic Czech majority.

It was into this fraught political and cultural situation that young Franz Kafka (born 1883) grew to adulthood, part of an entire generation of young Jewish writers and artists and composers who lived in an embattled position, between two worlds (between their abandoned Jewish heritage and the Germanic culture they were trying to assimilate to), feeling at home in neither, feeling:

the infinite loneliness of the Western Jew adrift on hostile seas, with no land in sight and neither hope nor faith to sustain him. (p.249)

This big historical fact explains why such a disproportionate number of the fathers of Modernism in the arts and sciences were Germanised Jews, heirs to two great traditions, but outsiders to both, at home nowhere.

The list would include father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud (b.1856 in Moravia), the father of Zionism Theodor Herzl (b.1860 Budapest), Gustav Mahler (b.1860 in modern-day Czech republic), the father of the atonal music Arnold Schoenberg (b.1874, Vienna) and, in the succeeding generation, a rush of talent including the novelists Max Brod (Prague 1884) and Hermann Broch (Vienna, 1886), the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (Vienna,1889), and so on.

In Pawel’s view, they all inherited the Jewish tradition of extremely scrupulous attention to language and meaning, heirs to generations of rabbis and teachers who had devoted their lives to poring over the meaning of the Torah, the Talmud and practicing Midrash:

a Jewish mode of interpretation that not only engages the words of the text, behind the text, and beyond the text, but also focuses on each letter, and the words left unsaid by each line. (Vanessa Lovelace quoted on Wikipedia)

Except that, having largely been deprived of the actual teachings and content of that religious worldview, they applied the same fanatical attention to the conditions of modern life, and to language itself.

In the final analysis, the novel is language, and language has been a matter of life and death among Jews ever since the errant desert tribe smashed its idols and enshrined instead the word as its God. (p.323)

Thus the paradox that Kafka, born in Prague, surrounded by ethnic Czechs, from a strong Jewish tradition, nonetheless developed into what most experts agree was the greatest writer of German prose in the twentieth century.

So much for part one. It also, of course includes detailed accounts of Kafka’s father, mother, sisters, of his junior and high school career and his interest in contemporary political and social movements (Zionism and communism being the two most distinct and powerful), as well as fascinating pen portraits of Kafka’s contemporaries, friends, and many of the key writers, thinkers and journalists, the ‘Prague litterateurs‘, of the time.

Part two

However, about half way through the book everything changes: very quickly, Kafka simultaneously gets a serious girlfriend, writes his breakthrough piece of prose, begins to hobnob with literary circles, and first starts to get short pieces published in magazines. With this dramatic change in plot and tone I found the book becoming distinctly less interesting.

Take the girlfriends. We know that Kafka was an astonishingly regular visitor to brothels, and had sex with a large number of serving girls and waitresses, because he says so in his diaries (and he told his friends and girlfriends; and also, because all the men he knew did the same). In the classic style of his day, however, he struggled to form relationships with ‘nice’ girls. The key ones were:

  • Felice Bauer (1912-17) to whom he got engaged – ‘a woman whom he desperately wanted to love but seldom even liked’ (p.393)
  • Julie Wohryzek (1919) to whom he got engaged
  • Milena Jesenská (1919-20) tough Bohemian, rebel, and translator of his works into Czech
  • Dora Dymant (1923-24) devoted carer for the last year of his life, as Kafka wasted away and died

The thing is, the stories of his relationships with them are boring. Or, more precisely, they are interesting and surprising and sometimes shocking – but in a normal kind of way. They sound like the troubled relationships between any famous writer and his girlfriends. With a few changes we could be reading about John Keats and Fanny Brawne, or George Orwell and Sonia Brownell. They meet, they sort of fall in love, they write numerous letters to each other, there are disagreements and hesitations and fallings out. It’s boring, it’s everyday. It’s like reading the Daily Mail describing Kim and Kanye’s ups and downs. It’s like every other literary love affair you’ve ever read. They belong to the world, our kind of world.

Whereas, the whole point about Kafka is the off-the-scale weirdness of his writings, a strangeness and intensity which can make a critic like Walter Benjamin conceive of him as creating fragments dragged from the primordial experiences of proto-humans, from a dark prehistory before writing or maybe even stories existed.

That is how some of his texts make you feel, a:

primordial awe of the mystery of things, of the miraculous and the enigmatic inherent in every facet of what others took for granted, source of his genius and agony… (p.282)

Reading the pathetic letters in which Kafka spent five years coming up with every excuse in the book not to marry Felice Bauer, sort of interesting and occasionally funny in itself, nonetheless feels like a crashing descent from the giddy heights of his actual works.

Same goes for the major new theme which enters the biography, which is close attention to the chronology of his works, to explaining what was begun when, where it was continued, when it was broken off, and so on.

Two days after writing his first letter to Felice (who he had been introduced to at a soiree held by Max Brod), Kafka had a massive creative and psychological breakthrough, staying up all night on 22 September 1912 to write The Judgement (p.270). Within weeks he had written another short story, and was also writing letters to Felice at a phenomenal rate (he was eventually to write her no fewer than five hundred letters). From this point onwards the biography becomes increasingly cluttered with the dates and times of his innumerable letters, cross-referenced against the dates when he wrote, dropped, picked up, published or returned to his numerous stories and fragments.

It has a sort of trainspotter level of interest but I couldn’t get that excited to learn that, for example, he wrote so and so chapters of The Trial on such and such dates, pausing to knock off so and so story (he wrote In The Penal Colony in three days in October 1914), or that in November 1914 his on again-off again relationship with Felice hit yet another snag because in a letter dated 26th she asked him x and in his reply he …

The deep historical and social background which lay behind the artistic flowering of his entire generation, now that was riveting. And the role of the Jewish tradition that lay behind much of Kafka’s mindset, that was riveting. But the fact that when his relationship with Felice hit a low point she despatched a girlfriend to Prague (she lived throughout their relationship in distant Berlin) to try and intercede with Kafka on her behalf… this seemed like silly shopgirl gossip. It doesn’t have anything like the same weight and significance as Pawel’s earlier insights.

Girlfriend trouble and the fear of marriage

Well, when I say normal, nothing about Kafka was normal. The agonising five-year relationship with Felice was characterised by astonishing anxiety, self-pity, hypochondria, alienation, complaining and proclamations of despair on Kafka’s part.

Unmarried, he was neither a man nor a Jew – a non-Jew, non-German, non-Czech, none but his own naked self adrift in a cold and hostile world. (p.289)

Felice, by contrast, came from a sensible successful family, and was solid and straightforward. She thought his ailments could be cleared up by fresh air, exercise and the tender loving care of a woman like herself. What on earth did she see in him?

The mismatch between her stolid bourgeois spirit (epitomised by the revolting heavy, stuffed Biedermeyer furniture she wanted to buy to fill their apartment with, once they were married) and the world-class anxiety, terror, dread and super-sensitivity of her boyfriend, tips over from being pitiable and tragic, into becoming almost funny.

In fact Pawel does eventually begin to satirise Kafka’s unrelenting self-pity, mocking the absurd lengths Kafka went to in order to avoid meeting his ‘fiancee’. And indeed, as the reader ploughs through the stream of excuses and self-criticism and the endless, whining hypochondria, it’s hard not, eventually, to lose patience and start smiling:

  • ‘I am just barely healthy enough for myself, but not healthy enough for marriage, let alone fatherhood.’ (quoted page 285)
  • ‘What I need for my writing is seclusion, not ‘like a hermit’, that would not be sufficient, but like the dead.’ (p.295)
  • ‘I am desperate like a caged rat, racked by headaches and insomnia…’ (p.341)
  • ‘I wake after bad nights with my mouth wide open and my abused and tortured body like an alien and disgusting presence in my bed.’ (p.313)

(You don’t have to be a genius to connect this last quote, a description of himself waking after troubled nights to be disgusted at his own physical presence in bed, with the mindset of The Metamorphosis.)

Above all, Kafka didn’t want to ever actually meet Felice, developing a huge list of reasons why it would be a bad idea. And, indeed, on the few occasions when they did actually meet in the flesh, it was a catastrophe of sullen silence and misunderstandings..

Kafka was drawn to marriage yet terrified by it. He needed someone to look after him and yet, like every writer, wanted to be left utterly alone with the complete freedom to create. He had a horror of intimacy, of the invasion of his private space, of the disgusting rituals of copulation (p.265).

His repeated likenings of marriage to death, Death, DEATH, eventually become ludicrous. ‘The request threw him into a panic’ Pawel writes on page 395 and this could refer to just about any request any of his women made to meet him, let alone the terrifying possibility of one of them actually marrying him. And the mortifying possibility of having to live with a woman!

It is entirely characteristic that when Kafka had his first major pulmonary haemorrhage in 1917, coughing up blood in his apartment, he was relieved! Now he didn’t have to marry Felice, and he was so relieved at the thought that, after the bleeding died down, he had the first good night’s sleep he’d had in months!

And when the diagnosis of tuberculosis was confirmed by specialists, Kafka was thrilled to be able to finally break up with Felice definitely, after five long years of self-torture and recrimination. He went to stay with his sister in the countryside for what he later thought of as the happiest period of his life.

Chronology of the works

It is interesting up to a point to learn about the conditions under which he wrote various works. It is a little bit interesting to learn about the origins of the plot for Amerika. It is incongruous to learn that he began writing The Trial as the First World War broke out and continued writing it up till January 1915. Sort of.

It is quaint to learn the the bulk of the short stories published in his lifetime (in the Country Doctor volume) were written in a little old cottage on a thoroughfare improbably named Golden Lane, built up behind Prague castle by order of King Rudolf II in 1597, so poky he had to bend over to get in the doorway, but which he found blessedly quiet (p.352).

Quaint in a tourist itinerary sort of way, but it doesn’t in the slightest help you appreciate the works. On the contrary, gossipy titbits like this tend to short-circuit the mental energy which really entering into the worldview of Kafka’s fiction requires of the reader.

My point is that knowing precisely when he wrote a particular story or chapter doesn’t at all help you understand or penetrate deeper into its meaning. The rough order, especially of the novels – America 1912, Trial 1914, Castle 1922 – probably helps.

It’s certainly interesting to learn that the big spurt of writing The Trial took place in a prolonged lull in his relationship with Felice Bauer (August – December 1914) and that, when she finally got back in touch and they started corresponding towards the end of 1914, this threw him into such emotional turmoil that he lost concentration and that is why writing of The Trial got weaker and then fizzled out altogether.

But these facts don’t help you enjoy or understand The Trial, though, do they?

So a lot of the second half is taken up with nailing down on precisely which days, weeks or months he wrote, or probably wrote, or started or abandoned this or that story, and it’s sort of interesting in a Sudoku, jigsaw sort of way. But not as interesting as the big ideas in the first half.


Highlights and notes

Hypochondria In the second half of the book Kafka’s hypochondria and mental disturbance become acute. Almost every letter to Felice is filled with accounts of his misery, unhappiness, the torture of work, his unhappiness at home and so on.

‘My life has shrunk horribly and will go on shrinking.’ (Letter to Felice, 1914)

In 1917 he had his first massive pulmonary haemorrhage. But his doctors weren’t wrong to point out that most of the population of Prague had traces of the tubercle bacillus in their lungs and that, with good food and complete rest, he stood every chance of overcoming it. According to Pawel, it was the flu epidemic of 1919 which did for Kafka. He spent weeks in bed with a fever and struggling to breathe. The flu severely exacerbated the underlying TB and probably made his death inevitable.

Certainly he never recovered enough to return to work at the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute of Prague. Pawel chronicles the a complicated series of leaves of absence and sick leaves which went on for the next three years, until he was finally moved to the inactive list with a company pension in July 1922.

Thus his next major girlfriend after Felice, Milena Jesenská can write to Max Brod, within weeks of meeting Kafka in 1920, that Franz will never get better – and he never did.

In various places Pawel refers the notion that Joseph K is a walking sense of guilt looking for a crime: he has been charged, but he needs to find out why he is guilt. The same thought can be applied to Kafka and his TB. From adolescence onwards he is convinced he is ill, life is a disease, he flirts continually with thoughts of death, sometimes of suicide. The dagnosis of TB came as a huge relief, because the sense of illness – his morbid hypochondria –  finally found its cause, found an objective fact in the real world which justified it.

At some point – after working through all the letters and diary entries and analyses of his mounting illness through the last seven years of his life – it dawned on me that Kafka’s fiction is the way it is because he tried to live outside life for so long, for decades. He was someone who was ‘incapable of living’. He permanently lived in a state of terror and fear and anxiety far beyond what normal people can cope with or imagine, and the writing comes from that place.

  • ‘When you speak to her about me, speak as of someone already dead.’ (letter to Max Brod re. Milena)
  • ‘The chase drives me outside humanity’ (1922)

Švejk Joseph K. is the antithetical twin brother of Jaroslav Hašek’s Good Soldier Švejk. Joseph feels guilty about everything; Švejk feels guilty about nothing. Joseph (and K. and Gregor Samsa) sink down, down, down to a inevitable death; Švejk floats happily through the world, surviving the worst the Great War has to throw at him, with a bland smile on his face.

Prose king Every critic seems to agree that Kafka was arguably the greatest prose stylist in German of the entire 20th century. Pawel refers to his ‘classically simple yet highly charged prose’ (p.321). But they also all agree that almost nothing of this superhuman control of language comes across in translation.

This is more than frustrating. It makes you realise that however much of Kafka you read in translation, you are missing the lion’s share of his achievement, which was to craft the purest German prose of the century. Damn! Damn.

And also makes you realise the huge limits placed on all our attempts to understand ‘literature’. If most of us can’t even appreciate the literary excellence of one of the most famous writers in Europe, how can any of us hope to achieve anything more than a partial, restricted, limited and ultimately provincial view of the entire global situation? (Can you read Russian? Mandarin? Urdu? Well then.)

Kafka and the novel

Kafka quietly, and without fanfare, without stylistic extravagance or verbal excesses, demolished the solid, taken-for-granted certitudes of nineteenth century realism with its black-and-white contrasts and sharply defined outlines… In fact, he all but demolished the structure of the novel itself as he pursued guilt into the realm of the universal… (Ernst Pawel p.322)

The Trial Not only was pursuing his case all the way up to the highest court and to the final arbiter beyond the ability of Joseph K. – it was beyond the ability of his creator, Franz Kafka. It is beyond the ability of any of us! This is what the fragmentary and abandoned state of the novel’s manuscript itself tells us about the condition of the universe.

Kafka’s work Despite the war, Kafka continued to be an invaluable senior manager at the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute of Prague. He was continually exempted from conscription during the Great War because his work was literally irreplaceable. Not only that, but Pawel describes how he selflessly worked to create new processes to deal with the astonishing number of wounded and maimed soldiers returning from the Front. Kafka played a key role in the establishment of a hospital for soldiers with traumatic shock in 1916 (p.333). In fact the Veterans Association nominated him for a medal for his war work.

This is all so at odds with the neurasthenic who writes that he can barely get out of bed in the morning without doubling up in disgust and/or terror, that it seems like a different person. It’s one of the oddest things about this spectacularly odd man.

Czechs versus Germans I had no idea that the Czechs and the Germans who lived in Bohemia were at such daggers drawn. In the early part of the biography, Pawel describes the communal riots which broke out occasionally in the last years of the nineteenth century, and makes it clear that both communities harboured a seething dislike, fear and hatred of the other. But this really comes into its own during the last year of the Great War, as Austria’s fortunes visibly sank.

When he describes the way the centuries-old Austro-Hungarian empire simply disappeared almost overnight (well, within the course of a few weeks in October and November 1918) I was reminded of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc: similarly sudden and complete, vanishing like morning fog (p.373).

Very quickly a Czech nation was proclaimed (on November 14 1918) and the eminent nationalist leader Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk declared president, installing his administration in Hradčany Castle. Within days all Germans were removed from the administrative, civil service, army, and even commercial positions which they had held, in some instances, for decades, and were replaced across the board by ethnic Czechs. Kafka’s employer, the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia, changed its name into Czech overnight, as did all other public institutions (p.375).

In November 1920 Prague erupted into a three-day orgy of anti-German and anti-Jewish rioting, during which the mob sacked the offices of German-speaking newspapers, attacked anyone who looked Jewish in the streets, broke into the German Theatre and the Jewish Town Hall and burned ancient Jewish manuscripts and holy books in front of the synagogue.

Kafka is quoted observing this at first hand.

Judaism Kafka was fascinated when a troupe of travelling Jewish actors arrived in Prague in 1911, and spent several weeks putting on performances of traditional Jewish folk stories. He commented to friends that this was the real Jewish thing, not the dessicated bookish tradition which lingered on among the intelligentsia.

Similarly, when the Russians advanced deep into Austro-Hungarian territory they prompted a flight of refugees from the East, many of them Jews, who arrived in Prague, and Kafka was, again, delighted by the ‘authentic’ traditions, dress and speech of these Ostjuden (pp.334-339). In fact, observing a group of East European Jews who had been put up in the Jewish Town Hall in Prague while they waited for their US visas, Kafka wrote:

‘Had I been given the choice to be whatever I wanted, I would have chosen to be a little Eastern Jewish boy in the corner of that room, without a care in the world.’ (Letter to Milena, quoted page 339)

In 1917 he began teaching himself Hebrew, in one among many attempts to reconnect with the lost Jewish tradition (p.356). Pawel repeatedly emphasises that, deep down, Kafka never abandoned the hope of visiting Jerusalem.

‘I had to do something quite radical, and so I decided to emigrate to Palestine.’ (letter to his sister, October 1923)

After teaching himself the basics, Kafka began to take Hebrew lessons from a young woman named Puah Ben-Tovim (1903-1991, who went on to become an accomplished and celebrated educator in Israel) (p.428).

In the last year of his life, Kafka received a generous invitation from his old schoolfriend Hugo Bergmann to go and live in the latter’s home in Palestine (p.430). But by then he was too ill to even climb a flight of stairs let alone contemplate a train and boat trip to a different country.

Hypochondria become real I had no idea Kafka was so very ill for the last four or so years of his life. It is a distressing litany of symptoms caused by tuberculosis and exacerbated by the 1919 influenza pandemic, which meant he had to give up work, and was cared for by a succession of close ones, his indefatigable sister Ottla (who emerges as a tower of strength) and, for the last year of his life, by the fiercely devoted and protective Dora Dyment.


The Holocaust

Personally, I find it difficult to read much contemporary literature because I am mesmerised by the catastrophe of the twentieth century, which began with the First World War, spawned the disastrous Bolshevik Revolution, led to the ruination of Europe through the 20s and 30s, rise of Stalin and Hitler and then the inferno of the Second World War, and on into the long Cold War, with its miserable litany of conflicts, dictators, insurgencies and civil wars all round the world until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990.

And at the pitch black-heart of the filthiest century in human history lies the wriggling inhuman bestial horror of the Holocaust. I’ve written fairly extensively about it in reviews of the following books (they’re all important, but This Way For The Gas sticks most in my mind).

Anyway, Pawel’s biography introduces us to a wide array of contemporaries of Kafka’s, not only friends and family, but many of the Prague or Vienna writers, thinkers, journalists, activists and so on whose path crossed his, or who he read, or heard lecture and so on.

With a large number of them, as and when they exit from Kafka’s story, Pawel gives a thumbnail portrait of their later lives. And quite a few of them, seeing they were Jews like Kafka, ended up being arrested by the Nazi authorities and murdered in concentration camps.

Not to mention the numerous girlfriends and women in his life, including his three sisters, who were all sent to Terezin concentration camp and died there, and Milena Jesenská, murdered in Ravensbrück concentration camp.

This is all very harrowing and I’m not sure it’s a good idea. On the one hand it means that the book builds up into a sort of memorial to an entire generation of European Jewry and I can understand the piety and honourableness of such a motive.

On the other hand, nobody knew this was going to happen, least of all Kafka who died in 1924. This repeated leaping forward to the Holocaust creates a teleological feel to the narrative, a sense of inevitability, as if everything was fated to head in this direction.

And above all, the huge blunt fact of the Holocaust tends to blot out and eclipse the reader’s responses to the subtler twists and turns in Kafka’s biography, let alone to the subtle themes and details of his fiction.

I realise it is meant to pay respect and act as a baleful warning, but the continual reminders of the looming Holocaust risk deadening our responses to Kafka the very-much-still-alive hero of his own life story in 1912 or 1917 or 1922.

Conclusion

The Nightmare of Reason is a long book packed with facts about Kafka, his times, his relationships, his obsessions and his writings.

For me the single most important thing I learned about Kafka was his off-the-scale, self-centred, tortured, self-obsessed solipsism. Of course he notices things like the war or the ethnic riots or his family’s ups and downs: but all of this is constantly being pushed aside so he can focus on his One Great Subject which is himself, and his endless tortured guilt and fear and paranoia and hypochondria.

I am constantly trying to communicate something incommunicable, to explain something inexplicable, to tell about something I only feel in my bones and which can only be experienced in those bones. Basically it is nothing other than this fear which we have so often talked about, but fear spread to everything, fear of the greatest as well as of the smallest, fear, paralysing fear of pronouncing a word, although this fear may not only be fear but also a longing for something greater than all that is fearful. (Letter to Milena, quoted page 96)

Fear spread to everything. Kafka carried this tortured investigation of himself to unparalleled lengths and, in doing so, found words and phrases and ways of thinking about himself, and about what it is to be a self, which approached the intensity of religious revelations. When he writes:

What I need for my writing is seclusion, not ‘like a hermit’, that would not be sufficient, but like the dead

he really means it.

He is obsessed with death as an escape from the intolerable burden of his guilt-stricken and terrified daily consciousness. And the extremity of his psychology led him to devise mental frameworks and forms of expression, phrases, sentences and paragraphs, and situations (as in the situation of the investigating dog, or the terrified burrower, or the mouse academic, or the ape who becomes a man or, most famous of all, the man who changes into a beetle), which express this deranged sense of detachment from the ‘real life’ which most of us experience, to an unparalleled degree, to an almost incomprehensible degree.

And it is the extremity and yet at the same time the purity of the mental worlds he created in his fictions which allows so many critics to rush in and impose whatever system of values they are promoting: from psychoanalytical interpretations about his father, the Oedipus complex or buried homosexual fantasies, to sociological interpretations about the faceless bureaucracies of the modern world; from existential interpretations – the Sartrean notion of the individual adrift in a godless universe and crushed by the weight of their freedom – to Max Brod’s view that he was a saint and a holy man; from Marxist claims that his work portrays the soul of man alienated by capitalism, to Walter Benjamin’s notion that Kafka’s work drills down so deeply into the Jewish tradition that it draws on feelings and visions which are in fact prehistoric and preliterate.

Quite obviously the fact that so many different – and completely opposed – ideologists and critics can all claim to be the authentic interpreters of Kafka’s works points towards the conclusion I’d prefer to make: that his work was so utterly about himself and about his deepest feelings and fears – ‘an obsessive self-scrutiny that drove him beyond the self’ (p.322) – so utterly bereft of external details about contemporary society or conventions or manners, as to achieve a kind of uncluttered purity rarely found in literature.

As Auden comments, Kafka was the greatest modern writer of parables and the point of a parable is that it is so clean, so devoid of distracting detail or contemporary references, so focused on the essentials of the situation – that more or less anyone can apply it to themselves, project their reading onto it – it is this combination of extremity and conceptual purity which gives them their universal appeal and power.


Related links

Related Kafka reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

Jorge Luis Borges on Franz Kafka (1981)

In 1981 Cardinal published a collection of all the short stories which Kafka published during his lifetime, from the first story in 1904, to the last ones published just after his death in 1924 – a working life of precisely 20 years. They are all here in new translations by J.A. Underwood. The edition is interesting because it gives a brief textual explanation before the major stories, explaining when they were written, and when published.

It also contains a brief three-page essay on Kafka by the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, which can be summarised as follows:

Why Kafka wanted his works destroyed

Borges starts with Kafka’s injunction to Max Brod to burn his works. He compares this to Virgil’s request to his friends to destroy the manuscript of the Aeneid. As a practising author Borges gives a nice interpretation of both men’s wishes to destroy their masterworks, namely they didn’t want them actually to be destroyed, but

longed to disburden themselves of the responsibility that a literary work imposes on its creator.

Anyone familiar with The Trial or The Castle can immediately see how this applies to Kafka; they’re great works but they’re nowhere near finished and the effort to review, reorder and restructure them, and then to write all the linking passages and the final chapters required to bring them to a successful conclusion would daunt a lesser man and was clearly beyond Kafka. All he felt was the guilt and shame of failure.

Kafka’s works are like:

a parable or series of parables on the theme of the moral relationship of the individual with his God and with  his God’s incomprehensible universe.

They are less like what we call literature and closer to an ancient religious work like the Book of Job. Borges emphasises Kafka’s religious, and specifically Jewish, motivation. He thinks Kafka saw his work as an act of faith, and he did not want his writings to demotivate others (as they surely must have).

Borges goes further and suspects Kafka could a) only dream nightmares and b) was interested or hypnotised by delay and failure, which is why he produced a body of work solely about nightmares, and about nightmares which never reach a conclusion but are endlessly delayed… Borges thinks Kafka’s own imaginative vision wore him out.

And knowing how it wore him down, is why Kafka wanted the works burned, so as not to discourage others from seeking for happiness. (This is the same sort of terminology Brod uses in his defence of not burning the works in his afterword to The Trial).

When Borges first read Kafka

Borges slips in a memory of his own youth when he first came across Kafka; He was reading an avant-garde magazine full of modish experiments with text and font and layout but which also included a story by Kafka which, to his eternal shame, he thought insipid and so ignored.

Kafka’s Jewishness

He thinks Kafka’s Judaism is central. He thinks Kafka was as much in awe of his father as Israel is of its punishing God. He thinks Kafka’s Jewishness ‘set him apart from humanity’ and was ‘a torment to him’. So far so fairly basic.

Hierarchy and infinity

More interestingly, Borges goes on to speculate that Kafka’s work is underpinned by two big ideas, subordination and infinity. In almost all his stories we find hierarchies and those hierarchies tend to be infinite. Thus:

  • the hero of America roams across the land of the free until he is admitted to the great Nature-Theatre of Oklahoma which is an infinite stage, no less populous than the world
  • the hero of The Trial tries to understand the nature of the hierarchy of the Court and the authorities who have arrested him and are managing his case, but every step of the investigation only reveals how impenetrably vast and never-ending the hierarchy is
  • the hero of The Castle is summoned to work for authorities at a castle who never acknowledge him or his task

Infinity and incompletion

Borges says some critics complain about the fact that all three novels are unfinished and lament the absence of the chapters which would complete them. Borges says this is to misunderstand Kafka, to misunderstand that his subject was precisely the infinity of obstacles his heroes had to overcome. The novels are incomplete because it is ‘essential’ to their artistic purpose that they remain incomplete.

Borges compares the impossibility of completing a Kafka novel to Zeno’s paradox about the impossibility of movement.

Suppose Zeno wishes to walk to the end of a path. Before he can get there, he must get halfway there. Before he can get halfway there, he must get a quarter of the way there. Before traveling a quarter, he must travel one-eighth; before an eighth, one-sixteenth; and so on. Describing the task in this way requires Zeno to perform an infinite number of tasks which is, of course, impossible. (Wikipedia)

Intolerable situations

Moving swiftly on Borges suggests that Kafka’s greatest gift was for inventing intolerable situations. Anyone thinking of The Metamorphosis or In the Penal Colony would agree.

But Borges instances something a little different, which is the tremendous imaginative power of some of his ideas, which engrave themselves on our minds.

Leop­ards break in­to the tem­ple and drink all the sac­ri­fi­cial ves­sels dry; this happens over and over and, in the end, it can be predicted in ad­vance and so becomes in­cor­po­rat­ed in­to the rit­ual. (The Zürau Aphorisms)

These short parables from early in his career describe something different from the longer works: it is something to do with infinity and paradox, but harder to define, and less amenable to the kind of sociological interpretations which the novels are routinely subjected to.

Invention over craft

Borges makes a few controversial claims right at the end of this short essay:

Kafka’s craft is perhaps less admirable than in his invention, certainly in the way that all the stories feature basically the same character, Homo domesticus, ‘so Jewish and so German’, so desperate to keep his place in his bank or office or profession or employment.

He says ‘plot and atmosphere are the essential characteristics of Kafka’s work and not the convolutions of the story or the psychology of the hero.

We can quickly agree that few of the novels or stories have a ‘plot’ in the conventional sense of a beginning, middle and an end. His most famous stories tend to record a steady decline in circumstances and psychology until the protagonist dies.

When Borges writes that Kafka’s work doesn’t bother much with the psychology of the hero, I suppose what he means is that none of his protagonists are changed by events in the way that a classical novel is all about the change and growth in thinking and opinions of its main characters. The protagonists psychologise at very great length indeed, but, in a sense, it is always the same problem they are worrying over, and they are permanently caught in the same predicament or trap which shows no real psychological development or change.

Which is why Borges concludes that the short stories are superior to the novels, because they capture this atmosphere and this plight with greater purity and force.

Personally, I disagree. I think everyone should read The Trial because it gives you the essence of the Kafkaesque – and that the stories, being far more diverse, strange, varied and complex than the novels, tend to confuse and perplex your view of who Kafka is: the more you read of him, the less confident you become about being able to make useful generalisations.


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Dates are dates of composition.

Investigations of a Dog by Franz Kafka (1922)

What is there actually except our own species? To whom but it can one appeal in the wide and empty world? All knowledge, the totality of all questions and all answers, is contained in the dog.

Kafka wrote this ‘story’ in September and October 1922, soon after abandoning work on his unfinished novel, The Castle. Like A Report to an Academy (narrated by an ape), Josephine the Singer (narrated by a mouse) and The Burrow (narrated by a mole), the narrator is an animal, in this case, as the name suggests, a dog.

These later stories are perplexing because there is a great weight of verbiage and little actual plot. I wonder if anyone’s compared late Kafka to late Henry James (died 1916). There are the same very long, sesquipedalian sentences, printed in solid blocks of text, whose sole point seems to be the pleasure of seeing how long you can stretch out a sentence for, by inserting qualifications and hesitations and subordinate clauses, and deploying numerous other tricks of rhetoric.

When I think back and recall the time when I was still a member of the canine community, sharing in all its preoccupations, a dog among dogs, I find on closer examination that from the very beginning I sensed some discrepancy, some little maladjustment, causing a slight feeling of discomfort which not even the most decorous public functions could eliminate; more, that sometimes, no, not sometimes,
but very often, the mere look of some fellow dog of my own circle that I was fond of, the mere look of him, as if I had just caught it for the first time, would fill me with helpless embarrassment and fear, even with despair.

Little or nothing ‘happens’ in these stories – the text is more like an adventure in pure language. These later stories sound like lectures given by a particularly pompous academic, or parodies of lectures given by a particularly pompous academic, as the title A Report to an Academy suggests.

Now that is, if you like, by no means a simple question, of course; it has occupied us since the dawn of time, it is the chief object of all our meditation, countless observations and essays and views on this subject have been published, it has grown into a province of knowledge which in its prodigious compass is not only beyond the comprehension of any single scholar, but of all our scholars collectively…

And indeed the Investigations do in fact consist not in any physical investigations of the real world, but a series of ‘philosophical’ investigations which are rendered ‘absurd’ to the reader because it becomes clear that many of what the dog takes to be the strange and insoluble problems of canine existence are accounted for by the simple fact that it is humans who breed and feed and look after them.

But because he omits this simple fact, all the dog’s investigations are filled with puzzlement and confusion. For example, he remembers seeing what we, the readers, slowly realise is a pack of performing dogs, presumably at a circus but – omitting the presence of humans altogether from his account – the narrator is bewildered by why the pack of dogs is going through such unnatural motions:

Why were they afraid? Who then forced them to do what they were doing?.. Was the world standing on its head? Where could I be? What could have happened?

A common tactic of these late stories is to exhaust all the possibilities of one way of considering a subject… and then to say, ‘but the converse is also true’ and set off to spend another page considering the precise opposite. The text proceeds by negations and reversals.

A striking example occurs in Josephine where the narrator spends some time telling us that mice have a short intense childhood which often leaves them giggly and immature, subject to an ‘unexpended, ineradicable childishness’. Only when he’s utterly finished and exhausted this trope does he abruptly tell us that the other important thing about mice is that they are also prematurely old and decrepit – and then spends a page explaining the reason and consequences of this.

Same happens here. Early on he goes to some lengths to describe dogs as sociable animals who stick together, who live all in a heap. Then, abruptly, comes the volte face.

But now consider the other side of the picture. No creatures to my knowledge live in such wide dispersion as we dogs…

It feels a little as if Kafka is teasing the reader, seeing how many contradictions, changes of track and tack he can get away with.

The lack of tangible content also explains why these stories which he wrote towards the end of his life (he died in 1924 at the age of forty), despite being fairly long (Investigations is 16,000 words long, 40 pages in the Penguin edition) are so difficult to remember.

I remember what happens in The Metamorphosis and In the Penal Colony because something does, indeed, take place (the transformation and the grisly punishment, respectively). Whereas texts like Investigations and The Burrow can be summarised in a few sentences but defy longer description because nothing at all happens in them except for the extended, mock scholarly meditations of the ageing and rambling narrator.

Even the so-called ‘ideas’ which the animals consider, the hypotheses and postulates and theories and speculations which their author makes them lay out and weigh with such straight-faced seriousness, can’t really survive outside of the stories.

  • Thus the ‘story’ begins with the dog narrator recounting a puppyhood memory of coming across seven dogs behaving oddly to music; only slowly do we realise he’s at a circus watching performing dogs
  • Then he addresses the great and mysterious subject of dog food, which seems to appear as a result of certain magical rituals such as scratching the ground

In these cases the humour, such as it is, is in the puzzlement caused by the dog’s failure to acknowledge, or even realise, the prime role played in the existence of all dogs, by their human owners. At no point does he realise that dog food is given to dogs by owners. In the doggyverse various theories abound as to what produces it, and why it appears, sometimes ready-placed on the ground, at other moments descending out of the air (as a human places a bowl before its pet). Half the story or more is devoted to the dog-narrator’s tortured and endlessly convoluted engagement with various doggy scholars as to how these mysteries come about, all of them, of course, a complete waste of time.

And there is a certain humour in Kafka’s invention of a handful of doggy sayings which his dogged investigator subjects to much mock-learnèd scrutiny:

  • “Water the ground as much as you can.”
  • “If you have food in your jaws you have solved all questions for the time being.”
  • “If you haven’t enough to eat, we’ll give you some of ours.”

But what are we to make of his lengthy pondering on the mystery of the soaring dogs who spend most of their lives suspended in mid-air? I didn’t understand this, maybe it is a satire on dogs who live on pampered cushions.

Or the even more inconsequential and prolonged ruminations about his neighbour dog and whether he is, or isn’t, or might be, or might not be, a worthy companion in his doggish investigations.

Naturally I do not talk to my neighbor of these things, but often I cannot but think of them when I am sitting opposite him — that typical old dog — or bury my nose in his coat, which already has a whiff of the smell of cast-off hides. To talk to him, or even to any of the others, about such things would be pointless. I know what course the conversation would take. He would urge a slight objection now and then, but finally he would agree — agreement is the best weapon of defense — and the matter would be buried: why indeed trouble to exhume it at all? And in spite of this there is a profounder understanding between my neighbor and me, going deeper than mere words. I shall never cease to maintain that, though I have no proof of it and perhaps am merely suffering from an ordinary delusion, caused by the fact that for a long time this dog has been the only one with whom I have held any communication, and so I am bound to cling to him. ‘Are you after all my colleague in your own fashion? And ashamed because everything has miscarried with you? Look, the same fate has been mine. When I am alone I weep over it; come, it is sweeter to weep in company. I often have such thoughts as these and then I give him a prolonged look. He does not lower his glance, but neither can one read anything from it; he gazes at me dully, wondering why I am silent and why I have broken off the conversation. But perhaps that very glance is his way of questioning me, and I disappoint him just as he disappoints me.

These stories don’t consider anything which is applicable to actual life; the content can only subsist within the matrix of the text. (Unlike the Metamorphosis, the glaring exception to this rule, which does contain a massive, central event which anyone can summarise and explain to anyone else, and which explains why it has been adapted countless times for stage and screen. Investigations of a Dog couldn’t be adapted for anything, or it would make for a very dull play – a pompous orotund dog pondering the insoluble mysteries of the doggy world.)

This is what I mean by adventures in pure language – that when you try to extract a ‘meaning’ from these texts, it’s difficult or impossible to find one. They are more like long-winded, meandering and strangely empty ‘meditations’ whose nominal subject or theme is not the actual point.

This one doesn’t even manage to say anything at all ‘useful’ or quotable about dogs. Because it isn’t in fact about dogs at all. The following passage is typical: what does it tell us about anything?

How much intelligence is needed even by an ordinary dog even in average and not unfavorable circumstances, if he is to live out his life and defend himself against the greater of life’s customary dangers. True, knowledge provides the rules one must follow, but even to grasp them imperfectly and in rough outline is by no means easy, and when one has actually grasped them the real difficulty still remains, namely to apply them to local conditions — here almost nobody can help, almost every hour
brings new tasks, and every new patch of earth its specific problems; no one can maintain that he has settled everything for good and that henceforth his life will go on, so to speak, of itself, not even I myself, though my needs shrink literally from day to day. And all this ceaseless labor — to what end? Merely to entomb oneself deeper and deeper in silence, it seems, so deep that one can never be dragged out of it again by anybody.

In its last quarter or so the story wanders off topic because the dog narrator, as part of ‘scientific’ investigations into the mysterious appearance of dog food at regular intervals, determines to fast, to go without food and see what happens to the mysterious appearances. In fact the description of fasting and its psychological affects last for several pages, and reminds the reader very much of the near-contemporary story, The Hunger Artist, and also – if we’ve read the biography – that Kafka submitted to a number of food fads and dietary regimes which all anticipated his death, which was actually due to the closing up of his larynx and the prevention of swallowing, even liquids. This is gruesome and horrible and nothing to do with dogs, although cast in a doggy context.

My beautiful fancies fled one by one before the increasing urgency of my hunger; a little longer and I was, after an abrupt farewell to all my imaginations and my sublime feelings, totally alone with the hunger burning in my entrails. ‘That is my hunger,’ I told myself countless times during this stage, as if I wanted to convince myself that my hunger and I were still two things and I could shake it off like a burdensome lover; but in reality we were very painfully one, and when I explained to myself: ‘That is my hunger,’ it was really my hunger that was speaking and having its joke at my expense. A bad, bad time! I still shudder to think of it, and not merely on account of the suffering I endured then, but mainly because I was unable to finish it then and consequently shall have to live through that suffering once more if I am ever to achieve anything; for today I still hold fasting to be the final and most potent means
of my research. The way goes through fasting; the highest, if it is attainable, is attainable only by the highest effort, and the highest effort among us is voluntary fasting.

This rather random straying into psychopathological territory, the point, if any, seems to be that late stories like this are very pure exercises in the possibilities of thought and language. And hence my comparison with the dense, difficult but – if you have a taste for that sort of thing – wonderfully, elaborately and curiously crafted works of the later Henry James. Maybe.

Tropes

The narrator is remote in space and attitude

Like several other of the ‘scholarly’ narrators, the dog narrator gives the impression of being very, very detached from the run of his society, utterly detached, alienated and ignored by all the other members of his species.

It seemed to me as if I were separated from all my fellows, not by a quite short stretch, but by an infinite distance, and as if I would die less of hunger than of neglect. For it was clear that nobody troubled about me, nobody beneath the earth, on it, or above it; I was dying of their indifference…

Messages rarely penetrate through to what, by implication, is his remote distance from dogkind.

Solitary and withdrawn, with nothing to occupy me save my hopeless but, as far as I am concerned,
indispensable little investigations, that is how I live; yet in my distant isolation I have not lost sight of my people, news often penetrates to me, and now and then I even let news of myself reach them.

This all feels like the narrator of The Burrow who lives vastly remote from all other creatures, and the conditions described in The Great Wall of China where the vast distances mean that remote villages go through their entire existences worshiping a particular emperor without even realising that not only the emperor but his entire dynasty has perished.

The narrator is very old

I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

wrote T.S. Eliot in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, published in 1920 when he was 32. Similarly, Kafka, another hypsersensitive hypochondriac, creates narrators in these final stories who also lament (or boast) about their advanced age, poor memories and general decrepitude.

How, indeed, without these breathing spells, could I have reached the age that I enjoy at present; how could I have fought my way through to the serenity with which I contemplate the terrors of youth and endure the terrors of age…

… all our laws and institutions, the few that I still know and the many that I have forgotten…

I can recall an incident in my youth…

In itself it was nothing very extraordinary, for I have seen many such things, and more remarkable things too, often enough since…

in the course of a long life one encounters all sorts of things…

And I have preserved my childlike qualities, and in spite of that have grown to be an old dog…

Perhaps I have the prospect of far more childlike happiness, earned by a life of hard work, in my old age than any actual child would have the strength to bear…

I shall very likely die in silence and surrounded by silence, indeed almost peacefully, and I look forward to that with composure…

the diligent labor of a long life

But I have seen much, listened to much, spoken with dogs of all sorts and conditions…

Or, as Eliot put it in The Waste Land:

And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead…

Something about Modernism which aspirates to a sort of global, primeval wisdom. The generations of novelists before were content to tell a tale, either of fantasy or social realism, to entertain like Balzac, to craft a work of art like Flaubert or to waken the reader’s conscience like Zola.

Kafka’s generation thought they were struggling with the nature of being, and of language, itself, an endeavour which required the adoption of a pose of great, almost superhuman, antiquity.


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The Burrow by Franz Kafka (1924)

Fear is the central theme of this grim, terror-stricken, but very wordy, story.

In The Burrow some kind of mole-like animal spends thirty-seven pages in long-winded agonising whether the elaborate maze of tunnels it has devoted its life to building underground is anywhere near enough to protect it from the hordes of enemies and predators of which it lives in permanent, heart-stopping fear.

What does this protection which I am looking at here from the outside amount to after all? Dare I estimate the danger which I run inside the burrow from observations which I make when outside? Can my enemies, to begin with, have any proper awareness of me if I am not in my burrow? A certain awareness of me they certainly have, but not full awareness. And is not that full awareness the real definition of a state of danger? So the experiments I attempt here are only half-experiments or even less, calculated merely to reassure my fears and by giving me false reassurance to lay me open to great perils. No, I do not watch over my own sleep, as I imagined; rather it is I who sleep, while the destroyer watches.

Deep (literally, deep underground) terror pervades every second of the narrator’s life and thoughts, and the story, such as it is, amounts to a characteristically long-winded, tortuous, self-lacerating exercise in paranoia and terror. The narrator tells us at very great length how he has elaborated his burrow into a maze of fake and deceptive passages to lose enemies, how he built a fake and obvious entrance to divert enemies, how he has created dumps of food scattered round the maze, so he can have rations if forced to retreat under attack from the enemy.

Then about half way through, he begins to hear a low whistling sound (‘ A faint whistling, audible only at long intervals’) and becomes convinced it is emanating from his enemies and attackers.

But whether the sound (and the enemies) are coming from up above – overground – or from somewhere underground but near enough for him to hear, whether it is the sound made by a horde of enemies or by one giant enemy burrowing nearby, whether that enemy knows about his burrow and is planning to break in at some place along the maze of tunnels, or knows about his burrow but is deliberately taunting him by digging close by, or is ignorant of his burrow but might break through into one of his tunnels by mistake – are just some of the scores of scenarios and permutations the narrator runs through in an increasing sweat of fear and paranoia.

The theme of fear

Reading Ernst Pawel’s biography of Kafka I came across this passage in one of his letters to his girlfriend, Czech journalist and writer, Milena Jesenská.

‘I am constantly trying to communicate something incommunicable, to explain something inexplicable, to tell about something I only feel in my bones and which can only be experienced in those bones. Basically it is nothing other than this fear we have so often talked about, but fear spread to everything, fear of the greatest as of the smallest, fear, paralysing fear of pronouncing a word, although this fear may not only be fear but also a longing from something greater than all that is fearful.’ (quoted page 96)

‘Fear spread to everything’ – that’s a good summary of the experience of reading this stifling text.

Unfinished

Apparently, The Burrow is unfinished, though I cannot pretend I was anything other than mightily relieved when it ended, almost in mid-sentence.

Allegedly, Kafka did write an ending to the story, detailing a struggle with the encroaching beast, but this completed version was among the works destroyed by Kafka’s lover Dora Diamant, following his death. It’s a little surprising that it was meant to end this way, since violent and explicit action is rare in Kafka’s fiction. More often his characters just waste away or the narratives themselves are abandoned as, in the only version we have, this one is.

Officialese

In Ernst Pawel’s biography of Kafka I came across the following quote from one of Franz’s early colleagues in Prague’s literary scene, Oskar Baum, which struck me as being very relevant to this story.

By nature he was a fanatic full of luxuriating fantasy, but he kept its glow in check by constantly striving toward strict objectivity. To overcome all cloying or seductive sentimental raptures and fuzzy-minded fantasising was part of his cult of purity – a cult quasi-religious in spirit, though often eccentric in its physical manifestation. He created the most subjective imagery, but it had to manifest itself in the form of utmost objectivity (quoted on page 133)

‘Utmost objectivity’. Because as I read this stiflingly claustrophobic story, I began to realise that although its subject is animal fear, its form is surprisingly restrained and detached.

In fact, I began to realise that the story is cast in a style almost like an academic presentation or a report by some government official. I began to annotate the many phrases the narrator uses which could come from an official report.

  • It seemed to me advisable…
  • please note, however…
  • It will be objected that I….
  • Prudence demands that I…
  • Indeed in all probability…
  • That is naturally a great advantage…
  • That consideration need not delay me…
  • One cannot but incline to the hypothesis that…

The sense of an old-fashioned and rather pedantic academic is reinforced by the narrators’s repeated use of little barrages of rhetorical questions.

What does this protection which I am looking at here from the outside amount to after all? Dare I estimate the danger which I run inside the burrow from observations which I make when outside? Can my enemies, to begin with, have any proper awareness of me if I am not in my burrow? A certain awareness of me they certainly have, but not full awareness. And is not that full awareness the real definition of a state of danger?

Or:

By what chance can everything have flowed on so quietly and happily for such a long time? Who can have diverted my enemies from their path, and forced them to make a wide detour around my property? Why have I been spared for so long, only to be delivered to such terrors now?

In other words, although the content of the story is the creature’s unremitting fear, its form or style is so pompously cerebral and academic as possibly to be a satire on academic or philosophical writers, on the dry dull lecturers at Kafka’s university, or even of some of his friends and acquaintances in Prague’s literary circles who became high falutin’ philosophers much given to rhetorical questions and orotund phraseology.

Not convinced? Well, here is the animal raising possible theories about the origin of the whistling sound, considering them, dismissing them and moving onto further theorising. Is it not the laboured and endlessly ramifying style of a certain kind of old-fashioned philosophical or aesthetic enquiry? (The Castle Keep he refers to is the big cavern at the centre of the maze of tunnels he has constructed for himself. The ‘small fry’ are the unnamed smaller animals which sometimes scuttle around his tunnels but are too small to present any threat.)

I listen now at the walls of the Castle Keep, and wherever I listen, high or low, at the roof or the floor, at the entrance or in the corners, everywhere, everywhere, I hear the same noise. And how much time, how much care must be wasted in listening to that noise, with its regular pauses. One can, if one wishes, find a tiny deceitful comfort in the fact that here in the Castle Keep, because of its vastness, one hears nothing at all, as distinguished from the passages, when one stands back from the walls. Simply as a rest and a means to regain my composure I often make this experiment, listen intently and am overjoyed when I hear nothing. But the question still remains, what can have happened? Confronted with this phenomenon my original explanation completely falls to the ground. But I must also reject other explanations which present themselves to me. One could assume, for instance, that the noise I hear is simply that of the small fry themselves at their work. But all my experience contradicts this; I cannot suddenly begin to hear now a thing that I have never heard before though it was always there. My sensitiveness to disturbances in the burrow has perhaps become greater with the years, yet my hearing has by no means grown keener. It is of the very nature of small fry not to be heard. Would I have tolerated them otherwise? Even at the risk of starvation I would have exterminated them. But perhaps — this idea now insinuates itself — I am concerned here with some animal unknown to me. That is possible. True, I have observed the life down here long and carefully enough, but the world is full of diversity and is never wanting in painful surprises. Yet it cannot be a single animal, it must be a whole swarm that has suddenly fallen upon my domain, a huge swarm of little creatures, which, as they are audible, must certainly be bigger than the small fry, but yet cannot be very much bigger, for the sound of their labors is itself very faint. It may be, then, a swarm of unknown creatures on their wanderings, who happen to be passing by my way, who disturb me, but will presently cease to do so. So I could really wait for them to pass, and need not put myself to the trouble of work that will be needless in the end. Yet if these creatures are strangers, why is it that I never see any of them?

And so, wordily, verbosely, and tortuously, on.

So is it a prolonged exercise in the description of gnawing anxiety, projected onto an unnamed animal? Or a lengthy satire on the high-phrased and wandering divagations of a boring old philosophy lecturer? Or is it both, combined, to make something new and very strange?


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A Hunger Artist and other stories by Franz Kafka

A Hunger Artist is a collection of four short stories by Franz Kafka published in Germany in 1924, the last collection that Kafka himself prepared for publication. Kafka corrected the proofs during his final illness but the book was only published several months after his death. The first English translations of the stories, by Willa and Edwin Muir, were published in 1948, in the larger collection titled The Penal Colony.

They are all relatively short stories (compared to the 60 or so pages of The Metamorphosis). They are all odd, peculiar, non-naturalistic stories, having the feel of dreams or fables. They all seem to point to a truth or meaning beyond themselves, just out of reach. And it’s noticeable that three of the four have a circus setting, or involve animals, as did some of the stories in A Country Doctor.

First Sorrow (3 pages)

An account of a trapeze artist, married to and obsessed by his trade. It is typical of Kafka that the man lives in his trapeze, that food has to be hoisted up to him in special containers, merely retiring to one side when other performers perform, that he loves the height, the sense of freedom, specially when the windows round the top are opened.

But he hates travelling of any kind, in the city will only submit to being taken anywhere if it’s in the manager’s sports car, and from city to city, when travelling by train, has such sensitive nerves that he and the manager take a whole compartment to themselves and the trapeze artist sleeps in the luggage rack.

On one train journey the trapeze artist surprises the manager by asking for two trapezes to be set up for him to use. The manager, who clearly pampers the trapeze artist, immediately agrees. Nevertheless the trapeze artist is sad, and for the first time the manager sees worry lines and tears trickling down his face as he sleeps.

So that’s what the title, First Sorrow, turns out to mean. It is an elusive, elliptical story.

A Little Woman (8 pages)

This is very reminiscent of the fabric and feel of Kafka’s longer fiction, The Castle in particular, in the way it consists of a long, convoluted and tortuous meditation on a relationship between the narrator and one other character.

It simply starts off by describing a thin woman known to the narrator, and then explains that, for some unknown reason, she is permanently vexed and irritated by him, and from there passes into ever-more complex over-thinking of why that might be, and what it might mean, and the many possible reasons for her vexation, and whether it’s a performance solely for public consumption, and so on and so on and so on.

It is all done in Kafka’s characteristic block paragraphs which I find challenging to read.

Perhaps she hopes that once public attention is fixed on me a general public rancour against me will rise up and use all its great powers to condemn me definitively much more effectively and quickly than her relatively feeble private rancour could do; she would then retire into the background, draw a breath of relief, and turn her back on me. Well, if that is what her hopes are really set on, she is deluding herself. Public opinion will not take over her role; public opinion would never find me so infinitely objectionable, even under its most powerful magnifying glass. I am not so altogether useless a creature as she thinks; I don’t want to boast and especially not in this connection; but if I am not conspicuous for specially useful qualities, I am certainly not conspicuous for the lack of them; only to her, only to her almost bleached eyes, do I appear so, she won’t be able to convince anyone else. So in this respect I can feel quite reassured, can I? No, not at all; for if it becomes generally known that my behavior is making her positively ill, which some observers, those who most industriously bring me information about her, for instance, are not far from perceiving, or at least look as if they perceived it, and the world should put questions to me, why am I tormenting the poor little woman with my incorrigibility, and do I mean to drive her to her death, and when am I going to show some sense and have enough decent human feeling to stop such goings-on — if the world were to ask me that, it would be difficult to find an answer. Should I admit frankly that I don’t much believe in these symptoms of illness, and thus produce the unfavourable impression of being a man who blames others to avoid being blamed himself, and in such an ungallant manner? And how could I say quite openly that even if I did believe that she were really ill, I should not feel the slightest sympathy for her, since she is a complete stranger to me and any connection between us is her own invention and entirely one-sided. I don’t say that people wouldn’t believe me; they wouldn’t be interested enough to get so far as belief; they would simply note the answer I gave concerning such a frail, sick woman, and that would be little in my favour. Any answer I made would inevitably come up against the world’s incapacity to keep down the suspicion that there must be a love affair behind such a case as this, although it is as clear as daylight that such a relationship does not exist, and that if it did it would come from my side rather than hers, since I should be really capable of admiring the little woman for the decisive quickness of her judgment and her persistent vitality in leaping to conclusions, if these very qualities were not always turned as weapons against me.

It amounts to a brief specimen of the kind of endlessly self-questioning, over-ratiocination which makes the novels so very long and, often, such hard going, a fine example of the way Kafka can spin an inordinate amount of verbiage out of the simplest relationship.

In a sense this short excerpt demonstrates the technique by which Kafka assembles the longer texts to create the structure of the novels: the technique being to line up a series of encounters with officials from the Court, and then subject each one to a mind-bogglingly over-elaborated, hyper-sensitive, and rather menacing over-thinking of every possible nuance and conceivable double, triple and quadruple interpretation of all possible permutations of thinking and worrying about it.

Until you end up with entire paragraphs which appear to be saying something but which are, on closer examination, almost empty, as the narrator himself at one point acknowledges.

And on closer reflection it appears that the developments which the affair seems to have undergone in the course of time are not developments in the affair itself, but only in my attitude to it, insofar as that has become more composed on the one hand, more manly, penetrating nearer the heart of the matter, while on the other hand, under the influence of the continued nervous strain which I cannot overcome, however slight, it has increased in irritability.

A Hunger Artist (11 pages)

As I’ve noted in my reviews of the novels, a key element of the Kafka style is entropy, meaning that everything, large and small, literal or symbolic, falls away, declines, decays and dies.

The protagonists of The Trial and The Castle and The Metamorphosis die in the end, the Officer of In The Penal Colony dies, the man waiting at the door of the Law dies. And thus it is that, following the general pattern, the Hunger Artist as well wastes away and dies.

And, just like in The Trial or the Penal Colony or the Door of the Law, his last words contain a message pregnant with meaning and poignancy.

The text is told by a narrator looking back wistfully at an earlier time, a tone which immediately reminds us of The Great Wall of China. Back in those days, back in the good old days, fasting was an art which was widely appreciated and the Hunger Artist was the leader in his field. He was paraded around in a barred cage, wearing a black swimsuit, his ribs sticking out, setting up in a new town or city every forty days, and charging admission to admiring crowds who came to point and ooh and mock or admire his heroic efforts to survive on no food for forty days.

Why forty days? Well, on an interpretative level this is obviously a number fraught with religious meaning, since Jesus went into the wilderness to fast for forty days and nights, and this story itself was possibly invented to mirror the forty days and nights of the Biblical flood told in the book of Genesis.

But in the story it is simply because the artist’s commercially minded manager has discovered that forty days is about as long as you can milk an audience in any given own or city before they start to get bored and he has to move on.

The middle part of the text describes the Hunger Artist’s unhappiness and disgust at the way people don’t believe he’s really fasting, the way the guards set to watch over him don’t really believe him, and so on.

But then the narrator describes how a great change comes over society, fashions change, pastimes change, and people lost interest in fasting as a spectator sport. The manager tries a last whistle-stop tour of cities to rouse audiences, but people just weren’t interested any more. Should the Hunger Artist take up a new profession? He’s too old to learn new tricks. And anyway, it is his life’s work.

So he signs up to join a circus, although he finds his cage being set up in the narrow walkways the crowds walk along to get to the far more exciting animal cages. He has become a back number. People hurry past his cage or stop to mock.

Strictly speaking, he was only an impediment on the way to the menagerie.

Children ask their parents what it means and what he does. But the parents struggle to explain:

You try explaining fasting to someone! Unless a person feels it he can never be made to understand it.

His keeper initially marks a record of the days fasted on a wooden plaque stuck on the bars of his cage, but eventually forgets to do this, then forgets about the artist altogether. See what I mean by entropy.

One day a new supervisor demands to know the purpose of this empty cage and no-one can remember what it’s for. Mixed in with the straw is a stick. When they poke it the stick it talks. It is the Hunger Artist. The rough proley nature of the workers is well conveyed in the J.A. Underwood translation, as the workers listen to the Hunger Artist’s last confession. He only fasted, he explains in a weak whisper, because he never found anything he wanted to eat.

And with this poignant confession he expires, the circus labourers clear out his cage and instal a virile young panther in it which draws the crowds with its awesome power.

The Hunger Artist feels like a fable or parable or allegory of awesome importance, with Biblical resonances and some deep meaning for all of us. But what is that meaning exactly, is it historical or psychological or political or sociological… Kafka has left a century of critics and commentators to discuss.

Coming with a deep interest in history I note that the final years of the Great War saw widespread starvation in Germany and Austro-Hungary due to the Allied blockade on all shipping which prevented the importation of foodstuffs. And one of the Axis powers’ grievances was that the blockade continued for seven months after the armistice of November 1918, up until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919.

Thus real hunger, the actual starvation of men women and children was a spectacle Kafka and all Germans would have been bitterly familiar with.

Then again, those who prefer biographical explanations will point to the fact Kafka himself throughout his adult life subjected himself to an increasingly strict diet, which began with vegetarianism and became progressively more strict and self denying until he in fact died of untreatable laryngeal tuberculosis, which closed up his throat until he could neither eat nor drink and literally starved to death.

But you don’t need to know either of these background facts to respond to the power of the story. It is the way the subject has been turned into not just fiction, but into a story with the roundedness and finish and fairy tale perfection of a fable or allegory or parable, which counts.

Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk (19 pages)

The narrator writes like a person drafting a long critical essay examining a contemporary artist from a variety of sociological angles, except that, as the story progresses, the reader realises that the narrator is a mouse and that he is talking about the ‘famous’ mouse singer Josephine.

I’ve repeatedly mentioned the way things in Kafka’s stories decline and fall away, and the way this even happens within individual sentences, in the way a sentence sets off to make a statement and finds itself contradicting its opening, qualifying and balancing and introducing doubts and numerous clauses which successively weaken the opening until it is often abolished and erased.

Even Kafka’s sentences display a death wish.

That pattern is very visible in this, Kafka’s final story. The narrator opens by telling us that Josephine is the mouse people’s greatest and most popular singer and makes a few supporting statements about how important she is to her people.

But this breezy opening is then subjected to eighteen pages of criticism and undermining. It comes out that her ‘singing’ might in fact not be strictly speaking ‘singing’ after all. In fact it might very much be like the sound every other mouse makes, which is a common or garden squeak. In fact Josephine’s squeaking might, in fact, even be weaker and less impressive than the average mouse’s. If this is so, what on earth gives her the extraordinary power and influence she holds over mousekind?

And it is to the investigation of this apparent mystery, with long, multi-claused sentences, hedging his own conclusions, balancing interpretations and weighing possible theories, that the narrator turns to ponder with all the weighty orotundity of a learned German professor.

How to explain that at some public concerts, other mice have gotten excited and let out squeaks, and those squeaks were every bit as good as Josephine’s if not better? Is her popularity something to do with the history and struggle of her people, his people?

A thought which gives rise to a long series of reflections on the life of mice, how they are born into struggle, into a life of anxiety, small and weak and surrounded by enemies, by ‘the enemy’.

It was impossible, for me at any rate, not to think about Kafka’s Jewishness and wonder to what extent these repeated and heartfelt descriptions of a scattered, weak race oppressed by stronger neighbours, is a not very coded reference to his Jewish peers.

Our life is very uneasy, every day brings surprises, apprehensions, hopes, and terrors, so that it would be impossible for a single individual to bear it all did he not always have by day and night the support of his fellows; but even so it often becomes very difficult…

This mass of our people who are almost always on the run and scurrying hither and thither for reasons that are often not very clear…

Laughter for its own sake is never far away from us; in spite of all the misery of our lives quiet laughter is always, so to speak, at our elbows…

One might think that our people are not fitted to exercise such paternal duties, but in reality they discharge them, at least in this case, admirably; no single individual could do what in this respect the people as a whole are capable of doing. To be sure, the difference in strength between the people and the individual is so enormous that it is enough for the nursling to be drawn into the warmth of their nearness and he is sufficiently protected.

But for all the occasions that the reader can impose onto sentences like these a meaning to do with the Jewish community of Prague or Berlin or Central Europe, there are plenty of other sections which are patently just descriptions of mice, with their impatience, tendency to gossip and to squeak at the slightest provocation.

In other words, the narrative sometimes approaches what you could call a real-world interpretation but then veers away, into fiction, subsumed into the vividness of the allegory or fable.

Whenever we get bad news – and on many days bad news comes thick and fast at once, lies and half-truths included – she rises up at once, whereas usually she sits listlessly on the ground, she rises up and stretches her neck and tries to see over the heads of her flock like a shepherd before a thunderstorm…

The more you read on, the more you realise the text is as much or more an analysis of The Mouse Folk as of Josephine herself, and hence its sub-title. And, while you read on, the figure of Josephine becomes less and less of a singer and more and more of a unifying symbol of hope for an embattled people.

Josephine’s thin piping amidst grave decisions is almost like our people’s precarious existence amidst the tumult of a hostile world.

But by half-way through you have come to realise that the story is more like a parable about art and the artist and the artist or storyteller’s ability to give comfort and solace to his ‘people’ no matter how inadequate and ordinary his voice.

It is more the symbolism and the staging of the artist’s performances and what they mean for his or her listeners or readers which matters, it is the psychological unifying and healing it offers, than the actual ‘quality’.

Squeaking is our people’s daily speech, only many a one squeaks his whole life long and does not know it, where here [in Josephine’s performances] squeaking is set free from the fetters of daily life and it sets us free too for a little while…

And where he writes squeaking, he means speaking, and in fact means writing.


Related links

These are links to modern translations of the stories available online.

Related reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

A Country Doctor and other stories by Franz Kafka (1917)

A Country Doctor is a collection of short stories written mostly in 1917 by Franz Kafka, and containing the story of the same name. It was published in 1919, the second collection of short stories published by the German publisher Kurt Wolff, following Contemplation of 1912.

The Contemplation pieces were very short, some of them less than a page long, and the stories here are of the same style, also very short and punchy and dazzling. Some have touches of humour but what characterises most of them is how weird, visionary or dreamlike they are.

1. The New Advocate

One page long. The new advocate is Alexander the Great’s old horse Bucephalus. With Alexander long dead and his great goal of reaching the gates of India now remote and impossible, yes, it probably makes sense for his favourite horse to take up a career in the law. After all, it’s a steady profession.

2. A Country Doctor

This really is a dream-like narrative: told in the first person the doctor is called to an emergency on a snowy night but can’t find a horse but then his groom finds two horses in the pigsty and attaches them to the cart and the horses race off before the doctor can warn or protect his housekeeper who he knows the groom wants to rape and watches run for the house and lock herself in but as the cart gallops off he hears the groom smashing the door down with an axe, the doctor arrives instantly (as in a dream) at the house of the sick man with his relatives gathered round and pronounces him perfectly fit, maybe overfull of coffee which his solicitous mother has given him, all the time worrying about the fate of Rosy the maid, the two horses push open the windows of the room and watch the doctor and a choir of local children gathers outside and sings a song about stripping the doctor and next thing he knows he is being stripped, held up then carried over to the sick man’s bed and thrown into it where he discovers the man has an enormous gaping bloody wound in his side which is infested with finger-sized worms and seems to attribute this to standing still in the woods and having been chopped at by men with axes as if he were a tree, then the doctor escapes from the bed, flees the house, throws his things onto the carriage and whips the horses to flee although they in fact plod off at the walking pace of an old man.

I’ll never come home at this rate. My flourishing practice is lost. A successor is robbing me, but to no avail, for he cannot replace me. In my house the disgusting groom is wreaking havoc. Rosa is his victim. I will not think it through. Naked, abandoned to the frost of this unhappy age, with an earthly carriage and unearthly horses, I drive around by myself, an old man. My fur coat hangs behind the wagon, but I cannot reach it, and no one from the nimble rabble of patients lifts a finger. Betrayed! Betrayed! Once one responds to a false alarm on the night bell, there’s no making it good again – not ever.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a literal transcription of an actual anxiety dream Kafka had had.

3. Up in the Gallery

A one-page description of attending the circus to see a lady in white and red come through the curtain and be lifted by the ringmaster onto a dappled grey horse and ride round the ring to tumultuous applause. But Kafka uses a technique he’s used in other stories, which is to open the entire description with a conditional phrase, making the whole thing seem provisional and dreamlike.

If some frail tubercular lady circus rider were to be driven in circles around and around the arena for months and months without interruption in front of a tireless public on a swaying horse by a merciless whip-wielding master of ceremonies, spinning on the horse, throwing kisses and swaying at the waist, and if this performance, amid the incessant roar of the orchestra and the ventilators, were to continue into the ever-expanding, gray future, accompanied by applause, which died down and then swelled up again, from hands which were really steam hammers, perhaps then a young visitor to the gallery might rush down the long stair case through all the levels, burst into the ring, and cry ‘Stop!’ through the fanfares of the constantly adjusting orchestra.

So it’s the gallery of a circus.

4. An Old Manuscript / A leaf from the past

Two and a bit pages. The narrator owns a shoemaker’s shop in some distant city from fable, from the same kind of fairy tale world as Kafka’s China. The nomads from the north have invaded and now control the city, which is a mystery since the frontier is so very far away (as in The Great Wall of China). They make free with the shoemaker’s stock, but they really infest the shop of the butcher opposite, and go mad when he brings to the shop a live bullock, which they promptly set about dismembering and eating live, with their bare hands and teeth. Occasionally you see the emperor at the windows of his palace but then, that can’t be right, he never leaves the inner gardens of the palace.

You can see how Kafka has reimagined China into his own image, a vast land which messengers can never cross, which has been inexplicably conquered by people no-one understands, whose leader has retreated to the innermost sanctums of his inaccessible palace…

5. At the door of the Law

This is a terrifying fable, barely two pages long, in which a man from the country arrives at the door of the law and asks the doorkeeper if he may enter. The doorkeeper says no, and the man spends the rest of his life camped out there, asking the doorkeeper repeatedly for permission to enter, until, in fact, he grows old and weak and, as he is on the verge of dying, the doorkeeper explains that this door was for the man alone, for him only, and now, as he expires, the doorkeeper will close it. He will never gain admission.

In its portrayal of the hopeless prostration of a victim-protagonist before implacable and unknowable higher powers , it is a two-page summary of the plots, or aims, of The Trial and especially The Castle.

6. Jackals and Arabs

Four pages. The narrator is a European camped in an oasis in the desert with some Arabs. they refer to him as master. It is a colonial situation. Austro-Hungary, despite being called an Empire, had no colonial territories so this is as much a fantasy projection as his stories about remote China or cowboys and Indians.

The story, such as it is, is that the jackals nosey up to the narrator and explain how much they want the Arabs to be cleared out of their land so it will be purified. Incongruously, they offer the narrator a pair of scissors (hanging from one of the jackals’ teeth). But at that moment an Arab appears and whips them back and recognises the scissors and says, ‘Oh yes, the jackals are always offering these to Europeans in the hope the European will use them to drive out or annihilate the Arabs (!)’

He drags over the corpse of a camel which has died in the night and the jackals start tearing it to bits, until the Arab starts whipping them. Both sides are trapped in a horrible hate-hate relationship.

7. A Visit to the Mine

The narrator is a miner. Some engineers have come to inspect his mine. That sounds like it ought to make sense, but it really doesn’t. Instead of giving any kind of account of what they do, the text simply lists each of the ten engineers, emphasising the way each one looks and behaves differently and is engaged on a different activity (exactly the format of the story titled Eleven Sons) then a concluding paragraph describes how they are all followed by an Attendant, formally dressed, inscrutable and superior.

8. The Next Village

This is a brilliant slice of…. of what? Fantasy? Dream prose? A sense of entropy and futility? Here’s the ‘story’ in its entirety.

My grandfather used to say: ‘Life is astoundingly short. To me, looking back over it, life seems so foreshortened that I scarcely understand, for instance, how a young man can decide to ride over to the next village without being afraid that – not to mention accidents – even the span of a normal happy life may fall far short of the time needed for such a journey.’

9. A Message from the Emperor

This is the one-page-long parable which is embedded in the longer story, The Great Wall of China about the emperor consigning a message to a messenger to bring to ‘you’ but how the vast and multitudinous challenges of even getting through the first courtyard of the imperial palace, let alone the second courtyard, let alone through the thronged streets of the capital means that the messenger will never arrive.

Placing the Next Village and the Message next to each other brings out their similarity, in fact the fundamental identity of the insight they deal with. It’s difficult to put into words what they’re saying – maybe you just have to ‘get’ it, but it feels like both of them are saying something very profound about human experience.

10. The Cares of a Family Man

Odradek is a weird creature which looks like a star-shaped spool of thread.

At first glance it looks like a flat star-shaped spool for thread, and indeed it does seem to have thread wound upon it; to be sure, they are only old, broken-off bits of thread, knotted and tangled together, of the most varied sorts and colours. But it is not only a spool, for a small wooden crossbar sticks out of the middle of the star, and another small rod is joined to that at a right angle. By means of this latter rod on one side and one of the points of the star on the other, the whole thing can stand upright as if on two legs.

The narrator tries to communicate with this creature and is troubled by him, most of all by the knowledge that Odradek will outlive him.

Am I to suppose, then, that he will always be rolling down the stairs, with ends of thread trailing after him, right before the feet of my children, and my children’s children? He does no harm to anyone that one can see; but the idea that he is likely to survive me I find almost painful.

11. Eleven Sons

The narrator lists his eleven sons and gives paragraph-long descriptions of all of them which start out positive and all end with the ways they disappoint him and fall short.

12. A Fratricide

This feels like the most ‘German Expressionist’ of the stories, because it describes the Expressionist subject par excellence which is a brutal murder. Schmar waits at a street corner on a moonlit night. Wese emerges from his work and walks down the street towards the fateful corner. What makes it so Expressionist is the way it is stagey, it could be played out on a stage with a crazy angular Expressionist set, for Mrs Wese stands at the door of her house further down the road waiting for her husband, while the private investigator Pallas, leans out of his window to get a better view of the scene.

Wese walks round the corner and right into Schmar who stabs him three times, twice in the throat and once in the belly, screaming at him, screaming about the joy of murder.

‘Done,’ says Schmar and pitches the knife, now superfluous blood-stained ballast, against the nearest house front. ‘The bliss of murder! The relief, the soaring ecstasy from the shedding of another’s blood!’

This irrational glee reminds me of any number of Expressionist painters (and writers and composers) with their mad murder lust; reminds me of the widespread topic in early Weimar Germany of the murder of women, and the utterly irrational way this was titled, by many artists, Murder, The Hope of Women.

13. A Dream

Two and a half pages in which Joseph K. (the protagonist of The Trial) has a dream. In it he arrives in a cemetery before a big mound of earth, two big men plonk a headstone down at the end of it and then another man, a roughly dressed ‘artist’ pops up, and, leaning uncomfortably over the mound, takes a pencil and begins writing words which become instantly deeply incised into the stone and burnished with gold, he writes HERE LIES but then becomes blocked, stuck, stymied and looks at Joseph K. in embarrassment, both of them unsure what to do next, until it comes to Joseph in a flash and he leans down and begins clawing through the earth which opens up to reveal a vault and he descends down into it as if by magic, turning till he is lying on his back and, looking up, watches the artist complete the inscription by writing his name and then –

He wakes up.

14. A Report to an Academy

The longest story at about ten pages, this is a spoof or parody of a presentation to a learnèd academy given by an ape who has transformed himself into a man. He describes how he was caught in the jungle by a hunting expedition, thrown into a cage on a ship and brought back across the sea and how he learned to be human from observing and copying the sailors. But that makes it sound too sensible. It is full of uncanny or strange details, for instance the thing which motivates him to transform is the layout of the cage which has iron bars on three sides but is bounded on the fourth by a crate. Something about this really upsets him and he repeats it again and again as if this was his prime motivation. Also he begins by imitating the lumbering walks of the rough sailors but there is satire in the fact that the decisive moment in his steps towards becoming a ‘man’ are when he learns to drink deep from a bottle of whiskey they give him.

Short and weird

Initially I based my definition of the ‘Kafkaesque’ on a deep immersion in the two novels The Trial and The Castle, which are long, long-winded, and focus on the nightmareishly impossible efforts of the young professional protagonists to understand the convoluted legal and bureaucratic processes administered by a vast hierarchy of officials, which they seem to have become embroiled in through no fault of their own.

Reading these stories makes me realise there is another entirely separate strand to Kafka’s output, which is the fantastical. If the characteristic quality of the novels is how long-winded they are, and how filled with immense, tortuous speeches about the inaccessibility of the Law and the Court then, on the whole, the leading feature of the stories is how short they are, how they manage to convey a whole hallucinatory scene, event or view of the world in a handful of, or even one, page.

Animals

Another striking element is the prominence of animals. The country doctor’s horses poke their heads through the windows to watch their master at work (that’s the detail from that story which really spoke to me, like the horse’s head in the paintings of Fuseli). More strikingly, Bucephalus the horse becomes a lawyer. Jackals talk to the narrator. And an ape addresses a learnèd academy. (And among his last short stories would be one about a giant mole and about an investigating dog.)

Two types

Broadly the stories can be divided in two types, the fables – which the reader understands straight away, which feel as immediate and accessible as Aesop’s fables – and the others, which are more troubling and perplexing.

Easy fables include Bucephalus becoming a lawyer, the message from the emperor, the nomads having conquered the city, and at the door of the law – these have the depth and resonance of ancient myths. The dream of Joseph K. falling into his grave is easily comprehensible as a dream-vision. These ones have a meaning and a point.

But what are we to make of the convoluted account of the country doctor? This also is a dream, I suppose but it is completely pointless, it amounts to a series of anxieties. Just as the account of the ape who became a man ought to resonate like an Edwardian science fiction story, but doesn’t: it’s more eccentric and odd than that, all the details seem off-kilter and troubling.

And then what to make of the two numeration stories, the list of eleven sons and ten engineers? These are not fables or dreams, they are something else again, something weirdly compelling. The page and a half about Odradek – is that a weird distorted comment on the relationship between fathers and sons? And the fratricide? That’s a rich slice of German murder Expressionism.

So there are more than two types. What a dazzling collection. What immense trouble and unease they convey.


Related links

These are links to the modern translations of these stories, some made by Ian Johnston and generously posted online for anyone to use, some from other sources.

Related reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

The Great Wall of China by Franz Kafka (1917)

my investigation is purely historical

I remember this story giving me a funny feeling when I read it as a teenager because of the heady, sweeping vision of history it gives you. I was too young to realise that any ‘history’ it contains is used for purely aesthetic reasons, to feed the purposes of the parable and of Kafka’s distinctive take on human existence.

The Great Wall of China imagines what it was like to be one of the builders of the Great Wall. It is told from the point of view of an articulate member of the generation who were raised to build it, trained to build it, and indoctrinated to build it, a man from a southeast Chinese province ‘almost on the borders of the Tibetan Highlands’.

The first half of the text describes the excited and patriotic ‘spirit of the times’, the narrator being lucky enough to have turned twenty and graduated from school just as the mammoth project was commencing.

And goes on to describe the wall less as a engineering and logistical challenge but more, as you might imagine from a creative writer, as a psychological challenge. Thus, according to the narrator, the main challenge to be overcome was exhaustion and despair. It would take a gang of workers and supervisors about five years to build five miles of wall by which time

the supervisors were as a rule too exhausted and had lost all faith in themselves, in the wall, and in the world.

And so after five years they were moved to a new region hundreds of miles away, the sole purpose being to show them other sections of the completed wall and parade them past cheering fellow citizens to bolster their morale.

The wistful tone

But rereading it now I think what appealed to me was the tone of the narrator. Most of Kafka’s other stories are told in real time – this happens then this happens then this. But the narrator of the Great Wall is looking back, wistfully and nostalgically to the early days of the wall which coincided with his flush of youth. He wants to ‘convey the ideas and experiences of that time and make them intelligible’ and the story is littered with phrases which hark back to that hopeful and optimistic era:

  • In those days the book was in everyone’s hands…
  • At that time for many people, even the best, there was a secret principle…

The whole text is bathed in an unusually warm and humane tone of voice.

The mysterious high command

The legendary vastness of China gives Kafka a new location to situate what you could call the core essence of the Kafkaesque, the notion of an endlessly ramifying hierarchy of unknowable authorities:

It is possible that even these considerations, which argued against building the wall in the first place, were not ignored by the leadership when they decided on piecemeal construction. We—and here I’m really speaking on behalf of many – actually first found out about it by spelling out the orders from the highest levels of management and learned for ourselves that without the leadership neither our school learning nor our human understanding would have been adequate for the small position we had within the enormous totality.

In the office of the leadership—where it was and who sat there no one I asked knows or knew—in this office I imagine that all human thoughts and wishes revolve in a circle, and all human aims and fulfilments in a circle going in the opposite direction.

Note the litotes in the first line – ‘It is possible that even these considerations… were not ignored by the leadership – which he uses to create a characteristic sense of uncertainty and speculation…

Slowly we realise that the story is in fact cast as an essay, a historical enquiry, into one odd fact, the fact that the wall was built in standalone sections which were often not linked up for decades or ever. Pondering the wisdom of the high command, the author talks himself into believing that the wall was in fact never a practical defence against invaders from the north: it was more a categorical imperative to unite Chinese society. More than that, it had an almost supernatural source.

I imagine that the high command has existed from all eternity, and the decision to construct the wall likewise. Unwitting northern people believed they were the cause; unwitting emperor who imagined he had given orders for it. We who were builders of the wall know otherwise and are silent.

This I found a breath-taking and vast and mysterious vision.

The remoteness of the emperor

In the second half of the short text the author goes on to expand it by subjecting the figure of the Emperor to a thorough Kafka-isation i.e. turning him into a figure so remote and mysterious, that no one knows or can know about him. The same idea he’s applied to the notional ‘Court’ in The Trial. 

We would think about the present emperor if we knew who he was or anything definite about him. We were naturally always trying… to find out something or other about him, but, no matter how strange this sounds, it was almost impossible to learn anything, either from pilgrims, even though they wandered through much of our land, or from near or remote villages, or from boatmen, although they have travelled not merely on our little waterways but also on the sacred rivers. One hears a great many things, true, but can gather nothing definite.

The idea is developed to visionary or phantasmagorical lengths, with the author stating that the empire is so vast that it is impossible ever to hear anything about the emperor, malicious court conspiracies may overthrow him, but the author’s people, far in the distant south, will never hear about this. Nobody knows the name of the current emperor resulting in ‘universal uncertainty’.

In fact the text contains a one-page-long parable of haunting beauty.

The parable of the emperor’s message

The Emperor has sent a message to you, his humble subject, a tiny shadow cowering in the furthest distance from the imperial sun; the emperor on his deathbed has sent a message to you alone. He ordered the messenger to kneel down beside his bed and whispered the message into his ear. He thought it so important that he had the messenger repeat it back to him. He confirmed the accuracy of the verbal message by nodding his head. And in front of the entire crowd of those who’ve come to witness his death – for all the obstructing walls have been broken down and all the great ones of his empire are standing in a circle on the broad and high soaring flights of stairs – in front of all of them he dispatches his messenger.

The messenger sets off at once, a powerful, tireless man. Sticking one arm out and then another, he makes his way through the crowd. If he encounters resistance, he points to his breast where there is a sign of the sun. So he moves forward easily, unlike anyone else.

But the crowd is so huge; its dwelling places are infinite. If there were an open field, how he would fly along, and soon you would hear the marvellous pounding of his fist on your door. But instead of that, how futile are all his efforts. He is still forcing his way through the private rooms of the innermost palace. He will never he win his way through. And if he did manage that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to fight his way down the steps, and, if he managed to do that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to stride through the courtyards, and after the courtyards the second palace encircling the first, and, then again, stairs and courtyards, and then, once again, a palace, and so on for thousands of years.

And if he finally did burst through the outermost door – but that can never, never happen – the royal capital city, the centre of the world, is still there in front of him, crammed to bursting with its own refuse. Nobody could pushes his way through here, even with a message from a dead man.

It is Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, redone in a mystical fictional form. If this had been in The Trial both teller and auditor of the fable would have reflected (at length) on how impossible it is to ever establish any truth or knowledge, to ever receive the message, to ever find out what is going on.

But The Great Wall of China is different. It has, as I mentioned, an unusually warm and mellow tone about it. And thus this page-long parable ends not on a note of hopelessness, but with an image of acceptance.

But you sit at your window when evening falls and dream that message to yourself.

Kafka is rarely this forgiving to himself or his readers. It is this twilight, nostalgic and forgiving tone which makes The Great Wall of China stand out among all his other works.

And it also makes you realise that his fundamental tropes of distant rulers and unknowable hierarchies and universal uncertainty need not necessarily be negative. Precisely the metaphors and tropes which make Kafka a patron saint of existentialist angst can give just as much support to a mellow, almost Zen-like air of detachment and mellowness.


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In the Penal Colony by Franz Kafka (1914)

Written in October 1914, this 30-page-long short story is possibly Kafka’s most harrowing and atrocious. It is also distinctly different from most of his other stories, in the following ways:

  • It does not feature a young, harrassed white collar worker
  • It is not set in Prague or a Central European location
  • It is not set over a long period of time (The Trial covers precisely one year, the Metamorphosis a number of months)

Instead the story is set in an unnamed European colony, somewhere in the Tropics, in a dry valley or canyon set amid rocky peaks and takes place in real time.

The Officer and the Explorer

The two main characters are The Explorer and The Officer.

They are inside a penal colony and since the Officer speaks French, presumably a French one. Briefly, the Officer outlines to the Explorer the nature of the big machine they’re standing next to. Prisoners who have offended against the peal colony’s strict rules are punished by being made to lie face down in the ‘Bed’ of the machine and then are firmly strapped in and have a gag inserted in their mouths.

The machine is then switched on and through an ingenious mechanical arrangement a series of sharp glass blades cut into the living skin of the prisoner, at first cutting a grim message – OBEY AUTHORITY – but then embroidering the text with an impenetrably complicated arrangement of curlicues and flourishes. The Officer shows the Explorer a piece of paper with the finished ‘design’ on it, but it looks to the Explorer like a solid mass of black. About six hours into the process the victim stops trying to scream and experiences a state of post-pain ‘enlightenment’. A few hours of further incisions later and they are dead. They are unstrapped from the machine and their body tipped into the nearby grave.

The Explorer is appalled. He keeps a dead straight face and sympathetic expression and suppresses his horror. He keeps glancing over at the condemned man who is covered in chains and kept on a leash by a soldier of the colony. The Officer tells him what brought the condemned man here. He is a servant tasked with protecting another officer. Every hour on the hour throughout the night he is meant to get up and salute the flag. One night the officer checked on him by getting up just before 2am and looking. The servant snoozed through the appropriate hour so the officer beat him, had him arrested and handed over to the Officer telling the story. It is for this ‘offence’ that the condemned man is to have the entire surface of his body covered with incised lines till he dies of shock.

So far, so horrifying. Up till about now this story gave me a strong feeling of an H.G. Wells story, because of the structure and the fact it is about a piece of machinery. By structure I mean it is told in real time, the entire story takes place in one movement without any flashbacks or change of scene. It could be very easily staged. And the focus on a fantastical piece of machinery is not unlike, for example, the way the Time Traveller explains his man-sized contraption to his hearers.

In this respect, in being a straightforward piece of exposition, the first half is oddly unKafkaesque. But about half way through the story begins to change tone, introducing two characteristic Kafkaesque qualities.

Entropy

One is decline and fall. Or entropy. The theory of entropy states that energy in a fixed system always tends towards equilibrium, towards its lowest state. In other words, the universe is running down. To put it more picturesquely, things always decay.

Thus 1. as the Officer’s exposition continues, he is forced to concede that the machine is not the perfect piece of gleaming technology it once was. A loose cog makes it appallingly noisy, spare parts are difficult to get, the gag has to be reused with successive prisoners biting down no all the previous incumbents’ sweat and vomit.

And all this is 2. symptomatic of the general decline in the penal colony itself. It used to be run by the Commandant, who the Officer reveres, who designed and had built the appalling machine. In his day the sharp glass vials which incise the skin of the victim also released acid to incise the lines deeper into their skin. The old Commandant knew about Justice and Honour, says the bright-eyed Officer. More so than the new Commandant who is inclined to be lax on the prisoners and surrounds himself with ‘ladies’ who are always begging for ‘mercy’ and who has let the incision machine run down.

Weirdness

The other element of the Kafkaesque is just the weird way that people behave. The Explorer thought he was being given a free demonstration of this appalling machine but now the Officer begins to explain his motivation. He wants to the Explorer to defend the use of the machine to the new Commandant in front of everyone, of his followers and supporters. He is spending so much time explaining its excellence because he wants the Explorer to use his independent position and his reputation to praise the machine and lobby the new Commandant for spare parts and repairs.

The Explorer refuses to do so. He says he’ll have a private word with the Commandant, and he’s due to leave soon anyway.

And then, in a Kafkaesque gesture which has nothing to do with real people or real life but is a compelling example of Kafka’s ability to incorporate dream logic into his stories, the Officer orders the intended victim (who has, by this stage, been bound and tied into the machine) to be released, and climbs into it himself, demands to be tied down (even though straps and other bits of the machine break or show signs of decay) and then the machine turned on so that he can experience the workings of the machine he fetishises.

No way would this happen in real life, but Kafka’s stories aren’t real life, they are nightmares.

And in line with Kafkaesque rule of entropy, the machine in fact begins to run riot, harrowing the Officer’s skin much more haphazardly than intended, and numerous cogs start bulging and flying out of the top part of the machinery. Within a few minutes it has blown up, its last act being to stab a long metal stud right through the Officer’s head, so that he never gets to experience the sixth-hour moment of ‘epiphany’ which he so longed for.

It is a failure, a shabby flop, like almost everything in a Kafka story.

In the last few pages the Explorer is taken back by the soldier and the prisoner, wreathed in smiles at the fate he has escaped, back to the colony proper, the populous settlement, where they show him the grave of the old Commandant before wandering off into a teahouse. The Explorer goes to the docks and descends the steps to the sea where he bargains with a rowboat to take him out to the steamer docked in the harbour which will take him away. At the last moment the soldier and prisoner come running down the steps towards him but, in the last gesture of the story, the Explorer pushes them both back and away from the boat. He is definitely not taking them with him.

Thoughts

From a stylistic point of view it is very interesting to see that Kafka could, when needed, write very clear, brief, descriptive prose. The description of the machine and the initial statements by the Officer are extremely crisp and to the point, and the Explorer’s responses are laconic and understated. It is only half way through that the Officer begins to go mad and it is fascinating to watch Kafka’s style change accordingly as the Officer stops giving an exposition of the machine, and starts making more complex, long-winded and self-justifying accusations about the new Commandant, the kind of long-winded tortuous justifications we are used to from the novels.

It is fascinating to be taken on a journey from the clear expository prose which, as I said, reminds me a bit of H.G. Wells, and then watch that slowly melt and swirl and become more imbrued with guilt and paranoia and sadism and masochism as the story turns into nightmare before your eyes, as the elements of decay and guilt and horror come to the fore and it turns into Kafka.

As to the content, I leave others to comment.


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Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (1912)

Five years ago Gregor Samsa’s family fell on hard times when his father’s business went bust, owing a lot of money. Gregor had been working as a clerk, but stepped into the breach by becoming a travelling salesman and was soon earning enough money to cover all the family’s costs. During those years his father grew old and fat and used to trudging round the apartment in his dressing gown, his mother grew frail and increasingly prone to asthma attacks, and his little sister, Grete, went from being a schoolgirl to a young woman of 17. Only Gregor’s hard work and iron discipline kept the little family afloat, financially.

Then, one morning, Gregory awoke from a bad night’s sleep to discover he had been transformed into a man-sized insect, something like a wood louse.

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. (Willa and Edwin Muir, 1933)

Gregor Samsa woke from uneasy dreams one morning to find himself changed into a giant bug. (J.A. Underwood, 1981)

One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin. (David Wyllie, 2002)

Thus begins one of the most famous short stories ever written, The Metamorphosis. The plot, as such, is easily summarised. His family is horrified at his transformation but, once they’ve overcome their initial shock and repugnance, the main impact is financial: they realise they’ll have to go out to out to work, and so Grete takes a job as a shop assistant, Gregor’s father gets a job as a bank commissionaire and his mother takes in lingerie to darn and repair.

Gregor, for his part, on the first day of his change, is mostly concerned that he’s going to be late for work i.e. keeps on thinking the harassed thoughts of a much put-upon employee in a big firm. So he is mortified when the Chief Clerk from his office turns up to find out why he’s late. The striking feature of this early section, as of the work as a whole, is how everyone accepts the miraculous fact of the metamorphosis, and continues thinking their mundane anxious thoughts.

Quite quickly a pattern settles onto the little household: Gregor’s sister brings in leftover food for him to eat before leaving for work, then removes the leftovers in the evenings. (Kafka gives some thought to what a giant insect would eat, thus he completely ignores the initial offering of bread in milk, and he, and they, learn that he prefers rotten vegetables.)

The Samsa’s cleaning woman quits in horror, but another, more working class one is brought in, who treats Gregory phlegmatically, threatening him with a broom or a chair if he comes out from under his sofa (his favourite hiding place) when she’s trying to clean his room.

Although Gregory can perfectly understand what everyone else is saying about him, when he tries to speak it comes out as an unpleasant squeaking sound and they understand nothing. Thus, from the moment of waking that fateful morning, he continues to have entirely human thoughts and feelings but can express them to no-one. They think he has become an animal and thinks like an animal.

The third-person narrator continually explains Gregory’s feelings to us, and the striking thing about them is how little he is changed, how utterly unfreaked-out he is by what’s happened to him, but instead how he tries to make it up to his family, continues to feel guilty that he is no longer the bread-winner, wishes he could join them at the family dinner table like in the old days, and so on.

But in reality, his new body has other plans. Just as it prevents him from speaking and from expressing his human thoughts, so it foils his human wishes. Only slowly does Gregor learn what makes it happy, namely scurrying all over the walls and even the ceiling of his room, leaving sticky tracks everywhere.

In one scene half way through, his sister realises he’ll be happier if they remove all the furniture getting in his way and so gets their frail old mother to give her a hand manoeuvring heavy wardrobes and tables out of his room. Although it is also marks a psychological turning point, marking the moment when he and his family realise the old Gregor is never coming back.

It’s during the furniture moving that Gregor unwisely comes out of the bedroom, the sight of him making his mother hysterical (she has mostly refused to enter his room or accept what’s happened). And it’s at this moment that his father, much revived and invigorated by his new job as a bank commissionaire, arrives home from work, and chases Gregory round the family living room, before starting to pelt him with apples from the fruit bowl.

One of these apples lodges in Gregory’s back (it’s not explicitly described how but this fact only really makes sense if Gregory has a highly segmented shell like a woodlouse) and, over the coming weeks, rots and seems to spread infection through his body.

In the final act the Samsa family take in three lodgers, and there is some characteristically dry Kafka humour at the expense of these three pompous, formal, grey-bearded old men, exactly the kind of dry pompous nitwits he satirises in the later novels. Their role here is to demand that breakfast and dinner are served precisely on time and exactly as they like it, while the Samsa family are forced to go and eat their meals in the kitchen.

One evening Gregory’s sister Grete starts practicing her violin in her bedroom, which prompts the three worthies to ask Mr Samsa to ask her to come out and perform for them in the living room (everyone dressed, remember, in Edwardian frocks and top hats). Unfortunately, the door to Gregory’s room has been left open and he lets himself be so entranced by the music that he inches into the living room on numerous scrappy little woodlouse legs.

Suddenly the lodgers spot him. Now what makes this moment very Kafkaesque is that you or I, if we were in a room listening or playing music with friends, and a giant, human-sized insect slowly nudged its way through the door, you or I might start screaming and run for the window. But I think the most telling fact I know about all Kafka’s work is that, when he read his stories out loud to his small coterie of literary friends, they would often laugh out loud at various incidents and Kafka himself often had tears of laughter streaming down his face.

Kafka didn’t know there was going to be a Holocaust, that the Bolshevik experiment would lead to mass famine and show trials, that concentration camps would be set up across Europe from Alsace to Archangel within a few years of his death. In other words Kafka wasn’t privy to the enormous weight of historical, sociological, political and cultural weight which was going to be assigned to his writings by later, especially post-war, critics and readers.

If you do read all this catalogue of disaster back into his writings then it is easy to make them prophetic of the bureaucratic dehumanisation of human beings which was the central characteristic of the twentieth century, and make him into a prophet of anxiety and alienation.

On the other hand, if you try to put to one side the enormous freight of existential angst with which the works are now cluttered, then that allows you to be more flexible in your response – for example, to see that it is genuinely funny that the three pompous old men don’t run screaming out the room when they see a giant insect aproaching, but immediately turn to Mr Samsa senior and, not only give him formal notice that they are quitting his rooms, but also insist that they are not going to pay a penny of the rent they owe, knowing as they now do, that they have been living next to a monster!

In the end Gregory dies. He stops eating and wastes away. Is it due to the infection caused by the rotten apple lodged in the plates of his back? Or to the subtler process, which Kafka records slowly coming over him, whereby he slowly loses his vision and becomes more and more insect-like in his behaviour?

Or is it because, after the three tenants serve notice to quit, Gregor for the first time overhears his family discussing what to do with it, and realises that for the first time his sister, who had been so quietly sympathetic and thoughtful (realising what kind of food a giant insect would want, clearing the furniture out of his room) has given up on him, no longer recognises the inset as Gregor, and now regards him as just an insect, a piece of vermin which needs to be eradicated.

Whatever the reason, the story has to end and the only way Kafka can think of doing so is by killing off his protagonist. As he does in The Trial and intended to do in The Castle.

Summary

So what does the Metamorphosis tell us about the ‘Kafkaesque’, what does it have in common with The Trial or The Castle?

  1. It has one central male protagonist.
  2. He is lower-middle-class but has a respectable white collar job (i.e. is not a writer or poet etc).
  3. He is oppressed by the squabbles and rivalries and office politics and pressures of his job.
  4. One day his life is changed by a catastrophic event.
  5. But the nature and meaning and character of this event remain puzzlingly obscure.
  6. But what is almost more puzzling is the way everyone carries on acting as if things are more or less normal. For example, Gregory’s main thoughts aren’t at all about finding a ‘cure’ for his condition, but, initially, are guilt about being late for work, or not turning up day after day as he has become so used to doing – and then almost entirely about wishing he could help the family with the ensuing financial crisis. So the ‘Kafkaesque’ is something to do with the clash or juxtaposition between the Weird and the extremely mundane, boring, quotidian setting and concern of the characters. For example, I was struck by the way the Samsa family doesn’t consider consulting a doctor, let alone bringing in scientists or informing the authorities – no, they just carry on life as before except that, irritatingly, they now have to go out and get jobs and, oh yes, there’s a giant insect living in one of their bed rooms.

And 6. as mentioned above, the only way the story can really end – as with most of his other stories – is with the death of the protagonist because the plights they are condemned to are lifelong, are existential, are unalterable.

Kafka’s verbosity

One of the other really consistent characteristics of Kafka’s fiction is the astonishing verbosity of the characters. They never say something in a sentence when they could take a page and a half.

This extreme verbosity also allows for another Kafkaesque quality, which is the hand-wringing-, hyper-sensitive way the characters over-think and super-worry about even simple situations, even about whether to speak to someone else, or what someone else meant when they just said something, they can agonise for paragraphs.

For example, on the first day of the transformation, a few hours after Gregory has failed to turn up for work, the Chief Clerk from his office pays the Samsa family a visit. As soon as Gregory hears the Chief Clerk’s voice through the door, he is thrown into a (characteristic) state of anxiety and resentment:

Gregor only needed to hear the visitor’s first words of greeting and he knew who it was – the chief clerk himself. Why did Gregor have to be the only one condemned to work for a company where they immediately became highly suspicious at the slightest shortcoming? Were all employees, every one of them, louts, was there not one of them who was faithful and devoted who would go so mad with pangs of conscience that he couldn’t get out of bed if he didn’t spend at least a couple of hours in the morning on company business? Was it really not enough to let one of the trainees make enquiries – assuming enquiries were even necessary – did the chief clerk have to come himself, and did they have to show the whole, innocent family that this was so suspicious that only the chief clerk could be trusted to have the wisdom to investigate it? And more because these thoughts had made him upset than through any proper decision, he swung himself with all his force out of the bed.

Wherever you look it up, you’ll find definitions of the ‘Kafkaesque’ invoking ideas of the nightmareish struggle of the individual against a huge, faceless bureaucracy.

Kafkaesque – characteristic or reminiscent of the oppressive or nightmarish qualities of Franz Kafka’s fictional world.

But just as important and intrinsic to his style is the extreme long-windedness of the dialogue, the extraordinary inability of the characters to say in a sentence what can’t be stretched out into a couple of pages of tortuous, shifting, ambiguous and anxiously self-interrogating prose. It’s this quality more than anything else – more than the ‘meaning’ or the symbolism or even the oppressive atmosphere – which makes the novels so hard to read.

Here is (part of) the exchange between the Chief Clerk speaking through the door to Gregory.

The chief clerk now raised his voice, ‘Mr. Samsa,’ he called to him, ‘what is wrong? You barricade yourself in your room, give us no more than yes or no for an answer, you are causing serious and unnecessary concern to your parents and you fail – and I mention this just by the way – you fail to carry out your business duties in a way that is quite unheard of. I’m speaking here on behalf of your parents and of your employer, and really must request a clear and immediate explanation. I am astonished, quite astonished. I thought I knew you as a calm and sensible person, and now you suddenly seem to be showing off with peculiar whims. This morning, your employer did suggest a possible reason for your failure to appear, it’s true – it had to do with the money that was recently entrusted to you – but I came near to giving him my word of honour that that could not be the right explanation. But now that I see your incomprehensible stubbornness I no longer feel any wish whatsoever to intercede on your behalf. And nor is your position all that secure. I had originally intended to say all this to you in private, but since you cause me to waste my time here for no good reason I don’t see why your parents should not also learn of it. Your turnover has been very unsatisfactory of late; I grant you that it’s not the time of year to do especially good business, we recognise that; but there simply is no time of year to do no business at all, Mr. Samsa, we cannot allow there to be.’

‘But Sir’, called Gregor, beside himself and forgetting all else in the excitement, ‘I’ll open up immediately, just a moment. I’m slightly unwell, an attack of dizziness, I haven’t been able to get up. I’m still in bed now. I’m quite fresh again now, though. I’m just getting out of bed. Just a moment. Be patient! It’s not quite as easy as I’d thought. I’m quite alright now, though. It’s shocking, what can suddenly happen to a person! I was quite alright last night, my parents know about it, perhaps better than me, I had a small symptom of it last night already. They must have noticed it. I don’t know why I didn’t let you know at work! But you always think you can get over an illness without staying at home. Please, don’t make my parents suffer! There’s no basis for any of the accusations you’re making; nobody’s ever said a word to me about any of these things. Maybe you haven’t read the latest contracts I sent in. I’ll set off with the eight o’clock train, as well, these few hours of rest have given me strength. You don’t need to wait, sir; I’ll be in the office soon after you, and please be so good as to tell that to the boss and recommend me to him!’

It seems to me that the oppressive or nightmareish quality of the stories is conveyed just as much by the long-winded verbosity and over-elaborate articulacy and self-justifying loquaciousness of the dialogue as it is by the actual ‘plots’.


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Laughable Loves by Milan Kundera (1969)

This is a collection of seven short stories by Milan Kundera, the Czech novelist, that first appeared in Czechoslovakia in 1968, during the thaw in the communist dictatorship known as the Prague Spring – but was then banned after the Russian invasion of August 1968 reasserted communist censorship and oppression.

All the stories are about love – more crudely, about sex – and about the ridiculous misunderstandings and ludicrous behaviour it provokes in people.

1. The Hitchhiking Game

A young man and his girlfriend are driving out of town to a holiday in the country. They start bickering. She needs to stop for a pee so he pulls into a gas station. She finishes and walks a way down the road, and when he pulls out of the gas station onto the road, she puts out her hand and pretends to hitch-hike. He pulls over and adopts the character of a driver offering a lift to a pretty young woman, and she slips into the character of an innocent young woman being picked up by a strange man.

And for the rest of the story they both play these roles but the point of the story is the way they both quickly find them tiring and constraining. The interest is in the way the two protagonists find the game opening up unexpected vistas within themselves, parts of their psychology they didn’t know they possessed.

To cut to the chase, they end up at some restaurant and hotel where, through a string of casual comments, the game develops into her playing a cheap hooker and he being her bored client. This excites both of them and they hurry up to the bedroom. She surprises herself because – once liberated from her usual constraint and good manners by the role playing – she becomes foul mouthed and foul-acting, really playing the part of an experienced whore and, to her amazement, having a fierce and deep erotic experience.

Unfortunately, as Kundera explains, the young man worshipped her rather than loved her. He worshipped an image of her. And the role-playing destroys that image of purity and innocence which he so wanted to possess. He fucks her and rolls off and refuses to touch or talk to her. And then hears her begin to sob. ‘Can we stop playing the game now?’ she asks. But he remains silent as her crying becomes louder and louder.

Not a very cheerful start to the collection.

2. Let The Old Dead Make Room For The Young Dead

Two characters, a man and a woman, bump into each other in the street in a provincial town. Twenty-five years ago she got married and lived here briefly before moving to Prague. Ten years later he husband died and asked to be buried here. Once a year she returns, but is upset to discover that the lease on the grave has expired and his body has been removed and replaced with another. The surly official at the cemetery gives her this gnomic excuse, which gives the story its title: ‘Let The Old Dead Make Room For The Young Dead’.’

Wandering the streets, waiting for the return train to Prague, she bumps into an old acquaintance. The local cafes are filthy so he invites her to his apartment for a coffee and a chat. He notices she is old. The veins on her hands stick out. He himself is worrying about ageing. He’s 35 and has just noticed the bald patch appearing at the back of his head.

They go back to his apartment (the reader used to Kundera’s stories feels an ominous sense of inevitability that they will end up having sex). And indeed it turns out they were in love fifteen years ago, and had a brief fling, one night of love in his student accommodation, but he was too timid and shy to really appreciate it, she stripped in the dark, he couldn’t see her face, she moaned something as she climaxed and to this day it haunts him that he couldn’t hear, he couldn’t understand. She is like a lost secret.

Now they have met again and both look back at their affair 15 years earlier, with regret, but really with a kaleidoscope of feelings which are continually changing shape and colour as their dialogue develops, shedding new light on past events, and how they’ve misinterpreted and misremembered them.

He eventually takes her in his arms and begins caressing her, and for a moment she becomes once again the mature sexual woman of 15 years ago, like riding a bike it all comes flooding back. But when he goes to french kiss her it crosses some psychological boundary and she clams up. Suddenly she sees herself as she knows she looks in the mirror, blue-veined hands, wattled throat.

And she realises that she had been seeing herself through the prism of his 15-year-old memory of her. He had been describing their night of love 15 years earlier and she had enjoyed being fifteen years younger. Now he threatens to strip her and reveal what fifteen years have done to her body and that will shatter the image he has created by his words and which she treasures. She says No.

Really, the story is like a short play, but with the author continually arranging events so as to prompt a steady stream of psychological insights. When I reviewed the plays of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, I came across the fact that the French have a tradition of a ‘theatre of ideas’ which the Anglo-Saxon world lacks i.e. a long tradition of accepting that the ‘plot’ is arranged in order to throw up and display interesting and stimulating ideas.

Well Kundera’s fictions are ‘fictions of ideas’ in exactly the same sense. There’s a story, of sorts, in these tales, but it is swamped by the weight of witty, unexpected, paradoxical and sometimes penetrating insights which the author garlands them with.

Thus it is that the older woman has one of those blinding insights which Kundera characters are prey to, in which she realises that the past is pointless, that all monuments to human achievement will crumble, and that therefore her attachment to her dead husband (and her annual pilgrimage to his grave) and her attachment to the idealised version of herself and her body which the nameless man has preserved from their one and only, distant sexual encounter, all of this will crumble and fade.

And so, in wilful defiance of the passage of time and of her entire former attitude towards preserving the past, she stands and begins to take her clothes off. The idealised past will be annihilated by the present, no matter how imperfect.

3. Nobody Will Laugh

Klima is a lecturer in art history. He is a modernist who rattles the conservatives at his college. He is a womaniser, who has had plenty of women traipsing through his flat over the years, as well as lending it to friends, who often have loud parties, thus he has acquired a bad reputation with the building housing committee.

The story has a Kafkaesque feel in that the protagonist is subjected to an inexplicable and, ultimately, destructive persecution. It all starts when a funny little man, an unemployed scientist, contacts Klima and asks him to review an article about an obscure artist which he has spent three years researching and writing. In a light-hearted moment, over a bottle of slivovitz with his girlfriend, Klara, Klima dashes off an ironically effusive letter to this Mr Zaturetsky, vaguely promising a review. For Klima is a joker –

I waved my hand, declaring that the purpose of life is to give amusement, and if life is too lazy for this, there is nothing left but to help it along a little. (p.69)

But, as we know from The Joke, even the most casual off-hand quips can have catastrophic consequences.

Thus, in a light-hearted gesture begins a sequence of unfortunate events which ends up with Klima sacked from his job, kicked out of his apartment and dumped by beautiful Klara. Because Zaturetsky proceeds to haunt his life. He sends more letters asking when the review will be ready. He turns up at the college to find out what days Klima lectures on, and then is present every day. Klima changes the days on which he lectures (in secret, and so illegally). Zaturetsky pesters his secretary, Mary, with questions, until one day she weakens and admits  his real address.

Next day Klima is out but Klara is in when Zaturetsky knocks at the door. He is a funny little man. Klara tells him Klima isn’t there, which is true. Next day Zaturetsky catches Klima at his office, forcing Mary to let him in.

Klima has an inspiration. Trying to reverse the direction of attack, he accuses Zaturetsky of indecently propositioning his girlfriend. Zaturetsky is horrified, indignant and then furious. Flippant Klima regrets his stroke of fun. A few days later he gets a letter from Mrs Zaturetsky threatening legal action unless he withdraws his accusation.

And so it goes on. The Zaturetskies discover that Klara works in a clothes factory and bully their way into it, to track her down. Fortunately, they are both short-sighted and miss her. Still Klima now feels like a hunted animal, and so does Klara.

What gets her is that Klima won’t simply write the wretched review. Just do it, for God’s sake! Klima tries to explain that some of his lies – about Zaturetsky propositioning her and so on – are his lies which he owns, part of him, part of his character. Writing a review praising Zaturetsky’s wretched article would be an objective lie, forced out of him by alien means and an enduring untruth. Klara’s got no idea what he’s on about.

Finally he is called in to a meeting of the local communist party committee. This – like all such committees in all such stories – is populated by vengeful harpies and toxic apparatchiks who completely twist every aspect of Klima’s life to make him out to be an unreliable class enemy. The women on the committee extract admission of his womanising lifestyle which offends them and which they dress up as making him completely unsuitable for teaching the pure new young generation. The male bureaucrats accuse him of giving up lecturing altogether, thus breaking his contract. They both bring to a head his unpopularity with just about every other inhabitant of the apartment building.

Klima finally has a meeting with Mrs Zaturetsky, the tall thin unwell working woman who adores her husband and won’t hear anything bad said about his character or his essay, which she is convinced must be a masterpiece. He tries to explain why it is a second-rate collection of plagiarisms, but she can’t hear him. He loses everything.

All at once I understood that it had only been my illusion that we ourselves saddle events and control their course. The truth is that they aren’t our stories at all, they are foisted on us from somewhere outside; that in no way do they represent us; that we are not o blame for the queer path that they follow. They carry us away, since they are controlled by some other forces; no, I don’t mean by supernatural forces, but by human forces, by the forces of those people who, when they unite, unfortunately still remain mutually alien. (p.88)

4. The Golden Apples of Eternal Desire

The unnamed narrator is in awe of his friend, Martin. Martin is happily married to a beautiful wife who he adores, and has just turned 40. Nonetheless he carries on an extraordinary game: absolutely wherever he and the narrator go they carry out a compulsive ‘game’ of chatting up almost every single or available woman they see. It is so compulsive it has become an obsession, and has a number of rules. The most obvious is dividing the meetings with women into registrations and contacts. A registration is where you simply find out the name of a woman you’ve noticed. A contact is where you make a date. It is not at all necessary to actually take this forward to the next step i.e. physical intimacy. In fact this doesn’t appear to have a name within the system. The idea is not at all to reach consummation. It is about celebrating the Eternal Chase.

All this is explained by the narrator in the course of a particular ‘adventure’. This begins when Martin spots a pretty young woman in the cafe where they’re drinking. They follow her to the cloakroom where Martin insists on slipping into her bag the heavy book the narrator has just borrowed from the library. Perplexed by his quick talking, the woman agrees to take the book and look it over. She is a nurse at a town outside Prague. She promises to meet them at the town on the coming Saturday.

On the big day the narrator borrows a nifty little Fiat from a friend and he and Martin motor out to the town. On the way they stop at a lake and quickly slip into trunks and go for a swim (this is all so unlike my own experience of life in England – borrowing other people’s cars, pulling over when they see people with wet hair and asking the way to the lake – that it might as well be happening on another planet).

Martin spies a beauty in a bikini facing the lake, and asks a couple of local kids for her name. When one of them tells our guys her name, the narrator explains that that is a registration. One more name has been added to the ever-expanding list of names of girls they could sleep with in the future. Happy with having made a registration, they get back in the car and drive on.

Then they arrive at the hospital and find the nurse, who says she’s got a friend to pair off with the narrator. She arranged to borrow a house on a nearby lake for the evening. (There’s a lot of borrowing of cars and properties in these stories.) She has to go back to work, she’ll see them this evening.

For the next couple of hours the pair chat up more or less every woman they meet, taking names (registration) and even making more arrangements to meet (which they cheerfully fail to keep). Their insouciance is surreal. Eventually they arrive back at the hospital and park outside and wait. I’ve forgotten to mention that Martin, during the course of the afternoon, had mentioned to his pal that he has to be back in Prague by nine o’clock! His wife had a bad week at the office and he wants to be kind to her and return by 9 so he can play a nice game of rummy with her!

The narrator is surprised but not that surprised. He knows Martin loves his wife. In fact, now he thinks about it, he can’t remember any of the registrations a contacts from the last year or so getting anywhere near consummation. Not to worry. They wait a bit and become impatient. Finally the narrator sees in the rear-view mirror a couple of nurses done up to the nines emerging from the hospital. He abruptly declares they’ve waited long enough and need to leave now to be sure of getting Martin home in time for his wife. Martin doesn’t complain and off they roar.

I felt at that moment that I liked Martin and that I also liked the banner under which he had been marching all his life: the banner of the eternal pursuit of women. (p.113)

This is a strange little story about male obsession and its weirdness, which wasn’t helped by the fact that it’s in a poor translation.

5. Symposium

The interesting thing about this story is the headings. Five doctors sit around chatting about sex (of course), and even the smallest events or parts of the conversation are given their own headings. Thus nurse Alzhbeta, from the start, is flirting with handsome, mature Dr Havel and earns an admonition from him. And so the next section is headed Havel’s admonition even though it is only one paragraph long.

Thus the entire text is broken up into micro-sections and each one is given a name. This has the effect of making the whole thing extremely stagey, or like the screenplay for a movie – very artful, very arranged, very just so. Taken out of the messy river of life, these moments stand alone, cleaned up and displayed for our inspection and for the author to make an endless stream of witty, paradoxical comments about.

It is a comedy of sexual errors. Five doctors are chatting after hours, three men, two women, and the entire story is as tangled a web of erotic misunderstandings and emotional misreadings as you can imagine.

The chief physician is having an affair with a mature woman doctor. Dr Havel is wise and attractive to all women, and so has earned the nickname of Death, because ‘he takes [i.e. screws] everyone’. Although he hasn’t slept with Nurse Alzhbeta, who really fancies him, fancies him so much that, late on in proceedings, when they are all quite drunk, she does a mime striptease, elaborately bumping and grinding and pretending to take off all her clothes, while remaining fully dressed, swinging and swaying her big breasts right above Dr Havel’s embarrassed head.

When she has finally finished and goes to sit down on Havel’s lap, he moves his legs, without thinking, merely because he wants to avoid contact with her – but with the result that she falls to the floor with a bump. Humiliated, Alzhbeta gets up, marches to the door, dramatically declaring, ‘You don’t know, you don’t understand.’ and exits.

The others continue their endless droll conversations about sex and desire and the erotic, and who fancies who, they nickname the chief physician Don Juan, and there is a characteristic Kundera-esque section where he explains how, in the good old days, Don Juan was a conqueror of women but in our fallen times, with women being so much more docile and willing (and nobody believing in God any more) Don Juan is more of a collector, a different kind of figure altogether (pp.140-141).

The youngest person present is the lanky, slow-witted junior Dr Flaischman. He is comically convinced that the thirty-something woman doctor is secretly in love with him and sending him coded signals throughout the evening. In one of the genuinely comic moments, he makes it clear to everyone that he’s going outside for a leak, and winks at the woman doctor, convinced she will follow him.

Down the corridor he goes, out into the ground, finds a nearby tree and is just unzipping when he hears footsteps approaching. Without looking round he says, ‘I knew you’d come’, and the chief physician replies, ‘Yes, I prefer peeing outside’. That made me laugh.

On the way back, though, Flaischman smells gas. It’s coming from Nurse Alzhbeta’s room. The door is unlocked, he bursts through it, a ring on the oven is on spewing out gas, the nurse is lying sprawled stark naked on the bed (of course). He turns the gas off, flings open the windows and calls for help. Several hours later, after the patient has been pumped full of oxygen and had a blood transfusion and is well on the way to recovery, the remaining four characters reconvene in the drinking room to reflect on what just happened.

The story is like a play, an intellectual play, not least because it is made up almost entirely of dialogue with precious little description. Every single piece of dialogue introduces new ideas, the dialogue packed with theories and counter-theories about love and sex. Kundera loves paradox. He freely uses the word ‘precisely’, in the way of European intellectuals, to make each thought appear that much more incisive and logical.

Thus the passages where they speculate why Nurse Alzhbeta tried to kill herself are called The Chief Physician’s Theory, Dr Havel’s Theory, and the Woman Doctor’s Theory, and each one is witty, plausible and false, for they all relate her action to her strip-tease and to her frustrated love for Dr Havel. All wrong. Even wronger is poor Flaishman’s conviction that Nurse Alzhbeta (like the woman doctor) is secretly in love with him, Flaishman. He reproaches himself for having not treated her better. He blames himself for her suicide attempt. Next day he takes her flowers in her hospital bed, chats to her, pats her shoulder, convinced she is forlornly in love with him. All ludicrously wrong.

The actual reason is that much earlier in the evening, Dr Havel had given the nurse some ‘pep’ pills because she was tired after a long day and wanted to perk up for the little drinks party. Only what he gave her were actually sleeping pills, because he wanted her to feel super-tired and bugger off and leave him alone. Drunk and shattered, Nurse Alzhbeta had then gone back to her room, popped a little pan of coffee on the hob and taken the pills as she got undressed, by which time they took effect and she fell asleep on the bed (stark naked, of course), while the pan boiled over and the water put out the gas flame but the gas kept on pumping into the room.

So it was not suicide caused by any of the clever theories the doctor’s cook up. It was cock-up not catastrophe. Beneath all humanity’s grand plans and theories lies… randomness and accident.

A story like this makes you marvel at Kundera’s brevity. Whole dazzling verbal and intellectual effects are created in half-page snippets of dialogue.

But there is a downside to his technique which is that – no human beings ever spoke like this. Nobody was ever this witty and concise, and paradoxical, and intellectual and incisive. In this way, Kundera’s fictions are rather like Oscar Wilde’s. Dazzlingly witty, pithily expressed, always graceful and alert and sometimes very funny – and yet, somehow, ultimately, often, strangely empty.

And contrived. Ultimately, I didn’t really believe in any of these characters. The tone of some of the stories is more like a fairy tale than an adult fiction, and the characters are more like ciphers than human beings. In some of these stories the clockwork machinery which propels the automata around the stage for our amusement seems just a little bit too contrived and neat.

6. Dr Havel After Ten Years

Dr Havel is ten years older and no longer so attractive as he was when we met him in the previous story. In Symposium the other characters nickname him Death, because he ‘takes’ (meaning he sleeps with) everything.

Now he is old and ill, he suffers from gall bladder failure, he is often in pain, it is sometimes all he can do to walk around the block. So he sends himself off to a spa to recover. (This is yet another exotic and wonderful element of Kundera’s fiction; his Czechoslovakia is dotted with spas and his Czech characters are often popping off to them or work at them [The Farewell Party is entirely set in a spa, a key meeting in the poet’s early life in Life Is Elsewhere takes place at a spa. Whereas in my entire life I don’t think I’ve ever been to a spa, not to ‘take the waters’: I’ve been to Bath or Buxton as spas but neither time did I take any waters, just wandered around like all the other tourists.)

At the spa he is treated by a muscular blonde administrator of the cures and baths, who he tries to chat up but who completely ignores him. He flirts with a posh horse-faced woman guest who also ignores him. He tries it on with several other women who all ignore his advances. Tut tut, Dr Death’s powers have gone.

In his consultant’s room, on a whim he asks to phone his wife, who he’s left at their apartment back in Prague. She is gorgeous, a movie star, younger than him and famous. And crazed with jealousy. She almost prefers it when he’s ill, because then he knows he’s not on the pull. Whenever he’s absent from her, she knows he can sleep with any woman he wants. Or used to be able to… She can’t initially believe he is sincere, but he begs her to come and visit her at the spa, so she does, the next day.

Dr Havel is deliriously happy when he sees her bus draw in, and escorts her round the spa and the town. Everywhere they go his wife draws admiring glances and he takes special care to ensure the muscular bath supervisor, the horse-faced lady, and all the others who have turned him down, see him kissing, canoodling and joking with his stunningly beautiful and famous wife.

With the result that, the next day, after she’s left (she’s due to do some filming back in Prague) Dr Havel encounters the same series of women but this time they all make it abundantly clear that they will talk to him, and even meet for a date and a drink, with hints of lots more if he wants it. His association with the film star has transformed him in their eyes. By sleeping with him, some of her glamour and meaning will rub off on them.

This is so unlike the behaviour of any woman I’ve ever met or read about that I can only consider it a kind of middle-aged, male fairy tale. Read in this spirit it has the child-like inevitability and good humour of a parable or fable, like real life refined and purified and simplified and made charming – as real life so rarely is.

7. Edward and God

Most commentators I’ve read consider this the best of the seven stories, and I agree. I think it’s because it has the most formal beauty, it has the most satisfying shape. Most of the others are fairy tales or fantasies but ‘deformed’ by elements of adventitiousness or arbitrariness or accident. Edward and God, on the other hand, has the kind of perfection which real fairy tales have, which have been handed down over the generations and worn smooth like pebbles in a stream so that only the absolutely essential elements of the story remain, so that the narrative unfolds with  wonderfully pleasing sense of inevitability.

Edward is a young teacher. He is in love with beautiful Alice. But despite going on numerous dates with her she is prim and proper and upright, kisses him with dry kisses, won’t let him touch her breast etc. (Yes, this is yet another story about a randy young man desperate to sleep with a young woman, but in this case this plot device really works.)

One day she surprises him by asking if he believes in God. Of course not, he says. He’s a communist, a modern man. They debate the existence of God etc a little but it dawns on Edward that if he is to get into Alice’s pants he must ape her faith. So he starts going to church with her and, when he starts singing and when he kneels and prays, to his great surprise, he finds it reassuring and comforting. He becomes quite devout. He even begins to outdo Alice, kneeling more often, praying louder, and crossing himself in the street, when they come across an ancient cross pinned to a wall.

Which triggers an unfortunate sequence of events. Because Edward is spotted by the school janitor who reports him to the thin, ugly directress of the school, and Edward is called before the school committee, who are ready to come down on him like a ton of bricks. To suspend or even sack him.

But suddenly, in this fraught situation, Edward has a blinding revelation. Rather than deny their accusations and play into their hands, he must go along with their conception of him. Denying the accusation will make them angry because it defies the conclusion they’ve already reached and therefore their intelligence. Immediately confessing in full will flatter their intelligence.

And so Edward immediately admits that, although he is a modern man, a communist, a man of the people, a man of the future and so on, he just can’t help believing in God. The most vehement accusers breathe a gratified sigh. They were right all along. And now they can set about helping this poor wrongheaded young man back to the light.

To cut a long story short, Edward is handed over to the school directress for improvement and rectification. She has a reputation for being attracted to younger men. Over the course of their first few re-education sessions together, Edward continues to play the role of misguided youth, yearning to be re-educated out of his wrong-headed belief in God i.e. he lies his face off in order to play to the role his accusers have assigned him.

As you might expect from a Kundera story, the central events turn around sex, namely that, as the re-education sessions progress, the directress brings out wine, adopts a more friendly tone, says she understands the torments of youth and she is here to help – in an increasingly meaningful and suggestive way.

The comedy reaches a climax when, at the third of fourth session, she has a little too much to drink, puts on the radio and insists that Edward dances with her. He knows what is coming next and is terrified that his body won’t respond. The directress is fearsomely ugly, skinny, with a long narrow face, scrappy black hair and a prominent moustache. As they dance he feels his manhood recoiling and shrinking in terror. She kisses him. She places his hand on her breast. Then she disappears into the bathroom telling him she’ll be back in two ticks and reappears in the doorway wearing a see-through nighty.

The moment has come but as the directress approaches, Edward backs away, the directress follows him, until they end up chasing each other round and round the coffee table in the middle of her living room.

It is a farce. But a very clever, very funny one. For suddenly Edward has another of his blinding revelations. He stops dead and says he can’t. His faith won’t let him. God won’t let him. And while the directress is spluttering something about don’t be so ridiculous, Edward suddenly commands her to kneel. KNEEL. Bewildered the directress does so. AND PRAY. She begins to recite the Lord’s Prayer. And, looking down at her as she prays, looking down at this image of communist power brought low, of the head of his school obeying him, and of a half naked woman paying obeisance to him… suddenly his manhood experiences a surge of power. He tears off his clothes and takes her there and then, fiercely and unforgivingly.

And to his amazement it is the most fulfilling sexual experience of his (admittedly young) life. The directress is overjoyed and tells him his re-education is coming on in leaps and bounds. Who knows, soon he may merit a promotion.

Meanwhile, Alice, remember her? The sweet virginal devoted Christian who refused barely even to kiss Edward? Next time they meet, after he’s been hauled before the school committee, she is all over him and, to his amazement she kisses him with soft wet kisses, and she lets him touch her breasts, and even… wander below the borderline at her navel. And she has arranged for them to borrow a relative’s country cottage for the weekend! Wow! Why the complete change? Because he is a martyr for the faith. The story is all over school and beyond of how he stood his ground against the persecutors and stood up for the Lord!

Edward is at first astonished that this legend about him has sprung up so quickly, and then disappointed that Alice can abandon her principles so easily. One minute she is telling him God has forbidden adultery and sex before marriage and vehemently, vigorously prevents him touching any naughty parts of her body; the next minute she’s all for illicit sex.

He realises, with a sinking heart, that in her own way she is just as malleable and manipulative of principles as everyone else. Despite now being able to get his wicked way, Edward is disappointed.

And then, as you might predict, their night of love at the borrowed cottage is similarly disappointing. She insists on closing all the curtains and having the light off, and then she ‘sacrifices’ his body to her. But everything about it seems staged and false to Edward and, again, he finds his manhood hesitating and not rising to the occasion. By various strategems he manages to keep it up and complete the act of love but next morning he finds himself having an argument with her, about her lack of principles.

So in the end he ‘wins’ Alice, but discovers her type of narrow-minded officiousness repels him and, after a harsh argument dumps her; while he discovers that he has something immeasurably better if inexplicable with the skinny ugly directress who, nonetheless, when she kneels before him and prays, unleashes erotic forces he didn’t imagine were possible.

This story feels as perfectly formed as a fairy tale in the sense that all the elements fall into place with a lovely inevitability, and that the ‘moral’ of the story is also pleasingly counter-intuitive but, on reflection, psychologically satisfying. And it contains some very funny moments: there is intellectual comedy in the way Edward strings the committee along with his play-acted shame and comradely regret; and there is basic physical comedy in the skinny half-dressed sex-mad directress chasing the harassed young man round her coffee table.

Thoughts

I know the word ‘loves’ is in the title, but after a while I got fed up of the unrelentingness of the predatory male sexuality depicted in each of the stories. I longed for even a page which didn’t mention sex or love or erotic adventures. In amidst the relentless sexualisation of the stories, I sometimes found passages about age or youth, or about politics or religion, which were like oases, where, for a brief moment, you could get away from the oppressive sense of hairy men, young and old, relentlessly obsessed with getting their end away, whatever the cost.

But just a little below the surface concern with sex and breasts and bodies, underlying all the stories, is Kundera’s very mid-European sense of the sheer Absurdity of human existence, the sense that whatever we think we’re doing, the world has other ideas.

This is the way life goes: a man imagines that he is playing his role in a particular play, and does not suspect that in the meantime they have changed the scenery without his noticing, and he unknowingly finds himself in the middle of a rather different production. (p.229)

All the characters without exception are misguided and misinterpret each other.

The narrator’s voice

The vital element in all Kundera’s fiction is the quality and character and technique of the narrator’s voice. If you concentrate just on the plots and storylines you are missing the elephant in the room, which is the immense self-confidence with which he makes himself part of the narration, with which he creates a confidential, witty and incisive narratorial voice, interrupting and arranging the narrative just so, clinically dividing it up into neat, pre-packaged sections designed for him to make a witty or thought-provoking comment about love or human nature.

Sometimes the stories approach closer to the character of a lecture than a traditional fiction. The paradox is that, the more archly and overtly intrusive the narrator is, the more effective the story often is.

Thus Edward and God is the ‘best’ story, but it is also the most artificial. Several times the narrator addresses the reader in paragraphs which begin ‘Ladies and gentlemen…’, as if he’s the impresario of a theatre appearing in front of the curtain and directly addressing the audience before or after a play has been performed.

Kundera’s books came to attention in the West in the early 1980s at the same time as the wave of Magical realists from South America. They share a rejection of the ‘naturalist’ tradition, and an openness to elements of magic and fantasy. But Kundera’s stand alone and distinct in the extreme staginess of his voice, always guiding, pushing and coaxing his characters, and constantly commenting on the action and digressing with his own thoughts about politics and death and human nature and, of course, sex.

Not just staginess, but age and wisdom. Kundera’s voice is older and wiser than those of his characters and, by implication, than of us, the reader. It gives the sense of having experienced everything, and understood everything and forgiven everything, and now he is going to present some puppets for our entertainment, put them through their paces, and take every opportunity to reminisce and share the wisdom gained from a long and rich life:

  • Let us try to understand… (p.33)
  • We should perhaps find in her dismay something akin to the dismay of a very young girl who has been kissed for the first time… (p.45)
  • We can advantageously start Edward’s story in his elder brother’s little house in the country
  • We must recall (for the sake of those to whom perhaps the historical background of the story is missing)… (p.209)
  • Ladies and gentlemen, these were weeks of torment… (p.210)
  • Let us stop and consider this word… (p.237)
  • Ah, ladies and gentlemen, a man lives a sad life when he cannot take anything or anyone seriously. (p.242)

If you can put aside the fact that he is almost always talking about sex, love and eroticism, many of these interventions could be those of a wise grandfather, telling a time-honoured tale (and, at bottom, all these tales of love and loss are time honoured, repeated in every generation).


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

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