Milan Kundera on Franz Kafka (1979)

In 1979 the Czech novelist Milan Kundera published a short essay about the works of fellow Czech and Prague inhabitant, Franz Kafka. The essay was titled Somewhere behind.

Throughout it Kundera uses the adjective ‘Kafkan’, which seems perverse of either him or the translator, because everyone else in the English-speaking world talks about the ‘Kafkaesque’.

Four elements of the Kafkaesque

Anyway, Kundera sets out to define what the ‘Kafkaesque’ consists of, and comes up with:

1. It describes a world which is an endless labyrinth which nobody can escape or understand, run according to laws nobody remembers being made, which no longer seem to apply to humans.

2. K.’s fate depends on a file about him which has been mislaid in the Castle’s vast and inept bureaucracy. Kafka’s world is one in which a man’s life becomes a shadow of a truth held elsewhere (in the boundless bureaucracy). Kundera says this notion of a supra-human realm begins to invoke the theological.

In his opinion this dualism led early commentators to interpret Kafka’s stories as religious allegories, not least Kafka’s friend and executor Max Broad, who saw his friend as a deeply religious writer. Kundera disagrees because this view ‘sees allegory where Kafka grasped concrete situations of human life’. I certainly agree that many of the scenes, especially in The Trial, are imagined and described in great and lucid detail.

He also makes the interesting point that when Power deifies itself it automatically produces its own theology. Thought-provoking…

3. The punished seek the offence, want to find out what it is they have done. Worse, the punished become so oppressed by the sense of their own guilt, that they set about finding what it is they have done wrong, so that Joseph K. sets out to review every word, thought and deed from his entire life. The punished beg for recognition of their guilt.

4. When Kafka read the first chapter of The Trial to his friends everyone laughed including the author. Kafka takes us inside a joke which looks funny from the outside, but in its core, in its gut, is horrific.

Against a sociological or Marxist interpretation

Just recently I read an essay by the Marxist literary critic György Lukács, who claimed that Kafka’s fiction was, at its heart, or root, a response to contemporary capitalism:

The diabolical character of the world of modern capitalism, and man’s impotence in the face of it, is the real subject matter of Kafka’s writing. (The Meaning of Contemporary Realism by György Lukács, p.77)

Kundera rejects this and it’s worth quoting his reasons:

Attempts have been made to explain Kafka’s novels as a critique of industrial society, of exploitation, alienation, bourgeois morality – of capitalism, in a word. But there is almost nothing of the constituents of capitalism in Kafka’s universe: not money or its power, not commerce, not property or owners or the class struggle.

Neither does the Kafkaesque correspond to a definition of totalitarianism. In Kafka’s novels, there is neither the party nor ideology and its jargon nor politics, the police, or the army.

So we should rather say that the Kafkaesque represents one fundamental possibility of man and his world, a possibility that is not historically determined and that accompanies man more or less eternally. (p.106)

Kundera’s rejection doesn’t have the conceptual depth of Lukács who, after all, doesn’t describe Kafka’s works as a critique of capitalism on the basis that they describe or analyse any specific aspect of a capitalist society. Lukács bases his claim on the notion that Kafka’s works, taken as a whole, convey the worldview of bourgeois alienation, which modern capitalism produces. Even if it doesn’t describe any of the details of a capitalist society (factories, banks, modern technology etc), it still conveys the mood.

Kundera’s quick paragraphs are a useful reminder of just how uncapitalist the settings and events of some ofKafka’s stories are: The Castle in particular is set in a sort of 18th century, pre-industrial Ruritania, completely remote from the modern world.

But Kundera is, in fact, wrong to say:

There is almost nothing of the constituents of capitalism in Kafka’s universe: not money or its power, not commerce, not property or owners or the class struggle.

In The Trial Joseph K works in a bank. He is a senior figure in a bank, in competition with the Deputy Director, lording it over innumerable clerks, and holds meetings with a number of businessmen clients. ‘Nothing of the constituents of capitalism’? Arguably, The Bank is the central institution in capitalism.

Similarly, in The Metamorphosis Gregor Samsa is not only a travelling salesman, but his father’s business went bankrupt owing large debts to the company which Gregor works for, and Gregor’s job there is based on a deal that part of his salary is deducted to pay off his father’s debts. He is a sort of debt slave, and this accounts for the tragi-comic way that, after he awakens as a giant beetle, Gregor’s first response is not horror at what’s happened to him but anxiety at the fact that he’s going to be late for work, and indeed the first incident after the transformation, is the arrival of the company’s Chief Clerk wanting to find out why Gregor is late.

So, no, Kundera is wrong. Of Kafka’s three great masterpieces, two of them are set in very capitalist institutions – a bank, and in the sales and marketing of a clothing company – and the second also features as key plot components the ideas of business, bankruptcy, debt, salary and commission.

On reflection many of the constituents of capitalism feature in Kafka’s universe: money and its power to shape individual lives, commerce, the ownership of property, business owners (Gregor’s Chief Clerk or the bank’s Deputy Director). Kundera seems oddly blind to these basic facts.

The nature of totalitarian society

Fundamentally, Kafka’s stories are about the dehumanisation of the individual by faceless powers, and Kundera compares them with his own first-hand experience of totalitarian society in communist Czechoslovakia. He pauses to focus in on a particular aspect of the totalitarian society:

Totalitarian society, especially in its more extreme versions, tends to abolish the boundary between the public and the private; power, as it grows ever more opaque, requires the lives of citizens to become entirely transparent. The ideal of life without secrets corresponds to the ideal of the exemplary family: a citizen does not have the right to hide anything at all from the Party or the State… (p.110)

(This, incidentally, is what terrifies me about political correctness; the way it holds everyone accountable to impossibly high standards of perfect, immaculate, blameless behaviour, while expanding its surveillance and judgement into every aspect of everyone’s private lives, stretching back decades, and raining down hecatombs of career-ending criticism on anyone who is caught out saying, thinking or doing the wrong thing. They think they are creating a utopian society; I think they are creating a total surveillance state.)

Kundera’s novels often address the theme of the abolition of privacy by the intrusive state, and it is interesting to have this element of the Kunderesque identified as being part of the Kafkaesque, too. Thus, as  Kundera points out, Joseph K. is in his bed when the two officers come to arrest him – what more personal place is there? And in The Castle, K. can never get away from his two ‘assistants’ who watch over him even when he’s making love to Frieda.

Death of privacy.

The phantasmal office

Kundera quotes a sentence from a letter by Kafka which contains, Kundera thinks, one of his greatest secrets:

‘The office is not a stupid institution; it belongs more to the realm of the fantastic than of the stupid.’

Kundera points out that Kafka saw what millions of other office workers failed to even though it was in front of their noses, which is the surreal and fantastic quality of office life: how individuals are converted into data which can be stored, lost, misquoted, fought over and generally come to distort every aspect of their lives. Our credit ratings, our passport and tax and National Insurance details, our criminal records, all of it is held on files which can be hacked or stolen. What we like to think of as the reassuring ‘reality’ of our lives can be twisted out of all recognition with the click of a mouse.

This situation is, when you reflect on it, bizarre, and Kafka perceived it to an unusually intense degree, and so:

transformed the profoundly anti-poetic material of a highly bureaucratised society into the great poetry of the novel; he transformed a very ordinary story of a man who cannot obtain a promised job (which is actually the story of The Castle) into myth, into epic, into a kind of beauty never seen before. (p.114)

The novel as discovery of aspects of the human condition

Lastly, Kundera is struck by the way that Kafka accurately predicted an entire aspect of man’s experience in the 20th century without trying to.

Many of his friends were deeply political, avant-garde, became Zionists or communists etc, and generally devoted an enormous part of their lives and thought and writings to commentary and speculation about contemporary and future society. And yet all of their works and most of their names have vanished into oblivion.

Kafka, by complete contrast, was a very private man who cared little or nothing about contemporary politics and barely mentioned it in his works or letters or diaries, a hypochondriac obsessed with his own personal life, oppressed by the domineering figure of his father, enmeshed in a complicated series of love affairs, and yet —

It turned out to be this shy, socially awkward and intensely solipsistic individual who, giving little or no thought to ‘the future’ or society at large, created works which turned out to be staggeringly prophetic of the experience of all humanity in the 20th century and beyond.

Thus, for Kundera, Kafka is a prime example of his central belief in the radical autonomy of the novel, his conviction that the really serious novelists are capable of finding and naming aspects of the existential potential of humanity in a way that no other science or discipline can.

— Obviously Kundera excludes most authors and fictions from this faculty; he is talking, in a rather old-fashioned way, about the Great Novelists. But I think he makes a good case that the serious novel is an exploration of human potential and that Kafka is a striking example of it, a man who failed to complete any of his three novels, who only wrote about twenty short stories, and yet who is universally regarded as a kind of prophet or discoverer of an entire realm of human existence.

Somewhere Behind

And the title of the essay, Somewhere Behind? It’s a quote from a poet Kundera quotes elsewhere in his works, Jan Skacel, which runs:

Poets don’t invent poems
The poem is somewhere behind
It’s been there for a long long time
The poet merely discovers it

Kundera goes on to suggest that History itself is like the poet in the sense that it brings to light, through new combinations of circumstances, aspects which were always latent and potential in human nature.

History does not invent, it discovers. Through new situations, History reveals what man is, what has been in him ‘for a long long time’, what his possibilities are. (p.116)

Thus Kafka experienced certain aspects of human nature to such an extent, so powerfully, that he described and portrayed them with an intensity no-one else ever had.

He shed light on the mechanisms he knew from private and microsocial practice, not suspecting that later developments would put these mechanisms into action on the great stage of History. (p.116)

The real poet, author, novelist discovers something new about human nature and human potential in the world, something

no social or political thought could ever tell us.

Kundera or Camus

I’ve just read a similar-length essay on Kafka by Albert Camus who, by contrast with Kundera’s cool, concise and cerebral analysis, comes over as much the worse writer. There is more food for thought in a page of Kundera than in all fourteen pages of Camus’s overblown, superficial and pretentiously name-dropping text.

Coda

Still, stepping back a bit, reading Kunder, Camus and Lukács  makes me wonder whether there are maybe two types of critic of Kafka: the ones which base their analysis solely on the novels and The Metamorphosis, and the ones who take into account the full range of Kafka’s weird and diverse short stories.

For although Lukács and Kundera fundamentally disagree about the possibility of a political interpretation of Kafka, they both refer solely to the novels and The Metamorphosis because this trio of texts are very much of a piece and convey a homogeneous message about paranoia, bureaucracy and totalitarianism.

Such interpretations are harder to sustain if you start to consider The Great Wall of China, the stories in A Country Doctor, or the final works with their weird focus on animals, such as The Burrow or Josephine the Singer or Investigations of a Dog.

Do critics like Lukács and Kundera completely ignore the stories because their greater variety and weirdness complicate and/or undermine the simplicity of the axes they want to grind and the points they want to make? For these works neither Lukács’ nor Kundera’s master ideas really fit.

There is, in other words, a kind of inexplicable surplus in Kafka’s oeuvre (relatively small though it is), an excess of meaning, or of vision, which goes – in my opinion – way beyond the scope of any rational theory to explain or analyse.


Related links

Related Kafka reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

Reviews of 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
2002 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

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.


Related links

Related reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

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.

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