Tuesday, September 02, 2014

My Summer of Kafka

Yeah. I know how to live it up.

This summer, I read The Complete Stories of Franz Kafka. I didn't mean for it to take the entire summer, but with a kid on school break, several visitors, and a trip to the Czech Republic, time always seemed to wander off somewhere else when I wasn't looking. So I took my time reading, the way I don't always do since there are so many books on my "to read" list.

The thing about reading The Complete Stories of Kafka, is that it helped me to understand how to read Kafka. We've all read "The Metamorphosis" -- or heard enough about it so that we can fake having read it. But the pacing of that story, and the art of its painstaking descriptions, are qualities that carry throughout Kafka's writings. Although I am not a prose writer, I learned quite a bit about pacing and description from reading these stories.

The stories that stand out in my mind as good examples of how Kafka uses a slow pace to exacerbate the mental anxiety of his protagonists include "Description of a Struggle" and "The Burrow." Both are long stories in which the plots (such as they are) are driven by the first-person interior monologue of the main character. The methodical pacing of "In the Penal Colony," with its dialogue and descriptions, slowly reveal the macabre machinations of the punishment machine being shown to the nameless "explorer" in the story.

Kafka's longer stories contain great multitudes of examples of his descriptive skills. In the longer stories, the additive effect of the many descriptions is to slow the pacing and heighten anxiety, such as in "In the Penal Colony":

"The Harrow?" asked the explorer. He had not been listening very attentively, the glare of the sun in the shadeless valley was altogether too strong, it was difficult to collect one's thoughts. All the more did he admire the officer, who in spite of his tight-fitting full-dress uniform coat, amply befrogged and weighed down by epaulettes, was pursuing his subject with such enthusiasm and, besides talking, was still tightening a screw here and there with a spanner. As for the soldier, he seemed to be in much the same condition as the explorer. He had wound the prisoner's chain around both his wrists, propped himself on his rifle, let his head hang, and was paying no attention to anything. That did not surprise the explorer, for the officer was speaking French, and certainly neither the soldier nor the prisoner understood a word of French. It was all the more remarkable, therefore, that the prisoner was nonetheless making an effort to follow the officer's explanations. With a kind of drowsy persistence he directed his gaze wherever the officer pointed a finger, and at the interruption of the explorer's question he, too, as well as the officer, looked around.

The section of the collection titled "The Shorter Stories" contains some very brief works that seem in many cases to be more linguistic sketches than "stories." However, it is in these short sketches that Kafka's ability to skewer or illuminate with a mere sentence is most visible. By way of example, in "Eleven Sons," the speaker simply describes each of his eleven sons. But it is a searing wit that Kafka wields in this work:

My third son is handsome too, but not in a way that I appreciate. He has the good looks of a singer: the curving lips; the dreaming eye; the kind of head that asks for drapery behind it to make it effective...

My fifth son is kind and good; promised less than he performed; used to be so insignificant that one literally felt alone in his presence; but has achieved a certain reputation. If I were asked how this came about, I could hardly tell you.

"The Trees" is four sentences in its entirety:

For we are like tree trunks in the snow. In appearance they lie sleekly and a little push should be enough to set them rolling. No, it can't be done, for they are firmly wedded to the ground. But see, even that is only appearance.

If you have never read Kafka, I recommend diving right in and reading The Complete Stories as opposed to simply reading the ones that get all the glory.

But I will caution against reading "In the Penal Colony" at bedtime.

Or at mealtime.

The Complete Stories, by Franz Kafka, Schocken Books, New York, 1995. (IndieBound, AbeBooks)

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