TagContemplation

First impressions of Kafka: The Passenger

‘The Passenger’ stands out in Contemplation as the piece that encapsulates my impressions of Kafka’s work at this point. Like ‘The Men Running Past’, it has three paragraphs, each acting like a movement in a piece of music. The first paragraphs establishes the narrator: waiting for a tram, questioning his very being (“I am not even able to justify my standing there on the platform”). In the second paragraph, he notices a young woman and describes her in precise detail:

She has quantities of chestnut hair, and a few stray wisps of it are blown across her right temple. Her small ear is pressed tight against the side of her head…

Though the protagonist may be uncertain of himself, he seems certain of what he perceives about this woman. Yet what does he really know? He says in the last paragraph:

I asked myself at the time: how is it that she is not astonished at herself; that she keeps her mouth closed, and expresses nothing of any wonderment?

We go from the narrator’s doubts in the first paragraph, to an apparently stable portrait of someone else in the second, before that closing question returns us to uncertainty: there’s no answer, because we cannot know what the woman is thinking – indeed, she might be mulling over her own set of questions, or wondering in just the way that the narrator assumes she is not.

The narrator’s question also sums up what may be my strongest impression of Kafka’s work having read Contemplation: the sense that, beneath the most everyday situations, there may be untold emotional and intellectual depths that we cannot reach.

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Contemplation (1913) by Franz Kafka, published in Metamorphosis and Other Stories(2007), tr. Michael Hofmann, Penguin Modern Classics paperback

First impressions of Kafka: The Men Running Past

One thing that strikes me again and again in the pieces from Kafka’s Contemplation is the dizzying way they open up interior worlds – the way Kafka reveals the uncertainty beneath seemingly ordinary moments. In ‘The Men Running Past’, the narrator is out walking one night and sees a man running in the opposite direction, being chased by another, but chooses not to intervene. The next paragraph – another of Kafka’s swirling, open sentences – goes through the reasons why:

…it is possible that the two men have devised their chase for their own amusement, perhaps they are both in pursuit of a third man…

Some of these possibilities are quite fanciful, others reveal that ‘we’ are just afraid of the consequences of getting involved (“perhaps the first of them is carrying a weapon”). But the effect of this long chain of ‘perhapses’ is to dissolve a concrete opening of action into a swirl of uncertainty. As with ‘The Sudden Walk’, the last paragraph closes this off:

And finally, may we not be tired, and have we not had a lot of wine to drink? We are relieved not to see the second man.

But where ‘The Sudden Walk’ leaves us with a sense of a new beginning, the end of ‘The Men Running Past’ feels more like a truce: there will be no resolution – a story has been averted.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Contemplation (1913) by Franz Kafka, published in Metamorphosis and Other Stories(2007), tr. Michael Hofmann, Penguin Modern Classics paperback

First impressions of Kafka: The Sudden Walk

I don’t know why it has taken me so long to get around to reading Kafka, except perhaps that it’s only too easy to dwell on the writers you’d like to read one day, to the point that ‘one day’ never comes. Anyway, I’ve bought myself a copy of the 2007 Penguin Modern Classics edition of Metamorphosis and Other Stories, which collects together the stories that Kafka allowed to be published in his lifetime, all translated by Michael Hofmann. I am starting from the beginning, with the short pieces collected in 1913 as Contemplation. What I’m going to do for now is just pick out a few of these pieces and try to capture what struck me, what it was like to read them. No doubt there will be much more to see once I’ve read deeper into Kafka’s bibliography, but this blog is meat to record reading as a work-in-progress – so…

What I’d really like to do with ‘The Sudden Walk’ is reproduce the whole thing and let it speak for itself, because quoting it can’t capture the effect. But I have to try. The piece consists of two single-sentence paragraphs. The first takes up a page, and is an extraordinary cascade of details (or, perhaps, conditions):

When it seems we have finally decided to stay home of the evening, have slipped into our smoking jackets, are sitting at a lit table after supper, and have taken out some piece of work or game at the conclusion of which we customarily go to bed, when the weather outside is inclement, which makes it perfectly understandable that we are staying at home….

This sentence is wonderfully open in terms of where it could go, but there’s also a sense of indecisiveness – and, indeed, halfway through, ‘we’ change our minds and go back out again. The result of this is that the family “drifts into vaporousness, whereas we ourselves, as indisputable and sharp and black as a silhouette, smacking the backs of our thighs, come into our true nature.” The openness of the sentence is closed off with that ‘smacking’ – a sense of finality, even confidence, with coming into one’s ‘true nature’, tempered by the insubstantiality of the silhouette image.

Then comes the second sentence-paragraph: “And all this may even be accentuated if, at this late hour, we go to seek out some friend, to see how he is doing.” The relative brevity of this sentence feels like an even firmer closing-off, a trapdoor over the first paragraph. But it also opens up an entirely new possibility – visiting the friend – which, of course, we’ll never get to see. The world is open, closed, open and closed again, all from a decision to leave the house one evening.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Contemplation (1913) by Franz Kafka, in Metamorphosis and Other Stories (2007), tr. Michael Hofmann, Penguin Modern Classics paperback

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