Category: Kafka Franz

First impressions of Kafka: The Stoker

I gather that ‘The Stoker’ was the first chapter in Kafka’s unfinished novel Amerika. I’m sure I’ll read that in the fullness of time, and I’ll be intrigued to see where it goes. For now, though, the experience of reading ‘The Stoker’ feels complete in itself.

As with ‘The Judgement’, we begin in what seems fairly straightforward territory. After fatheringa  child with a  maid, seventeen-year-old Karl Rossmann has been sent across the Atlantic by his parents. He is about to disembark at New York when he realises he has left his umbrella somewhere in the ship. So he goes below decks to find it, becomes lost, and gets into a conversation with the ship’s stoker. Michael Hofmann suggests in his introduction that Kafka can often be funny, and I certainly found that with the rambling dialogue between Karl and the stoker – not so much from particular lines as a cumulative sense of absurdity.

Karl eventually learns that the stoker is about to be fired, because his Romanian boss doesn’t care for Germans like him. Karl decides to go with the stoker to see the ship’s captain, and explain his concerns; and so Karl loses a little control over his own story, as it were – he’s making the decisions, but in the context of what’s happened to someone else.

In the captain’s chamber, the stoker is increasingly sidelined: at first, he is not allowed in the room, placing the onus on Karl to be his advocate. When the stoker is allowed back in, his boss is waiting outside, witnesses in tow, making the whole thing seem a charade. Then one of the captain’s confidants announces that he is Karl’s uncle, much to Karl’s surprise; the stoker is lost amidst all this, and Karl can no longer pretend what is happening. My sense of reading ‘The Stoker’ – quite like ‘The Judgement’, actually – is of a ‘story’ being told from a distance, such that the reader (and Kafka’s protagonist) can see only the echoes. And despite (or perhaps because of) everything, it feels strangely like a parade.

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

First impressions of Kafka: The Judgement

After Contemplation, on to a longer story by Kafka. Naturally enough, there’s more of a sense of movement within ‘The Judgement’, but to begin with I felt I was reading something clearly ‘of a piece’ with the Kafka I’d already read. When we meet him, Georg Bendemann has just finished writing a letter to a friend of his who now lives in Russia. From Georg’s thoughts, it is clear just how difficult he found it to decide what to write:

Should you advise him to come home, to take up his old life here, pick up the threads of his former friendships – there was no reason why he shouldn’t – and look to the support of his friends in other ways too? That was tantamount to telling him (and the more carefully one did it, the more wounding it was) that his endeavours thus far had been a failure, that he should call a halt and come home – and thenceforth suffer himself to be stared at by everyone as a returnee…

This is only part of a long series of what-ifs that recalls pieces like ‘The Sudden Walk’, and there’s another one soon after where Georg is wondering whether to mention that he’s recently become engaged (and whether he’d want his friend to come back for the wedding). By now, I’m used to being immersed in this uncertainty from Kafka. But then, Georg heads over to his father’s room, and something starts to feel different; or, rather, there’s a sense of something from the earlier pieces happening on a larger scale.

There are shifts in mood and emphasis, but they happen within the same scene, rather than between individual paragraphs. First, our impression of Georg’s father is that he’s ill and weak; then, the father commands our attention with a long speech that questions whether his son even has a friend in Russia; then Georg is the strong one again, carrying his father to bed; and so it continues. In his introduction to the collection, translator Michael Hofmann comments that ‘The Judgement’ feels “like a code that makes sense”, and I think he has a point. There’s a sense of something going on, or some secret, just beyond our reach, which might explain everything that happens. Then again, perhaps there isn’t – either way, we’ll never know.

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

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.

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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 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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