TagThe Passenger

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.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

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

Reading round-up: late October

Here are some notes on what I’ve been reading lately…

Bernardine Evaristo, Mr Loverman (2013)

Hearing Bernardine Evaristo read from this novel was one of my highlights from this year’s Penguin General Bloggers’ Evening, so naturally I was interested to read Mr Loverman. Our narrator is the charming Barrington Walker: 74 years of age, not quite as happily married to Carmel as he once was, and sixty years into a secret relationship with his old friend Maurice. Now is the time for Barry decide what he really wants in life; his story on its own would be fine, but Evaristo broadens out her portrait to show other characters’ analogous difficulties. The occasional chapters told from Carmel’s viewpoint (in a prose-poetry style that’s a little less immediate than Barry’s narration, and so distances us slightly from her, just as she is from him) show how her delight at marrying Barry back in 1960s Antigua has paled in the decades since. The Walkers’ daughters are also finding that their lives may not necessarily have turned out as they or their parents imagined, adding another layer to a satisfying read.

Ian Sales, The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself (2013)

Ian Sales continues his Apollo Quartet of novellas set in futures where the history of space exploration went differently; as with Adrift on the Sea of Rains, the second volume proves an interesting character study. We join Bradley Elliott at two points in his career: in 1979, when he was about to become the first (and only) human to set foot on Mars; and twenty years later, as he goes on a mission to a far more distant world. What’s so striking about this novella is the air of resignation and melancholy that Sales creates: Elliott may be the only person capable of undertaking his 1999 mission, but there is also the strong sense that this is the only thing that Elliott can do with his life.

Maryam Sachs, The Passenger (2013)
Translated by Gael Schmidt-Cléach

In this intriguing short novel, a German woman arrives in Paris for her son’s birthday. She’s taken the journey from Charles de Gaulle many times; but this one becomes very different when the woman strikes up a conversation with her taxi driver, a Romanian who once lived in Japan. The pair’s conversation ranges far and wide, taking in their personal histories, their thoughts on art and moving between cultures. But this journey is not just a geographic one, as the woman starts to realise she is something of a passenger in her own life, and that it may now be time for her to take the wheel.

Tom Cheshire, The Explorer Gene (2013)

Technology journalist Tom Cheshire tells the story of Auguste, Jacques and Bertrand Piccard: three generations of the same family who became respectively the first person to enter the stratosphere; the person who travelled deeper into the ocean than anyone else ever has; and the first to circle the globe non-stop in a balloon. The Piccards’ story is extraordinary, and Cheshire brings it vividly to life, from the opening scene of Auguste struggling to deal with the leaking cabin of his experimental balloon, right through to Bertrand’s current plans for a solar-powered aircraft.

Jorn Lier Horst, Closed for Winter (2011)
Translated from the Norwegian by Anne Bruce, 2013

A dead body is found in the summer cottage of a television presenter, sparking a new investigation for Chief Inspector William Wisting. Retreating from her relationship, Wisting’s daughter Line, an investigative journalist, settles into the family cottage to write a novel – and finds another body on the nearby beach. These two threads spiral together into a tense narrative, with an added undercurrent examining social change and the forces that may drive people to commit crime.

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