Last night I dipped into the Collected Stories, looking for one of those extremely short fictions. I turned to "First Sorrow" and I read. And by the end, I was reminded of "Bartleby the Scrivener", Melville's story, which figures so prominently in Vila-Matas' intriguing Bartleby & Co. In that story, we have a man, a scrivener, who, no matter the question, "would prefer not to", confounding his boss, the narrator of the story. Some of us may "prefer not to" do any number of things life throws our way, but Bartleby is not kidding around. Ultimately, he "prefers not to" himself right to death. He (and Melville) follows his position to its logical conclusion.
"First Sorrow" is about a trapeze artist who, first, "had so arranged his life that, as long as he kept working in the same building, he never came down from his trapeze by night or day". He is a great artist, so the management puts up with it. He is able to have his needs attended to by relay system, and necessary, eccentric travel accommodations are made. Finally, however, he announces "that he must always in future have two trapezes for his performance instead of only one". No problem, says the manager. But the trapeze artist repeats his demand: "The very idea that it might happen at all seemed to make him shudder." The manager repeats his assurance, but the artist breaks down. And here is how the story ends:
Deeply distressed, the manager sprang to his feet and asked what was the matter, then getting no answer climbed up on the seat and caressed him, cheek to cheek, so that his own face was bedabbled by the trapeze artist's tears. Yet it took much questioning and soothing endearment until the trapeze artist sobbed: 'Only the one bar in my hands -- how can I go on living!' That made it somewhat easier for the manager to comfort him; he promised to wire from the very next station for a second trapeze to be installed in the first town on their circuit; reproached himself for having let the artist work so long on only one trapeze; and thanked and praised him warmly for having at last brought the mistake to his notice. And so he succeeded in reassuring the trapeze artist, little by little, and was able to go back to his corner. But he himself was far from reassured, with deep uneasiness he kept glancing secretly at the trapeze artist over the top of his book. Once such ideas began to torment him, would they ever quite leave him alone? Would they not rather increase in urgency? Would they not threaten his very existence? And indeed the manager believed he could see, during the apparently peaceful sleep which had succeeded the fit of tears, the first furrows of care engraving themselves upon the trapeze artist's smooth, childlike forehead. (Translation by Willa & Edwin Muir)I must have read this story before--it's in the other collection, having been published during Kafka's lifetime as part of A Hunger Artist--I've read this story before, and yet I have absolutely no memory of it. It must not have made much of an impression on me. I'm a different reader now, and now I find this story astonishing. The manager can see what must happen, even if the trapeze artist is momentarily assuaged. The manager can see this, and he is troubled. He knows there is nothing he can do, nothing that can be done. The logic of the situation is such that the trapeze artist will never quite be free of this torment. And Kafka, of course, follows the needs of his fiction right to the end. Just as, in "Bartleby", where it might be more "realistic" for the man to give on certain things--I might prefer not to go to work, or prefer to silently protest against the absurdity of life, but odds are I'm going to break down and eat when I get hungry enough--instead, Melville follows the idea through. Here, Kafka does the same, only more so, and with more economy. He has only to have the manager consider the logic of the situation--"would they not threaten his very existence?"--and notice the trapeze artist's furrowed brow and know that he has not imagined it, for the fable to be complete.