Friday, July 18, 2008

The First Furrows of Care

I've been thinking it's time to return to Kafka. It's been years since I read The Castle, more still since The Trial. Quite by accident, it seems, I've read "The Metamorphosis" more often than any other single piece of fiction, but again, not for many years. Some months ago, I bought the Collected Stories, in the handsome Everyman edition, edited by Gabriel Josipovici. I was in need of a new collection of the stories, if only because my other edition contains only those stories published in Kafka's lifetime (awkward blurb from Martin Amis, winning the war against cliché, so the rest of us can get on with our lives: "Acquire this necessary book"). Then, recently, I read Letter to His Father. I hope to say more about this remarkable document in another post, but for now, suffice it to say that I think I am beginning to see Kafka a little better.

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.


D.Coys said...

What I remember from my first reading of this story is the restrictive life the trapeze artist leads. I suppose this is the claustrophobia Amis mentions. Deleuze & Guattari wrote similarly of cramped quarters. After returning to the story after reading your post, the sorrow of the title is more apparent. In fact, the theme seems so large for such a short story, i.e. the notion that expanding on one's world (however cramped it is) by any measure is a rubicon of unease. Like yourself, I forget many of Kafka's stories, and this despite several readings. I wonder how it is that great themes so clear later on can pass us by so readily?

Lloyd Mintern said...

Perhaps the reason Kafka's stories are so susceptible to being forgotten, that they slip away in whole, is that they are so familiar. They seem on the one hand like little artistic gems, but at the bottom they are utterly plain and life-like. For instance this trapeze artist story I think is entirely based on that last sentence; it works from the ending, and he arranges it thus, in order to get to that one observation, the question. I would conjecture that Kafka wrote it after staring at a furrow line in someone's face (or his own). Applying the question of how a worry line in a face comes to be stamped there, asking for its history so to speak, needs just a context to explore; the exotic (and comical)trapeze artist will do in this case. The length is expandable, like all parables, internally; and the content is so true to life one can . . . live with it, and thus forget it for a time, until, coming back, one is shocked that someone else got it so closely.

D. Coys said...

"Perhaps the reason Kafka's stories are so susceptible to being forgotten, that they slip away in whole, is that they are so familiar."

The story On The Tram would seem to support this view. It is an observation of a fellow traveller that asks how is it that she is not amazed at herself in the way he evidently is. I wonder at whether, perhaps, it is about some relationship between the familiar and the unfamiliar? The circus act distracts, in that has us question what the trapeze is 'really' about, or perhaps who the 'artist' refers to, while the anxiety of the character and its impression on the manager's sense of responsibility passes quietly by.

Incidentally, having now read Bartleby, and though I agree with Richard that First Sorrow is more economic in its treatment of care, I suspected that what Melville described is what we now know as autism (possibly aspergers), which would open up other possibilities in interpreting his function in the story. You might find this article of interest:

Richard said...

Thanks for the comments. I like what you say, Lloyd, about why Kafka's stories seem to pass us by on initial readings. I'm considering addressing this in another post.

D.Coys - I like your phrase "rubicon of unease". However, I don't like looking at characters in stories in terms of "what we now know as" this or that medical condition. In some cases (perhaps depression) I can see some relevance, but I don't think it adds much usually, and I really don't think it tells us anything about Bartleby. In fact, if we were to somehow able to definitively peg Bartleby as autistic, I think it rather takes away from the story and limits its impact.

DeCoise said...

Medical categorisations make for historical changes to society that will be reflected in that society's texts. Quite how we measure the impact these categorisations make on stories will vary from categorisation to categorisation. Bartleby confronts us with myriad reactions to his (eventually self-destructive) condition. Even if we were to protest that simply labelling this behaviour as autism or any other medical condition does violence to his singularity, this protest could not be made outside its historical situation. How relevant you find this - the what and how much it tells you - surely depends on which aspects of a story you are interested in?

Richard said...

Yes, to your general point about medical categorization, and yes, in answer to your question. For some such categorizations, I can see the potential value. But, applying the label or categorization of "autism" to Bartleby makes the story vastly less interesting to me--and, by extension, let's face it, I am thereby asserting that it makes it vastly less interesting, period.