Tuesday, July 14, 2009

On Kafka and the pre-modern

Kafka again. The Diaries, the Collected Stories. After dipping into the shorter pieces in the latter over a period of several months alongside other reading, I finally had both the time and the inclination to read the longer stories (though, so far, just the ones published in his lifetime). One doesn't mind disrupting the reading of a novel, but stories need to be read in one sitting. "The Stoker", for the first time (it is also the opening chapter of Amerika, which remains the only unread novel); "The Metamorphosis"--this for the perhaps fourth or fifth time--remarkable how little I remember in it! "In the Penal Colony"--I remember the basic horrible idea, certainly, but the particulars and the conclusion are as if new to me.

From these stories, I've entered into a more systematic reading of the rest of the collection. In doing so, I noticed something odd in my expectations, coming into focus while reading "Eleven Sons". In this story, a father simply describes his eleven sons, one paragraph for each, in pedantic, critical detail, each son in some way somehow failing to measure up. For example, the second son has "a small irregularity of the spirit that somehow corresponds to [a physical blemish], a kind of stray poison in the blood, a kind of inability to develop to the full the potentialities of his nature which I alone can see." That kind of thing. And that's it. Five pages and out. In that same paragraph on the second son, we read this:
He is clever too, but has experience of the world as well; he has seen much, and therefore even our native country seems to yield more secrets to him than to the stay-at-home. Yet I am sure that this advantage is not only and not even essentially due to his travels, it is rather an attribute of his own inimitable nature, which is acknowledged for instance by everyone who has ever tried to copy him in, let us say, the fancy high dive he does into the water, somersaulting several times over, yet with almost violent self-control. To the very end of the springboard the emulator keeps up his courage and his desire to follow; but at that point, instead of leaping into the air, he sits down suddenly and lifts his arms in excuse.
At the word "springboard" I was suddenly made aware that I had been imagining this son's diving taking place at an old watering hole. No big deal possibly, except that I further realized that I tend to take Kafka's stories as somehow pre-modern. In some respects this is plainly ridiculous: isn't the cliché about Kafka that he is the quintessential chronicler of the modern condition? Alienation, bureaucracy, office work, claustrophobia, all of that? I don't subscribe to that short-hand, but even so, the modern world abounds in Kafka's fiction. Isn't Gregor Samsa a traveling salesman for a big, modern firm? Doesn't "The Stoker" take place inside a large, modern ship? The detailed description of the machine in "In the Penal Colony" speaks of a world in which mechanical devices are ordinary, even if this machine in particular is far from it. More than this, though several stories do not, contrary to the cliché, speak of an exclusively modern condition, little details of the modern world continually appear, in Kafka's literal way. Like that springboard. What is my problem?

I'm again talking about the timeless, mythical quality of Kafka's fiction, the tendency, enabled by Kafka's apparently plain prose style, for his stories to read like parables or fables, whatever they may actually be about. And fables and myths are ancient, and so it follows. There is that slippery, if literal, writing. Of course, some of the stories reinforce my pre-conception. "A Country Doctor", for example, could take place almost anytime. There is the recasting of Don Quixote with Sancho Panza as the hero, there is the story about Poseidon stuck doing paperwork, unable to actually enjoy the seas over which he presides (though someday, perhaps, someday), there are stories with emperors and noblemen and peasants and villages, all arguably contributing to this overall sense of pre-modernity. But the other stories, the ones that are unquestionably in a modern setting, are no less fables, to the extent that at times the very modernity on display brings me up short, forcing me to consider it.


Rhys Tranter said...

Hi Richard,

I haven't read 'Eleven Sons', but it sounds great. I'll be looking into that. Thanks for the link.


Anirudh K said...

Now that you point it out, I realise that I often respond to Kafka in the same way (though not with the "springboard"). As a boy, when I first started reading 'literary fiction', I read mostly contemporary writing; with the 'real world' in mind. I would mostly ask questions of it which were not very useful given that the texts were fiction. Kafka, strangely, was an exception. I did not see him as a contemporary as I did others. He seemed, as you say, like a pre-modern writer. (A writer like Beckett was also exempt but because he has a certain reputation and even if one is unaware of it, he himself destroys any illusion of reality at the very beginning.) Talking of fables, have you read Saadat Hasan Manto?