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.