So this is Kafka.
Or, so this is me reading Kafka for the first time.
And, I doubt you will be surprised to learn, that I finally understand what people mean when they say something is Kafkaeque or having "characteristics or reminiscent of the oppressive or nightmarish qualities of Franz Kafka's fictional world?"
In the most well-known story in the collection, "The Metamorphosis", Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning to discover he has been changed into a big bug. (I picture him as a cockroach but "experts" assure me that the description of Gregor-the-bug and cockroaches don't match, which still didn't keep me from picturing him as a big cockroach.) The reason for this transformation, or metamorphosis, from man into bug has been intriguing literary critics for one hundred years. Most agree that there is a tinge of biographical and historical reasoning for the transformation. Kafka felt alienated. He was a German-speaking Jew living in Czech Republic in a time of great antisemitism. He also felt great pressure from his father to be a successful businessman instead of what he wanted to be...a writer. These reasons could have led to feelings of isolation and inferiority. Kafka's feelings of inferiority led him to believe that other people found him repulsive. The other characters in "The Metamorphosis" also match Kafka's family: an overbearing father, a sweet but ineffectual mother, and a favorite sister, Ottla, who is quite independent-minded.
I've been thinking about Italo Calvino's definition of what makes a book a classic in retrospect to this Kafka collection of stories. "A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers. The classics are those books which come to us bearing the aura of previous interpretations, and trailing behind them the traces they have left in the culture or cultures (or just in the languages and customs) through which they have passed." What is "The Metamorphosis" saying to us that is still relevant today? I keep thinking of all the people who society has made into "bugs" or "vermin." We call Latinos entering our country on our Southern border as "illegal aliens." We have set up a series of laws and customs---all racists---to keep Blacks and Natives in their place which is down. Recently a law had to be passed to help protect Asians from attacks because they are seen as "other" and have been the victims of indiscriminate attacks. If we transform another person in our mind into a "bug or "vermin" than we can justify our horrible treatment toward that person. It doesn't seem like we, as a society, are doing much better than the one Kafka knew in the early 1900s.
There are three other stories in the collection: "Meditation", "The Judgment", and "In the Penal Colony." In addition, there is a long "Letter to My Father", from which one can gain lots of insights of how Franz Kafka felt about himself in retrospect to his father and other pieces of autobiographical information. The letter is heartbreaking on so many levels, and it explains why Kafka felt like a bug in his father's house and presence. I found this quote to be especially telling about their relationship.
Please, Father, understand me correctly: in themselves these would have been utterly insignificant details, they only became depressing for me because you, so tremendously the authoritative man, did not keep the commandments you imposed on me. Hence the world was for me divided into three parts: one in which I, the slave, lived under laws that had been invented only for me and which I could, I did not know why, never completely comply with; then a second world, which was infinitely remote from mine, in which you lived, concerned with government, with the issuing of orders and with the annoyance about their not being obeyed; and finally a third world where everybody else lived happily and free from orders and from having to obey. I was continually in disgrace; either I obeyed your orders, and that was a disgrace, for they applied, after all, only to me; or I was defiant, and that was a disgrace too, for how could I presume to defy you; or I could not obey because I did not, for instance, have your strength, your appetite, your skill, although you expected it of me as a matter of course; this was the greatest disgrace of all.
This paragraph is so telling---the authoritative person does not keep the commandments he imposes on the child yet keeps the child in a state of continual disgrace because the rules are not kept.
At another point in the letter Kafka talks about how he was able to gain some distance from his father only through his writing. "My writing was all about you; all I did there, after all, was to bemoan
what I could not bemoan upon your breast. It was an intentionally
long-drawn-out leave-taking from you, yet, although it was enforced by
you, it did take its course in the direction determined by me." As his fame grew in his writing career Kafka still couldn't stop himself from seeking his father's approval, which he never got.
Sadly this multiple-page letter (47-pages in this book) was never seen by Kafka's father. According to his biographer, Franz gave the letter to his mother to give to his father. She didn't do it, later returning the letter to her son, unread by the intended recipient.
|Kafka sculpture in Prague|
Reading Kafka is a little like reading someone else's nightmare. But with the historical and biographical information as context, I now can really appreciate this author's works. And though it is doubtful I will ever tell anyone to read him, I can certainly brag a tiny bit that I have finally read some of Kafka's works myself. And the next time I'm in Prague -- I hope there is a 'next time' -- I will be able to look at this sculpture with an understanding why it is so weird.