Autodidact: self-taught


Saturday Shorts: Kafka

by V. L. Craven

This week I’ve begun a collection of Kafka’s short stories. I’ve only read three thus far and I’m hooked, though I know I’m missing at least half of what he’s trying to say. I have an Oxford Very Short Introduction to Kafka, though, so hopefully that will shed some light on the situation.

The three I’ve read are:

“Before the Law”
This is a parable about what we wish for—what keeps us from getting what we believe we desire and the way those things are lies.

“An Imperial Message”
About a message from a dying Emperor that’s just for you but will never reach you because there are too many impediments between the messenger and yourself. Because you can never receive the message you will spend your time dreaming of what it might be.
I think this one is about grandiosity of thought—that to presume an all-powerful emperor would have a message just for you and would use his dying breath to convey it is ridiculously presumptuous.

“Description of a Struggle”

I’m almost at a complete loss on what this story is about beneath the words. On the surface, it’s three revolving shorter pieces about man’s struggle with other men, with nature and with his own mind. One part is about a man who meets another man at a party and then walks with him into the night. I believe the second man is but a fiction the narrator (the first man) invented. In another story he invents the landscape to suit his whims, which reminds me of my lucid dreams—there’s an extended section that’s particularly beautifully written, transcribed below. This story is reminiscent of Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading and The Defense (or Despair—Nabokov has two novels where the protagonist realises he has ultimate control over his reality).

-1- All day in the office, evenings at a party, at night in the streets, and nothing to excess. A way of life so natural that it borders on the excessive!

-2- From these words I imagined that my acquaintance suspected in me something which, although it wasn’t there, made me nevertheless rise in his estimation by his suspecting it. … Who knows, this man [ … ] might be capable of bestowing on me in the eyes of the world a value without my having to work for it.

-3- I had to restrain myself from putting my arm around his shoulders and kissing him on the eyes as a reward for having absolutely no use for me.

-4- I promptly stood up straight as though I had been pulled up by the hair.

-5- I walk on, unperturbed. But since, as a pedestrian, I dreaded the effort of climbing the mountainous road, I let it become gradually flatter, let it slope down into a valley in the distance. The stones vanished at my will and the wind disappeared.
…Because I love pinewoods I went through woods of this kind, and since I like gazing silently up at the stars, the stars appeared slowly in the sky, as is their wont. I say only a few fleecy which a wind, blowing just at their height, pulled through the air…
Opposite and at some distance from my road, probably separated from it by a river as well, I caused to rise an enormously high mountain whose plateau, overgrown with brushwood, bordered on the sky. I could see quite clearly the little ramifications of the highest branches and their movements. This sight, ordinary as it may be, made me so happy that I, as a small bird on a twig of those distant scrubby bushes, forgot the let the moon come up.

-6- Feeling that this required an answer, I put my hand in the hip pocket of my trousers as though I were looking for something. Actually, I wasn’t looking for anything, I just wished to change my appearance in order to show interest in the conversation.

Kafka seems interested in the futility of life, I think, which would make sense as he’s thought of as an existentialist writer.

Thus far I’m finding the work both challenging and rewarding.

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