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June 17, 2006

Franz Kafka's Complete Short Stories

Posted by barry

Franz Kafka - The Complete Short Stories

Franz Kafka

The Complete Short Stories (

The Complete Short Stories (

The Complete Short Stories (Powell's Books - new or secondhand)

Franz Kafka's works remain as striking and as important to read after the 20th Century as they did during it. His writings came from an inner world and he wrote out of artistic compulsion: "The tremendous world I have in my head. But how free myself and free it without being torn to pieces. And a thousand times rather be torn to pieces than retain it in me or bury it. That, indeed, is why I am here, that is clear to me." This compulsion is what separates the mind of the writer from the immersed reader. Perhaps as a writer he was the reluctant nightwatchman of "At Night", in which he wrote "Someone must watch, it is said. Someone must be there."

The story "The City Coat Of Arms" tells of the Tower of Babel and how the building of it is permanently delayed because "the next generation with their perfected knowledge will find the work of their predecessors bad, and tear down what has been built so as to begin anew." Each generation gets nearer to the knowledge and each generation waits, hoping that the next generation will attain it - but will it ever? The townspeople of Babel in the story are actually at a far remove from the entire issue of knowledge, they are lost among peripheral distractions. The vast distance between living beings and truth or even the question of truth is a current running through Kafka's works. On one level, it appears as the (possibly inherent) gulf between the individual and power: in "The Great Wall of China", an imperial message can never arrive and the decrees of the high command can never be understood.

[Kafka's nightmarish depiction of the individual's plight in this regard foreshadowed what was to happen in the 20th century after his death, namely the rise of totalitarianism and bureaucracy - his three sisters were to die in the Holocaust - but the predicament of the individual is a permanent one]

Impossible situations are depicted in many of these stories, for example in "The Next Village" life is too short even to get to the neighbouring village. In "Advocates" a similar situation is somehow self-created: "As long as you don't stop climbing, the stairs won't end..." Does power over the individual only exist *because* of the individual? In "Investigations Of A Dog" the narrator describes a song that is sung at him as a sonic weapon: "the worst was that it seemed to exist solely for my sake" [this is similar to the famous "Before The Law" parable from The Trial, which is included in this volume as a separate piece]. In "The Burrow", the individual is directly responsible for his own powerlessness, through the narrator's possession of the burr o! w: "The joy of possessing it has spoiled me, the vulnerability of the burrow has made me vulnerable; any wound to it hurts me as if I myself were hit."

However, to read Kafka's works on the *one level* I've just mentioned is to reduce them and to dilute the experience of reading them. The individual that we find in Kafka's stories only reveals something about "humanity" as much as a single writer's imagination reveals a shared human dreamspace. To what degree this is so is mysterious.

Is it possible that we feel we *know* what is happening to Gregor Samsa when he wakes one morning to find himself transformed into a giant insect in "The Metamorphosis"?

- Barry Kavanagh

Posted by barry at June 17, 2006 9:39 PM

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