Franz Kafka's Complete Short Stories
The Complete Short Stories (Amazon.com)
The Complete Short Stories (Amazon.co.uk)
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
barry at June 17, 2006 9:39 PM