Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Some Short Stories by Franz Kafka

I'd never read anything by Kafka before, although I've always intended to at some point. I spent the past week in a frenzy of downloading free Kindle books and then realized that my glut of new e-books didn't include any of Kafka's works. (A quick search revealed the reason why: none of them were free, which makes a big difference to a cheapskate like me.)

I decided I could spare some change and ordered a collection of Kafka's works (not complete, but it looked like a good sampler). It included five very short stories.

Before the Law. Apparently this is part of Kafka's novel The Trial (which I haven't read yet, though it's a part of the collection I ordered). It is a parable about a "man from the country who asks to gain entry into the law." He spends his entire life pleading with the gatekeeper, but to no avail.

I can recognize the themes of frustration and futility in this story, but beyond that I only have questions. First of all, I have no idea what it might mean to "gain entry into the law." Does he want a job as a judge? Is he seeking forgiveness? Does he want to make a deal with the feds so they'll look the other way while he sells moonshine at the speakeasy? Second of all, why the heck did he have his very own gate assigned to him if there was no possible way for him to go through it? Or is the whole point that he should not have waited for permission? It seems that was the only thing he didn't try.

The Hunter Gracchus. A dead hunter (who is also alive "to a certain extent") travels through all the countries of the earth in his death ship which has lost its way. I guess the moral of the story is that there's a big difference between only mostly dead and all dead, and it may be best if you don't go through this hunter's clothes to look for loose change. (OK, that last bit has nothing to do with the story, but I couldn't resist.) Anyway, once again it's a story of endless frustration.

Up in the Gallery. A very brief (two paragraph) story about a frail consumptive circus rider, and the absurd way things might be in contrast with the not much less absurd way things are. What stood out most to me about this story was that each paragraph was one very, very long sentence, so that the entire story is made up of two sentences.

An Imperial Message. This is an introductory parable to the short story entitled "The Great Wall of China" (which is not included in the collection I purchased). A peasant dreams of a message sent to him by a dying emperor which, even if its very existence weren't improbable, is undeliverable due to logistics. Another exercise in futility.

Jackals and Arabs. I'm not trying to insult anyone here, but I wondered if the talking jackals in this story represented the Jewish people. "It seems to be a very old conflict--it's probably in the blood and so perhaps will only end with blood . . . you should end the quarrel which divides the world in two."

Time Transfixed, 1938
by René Magritte
Judging by this brief foray, Kafka's writing reminds me of paintings like this one. It's technically superior, but it leaves me with the feeling that there is something about it that I don't understand. The individual elements may make perfect sense, but their juxtaposition causes me to question why. Though the superficial view is deceptively simple, I am just sure there are hidden layers of underlying meaning that I am not grasping.

If you are suffering from Kafkaphobia, try a few of his short stories. They may not make any more sense to you than they did to me, but they are not difficult to read and you will get a taste of his style without investing much time. They may be enough to dispel your fear and lead you to read one of his novels. And if you do understand them, you can explain them to me!


Jessica said...

haha I have to read a couple of Kafkas novels for my course over the next couple of months which should be interesting. Mind you I also have to read Faulkner which might be harder.

I did notice that they were not free on the kindle (boo hiss)

Eclectic Indulgence said...

I assume that you've read "The Metamorphosis?"

I think that you should read "The Trial". I'm not sure you'll get answers to all your questions, but you'll get a better context. Here's my review:

Suzanne said...

My classics book group just read The Metamorphosis and it was - weird. Included in my edition was several other stories, and one of them, In the Penal Colony, was just downright creepy.

I now get the meaning of the term "Kafkaesque"

Kathy said...

Jess--I'll be looking forward to hearing how that goes for you (with both authors)! My take so far--Kafka's writing is deceptively simple (easy to read, not so easy to grasp his hidden meaning--for me, anyway!) and the difficulty with Faulkner is in following his characters' confusing stream of consciousness, but it doesn't leave me feeling like I'm missing the bigger point.

E.I.--I know the basic premise of Metamorphosis, although honestly I can't remember if I've read it before. I put it on my TBR a while ago, because if I can't remember reading it, that means either I never have, or it's time for a re-read. But it (along with The Trial and In the Penal Colony) is a part of the Kafka collection I bought, so I'll be reading all of those at some point. Thanks for the link to your review--I'm going to wait and read it after I've read the book itself.

So apparently, according to Suzanne, I have a good dose of weird and creepy in my future! :) Judging by these short stories, that sounds about right.

Stephanie said...

As a matter of fact, I do have some Kafkaphobia, and I think short stories would be a good place for me to start. Thank you for the thorough review. And I love your comparison between Kafka and surrealist art. I love surrealist artists like Magritte, but I feel exactly the same way, that there's something I'm REALLY not getting.

Kathy said...

Stephanie--I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one! I'm sure some people must "get it," but this sort of writing or art always gives me more questions than answers.

You can find many more short stories by Kafka through google books, and most of those I read/linked to are attached to others. Good luck in overcoming your Kafkaphobia!

Becky (Page Turners) said...

The only Kafka I have read is The Metamorphosis and I loved it. There was so much in it it felt almost impossible to review. I will try and read some more of his books

Kathy said...

Sounds like The Metamorphosis is packed full of things to think about. Which makes me even more certain I've never read it--surely I would remember something about it!