Saturday, 28 April 2012

Some Thoughts on Franz Kafka

I don’t remember when I first read The Trial; so many years have passed since I discovered that marvellous novel. But since then I’ve dipped in and out of Franz Kafka’s oeuvre without rhyme or reason: there was an old aborted attempt at reading Amerika, still under the spell of The Trial, which left me thinking perhaps Kafka wasn’t as brilliant as I first presumed; then followed The Metamorphosis, the best novella I’ve ever read, and one of the few books to genuinely scare and disturb me (the descriptions of Gregor Samsa’s legs twitching in the air gave me chills). Years later I launched into The Complete Stories, and I preferred some of the fragments and one-paragraph short stories to the longer ones, which, I thought, dragged on a bit. That said, “In The Penal Colony” is incredible! Letter to his Father left me in a state of emotional fragility. A writer of extremes: he either bored the hell out of me or turned my soul inside out.

But in April I took the time to read The Castle and The Man Who Disappeared (a title not as seductive as Amerika), and it’s been great fun! I didn’t just feel a great sense of accomplishment, but a fuller picture of Kafka the writer emerged before my eyes. Reading these two novels almost back to back reminded me of the benefits of reading writers extensively. Readers tend to stick to the best known novels, and I think that’s a mistake. A couple of years ago I was excitedly telling a friend – and to understand why this is tragic, I must stress he’s also a book lover – about how I was devouring Milan Kundera’s novels, and he casually asked, “But what else is there to read besides The Unbearable Lightness of Being?” Oh, there is so much more! It’s not even his best novel; that would be either Life Is Elsewhere or The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. But his books of literary criticism are equally important. His essay “The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes” is a key to explain the role humour plays in his oeuvre and, according to his reading of history, in the whole of Western literature. Without them, the reader will never appreciate the purpose of his fiction. Not to mention they’re a loving survey of literature: without Kundera egging me on, I wouldn’t have read Carlos Fuentes’ monumental novel Terra Nostra, I wouldn’t have discovered Hermann Broch's The Sleepwalkers.

When you’ve really read José Saramago, Milan Kundera, Jorge Luis Borges, Philip Roth, Mario Vargas Llosa, G. K. Chesterton, Eça de Queiroz, Italo Calvino, Gabriel García Márquez, their popular but distorted images melt away and reveal new facets. If you’ve only read one Roth novel, you’ve probably heard that he’s a misogynist who always writes the same book. I presume the first ignorant claim comes from people not bothering to read the excellent early novels When She Was Good and Letting Go, which contain vivid female characters; but also failing to notice that his male characters are loathsome people. Rest assured, what they say about Roth’s women is true: they are emasculating, needy, hysterical bitches. But misogyny presupposes bias in favour of men, and I never found Alexander Portnoy, with his self-centeredness and sexual obsessions, or Nathan Zuckerman and his inexhaustible ability to fuck up situations and alienate family, or Mickey Sabbath with his racism, or even the suicidal Philip Roth of Operation Shylock, to be role models for men. Roth, like many great novelists, has a tinge of misanthropy that transcends gender. The second claim is countered by the diversity of his oeuvre, which contains a novel about baseball (one of his best, coming from someone who doesn’t even understand the rules of the sport), a prescient political satire about Nixon, incursions into erotica, comic and tragic novels, an alternate history novel, a Künstlerroman, a memoir, and even a Kafkaesque fantasy.

Now Kafka is a writer you can say always wrote the same novel. Once you’ve read Kafka’s three novels (and the novella), you start noticing similarities, connections and patterns. For instance, I find it amusing that the names of his three protagonists chronologically shrink: Karl Rossman (The Man Who Disappeared, 1913), Joseph K (The Trial, 1914-1915), and finally just K (The Castle, 1922). Why? I don’t know. Is there any deeper meaning to it? K is no less human than Karl just because he’s a consonant; indeed I would have called him the most human of his characters were it not for Gregor Samsa, the man who turns into an insect, whose growing alienation from his family is heartbreakingly described. When I think of this paring down, I’m reminded of Borges: he was also fond of refining his fiction; after all, what is “The Book of Sand” but a more elegant and concise version of “The Library of Babel?” Why design a cumbersome library that contains all books when you can simply create a portable book with infinite pages that contains all possible variations of the alphabet? Perhaps Kafka just wanted to show that a man’s personality is not in his name; that he could imbue a consonant with a soul and make you care about it.

The novels also tend to revolve around similar situations: the characters struggle against someone or something trying to deprive them of their freedom, or they face abstract antagonists in the form of bureaucratic institutions, or are victims of things they’re not in control of. Once again there’s a progression here: Karl, for instance, is accused of a crime he doesn’t commit, but at least he knows what he’s being accused of and who his accuser is: he’s charged with stealing money from a hotel where he works as a lift-boy; and in this case he’s simply fired, after a humiliating cross-examination with the virulent Head Porter. But in The Trial Joseph K is ignorant of the crime he’s accused of, and he can’t even talk to the authorities handling the case. When we get to The Castle, K is trying to enter a place that is simultaneously physical but also a symbol of a vast administration that extends itself not just to the judicial sphere, but that controls every aspect of a village’s life. K isn’t just facing one department but an entire self-contained world.

(Regarding the absence of abstract forces in The Man Who Disappeared, one of the fragments included in my edition describes the immense Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, where Karl finally finds a job and meets friends that weren’t even introduced in the actual novel. Guessing from the fragment, it was a place with supernatural powers, in a magical realist kind of way. One can only imagine what Kafka could have done with its premise.)

Kafka’s protagonists also share many traits: patience and nonchalance, first and foremost, but also transparency: they’re not characters who hold back their thoughts from others. This is probably to their disadvantage. The other characters tend to have double natures, they’re always scheming. But Kafka’s protagonists refuse to engage in subterfuges or to exert any type of manipulation over others. In fact one could say that they’re too passive, too nice, that they simply accept their destiny. This makes them look weak and dependent on others: after his metamorphosis, Samsa becomes a burden on his family; Karl, freshly arrived from Europe, lives on the grace of others: first his rich uncle, then Robinson and Delamarche, two scoundrels who take him on the road with them. K, after discovering that his land surveying job was a bureaucratic mistake, is made a school janitor by the castle authorities by way of compensation.

Now when I read The Trial, many years ago, I confess Joseph K left me exasperated: “Why doesn’t this guy just run away?” I kept thinking to myself. “Wouldn’t that just solve his problems?” Because he does have the opportunity to run away, in the same way that K has the chance to just leave the village. But they stubbornly endure. And this to me exemplifies non-passivity.

(Gregor Samsa is a curious case: he’s trapped in his own body. Although you can say that the others could simply run away from their problems, Samsa has nowhere to go. More cruelly, he’s a prisoner in his own home. Whereas K reminisces about his childhood and Karl tries to make a new life in a foreign country, Samsa is forced to watch his family life turn into hell exactly because he can’t leave home: bizarrely, one of his first thoughts when he finds himself transformed is that he could still catch the train to work. His family really needed his salary.)

The more I think about it, the more I think Kafka was writing about dignity. His protagonists are not ostentatious symbols of resistance, they don’t pontificate. They are, for better or for worse, characters with an acute sense of common decency. They’re honest, they’re hard-working, they’re prone to helping others and sacrificing themselves. Admittedly, their goodness does them no favours. But I don’t think they are good because they’re role models to a rotten mankind; they’re good because that’s their nature. They endure a soulless, unjust, loveless world with a suicidal serenity and constancy that defuses any pretension to heroism. Their only victory is remaining themselves throughout the novel. They may not change the world they were thrown into, but they prevent the world from changing them, if that's any consolation.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Franz Kafka: The Castle

K, a land surveyor, arrives at a nameless village dominated by a castle belonging to the absent Count Westwest. It’s a dreary, snow-covered place where everyone lives beholden to the power of the simultaneously distant and omnipresent castle authorities. The outsider K immediately senses this closed community’s hostility against him. K is innocently ignorant of the power dynamics in the village and on his first night there incurs the wrath of the villagers by failing to show proper respect to the castle authorities. As a character puts it to him, “There’s no distinction between the local people and the castle.” To slight the castle is to slight the villagers. They form one identity. And now K has come to this place that, he’s frequently admonished, he doesn’t understand, determined to live in it. He hopes that his castle-appointed job will earn him the villagers’ respect. But then he discovers that his appointment as land surveyor was a bureaucratic mistake. To make up to him they hire him as school janitor, a job he’s unfit for. K stubbornly tries to gain access to the castle, falls in love with the barmaid Frieda, meets several villagers, and then the novel ends mid-phrase because it was never finished. I probably won’t read a better novel in 2012.

Franz Kafka is not a difficult writer. The popular image of the austere, humourless, depressing writer doesn’t do justice to the novels he wrote. Don’t be impressed when you hear that he tackles serious topics: freedom, conformity, individualism, justice, bureaucracy. Don’t be too awed when you hear that he wrote of the alienation of modern man, that he was the prophet of our dehumanized world. All this high-fallutin’ talk doesn’t address the fact that Kafka was a very funny writer of bizarre situations. Thanks to their picaresque structure, his novels keep accumulating absurd incidents; plus they have an exuberant freedom: since Kafka wasn’t writing in the realistic tradition of the 19th century novel, his vaguely-defined settings permit him to take the novel in any direction he wishes. Reality is constantly slipping away; what we think is true, changes from chapter to chapter. Every character has a double nature, a secret. And no matter how brief their roles are, they have unique and memorable personalities. This is a novel you constantly cry “aha!” at, grinning at the unexpected twists. It’s like Twin Peaks, decades before.

For me, the funniest bits have to do with the novel’s paradoxes. In fact the novel opens with one: K arrives at the Castle Inn at night but is promptly informed that he needs a permit from the castle to spend the night there. But since no one can get in touch with the castle, K can’t get the permit. Kafka had a dark sense of humour; he loved to tie the narrative into many Gordian knots, but never provided an Alexander to cut them. One of the best sequences where we can see Kafka turning logic inside out is when K discusses the bureaucratic mistake with the village mayor: “It is a working principle of the authorities that they do not even consider the possibility of mistakes being made,” he informs K. This leads them to talk about the vast organisation of the castle’s administration, and how the mistake originated in one Sordini’s department, which prompts K to ask how “supervisory checks” could have failed the administration:

   “You are very severe,” said the mayor, “but if you multiplied your severity a thousand times, it would still be as nothing compared to the severity of the authorities’ attitudes to themselves. Only a complete stranger would ask your question. Are there supervisory authorities? There are only supervisory authorities. To be sure, they’re not intended to detect mistakes in the vulgar sense of the word, since there are no mistakes, and even if there is a mistake, as in your own case, who’s to say that it’s really a mistake in the long run?”
   “That strikes me as an entirely new idea,” cried K.
   “It’s a very old one to me,” said the mayor. “I am no less convinced than you that there has been a mistake, and as a result of his despair Sordini has fallen very ill, and the first supervisory authorities to check the case, those to which we owe the discovery of the source of the mistake, also acknowledge its existence. But who can claim that the second set of supervisory authorities will come to the same conclusion, and then the third set, and so on with all the others?”

This dialogue about the nature of the castle administration is one of the best things Kafka ever wrote, right next to the “Before The Law” parable in The Trial. The administration doesn’t work but it’s too big to change, it’s so vast and dispersed. Its power is frequently alluded to but it doesn’t seem to have a centre. Count Westwest is away. Klamm, an official, is unreachable despite K’s efforts. People without apparent power, like the Mayor’s wife, seem to have more power than appointed officials. In the absence of Count Westwest the castle’s servants have created a surrogate aristocratic class that has power over the villagers just because of their association with the castle. Anyone with a connection to the Castle immediately improves his condition.

Frieda becomes a celebrity of sorts after it’s rumoured that she was Klamm’s lover (a rumour she may have started). At the same time K’s plight may be connected to a revenge exacted by Klamm. Klamm is another elusive authority figure. K only sees him once, through a peep-hole. But Klamm’s appearance also seems to change. The novel exists on the convergence of dream and reality, and truths and certainties dissolve like mist from chapter to chapter.

To heighten its strangeness, the novel is full of doubles and mirror scenes. For instance, there’s the Village Inn and the Castle Inn, which has a greater reputation. There’s the Castle Inn’s landlady and Frieda, both former lovers of Klamm. There are the two castle officers Sordini and Sortini: one is zealous, the other a cad. There are two shoemakers, Brunswick and Barnaba’s father. And Barnaba’s father mirrors K’s futile attempt to contact the castle. Barnaba’s sister, Amalia, once turned down Sortini’s sexual advances and thus brought shame to her family. They were ostracised. Barnaba’s father wastes his money and health trying to gain access to the castle and lift the punishment, but it’s useless. Furthermore, he can’t even prove the villagers are ostracising him because of the castle. There are no written, signed orders, no evidence. He just notices a shift in behaviour. And yet, much like the hostility K faces, it’s sensed it comes from the castle. Against this faceless, bodiless power there’s nothing to do be done.

In spite of the heavy themes of the novel, K is not a great hero, and contrary to what others argue, I don’t think he really stands for inconformity or individualism. He’s not a hippie or a blaxploitation hero sticking it to The Man. This novel is not a J’accuse either. I’ve read rabble-rousing literature. Hell, I’m a fan of José Saramago and Dario Fo. I know when someone is telling to go wave a flag with the hammer and the sickle on it in the middle of the street. But I never got the impression Kafka was trying to make me indignant or furious. K is a gentle, demure, patient character. He always expresses himself with honesty and doesn’t hold back his thoughts from others. He doesn’t speak in a condemnatory tone. In fact he doesn’t even censure authority per se:

“Awe of the authorities is innate in all of you here, and then it is also dinned into you throughout your lives in all manner of different ways and from all sides, and you yourselves add to it as best as you can. I’m saying nothing against that in principle; if authorities are good authorities, why shouldn’t people go in awe of them?”

He doesn’t have a problem against authority, just the castle’s inscrutable authority. Underneath the novel’s absurdism there is a tinge of sadness, though. K is a man trying to retain his individualism and dignity inside a community. And the novel is sad precisely because our belief in our individualism may just be a comforting illusion. “It is said that we all belong to the castle.” Here we can interpret the castle as a metaphor for the great mass of mankind that swallows us up. Naturally we want to assert our individuality and yet we’re condemned to live with others. Rousseau’s myth of the savage who lived in the jungle without ever seeing other men, is a fantasy for men would have gone extinct long ago if it were true. We need others but we’re also determined to protect our self. Rather than forcefully pitting Man versus Society, like we're so used to see in fiction, Kafka timidly lays bare this dilemma that may not have a solution. The realization that this trade-off is inevitable informs the novel’s melancholy. But don't take this melancholy too seriously.

   “I do hope this story isn’t boring you?”
   “Not at all,” said K. “It’s entertaining me.”
   “I’m not telling it to entertain you,” said the mayor.
   “The only reason why it entertains me,” said K., “is the insight it gives me into the ridiculous confusion which, in some circumstances, can determine the course of a man’s life.”  

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Václav Havel: Audience

An audience is a privileged private meeting with a figure of authority, like a king or a president. Thus it’s a meeting built on a clear unbalance of power between the interlocutors: the one granting the audience will always have more clout than the one requesting it. It’s this unbalance that’s at the heart of Václav Havel’s play.

Ferdinand Vanek, an intellectual and playwright fallen in disgrace and living under state surveillance, enters the office of the foreman of the brewery he now works in. Vanek is a blacklisted author who can no longer write. The foreman asks him about his work, about how he’s adjusting to the brewery, about his private life and writing, seemingly interested in him. Then he offers him a better job in the brewery. The foreman initially comes across as a sensitive man willing to help Vanek. But as the play progresses, it becomes obvious he’s acting out of self-interest, and the play, which started quite naturalistically as a slice-of-life story in a totalitarian state, takes a wonderful turn into absurdist territory.

Václav Havel belongs to the tradition of the theatre of the absurd. In his first period as a playwright, he satirized the bureaucracy of Soviet Czechoslovakia. His attention constantly turned to the dehumanization of individuals, the lifelessness of official language, conformism, the power of scheming arrivistes, and the difficulty of principled people to retain their values in a society where it’s easier to give them up. In this period of his career we can include The Garden Party, The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, and his masterpiece, The Memorandum, an Orwellian satire about the invention of an artificial language, Ptydepe, and its implementation in official documents to weed out all linguistic ambiguities and give more clarity to the texts’ meaning.

Audience is the first part of the Vanek trilogy (composed also of Unveiling and Protest), which deals more openly with quotidian life in Czechoslovakia. It’s less about bureaucrats or party members and more about average people: workers, married couples, artists. It’s not about what goes on inside offices, but about what people say and do behind closed doors. This trilogy, with the exception of Leaving, is his most intimate and autobiographical: Ferdinand Vanek is after all a comical alter ego of Havel. The trilogy is not self-aggrandizing: Vanek is hardly a hero in them; in fact he tends to comes out badly at the end of them because his firm moral principles provoke more rage than admiration. The plays are really a medium for Vanek’s interlocutors to express themselves, with the humble playwright serving as passive, self-effacing listener.

Audience deals with the prosecution of intellectuals and artists. As I wrote before, Vanek is no longer allowed to write and now works in a brewery, rolling barrels, a task for which he’s not very fit. The real focus, however, is on the foreman, a man with a simple philosophy of loyalty between men: “I don’t want to boast, that’s not my style, you understand… but why shouldn’t I help somebody when I can? That’s the way I am… even today. People ought to help each other, that’s my philosophy. I help you out of a hole, you help me out of one, isn’t that so?”

But in spite of his benevolence, he knows darkness lurks in the heart of men. “People can be real bastards and no mistake,” he lectures Vanek. “Real bastards. Take my word for it.” He cautions Vanek not to trust his colleagues, except him of course. The foreman doesn’t include himself in the real bastards of this world, of course, and that’s a lovely piece of human psychology. We’re always absent from our moral judgments of humanity.

Although it’s not his style to boast, the foreman never misses an opportunity to remind Vanek that he only has a job because of him. “If there was someone else sitting in my place,” he informs him, “you wouldn’t be working here, I guarantee you that…” Vanek, trying to keep a low profile, always replies with polite gratitude.

It’s noticeable from the start, and it becomes more and more obvious, that the foreman resents and is a bit envious of Vanek. This comes across in little bits of dialogue. When he serves Vanek beer and he politely refuses, the foreman quips, “Wine is more your cup of tea, I suppose.” When Vanek insists in not drinking, the foreman presumes that he’s not Vanek’s “sort of drinking partner,” a far cry from the artistic types he must know:

Vanek: Not at all…
Foreman: After all, I’m not Gott (1), am I… I’m just an ordinary common or garden brewery foreman…
Vanek: You’re a professional just like Gott, just a different profession.

His resentment over Vanek isn’t just social and intellectual but economic too. Like most people, he thinks writers are rolling in money. He doesn’t stop to think that if he had any means, Vanek wouldn’t be rolling barrels in a brewery:

Foreman: Those plays of yours… good money, was it?
Vanek: It varied…
Foreman: You made five thousand a year, at least, didn’t you? At least five?
Vanek: That depends how many performances there are, how much it’s played. Sometimes you earn a lot, other times nothing…
Foreman: What? Nothing for the whole month?
Vanek: Maybe several months…
Foreman: You surprise me. So it’s not all wine and roses, is it? Like everything else…
Vanek: No, it’s not…
Foreman: Funny, isn’t it, when you come to think of it…
Vanek: Yes, I suppose so.
Foreman: Is it and all.

The foreman then offers Vanek a job as a warehouseman. “You’d be in a warm place and you’d shut up shop at lunchtime, say you was clearing up,” he explains Vanek, “and you could think up some more jokes for those theatrical plays of yours, in peace and quiet.” The little dig about Vanek being a write of ‘jokes’ is another fine moment that reveals the foreman’s contempt for the playwright, and probably intellectuals in general, although he turns it into an offer of help. Although Havel satirized the state first and foremost, here he also turns his attention to the loneliness of writers and thinkers, incapable of reaching out to the men they supposedly serve. It’s an idea that he’d later develop in Largo Desolato.

Notwithstanding the quip about the jokes, this is a pretty good offer for Vanek, who relishes at the prospect of not having to roll barrels anymore. The problem is that the foreman wants something in return. Two things actually, both equally ridiculous and impossible for Vanek. First, he wants Vanek to introduce him to his friend the actress Jirina Bohdalová (2). Vanek’s inability to grant this wish only serves to further anger the foreman, who already suspects Vanek thinks he’s too good for a proletarian like him.

The second request is that the foreman is obliged to write reports about Vanek. Unfortunately Vanek leads a very pristine life, without incidents worthy of reporting. He figures that since Vanek is a writer and knows about ‘politics and things,’ he’s the perfect person to write reports on himself. In other words, Vanek is supposed to invent things to report himself on, to make the foreman look good with the authorities. This is when the play becomes wonderfully absurdist:

Vanek: … I can’t inform on myself…
Foreman: Inform… inform? Who’s talking about informing?
Vanek: It’s not myself I’m worried about… it wouldn’t do me any harm… but there’s a principle involved. How can I be expected to participate in…
Foreman: In what? Go on, just say it! What can’t you participate in?
Vanek: In something I have always found repugnant.

Vanek’s moral intransigency leads to the climax of the play, when the foreman launches a long diatribe against “bloody intellectuals” for “putting principles over people:”

Foreman: Principles! I’m not surprised you hang on to your bleeding principles – they come in handy, don’t they, you know how to make a mint out of ‘em, you do, they give you a living – but what about me? Nobody gives me a hand, nobody is scared of me, nobody writes about me, nobody gives a blind bit of notice what I do, I’m just about good enough to shovel the muck out of which your principles can grow, I’m good to find you cosy warm spots for you to play the hero in, and what do I get for all that – nothing but a raspberry. One fine day you will go back to your actresses, you’ll boast about the time you worked here rolling barrels, showing off what a fine big he-man you are – but what about me, eh? What about me?

Vanek ends up looking like the bad guy because of his firm devotion to his principles, which have the uncanny ability of getting a rise out of everyone. Only in the topsy-turvy world Václav Havel creates in his theatre could a man become villainous for refusing to inform on himself. Vanek is a bad person because he doesn’t share the philosophy of the foreman, the one about loyalty between men. Vanek isn’t willing to sacrifice his values, like the rest of the Czechs, so he’s an anomaly.

I can’t, however, stress this enough: Vanek doesn’t feel like a hero because of his moral convictions. He feels bad about their effect on other people. He doesn’t bring attention to them, he doesn’t pontificate like a romantic revolutionary. He simply asserts his identity, which is that of a man who has certain core values. Havel deserves credit for the lack of a condemnatory tone in his plays. Vanek is an agreeable person who doesn’t judge, who’s always ready to understand others. With this play, Havel shows he can laugh at himself and at the problems of his country with a gentle humor (I’m always astonished at how humor flows so naturally from writers who have experienced so much suffering. For me Mikhail Bulgakov is the example par excellence. A Russian satirical playwright who lived in the time of Stalin, he was forbidden to stage his plays; so he turned to humor and fantasy, and wrote one of the 20th century’s comical masterpieces, The Master and Margarita). This humor that laughs in the face of totalitarianism is what I admire most about Havel’s work: it would be so easy for an ideologist to sink into propaganda, into solemn sermons against the nature of tyranny, conformism, etc., to sit in judgment on the sheeple. But Havel disarms all judgment with the lightness of his humor. Havel shows that comedy, rather than being a minor genre, is as good a tool as seriouness to reveal new insights about the human condition. For this is the fundamental purpose of the play, not to, like a non-fiction reportage, show the facts of a regime, but to reveal the psychology of totalitarianism, the way it affects human relationships, the small hypocrisies its citizens indulge in, the miniscule moral battles that have no winners.

As Milan Kundera, Havel’s countryman, once wrote: “Suspending moral judgment is not the immorality of the novel; it is its morality. The morality that stands against the ineradicable human habit of judging instantly, ceaselessly, and everyone; of judging before, and in the absence of, understanding. From the viewpoint of the novel’s wisdom, that fervid readiness to judge is the most detestable stupidity, the most pernicious evil” (3). Replace ‘novel’ with ‘literature’, and you have a theory of literature that holds true to writers in general. 


1: Karel Gott, the most popular male singer in the Czech Republic.
2: Born in 1931, she’s a famous Czech actress.
3: Testaments Betrayed, Milan Kundera.