Sunday, June 23, 2024

Kafka's great fire

The centenary of Kafka's death was marked twelve years late. His diary records it in September 1912:

This story, The Judgment, I wrote at one sitting during the night of the 22nd-23rd, from ten o'clock at night to six o'clock in the morning. I was hardly able to pull my legs out from under the desk, they had got so stiff from sitting. The fearful strain and joy, how the story developed before me, as if I were advancing over water. Several times during this night I heaved my own weight on my back. How everything can be said, how for everything, for the strangest fancies, there waits a great fire in which they perish and rise up again. How it turned blue outside the window. A wagon rolled by. Two men walked across the bridge. At two I looked at the clock for the last time. As the maid walked through the anteroom for the first time I wrote the last sentence. Turning out the light and the light of day. The slight pains around my heart. The weariness that disappeared in the middle of the night. The trembling entrance into my sisters' room. Reading aloud. Before that, stretching in the presence of the maid and saying, I've been writing until now. The appearance of the undisturbed bed, as though it had just been brought in. The conviction verified that with my novel-writing I am in the shameful lowlands of writing. Only in this way can writing be done, only with such coherence, with such a complete opening out of the body and the soul.   [Translated by Joseph Kresh]

The story and its importance for Kafka has always intrigued me because its mundane setting and the petty concerns of the protagonists are hardly earth shattering, with the Freudian red flags, the extremity of the father's sentence and Georg's immediate self-execution suggesting a drama overdetermined in its compression: social realism and absurdity squash up and cancel each other out. What is left?

Gabriel Josipovici's review of the recent book collecting Kafka's drawings offers an understanding of what distinguishes The Judgment from what came before. He shows that the drawings are in keeping with his writing of the time such as in Betrachtung/Contemplation in which "what happens is governed not by the conventions of fin-de-siècle storytelling but simply by the feelings of the protagonist". In the drawings it takes for the form of "ludicrously tall or squat people stretching, twisting, leaning from or away from one another". What's notable for Josipovici is that Kafka more or less stopped drawing after that September night. Until then both writing and drawing came relatively easily, but it was precisely such ease that was the problem: 

Writing [dependent on feelings] may initially feel promising, but it soon palls. If I have simply to write something down to summon it into being, if everything depends entirely on my mood as I write, then what is the point of writing anything at all?

The point of writing for many is to win the world's favour, to be admired, fêted at literary festivals. Kafka had recognised it himself when as a child he tried to impress his family by writing a story in front of them, which, after some overt attention seeking, was dismissed by an uncle as "the usual stuff".

It is one of the clichés of our time that we all have our stories to tell. But Kafka tells us here that such stories are always self-serving, created by us to protect ourselves from reality and out of the desire to "shine"...
Kafka wanted something less tangible, as his reticence to follow the paths of his celebrated writers among his friends suggests:

What he is after in his writing, he notes in January 1911, is "a description in which every word would be linked to my life, which I would draw to my heart and which would transport me out of myself."

If Kafka was "made of literature" as he told Felice, then the story and Georg's suicide is Kafka's transport out of literature:

He has discovered that while words are far more recalcitrant than drawing, it is only in the art of words that narrative can be produced and can then turn against itself and uncover its corrupt origins and motivations. By so doing it reveals its beneficent and healing power: the power to speak the truth about our desires and the world of others. By writing stories that dramatize writing and the fantasies of the imagination and then dramatizing their destruction, he escapes the realm of fantasy, of solipsism.

The final sentence here compresses a question that has preoccupied me for a long time: how does one escape genre? In Kafka's terms, how does one turn out the light of the self for the light of day?

Four years ago I wrote that JM Coetzee's The Death of Jesus might be characterised as the last novel, as it took form and content into a limbo of indeterminate clarity. It dramatises the fantasties of genre fiction in which otherwise we find freedom and safety, and does so to the point of sabotaging both, hence the consternation of professional critics. Could it be in its own way a three-volume decompression of The Judgment? The trilogy leaves us exposed to the open much as Kafka's story does; a kind of metaphysical exile, as Robert Pippin's calls it. It may also follow Josipovici's description of The Judgment as "a ritual of exorcism", reinforced by the name in each title. This potential to strip literature of its layers of protection from the outside is invariably missed, repressed or misunderstood because it is soon absorbed into the process of literary evaluation. We can see it in the celebrations of the belated centenary in collections such as this one subtitled Ten Kafkaesque Stories.

What happens when some of the most original literary minds of today take an idea, a mood or a line from his work and use it to spark something new?

How about a great fire for the vanities of fiction in a complete opening out of body and soul?

From a future society who ask their AI servants to construct a giant tower to reach God; to a flat hunt that descends into a comically absurd bureaucratic nightmare; to a population experiencing a wave of unbearable, contagious panic attacks, these ten specially commissioned stories are by turns mind-bending, funny, unsettling and haunting.

Oh right, the usual stuff.

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