I had a problem: I didn’t have a book to read this weekend. I finished Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian on Friday, but wouldn’t get Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared until early next week. Being bookless is a serious predicament.
Like I normally do when I am without a new book to read, I went to my bookshelves to see what I could find. Franz Kafka caught my eye, and I’m glad he did.
I haven’t read Kafka for a while, so I started with the story that always fascinated me the most: The Trial. This story of a man arrested for an unrevealed crime is popular in creative writing classes, because so much is going on and the plot develops so marvellously. It is revealing, and yet so mysterious. Even the main character’s name is reduced to an initial: K. I didn’t realise it until I re-read this story, but this beautiful use of K. influenced me quite a bit in something I’ve written myself. I’m sure I’m not the only one.
Next, I read In the Penal Colony because I wanted to study how Kafka holds the attention of the reader. It really is remarkable. While a thriller author like Dan Brown reaches out and forcibly grabs the reader, forcing her to pay attention, Karka is subtle and sly. He makes you want to pay attention. It is your choice, not his, to stay so engaged with the story. (Or so you think.)
Then, of course, I had to read The Metamorphosis. Undoubtedly, this is one of the best short stories about family relationships ever written. By the way, the protagonist has been turned into a giant bug of some sort. How can you possibly get any better than that?
I also read many of Kafka’s extremely short works, some abandoned after only a paragraph. I was particularly intrigued by an untitled story where the protagonist rapes a girl and proceeds to think about it. The rape itself is barely mentioned. Kafka instead spends his time and interest on the aftermath.
The character can’t understand why the girl is so upset, hesitantly recognises he has committed an ‘offence’ against her, and dismisses her. ‘…he, the great, strong person, could push the girl aside.’ The main character finishes by calmly surveying the countryside.
In Kafka’s notes, he says what intrigued him most about this story is one line:
Later he had to carry water from the river in his cupped hands and pour it over the girl’s face to restore her.
The word ‘pour’ was particularly important. The aftermath of the rape is dominated by the character’s shifting mental processes and observations, but here is an action driven by his strange empathy / non-empathy for his victim.
Kafka manages to tell this amazingly powerful story in only half a page of printed text. Many writers could never do it, no matter how many words they used. This sharp focus, this economy of words, is very inspiring. Now I’m rather glad Jonnason’s book didn’t arrive in time, so I could spend a weekend with Kafka.