As in the first full week of October, this past week I’ve been reading one daily from The Complete Short Stories of Franz Kafka. The seven stories I read are contained in ‘The Shorter Stories’ section of the book, with the typical story being about half a page long. In some ways, the stories this time round were more ambiguous even than last week’s; I still, of course, have opinions on them all.
The Way Home (Der Nachhauseweg) begins after a thunderstorm. The narrator, on his way home, reflects on how great his life is, he “find[s] nothing to grumble at save the injustice of providence that has clearly favoured [him].” When he gets home, however, he finds himself “a little meditative, without having met anything on the stairs worth meditating about.” At last, he opens the window, letting in the sound of music that is playing outside.
It is a quite impenetrable little story. When outside the man is happy, overjoyed in fact; inside – in his own home – not so much. He evades, it seems, his meditative state by opening the window – echoing a sentiment from last week’s story The Street Window. Those who watch from a window, it claimed, would find themselves drawn into “the human harmony”.
Perhaps, too, there is a question about where “home” really is: is it indoors shut off from the world, or outdoors among one’s neighbours? One last thing I think might be present is a sense of boredom in the man’s life. He is fortunate, to be sure, but may lack excitement or challenges in his life – he does, after all, have nothing to meditate about. Can you imagine?
Passers-by (Die Vorüberlaufenden) was my favourite of this week’s seven stories. It places the reader (“you”) into an imagined scenario: late at night we see two men running, one chasing the other. We do not intervene. The narrator provides possible explanations for their running: “to amuse themselves”, “both chasing a third”, “the first is an innocent man and the second wants to murder him”, “running separately”, “night birds”.
It concludes with an apparent absolution of the reader’s inaction: “And anyhow, haven’t you a right to be tired, haven’t you been drinking a lot of wine? You’re thankful the second man is now long out of sight.”
Kafka presents a common problem: should we act on incomplete information? If we intervened here, the two men might have been playing, and we would seem a fool; yet, by not intervening, one of the men may have been hurt. It is a problem that I recently had cause to think about.
A few weeks ago my neighbours, whom I know relatively well, had a slight altercation. Late at night, they were shouting. Banging and crashing followed, things were being thrown. Their child had woken up and was crying. I thought, though, knowing them well enough, that there was little risk of violence toward each other. I was vindicated. Nonetheless, I gave plenty of thought to whether I should intervene; and if so, when? At what point, should we act on incomplete information?
On the Tram (Der Fahrgast) is another somewhat perplexing story. It begins with the narrator waiting on the tram platform, “completely unsure of my footing in the world.” He is lost, and doesn’t know where he is going in life, “I have not even any defense to offer for standing on this platform… Nobody asks me to put up a defense, indeed, but that is irrelevant.” As the tram arrives, he notices a girl ready to board, “as distinct to me as if I had run my hands over her.” He sees something in this girl that he does not in himself and, after a description of what she looks like, he wonders: “How is it that she is not amazed at herself, that she keeps her lips closed and makes no such remark?”
It can probably be assumed that the narrator perceived the girl as guided by a purpose, sure of where she was going. Not, like him, on autopilot. Why, then, is she not amazed? My guess would be because the girl, were she the narrator, would say much the same as our current narrator; that she might instead look over and see in the man the same qualities as he discerns in her. It might be that our actions always – or at least, generally – give the appearance of purpose; even if inside we are floundering.
Victory and fame are shown to have their downsides in Reflections for Gentlemen-Jockeys (Zum Nachdenken für Herrenreiter). As in Passers-by, the reader (“you”) is placed into the action, as a jockey who has won a race.
The first downside presented is that every win comes at the losers’ expense: “the envy of your opponents”. Friendships, too, are risked: some have bet on us, our win becomes their win; other friends, though, have not – they feared if we lost it would give rise to anger and affect our friendship – and now you have won and they “have won nothing, they turn away as you pass.” “For many ladies” – and, I expect, many men – “the victor cuts a ridiculous figure… swelling with importance and yet cannot cope with the never-ending handshaking, saluting, bowing and waving.”
Reflections shares, in my opinion, a thread with The Way Home. Here, success is shown to have its disadvantages. In The Way Home, a perfectly comfortable life seems to as well. At least, to me it does.
The Wish to be a Red Indian (Wunsch, Indianer zu Werden) is the shortest of the seven stories. “If one were only an Indian, instantly alert, and on a racing horse”, it begins, before describing briefly, how one would roam the wilderness. The only meaning I can reckon on is a yearning for freedom, perhaps the romanticisation of the nomadic lifestyle of some Native Americans. Relatively modern contrivances, “spurs” and “reins”, are cast aside; they are not needed. There is a yearning for freedom, but from what? Society, sure. Modernity, too, perhaps.
At four pages long Unhappiness (Unglücklichsein) is, by a substantial margin, the longest of this week’s stories. It starts with the narrator in some unspecified turmoil, “When it was becoming unbearable… [I] found a new goal in the depths of the looking glass and screamed aloud, to hear only my own scream”. Following that display a child enters his quarters, a ghost child.
In conversation the narrator is offended by the child’s “impudence”, and cannot understand why it should want to address him that way. “You say your nature forces you to speak to me like that? Is that so? Your nature forces you? That’s kind of your nature. Your nature is mine, and if I feel friendly to you by nature, then you mustn’t be anything else.” This rebuke follows the child’s own assertion that: “No stranger could come any nearer to you than I am already by nature.”
Having been in the dark, the man lights a candle. Then decides to go for a walk. On the way out he encounters, on the stairs a neighbour, whom he tells about the ghost child. He is sure that it is a ghost, despite not believing in ghosts. His neighbour counsels that, since he does not believe, “you don’t need to feel afraid if a ghost actually turns up.” The narrator, though, explains: “that’s only a secondary fear. The real fear is a fear of what caused the apparition. And that fear doesn’t go away. I have it fairly powerfully inside me now.”
Parting from his neighbour, the narrator has a final thought. Despite his dissatisfaction with the ghost child, he warns: “All the same… if you steal my ghost from me all is over between us, forever.” Instead of going for a walk (which previous stories suggest might have done him a world of good), “I felt so forlorn I preferred to go upstairs again and so went to bed.”
It is relatively clear, based on the title, just what this story is about. The ghost child is a representation of the narrator’s self – a younger, perhaps truer, self that the narrator has somehow lost. Aging has been a recurrent theme in Kafka’s stories – the world takes its toll. Innocence is lost, we become jaded. Disconnected from the happiness of youth, the narrator must be unhappy; the ghost child represents self-loathing and self-debasement, anger at oneself for not being (able to be) happy. We might be more inclined to interpret this story as not just one of unhappiness, but of depression, I think there is certainly grounds to do so.
But Kafka has rarely been so plain. In parting from the neighbour, things change somewhat. He does not want his ghost to be stolen. Our unhappiness is ours; unpleasant though it is, it is a part of us. Can we get rid of it? Maybe. Should we?
Bachelor’s Ill Luck (Das Unglück des Junggesellen) is the last story I read this week and offers the least resistance to interpretation. This little piece is very much about loneliness. The life of a life-long bachelor is set out in unfavourable terms: “It seems so dreadful”. “To become an old man struggling to keep one’s dignity while begging for an invitation whenever one wants… company”; “always having to say goodnight at the door”; “only side doors in one’s room leading into other people’s living rooms”; etc.
There really isn’t much more I can add on this story. I don’t consider that the bachelor’s life has to be lonely, I once had aspirations to it myself. On the other hand, I am married now and have no intention of changing that!
And that concludes my discussion of the Kafka stories I read last week. As ever, feel free to comment any thoughts you have. (And if any of the stories take your fancy, a quick Google search should give you access.)
Thanks for reading!!
–Check out the previous week’s post: ‘Ten Short Stories of Kafka‘
**The Complete Short Stories, Franz Kafka (Vintage, 2005) **