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Monday, 4 April 2011

Franz Kafka: Resolutions


Eyes (Jewgienij Bal)
: photo by Anna Bal, 2005

To lift yourself out of a miserable mood, even if you have to do it by strength of will, should be easy. I force myself out of my chair, stride around the table, exercise my head and neck, make my eyes sparkle, tighten the muscles around them. Defy my own feelings, welcome A. enthusiastically supposing he comes to see me, amiably tolerate B. in my room, swallow all that is said at C.'s, whatever pain and trouble it may cost me, in long draughts.

Yet even if I manage that, one single slip, and a slip cannot be avoided, will stop the whole process, easy and painful alike, and I will have to shrink back into my own circle again.

So perhaps the best resource is to meet everything passively, to make yourself an inert mass, and, if you feel that you are being carried away, not to let yourself be lured into taking a single unnecessary step, to stare at others with the eyes of an animal, to feel no compunction, in short, with your own hand to throttle down whatever ghostly life remains in you, that is, to enlarge the final peace of the graveyard and let nothing survive save that.

A characteristic movement in such a condition is to run your little finger along your eyebrows.

Franz Kafka: Resolutions (Entschlüsse), written between 1904 and 1912, from Betrachtung (Meditation), 1913, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir in The Penal Colony: Stories and Short Pieces, 1948



Tom, I thought I'd continue the discussion here... Kafka might have known little Czech, since the place wasn't bilingual as much as balkanized (or linguistically a salad bowl vs. a melting pot). The German speakers generally knew only "kitchen Czech" -- enough to tell their servants what to make for dinner, the same way some of the upper middle class here knows enough Spanish to instruct their maids. Also of course was that German was/is a world language and Czech a minor one, so the motive for writing in German is obvious.

Similar to what you say about German, Czech also allows you to put your sentence in any word order you want. The words at the end of the sentence are considered emphasized.

If you're reading Kafka in the original, could I ask if you're finding a lot more humor than in the English translation? I understand that until recently the translations failed to capture the funny stuff, which is why we think of Kafkaesque as mainly weird, dark and tormented but not also necessarily comical.

Anonymous said...

I've been there and done exactly that (with my little finger). This is so true to life including, as Vincent says, both the torment and the humor. Feeling isolated and trapped with no ability at least to enjoy some part of yourself is obviously the worst feeling of all.

TC said...

Vincent, I think the twin pincers of Existentialism and Zionism were the tines of the double-bladed shishkebab fork upon which Franz's work got skewered for many generations of readers, who were inclined to think of him as a soberfaced, gloomy example of something he wasn't, quite.

What he was, I believe, was a writer, and for me, principally a comic writer, one who brilliantly captures the terrible desperate quotidian comedy of life as lived. And the word order is part of the drama of that capture.

Angelica's mother recalled that, as an Austrian child, she spent more time around the Czech household servants than she did around anyone else (there were private schools and tutors, so the public schoolyard was not applicable), as a result of which, having learned that useful language at the age when languages ought to be learned (i.e. before the brain starts to ossify), she spoke fluent Czech.

She wrote some lovely poems, too, in a beautiful fluid hand, in a ruled school notebook which came down to us many years later. They were, of course, written in German, the language of that race which had murdered her brother, confiscated her family goods, and driven the remainder of the family into exile.

But then, to fuzzyup the comparison a bit, I have written a few sentences over the years in English, the language of the master race that drove my grandparents' people out of their own country, Ireland.

Accident, fate, imperialism, history, all these things seem to take turns bouncing our pathetic little destinies about, so that in the end not very much makes sense.

But to get back to Kafka, when I read him, I laugh out loud. And this is a rare thing for me. Offhand the only other writers I can think of who do this for me on a regular basis are Beckett, Nabokov... well, that's a pretty shortlist of geniuses, I suppose. But the head is thick with sleeplessness, at the moment, and doubtless there are others.

The point is, Vincent and Curtis, I suspect that all three of us may be enjoying the anxious brilliance of Kafka in much the same way. And that, in itself, is saying something.

It did strike me, by the by, that the dark-browed visage of the fellow in the photograph did somewhat evoke the countenance of Kafka; and certainly the brows do look suitable for the gesture (of -- what? -- a sort of desperate repression?) described at the end of the tale.

TC said...

Curtis, speaking of been there and done that, after an unusually trying day today, I actually found myself at one point aimlessly running my finger across my brow after the fashion described by Franz.

It didn't help much, except to provoke a resolution to give my eyebrow a good scrub as soon as I get the opportunity.

Elmo St. Rose said...

Tom Clark, the great

TC said...

Elmo, the far greater.