Wednesday, July 02, 2014

A Month of Short Stories and Their Authors
July 2nd: Franz Kafka, "The Judgment"

now reading: Best Short Stories/Die schönsten Erzählungen, A Dual-Language Book
by Franz Kafka (ed. and trans. by Stanley Appelbaum)
+ like 6 other books at the same time, but it's not as bad as it sounds

Yesterday as July commenced I explained that I have (yet) a(nother) little reading project wherein I shall read and reflect on one short story and/or its author per day throughout July. We kicked it off with Margaret Atwood's "Happy Endings" and my jabber about both my experience reading her novels and how I totally hated/didn't get The Handmaid's Tale upon first reading it. Today, we continue with another author I've read before, the mighty Franz Kafka. Since I have the abovementioned book of his stories checked out from the library right now and it's due back in a week or two, he shall be my story of the day author a few times this month. (By the way, I think the word "erzählungen" is more like "narrative" or "story" than "short story" as we know that term in English; am I right, my fluent German peeps?)

Today's Story: "The Judgment"/"Das Urteil"
Author: Franz Kafka

My rating:  A -

First of all, let's start by saying that the word "judgment" drives me crazy because I never know how to spell it. Everyone has that one word that they can never feel they are spelling correctly (well, everyone except you people who suck at spelling, who presumably have lots of words like that) and mine has always been "judgment" although the thing is that it can also be spelled "judgement" and therein lies the problem. For years I would write one and then the other, but no matter what I wrote, it felt wrong. Only to find out both are right. Argh. However, since this book/translator goes with no 'E' we shall do the same in this blog entry.

Although "The Judgment" is weird, it is immensely likable. What do I mean by "weird"? Well, this is Kafka, after all. But it's not absurd-weird or non-linear-weird or magical-realism-weird, it's more like emotional "What just happened?" weird. I don't want to give spoilers, but I will say that when the father gets angry and "judges" I found myself very confused. What is he mad about? Was he pretending not to know the friend, or was he really going crazy? And then there's all the stuff leading up to that: I really had no idea what to make of it, either, namely the relationship between Georg and his friend. Is this supposed to be a closet homosexual thing, and that's why he doesn't want to announce the engagement?  I mean, color me severely confused. And yet! The confusion in no way makes you want to not read the story or throw the book across the room or anything like that. You just keep reading and reading and get right on to the end and you think, "Whoa!" and only then do you ask, "Wait, why did that all just happen? What does it mean?"  (Like life?)

Therefore, confused about what the actions of the story mean on the surface, I happily turn to the symbolic realm, which is where Kafka's real writing genius lies, no? The friend is the true inner Kafka...bachelorhood is Kafka's writing/art/career/life's purpose from which engagement will snatch him away...the father is perhaps a god-like ultimate Judge, perhaps the judge within Kafka himself...the bridge is all that connects two people...

And speaking of that bridge, a cursory "what the heck just happened?" internet search upon finishing reading "The Judgment" leads me to many different literary critics (plus, even Wikipedia goes there) who point out that the German word "Verkehr" can mean both "traffic" and "intercourse, of the sexual variety" and that word's appearance in the end of the story is thus fraught with all kinds of meaning. Which is interesting, but I still see the bridge as having a lot of layers, not just one sexually symbolic point, especially because Georg stares at it in the beginning of the story after finishing his letter.

I do love the German language. German was the first foreign language that I studied, and I'm really sad that I could take only two years of it in high school (there wasn't enough student interest for a third year class my junior year, sadly, as SO many high-schoolers dutifully took the two years that look good on a college application and then bailed) and I'm even sadder that as I then studied French, and began dabbling in other languages, I let my mad German skills slip away. I need to rekindle them. Anyway, in this particular story I loved the word  korrespondenzverhältnis, which describes the relationship between Georg and his friend who is off living in St. Petersburg, so they only communicate by letter these days. Correspondence-relationship doesn't have nearly the same ring in English (not to mention it's not a word), but in my life I have totally had a korrespondenzverhältnis or two. He knows his friend -- they grew up together or whatever -- but now they are living in two different countries so they have a korrespondenzverhältnis. Maybe this just speaks strongly to my expat soul or my adolescent dozens-of-pen-pals soul, but I've had several other korrespondenzverhältnis, too, in which my relationship with a friend or family member became truly richer and deeper through letters, after or in between seeing them in person. I miss writing letters, damn it!!!

Franz Kafka. Just as with yesterday's Margaret Atwood whose famous The Handmaid's Tale was the first thing I read by her, the first Kafka I ever read was his mega-famous "The Metamorphosis," back in the AP English day. I've since also read The Trial, but I *think* that's it for the Kafka and me. (I know -- pathetic. I don't know why people think I could ever qualify as a literary snob, having read so little Kafka, not to mention less than half of Atwood's oeuvre. What the heck, people?) I liked "The Metamorphosis,"  although I kind of recall not love-loving it (it sure beat the hell out of Faulkner, though, I'll give it that!) because I wanted the weirdness to be more wacky and fun instead of darkly brooding and stuff. You have to understand that my sister was two years ahead of me in school and therefore in English literature classes, so she was forever dropping hints about things I would get around to a couple years later (in some cases the hints became major spoilers, i.e, SPOILER ALERT Anna Karenina and her train, while other times the hints just allowed me to be a particularly precocious high school freshman, randomly dropping Beowulf into conversation with other juniors who I knew were in my sister's English class when she wasn't around).  So she had talked up this story about "a guy who turns into a cockroach" and one does not easily forget that, now does one? After two years of interpretation, I suppose in my head it had become incredibly grotesque and cartoonish and spectacular, but really it's kind of sad and drudgery-laden. (I repeat: like life?)

Anyway, "The Metamorphosis" ("Die Verwandlung") is in this library book I have checked out now, so I'll reread it this week and see how it and I have aged since high school. The Trial was also weird, but not absurd-weird or magic-weird or wacky-weird, just more "What's happening here?" with an eerie calm hanging over it all. (Again: government, society, life.) Kafka is one of those authors who is constantly on my to-read-more-of list that I stupidly never get around to reading more of. I'm glad to remedy that at least a tiny bit this month!

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