Thursday, 14 May 2009

40. Franz Kafka - 'The Judgment' (1923)

'So Georg confined himself to giving his friend unimportant items of gossip such as rise at random in the memory when one is idly thinking things over on a quietSunday. All he desired was to leave undisturbed the idea of the home town which his friend must have built up to his own content during the long interval.'

(Franz Kafka, The Complete Short Stories, Minerva, p.79)

The Trial (1925) was a key novel in developing my literary tastes; reading it at age 15/16 was a definite portal to Beckett, Pinter, The Prisoner, Orson Welles and so much else that informs and excites. There is black humour, hopelessness, and the modern world writ large: no one is driving, no megalomaniac running the show; merely systems, ways of thought or customs running automatically and inflecting how we live. Arbitrary, never random.

Aside from 'Metamorphosis', this is the first short story of Kafka's I have read, and a comforting old piece of bedsitter fiction it is!

'The Judgment' concerns one Georg Bendelmann, a merchant; in probing, third-person prose, it is described how he has corresponded by letter with an old friend for three years since the friend left for St. Petersburg. He selectively portrays the world that his friend left behind, omitting the major news of his forthcoming marriage to a Fraulein Frieda Brandenfeld, having earlier neglected to mention his progress in business.

He is considerate in an unusual way with his friend's presumed feelings; considering, whilst conversing with his upper-crust fiance, how he might feel if invited to the wedding: "Alone - do you know what that means?" (pp.79-80) His exaggerated, speculative concern for his friend's feelings - "a genuine friend of the opposite sex, which is not without importance to a bachelor" - is subtly undermined by the fact of his friend never writing back. (p.80)

The story shifts from the reflective to the melodramatic; Georg's perceptions of reality finally being challenged by the external world and leading to something of a mock-tragic, bathetic ending. There are plenty of exclamation marks, and unexpected bursts of action, puncturing the stillness engendered by the epistolary motif which characterises the early section. Georg's relationship with his father comes to the fore, and completely alters our view of things - initially, influenced by a third-person narrative looking at the world as G. sees it. The affair assumes Steptoe and Son dimensions, with the anguished bitterness of 'Loathe Story' resolved. The resolution, while rooted in Ibsenite naturalism, carries a melodramatic charge leavened by absurdism - how far have we travelled since the sedate - even complacent - opening 'Sunday morning in the very height of spring'? The letters being sent turn out to have been of a rather different nature, but I shall not divulge the full details...


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