Friday, September 27, 2013

The Judgment and The Stoker from the book The Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Franz Kafka

In addition to The Metamorphosis, the collection of short stories by Franz Kafka includes The Judgment and The Stoker.  I am going to try to give a brief review of each of these stories.

The Judgment is another story about a father and son.  Georg Bendemann is a young businessman who has done quite successfully for himself.  He has recently become engaged and is debating within himself whether he should inform a friend, who is living in another country, of his impending marriage.  This friend has not fared well in his career or in relationships.  Georg wonders if news of his own good fortune would not cause his friend more grief.

When he finishes his letter he enters into the room where his invalid father is staying.  It is time to help his father to bed.  As he assists his dad to his bed, he informs him of the letter to his friend.  The father does not recognize the name of the man.  Georg spends some time reminding him of who he is.

As he finishes tucking him into bed, his father suddenly sits up and blazes out all sorts of vile accusations towards his son.  He accuses Georg of cheating his friend and causing his poverty.  He makes nasty (and graphic) insinuations about his fiancee.

Georg listens to all of this incredulously.  He feebly tries to defend himself but he is no match for his father's vitriol.  One accusation after another rolls off his father's tongue.  In the end his father pronounces judgment.  Georg will receive the death penalty by drowning.

As soon as the judgment is made, Georg feels himself propelled out of the room, across the street and over the bridge where he hangs on weakly.  He murmurs, "Dear parents, I have always loved you," and lets go.

This raises all sorts of questions in the reader's mind.  At least my mind.  Maybe some would dismiss it with a shrug  ("that was a queer little story...what's for lunch?").

At first one thinks the father is crazy.  But if so, why is Georg so helpless?  Why does he carry out his father's sentence?  Was his father speaking the truth after all?  Was Georg's conscience smitten while listening to his father?

Or is there another reason?  Regardless of the reality of the situation, is Georg's father such a dominating force in his life that he surrenders to anything his father demands?

The next story, The Stoker, is about a young man, Karl Rossmann, who is about to disembark from a ship that has sailed from Germany to America.  The reason he is on the ship is stated in the first paragraph. Karl has gotten one of his family's housemaids pregnant and his parents have shipped him off because they didn't want to pay child support.

They sent him off with nothing but enough money for the fare and a suitcase.  He is expected to find work and maybe an uncle who lives in New York.

Before leaving the ship, however, he becomes involved in a situation that has nothing to do with him.  The stoker of the ship has become disgruntled with his job.  In fact he believes he has been cheated of his pay and that another ship mate is back-stabbing him to get his position.  Karl listens to the man's story and encourages him to take his complaint to the captain.

Karl accompanies the man through the whole ordeal- one that doesn't end in the stoker's favor. As Karl tries to explain the stoker's position to the captain, a crowd of ship workers cram themselves into the Captain's cabin, including the "back-stabber".  Everyone is shouting and talking at once.  In the middle of all the hullaballoo Karl's uncle-who happens to be a highly successful politician- enters the room.   He collars Karl and escorts him off the ship.

On their way out of the ship, we learn through the third person narrator that Karl, who is only sixteen, was actually sexually abused by the house maid.  Learning this fact, causes the reader to completely rethink the entire story.

It seems Kafka's intention was to present Karl as a cad who impregnated a helpless house servant and his parents as people who had spoiled and indulged their son and are trying to protect from the responsibility of his selfish actions. With a flip of the wrist, Kafka shows us the face of the card to  reveal that it is Karl who was  the helpless victim and also abandoned.  The stoker's saga seems to have been inserted as a red herring in order to increase the effect of the "twist".

There seems to be an underlying theme in all the stories so far reviewed.  A son who is not loved by his family, especially his parents, and particularly his father.  

Monday, September 23, 2013

European Trip: Montreux, Switzerland

 We arrived in Montreux about  8pm.  On the way to the hostel we stopped at a small, Middle Eastern restaurant.    The owner was very accommodating and, as small as his store was, he managed to put two tables together for us.  We sat down in the crowded little shop and enjoyed our gyros. Lamb shaved off a skewer.  Delicious!

On the train to Montreux, Switzerland

   As we were eating, I thought back to when, in Milan, Lisa was at an Exchequer changing her American money to Euros.  I happened to notice on the board that showed the change rates for different countries, that there was a Swiss exchange rate.  A thought occurred to me.  I looked up at the prices.  They didn't have the E sign next to the dollar amount.

  "Lisa,"  I said.  "I don't think Switzerland takes Euros."

One of the many lakes amid the Swiss Alps

 I was unfortunately right.  We tried to explain to the man and his partner that we didn't have francs.  They were very nice and in their  mediocre French and my horrible, broken down, grunt level French, we managed to find a bank where I could withdraw money.  One of men accompanied me to help me find it. 

He was very chatty and asked if I was German.  When I informed him I was American he became excited and said, "Vive le Obama!"
    He told me he was Syrian.  When we returned to the shop, he informed the owner where we were from and he became very friendly and told us he was from Turkey.  When they found out we were from Texas they smiled very big and started pantomiming cowboys with their "chapeaux" and "canons" (cowboy hats and guns).
   By the time we left I felt we were bosom buddies.

 They gave us directions to our hostel and we then marched around the lake of Montreux for twenty minutes until we thought it was time to ask someone else.

 I stopped two gentlemen and attempted to ask for directions in my limited French. 

One of the men interrupted me with a wave of his hand.
   "That's not necessary,"  he said. "What do you need?"

I explained our predicament to them. In impeccable English, they explained we had been going in the wrong direction and told us how to get to our hostel.

As we progressed higher into the Alps the sky became overcast and the weather colder.

We were supposed to check in at the hostel around 9pm and it was after 10pm.   Lisa, Ethan, Derek, and I raced our way around Lake Montreux with all our luggage.  It wasn't easy because Derek was also holding a bag with cooking utensils and other supplies we had bought.  Traveling had been hard on the bag and it slowly disintegrated to the point where Derek was trying to pull his luggage with one hand and hold the remains of the bag with the other.  Utensils and bowls kept falling out so we'd have to stop every few minutes and regather everything.

The absurdity of the situation finally hit us and we sat down on the sidewalk and laughed till our sides hurt.

The architecture changed.

Typical Swiss homes

After we laughed until we couldn't, since we were sitting down anyway, we prayed right on the sidewalk that we would be able to get into the hostel.  We then calmed down, picked ourselves up (and our luggage and our cooking utensils) and continued to calmly walk around the lake, enjoying the cooler temperature and mesmerizing scenery. 

We arrived at 11pm and almost missed the man who was to give us our rooms.  He said we were lucky.  He had already left for the night and had returned to retrieve something he had forgotten.  Lisa said no, we're blessed.  

Church with graveyard

 We are now on our way to Interlacken.  We are going to take the panoramic train and are looking for schedules.  It is rainy and 60 degrees here.  Hopefully it will still be scenic.

Friday, September 20, 2013

THe Metamorphosis and Other Stories (Barnes and Noble Classics Series) by Franz Kafka

I first read The Metamorphosis in high school.  No, it was not assigned reading.  I read my father's copy during Geometry class.  Suffice it to say I didn't have a future in engineering.  I could tell that the story symbolized something.  I just wasn't sure what.  I didn't know that Kafka was Jewish at the time, but since he was from Eastern Europe, I concluded that the protagonist represented Jews during Nazi- occupied Europe.  It made sense.  Here was a group of people living their lives like everyone else.  Going to work, raising their families, getting along with their neighbors, even had good friendships with non Jews.

Each Jewish person in Germany, and later throughout most of Europe, must have had a moment in time when they realized that they no longer belonged to the whole.  They had been cut adrift.  Had, in fact, turned into something as repulsive as an insect to the rest of society.  A society they had belonged to as a vibrant, productive member.  Kafka's short story seemed to be telling this story through allegory.

Yet when I  recently read  the story again, I discovered that Kafka had actually died during the  1920's. His work was published in 1915.   He wouldn't have known about the rise of Hitler or the  dark spell he cast across the European continent.    Perhaps it's just as well.  Not too many years later, the rest of Kafka's family died in concentration camps.

The Story:

Gregor Samsa is a hard working young man who struggles to provide for his family.  He has no wife or children.  He is financially supporting his father, mother and a sister.  His hours are long and he is often away from home. Yet he is devoted to his family and willingly toils away.

One morning he wakes up to discover that he is some kind of giant insect.  He no longer can work and his family is horrified.

As the story unfolds, we witness his parents overcoming their initial fear, and developing a sullen resentment against Gregor's plight.  At first his sister shows compassion but she too, eventually neglects him.  We come to understand that Gregor was working hard to pay off a debt his father had accrued.  Furthermore, we find out that there is no reason for his father not to work, he simply refuses to and expects Gregor to provide.  This Gregor had been willing to do until his present predicament. The reason for his family's outrage and resentment against Gregor is that he is no longer useful.

Eventually, Gregor starves to death.  His family is relieved, go out, get jobs of their own and carry on with their lives.  

One feels pity for Gregor, who never seems to resent his family's attitude but only regrets that he is no longer able to help them.

This leaves the reader with a number of questions.  Why was Gregor so submissive to such a selfish father?  Why did he enable his indolence?  Why did he never wake up to the fact that his family never really cared for him, had no respect for him?

I read some of the biography that this edition provided and I form the conclusion that Gregor represented Kafka and he put into parable form his perception of his relationship with his father.  In one letter to his father Kafka wrote, "My writing was all about you..."

This seems evident in some of the other stories included in this collection.  

The story is mostly told in third person/limited from Gregor's viewpoint.  We know Gregor's thoughts- how he feels about his discovery, his reaction to others' words and actions, how he learns to cope with his new body- this enables the reader to vicariously experience Gregor's life.  We learn to empathize with him.  His suffering becomes our own.

After Gregor dies, the narrator switches to omniscient.  We see how the rest of the family reacts to his death and how they continue on.  Perhaps, we feel a certain amount of relief with them but I found it hard to respect them.

Kafka, needless to say, belongs to the genius class of writers because the reality he creates resonates with our own reality.  His work may be fiction but it is still our life story as well.  Our world, our plights and- for some people- a hopelessness in existing.

Each story in The Metamorphosis and Other Stories is so intriguing, I will have to write separate reviews for the "other stories" in future posts.

I bought this book.  

Monday, September 16, 2013

Last Day in Italy: Milan

Downtown Milan.  I noticed a lot of fashionable people. When I commented to my sister on how well dressed everyone was, she laughed as she informed me that Milan is the fashion capital of the world.  Oh.  Good to know.  To me Milan was one thing only: the home of Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper.

Hello! Yesterday we got to fulfill a life long dream of mine.  I got to see Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper.  I was so excited and worried about something going wrong (you need to buy your tickets months in advance and woe to you if you arrive late-you won't be admitted) that I spent the previous night dreaming that I wouldn't be able to see it.  We'd come too late... the painting wasn't had been stolen and replaced with a painting of clowns around a table...That dream ended with the room filling with water and all of us floating away, clowns included.

  None of those horrible things happened, of course.  Santa Maria delle Grazie, the monastery that houses the Last Supper (it's painted on a wall in the refectory) was not difficult to get to.  Lisa and I had the "We're dumb tourists, please help us" routine down to perfection and many helpful Italians pointed out the cobble-stoned way.  

We did get to see it and it was worth every second I got to stay in there and look at it (exactly fifteen minutes). The only thing we didn't get to see was Jesus' feet underneath the table.  At one point in time, the monks saw fit to make a door right under the painting, thus removing any part of the painting that was in the way. 

 Our guide was very helpful.  She explained how Leonardo changed the way Renaissance painters worked and composed.  On the opposite wall is a painting by another artist who painted his work the same year as Leonardo.  It looks like a typical medieval painting:  lots of detail, hundreds of people milling around the crucified Christ, no facial expression, very ornate...

Crucifixion by Giovanni Donato

    Conversely, Leonardo picked one moment in time- right after Jesus said, One of you will betray me- and painted every disciple's reaction to those words.  Instead of an overall universal focus, there is a single focus on one event.  Every one's expression is dramatic and tells a story about that disciple.  I never noticed this before the guide told us.

(Unfortunately I have no photos of The Last Supper to show you because we weren't allowed to take photographs.  However, I daresay everyone has seen plenty of pictures of Leonardo's famous work. Here's one I downloaded.)

If you could see Jesus' feet they would be crossed. Leonardo's intention was to have him posed as though He were on the cross.

The guide began to discuss Dan Brown's book The Da Vinci Code.  

Oh, great, I thought. Do we have to discuss pop culture alongside timeless works of art?  

The guide was a young, attractive woman with a cute Italian accent (of course) and she began to tell us how, because of the book,  there is much debate about whether the man next to Jesus is John the Disciple or really Mary Magdalene.  A woman standing next to my son was nodding her approval and murmuring her agreement.  

The guide told how Leonardo kept meticulous notes of his work where he recorded every single disciple and Jesus by name.

  Then the guide said:

Every single Renaissance painting in existence that portrays young, unmarried men shows them with long hair and beardless.  Leonardo was no different than any other artist of this time period in this respect.  Therefore it is impossible that this is a portrait of a woman!

As she said this, the guide shook her hand in front of her face, her fingers pressed together.  If eyes could be on fire, hers were ablaze.  

I couldn't help speaking aloud:  

That's right!  I said.  People in front turned around to stare at me.  I smiled back.

Dan Brown may be popular in English speaking parts of the world but his "code" doesn't fly in Italy.  At least, not in Milan.  Not with a certain pretty, young tour guide.   Nor with me.

The Cathedral (El Duomo) of Milan is the sixth largest Cathedral in the world.  It is the archdiocese of Milan.  Building started in 1386 and took over six centuries to complete.  It is Gothic in style and breathtakingly beautiful in person.

The Duomo Cathedral

In the same Piazza as the Duomo

Detail of Duomo wall

Inside the Duomo.  Lisa wasn't allowed in because she was wearing a sleeveless blouse.  In order to enter any of the Cathedrals, shoulders and legs had to be covered.

A Christian blog I follow had an article lamenting the absence of modest dress in our American churches today.  I responded that in Italy, there were guards at the doors of the Cathedrals to make sure people were appropriately covered. Why?  In the words of the guards:  This is a holy place.

Someone else replied to my comment with a snarky remark about all the nude paintings in the Cathedrals.  She said she was homeschooling her sons and they were currently studying Renaissance art.  Her sons wanted to know if the parents had to make their children stare straight ahead so as not to be distracted.

For the record, while there is no shortage of nude paintings and sculptures in Italy or all of Europe, I did not see any in the Cathedrals I visited.  The only exception would be the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel.

Upon reflection, if this person was really studying Renaissance Art, "she" would know that.  Upon further reflection, I doubt my heckler was actually a homeschool mom.  Probably just a troll.  

Monastery where The Last Supper is painted on a wall.

In the middle of the monastery is a quadrant with a garden.  The room to Leonardo's painting is off to the right of these two monks.

The tour to see The Last Supper also included the Sforzesco castle of Duke Galeazzo Il Visconti, completed in 1358.  Leonardo stayed at this castle while he served Duke Ludoveco, the man who commissioned The Last Supper.
This "love bus" was stationed outside the walls of the fortress.

From the castle we rushed to catch a trolley car to the train station.  We hoped to buy cheaper tickets to our next destination:  Montreaux, Switzerland.  Note to anyone planning to tour across Europe:  The Eurorail is only cheaper if you're doing extensive traveling all over Europe, otherwise it's cheaper to buy individual tickets- especially if you're traveling inside one country.  BUT check the times.  Depending on the time of day, tickets to the same destination can be half the price they are at other times.

 After taking a trolley ride twice around downtown Milan because we missed our stop the first time, we got to the train station late and had to take the only seats available on the next train which was first class.  Bleh.

     What is funny is that on the way to Venice, we accidentally sat in the first class section and were enjoying complimentary espresso's and drinks until the conductor shooed us back to coach. 

While waiting for our trolley, I had to take a photo of this cute little girl.

Milan train station

Thus endeth eleven days in Italia.  Next?  Switzerland!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson

A number of authors around the turn of the last century explored the complications of the race issue in America.  The question as to what constitutes race was not easily answered.  In Frederick Douglas' Up From Slavery,  he talks of a whole new race of people that were growing in number due to slave owners impregnating their slaves.  These children, Douglas contended, belonged to neither white nor black communities but were rejected by both.  He classified himself in this category because his own father, a slave owner, was white.

Nella Larsson, a prominent writer during the Harlem renaissance creates in her short story, Passing,  the tale a black woman who is light enough to be taken as white so decides to pass herself off as such.

    Even Mark Twain forced his readers to confront the problem in his novel, The Tragedy of Puddinhead Wilson.  In his story a slave girl has to care for both her own baby and that of her owner's because the man's wife died a week after she gave birth to their son.  The two baby boys are in fact half brothers, the man of the house having fathered them both.  We're given to understand that the slave, Roxana, is only about 1/32nd black herself so her son cannot be told apart from his half brother.  Roxana decides to switch the boys to give her son a chance at life and pretends the son born to her mistress is her own, and thus raises him as a slave.

I have always found these kind of stories fascinating and so it is with James Weldon Johnson's book, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.  In Johnson's story, which is a work of fiction in spite of the title,  the protagonist, who is never named-nor is anyone else in the book-recalls his upbringing in the north around the turn of the last century, after leaving the south while still a small boy.  He lives with only his mother, his father being at first unknown to him.

At first he doesn't see any difference between himself and his classmates at school.  He observes that there are black children at his school and they are looked down upon, even the ones that prove themselves exceptionally intelligent.  He feels pity for them, but looks down on them as well.

 One day his teacher asks all the white students to stand up to be counted.  He stands up as well.  The teacher tells him to sit back down, that she is only counting the white children.  This is the first time he is made to understand that he is not white.  He rushes home for an explanation.  His mother tearfully informs him that she was a servant in a prominent gentleman's house in Georgia and became pregnant by him.  Even though she is fair-complexioned, she is counted among the black race and so is he.

This alters the whole course of his life and how he views himself.  Even though his white friends continue to befriend him, his attitude changes towards the black students as he realizes he is, in fact, counted among them.

He chooses to join his own race and live among them.  He goes to Atlanta to go to college, but after losing all his money at a porter house, he moves to St. Augustine, Florida and gets work in a cigar making factory.  His time in the south allows him to make observations about the different classes of black people.  While he admits there is a criminal element in a certain segment of black society, he also observes that there is a respectable working class group and also a wealthy, highly educated community of black people as well.

The white people, according to him, refuse to acknowledge any sort of demographic among blacks, except the worst criminal class, a group that the other groups of blacks despise as well.

He makes a lot of money working in the cigar factory so he decides to take his savings and move to New York City.  There he becomes involved in the world of gambling and rag time music.  A world where white and black people mingle.  He eventually meets up with a white millionaire who takes him as a companion across Europe. 

 After spending a number of years in Europe he becomes overwhelmed with the desire to immerse himself in the black culture of the deep south so he leaves his friend and moves to Alabama.  Here he endeavors to preserve and celebrate black culture by collecting and publishing the stories, songs and poetry of the Southern black.

While living in Alabama, he witnesses a brutal lynching that resolves him to leave the south and his race forever.  He becomes determined to pass himself off as a white man for the remainder of his life.  He returns to the North where he meets and falls in love with a beautiful white woman.  She falls in love with him as well, but before he proposes he feels he must inform her of his actual race.  This takes a lot of courage on his part and when he finally confesses she breaks down and sobs.

This all seems very strange to us living a hundred years after the book was written.  I can't imagine living in a reality that learning that somebody was part 100th-something of a different race it would be such a trauma and impediment to my marrying them.

That is what I find to be valuable about this book.  It opens to us the attitudes towards the racial groups of a time past.  I have thought quite a bit about this, how someone can be so repulsed by someone for no other reason than the color of their skin.  Not even the color of his skin but the "race" he's supposedly from even though he's more white than black and his culture is for all practical purposes white as well.  It's easy to chalk it all up to how a person is raised and I know that has a lot to do with it, especially if one never questions the values they were imbued with while growing up.

But at the same time I know people who were raised in households that were as racist as the worst of them but did not allow themselves to be a product of their environment.  My father is one of them.  My dad was born and raised in the deep south but never in my entire life under his roof did I hear him utter a single racial slur.

Johnson originally published his book anonymously in 1912 for fear of public reaction.  Later in the 1920's at the height of the Harlem Renaissance his book was republished with his name.  

While written from a black person's point of view, his intended audience was white people.  No doubt he was trying to call attention to the absurdity of race distinction and the prejudices that produced it.

He is one of the founding fathers of the NAACP and wrote a number of poetry and songs, including God's Trombones and the Black national anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing.  Fluent in Spanish and French, he became the first African American, appointed by Theodore Roosevelt, to become a U.S. consulate to Venezuela and Nicaragua.

James Weldon Johnson