January 28, 2009

Franz Kafka: Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor

Posted in Kafka Franz at 8:00 am by John Self

Kafka is perhaps the tallest of the monoliths casting my literary knowledge into deep shadow. I have made numerous references to his work here without really knowing what I’m talking about: I have the public understanding of Kafkaesque to go on and little else. I shudder now to think of my response to The Trial a few years ago, as glib and ignorant as Martin Amis’s (“I could never finish a novel by Kafka. But then, neither could Kafka”). So I seized on the opportunity provided by this new edition of his story ‘Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor’ which has been issued by Four Corners Books, and was brought to my attention by Caustic Cover Critic. You can see why the cover attracted him.

‘Blumfeld’, written around 1915, is unfinished and in most editions of Kafka’s stories, it takes up just over 20 pages. Here, the wide margins and beautifully large text (set in “Walbaum, Kafka’s preferred typeface”) spread it to 86 pages. This gives the story space to breathe, emphasises it as work of art in its own right, and makes for a thoroughly satisfying experience (even if the illustrations by David Musgrave added little to the book for me). All short stories should be published like this.

Where ‘Metamorphosis’ in its high concept form is ‘man turns into insect’, ‘Blumfeld’ is ‘man hounded by bouncing balls’. He comes home to his sixth-floor apartment, musing (and amusing) on the pros and cons of having a dog to keep him company, when he hears a rattling sound from within.

He quickly unlocks the door and switches on the light. He is not prepared for what he sees. For this is magic – two small white celluloid balls with blue stripes jumping up and down side by side on the parquet; when one of them touches the floor the other is in the air, a game they continue ceaselessly to play.

(The appearance of the balls is represented in the headache-inducing endpapers of this edition.) Blumfeld is initially exasperated by the balls, which follow him around, even to bed, but soon learns that there are ways of first becoming accustomed to, and then managing, their presence. “The fact that they cannot make themselves audible on the rug strikes Blumfeld as a great weakness on the part of the balls. What one has to do is lay one or even better two rugs under them and they are all but powerless. Admittedly only for a limited time, and besides, their very existence wields a certain power.”

What is most striking, for those expecting from Kafka a sense of isolation and confusion, is that ‘Blumfeld’ is not only lucid but very funny. Blumfeld’s recurring thoughts on getting a dog are funnier each time the subject comes up, and there is a delicious understated wit in lines like, “If one looks at the whole thing with an unprejudiced eye, the balls behave modestly enough.”

However there is isolation here too, and the balls reflect Blumfeld’s fractured relations with others, as is made clearer in the second section of the story. Here, having apparently solved the problem of the balls, he goes to his place of work, where he is saddled with a couple of assistants, who hound and trouble him, but are deemed necessary to him, and from whom he cannot escape.

So long as they were following him they could have been considered as something belonging to him, something which, in passing judgement on his person, had somehow to be taken into consideration.

“Even the unusual must have its limits,” observes Blumfeld in his struggle with the balls – and with people, and with life. The story remains unfinished, which is appropriate in its way. ‘Blumfeld’ is a work of pure imagination, grounded but absurd, chilling and entertaining, formally perfect and one great big loose end. It is a tiny but tantalising glimpse into the world and works of Kafka, into which I must now delve with still great trepidation but with much greater excitement.

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28 Comments »

  1. gary davison said,

    I struggled with The Trial, but shorter works might be my ticket back in. Maybe not as well, but I’ll give it a shot.

  2. John Self said,

    That was my experience too Gary, though now I think my problem might have been with what I was expecting The Trial to be, rather than with what it was. It’s clear to me from reading ‘Blumfeld’ – or, if you want something really short, ‘Before the Law’ (which in fact was incorporated into The Trial) – that Kafka’s reputation is deserved.

  3. Thanks for bringing this edition to our attention John. You’re right, all short stories – well, Kafka’s at least – should be published like this. I appreciated your restrained reading too; such a contrast to Amis’ smug fatuity.

  4. John Self said,

    Thanks Steve. I am right at the beginning of my Kafka journey, so any guidance is welcome. I have Hofmann’s recent translation of Metamorphosis and other stories (Penguin) at home so will probably go there next; I think I’m right in saying that volume contains everything Kafka published in his lifetime.

    I also did have a lovely little Penguin Syrens 1990s edition of The Collected Aphorisms, prefaced by Josipovici, which I haven’t seen in the house for years and I suspect may have been lost somewhere. I note with some chagrin that the same edition now costs around £50. It cost me £2.99 at the time.

  5. My copy of The Collected Aphorisms is quite beaten up so maybe I should protect it from now on! I notice that I bought it on 27 January 1995! Shame it’s gone out of print. By the way, Josipovici’s introduction is reprinted in The Singer on the Shore under the title “The Wooden Stair”.

  6. John Self said,

    Thanks Steve. The Singer on the Shore is another title I need to get anyway. Meanwhile I’ve ordered the new Harvill edition of the aphorisms, The Zürau Aphorisms, translated by Hofmann. This is the perfect way of ensuring that my Penguin Syrens edition turns up almost immediately.

  7. bill r. said,

    Not to toot my own horn or anything, but I sailed through “The Trial”. I wouldn’t be able to explain why exactly; I guess I just found it un-put-downable.

    “The Castle” was a mighty struggle, however, in which there were no winners, and the one short story I’ve read by Kafka was incredibly bland and left no impression on me (I can’t even remember the title). You do make “Blumfeld” sound very enticing, but and unfinished short story? I guess if I could commit to “The Castle” I can commit to this, but when will it end? What WON’T be published from a deceased authors papers?

  8. Stewart said,

    …but when will it end? What WON’T be published from a deceased authors papers?

    Bill, as regards Kafka, I think The Office Writings is proof that nothing won’t be published. Yes, that’s The Office Writings which “brings together, for the first time in English, Kafka’s most interesting professional writings, composed during his years as a high-ranking lawyer with the largest Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute in the Czech Lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.”

    So, what’s in it? Well:

    These documents include articles on workmen’s compensation and workplace safety; appeals for the founding of a psychiatric hospital for shell-shocked veterans; and letters arguing relentlessly for a salary adequate to his merit. In adjudicating disputes, promoting legislative programs, and investigating workplace sites, Kafka’s writings teem with details about the bureaucracy and technology of his day, such as spa elevators in Marienbad, the challenge of the automobile, and the perils of excavating in quarries while drunk.

  9. k.assistentti said,

    Write like Kafka …!?

    behance.net/Gallery/FF-Mister-K/159436

  10. JRSM said,

    Lovely stuff: and that Hofmann collection of all Kafka’s “live” publications is a great start. Someone or other suggested reading ‘In the Penal Colony’ with the photos from Guantanamo in your mind, which seemed a bit of a facile suggestion, but I found hard to avoid.

  11. Richard said,

    I have the Everyman collected stories, also introduced by Josipovici (a piece that is also reproduced in The Singer on the Shore), which I’ve been skipping around in. It’s very attractive and compact. I also have a collection that includes only the stories published in Kafka’s lifetime, which features a blurb from Martin Amis, so he at least appreciates the stories, if not the novels. (Not to come to too much of a defense of Amis, I must point out that the blurb is extremely awkward, in that Amis way.)

    I don’t believe I’ve read this story yet, so thanks for the reminder!

  12. John Self said,

    Thanks Richard. I checked, and yes the Hofmann Metamorphosis which I have is like your second collection, ie containing only the stories Kafka published in his lifetime, that is, stories and writings in the following publications:

    Contemplation (1913)
    The Judgement (1913)
    The Stoker: a Fragment (1913)
    Metamorphosis (1913)
    In the Penal Colony (1919)
    A Country Doctor (1920)
    A Hunger-Artist (1924)

    – along with three other pieces uncollected in his lifetime. I’d like to read the Amis piece as well as the Josipovici ones. Will have to check if it’s included in The War Against Cliché.

    I like Hofmann’s preferred description, in his intro to my Penguin edition, of Kafka’s novels not as ‘unfinished’ but as ‘infinite’.

  13. JRSM said,

    Basically, Hofmann is great: I’ve written to him a couple of times after being blown away by books he’s translated, and after reading his poems, and he was very friendly and approachable.

  14. Isabel said,

    I recently read a new translation of his novel – Amerika – The Missing Person.

    Strange.

    Here’s my review:

    http://booksandotherstuff.blogspot.com/2009/01/books-book-review-amerika-missing.html

  15. John Self said,

    I think I have been a little unfair on Martin Amis. I didn’t find the introduction Richard refers to in The War Against Cliché, but I did find a piece he wrote for the Observer in 1983 for the publication of new editions of the Collected Stories and Collected Novels. He is thoroughly respectful of, even awestruck by, “the stuff itself – the work, the art”. It’s a short piece, not especially insightful (though he does write well on “the exquisite pregnancy of his [stories'] endings”), but does suggest that the quote I included by him in the body of the post above, was really an example of Amis indulging his weakness for a snappy line at the expense of sincerity or integrity.

  16. Joshua said,

    Not to gloat, I find many apparently ‘easy’ books difficult and do read slowly, but I found all kafka’s novels unputdownable. I read The Trial first, and found it to be exactly the book I was looking for. From there it was straight to The Castle, which I adored, then, quite some time later, Amerika. Not sure of the translations, but all Penguin paperbacks I think. Haven’t read this however, and will do.

    Also must track down the Josipovici into, and his novels. Only just learned of him from readysteadybook.

    Thanks again for a wonderful blog, I’ll soon stop the gushing praise!

  17. Joshua said,

    Also – for real humour Amerika can’t be beat, hilarious.

  18. John Self said,

    Thanks Joshua. I must admit that despite difficulties with Kafka when I was younger (and not even that much younger), I do feel confident that any time I tackle him now it will indeed be “exactly the book I’m looking for.” In that sense, I’m saving them up, eking them out. And looking forward to them all.

    Please be assured that all gushing praise is gratefully received.

  19. [...] a keystone for much of my reading that I didn’t realise I’d been missing; Kafka’s Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor ditto, but I left it out since it wasn’t so much a book as a story fragment in dandy [...]

  20. Paul A. Toth said,

    Thanks for this post. Since reading the story, I’ve become obsessed with it, and the pickings are slim when it comes to interpretations, or so my searches have so far revealed. It struck me that perhaps the two balls represent Blumfeld’s testicles, for he is clearly tread upon constantly, especially at work in the last section. He refuses to possess the balls, as if he is being stalked by his own masculinity, which he rejects. I realize the Freudian aspect to this perspective, which is not really in keeping with the Kafkian spirit, but I could not help but consider it as one possible way of viewing the balls.

    You’re also right that the story is quite funny, especially the very long section regarding his desire for a dog’s loving attention yet the ultimate rejection of the idea simply because a dog would upset the order of Blumfeld’s apartment. Something tells me there are many Blumfelds out there, minus the bouncing balls.

    If you or anyone else happens upon further analysis of this story, whether online or in book form, please email links or book titles to me at tothnews@aol.com.

    Thanks!

    ~ Paul

  21. John Self said,

    Thanks Paul, for your analysis and for commenting here. I will surely let you know if I find anything further on ‘Blumfeld’. And revisiting this post makes me realise how long it has been since I said I would read more of Kafka’s stories, and I still haven’t…

  22. Icepulse said,

    The balls are the assistants.

    • John Self said,

      Indeed, Icepulse. That’s what I was suggesting in the following paragraph:

      However there is isolation here too, and the balls reflect Blumfeld’s fractured relations with others, as is made clearer in the second section of the story. Here, having apparently solved the problem of the balls, he goes to his place of work, where he is saddled with a couple of assistants, who hound and trouble him, but are deemed necessary to him, and from whom he cannot escape.

  23. Icepulse said,

    Oh, I don’t read these blogs… I just comment on them! ;)

  24. [...] to take a page from Trevor Berrett’s blog and review a short story. I’ve done this once or twice before, but only when the story was published as a standalone volume. There are compelling [...]

  25. David Crisp said,

    As I recall, two assistants, and two girls to whom he gives the key, and two subordinates behind each of the two heads of state who meet in the picture Blumfeld examines. Dang, I wish he had finished it.

  26. Mungo said,

    I have just finished Blumfeld and enjoyed it, though, like others was frustrated that it crashed to a finish as it did.

    I wondered if the pet theme was the key. Blumfeld needed company in life. He rejected a dog. He rejected the balls. Despite his dislike of them, the assistants were his company in life, hence the fact the he didn’t beat them.

  27. […] a keystone for much of my reading that I didn’t realise I’d been missing; Kafka’s Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor ditto, but I left it out since it wasn’t so much a book as a story fragment in dandy packaging. […]


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