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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