I recently read Kafka’s (unfinished) novel The Castle, which I had last read about thirty or so years ago. I thought The Trial, The Castle and The Metamorphosis were the bees’ knees when I originally read them, and still do, but didn’t really think much of Amerika or the other short stories at the time. I think I didn’t like them much because they were not like The Trial etc., but my relatively recent re-read of Amerika showed me that it was worth attempting these other works without expecting them to be another version of The Trial.
The Vintage collection I read is split between ‘Longer’ and ‘Shorter’ stories, with some of the shorter stories being less than a page long; some were just fragments of stories and many were only published posthumously. Having finished the collection, I’m beginning to appreciate just how inventive Kafka was as a writer; he was trying out different styles, different themes all the time, for example in The Burrow Kafka is writing from the point of view of a mole in a realistic way—it’s difficult to see where Kafka could have taken it, and it does get a bit dull, but it’s an interesting story nonetheless. And the story, Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor begins in a Dickensian way but soon becomes more surreal when Blumfeld discovers two celluloid balls in his room that act autonomously.
Anyway, my aim here isn’t to review the book as a whole but to include one of the shorter stories in its entirety; it was one of my favourites from the collection.
A certain philosopher used to hang about wherever children were at play. And whenever he saw a boy with a top, he would lie in wait. As soon as the top began to spin the philosopher went in pursuit and tried to catch it. He was not perturbed when the children noisily protested and tried to keep him away from their toy; so long as he could catch the top while it was still spinning, he was happy, but only for a moment; then he threw it to the ground and walked away. For he believed that the understanding of any detail, that of a spinning top, for instance, was sufficient for the understanding of all things. For this reason he did not busy himself with great problems, it seemed to him uneconomical. Once the smallest detail was understood, then everything was understood, which was why he busied himself only with the spinning top. And whenever preparations were being made for the spinning of the top, he hoped that this time it would succeed: as soon as the top began to spin and he was running breathlessly after it, the hope would turn to certainty, but when he held the silly piece of wood in his hand, he felt nauseated. The screaming of the children, which hitherto he had not heard and which now suddenly pierced his ears, chased him away, and he tottered like a top under a clumsy whip.
Translated by Tania and James Stern