The game to play as theorists have been playing it since 1915 is to decide the meaning of George Samsa’s insectile character (as J. Robert Lennon would describe him). I’m partial to that interpretation: it’s an insectile character, which makes the physical look and whether George is “in fact” a n insect or not irrelevant. Kafka didn’t want Samsa illustrated for a reason. He’s imprisoned in a state of mind. Don’t imprison him in a physical depiction. The first line has been translated in many different ways: “One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.” “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” An insect, a vermin, nothing more specific. vermin and insects feed on the dead. This is a story of decomposition before our eyes–the decomposition of an ill and mentally and physically disfigured Samsa, the decomposition of a family, the decomposition of what had once been a loving relationship between Samsa and Grete, who becomes Samsa’s killer: “she had bloomed into a pretty girl with a good figure,” the opposite of her brother’s decomposition. Gregor’s father, as in every Kafka story so far, doesn’t elicit sympathy either. But there’s nothing sentimental about the story. Kafka isn;t pulling at strings to get the reader all in knots over Gregor’s condition. It becomes more uncomfortably familiar than imaginary as the story wears on–as Gregor decomposes. A sick, leprous person has the characteristics of an insect. Doesn;t have to look like one to feel like one. It is a story of illness, decline, of being discarded.
The father slays the son. Georg Bendemann writes a letter to a friend who left for (unsettled, revolutionary) Russia to start a business there three years earlier. The business does not go well. Georg is engaged. He lives with his father. His father makes him believe he doubts the existence of that friend in Russia, complains a lot abut his son, claims his wife’s death was much harder on him than on Georg, then says he knew of his friend in Russia all along. The father is unappreciative of his son’s care, seeing in it–particularly in his son’s attempt to cover him–an attempt to entomb him. He condemns him to die by drowning. Georg leaves, goes to the river, jumps in, an apparent suicide, as we say in the profession. The last line has been a subject of debate, as the translation doesn’t convey its nuances. There’s plenty of autobiography, but that’s irrelevant. Kafka’s writing method maybe a bit less so: he wrote in his diary that “this story, ‘The Judgment’, I wrote in one sitting of the 22nd-23rd, from ten o’clock to six o’clock in the morning. I was hardly able to pull my legs out from under the desk, they had got so stiff from sitting. The fearful strain and joy, how the story developed before me as if I were advancing over water…” That was his preferred writing method. So it’s a free-writing meditation that doesn’t lend itself to a single judgment. Kafka is working out tensions inherent to fathers and sons, and more particular to his father, who did not like Franz wasting his time writing. He’s reflecting his own neuroses. He’s projecting himself on the friend in Russia. The father in the story is not an appealing man. The explicit judgment is of the son by the father, the more powerful judgment is of the father by the son, with the mother as holy spirit.
After hazy and rambling “Los Angeles,” I wanted to give Emma Cline a second look. “Son of Friedman” is more sharply told, but remains all shimmers and throw-away insights. There’s too much knowingness, too much judgment contaminating the eye, keeping it from being more penetrating. No Flaubertian detachment in Cline. She’s at the table, hovering, like an intrusive waiter not content to just set the table. The first part of the story is in a restaurant where George Friedman is waiting for William. The intrusions are especially pronounced when Cline weasles judgy thoughts into her characters–you’re never really sure whose thoughts they are–by immunizing them with question marks: “How old was she? Twenty?” “Had he been an editor?” William is a successful producer. George no longer is, and hadn’t been much of one. Both are older, but William’s managed to keep it going, if unimaginatively so: his latest project is a buddy movie. George is barely hanging on. “He was seventy-one, with a fake knee and a hip due for replacement.” George has a son, Benji, William’s godson, in and out of rehab but now showing his first attempt at a movie at a dingy moviehouse nearby, to which he’s invited father and godfather. Over their meal George tries to push a project on William but is gently rebuffed, the same way that William rebuffed two groupies who’d tried to have their selfie taken with him. George has sunk that low. They go to see Benji’s movie. “The theatre was one of those single-screen places any schmuck with a camera could rent out and show his movie for a weekend. You could probably show your vacation photos.” Has the New Yorker always used theatre as opposed to theater or is that one of Cline’s conceits? It’s a dreadful movie, but the scene is for Benji to show his greater affection and respect for William than for his father: another stab at the old man, who Benji refers to “last but not least” as “my old man.” The Red Sea-parted distance between father and son is sharply described: “Benji was visibly grooving on the sound of his own voice, on being the focus of an audience. George could remember that feeling, acutely, though you were never supposed to make it clear you liked it, and certainly not as clear as Benji was making it, peacocking back and forth, lassoing the mike cord in one hand.” But these stories about the movie business are like stories about the writing business, almost always more interesting to those who’ve lived or worked them than to their audience. Cline is telling us how much she knows the business. But the business itself is not that interesting. It’s one of the least interesting, most common, dullest, shallowest businesses around, an illusion of the illusive aim. So the story’s one strength, that guttered relationship between father and son, in whose murky liquid is reflected the relationship between George and William, is lost to Cline’s performance trills.
The New Yorker, July 1, 2019
L’abbé Vilbois, curé de Garandou, près de Toulon, “…fait pour les aventures plus que pour dire la messe,” “l’homme le mieux musclé du pays,” “il renonça à des projets de carrière quelconque pour se contenter de vivre en homme riche.” He’d been in love with a woman who cheated on him, but was pregnant. And so, “un descendant de lui était là, dans cette chair souillée, dans ce corps vil, dans cette créature immonde, un enfant de lui.” But she tells him, as he gets ready to kill her, that the baby is not his. He’s convinced that it isn’t, and let’s her go. He despairs. “La religion qui lui était apparue autrefois comme un refuge contre la vie inconnue, lui apparaissait maintenant comme un refuge contre la vie trompeuse et torturante.” He becomes a priest in a small coastal town. “Il fut un prêtre à vues étroites, mais bon, une sorte de guide religieux à tempérament de soldat, un guide de l’Église qui conduisait par force dans le droit chemin l’humanité errante, aveugle, perdue en cette forêt de la vie où tous nos instincts, nos goûts, nos désirs, sont des sentiers qui égarent. Mais beaucoup de l’homme d’autrefois restait toujours vivant en lui. Il ne cessa pas d’aimer les exercices violents, les nobles sports, les armes, et il détestait les femmes, toutes, avec une peur d’enfant devant un mystérieux danger.”
His always-suspicious and paranoid servant Marguerite tells him someone was over to see him. Of course it’s his son, bearing an image of himself when he was younger, when he was with his mistress, and when he looked exactly as his son does now. “C’était pour sauver sa vie, menacée par l’homme outragé, que la femme, la trompeuse et perfide femelle lui avait jeté ce mensonge. Et le mensonge avait réussi. Et un fils de lui était né, avait grandi, était devenu ce sordide coureur de routes, qui sentait le vice comme un bouc sent la bete.” The boy passed for his mother’s other lover’s son until he was 15, when the resemblance to the priest became too obvious. The man, a senator, rejected him. Now, he’s a vagabond, has “la figure de crapule.”
“Entre cet homme et lui, entre son fils et lui, il commençait à sentir à présent ce cloaque des saletés morales qui sont, pour certaines âmes, de mortels poisons.” What frightens the priest is his son as mirror: he is “ surpris et désolé de tout ce qu’il découvrait de bas sur cette figure qui lui ressemblait tant.” The boy tells his life story, how his mother kicked him out, how he stumbled into a life of crime out kept a prank tha5 resulted in multiple drownings. On her deathbed, his mother tells him who his father was. She dies. He takes his revenge on her lover, torturing him, marking him with a fire iron as if he were a convict, robb8ng him of 12,000 francs. He calls it aveng8ng his biological father. But the priest is disgusted with it all and banishes his son, granting him a small pension as long as he doesn’t leave his assigned place of exile. Of course the son, Philippe-Auguste, refuses. They brawl.
The servant finds them, panics, brings a posse from town: the priest’s throat is cut. The other is out cold, drunk. Everyone assumes he killed the priest. Maupassant creates more ambiguity: “ l’idée ne serait venue à personne que l’abbé Vilbois, peutêtre, avait pu se donner la mort.”
A little simplistic, a facile ending, not entirely satisfying: why would the priest kill himself? Because he sees his own brutality in his son? Why would his son kill his only means of survival? There’s more contrivance than psychology.
Le Figaro du 19 au 23 février 1890, puis dans le recueil L’Inutile Beauté.
Wally Mullins is a bum ever since he stole money from the subway service where he worked. He’s just out of the hospital after his brother the cop, Jimmy, gave him a beating and nearly gave him gangrene (what’s with gangrene? The snows of Kilimanjaro.) ordered him to get out of the neighborhood. He looks around for a place to sleep. Runs into his mother and sister. The sister is as cruel as jimmy but she can’t beat him up. The mother wants to give him money so he can get his shirt out of the laundry, and does. He uses the money first to buy some food, then hands to a tavern, and there, Jimmy is drinking a beer, and sees him. The chase. Another massive beating. Bloodied, Wally goes to the only friend he has, the barber Mr, Davido, who cares for him because during the Depression the barber had slapped his own son, when his son was a bum, and has never seen his son since. Mr. Davido shaves Wally, whose tears mix with the shaving cream. A very touching story of regret and cruelty.
American Prefaces, Spring 1943