18 July 2006

Kafka Gass

The August issue of Harper's includes an extraordinary essay by William Gass about Franz Kafka. Ostensibly, the essay is a review of Reiner Stach's Kafka: The Decisive Years, but Gass decided to approach it with a conceit that only a writer as brave and skilled as he could succeed with: he writes from the point of view of Kafka's writerly self, conflating it with Kafka's fictions, and beginning thus:
I awoke one morning to find myself transformed. I had been a man, but a man who was treated by my parents and my sister like a bug. Perhaps I was not so much an insect at my office; perhaps I was something else there, a blotter or a trash basket. Perhaps, like a bum, I was warned not to loiter when I was out on the avenue, or, while traveling on the train, I became just another newspaper or another sample case. Perhaps, to my boss, I was a worm. At home, however, a bug was what I was, a bug in a bed, a bedbug, sperm of the kind you could find hidden in my name -- Gregor Samsa -- for doesn't "sam" mean seed, a descendant? And so one day I woke to find myself more than a metaphor, more than a figure of derision and indifference. I was a bug, big in my bed as my body was, with a body bigger than any ordinary bug's, bigger than a rat's, a dog's, though I was small, considering what my life meant to me. To others, however, I was huge, monstrous, horrifying, all I always wanted to be, all I always dreamed.
That paragraph alone is a wonder, the sounds and rhythms of its sentences so beautifully crafted, the insights contained within them (about desire and metaphor, about debasement and dreams) suggestive and unobtrusive. Gass continues in this manner for a while, using both voice and detail to create a character ("Did you know my father deals in muffs? receives muffs from a manufacturer, sells those muffs -- as well as carded buttons, lingerie, handbags, gloves -- to retail stores?") until eventually he mentions the biography at hand ("I understand it has been given a wonderfully supple translation by Sheila Frisch"), and biography in general, before returning to ruminations on this Kafka creature in a monologue that could easily and effectively be spoken on stage:
Yes, I remember writing a fragment of fiction about just such a situation. I am safely ... my character is safely in his own bed, but it threatens to become his bride's bed too, so my reluctant bridegroom imagines sending his properly decked-out body to the wedding while he remains at home, unable to venture beyond his blankets, because -- well -- because he is a "large beetle, a stag beetle or cockchafer, I think ... I would then act as though it was a matter of hibernation...." My metaphor would marry and make love. I would not be required to attend.
After a long and fascinating passage about family and love and women, we return to the biography ("Let us stop for a moment to watch how Reiner Stach goes so skillfully about his business. It offers the reader a pleasure all its own"). Gass-as-the-ghost-of-Kafka's-metaphors shows how and why Stach's biography is so much more than the standard bio, how it is so often itself a work of art, and yet he does this within his own art, maintaining the ridiculously sublime conceit of the narrator, getting away with it by embracing the complexities it offers, making the essay about not only Kafka or Stach, but the impossible quest to know the self. It is a quest Kafka struggled with, Stach chronicled, Gass embodied, and few of us escape.