A Little Woman by Franz Kafka

Young Woman Drawing (1801)
Maria-Denis Villers
source Wikiart

I can’t believe I have never read Kafka.  So with this surprising fact in mind I dived into this short story for my Deal-Me-In Challenge.  Perhaps I expected too much …

The narrator immediately makes the reader acquainted with his challenges with this “little woman”.  She has complete contempt for him and his life, and his perceptions appear wrapped up in her treatment of him.  However, he reveals that she is almost a stranger to him, yet nevertheless, she disparages and demeans him incessantly and with impunity.  She even goes as far as to ellict people’s compassion for her struggles to tolerate him, not by revealing them, but by exhibiting a demeanour of quiet suffering.

Landlady (1886)
Konstantin Makovsky
source Wikiart

I did not understand this story at all, nor did I find it the slightest bit compelling.  Given that the narrator reveals that the woman is nearly a stranger to him, one cannot even imagine her as a wife or sister or mother and so there it ends.  How can one be interested in a relationship that is not one, nor experience annoyance that is based on nothing tangible?  Apparently Kafka based the little woman on his landlady when he lived in Berlin-Steglitz.

In spite of this less than inspiring story, I am looking forward to reading more of Kafka with hopefully a different reaction to his works.

Next week, I’ll be reading the short story Le Horla by Guy Maupassant.  I’ll attempt to read it in French but it’s rather long so I’ll have to see if my skills are up to it.  Stay tuned …..

Week 2 – Deal Me In Challenge – Nine of Clubs

The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy

“Inside the great building of the Law Courts, during the interval in the hearing of the Melvinsky case, the members of the judicial council and the public prosecutor were gathered together in the private room of Ivan Yegorovitch Shebek, and the conversation turned upon the celebrated Krasovsky case.”

Wow!  My last Tolstoy novel read was War and Peace over two years ago and I’d forgotten the depth that Tolstoy could create within his stories with a clear, straight-forward narrative.  The Death of Ivan Ilyich appears to be merely a tale of the last days of a Russian court judge, yet Tolstoy brings the human condition into vivid and startling colours.

Ivan Ilyich has a typical Russian childhood, becomes a respected and accomplished young adult who manages to climb the social strata with aplomb and an admirable acuity.  He takes a wife who, though a nag, through his very avoidance of her, manages to give him a sharper focus to his work, and therefore her very shrewishness assists him in his social ascension.  They have the average and respectable number of two children, a girl and a boy, along with the typical infant deaths of that period, and Ilyich’s life is complete.  Except for one problem.  He is dying.

With Tolstoy’s astute and penetrating acumen, the reader shares Ivan Ilyich’s last days as he slowly sinks into the realization of his approaching demise.  In life, Ilyich was able to focus on the impermanent: his career, the appearance of a normal family life, his status in the community.  All his worth was embodied in these transient things, but suddenly in illness, these symbols fade into obscurity and death forces him, almost against his will, to view his life in stark reality.

Initially, Ivan is confused, and cries out to a God whom he had previously seen only as a inconvenient afterthought:

“Why has Thou done all this?  What brought me to this?  Why, why torture me so horribly?”

Yet slowly a “strange idea” begins to form in his mind.  He does not want to suffer, yet live.  But how does he wish to live?

“As you used to live before — happily and pleasantly?” queried the voice.  And he began going over in his imagination the best moments of his pleasant life.  But strange to say, all these best moments of his pleasant life seemed now not at all what they had seemed then.  All — except the first memories of his childhood …..  As soon as he reached the beginning of what had resulted in him as he was now, Ivan Ilyitch, all that had seemed joys to him then now melted away before his eyes and were transformed into something trivial, and often disgusting ……..  And the further he went from childhood, the nearer to the actual present, the more worthless and uncertain were the joys …..  

He was living ….

“…. as though I had been going steadily downhill, imagining that I was going uphill.  So it was in fact.  In public opinion I was going uphill and steadily as I got up it life was ebbing away from me …..  Can it be I have not lived as one ought?”

Death brings echoes of truth to him, but instead of accepting this burgeoning enlightenment, Ivan chooses to hang on to the mirage of the life he has lived and dismisses the idea.  The reader wonders if Ivan will die as he’d lived, merely existing, and if the true meaning of life itself will elude his grasp?

Death and Life (1908-16)
Gustav Klimt
source Wikiart

In spite of the title, much of the story is about Ivan’s life and through his life, we view his death.  With each sentence Tolstoy drives home the futility and meaninglessness of Ilyich’s daily actions, that brought material success but failed to feed the soul within the man.  It is only at the very end, with the touch of his son’s hand and a kiss, that Ivan experiences an epiphany that expands his whole world.

The universality of the story echoes with a profound yet practical resonance.  Drawing from the narrative, Ivan’s life, though complete with success in business, a (on the surface) contented family life, and respect of his peers, it is really bereft of human relationship in all areas.  Tolstoy himself says Ivan’s previous life “was the simplest, the most ordinary, and the most awful.”   Ivan could be you or I and with his novella, Tolstoy prods us to examine the purpose of our existence.  We need to evaluate our lives ….. not only just skate on the surface, but to dig deeply.  What is truly important in life? What genuinely gives us life as soulful beings and not simply as materialistic creatures who live only for pleasure and business?  And a question that has been on my mind often lately:  How do we struggle against societal pressure to conform to the latter and find a meaningful existence, to live in the “now” yet reach beyond it?

The Runaway by Anton Chekhov

I’m trying to get back on track with my Deal-Me-In Challenge, and I finally drew the first short story of the year, The Runaway by Anton Chekhov.

Science and Charity (1897)
Pablo Picasso
source Wikiart

After a long journey, young Pashka and his mother wait at the hospital to see the doctor. Pashka has a boil on his elbow, but the mother has waited too long and the doctor scolds her, declaring that the wound is infected and the boy may lose his arm.  A stay is required, about which Pashka is not thrilled but he is lured by the doctor’s promises of seeing a live fox and eating sugar-candy.  After a sumptuous dinner of soup, roast beef and bread, the boy awaits the doctor to honour his commitment but when he doesn’t come, he explores the wards, finally returning to his own where he hears the patient, Mikhailo, coughing and wheezing.  When he wakes late in the night, he finds three people at the dead Mikhailo’s bed, yet when they leave, the old man’s chest wheezes again.  Terrified, Pashka screams for his mother, leaps out of bed and tears through the wards and into the yard, intending to run home but a graveyard looms ahead, and Pashka is intensely relieve to spot the kind doctor through a window in a building.  When he burst inside the doctor’s words echo:  “You’re a donkey, Pashka!  Now aren’t you a donkey?  You ought to be whipped ….”

The Runaway (1958)
Norman Rockwell
source Wikiart



Well, what to make of that?  There is the danger of infection, the tension of being separated from his mother, the doctor’s promises that manipulate (for good or ill, who knows) yet come to nought, the wards of sick people and the boy’s terror, perhaps at hearing a dead man who appears to still live.  It’s curious, especially since Pashka’s condition appears serious, yet the reader never has a whisper as to its outcome.  Chekhov himself spent most of his life in the medical profession, so one wonders if he is also exploring the psychological methods physicians might use on their patients.  Through the boy’s eyes the doctor is “kind” but is he really?  The boy has a serious medical condition yet no one seems to be rushing him to surgery, and the doctor has promised many delights for Pashka and is delivering none of them.  What is behind Chekhov’s tale?  Is it a simple tale or a story with a deeper meaning?

Birthhouse of Anton Chekhov
source Wikipedia

Deal Me In Challenge #11

 

 

The Club of Queer Trades by G.K. Chesterton

The Club of Queer Trades is a “society consisting exclusively of people who have invented some new and curious way of making money,” and Chesterton’s delightful collection of fantastical tales give us a view of these entrepreneurs who ply their trades in perhaps an unorthodox manner and often with surprising results.

The Tremendous Adventures of Major Brown: The subject of this title seeks out Rupert Grant, an amateur detective, and with the help of Swinburne, the narrator, and Grant’s brother, Basil, a former “mad” judge, they proceed to cleverly solve his dilemma.  Retired and living comfortably and quietly in a tiny picturesque villa, Major Brown has a mania for pansies.  One day while strolling down a lane, he meets a man pushing flowers in a wheelbarrow and is convinced to purchase the pansies among them.  Yet before departing, the man whispers that if the Major will only climb the garden wall, he will see the most admired pansies in the whole of England.  Against his nature, Major Brown accepts a boost up and is flabbergasted by what he sees.  It is not the pansies themselves that catch his attention but the arrangement of them, spelling out “Death to Major Brown.” Never one to quail in any situation, Brown introduces himself to the gardener of the house who takes him inside to meet a peculiar lady who is staring out the window, but he remembers to warn him beforehand not to mention the “jackal.”   They begin to converse but suddenly their conversation is cut short by a blood-curdling screech, “Major Brown, Major Brown, where does the jackal dwell?”  When the Major runs outside, he spies a coal-black decapitated head on the sidewalk, where apparently the screams are coming from.  What is going on?  Who is trying to kill the Major?  And why does idiosyncratic Basil seem unconcerned?   Chesterton ties up his story with his usual aplomb, and yet still leaves you wondering.  There is also a neat contrast between Basil and Rupert, the former using his intellect and the latter acting on impulse.  A very fun tale!

The Painful Fall of a Great Reputation:  Charles Swinburne, the narrator of the last tale, and Basil Grant are travelling on the top of a deserted tramcar, speaking philosophically about the plight of the poor and the perception of them.  Basil declares that in spite of their circumstances, the majority of the poor are good people and that “the very vileness of life of these ordered plebeian places bears witness to the victory of the human soul.”  No sooner has he uttered these words than he spies a man on the street and his astonishment is palpable.  He announces that he’s observing the most wicked man in the world.  When Swinburne requests to know the man’s sins, Grant admits that he has never seen him before this moment.  Swinburne is startlingly perplexed.  How has Basil made his assumption?  But there is no time to question as his friend grabs him and they are off on a chase after the most wicked man in the world.  In a world of fact versus impression and appearance versus reality, how are they to know whom to trust?

The Awful Reason of the Vicar’s Visit:  Swinburne is dressing to meet Basil Grant at a dinner party when suddenly the sound of the doorbell resounds through the house.  It is the Reverend Ellis Shorter who has heard of his friend, Major Brown’s adventures and has come to seek help.  Swinburne, impatient to be off to his engagement, gets impatient with the Vicar’s dodderings and prevaricating whereupon the Vicar gives him leave to go, but states if he does not hear him out before he does, a man will be dead!  He relates a queer story of being kidnapped by a women’s sewing club, and a subsequent photograph of himself that had never been taken.  Swinburne is perplexed and takes the vicar to Basil to sort out the mystery!

Reverend Oliver Maron, Vicar of Lancaster
George Romney 

The Singular Speculation of the House Agent:  Lieutenant Keith Drummond manages to excite Rupert’s suspicions and barely concealed contempt with his larger-than-life stories and exaggerated claims.  Upon Drummond requesting a loan from Basil and claiming a visit to a house-agent, Rupert near demands to accompany him in hopes of exposing sinister purposes.  All four men set off together, and after a curiously unintelligible conversation between the odd little house agent and Drummond, in which the agent presents a ferret, some lizards and a spider, Drummond escapes before the rest.  When they follow him, they come upon a commotion and find that there has been a brawl. Drummond has been part of it, with his clothes torn and his sword, which he commonly carries with him, drawn.  The police get his address, yet Swinburne, Basil and Rupert discover the next day that the address was a fake.  Rupert is exultant with the proof of his suspicions of Drummond’s disreputable character, but Basil merely laughs, claiming that Drummond his one of the most honest men and that truth can be stranger than fiction.  How can this be?  Is some of the mad judge’s madness finally showing through?  The truth will be discovered at the address that doesn’t exist.

Purley, Surrey (now south London)
source Wikipedia Commons

The Noticeable Conduct of Professor Chadd:  Basil Grant doesn’t have many friends, but the ones he does have are a motley collection of idiosyncratic characters.  One day, he is discussing with his friend, Professor Chadd, an eminent ethnologist and expert on the relation of language to savages, the impact of science on the observable knowledge of Zulus versus the knowledge gained by living like a Zulu.  Chadd, a stuffy academic, who has recently been appointed as curator of the Asiatic manuscripts at the British Museum, answers in stuffy, didactic prose.  The next morning, Basil receives a telegram from one of Chadd’s three sisters: Chadd has suffered a mental breakdown and Basil is entreated to come at once.  Upon his arrival, Basil discovers that the Professor will not communicate with anyone and, instead, will only move his legs in a kind of rigid, hopping dance.  The doctor is with him and when Basil approaches, he asks for a moment with his friend.  The observers are surprised to see the respectable Mr. Grant with a paper and pencil, following Chadd about and jotting notes as he goes.  They are further astounded when he begins to hop around in a parody of Chadd.  The situation is further complicated with the arrival of Mr. Bingham of the British Museum. Great Scots!  How can a lunatic be curator of the Asiatic manuscripts?!!  Yet Basil declares to Bingham that they need to pay Chadd £800 per year until he stops dancing.  What?  Has Basil gone mad as well?  Are there two lunatics, one or none?

Bedford Gardens, Bloomsbury
source Wikimedia Commons

The Eccentric Seclusion of the Old Lady:  Swinburne is walking with his friend, Rupert Grant, the amateur detective, when Grant spots a milkman walking ahead of them.  Suspicious because of the careless way the man carries his milk can, Grant swears that if they follow him, they will find a mystery at the end of the trail.  When the milkman disappears down area steps to a basement, Grant follows and emerges triumphant.  He has heard a cry for help in the downstairs room, repeating, “When shall I get out?  Will they ever let me out?”.  Determined to rescue the imprisoned lady, they enlist Basil’s help and with his usual aplomb, Basil gains entry to the house but when he emerges, he claims that the men inside are good chaps.  Incensed, both Rupert and Swinburne insist on entering the house themselves to find the victim.  The “chaps” allow them in but a fight ensues in which our three rescuers are pinned.  Will they get free to release the poor woman who’s been detained?  Yet with Basil Grant, nothing is every as it seems.

Milkman and cart 1900s
source Wikimedia Commons

In Basil Grant, Chesterton creates, not a scientifically brilliant detective like Sherlock Holmes, but one who is astute in the workings of human nature, which makes for truly fascinating cases.  Another fantastic effort by Chesterton who keeps the reader guessing, and never quite sure whether up is down or down is up in The Club of Queer Trades.

Father Brown: The Worst Crime in the World by G.K. Chesterton

Father Brown has plans to meet his niece in a picture gallery, but before he finds her, he encounters lawyer Granby who wants his opinion.  Should he trust a certain Captain Musgrove enough to advance him money on his father’s estate?  The estate is not entitled and it is not conclusive that Musgrove Jr. will be the heir.  Upon the arrival of his niece, Father Brown learns that she is planning to marry the same Musgrove and meets the young man himself.  Musgrove invites both Father Brown and Granby to his father’s castle, but then bows out of the trip at the last moment due to an arrival of a couple of shady characters in the background, but encourages the men to make the trip without him.

After they arrive at the castle (having to leap the moat due to a rusty, disabled drawbridge), they meet Old Musgrove, who assures them that his son will inherit, yet he will never speak to him again, due to the fact that he perpetrated the worst crime in the world.  Granby returns to town, secure in his knowledge, but Father Brown remains in the village, determined to discover the details of this dastardly crime.  Will he be able to discover the truth in time to save his niece from the clutches of a villain, or is the old man merely playing with him and there is nothing sinister about his son?  You will only find out, if you read the full story which can be found here:  The Worst Crime in the World – G.K. Chesterton

source Wikimedia Commons

I love Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries and this one does not disappoint.

Deal Me In Challenge #12 – Seven of Clubs

La Parure (The Necklace) par Guy de Maupassant

“C’etait une de ces jolies et charmantes filles, nées, comme par une erreur du destin, dans une famille d’employés.”

Yes, she certainly was a pretty and charming girl who was born by a mistake of destiny into a family of office workers.  Mathilde would dream of riches and fame and jewels, covering her life of drudgery in a tapestry of fantasies and longings.  Finally, one day, her husband arrives with an invitation to a party.  Mathilde manipulates this honest, hard-working man into purchasing a new elegant dress for her, but when she complains of a lack of jewels, he has the answer: borrow some from her wealthy friend Madame Forestier!  A lovely diamond necklace of Madame’s catches Mathilde’s eye and she must have it.  Her friend, generous to the end, gladly loans it and the evening of her dreams begins.  She is admired, she is catered to, she is wrapped in a heavenly realm of blissful wealth and prestige.  Late do she and her husband return home, reluctant to leave the party until the end but, oh no!  The necklace has disappeared and she is sure that she left it in the taxi.  Days of searching yield nothing and finally there is only one thing to do.  Withdrawing their life savings and taking out a loan, they replace the necklace, hoping that Madame will not notice.  But this painful action causes them ten years of needless toil and suffering.  Why is it needless?  Well, you will have to read the tale to find out!

This short story was really a gem and, in spite of having an inkling of the final twist, it still held my attention to end.  In fact, I had expected to get fatigued by reading such a long (for me) story in French and I had planned to take a break, but instead, I was held rapt until the end.

I did wonder at the title of this story.  In the tale, the necklace is mostly referred to as “la rivière“, yet the title is “la parure“.  When I looked up “la rivière” in my French dictionary it says “river“, and “la parure“means “finery” or “jewelry“.  So then I looked up necklace and it had “le collier“.  What?  Do any of you Francophiles understand the distinction between these terms? Help!

In any case, this story has definitely been a huge incentive to read more of Maupassant.  His short stories are very readable and a good way to keep improving my French.  I certainly struggled here and there in parts of it and learned a number of new words, yet I was also pleased with my progress.

This will probably be the last book for my Summer Freak Language Challenge, unless I can squeak in a short children’s book before the end. Thanks Ekaterina, for holding this wonderful challenge.  It’s given me a chance to practice languages that I wouldn’t normally read in.  I’m already looking forward to next year’s challenge!