Franz Kafka and Me

Sunset on the Road, Mohave Desert

by Mrs. Sabraw

Sometimes, when you are sure that your experience is unique, it helps to read the classics.

My students used to moan and roll their youthful eyes, eyes full of whim and mischief, whenever they saw a stack of classics on the front table of Room N-9, ready for distribution.

“Why can’t we read something interesting?” they complained.

“I know many of you just rolled out of bed about 15 minutes ago while others of you have been primping and preening for at least an hour, but tell me, how has your morning been? Has anything or anyone annoyed you? How about the radio? Did you hear anything on your way to school that made you wonder what in the heck is going on in this world?

“Yeah, kinda, Mrs. Sabraw,” chirped one alert sycophant in the front row. ” When I opened my locker this morning, someone had squirted some type of paste through the slats. They slimed my stuff. Then I looked down and wrapped in a Burger King napkin was a tube of Preparation H. I am totally pissed. Oh! Sorry Mrs. Sabraw, I know we’re not supposed to use the word pissed  in your classroom. But I really was pissed. Oh sorry again! “[raucous laughter from the back row of mouth breathers– the wrestlers and football players holding up the wall with their heads]. (This student now works at Google.)

“You do know, Joe, that other people since the dawn of man have been irritated with the actions of others, right? You do know that other people have been tortured, raped, robbed, maimed, cheated, hurt, and slimed, right?

What if you found yourself accused of a crime you didn’t commit? Worse, what if you found that you had been accused of a crime that was never revealed? Or, what if you woke up one morning and instead of rolling out of bed and finding your jeans in a clump on the floor ready for your two legs, you couldn’t even roll over because you have  moving creepy legs, just like a disgusting cockroach, too many legs for a pair of 501 jeans? What if in your pondering, now that you have morphed into an insect and are stuck in your bed, it occurs to you that your family was just interested in the money you earned and not you?”

“Gosh, Mrs. Sabraw, you don’t have to be so dramatic,” tooted one small wispy dirty blond from the third row, fourth seat. “It’s a little early for those types of heinous images and depressing thoughts.” (This student would go on to study at Swarthmore College.)

“The point that I am making students is…well, Daniel, what is the point?”

” Could it be that even cave men and women got slimed?” (This student is now a psychiatrist.)

“Well, that is a good start, Daniel. Please pass out the books. You’ll note that the title of this text is The Trial and the author is Franz Kafka, one of the most amazing writers of the 20th century. But I will warn you. This is rough sledding. You may feel claustrophobic or highly frustrated. By the way, did you know that frustration is low-level anger?

Franz Kafka was a small Jewish kid in Prague with a loud overly dominant father.  If you were a Jewish kid in Prague you were not invited for toast and tea at Prague castle. In fact, if you had a locker outside of the ghetto there, it would have had more than Preparation H pushed through the slats. Franz lived in a small space with sisters and a big loud dad. He often felt claustrophobic and afraid. He found that the corners of his room were the best places to get away and…

Now, are we ready to read? “

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About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
This entry was posted in Education, On fiction, Writing and Teaching and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

55 Responses to Franz Kafka and Me

  1. petunia says:

    Professor Cheri:

    Thank you for sharing your gifts of wisdom and exuberance.
    I relish your thoughts and pearls of “every good thing”.

    Bless you!

  2. Ccsaw says:

    Wirh the thousands of new regulations buried in Dodd-Frank and Obamacare, that have nothing to do with the stated purpose of the bills, I suspect a lot of businesses and people will wake up and feel like the protagonist in The Trial.

  3. One hopes that some of the seeds you planted actually grew. But let’s face it, the history of man’s inhumanity to man pales to insignificance for [a mouthbreather] when they run out of minutes on their calling plan or are unfriended on Facebook.

    • Cheri says:

      Well, true, Tom. I haven’t been in a traditional classroom since 1998. At my own little school, we had students who were highly motivated, but I confess: I gave myself my own literary goosebumps.

  4. Christopher says:

    It is said that Kafka’s works, particularly “The Trial”, are like being in a disturbing dream. Indeed, “The Trial” does seem dream-like to me. Does it, to you?

    Discuss.

    • I used to think that until I realized how realistic Kafka is.

    • Cheri says:

      Christopher,
      I have so much to say on this topic. In fact, I wrote my first paper on the last chapter of The Trial. When I get a moment, I will send it to you by e-mail.

      It absolutely does NOT seem like a dream to me; rather, it seems like so much of my reality. Perhaps that realization–that our lives can be like Josef K.’s–helped me tremendously in my third reading of the novel.

      • dafna says:

        Oh, i want a copy of that also. NOT dream-like?

        it’s been years since i read Kafka but it definitely seemed surreal to me.

        the only scenario where it might reflect reality is that joseph k. external “reality” is a reflection of the universal internal feelings we all sometimes feel (and or inexplicable situations)… claustrophobia, fear of the unknown, helplessness, grappling with the unfair and things out of our control. the book is a surreal dream-like example of these things.

        • Cheri says:

          hi dafna,
          OK! I will send it to you both, but first I have to finish my paper on Abraham and Isaac,due by 5:00 today. In order to appreciate my paper on Kafka (it’s only 1000 words..which is harder for me to do than a longer piece), you have to reread the last chapter of The Trial.

          You have hit on most of the big issues in the book, dafna. I am particularly interested in claustrophobia…

      • Christopher says:

        I’ll be interested to read your paper on The Trial.

        Many sleeping dreams are like waking life. Often, I’ve been in situations where I ask myself whether I’m dreaming. And, often, I’ve had dreams in which I’ve debated with myself in the dream, whether or not this is a dream.

        The Trial’s theme of being accused of something, but you don’t know what that something is, has been the lot of many in dictatorships, and is the lot of many in “relationships”.

        It is also the bread-and-butter of the paranoiac. However, as the old joke goes, just because you’re a paranoiac, doesn’t mean someone’s not following you.

        • Cheri says:

          You have written about dreams before, Christopher. I believe we have all had these feelings–that our dreams were reality and our reality is a dream. I sometimes feel that way by the ocean side, especially if the day is hot and the sand is blowing.

          Your last line is hysterically funny.

  5. dafna says:

    p.s., this will probably not surprise cheri (the teacher), but Jacob’s school is insisting he read the most “current” version of “tom sawyer” rather than our dusty “original” edition which he knows and loves. there is a significant difference between old and new versions of many books. for instance modern versions of rudyard kipling leave out those lovely poems which begin each chapter in the originals.

    i don’t understand the school’s reasoning.

    • Cheri says:

      This report does not surprise me dafna. It does enrage me.
      Paul and Tom’s reaction (plus that fabulous definition of political correctness!!!) are spot on.
      I experienced this situation while teaching Huck Finn, a text I taught for all of my teaching career.

  6. imagenmots says:

    Dafna the schools, ours are no exception, rewrite history and stories to make them socially acceptable to our sensitive politically correct narrow little minds. Everything goes through the grinder; so why not Kipling?
    As for Kafka, I have witnessed Eastern European people laughing their heads off reading him and telling me how hilarious he was. Go figure!

    • I can’t remember where I saw this, but it might be apropos:

      “There’s an annual contest at the University of Arkansas calling for the most appropriate definition of a contemporary term. This year’s term was: “Political Correctness.” The winning student wrote:

      “Political correctness is a doctrine — fostered by a delusional, illogical minority and rapidly promoted by an unscrupulous mainstream media — which holds forth the proposition that it is entirely possible to pick up a piece of shit by the clean end.”

    • dafna says:

      hi paul,
      yes i suspected “political correctness” as the reason for editing kipling. the poems which open each chapter are fantastic!

      for “tom sawyer”, i think the newer editions may “dumb down” the grammar. although, PC may also be the cause for editing.

      @thomas fun-ee quote! it could be applied to so many a thing!

    • Cheri says:

      Paul,
      He is very funny, in places. Parts of The Burrow, The Metamorphosis, and other of his short stories have bizarre humor. I love Kafka.

      I asked the head of the masters program (taught about politically correct…) if I could do something on Kafka..and was rejected because I don’t read German. Boo hoo!

  7. Cyberquill says:

    What a great title for a book!

  8. dafna says:

    Thanks for the essay! Well done!
    I can’t remember when I read the book. Really I can’t remember when I read most of these books except for the french authors, since that was my BA, french literature. And those books were all the more beautiful since they were in their native language.
    The reason for mentioning how long it has been, is because I know that my focus was never on historical context or even biographical relevance of the book to the author. So, it was either a book I chose to read without instruction, or the instructors chose not to bring up those two important aspects!
    One thing is for sure, at least Jacob has become convinced of the importance of a classical education. Despite his natural talent for math and science and his love of fancy cars and video games (their design and creation), he has said he would like to spend his “first four years” of college in a liberal art school.

    • Cheri says:

      Dear Jacob,
      If, at the age of 14, you see the value of a classical education,then you are far ahead of many your age, many who later on in their lives–after they have spent a lifetime in a lab or cubicle–will return to study the classics.

      I recommend that you take a look at St. John’s College. There is a campus in Santa Fe, New Mexico and one in Annapolis, Maryland. This college is unique. It was recently ranked ahead of Harvard, Stanford, and many of the so-called “top” universities. Their curricula is unlike any other. Strictly the Great Books…You learn advanced math by studying the advanced mathematicians, etc.

      Here is the link: http://www.sjca.edu

      Let me know what you think! The Judge and I have attended many seminars at the St. John’s campus in Santa Fe.

      • dafna says:

        wow,

        i clicked the link and first thing i noticed was a recent seminar/lecture on de Montaigne, one of my favorites. he was not someone i studied in school, it was only later when i traced the origin of some very famous quotes by Churchill and Clemens that i discovered their origins in de Montaigne.

        i will pass the link along to Jacob.

  9. dafna says:

    ah cheri,

    i see now that you mention these in the last paragraph of this post… it took your essay and your examination of the “outstretched arms” to make it clear to me.

    • Cheri says:

      dafna,
      I read your comments over at Richard’s and wanted to express my hopes that your father’s health improves.

      • dafna says:

        Thank you Cheri fro the kind thoughts.

        I just saw this comment. It may sound strange, but my parents have a symbiotic relationship. My Dad is a caretaker, and my Mom is very “sheltered” from day to day tasks.

        Unlike Richard’s parents and your parents, if one passed the other would surely follow soon after. So, I have two reasons to hope my father’s health improves.

  10. Richard says:

    This student, you will be glad to learn, has emerged unscathed after a first reading of The Trial

    What begins as a potential hymn to freedom and the law’s safeguards rapidly descends to empty insane ravings and a melodramatic reflection on life and death.

    Most shocking is the ordinariness of it all: the boarding house, the lodgers, the colleagues, the relatives, the bank, the career. A relentless narrative monotone matches this ordinariness and leads apparently seamlessly from one event to the next, though the sequence and consistency do not bear close scrutiny. The work was unfinished and unrevised: it shows.

    So, a seniorish bank official. Joseph K., is arrested in his lodgings. His daily round is, incongruously, unaffected, though he is left unapprised of the wrong of which he is accused and no means of remedying his plight. He does not even know if he is charged with a criminal offence, but that is to be supposed.

    Paranoia, delusions and hallucinations overtake him. According to the text, he meets with a series of legal officials, though they might be doctors or patients or anything, for all is through the author’s distorting lens shaped as it is by a sterile experience of the law. There is the unlikely court office in a turret in a tenement, the advocate (or psychiatrist) consulted in his bed in an unlit house, the vagueness of the proceedings, the whipping of a warder in a broom cupboard in the bank, the scarcely disguised sexual symbolism, the strange behaviour of everyone involved, the infinite bureaucratic hierarchy. There is some kindness, of a self-protecting, neutral kind, and advice and recommendation, if misplaced and ineffectual, particularly from senior officials at the bank. The humour escapes me.

    Kafka’s rambling, self-indulgent nihilist fiction is unlikely, miserable and relentless, culminating in K.’s gory death. It neglects the real terror of losing freedom and sanity and the opportunities that exist to preserve them.

    Was, I ask myself, K. ever arrested at all?

    Thus may I have written before WW2. Then the hideous reality sets in, the resilience fortified by a macabre humour and the prescience.

    btw – You must concentrate on your driving and stop taking your hands of the wheel to take photographs. 😉

    • Cheri says:

      I enjoyed reading your mini-essay with an inductive ending. You are right about The Trial being unfinished. I learned in class this quarter that even the order of the chapters may have been switched around. Had I not traveled to Prague last May, I would not have the same feelings about Kafka. Somehow, crossing the Charles Bridge into Josefov (the ghetto) and seeing the 79k (something like that) names of Jews who were taken to the concentration camps, inscribed on the walls of a synagogue–made me go back and rethink Kafka.
      I am so fortunate to have readers like you and so many others, who love literature and are willing to engage in a discussion about it. Thank you!

  11. Cheri says:

    dafna and Richard,
    I will answer you both later on. I loved your observations…and my Richard, you are a terrific writer and literary critic. Good thing you are not in my class…you’d ruin the curve.

    Did you like the photo?

    I can’t type very well because I cut my little finger chopping onions…

    • Richard says:

      I love it when you praise me, but I don’t believe you. 😀

      Of course I liked the photograph, I just don’t want you to go risking life and limb for your art, pictorial or culinary. 😉

  12. Cheri says:

    When I write (or say) something, I believe it.
    Anyone who knows me in person (say Petunia above or bogard who sometimes comments….)
    They will confirm that my word is my truth.

    This fact, however, has gotten me into a great deal of trouble in my lifetime.

  13. Christopher says:

    Today I came across this from Kafka, “Literature is a hatchet with which we chop at the frozen seas inside us.”

  14. Cheri says:

    Intriguing quotation. I wonder why he called the seas “frozen.”

  15. Cheri says:

    Christopher,
    This short piece was instructional. Thank you so much for sending it my way. It provides scholarly observation that indeed, Kafka may have been inserting humor into his bizarre and absurd situations.

  16. Christopher says:

    Having not gone to the University, I was forced to look up in my dictionary at least three words – “recursive”, “satyriasis”, and “lallating” – in David Foster Wallace’s piece.

    I was happy to find, though, that his words stumped others too, like this person who started up a blog called *”Words I Learned From Reading David Foster Wallace”*.

    • Richard says:

      Without a university education and, moreover, not, until recently falling under the bad influence of you and others, Christopher, having read hardly anything either, I am blessed with a sense of moral superiority.

      When reading Ivanhoe for the first time a couple of weeks ago, interrupted only by a first reading of the Trial, I had to look up the following words:

      Trencher, pinfold, embrasure, fuld, bruit, malapert, shriven, houseled, reck, blench, curtal, liard, propine, avise, partizan (with a ‘z’), gramercy, hership, coracole, tippet, houri, hollo, seneschal, flose, sith, objurgation, nidering, ruth, snell, maugre, gib, hilding, cardeau, leman, pyet, crow, bewray, morion, cerement, essoine

      The list is not exhaustive.

      There were so many I had to write them down and look them up in batches, by which time I had forgotten the context. Some words defeated even my Oxford Concise.

      I am sure you will spot many spelling errors committed unawares as I transposed them.

      Still, it was a spanking good read.

      • Christopher says:

        “Crow” was the only word I’d heard of.

        I’ll surmise, though, that “snell” comes from the German “schnell” which means “quick” or “fast”. And “nidering” just may come from the German, “nieder”, that means, if memory serves me correctly, “down”, or “below”. As for “bruit”, is it the same as the French “bruit”, meaning “sound”?

        What does “spanking” mean? It looks as if it comes from German too, but I’ll have to research this.

        • Richard says:

          Crow is believe, snell quick, nidering cowardly, bruit rumour. In their context you’d clearly have understood them, Christopher. I was clueless.

          If you need any help with your researches about spanking, I might be able to help. My fees are reasonable.

          • dafna says:

            he, he, he… very funny Richard.
            Christopher did not think to look at the English/American slang for “spanking” which has it’s roots in the original Danish (?) “strut” or “very big and fine” as in “brand spanking new”.

            Kudos, to Christopher for his sound background in etymology. You bloggers have me looking up lesser words every day. I love it, because it improves my vocabulary and makes me feel clever to use the new words.

      • Cheri says:

        Excuse me Gentlemen,
        What does a university education mean? If you attended college, is that a university education?
        For example, let’s say you attended one of the best schools in the United States–Swarthmore College. Did you then have a university education?
        Or is attending The University of Southern California (as I did) a university education?
        Please help me!

        • Richard says:

          The sweatshop I attended, Cheri, had a monopoly – yes, a monopoly – on bringing non-graduate would-be solicitors to degree level (they claimed), then the successful among those and law graduates exclusively to the solicitors’ final. All were obliged to attend. It also prepared students for the Bar examinations, though it had no monopoly on this. Its pretensions to university status were officially denied.

          A rose, it would seem, by any other name may not smell as sweet.

          Everything’s different now, of course.

        • Christopher says:

          The word “education” has, of course, many different connotations.

          There are lots of people with university degrees, but who cannot write their native English properly, and who are ignorant of well-nigh everything outside what they need to know for plying their profession.

          When you talk to a university graduate of this ilk about anything outside his own bailiwick, you are forced to talk to him as if to a young child.

          Should not an “educated” person be able to speak intelligently of things as different as shoes and ships and sealing-wax, of cabbages and kings?

          Where can you find such educated people today? Only among those who mill around the water-cooler at “Notes From Around The Block”, perhaps?

          • Cheri says:

            Christopher,
            What a poet you are! This comment is so sweet and so true.

            I am grateful for those souls who mill around this water-cooler. Your comments and insights throughout the years have bolstered my spirits in dark times and elevated the discussion to great heights.

            My teaching experience reminds me that “smart” is not an SAT score.

  17. Cheri says:

    I did not know ONE of those words, Richard (and I had a university education). What is most impressive is that you both look them up!

    I must confess that I do not always do that.

  18. Cheri says:

    Very funny interchange, Richard. You and Christopher ought to be a comedy team. Let’s see…what would your stage names be?

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