KAFKA IN PROGRESS:
Trains of Thought…
The Unreliable Narrator
Yes he had every intention of saying something, but may have back-logged everything in his FOR-GO/GIVE/LORN file, where it remains after months of inattention and may at this point be of less urgency or importance than the moment it arrived because…because?… Or he may have lost it entirely for whatever reason, or accidentally deleted it…or unintentionally filed it elsewhere because his mind remains a muddle these days, even more so than usual given the state of mind he cannot find himself in…too frequently lost in progress…reminiscent of that Eastern European train station once upon a time not long ago where he found himself somewhere in Poland on his way from Lodz to Wroclaw, where he felt abandoned in the dark, in the light, in the cold, in the emptiness of the station, a dislocated foreigner pacing in circles…up and down empty platforms, eyes following empty tracks into an abyss, a train to take him somewhere–the next leg of an inspired, ill-planned journey–from Wroclaw to?… To Prague, to find Kafka’s grave, but his words there and then, here and now like Kafka’s meaning everything and nothing…a foreigner bereft of language, of Polish or German …and even if he could voice a word, there was no one to bear witness…no one to approach in a station as empty as a midnight parking lot in America. Sprechen sie …nada… English, foreign on his own tongue…2:33 a.m.…nobody to express his alienation…no woman to touch gently on the arm, to lead or be led astray, to tell untranslatable tales of his travails…no derelict hunched in sleep along a wall, no cripple begging for attention, not single human being to express his confusion, fear, abandonment, the smallest flicker of desire to, if there were anything worth desiring other than words that meant something, said something, led somewhere. And so he stood, stone dead in place, eyes focused fiercely on cold steel rails waiting deliverance. Cold creeping from his toes in torn shoes…to quivering legs, empty stomach, hollow chest, fragile arms, numb fingers…listening to conversations in his head, stammering, falling (first) accidentally upon his old Catholic knee in genuflection, then both knees in supplication (the Poles would know the man in bended knees), recalling Latin, confession, contrition till the sound of an engine, screeching steel wheels…answered prayers…pushing himself up from the pavement, finding his footing, Gloria in excelsis Deo…breaking into a hobbled run toward car after slowly passing car…as the train shudders to a halt, comes to rest, exuding steam…thrumming…heaving …exiting a few wearisome passengers in the brevity and breath of something like silence, in and out…as he feels his body in desperate motion, the weight of everything he carried, boarding the first empty step, then heaving a heavy suitcase of books in front of him…stepping up, into, away from wherever he was, to wherever the train was destined to take him at a black hour of the day that was one long night. The compartment, blindingly bright. He settles into himself. The seat across from him bearing a sole woman passenger, her head leaning into the dark window glass…unaware of his presence, his broken breathing, his disarray. Opening one eye, looking Slavic to her, she mumbles something to him in Czech. He remembers the sound, says the word “Praha”? She nods yes, closes her eyes while he stretches his legs, falls into a fitful sleep and awakes later in daylight, someone shaking his arm, speaking what sounds like German…the woman gone, the train at a standstill. The conductor holding open the compartment door, helping with the heavy suitcase, leading him off the train to the platform…pointing to a sign on the station wall: KRAKOW.
“From a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached,” whispers Kafka again—and again.
He rents a room, sleeps the remainder of the morning, recalls enough history of where he now finds himself to board a local bus to Auschwitz and walk alone beneath the metal sign above the entrance to the camp: Arbeit Macht Frei welcomes him as it welcomed those who came by train before him fifty years ago and left in ashes.
Yet another invisible station of the cross to bear that was never mentioned in his WWII Catholic childhood or ever appeared in the “living way of the cross” in the final pages of his little black book…his Latin-English Sunday missal.
Credo in unum Deum, Patrem omnipoténtem, factórem caeli et terrae, visibílium ómnium, et invisíbilium. [I believe in one God, the Father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.]
Visible piles of prayer shawls, windows of shoes, sacks of human hair, mounds of eye glasses…
End of line…of language…of never-ending story…
“Anyone who cannot come to terms with his life while he is alive needs one hand to ward off a little his despair over his fate…but with his other hand he can note down what he sees among the ruins,” wrote Kafka, German-Czech-Jew, before his time, this time, our time…
“To be continued…” final words to learn at every beginning.
To be continued…far from there and then. How did he get here anyway? This was not the beginning when these words began to fill the page five weeks ago? Eight weeks ago? Ten weeks ago? Endless revision, slow progression. The mood of any moment changing everything. This is not where he was headed. End it right here. Begin again. Dead ends. His intent, concern, destination, was to write of chance. Something he wrestles with still. That he’s still here after where he’d been two years ago, a year ago, last month, this week, yesterday, today, a moment ago. Chasing the ephemeral. Being dogged by it. Breakfast with a friend. The engrossing stories, everywhere in one small community–the living, the shattered, the dead—continuing to be. On the phone with an old love. In the pages of Graham Greene: “Point me out the happy man and I will point you out either extreme egotism, evil—or else an absolute ignorance.” Correspondence with a woman who can’t help but love one’s neighbor, given all that she is. Love to be given, to be returned—in abundance. To be continued…to pick up the unbearable crosses again…struggle–doubt, despair, delusion. dissolution, uncertainty. To consider the litany of loss, known or witnessed, in all its forms in just one year’s time: youth, middle age, old age, bad hearts, cancerous cells, broken limbs, fevered minds, addictions, accidental deaths, abandoned relationships, betrayals, self-inflicted wounds … Chance. That was the train of thought he had no choice to pursue but pursued him.
To be continued…yet in the end: Those who seek to make art often find themselves alone.
To be continued…so what was the original destination he set out to journey, back there then or here now in place? That lost train of thought? Moving forward…whatever the direction. So this is about that. About that and not about other things on his mind… Daily life? The ordinary day? Where is the language? The correct words? Sex, death, and melancholy. Were those the right words that came to him last night? An unsettling monologue? Sex, death, isolation and hostility?
Why did he pick this book FALLING from the shelf that night and open it to this…and feel, yes…to begin here:
“We all from time to time feel lucky, feel we are to be favored by chance, and most of us secretly, even shamefully, believe we can enhance our luck with totems, prayers, private rituals, and magical thinking. We want to protect ourselves from the vagaries of chance, the chilling randomness that dictates who is and who isn’t the victim of falling trees, flying bullets, drunk drivers, birth defects, tumors, viruses, lightning, that determines who does and who doesn’t receive the sandwich containing the spoiled bacon, the ticket on the plane that will hit wind sheer when landing in Denver, the fatally incorrect diagnosis from the overworked emergency-room resident. It is easy to dismiss luck as a delusion, a superstitious fantasy manufactured in some primitive layer of the human mind. But what separates magical thinking from positive thinking? Aren’t they both simply manifestations of our attitude? Isn’t a belief in luck simply a way of expressing our faith in ourselves?”
How did he find himself speechless one afternoon in Auschwitz amidst piles of shoes and eye glasses, boarding a train the next day which would plummet him to Prague in search of Kafka’s grave, as if any answers awaited him there?
To be continued…
WHERE AM I?
Distraught. Reaching for things in the dark. Grasping something. Feeling it in my hands. Naming it. Possessing it only for word’s sake.
This is not the next “North of Kafka” he intended to write, he tells himself. He is still working on that. Two more unfinished works to add to his oeuvre of incomplete, inconsequential, lost symphonies of the moment. Again life takes over, interrupting him, rearing its mysterious head, leading him to the abyss.
“What do you see?”
He is angry with himself. Angry with all that led him there. Again. He is looking for himself in an old notebook (one of the two unfinished Kafka symphonies in progress: old notebooks), but this is not the one, “Letters/Work,’95”, mostly listings of correspondence. Though the cover is a revelation of better days. Painting made him pure, whole. In love again. He pages through the names of correspondents in “95,” only to discover how many have left, gone over, into the abyss…that grey field of the cover painting, returning him there, where he began. Loss.
He can never find what he is looking for without finding something else. He opens another notebook, undated, finds a list of books. Books he has read? He might buy? And a few lines from Kafka: “What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved…that makes us feel we had been banished in the woods…” (looking out the window to his own woods)…”far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.”
He finds another quote? poem? (not his) hastily scribbled in pencil, unidentified, in yet another notebook:
Who am I [no question mark]
Why do we never see you anywhere, they say to him, why
do you bury yourself in that hole, they say, far away from your friends,
with no parties, no nights out, no fun, you ought to get out,
see people, clock in, show your face, at least give some signs
of life. Forget it, he says to them. I get up at five o’clock have a coffee
and by the time I have erased and written six or seven lines
the day’s already over and evening is falling to erase.
(How I Celebrated My Birthday the Other Day)
He was writing something else in a notebook at the time when Kafka had a few words to say. Which often happens when working on one thing and another thing takes over.
“That’s the great danger. Words prepare the way for deeds to come, detonate future explosions,” said Kafka.
It’s always a matter of time. Or question of time, I thought, he thought, trying to retrieve the day, the moment…the day of birth.
Did Kafka have a Happy Birthday, ever? Did his overbearing father buy him a toy? Did the many loves of Kafka, Felice, Grete, Julie, Milena, Minze, Dora, ever send him a birthday card, bake him a cake, buy him a gift, take him out to dinner in Prague? Did he blow out all the candles on the cake? Make a wish?
“Last night during a brief half-slumber it occurred to me that I ought to celebrate your birthday by visiting all the places important in your life,” Kafka wrote in one of his many letters to his beloved Milena.
So there were birthday celebrations in his life.
“Do you know, by the way, that you were given to me as a present…?” he wrote to her in another letter. “I was born in’83, so was 13 when you were born. The 13th birthday is a special occasion…”
So it was a “special occasion” for me, but not a good day, ‘the other day’. Birthdays never are for me. My celebration of the event in the past was to dismiss them. Avoid thinking about them, mentioning them, counting them. There was a period in my thirties and forties when, if I were asked, “How old are you?” I would reply, “I don’t know.” Which was true, I distanced myself that much from the astrological time in late August when Leo roared for the first time and demanded attention.
I lived a long while, quite happily, in a place where I held Time at bay…until the sixtieth decade when a social order of early-old-age warning signals (ARP, hearing aid offers, insurance companies…) more importantly, Social Security, Medicare arrived in my mailbox, invaded my consciousness. The face in reflected the mirror was no longer who it once was. (“I’m how old?”)
Alas, (“You must remember this…” ) you really can’t run, can’t hide. CAN’T do anything but a little less and less… “As Time Goes By.” (“It’s still the same old story…” ) Time to be let out to pasture—though you know in your bones, Writers never retire…scratching their epitaphs into the earth with a stick, determined to get down the last word.
“So, what do you have to say for yourself, now?”…the years whisper in your head every day, a constant reminder, a veritable pain in the ass and other body parts. Sinatra singing in the dark: “But the days grow short…the days dwindle down to a precious few…”
Yes, another year (not a good one) rolled around, ‘only yesterday’. There was no cake, there were no candles, no “Happy Birthday to You” refrains…only a few cards a few days arriving well before the official day of birth and a few gifts.
Which, unexplainably, all seemed more welcome than ever before. Hilarious, ribald greetings from a favorite aunt. Thoughtful words from son and wife, and daughter and husband…my three spectacular grandkids. Thank you, Thank you! An e-mail greeting from my ex in CA (Thank you); and from a longtime lady friend in CA (Thank you). Others, I’m certain (given the US Mails), to arrive late.
A couple of folks here (writer-friend Robb Zee and pastor-friend, Michael B) stopped by with greetings and a gift of books, (Thank you! Thank you!) Nothing like the gift of words and more words.
Not that I expected this…or anything from anybody. Though that might be a lie. Feeling more and more estranged these days…from everything…everybody. Estranged, a word I grow more comfortable with these days. Especially today, yesterday (the day before?) my official B.Day. Overcast. A day attired in early morning fog, then dressed in gray till I too adopted the wardrobe by midmorning, stepped into the elements, the nature of things, felt gray, spoke gray, looked gray settled into a time and place of estrangement without knowing it. Silence. Do Not Disturb.
First stop, the post office, where greetings galore would be waiting for me on this historic day. Contents of P.O. Box 33: one magazine, one piece of junk mail, one Happy Birthday greeting card from the local bank: “Warmest regards for a wonderful day filled with special joys and simple pleasures. From your friends at Baylake Bank.”
A happy occasion, a sad commentary, a moment of estrangement.
Feeling sorry for oneself feels fleetingly good.
I headed to town seeking to celebrate my own birthday my own way (which I had been good at in the past). Which (when alone) (which was often) resulted in the search for good Chicago-style pizza (almost non-existent this far north)…and an annual over indulgence in one hell of a banana split.
But TIME (and the introduction last year, my very first year of bad health bordering on deadly, followed by the redundancy of recuperation, ever a work in progress) had caught up with me. The worst of all worlds possible: I had lost my appetite, my sense of taste. Pizza and cardboard were one and the same. Steak, cheeseburgers, prime rib, salads, eggs, French toast, Nada e pues nada. Only rich, thick, quality chocolate ice cream hummed in my taste buds, “The Way We Were”.
How to honor a birthday in twilight time?
I stopped at the re-sale shop (part of the local care center), and treated myself to a beautiful pair of like-new kaki jeans, $5. “Dead men’s clothes”. Which they often are. Sometimes you see a piece of clothing walking around town (sweaters especially) which you know belonged to an old friend who passed a few months ago. “There goes Frank’s ugly blue and white sweater—born again.”
Next stop…an art gallery. A nice piece of pottery. A welcome gift. A bowl, a vase. Happy Birthday to me. A pot that says hold me, feel me, fill me, love my glaze, my shape…make me a part of your visual life, close to where you sit and read the night away. But nothing spoke to me. Empty-handed.
The seduction of some special birthday food began playing with my “the-way-we-were” brain—a tasty, crusty, delicious French bread for sure…some good cheese, a little red wine. I could almost taste it. I went to see Annie at, TOP SHELF. Only Annie wasn’t there, wasn’t in. And all the French bread was gone. Too late in the day. Too late, too late, too late.
I walked back to the car while a slight shower of self-pity rained down upon me. It felt good. I welcomed it. Looked up soulfully to an umbrella of gray-on-gray.
I drove home. Defeated. Had a bowl of cereal with sweet slices of a ripe peach for lunch. Which resulted in what has become a common, daily recuperation occurrence since last year’s surgery: Crash-city. Sick again to the stomach. Estranged from my body for the next two hours…from my old self, my better self, my energy, my work, my pursuit of everything.
Happy Birthday. Bullshit.
By the time I could lift myself out of the chair, somewhat handle the old crappy feeling, get back to the coop, work myself through stomach-misery revisited, it was too late in the day, too late in the afternoon of this historic B. Day to accomplish anything to my satisfaction. Not to mention that afternoons have never agreed with me. I would banish afternoons entirely. And Sundays.
Happy Birthday phone calls? Two, son and daughter, that I luckily happened to answer. Though there may have been others—which I still have not retrieved. Have I mentioned how estranged I am from phone calls? How often I leave the phone off the hook? Let the answering machine deal with whoever, whatever? whenever? How I am prone to delete messages without listening to them? How I hate making calls? Even more, receiving them—at night? Especially at night!
I wish I could say I know the answer. I wish I enjoyed answering. I wish one could live without a cell phone in this day and age. Age… But one can’t. I can’t.
Even Kafka used the phone.
The not-so-happy-birthday disintegrated into night. A fitful sleep. A new morning of wakening alienation, creeping light. Another day. Sixteen hours older than the day before.
I dressed, drove a short distance to town for breakfast at a local restaurant where I was certain (this being one of only two days each week she worked) that Stef, one of my all-time favorite local waitresses, would be there to greet me in booth # 4 or #7, would be chirpy, smiley, cheery, see that my ‘early bird special’ (two poached eggs, whole wheat toast, potatoes, black coffee)’ or two slices of French toast, would be prepared and served exactly to my liking …see to it that the sun lit up the day whether it did or not.
“Don’t tell anyone,” I told her. “Yesterday was my birthday. Thirty-five, yep, getting a little gray. But don’t sing Happy Birthday to me, or bring a piece of cake from the kitchen with a candle stuck in it. I hate that!”
A short time later she returned with my breakfast platter and a small watermelon wedge, a flickering candle stuck into it. “Happy Birthday to You…” she sang to me in her beautiful voice.
I finally blew out the candle.
Bronze statue of writer Franz Kafka (Prague)
Pomník Franze Kafky v Praze od
Editor’s Introduction: A good part of me remains very private, especially the writer caught in the act of composition. We write (I do) best in the dark. “Light” whatever its nature comes only in publication. There’s a quality of “for my eyes only” to this new website, North of Kafka. But there is also a part of me that needs to share—perhaps with you alone, perhaps with a number of others. I must be the judge of that depending on? Impossible to explain.
You may receive this North of Kafka and no other. Or some of them. Or all of them. Or none of them. (“What’s he trying to say?”) That’s the point of it. Perhaps.
There will be no subscription to this site. It will find the reader through my mailing list as I run down the names and send the latest North of Kafka to those I instinctively feel at the moment might take it to heart and mind.
Consider the nature of this site somewhat akin to looking over a writer’s shoulder as he is trying to work things out. –nb
August 10, 2011
A little history from your unreliable narrator:
“North of Kafka #1,” which finally appeared in WINTER BOOK, Ellis Press, 2002, was a column of sorts, a personal essay, a literary concept I intended to send to a few friends the old fashioned way—stamp, envelope, a letter in a mailbox. This was before websites and what came to be called “blogging,” which still sounds like an indecent act I am reluctant to commit. I’m a writer not a blogger.
“North of Kafka #2 has been printed online in a number of places, including www.norbertblei.com. #3, in notes for years, I can hardly relate to now and at this point consider abandoned. It was a project I planned to continue, but like so many plans one grows weary of them in time, loses interest, and the writer walks away seeking someone else inside himself. It is not my desire or intention to reprint either #1 or #2 here…as helpful as they may be for some perspective.
My intention is to move on…forward…backward…wherever I find myself: the unreliable narrator. But this is not about me, no matter the possible parallels, as readers who bear with these occasional narrations shall come to see. Many hats. Many faces. Many people. Who am I today? This is a story wanting to be told in any way, by anybody in the writer’s psyche seeking a voice at that moment. Thus the unreliability of the narrator. Thus, a work progressing, true and false. Thus, fiction.
“It is not necessary to accept everything as true, one must only accept it as necessary.” –Kafka
So consider this a transition, a new page, a fresh beginning. It’s also an image, a metaphor I can’t let go. Which means the work remains unfinished. There is more and more to say in the little time left. The top of the pinewood coffin closes… ”Wait, did I tell you about?” The storyteller never dies.
“North of Kafka” came to me near the end of winter in a cabin overlooking Lake Superior in Bayfield, Wisconsin, around the millennium, where I found myself standing alone outdoors on a cold night looking into the dark, sipping a cup of coffee with a little brandy, confronted with the age-old theme of loss. And more.
“Anyone who cannot come to terms with his life while he is alive, needs one hand to ward off a little his despair over his fate… but with his other hand he can note down what he sees among the ruins.”–Kafka
The loss of my father. The loss of my long marriage. The loss of the house where I grew up, The loss of Chicago, the streets, the people, the stories, the work and passion of a writer. The growing loss of almost every means of survival as a freelancer. All this continued to mount. There was never, would never be enough money in this ‘business’ of writing (though I prefer ‘calling’.) not to mention reason to keep doing ‘it’, becoming one. Which was the subtitle of my fiction, THE SECOND NOVEL, Becoming a Writer.
To admit you were a writer was to admit you were a failure. Newspapers were dying. Paper had given way to screen. My world had become old: yellow pencils sharpened with a knife, broken fountain pens, bottle of black ink, paper that felt good in your hands (Chieftain Bond, 50% cotton fiber sub 20, grain long, cockle)…gray manual typewriters (Olympia, Royal, Smith-Corona) that sang in the key(s) of tap, tap, tapping fingers.
The losses continued to add up: The loss of the old neighborhood, boyhood friends, relatives.
The local cemetery was full of family; my heart was empty of what once was.
“A first sign of the beginning of understanding is the wish to die.” –Kafka
I had tossed a shopping bag of clothes in the trunk of my car earlier in the day, a briefcase of files and notebooks, pencils and pens…novels, books of stories and poems…unread copies of Harper’s, old New Yorkers, The New York Times.
There was a woman in my life as well. A chance for a new life. The possibility of refuting Fitzgerald’s famous almost last words: “There are no second acts.”
Fresh clothes, books, writing materials…fragments of small dreams still left for a writer beyond the middle of his life… Destination?
“Away-From-Here…the journey is so long that I must die of hunger if I don’t get anything on the way. No provisions can save me. For it is, fortunately, a truly immense journey.”–Kafka
I headed north.
Why North? Back to (forward) to more winter? Why not South—Sweet Home Chicago? East? West?
The map inside me read Kafka territory.
“My grandfather used to say: “Life is astoundingly short. To me, looking back over it, life seems so foreshortened that I scarcely understand, for instance, how a young man can decide to ride over to the next village without being afraid that—not to mention accidents—even the span of a normal happy life may fall far short of the time needed for such a journey.”–Kafka
Drive, he said.
North, he said.
From a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached. –Kafka