Hello and welcome to what will be the final installment in Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). After reading and analyzing Heart of Darkness I found I was able to cram one more influential book into the year: Franz Kafka’s novel (published posthumously in 1925) The Trial. A viewing of Orson Welles’ 1962 film years ago inspired me to want to get to this one, and there are many obvious parallels to the current “legal” system in our nation that I will get to after the lessons for writers. So let’s get to those first.
Keep it simple. The story, while twisted and surreal, is actually pretty straightforward. It’s in the language and details where Kafka let his abilities shine. The shabbiness of the courtroom building is a reason for Joseph K. to both despair and for the reader to find bizarre amusement at his situation. There are long passages of characters speaking to K. about the banal bureaucracy that he is attempting to penetrate that are dosed with a sense of irony about the world and humanity. Not once did the translation I had (Breon Mitchell 1999) escape the laws of understanding and kept the story and characters firmly in weird territory.
Symbolism/Interpretation. I found Kafka’s use of these notions to be quite different from Conrad’s, but that doesn’t mean either approach is flawed. Kafka was more interested in the interplay of man’s rule of law and the internal struggle imposed by religious orders of his day. While Conrad was open to showing the ugliness of the human heart, Kafka shows us how that ugliness can be used against us politically and socially. The court is never revealed, and despite K.’s best efforts he is no closer to success at the end of the story than when his ordeal begins in the first chapter.
There are quite a few more things apparent in this book that will attract the individual reader and writer, so I would strongly recommend this surreal tale to anyone wanting to hone these talents. This is the first work of Kafka I’ve read and I’m eager for more. I wanted to wrap up this review by taking a quick look at the parallels to our current justice system. This book also began to interest me during the initial phases of the “War on Terror.” It is staggering to think a century ago Kafka was already anticipating the impervious bureaucracy and state spying that was to come in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. While he was writing about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the way he describes the corruption and unreachability of the court echoes through history as demagogues (even now) seek to control these systems for their own gain. This novel both made me laugh and feel afraid for the future. It was that compelling.
This will wrap it up for another experiment in reading nothing but fiction. I’m going to take a bit of a break over the holidays and won’t be starting this up as a formal experiment next year. Rather I’m planning on trying to incorporate it as a regular post on the blog, taking place alongside some other projects I have in mind. And as promised, I’m including more female writers this time around, starting with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I’ll also have some concluding thoughts about pursuing this experiment for another year and what it has taught me about writing. Thanks for reading everyone, and happy 2018!
Mary and I met at Target in 2008, a year after we had both moved to Minneapolis (she’s from the Iron Range and I’m from *ahem* Iowa). A year later, we began dating. I still remember one of the first times we hung out. I drank some fake Absinthe and ended up crying because I didn’t know what I was doing with my life. Oh yeah, in her bedroom. Still not quite sure why she didn’t just leave me high and dry back then.
I was a drunk. Thankfully I had the good sense to make the right decision. Haven’t had much taste for alcohol since.
For most of my life I didn’t know how to express or show emotion. Coming from a very cloistered, cultish and indoctrinating family I learned to substitute ritual and superficiality for actual feelings. This led to some early calamities. I almost broke up with her in New York City, for goodness sake. I was a moron, and wasn’t even aware of what I had.
Each time, I knew deep down inside that this woman was the one for me. I had to trust that instinct each time, and it always worked out for the best.
We moved in together in 2010, got married the next year. A small ceremony attended by a few members of each our families. Reception at Bunny’s in St. Louis Park.
Challenges since then. She has bipolar disorder. She chose to take her medication, feeling I was worth it. She helped me finally break free of the influence of my family. Helped me see my former job was making me miserable.
So many memories. The Law & Order weekend, and the food poisoning weekend. Going to dinner at that terrible Italian restaurant near 50th and France. Watching your reactions to certain movies, like in Ted when the bear starts getting ripped in half at the end. Seeing you struggle with that Kirby game, and with your addiction to cheese. And the heartbreak you’ve had in dealing with your (new) egg allergy. There are so many things with eggs in them! It’s not fair. You love our cats, Marble and Morrison with a passion I at first did not understand. That was until we had to say goodbye to Scout last year, and I realized I was really going to miss that feline.
Seeing you fully as a person who is special enough to contain such a wide range of emotional territory.
Mary’s birthday has been a challenge for me, as I’ve been pathetic at picking out gifts. Now I recognize it’s more in the spirit of what she means to me.
This marriage goes so far beyond that. She is the real gift.
She is an amazing, loving, caring woman who also happens to have a mental illness. I made the decision that the only way to handle it was to just love her unconditionally. No matter what.
Happy birthday, baby. I look forward to many years of happiness with you. I love you.
(Long time readers may consider this a companion piece to a previous note I wrote to Mary four years ago.)
Heart of Darkness
Hello and welcome to this installment of Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). I’m tackling a few more novels before the end of this experiment. After blazing through some Cormac McCarthy I decided to take a plunge into a universal piece of modern literature: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.
This novella, first published in serial form in 1899, should be familiar to students of literature or anyone who has followed the many ways it has influenced art since its release. While over the years there have been substantial criticism of this work (most notably the racist imagery), I felt this was worth the time to sit and read over the course of a few days. I’ll get to some of the critical considerations after we first take a look at some of the major lessons writers can draw from this work.
Use of symbolism. This is arguably the profound lesson to be drawn from this work. Conrad uses an amazing tapestry of words and images to describe Marlow’s horrific journey up the river to “rescue” Kurtz from his entrenched madness. This includes stunning passages involving the steamer enveloped in a white shroud of fog, and also terrifying illusions of the heads of “rebels” placed on spikes before the domain of Kurtz. Conrad was attempting to show the barbaric nature of the Belgian mission in Congo at the time, and while some have argued he should have gone more descriptive in this territory, I feel this lines up nicely with the next lesson.
Write what you “don’t” know. Conrad was taken to task by critics for specifically not describing some of the worst things Marlow sees on his journey, using such words as “inscrutable” or making it known that Marlow doesn’t even want to describe what he sees. While this is a tough strategy for an author to take, in my opinion the advantages can be many. Even a simple epigraph as Kurtz utters before he dies (“the horror”) can be interpreted in a myriad of ways. To me, this lines up with the essential unknowability of the human heart and its capacity for wondrous good and appalling evil.
Being open to interpretation. The fact that this landmark work can tell us things today should be an indicator of how deeply enmeshed into the human condition Conrad takes us as we journey along with Marlow (who in the story is regaling some other sailors outside London with the entire tale). Conrad made the deliberate choice to not be completely moralizing regarding the destruction wrought by Kurtz, indicated somewhat in the closing paragraphs of the tale when Marlow is forced to lie to Kurtz’s “Intended” so as not to besmirch his reputation.
All of that being said, there are still a ton of critical responses to this work, and I was lucky enough to read a few of them in the Norton Critical Edition I had. Of particular note is the African author Chinua Achebe, whose massively influential lecture on Conrad’s racism was included here in a revised form. Achebe’s major argument is that despite on the surface seeming to indict white European greed and recklessness, Conrad’s inability to show us much of the African characters (even refusing to allow them to speak very much) is just another form of the same problem. The entire essay was well worth reading and I would highly advise it as a counterpoint to this work.
Overall I would recommend this novella to anyone who wants to see a pristine example of how literature is supposed to operate. True, this story has accumulated a number of flaws over the years, but I feel the reader needs to at least engage with it and find out what he or she thinks before delving into the many levels of interpretation and criticism.
I should add that two other works I’ve encountered over the years have finally led me to reading Conrad’s original vision: Adam Hochschild’s stunning 1998 book King Leopold’s Ghost, and Coppola's 1979 film Apocalypse Now. I would also recommend engaging with these if you are planning a deep dive into Conrad.
This was a pretty short book so it leaves me time to cram one more novel into this year’s experiment. I’m taking another weird turn into a massively influential author I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read: Franz Kafka. A viewing some years back of Orson Welles’ film rendition of The Trial got this book on my list; I hope to read it and get an essay up by the end of 2017.
As always, thanks for reading.
John Abraham is a published author and freelance journalist who lives in the Twin Cities with his wife Mary and their cat. He is writing a speculative dystopian novel and is seeking representation and a publisher.