Thursday, May 6, 2010

Kafka had a Good Writerly Name, Wrote Good Short Stories, viz. "The Village Schoolmaster"

Maybe it's because I like him a lot, but no author's short fiction seems as subtly loaded with the minutiae of the human experience as Kafka's short fiction does. (Hmm, what? That's what everyone who's ever studied Kafka has noted about his work? Its abstruse, nuanced character? Well now so too am I!)

Case in point: his story "The Village Schoolmaster [The Giant Mole]" in which there is the strange discovery of an abnormally large mole, hence the bracketed auxiliary title. But the brackets are a nice touch, suggesting the kind of compartmentalization into which the mole is relegated. So at first blush it's a story centering on a peculiar and inexplicable phenomenon not unlike some other Kafka stories that come to mind, such as "The Metamorphosis" and "Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor." Instead, though, the story is crafted to speak of issues very different, very complex and far less surreal than a giant mole. But then, would you expect any less from Kafka? What's more, what can you expect when reading Kafka? -- Not the unexpected, that's paradoxically for sure.

It's a story about the village schoolmaster who discovers the giant mole's existence. Even more awkwardly it's told through the first-person narration of "Mr. So and So," an individual referred to only as a businessman, but therefore of a rank suggesting he's held in some esteem, which it's safe to presume a lowly schoolmaster is beneath. And so the story begins to show its true nature, describing the contrivance of credibility and those possessing the means to adequately and convincingly argue their case, with all the superfluity accompanying any and every overture or public gesture.

It's conspicuous how the narrator chooses to handle the situation of the village schoolmaster. He wants to help the schoolmaster, but can find no way to adequately achieve this endeavor, which is ultimately botched despite his hyper-awareness of possible consequences. As the narrator puts it:

On the one hand my own influence was far from sufficient to effect a change in learned or even public opinion in the teacher's favor, while on the other the teacher was bound to notice that I was less concerned with his main object, which was to prove that the giant mole had actually been seen than to defend his honesty, which must naturally be self-evident to him and in need of no defense.

The narrator sums up his travails / the dilemma of attempting to represent the side of the schoolmaster. What I think is so cool about it is there is no debating where the mole fits in the narrative, i.e. tangentially. The mole is an aside, maybe even a footnote, but probably it doesn't even warrant a footnote. They could be talking about spontaneous toilet explosions and the narrative would change not at all. (Well, a little bit, if only to describe the expulsion of water and porcelain shrapnel.) It's about how we the people negotiate the human interactive landscape, how to best speak on another's behalf with the classist tools you possess. The narrator I think definitely understands the nature of human behavior, or at least as goes the finer points of custom.

This really is the kind of story you could write endlessly about, because it's so fucking layered. And it's oddly intense. And for all those reasons and more it's just plainly brilliant.

After the narrator publishes a pamphlet with the misguided belief that it will help confirm the veracity of the schoolmaster's claim he slowly but surely finds a different truth, to wit:

. . . the few opponents of his who had really occupied themselves with the subject, if superficially, had at least listened to his, the schoolmaster's, views before they had given expression to their own: while I, on the strength of unsystematically assembled and in part misunderstood evidence, had published conclusions which, even if they were correct as regarded the main point, must evoke incredulity, and among the public no less than the educated.

Because that's what people will do. It's amazing! And with that I close this review. But I still don't think I've sated the itch, scratched to the end. We'll see. May be more to come on this story. There may need to be.


  1. "This really is the kind of story you could write endlessly about, because it's so fucking layered."

    You had me at "so."


  2. It's a great story, surrrriously. I'm wondering if I'll feel his short works eclipse his better known stuff by the time I finish this compilation.