Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Franz Kafka - Notes on William Cane's "Write Like the Masters"

Chapter 9 - FRANZ KAFKA

Kafka’s writing characteristics:
· Encapsulating the conflict and plot with opening sentences
· Simple, imaginative plot with unsettling ending
· Hero at odds with the world
· Dark version of the “voyage and return” plot
· Lack of romance and human relationships

- Many writers shy away from revealing the entire conflict and plot in the beginning – let alone the first sentence – for fear of losing readers’ interest. The bare-all approach works for Kafka because the tone of his opening sentence matches the plot: lighthearted despite the confusing chaos.

The beginning of Kafka’s stories are free of “endless scene setting (like Balzac) or long character analysis (like Dickens) or convoluted prefatory scene (like Hardy).” (p. 95) One of the most famous opening sentences in all of literature comes from Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”:

As Greg Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”

- Kafka’s storylines are based on whether his protagonists can accomplish everyday duties such as scheduling an appointment or traveling to a nearby destination. Regardless of the simplicity of the task, they fail. The rigid requirements of the world always seem to get the protagonist stuck in the mud.

- Kafka put his hero at odds with either a nightmarish twilight zone or a complex system of governmental and societal regulations. As Samuel Beckett learned, to structure a story like Kafka, throw a hero into a peculiar world and make sure he is thoroughly baffled at first, then frustrated at every turn of his given assignment.

- For guidance on plot construction, review “The Seven Basic Plots” by Christopher Booker. Kafka’s “The Trial” is a prime example of the dark version of Booker’s proposed “voyage and return” plot, whereas Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” represents the light version. In both novels a protagonist enters a bizarre world and as the plot thickens, the strangeness and danger increase. In “The Trial,” the protagonist K. voyages but never returns (dark version); Alice in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” voyages and returns (light version).

- “Write Like the Masters” author William Cane claims Kafka’s greatest weaknesses as a writer are “his failure to provide background for his characters…(and) to portray developed romantic relationships.” (p. 100-101) This viewpoint is as common as its counterpart: Kafka did not use romance because it would depreciate the bureaucratic aspect of his stories. Cane points out that erotic interludes are never sustained in Kafka’s novels and relationships are fleeting, at best. Although Kafka admired certain writers whose work incorporated passionate love affairs, he did not follow suit. Judging Kafka’s intellect and the writers who inspired him, we can conclude he understood interpersonal chemistry or tension is a key element in literature, and he would have included it in his work, had he reason to do so.

Cane reminds us that when Kafka’s protagonist does try to form a relationship with a woman it is usually for ulterior motives. Yet, the woman ends up being incapable of helping him achieve his goal – perhaps a purposeful message from Kafka.

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