Monday 3 June 2024

Kafka and The Dead

I haven't read as much as I normally do so far this year for various reasons, but yesterday I got round to something I probably should have before, James Joyce's short story The Dead, from his 1914 collection Dubliners.

As well as his novels, I've read other short stories from Dubliners, my favourite being Ivy Day in the Committee Room with its famous scene of bottles of stout being opened in the absence of a corkscrew by placing them in front of the fire and waiting for their stoppers to pop out (The Dead has a few beery references too: "three squads of bottles of stout and ale...drawn up according to their, with brown and red labels").

One of the things that struck me about The Dead is its almost Kafkaesque atmosphere, its plot resembling in some ways that of the short story A Country Doctor (a journey by horse-drawn cab through a dreamlike snowbound landscape late at night, awkward encounters with servants, and an epiphany about life and death).

Apart from being leading figures in modern European literature, Joyce and Kafka share a surprising number of similarities once you start thinking about them: born within just over a year of each other, in countries at the edge of multi-ethnic empires and with a growing national consciousness, expressed in both politics and culture, which would see them become independent states after World War I; writing in a language imposed by the colonial power rather than that of its native people; from prosperous middle class backgrounds, which they later largely rejected; plagued by health problems; a more prominent posthumous reputation than when they were alive; and having complex and ambivalent relationships with their fathers, women and religion.

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