Antony Gormley: Being Human

Antony Gormley: Being Human

Alan Yentob’s film for the BBC’s Imagine strand last week made a powerful case for Anthony Gormley being one of the most original and profound of British artists at work today. In Antony Gormley: Being Human, Alan Yentob followed the sculptor to recent exhibitions of his work in Paris and Florence, and explored the influences that have shaped his life and work. Continue reading “Antony Gormley: Being Human”

The Oak Tree: Nature’s Greatest Survivor

The Oak Tree: Nature’s Greatest Survivor

A quick shout-out for Oak Tree: Nature’s Greatest Survivor, shown on BBC 4 this week (and available for another 25 days on iPlayer) – a 90-minute documentary detailing a year-long study of a single 400-year-old oak in Oxfordshire. The film was presented by entomologist George McGavin, who promised that ‘You’ll never look at an oak tree the same way again.’ Too true: McGavin took us on an engrossing tour of the oak (literally so, by climbing the tree, and even sleeping in its uppermost branches!), guiding us through its biology and cultural significance. Continue reading “The Oak Tree: Nature’s Greatest Survivor”

The Atlantic Records Story: the music in my head for sixty years

The Atlantic Records Story: the music in my head for sixty years

I’ve been listening to The Atlantic Records Story, a BBC Radio 6 documentary series narrated by Johnnie Walker that tells the story of the Atlantic Records label (just one example of the gems you can discover via the updated iPlayer Radio app which now allows you to download programmes to your phone, where they remain until they self-destruct, usually after 28 days). Continue reading “The Atlantic Records Story: the music in my head for sixty years”

The enigma of Frederick the Great

The enigma of Frederick the Great

Berlin again. A little over a week after our return from Berlin, another coincidence: this time it’s a discussion about the life and significance of Frederick the Great on In Our Time this morning. Continue reading “The enigma of Frederick the Great”

Chris Packham’s Natural Selection: designed to be intelligent

Chris Packham’s Natural Selection: designed to be intelligent

For an hour on Thursday evening it felt as if I’d been transported by time machine back to 1984 or thereabouts, and that I was watching the freshly-launched Channel 4. But no, it was 2015 and I was watching Chris Packham’s Natural Selection on BBC4, a one-off chatshow in which Chris Packham of Springwatch fame hosted a discussion in which his guests were the conceptual artist Jeremy Deller and activist George Monbiot.

If you missed it catch up with it on iPlayer before it disappears. This was an hour of the most intelligent and critical discussion I’ve seen on TV since the days when Channel 4 was a grown-up TV channel hosting critical debates about serious issues, not the moronic, attention-seeking waste of tax-payers money that it has become.

I can only hope that Packham gets a regular series after this show, which he introduced as a conversation with two of his heroes – both dedicated to resisting complacency , both – in Packham’s words – ‘intelligent and highly creative’ and sharing with him ‘a desire to use anger creatively’.

Chris Packhams Natural Selection
Chris Packham and guests

The discussion which ensued challenged accepted verities, and was entertaining and witty at the same time. Packham came prepared with video clips that illustrated highlights of his guests’ work. The trio’s conversation focused on their shared concern with social and environmental injustice, and the best means of protecting nature which their work often celebrates.

Like Chris Packham, I regard Deller and Monbiot as giants in their respective fields. In November 2013 I was overwhelmed by the exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery curated by Jeremy DellerAll That Is Solid Melts Into Air – a personal journey through the Industrial Revolution, exploring its impact on British popular culture, and its persisting influence on our lives today – while George Monbiot’s columns in the Guardian provide incisive reports from the battlefronts in a mad and maddening world.

Packham began with a timely reminder of one of Jeremy Deller’s most audacious artworks – the reaceation on 17 June 2001 of the Battle of Orgreave on 18 June 1984, perhaps the most significant moment in the Miners’ Strike of 1984/5.  The day after this broadcast, the IPCC announced that it will not mount a formal investigation into allegations of criminal wrongdoing by police even though it has found evidence to suggest that police officers assaulted miners at the mass picket, then perverted the course of justice and committed perjury in the failed prosecutions which followed.

We set out to join the picket lines
For together we cannot fail
We got stopped by police at the county line
They said, “Go home, boys or you’re going to jail”
Which side are you on, boys?
Which side are you on?

Explaining to Chris Packham the idea behind his re-enactment of this confrontation, Jeremy Deller recalled that he had witnessed the event as a teenager on TV. He saw the re-enactment as having the quality of a war scene rather than a labour dispute. After two years’ research, the re-enactment was staged with about 800 historical re-enactors and 200 former miners who had been part of the original conflict. He described it as ‘digging up a corpse and giving it a proper post-mortem.’

Moving on, Packham probed an aspect of Deller’s work which I had previously overlooked: how his concern with social inequalities and the roots of Britain’s identity in its cultural and political history is interwoven with an anxiety for nature and landscape on these islands. Packham cited Deller’s bouncy castle Stonehenge that toured Britain a few years back: called ‘Sacrilege’, the interactive, bouncy artwork was at once a homage to Stonehenge and a critique of English Heritage which – at the time – offered the public only restricted access to Stonehenge (remember the 4-mile exclusion zone around the stones at the the summer and winter solstice?). Discussing the work today, Deller accepted that access to the ancient site had been improved since, but that the work was primarily a representation of Britain’s history, culture and sense of humour. Probably built between 3000 and 2000 BC, and probably designed as a place of worship and celebration, Deller turns the mysterious stones into pure enjoyment – ‘a way for everyone to learn about these places in a quite a silly way’.

As another example of this strand in Jeremy Deller’s work, Packham’s chose the giant mural he designed for the 2013 Venice Biennale of a Hen Harrier clasping a blood red Range Rover in its talons.

Jeremy Deller, A Good Day for Cyclists, 2013

On one level an apocalyptic vision of the natural world wreaking vengeance on humankind, Deller agreed with Packham that he also had a more specific target in mind. As the mural’s title, A Good Day for Cyclists, suggests, it was also intended as an angry attack on the owners of bloated and expensive 4-wheel drive SUVs.

But, more than that, it was a political statement in support of one of our most endangered birds, a pair of which had been shot some years before on the Queen’s Sandringham Estate in Norfolk. Observed by passers-by, it later transpired that Prince Harry and a friend were the only people known to be shooting that day. Unsurprisingly, following a police investigation, no action was taken. As Deller wrly noted, ‘If you or I shot a hen harrier in Britain, we would go to prison for six months. Someone got away with it. And that bothered me.’ The work provides an example of how Deller integrates questions of class and political power with his concern for landscape and nature.

Questions of class and political power, and their connection with environmental issues, has been central to the George Monbiot’s writing – as a columnist for the Guardian and in articles on his own website. But Chris Packham began with a video – made by Monbiot for a TED talk in 2013 – which Packham admitted had made him ‘sick with envy’. The film, Packham said, rose to the challenge of explaining complex science in a relatively compact and speedy way.

In How Wolves Change Rivers, Monbiot explains how, when wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park after a 70-year absence, something interesting happened: the rest of the park began to find a new, more healthful balance. The wolves set off a ‘trophic cascade’ that altered the movement of deer, allowed trees to spread, stabilized the banks of rivers making them less susceptible to erosion, and attracted scores of new animals to the area (beavers, rabbits, bears, bald eagles and more).

Packham and his guests discussed the need for wildlife documentaries not only to focus on the wonders of the natural world, but also to probe and challenge the impact which powerful landowning and corporate interests have on the environment. Monbiot raged against the ‘sanitised picture’ presented in Countryfile – ‘these millionaires posing as peasants, salt of the earth sheep farmers, given total carte blanche to present themselves as they would like themselves to be seen’.

Monbiot spoke movingly of a close encounter with a bottlenose dolphin in Cardiff Bay, just when he thought his number was up, and of how, without his column and articles to write, ‘I would go mad – my head would explode’.

I’ve got to write to get things off my chest, but also because we’re dead for a very long time.  We’ve got one shot and not to use it knowing what’s happening to this extraordinary, wonderful and amazing planet, and the extraordinary, wonderful and amazing people that live on it; just to stand back and not to do anything, not to take this one amazing chance we’ve got to try to change it, to try to stop the bad stuff, to try to create a vision of something better and work towards that … well, we might as well give up now, because that would be a total waste of our lives.

Monbiot admitted that ‘we’re all up against forces much bigger and more powerful than we are’.  But, when Packham interjected that ‘we love that David and Goliath thing’, Monbiot admitted that he found the day-to-day reality sometimes grinding and quite soul-destroying.

Look at the power of the fossil fuel industry; look at the power of big landowners; look at the power of so many groups who I see as destroying the conditions which make life worth living, which make this planet habitable, which allow other species to live here.  They are so big and we’re so small.

Chris Packham responded to that with a quote from Aldous Huxley – ‘Being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune. Happiness is never grand.’ – before thanking his two guest and concluding that he didn’t ever want to see either of them happy. The show is on iPlayer for 28 days; don’t miss it.

The Birthday Tree

The Birthday Tree

There was a cherry tree in the front garden of the house in Cheshire where I grew up.  Every year in spring, when the delicate white blossom would appear suddenly, as if snow had fallen overnight, I would sense that brighter, longer days were on the way. It later succumbed to poisoning from a poorly sealed-off gas mains.

The birthday tree 2
The birthday tree: pictured shortly after our daughter’s birth day

Later, after university and marriage, when we moved into our first house – which may now be our only house – there was a cherry tree that blossomed every April to coincide with our daughter’s birthday, with the consequence that it soon acquired the appellation in our household as ‘the birthday tree’.

The birthday tree
The birthday tree a few springs later

In my memory it seems that as the child moved round the seasons, every April birthday was celebrated under that tree – the dining table pulled out onto the lawn, a bunch of over-excited kids laughing and reaching for treats, and this cherry laden with pink blossom like dollops of ice cream.

These memories were provoked by listening to Fiona Stafford’s essay on the Cherry tree, part of the third series of reflections on ‘The Meaning of Trees’ she has produced for BBC Radio 3’s The Essay.

Utagawa Hiroshige, Cherry-blossom Viewing at Asuka Hill, 1840

Stafford began her talk with examples of the cherry’s association with prettiness – the truly stunning beauty of their unrivalled spring blossoms ‘a short party trick trotted out once a year’ that lasts for barely a week. I knew about the traditional hanami festival during which the Japanese celebrate the transient beauty of the flowers of the sakura as the blossom unfolds like a wave, moving from south to north across Japan as the weather forecasts track its progress. 

What I didn’t know is that a similar excitement grips the American capital every spring as 1,700 flowering cherries lining Washington DC’s Tidal Basin burst into colour in a stunning display. Fiona Stafford – who is Professor in English Language and Literature at Somerville College, Oxford – explained how the plantings of cherry trees originated in 1912 as a gift of friendship to the people of the United States from the people of Japan, when 3,020 cherry trees were shipped from Yokohama. Soon after their arrival, the First Lady Helen Taft and the wife of the Japanese Ambassador planted two cherry trees on the northern bank of the Tidal Basin. For the next seven years, workmen completed the task of planting the remaining 3,018 trees around the Tidal Basin.

The cherry has been around for a long time, Stafford informed listeners. The indigenous range of the sweet cherry extends through most of Europe, western Asia and parts of northern Africa, and the fruit has been consumed since prehistoric times. The introduction of cherries into the British diet has been attributed to the Romans, but Stafford spoke of prehistoric cherry trees excavated at the site of an ancient settlement in Ireland – suggesting that inhabitants of these islands had evidently been enjoying cherry feasts long before the Romans arrived.

Harvesting cherries in the traditional manner
Harvesting cherries in the traditional manner

Henry VIII apparently enjoyed cherries so much that he ordered the Royal Fruiterer to plant huge cherry orchards in Kent. It was there that British commercial cherry-growing really took hold, the fruit being harvested using traditional long ladders, and supplying markets all around the country.

Sadly, Stafford told how Britain’s cherry orchards went into catastrophic decline after Second World War in the face of global competition from Turkey, Germany and the USA. Ninety percent of British cherry orchards disappeared in a couple of decades. There has been a recent recovery – though these days it is usually dwarf varieties that are grown in polytunnels.

From exploring our appreciation of the cherry as blossom and fruit, Fiona Stafford went on to consider how cherry trees are also prized for their swirling, eye-ridden, colourful hardwood – one of the most highly-prized for cabinetry and furniture making because different grain contrasts can often be found in the same cut of solid cherry wood, with the grain lighter closer to the tree’s bark and darker closer to the heartwood.

Cherry wood
Cherry wood

Medicinally the bark  of the cherry tree offered a traditional remedy for fever, and was valued as an aid to sleep. Cherries are bursting with vitamins and are high in fibre, and current research is exploring their anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory potential. Fiona Stafford gave several more examples of the tree’s beneficial applications. For example, since cherries are natural producers of melatonin, eating a few before retiring will ensure a good night’s sleep.

The Madonna and Sleeping Child with the Infant St John the Baptist ('Il Silenzio')  c.1599-1600
Annibale Carracci, The Madonna and Sleeping Child with the Infant St John the Baptist (‘Il Silenzio’) c.1599-1600

In Christian tradition, the cherry symbolized purity of character and was often called the fruit of paradise, the heavenly reward for a virtuous life. The pure white blossom is an obvious symbol of purity, but, as Fiona Stafford observed, it is the fruit that appears more often in Renaissance paintings of the Virgin Mary, such as Annibale Carracci’s tender painting in which Mary raises her finger to her lips to warn a cherubic John the Baptist not to wake the sleeping Christ. The cherries, of which one has already been eaten, symbolise heaven, his eventual destiny.

The Virgin with the Child, with Cherries and a Cherry Tree, Leonardo (school of)
The Virgin with the Child, with Cherries and a Cherry Tree, (school of) Leonardo

Fiona Stafford is no doubt familiar with another representation of this scene which she mentioned, since it hangs in Christ Church, at Oxford University. In The Madonna with Cherries from the school of Leonardo, ‘the entire background is’, she said, ‘a mass of glossy green leaves and even glossier red fruit’.

From the sanctity of the cherry, Stafford moved on to consider ‘the other side to the innocent cherry tree’: cherry-red lips ‘seem to say, come and play’, as the 17th century English poet Robert Herrick suggested in his famous lines:

Cherry-ripe ripe, ripe, I cry,
Full and fair ones; come and buy.
If so be you ask me where
They do grow, I answer: There
Where my Julia’s lips do smile; 
There ‘s the land, or cherry-isle,
Whose plantations fully show
All the year where cherries grow.

The cherry, commented Stafford, is the tree for sacred and profane love, and ripe cherries, round and succulent, a treat for the senses as well as the soul.

Gallery: cherry blossom in Sefton Park

The other trees whose the symbolism and  importance Fiona Stafford discussed in this third series of The Meaning of Trees were the Birch, Holly, Cypress and the Horse Chestnut, appreciated in Britain for conkers and for its majestic spread – and also as a symbol a symbol of hope, escape and the possibility of one day returning to normality for Anne Frank, writing in her diary about the horse chestnut that she could see from her window in the secret annexe.  

The Anne Frank Tree in 2006
The Anne Frank Tree in 2006

On 23 February 1944, Anne Frank wrote:

Nearly every morning I go to the attic to blow the stuffy air out of my lungs, from my favourite spot on the floor I look up at the blue sky and the bare chestnut tree, on whose branches little raindrops shine, appearing like silver, and at the seagulls and other birds as they glide on the wind. As long as this exists, I thought, and I may live to see it, this sunshine, the cloudless skies, while this lasts I cannot be unhappy.

In August 2010, the tree was blown down by high winds during a storm; it was estimated to be between 150 and 170 years old.

See also

In The Shadow Of Kafka: the prophet of Prague

In The Shadow Of Kafka: the prophet of Prague

To mark the anniversary of the publication one hundred years ago of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Radio 3 offered a week of varied and interesting programmes, collectively entitled In The Shadow Of Kafka which examined the legacy of the novella, with contemporary writers and dramatists exploring Kafka’s life and work.

Franz Kafka
Franz Kafka

The season opened with In the Shadow of Kafka: Prophet of Prague, a documentary presented by Misha Glenny, who worked as a journalist in Prague in the 1980s (I remember reading his first book The Rebirth of History, published in 1990, which sought to understand the reasons for the sudden collapse of the communist regimes in eastern Europe a year earlier and determine what the future post-communist political landscape of the region might look like.

In the programme Misha Glenny visited locations in Prague associated with Kafka and explored how the writer’s reputation and visibility there had varied with successive changes in the political climate.

Born in 1883, Kafka essentially lived his whole life within a square mile of the Old Town Square. The street on which he was born, in the former Jewish ghetto, is now named Namésti Franze Kafky (Franz Kafka Place), though the house is gone, since most of the quarter was demolished between 1893 and 1913 as part of an initiative to remodel the city on Paris.

Kafka's birthplace in Prague
Kafka’s birthplace in Prague

Misha Glenny noted that, having been born into a middle-class, German-speaking Jewish family, Kafka was an outsider twice over. Before the First World War, Prague was the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In Kafka’s lifetime, most of the population of Prague spoke Czech, and the division between Czech- and German-speaking people was a tangible reality, with both groups developing a strong sense of national identity. Kafka was fluent in both languages, and considered German his mother tongue.

Kafka home on Old Town Square
Dum U Minuty, the Kafka home on Old Town Square

When Kafka was six years old the family moved to a bigger apartment, and between 1889 and 1896, they lived at Dum U Minuty on Old Town Square.  After studying law at Prague university (where he met Max Brod, his life-long friend and future biographer), Kafka worked as an insurance lawyer for 14 years at the Workers Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia where his job involved investigating and assessing compensation for personal injury to industrial workers.

Golden Lane, site of another Kafka home.
Golden Lane, where Kafka lived from 1916 to 1917.

In 1916, Kafka rented a medieval cottage in Golden Lane with his sister Ottla. There, in the shadow of Prague Castle, writing in the evenings after work he found inspiration for The Castle. In his documentary, Misha Glenny examined the influences on Kafka’s ideas: the esoteric philosophies that circulated in Prague’s cafes, the politics and paranoia of an empire in decline, and the rising tide of Czech nationalism which threatened to engulf the Jewish old town where the Kafka lived.

What do I have in common with the Jews? I don’t even have anything in common with myself.
– Franz Kafka

Tracing Kafka’s legacy in Prague, Glenny discussed how the themes in his work – of alienation, panic and the struggle to make sense of the world – were thought so dangerous in the decades of Nazi occupation and post-war Soviet communism that his works were suppressed.

Then, in 1963, a conference held in Liblice on the eightieth anniversary of his birth, reassessed the importance of Kafka’s portrayal of bureaucracy. Unanticipated by the official organizers, the conference rejected the orthodox position – that Kafka’s depictions of alienation were no longer relevant in a society that had eliminated alienation. During impassioned debates, opinions ranged from the argument that he had satirised the bureaucratic bungling of a crumbling Austria-Hungarian Empire, to renewed emphasis on Kafka’s own expressions of socialist views.

With Kafka experts, Glenny discussed whether the writer had been a prophet of horrors to come, noting that Kafka’s three sisters died in Nazi concentration camps. Though Kafka lived at a time when the old Austro-Hungarian empire with its vast bureaucracies was disintegrating, Glenny concluded that his visionis timeless and universal.

Kafka's grave in Prague
Kafka’s grave in Prague

Complementing Misha Glenny’s survey, throughout the week The Essay on Radio 3 presented five writers’ interpretations of Kafka, ranging from Margaret Atwood (revisiting an essay she wrote on Kafka when she was 19 years old) to Liverpool-born playwright Jeff Young (whose play Bright Phoenix I saw at the Everyman last year). In his essay, entitled ‘Transformer‘, Young discussed the powerful impact that Kafka’s work has had on him as a reader and, to a degree, as a person and as a writer.

Jeff Young first encountered Kafka in the 1970s as a Liverpool teenage ‘scruff-bag’ when his art teacher put John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme on the turntable during an art lesson and read aloud from Metamorphosis, ‘intoning like a beat poet over Coltrane’s saxophone’:

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

Young recalled how, after the lesson was over, he picked up the book from which his teacher had been reading – a Penguin Classic edition with a cover that featured a strange creature drawn by Max Ernst. For Young, the experience had been as if he had woken from his own uneasy dreams and passed from one state into another. Transformed.

One consequence was that, at a time when ‘there were at least a dozen bookshops in Liverpool’, he would haunt them on Saturdays and days skiving off school.  In a comic shop on Moorfields he found his own copy of Metamorphosis. Starting to read it for himself over a pint in the Masonic pub, Young realised that, from now on, he had to live ‘in a world of strange, wondrous things’.

Kafka Metamorphosis cover 1967 Max Ernst, Le Hibou
Metamorphosis: the 1967 Penguin cover featuring Max Ernst’s Le Hibou

Young devoted a good part of his essay to muse upon the nature of translation: not able to speak German, how did he know that the translator was telling the true story and not intervening between the writer and his original words? Young grew to feel that there was a space between the German language telling of the tale and its English translation – ‘a mysterious zone of misunderstanding’. But this uncertainty thrilled Young, making Kafka’s books even more strange and alien.

Over time, Young collected and compared every new edition. He came to understand the nature of translation: how it sits between the writer and the words and how, in that magical space, the reader can discover his or her own version of the author and his intention.

Young gave examples of how even the famous opening line of Metamorphosis has varied in translation, with Gregor awakening as an ‘insect’, a ‘cockroach’, a ‘bug’ and a ‘monstrous vermin’.  (When I read the book as a student in the sixties it must have been the ‘cockroach’ version, for that is how I’ve always imagined it since.)

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.

What did Kafka want us to imagine? Young wondered whether it was Kafka’s original intention to make us uncertain, unable to identify the nature of the beast that Samsa had become. From Max Brod’s diary we know that after Kafka had completed the novella in late 1912 he read sections of it baloud to his friends. They, and Kafka, referred to it as his ‘bug piece’.

Kafka’s protagonist, Gregor Samsa, is the quintessential Kafka anti-hero. He has worked himself to the point of utter exhaustion to pay off his parents’ debts, and his grotesque metamorphosis is the physical manifestation of his abasement. So what exactly has he been transformed into? Jeff Young pointed out that when the story was published, Kafka was adamant that no insect should be depicted on the book’s cover. Although he and his friends used the word ‘bug’ when referring casually to the story, the words he used in the German original have been carefully chosen to leave things vague. Kafka uses the term Ungeziefer to describe Samsa’s new state. But as the translator Susan Bernofsky pointed out in article for the New Yorker in 2014 this raises all kinds of difficulties for the translator:

The epithet ungeheueres Ungeziefer in the opening sentence poses one of the greatest challenges to the translator. Both the adjective ungeheuer (meaning “monstrous” or “huge”) and the noun Ungeziefer are negations – virtual nonentities -prefixed by un. Ungeziefer comes from the Middle High Germanungezibere, a negation of the Old High German zebar (related to the Old English ti’ber), meaning “sacrifice” or “sacrificial animal.” An ungezibere, then, is an unclean animal unfit for sacrifice, and Ungeziefer describes the class of nasty creepy-crawly things. The word in German suggests primarily six-legged critters, though it otherwise resembles the English word “vermin” (which refers primarily to rodents). Ungeziefer is also used informally as the equivalent of “bug,” though the connotation is “dirty, nasty bug”—you wouldn’t apply the word to cute, helpful creatures like ladybugs. In my translation, Gregor is transformed into “some sort of monstrous insect” with “some sort of” added to blur the borders of the somewhat too specific “insect”; I think Kafka wanted us to see Gregor’s new body and condition with the same hazy focus with which Gregor himself discovers them.

Jeff Young finished by suggesting that perhaps Kafka deliberately transformed his protagonist into something that can’t be accurately translated: Samsa doesn’t know what kind of creature he’s been transformed into, and neither do we – and neither should we. He is unnameable.

Young concluded, ‘I still don’t know what Kafka intended when he wrote his stories and I still don’t completely trust his translators.’ But, he said,  Metamorphosis had transformed him as a reader and, to a degree, as a person and as a writer, ‘opening me up to the alien spirit of strange imagination’.

In another essay, Karen Leeder, a translator and Professor of Modern German Literature at New College, Oxford, discussed Kafka’s use of messengers and messages and the significance of communication in his work. Often, argued Leeder, the point of the story in Kafka’s works is not so much its meaning as the act of conveying a message itself.

Leeder chose as her main example a short (very short!) piece by Kafka – A Message from the Emperor – that was new to me (in fact, listening to these talks made me realise how limited my reading of Kafka has been). Leeder described how Kafka’s tale begins with the emperor, from his deathbed, sends you a message, a message for you alone.

But, in a series of short sentences that read as if watching a film in slow-motion, Kafka reveals the impossibility of the message ever arriving. The palace has ring upon ring upon ring of walls, successive outer palaces, and the messenger has to get through one after the other.  But the palace is vast and the messenger will never succeed for beyond the palace ‘still lies the royal capital, the middle of the world, piled high in its sediment’. Kafka’s conclusion is haunting: you will never hear the message intended for you alone. Yet you sit at your window and dream of it every evening.

Here’s the story:

The Emperor—so they say—has sent a message, directly from his death bed, to you alone, his pathetic subject, a tiny shadow which has taken refuge at the furthest distance from the imperial sun. He ordered the herald to kneel down beside his bed and whispered the message in his ear. He thought it was so important that he had the herald speak it back to him. He confirmed the accuracy of verbal message by nodding his head. And in front of the entire crowd of those witnessing his death—all the obstructing walls have been broken down, and all the great ones of his empire are standing in a circle on the broad and high soaring flights of stairs—in front of all of them he dispatched his herald. The messenger started off at once, a powerful, tireless man. Sticking one arm out and then another, he makes his way through the crowd. If he runs into resistance, he points to his breast where there is a sign of the sun. So he moves forwards easily, unlike anyone else. But the crowd is so huge; its dwelling places are infinite. If there were an open field, how he would fly along, and soon you would hear the marvellous pounding of his fist on your door. But instead of that, how futile are all his efforts. He is still forcing his way through the private rooms of the innermost palace. Never will he win his way through. And if he did manage that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to fight his way down the steps, and, if he managed to do that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to stride through the courtyards, and after the courtyards through the second palace encircling the first, and, then again, through stairs and courtyards, and then, once again, a palace, and so on for thousands of years. And if he finally burst through the outermost door—but that can never, never happen—the royal capital city, the centre of the world, is still there in front of him, piled high and full of sediment. No one pushes his way through here, certainly not someone with a message from a dead man. But you sit at your window and dream of that message when evening comes.

The Trial: the doorkeeper at the entrance to the Law in the Orson Welles film
The Trial: the doorkeeper at the entrance to the Law in the Orson Welles film

Something about this story’s atmosphere made me think of The Trial, in which a man from the country comes to the capital and seeks to gain entry to the Law through a doorway guarded by a doorkeeper. The man waits by the door for years, bribing the doorkeeper with everything he has. The doorkeeper accepts the bribes, but tells the man that he accepts them only ‘so that you do not think you have failed to do anything.’ The man waits at the door until he is about to die:

Now he has not very long to live. Before he dies, all his experiences in these long years gather themselves in his head to one point, a question he has not yet asked the doorkeeper. He waves him nearer, since he can no longer raise his stiffening body. The doorkeeper has to bend low towards him, for the difference in height between them has altered much to the man’s disadvantage. “What do you want to know now?” asks the doorkeeper; “you are insatiable.” “Everyone strives to reach the Law,” says the man, “so how does it happen that for all these many years no one but myself has ever begged for admittance?” The doorkeeper recognizes that the man has reached his end, and to let his failing senses catch the words, roars in his ear: “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.”

Like many, I read Kafka as a student in the sixties, but my my reading was limited to Metamorphosis, The Castle and The Trial (the latter read, I think, after I had seen Orson Welles’ nightmarish film version.  A re-reading of those books is long overdue, I reckon – as well as an exploration of the works I never read.