I have been reading Kafka’s Amerika, considered one of his only comical works. The particular version of the book that I have was bought at an outdoor bookstore in Connecticut earlier this year for $1. I also bought several other Kafka books, as well as The Painted Veil and Dr. Zhivago (both of which are films I’ve seen. Really good ones, too; perhaps I render myself a 55-year-old woman by admitting that.)
Whimsically simple illustrations by Emlen Etting accompany the text in this version. I took a picture of the above page because it really caught me for a second. I like how simply it’s drawn in connection to Kafka’s description of this odd, yet funny, scene. Standing at the balcony of an apartment are two of the main characters, Delamarche and Brunelda. Delamarche is basically a French rogue who bums through American cities with an Irish mate called Robinson in search of work. He flirts with waitresses and drinks a lot of liquor. He gets in scuffles with the police but knows how to outrun them; he also has a tendency to manipulate people into doing things for him. And I guess he wears a bath robe with a scarf sometimes. And Brunelda…Brunelda’s a former singer, a fat one, who lies supine all day on a couch while Delamarche attends to her. The picture illustrates the first moment the narrator/main character looks up and sees his friend/enemy Delamarche, and the first time he sees Brunelda. So simple, but I love it.
This was another one of Kafka’s unfinished novels. It is surreal and strange like his other works, often crossing the line between dream and reality. It reminded me of the twisting, organic tales my friends and I used to come up with when we had our Barbies partake in epics set in ancient lands: the book is almost childish, but I’ve found it a relief to turn to it as a breather from the city and working life of adulthood.
I also finished Portrait of a Lady by Henry James: I read this whilst lying on the beach on my stomach in Hawaii. One of my mother’s co-workers approached me, squinted at the cover of my book and said, “What did you major in?” “Journalism.” “Right, I was going to say, you had to have majored in something like that if you’re reading Henry James on vacation.” Hm. Never thought of it that way, but okay sir.
This book made me shed a tiny tear. It was hopeful in the beginning; it follows Isabel, an intellectual 23-year-old from New York who is taken abroad by her aunt in the late 1800’s. She is approached by countless suitors who ask for her hand in marriage; she turns them all down in order to reach her “potential.” Then she is fooled into marriage by someone else, she is caught in a Machiavellian ring and well, her dreams are suffocated and things just get depressing. We can leave it to James to remind us that realism ain’t no joke.
To pick up my mood after finishing Portrait of a Lady, I went through a short read on Buddhism by Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of Understanding. I recommend reading this book, even if you’re not religious or spiritual. It’s written very simply and clearly, and is a good introduction to the main principles of Buddhism. One of my favorite parts of the book is when he describes the relationship between the rose and the garbage:
Defiled or immaculate. Dirty or pure. These are concepts we form in our mind. A beautiful rose we have just cut and placed in a vase is immaculate. It smells so good, so pure, so fresh. It supports the idea of immaculateness. The opposite is a garbage can. It smells horrible, and is filled with rotten things.
But that is only when you look on the surface. If you look more deeply you will see that in just five or six days, the rose will become part of the garbage. You do not need to wait five days to see it. If you just look at the rose, and you look deeply, you can see it now. And if you look into the garbage can, you see that in a few months its contents can be transformed into lovely vegetables, and even a rose….Looking at a rose you can see the garbage, and looking at the garbage you can see a rose. Roses and garbage inter-are. Without a rose, we cannot have garbage; without garbage, we cannot have a rose. They need each other very much. The rose and garbage are equal.
Which reminds me of a quote from Le Petit Prince: “What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.”