I had spoken about Elias Canetti’s novel, Auto Da Fe, in my earlier column about marital relationships. In fact, Elias Canetti, Nobel laureate, has another fascinating small book in his oeuvre. This is Kafka’s Other Trial. In this rivetting read, Canetti talks about the problems between Franz Kafka and his fiancée, Felice. Canetti traces how Felice breaks off their engagement in July 1914 “in a humiliating public tribunal” and the impact it had on Kafka’s creativity, who was at the height of his creative powers. As Canetti states, “it was in Max Brod’s family apartment, on August 13, 1912, late in the evening that Kafka first met Felice Bauer” (pg. 4-5, Kafka’s Other Trial by Elias Canetti, translated by Christopher Middleton, Penguin Books, 1974).
Canetti analyzes each of Kafka’s letters and reconstructs his life and world. Kafka writes about his “thinness” and refers to it in many letters to Felice. Later, in 1920, when he is wooing Milena Jesenska, after the departure of Felice from his life, he still refers to his “thinness”. As Canetti writes, “most of all, he complains about sleeplessness” (p. 29). For Kafka, “sleep then becomes a real liberation” (p. 29).
“The degree of intimacy in these letters baffles imagination: they are more intimate than any complete description of happiness might be.” (p.32)
“But the letters themselves take one’s diffidence away. For, while reading them, one realizes that a story like The Metamorphosis is even more intimate than they are.” (p. 33)
“The important thing about Felice is that she did exist, that she was not invented, and that, the way she was, she could not have been invented by Kafka” (p. 33).
(Quotes are from Kafka’s Other Trial by Elias Canetti, translated by Christopher Middleton, Penguin Books, 1974)
As Canetti shows in his masterful book on Kafka, “two decisive events in Kafka’s life” (p. 69) the official engagement with Felice on June 1 and it’s breaking off on July 12, 1914 led to certain events in The Trial, which “Kafka began to write in August” (p. 69). These are events which Kafka would surely have wanted to remain private, but the public tribunal would have surely affected him badly. The emotional toll can be seen in The Trial. As Canetti tells us, “The engagement becomes the arrest in the first chapter; the ‘tribunal’ appears as execution in the last” (p. 69). Though Kafka must have been tormented by the public nature of these events, he is able to give them a creative, imagined life in his work.
On a related but a different note, the once-reclusive Japanese novelist, Haruki Murakami has never once spoken about the real-life parallels of his blockbuster novel, Norwegian Wood and his own life. Norwegian Wood remains the only work of fiction that he has written in the realist tradition, while the rest of his works are written in a magic realist or ‘hyper-realist’ mode as I would term them. Norwegian Wood begins as a flashback. Toru Watanabe is thirty-seven years old and the Beatles’ song, Norwegian Wood plays, which triggers his memories of the past. The memories of eighteen years ago come back to him.
Slowly, the novel moves into the flashback and the past merges effortlessly into the present. “Love with complications” is how life is—that is the message that Murakami wants his readers to know. You might like to listen to the audiobook at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZP6XzN7puFM
“I was at that age, that time of life when every sight, every feeling, every thought came back, like a boomerang, to me. And worse, I was in love. Love with complications. Scenery was the last thing on my mind.” (p. 6)
I don’t care what you do to me, but I don’t want you to hurt me. I’ve had enough hurt already in my life. More than enough. Now I want to be happy.” (p. 315)
“Nobody likes being alone that much. I don’t go out of my way to make friends, that’s all. It just leads to disappointment.” (p. 64)
“There’s no need to raise your voice here. You don’t have to convince anybody of anything, and you don’t have to attract anyone’s attention.” (p. 128)
All quotes are from Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami, translated by Jay Rubin, Harvill Press, 2000
In this pop-culture novel, Naoko moves to a mental health facility, a kind of sanatorium, where she recuperates and heals herself. Toru Watanabe goes to visit her. Toru, also meets an older woman there, Reiko. I have known some people, some of my students, who don’t like the pop-culture settings of the novel. But the settings are in a realist mode and that is how life could have been. An engaging, as well as an enduring image for me, is when Reiko tells Toru about the sanatorium. She says that ‘anyone is free to come here and stay for as long as they want’. However, once they leave the place, they cannot come back there. Toru and Naoko were very well matched as a couple, but their relationship could not be as Naoko dies. Toru is disturbed as well. In a way, what Reiko tells Toru about the mental health facility, is also true of life itself because once we live certain events in our lives, there’s no going back either.
We cannot go back to a beautiful relationship of the past once we have crossed the rubicon. Thus, we must live with ‘half-endings’ in our lives though, on a promising note, Murakami gives us better alternatives in his novel. In Norwegian Wood, Murakami matches Toru with Midori Koyabashi, a kind of girl that Toru would never have been attracted to, but she’s the one who lifts Toru out of the depressive phase in which he had lapsed. Difficulties, thus, are a part of love and, in some way, we must make peace with ourselves.