Saturday, April 6, 2013

Candide trembled like a philosopher

I have come to realize that the literary touchstone for Franz Kafka's novel Amerika (or at least one literary touchstone) is Candide, and so at the 2/3 mark of Amerika I am pausing to re-read Mr Voltaire's little book. The similarities are right there, I am perversely pleased to discover: like Candide, Kafka's hero Karl is expelled from his happy German home for having an affair with a forbidden woman (Candide with Cunegund, daughter of the Baron of Thunder-ten-tronckh; Karl with Johanna Brummer, his parents' maidservant); Candide falls prey to the duplicity of a couple of Prussian army officers who impress him into service; Karl falls prey to the duplicity of a couple of unemployed mechanics who impress him into service; Candide is set adrift into a picaresque novel, Karl is set adrift into a picaresque novel. No, the two stories don't map onto each other precisely, but if Kafka hadn't read Voltaire, I'll eat my hat. The tone of the stories (even though Kafka desired to write something Dickensian with Amerika) is similar, which I think is what really struck me this evening.

Here is Candide's fall with Cunegund:

One day, when Miss Cunegund went to take a walk in a little neighboring wood, which was called a park, she saw, through the bushes, the sage Doctor Pangloss giving a lecture in experimental physics to her mother's chambermaid, a little brown wench, very pretty, and very tractable. As Miss Cunegund had a great disposition for the sciences, she observed with the utmost attention the experiments which were repeated before her eyes; she perfectly well understood the force of the doctor's reasoning upon causes and effects. She retired greatly flurried, quite pensive, and filled with the desire of knowledge, imagining that she might be young Candide's sufficient reason and he hers.
    On her way back she happened to meet Candide; she blushed, he blushed also. She wished him a good morning in a faltering tone; he returned the salute, without knowing what he said. The next day, as they were rising from dinner, Cunegund and Candide slipped behind the screen. She dropped her handkerchief; the young man picked it up. She innocently took hold of his hand, and he as innocently kissed hers with a warmth, a sensibility, a grace--all very extraordinary--their lips met, their eyes sparkled, their knees trembled, their hands strayed. The Baron of Thunder-ten-tronckh chanced to come by; he beheld the cause and effect, and, without hesitation, saluted Candide with some notable kicks on the breech and drove him out of doors. Miss Cunegund fainted away, and, as soon as she came to herself, the Baroness boxed her ears. 

Here is Franz's encounter with Johanna:

Karl had no feelings for Johanna Brummer. Hemmed in by a vanishing past, she sat in her kitchen beside the kitchen dresser, resting her elbows on top of it. She looked at him whenever he came to the kitchen to fetch a glass of water for his father or do some errand for his mother. Sometimes, awkwardly sitting sideways at the dresser, she would write a letter, drawing her inspiration from Karl's face. Sometimes she would sit with her hand over her eyes, heeding nothing that was said to her. Sometimes she would kneel in her tiny room next the kitchen and pray to a wooden crucifix; then Karl would feel shy if he passed by and caught a glimpse of her through the crack of the slightly open door. Sometimes she would bustle about her kitchen and recoil, laughing like a witch, if Karl came near her. Sometimes she would shut the kitchen door after Karl entered, and keep hold of the door handle until he had to beg to be let out. Sometimes she would bring him things which he did not want and press them silently into his hand. And once she called him "Karl" and, while he was still dumbfounded at this unusual familiarity, led him into her room, sighing and grimacing, and locked the door. Then she flung her arms round his neck, almost choking him, and while urging him to take off her clothes, she really took off his and laid him on her bed, as if she would never give him up to anyone and would tend and cherish him to the end of time. "Oh Karl, my Karl!" she cried; it was as if her eyes were devouring him, while his eyes saw nothing at all and he felt uncomfortable in all the warm bedclothes which she seemed to have piled up for him alone. Then she lay down by him and wanted some secret from him, but he could tell her none, and she showed anger, either in jest or in earnest, shook him, listened to his heart, offered her breast that he might listen to hers in turn, but could not bring him to do it, pressed her naked belly against his body, felt with her hand between his legs, so disgustingly that his head and neck started up from the pillows, then thrust her body several times against his--it was as if she were a part of himself, and for that reason, perhaps, he was seized with a terrible feeling of yearning. With the tears running down his cheeks he reached his own bed at last, after many entreaties from her to come again. That was all that had happened, and yet his uncle had managed to make a great song out of it.

Karl's inability to see when a woman is attracted to him doesn't end with Johanna, either. Karl is a bit of a dope like Candide is a bit of a dope, but they are innocents in different measure only with women; they both remain in awe of the ways of the wide world and are both earnest in their attempts to live upright lives.

I grant you that Candide follows the romantic conceit of Don Quixote, in that the protagonists of those books are in love with their women, where Karl is confused and indifferent towards Johanna. Amerika also lacks a Pangloss character, but I claim that the overall comic tone of both books is the same.

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