Want to read with me? Follow this link to view the list and pick a book (or a few!) to read along with me. I'd love for this project to be collaborative, and will post anyone's thoughts beside my own.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Was it the trial that cast him about so, and kept him from distinguishing his friends from his enemies?

The Trial by Franz Kafka

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The Trial is an introspective journey that delves into the depths of bureaucracy and totalitarianism, chronicling the capricious and arbitrary arrest and trial of Josef K., a German bank officer. Though he is placed under arrest, Josef K. is able to continue living his life, and maintains his job at the bank while attempting to sift through the many layers of the quagmire that is his court case. He enlists the aid of a lawyer, assembles a network of supporters, and does his best to make sense of the absurd proceedings. His attempts are in vain in the end, however, and rather than being placed in jail, Josef K. is taken to a quarry at night by guards and stabbed in the heart.  Josef K. never discovers the reason behind his trial, and we are left wondering at the seeming senselessness of it all.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I found this to be a very strange read. I haven't read any other Kafka, so I don't have anything to compare it to. The psychological analysis of it reminded me of Russian lit, particularly Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, which is a genre I respect, but can't say I really enjoy.

Rather than comment at random on this one, I've chosen to present a microcosm of the trial of Josef K. Heads up, if you're dead set on reading it, you might want to wait to read this blog - the whole thing is sort of a spoiler. Sorry!

- It Begins. 
"What sort of men were they? What office did they represent? Who dared assault him in his own lodgings? He'd always tended to take things lightly, to believe the worst only when it arrived, making no provision for the future, even when things looked bad." The arrest is bizarre, not only because it seems to have no driving force behind it, but also because Josef K. is not led off to prison or taken away to be interrogated. Rather, he resumes his life in a mostly normal fashion, which makes the arrest all the more jarring.

- My social security number? Ah, yes. It's 1. 2. 3. A. B... I knew you were too good to be true! You're an alien! No. We come from France!
Josef K. looks for some form of ID to show the guards who come to arrest him, and at first all he can find is his bicycle license. I thought this was adorable, and it also made me wonder why we don't have bicycle licenses now if we used to in the past. Perhaps you still have to get a bicycle license in some countries? I'll have to look into it.

- Josef K.'s response to being arrested.
"At the same time he asked himself from his own perspective what possible reason he could have for killing himself. Because those two were sitting next door and had taken away his breakfast? Committing suicide would be so irrational that even had he wished to, the irrationality of the act would have prevented him." The absurdity of the arrest is juxtaposed with the seeming severity of the event. When Josef K. considers the prospect of suicide as an escape, it doesn't seem like a proportionate response. Had he known the way the trial would unfold, however, Josef K. might have felt differently. (NB: Not condoning suicide, obvi, just pointing out the disproportionality of it in the beginning vs. his violent end.)

- The guards, to Josef, on wearing his pajamas upon his arrest:
"If you assault me in bed, you can hardly expect to find me in formal attire." The weirdest part of this book was that it was highly humorous in certain moments. I suppose it was to give some levity to things, but also to point out the ridiculous quality to some of the events. In any case, this was one of my favorite lines. 

- Don't worry - this isn't that kind of an arrest.
"Oh, I see," said the inspector. "You've misunderstood me; you're under arrest, certainly, but that's not meant to keep you from carrying on your profession. Nor are you to be hindered in the course of your ordinary life." I guess Josef K.'s arrest isn't so different from the house arrest a current CFO might be placed under for a business trial, but in that case, the trial would take a back burner, at least in some respect, and the CFO would continue to go about his life. Here, Josef K. is expected to go about his life, but it is anything but normal, which makes his daily routine rather tortured in the end.

- Excuse me, but do you know a carpenter named Lanz?
When Josef K. first tries to attend his court proceedings on a weekend, he feels out of place in the apartment building, so he makes up a carpenter named Lanz and starts knocking on doors to see if anyone knows him. 
"Several people believed K. badly needed to find the carpenter Lanz, thought long and hard, recalled a carpenter, but not one named Lanz, remembered a name that bore some faint similarity to Lanz, asked their neighbors, or accompanied K. to some far distant door, where they fancied such a man might possibly be subletting an apartment, or where there was someone who could provide him with better information than they could." The most absurd part is that when Josef K. knocks on the last door, the person who answers says, "Right this way", and it turns out to be the court. 

- It's only real if I think it's real.
"They are only proceedings if I recognize them as such." I know, right? Soooo meta.

- Sign for APPLAUSE.
Josef K, at part of his trial: "The examining magistrate here beside me has just given one of you a secret signal. So there are those among you who are being directed from up here. I don't know if the signal is meant to elicit hisses or applause, and I deliberately waive my opportunity to learn what the signal means by having revealed the matter prematurely. It's a matter of complete indifference to me, and I publicly authorize His Honor the examining magistrate to command his paid employees below out loud, rather than by secret signals, and to say something like: 'Now hiss' and the next time: 'Now clap.'" Again, there's a duality to this moment - it's simultaneously amusing and deeply disturbing in revealing the inner workings of the court.

- B is for Bureaucracy.
The nebulous quality of bureaucracy is in fine form in this novel. Here's a snippet:
"The proceedings in the courts of law are generally a mystery to the lower officials as well; therefore they can almost never follow the progress of the cases they are working on throughout their course; the case enters their field of vision, often they know not whence, and continues on, they know not where."

 It reminded me of this scene from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:
Arthur's house is about to get knocked down to build a bypass. When Arthur complains that he had no idea it was happening, the contractor responds with the following:
"But the plans were on display..."
"On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them."
"That's the display department."
"With a flashlight."
"Ah, well, the lights had probably gone."
"So had the stairs."
"But look, you found the notice, didn't you?"
"Yes, yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the Leopard.'"

- Trials, and a bit wiv a painter named Titorelli.
One of the many people Josef K. seeks out to consult on his case is a bizarre court painter named Titorelli. Titorelli explains the possible outcomes of Josef's trial as follows:

"There are three possibilities: actual acquittal, apparent acquittal, and protraction."

Door #1:
Actual acquittal - Titorelli cannot help with this one. It is very rare, and relies on factors outside his control. Tant pis!

Door #2:
Apparent acquittal - "It means the charge against you is dropped for the moment but continues to hover over you, and can be reinstated the moment an order comes from above. The files remain in circulation; following the law court's normal routine they are passed on to the higher courts, come back to the lower ones, swinging back and forth with larger or smaller oscillations, longer or shorter interruptions. These paths are unpredictable. Externally it may sometimes appear that everything has been long since forgotten, the file has been lost, and the acquittal is absolute... No file is ever lost, and the court never forgets." I know, sounds pretty Great, right? 

Aand, Door #3:
Protraction - "Protraction is when the trial is constantly kept at the lowest stage. This doesn't require the same effort it takes to secure an apparent acquittal, but it does require a much higher level of vigilance. You can't let the trial out of your sight; you have to visit the relevant judge at regular intervals, and any extra chance you get as well, and try to keep him as well disposed as possible in all ways; if you don't know the judge personally, you have to try to influence him through judges you do know, although you still don't dare dispense with the direct conferences. If nothing is omitted in this respect, you can be sufficiently assured that the trial will never progress beyond its initial stage. The trial doesn't end of course, but the defendant is almost as safe from a conviction as he would be a free man." Hrm... Is this really my best option? Why does this not seem like a good thing?

- Fin.
In the end, the conclusion of Josef K.'s trial is as arbitrary as the beginning. 

A priest, to Josef K: "The judgment isn't simply delivered at some point; the proceedings gradually merge into the judgment."

Josef K., on the guards who come to take him away: 
  • "He was nauseated by the cleanliness of their faces."
  • "Why did they send you of all people?"
  • "There would be nothing heroic in resistance."
  • "Moonlight lay everywhere [in the quarry] with the naturalness and serenity no other light is granted."
Josef K., on his inability to take his own life:
"He could not rise entirely to the occasion, he could not relieve the authorities of all their work; the responsibility for this final failure lay with whoever had denied him the remnant of strength necessary to do so."

One last flicker of hope before the climax:
"Like a light flicking on, the casements of a window flew open, a human figure, faint and insubstantial at that distance and height, leaned far out abruptly, and stretched both arms out even further. Who was it? A friend? A good person? Someone who cared? Someone who wanted to help? Was it just one person? Was it everyone? Was there still help?"

Josef, to himself, after the knife has been plunged in his heart:
"Where was the judge he'd never seen? Where was the high court he'd never reached?"

I know, rather a dark way to spend this beauteous Sunday. No more Kafka now, I mean it. Anybody wanna peanut? Onwards to Anne of Yellow Canopies and Canadians, hey? Vous pouvez me joindre, si vous en voulez.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Go, Usul, and ride the maker, travel the sand as a leader of men.

Dune by Frank Herbert

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Dune is a tale of adventure, loyalty, death, and destiny. The Atreides family is sent from their home planet, Caladan, to the desert planet Arrakis (also known as Dune) to rule. The Duke Atreides, Leto, suspects he is being lured into a trap by the rival ruling family, the Harkonnens, and it turns out his suspicions were correct. Leto is murdered by one of his own men, and his son Paul and pregnant concubine/de facto wife (let's just say their Facebook status is "It's Complicated") the Lady Jessica are captured. The Baron Harkonnen underestimates Paul and Jessica, however, and they escape to find sanctuary with the native Fremen, a desert people who have learned not only how to survive on Arrakis, but how to thrive. The Fremen ride enormous worms (also known as makers, because the worms create the spice mined on Arrakis) that can swallow entire spaceships whole, and have made an art form out of the preservation of water, the scarcest resource on the planet. Paul and his mother rise to leadership roles in the Fremen tribe, both due to Paul's status as a prophet to the Fremen and their identity as the rightful ruling family of Arrakis. Paul, semi-prescient due both to his genetic makeup and the influence of the omnipresent spice, tries to navigate the many possible avenues of the future, hoping to avert the Fremen jihad which seems inevitable. Paul succeeds in taking Dune back from the Harkonnens, but not without losses of his own. In the end, we are left to wonder if the violent climax is but the beginning of a larger war.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I greatly enjoyed reading this book. My whole family has read it or seen the movie (or, in some cases, both), and my sister Lexie did a read-along, so at some point in the future I'll post her thoughts as well. I'm not sure sci-fi is my favorite, but I think this is an excellent example of the genre, and Herbert is a very gifted writer. Dune is apparently part of a larger series - perhaps some day I'll dive into more of the novels and find out the outcome of the jihad - but I think I will keep it to just the first one for the purposes of this blog. (Same goes for Anne of Green Gables, which is coming up after The Trial!)

A few of my ponderings, in no particular chronology:

- What's in a name?
As in any great fantasy novel, Dune has some fantastic names. You need the majesty and the multicultural, almost mythical sense to ring out of them, and Herbert nails it. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Arrakis - the name of the planet, Dune
- Atreides - the ruling family from Caladan (and later Dune)
- Harkonnen - the Atreides' arch-nemesis family
- Muad'dib - alternate name for Paul - definitely a strong Arabic feel to a lot of Herbert's naming - in today's culture, that might be more contentious, but given that it's a desert planet, I don't think it's too charged in his case. I personally enjoyed the styling of it.
- Thufir Hawat - One of Leto's right-hand men
- Gurney Halleck - killer, smuggler, and baliset player (aka troubadour - jack of all trades!)
- Stilgar - A leader of the Fremen - reminded me of an elf name from LOTR :)

- On spice
Spice plays a huge role on Dune, and I found the depiction of it to be truly fascinating. It reminded me a bit of the role of 'dust' in the His Dark Materials saga. 

"The taste is never twice the same. It's like life - it presents a different face each time you take it. Some hold that the spice produces a learned-flavor reaction. The body, learning a thing is good for it, interprets the flavor as pleasurable - slightly euphoric. And, like life, never to be truly synthesized." This line also reminded me (for some reason - I know, tangential at best) of the movie Michael with John Travolta and Andie MacDowell. Michael is an angel in the movie, and at one point, the women debate what they think Michael smells like. Andie's character says he smells like fresh baked chocolate chip cookies, but others argue it's more like apple pie, or fresh-cut grass. What do you think an angel would smell like? I think it would be something like cloves and cinnamon, or maybe freshly-baked bread. 

- On learning
Each chapter starts out with a line from future writings, mostly about Paul. I loved this line about learning:
"Muad'Dib learned rapidly because his first training was in how to learn. And the first lesson of all was the basic trust that he could learn. It is shocking to find how many people do not believe they can learn, and how many more believe learning to be difficult." I thank my parents, teachers in both the literal and parental way, for endowing me with the basic trust that I could learn. It is the greatest gift anyone has ever given me.

- Heavy foreshadowing - Not of the tiptoe, but the CLOMP CLOMP CLOMP variety
Much like Mr. Dickens and Mr. Irving, Herbert seems to be a big fan of the smack you over the head kind of foreshadowing. I like to be curious about what's to come, and in my opinion, a little goes a long way, gentlemen. So maybe you should consider DIALING IT BACk a bit, hey? 

- (Guess Whaaaat?) I. am. a. Robot. My. Name. is. Paul. 
I had a bit of a hard time connecting with Paul, namely because once he comes into his future-seeing abilities (yes, I agree, there is definitely a better word for this but I can't think of it) he sort of loses his capacity for emotion. Jessica had a bit more humanity to her, but having the two of them as the main characters made it hard for me to feel moved by the events happening to them. 

- I'm sorry, is this Dune, or Tremors?
Admittedly, the worms were one of my favorite parts. They definitely reminded me of Tremors (and yes, I've seen it for some reason) but the descriptions were awesome. Here are a few snippets to give you a picture:
  • "The others heard it then - an abrasive slithering, distant and growing louder."Anyone else reminded of the basilisk from the Chamber of Secrets?
  • "It came from their right with an uncaring majesty that could not be ignored." 
  • "Where the dunes began, perhaps fifty meters away at the foot of a rock beach, a silver-gray curve broached from the desert, sending rivers of sand and dust cascading all around. It lifted higher, resolved into a giant, questing mouth. It was a round, black hole with edges glistening in the moonlight."
The title of this blog is a line from Stilgar to Paul (he's Usul as well - Herbert's as bad as the Russians with the multiple names thing!) when he rides his first worm (not a euphemism people, minds out of the gutter!) and becomes a man in the eyes of the Fremen.

- Tick Tock, Tick Tock, Who's afraid of the Big, Bad Clock?
The descriptions of time were fantastic. Definitely one of my favorite pieces of Herbert's writing. I loved the way he envisioned time, and the delicate fragility of Paul's actions on future events. Here are a few of my favorite bits:
  • "Paul's mind had gone on its chilling precision. He saw the avenues ahead of them on this hostile planet. Without even the safety valve of dreaming, he focused his prescient awareness, seeing it as a computation of most probable futures, but with something more, an edge of mystery - as though his mind dipped into some timeless stratum and sampled the winds of the future."
  • "He fell silent as memory of that seeing filled him. No prescient dream, no experience of his life had quite prepared him for the totality with which the veils had been ripped away to reveal naked time."
  • "Muad'Dib could indeed see the Future, but you must understand the limits of this power. Think of sight. You have eyes, yet cannot see without light. If you are on the floor of a valley, you cannot see beyond your valley. Just so, Muad'Dib could not always choose to look across the mysterious terrain. He tells us that a single obscure decision of prophecy, perhaps the choice of one word over another, could change the entire aspect of the future. He tells us "The vision of time is broad, but when you pass through it, time becomes a narrow door." And always, he fought the temptation to choose a clear, safe course, warning "That path leads ever down into stagnation."
  • "The more he resisted his terrible purpose and fought against the coming of the jihad, the greater the turmoil that wove through his prescience. His entire future was becoming like a river hurtling toward a chasm - the violent nexus beyond which all was fog and clouds."
  • "The future - the gray-cloud future - with its feeling that the entire universe rolled toward a boiling nexus hung around him like a phantom world."
- On Paul killing Jamis, a Fremen who challenges him:
"He has killed a man in clear superiority of mind and muscle. He must not grow to enjoy such a victory."  This is a line from Jessica, Paul's mother. It reminded me of this line from For Whom the Bell Tolls:

Roberto, to himself: "Don't you know it is wrong to kill? Yes. But you do it? Yes. And you still believe absolutely that your cause is right? Yes. But you mustn't believe in killing. You must do it as a necessity but you must not believe in it. Because if you are not absolutely straight in your head you have no right to do the things you do for all of them are crimes and no man has a right to take another man's life unless it is to prevent something worse happening to other people."

 - The Fremen cave - or is it a sweaty gym room locker?
"The odor of the place assailed him: unwashed bodies, distillate esthers of unclaimed wastes, everywhere the sour effluvia of humanity with, over it all, a turbulence of spice and spicelike harmonics." Suffice it to say that the Fremen cave does NOT smell like fresh baked chocolate chip cookies. 

- What would you think if you saw people riding gigantic worms you spent your life running from?
"Out of the sand haze came an orderly mass of flashing shapes - great rising curves with crystal spokes that resolved into the gaping mouths of sandworms, a massed wall of them, each with troops of Fremen riding to the attack. They came in a hissing wedge, robes whipping in the wind as they cut through the melee on the plain.
   Onward toward the Emperor's hutment they came while the House Sardaukar stood awed for the first time in their history by an onslaught their minds found difficult to accept." I loved this scene - epic!

- Owen doesn't have any friends.
In the final scene of the book, a woman claims to be a friend of Paul's mother, Jessica, when in fact she is a scheming machinator. 

Gurney: "There's also a Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother who says she's a friend of your mother."
Paul: "My mother has no Bene Gesserit friends."
I loved Paul's response - it reminded me of the scene from Throw Momma From the Train when Owen's mother asks Billy Crystal, "Who're you?" and Billy Crystal replies, "I'm Owen's friend." to which Owen's mother responds, "Owen doesn't have any friends." haghaghahghaghag. [You know the unsalted crackers make me choke, Owen!]

Other lines that were in the running for title of this blog entry:
- Fear is the mind-killer.
- Parting with friends is a sadness. A place is only a place.
- He had felt something stir his terrible purpose.
- Wherever there is spice, there are worms.
- One baits an Atreides at his own risk.
- Whether a thought is spoken or not it is a real thing and it has power.
- God created Arrakis to train the faithful.
- Who can deny a Fremen the right to walk or ride where he wills?

Sentences that struck me:
  • "There was pain in him - like a blister, all that was left of some lost yesterday that Time had pruned off him."
  • Jessica, on Paul - "She thought of the boy's features as an exquisite distillation out of random patterns - endless queues of happenstance meeting at this nexus."
  • "Straight overhead, the stars were a sequin shawl flung over blue-black."
  • Dirge for Jamis: "Do you wrestle with dreams? Do you contend with shadows? Do you move in a kind of sleep?"
  • "Now she saw only the circle of stars. They were like the luminous tips of weapons aimed down at her. A shower of meteors crossed her patch of night. The meteors seemed to her like a warning, like tiger stripes, like luminous grave slats clabbering her blood. And she felt the chill of the price on their heads."
  • Starlight displaced just enough of the night to charge each shadow with menace.
  • And above the horizon climbed the flat immensity of the storm like a wall against the stars.
  • This was death hanging on an infinite number of miniscule mischances.
  • A violent calamity of color spilled over the sky as the sun dipped beneath the horizon.
  • on Muad'Dib: He was warrior and mystic, ogre and saint, the fox and the innocent, chivalrous, ruthless, less than a god, more than a man.
If you're getting snow, enjoy the wintry romance of it, and if you're not, then enjoy your sunshine! I'm off to stroll the streets and catch up with friends. And later, The Tribunal awaits!