Blumfeld, An Elderly Bachelor by Franz Kafka, 1915
The magic trick:
Precision of pairs
It’s hard to believe that a story this good sat neglected in Kafka’s notebook until well after his death. I guess it’s not hard to believe that Mr. Kafka had absurdly high standards for himself and his work. Whatever. It’s a terrific story.
I love the precision of the structure. Everything comes in pairs. The story’s two sections. Blumfeld’s two clerks. Of course the two bouncing balls, signifying… well, God only knows. It’s all the more amazing that it was never published in his lifetime. That would seem to indicate that it was never properly finished, yet it reads like a flawless gem of a story. And that’s quite a trick on Kafka’s part.
One evening Blumfeld, an elderly bachelor, was climbing up to his apartment – – a laborious undertaking, for he lived on the sixth floor. While climbing up he thought, as he had so often recently, how unpleasant this utterly lonely life was: to reach his empty rooms he had to climb these six floors almost in secret, there put on his dressing gown, again almost in secret, light his pipe, read a little of the French magazine to which he had been subscribing for years, at the same time sip at a homemade kirsch, and finally, after half an hour, go to bed, but not before having completely rearranged his bedclothes which the unteachable charwoman would insist on arranging in her own way. Some companion, someone to witness these activities, would have been very welcome to Blumfeld. He had already been wondering whether he shouldn’t acquire a little dog. These animals are gay and above all grateful and loyal; one of Blumfeld’s colleagues has a dog of this kind; it follows no one but its master and when it hasn’t seen him for a few moments it greets him at once with loud barkings, by which it is evidently trying to express its joy at once more finding that extraordinary benefactor, its master. True, a dog also has its drawbacks. However well kept it may be, it is bound to dirty the room. This just cannot be avoided; one cannot give it a hot bath each time before letting it into the room; besides, its health couldn’t stand that. Blumfeld, on the other hand, can’t stand dirt in his room. To him cleanliness is essential, and several times a week he is obliged to have words with his charwoman, who is unfortunately not very painstaking in this respect. Since she is hard of hearing he usually drags her by the arm to those spots in the room which he finds lacking in cleanliness. By this strict discipline he has achieved in his room a neatness more or less commensurate with his wishes. By acquiring a dog, however, he would be almost deliberately introducing into his room the dirt which hitherto he had been so careful to avoid. Fleas, the dog’s constant companions, would appear. And once fleas were there, it would not be long before Blumfeld would be abandoning his comfortable room to the dog and looking for another one. Uncleanliness, however, is but one of the drawbacks of dogs. Dogs also fall ill and no one really understands dogs’ diseases. Then the animal sits in a corner or limps about, whimpers, coughs, chokes from some pain; one wraps it in a rug, whistles a little melody, offers it milk — in short, one nurses it in the hope that this, as indeed is possible, is a passing sickness while it may be a serious, disgusting, and contagious disease. And even if the dog remains healthy, one day it will grow old, one won’t have the heart to get rid of the faithful animal in time, and then comes the moment when one’s own age peers out at one from the dog’s oozing eyes. Then one has to cope with the half-blind, weak-lunged animal all but immobile with fat, and in this way pay dearly for the pleasures the dog once had given. Much as Blumfeld would like to have a dog at this moment, he would rather go on climbing the stairs alone for another thirty years than be burdened later on by such an old dog which, sighing louder than he, would drag itself up, step by step.
So Blumfeld will remain alone, after all…