nadine gordimer’s homage to kafka

“But what happens if something from a fiction is not interiorised, but materialises? Takes on independent existence?
         It has just happened to me. Every year I re-read some of the books I don’t want to die without having read again. This year one of these is Kafka’s Diaries, and I am about half-way through. It’s night-time reading of a wonderfully harrowing sort.”


Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black


Nadine Gordimer





By Nadine Gordimer


ANYONE who is a reader knows that what you have read has

influenced your life. By ‘reader’ I mean one from the time you

began to pick out the printed words, for yourself, in the

bedtime story. (Another presumption: you became literate in

some era before the bedtime story was replaced by the

half-hour before the Box.) Adolescence is the crucial period

when the poet and the fiction writer intervene in formation of

the sense of self in sexual relation to others, suggesting—

excitingly, sometimes scarily—that what adult authority has

told or implied is the order of such relations, is not all. Back in

the Forties, I was given to understand: first, you will meet a

man, both will fall in love, and you will marry; there is an order

of emotions that goes with this packaged process. That is what

love is.


For me, who came along first was Marcel Proust. The strange but
ineluctable disorder of Charles Swann’s agonising

love for a woman who wasn’t his type (and this really no fault

of her own, he fell in love with her as what she was, eh?); the

jealousy of the Narrator tormentedly following a trail of


Albertine’s evasions.







Swept away was the confetti. I now had different expecta-

tions of what experience might have to take on. My appren-

ticeship to sexual love changed; for life. Like it or not, this is


what love is. Terrible. Glorious.







But what happens if something from a fiction is not

interiorised, but materialises? Takes on independent existence?

It has just happened to me. Every year I re-read some of the

books I don’t want to die without having read again. This year

one of these is Kafka’s Diaries, and I am about half-way

through. It’s night-time reading of a wonderfully harrowing


A few mornings ago when I sat down at this typewriter as I

do now, not waiting for Lorca’s duende but getting to work, I

saw under the narrow strip of window which displays words

electronically as I convey them, a roach. A smallish roach about

the size and roach-shape of the nail of my third finger—

medium-sized hand. To tell that I couldn’t believe it is under-

statement. But my immediate thought was practical: it was

undoubtedly there, how did it get in. I tapped the glass at the

place beneath which it appeared. It confirmed its existence, not

by moving the body but wavering this way and that two

whiskers, antennae so thin and pale I had not discerned them.

I proceeded to lift whatever parts of the machine are acces-

sible, but the strip of narrow glass display was not. I consulted

the User’s Manual; it did not recognise the eventuality of a

cockroach penetrating the sealed refuge meant for words only.

I could find no way the thing could have entered, but reasoned

that if it had, shiny acorn-brown back, fine-traced antennae, it

could leave again at will. Its own or mine. I tapped again over-

head on the glass, and now it sidled—which meant, ah, that it

was cramped under that roof—to the top limit of the space

available. This also revealed bandy black legs like punctuation

marks. I called a friend and she reacted simply: It’s impossible.

Can’t be.

Well, it was. I have a neighbour, a young architect, whom I

see head-down under the bonnet, repairing his car at week-

ends; there was no course of action but to wait until he could

be expected to come home that evening. He is a fixer who can

open anything, everything. What to be done in the meantime?

Take up where I left off. Send words stringing shadows across

the body. Indeed, the disturbance might hope to rouse the in-

truder somehow to seek the way to leave.

I am accustomed to being alone when I work. I could not

help seeing that I was not; something was deliberately not

watching me—anyway, I couldn’t make out its eyes—but was

intimately involved with the process by which the imagination

finds record, becomes extant.

It was then I received as I hadn’t heard in this way before;

Can’t be.

Night after night I had been reading Franz Kafka’s diaries,

the subconscious of his fictions, that Max Brod wouldn’t

destroy. So there it all is, the secret genesis of creation. Kafka’s

subconscious was nightly conducting me from consciousness to

the subconscious of sleep.

Had I caused that creature.

Is there another kind of metamorphosis, you don’t wake up

to find yourself transformed into another species, wriggling on

light-brown shiny back and feeling out your space with wispy

sensors, but the imagining of such a being can create one, in-

dependent of any host, physical genesis; or can imagination

summon such a live being to come on out of the woodwork

and manifest itself?

What nonsense. There are no doubt the usual domestic

pests living clandestinely among and nourished by whatever

there is to be nibbled from piles of paper and newspaper cut-

tings. Who else eats the gilt lettering on book jackets? Next

morning he/she/it was still there, no ectoplasm of my imagina-

tion, flattened under the glass and moving, with long intervals

of watchful immobility, a little way laterally or vertically as the


machine warmed in use.







My neighbour had come and studied the situation, or rather

Gregor’s—I had come to think of the creature that way, never

mind. The young architect found that the array of tools he

owned were too clumsy for the Italian finesse that had gone

into the making of the machine. He would try to borrow a

jewellers tools. Two more days passed and I continued not to

be alone as I wrote. At first I wanted the thing in there to die;

how could it exist without water, food—and air. As the glass

display seemed hermetically sealed, wouldn’t any oxygen

trapped within be exhausted. Even a beetle, a roach, whatever,

must have lungs. Then I began to want it released alive, a

miraculous survivor, example of the will to live evidenced be-

yond its humble size and status in the chain of life. I saw my-

self receiving it from the deliverer and releasing it on some leaf

in the garden. I called the firm from which I had bought the

typewriter two years ago to ask for the visit of a know-how

mechanic and was told they didn’t service obsolete business

machines any more, handled only computers.

He, my creature, didn’t die; when I would pause a moment

to acknowledge him, there under my words, and he was per-

fectly immobile, I would think, he’s gone; that other sense of

‘gone’, not escaped. Then the remaining antenna would sway,

the other had broken off, no doubt in patient efforts to find the

secret exit by which he came in. There were times when he

hid—I had seen him slip into what must be some sliver of

space below where the glass window was flush with its casing.

Or I’d glance up: no, not there; and then he’d appear again. My

young neighbour had warned, I hope it doesn’t lay eggs in

there, but I thought of the prisoner as male—maybe just

because I’m a woman, assuming the conventional partner I’ve

had in intimate situations faced together. On Friday night I

happened to go back into my work-room to fetch a book,

turned on the lamp, and there he was, moving up his inch of

vertical space and then arrested, frustrated that what he seemed

to have forgotten, the way he got in, the way he might get out,

was not found. He looked darkened, flat and shiny beetle-

black, but that aspect was by lamplight.

Saturday mid-morning my young neighbour arrived with

German precision tools arranged like jewellery in a velvet-lined

folder. The tenant of the display window was not to be seen;

tapping on the glass did not bring him up from his usual

hiding-place in that interstice below level of the glass. My

neighbour studied more informedly than I had the com-

ponents of the typewriter as described in Italian, German,

French, Japanese and English in the User’s Manual and set to

work. The machine slowly came apart, resisting with every

minute bolt and screw and the rigidity of plastic that threat-

ened to snap. At last, there was the inner chamber, the glass

display. It would not yield; the inhabitant did not rise into view

despite the disturbance. We halted operations; had he found

his egress, got out; then he might be somewhere in the cavern

of the machine exposed. No sign. My neighbour was not going

to be defeated by the ingenuity of Italian engineering, he tried

this tiny implement and that, managing to unwind the most

minute of pin-head screws and disengage complex clamps.

With one last thumb-pressure the glass lifted. The shallow

cavity beneath, running the width of the machine, was empty.

Where was he who had survived there for five days? Had he

freed himself and was watching from among papers and

newspaper cuttings instead of on a garden leaf. We continued

to search the innards of the typewriter. No sign. Then I ran a

finger tracing the narrow space where certainly he had been,

existed, hadn’t he, and felt a change in the surface under my

skin. Peered close, and there he was.

His own pyre. Somehow consumed himself.

A pinch of dust. One segment of a black leg, hieroglyph to

be decoded.




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