“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.”
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 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
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
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.
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;
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
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
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