Kay, Adam Richard: This is Going to Hurt

Adam Richard Kay (born 12 June 1980) is a British comedy writer, author, comedian and former doctor He grew up in a Jewish household and with his father being a doctor; he describes becoming a doctor as being a default decision.

This is Going to Hurt is Kay’s first book and was published in September 2017 becoming an instant Sunday Times number one bestseller, a position it has held for over a year, selling over one million copies. It was the book of the year in the UK’s 2018 National Book Award and has been translated into 28 languages, achieving number one status internationally. It was the UK’s second-best selling book of 2018.

There were 6 members present (plus 1 e-mail input).  The book appealed to its proposer, a retired General Medical and Hospital Practitioner, because of its medical content, its humour and the trials and tribulations of life as a junior doctor. Although, in the book, hospital doctors are depicted as poorly paid, undervalued and grossly neglected professionals who are unfailingly willing to give up their own time for free to do battle with the health of the nation, the group agreed that the book had largely been written to entertain, being well written and full of great humour, quick wit and metaphors, reading like a Fringe Show!

The medical memoir is not a new idea and three years ago our group read Henry Marsh’s “Do No Harm”. This focussed more on the ethical and the surgical, and as a consequence conformed to a scrupulous style of writing. Kay’s approach is a much more personal and, not infrequently, flippant recounting of his experiences, but he insists that the book is “reasonably accurate”. Nonetheless we felt that there are many situations that tested plausibility and also that he had probably “borrowed” a few tales! At the end of the book he stated that the NHS was underfunded, inefficient and not understood by “the powers that be” with Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt being highlighted as the villain! But it was felt that he had failed to provide a strongly argued case in the book.

An early issue raised was whether it was ethical to use his patients’ experiences as a source of comedy and whether their permission had been sought. Might they be distressed? His lawyers had been involved in his final draught! Some felt that he also might have brought the profession into disrepute undermining the public’s confidence and raising anxiety for some patients. The group didn’t substantiate these comments as the author had changed the patients’ names and details of the incidents modified to respect privacy. This is common practice. e.g. in Colin Douglas’ excellent series of books on an Edinburgh doctor and A J Cronin’s books such as the “Citadel”, the latter which we read in the group, contained anonymised medical stories. The general public obviously enjoy reading about the misfortunes of others!

His leaving the profession with a strong sense of guilt, although he had done his best, led to a discussion on the problem that must be resolved of losing too many trained staff from the profession for many reasons including the “greener grass” overseas but it was pointed out that we probably had a net gain with our incoming professionals.

  • Sexual
  • Human idiosyncrasies in 21st century Britain
  • Unreasonableness of the NHS
  • Remarkable physical ailments
  • Unexpected twists

All pulled together by self-deprecating wit, deadpan delivery, sharp sarcasm, and economy of language. He also agreed with many of us that the use of black humour is a defence mechanism against awful situations as also often emerges in war memoirs.  He did find the downbeat ending a bit of a surprise, a crashing of the gears, but it added poignancy to the diaries.

The group agreed that overall it was a remarkably funny book, well written, easily read and that it encouraged debate on our national treasure, the N.H.S.

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Kassabova, Kapka: Border, a Journey to the Edge of Europe

Referring to an interview from the Scottish Review of Books, February 2018., we were advised that Kapka Kasssabova and her family emigrated to New Zealand after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She studied French at university, and began to make a name for herself as a poet and novelist. Some of her early poetry can be found in a collection entitled “Someone Else’s Life” (2003), which deals with people who live on the margins of society, the forgotten and dispossessed. This is clearly a major theme in the current book. After brief spells in Berlin and Marseilles, she settled in Scotland when she was thirty years old. She continued to work in different literary forms.

Talking of this month’s book, set on the borders between Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece, Kassabova said  “The trauma of half a century of social life based on lies is going to take several generations to heal, if it heals at all. That’s why I had such a sense of urgency when writing Border. There were so many voices and truths that are untold and unrecorded. I wanted to let those voices speak. But, also, because I see where things are heading politically in the Balkans. For the first time since the 1930s a far-right government is in power in Bulgaria, which is – again – censoring the media, censoring public discourse. The border has become a taboo subject again. Some of the places I visited in the book are now out of reach.’ ‘Everything that I was discovering felt exciting, like some of the folk motifs. For instance, I had never witnessed fire-worship before. The way people spoke was a challenge, in terms of how to render it into English without losing the authenticity. The source languages were Bulgarian, Turkish and Greek, with dialect variations. That’s why I ended up using some of the regional words, because they are a sensory part of the story of the landscape.”

At our meeting, the book encouraged a wide debate among the six members present. The title “Border” was used in two ways: as a crossing and on the periphery .  We thought that she had visited the area three times to compile her “stories” about the movement of peoples since 2000 BC backwards and forwards. In her lifetime the flow of people had reversed from the Iron Curtain blocking southerly passage to the current strong Turkish border blocking the Syrians northerly trek.

It was largely felt that the book was well written although some unusual words in the early part of the book made it hard work – thankfully the language became simpler – had she been trying to impress? One person was irritated by the use of “he said”, “she said”, “he said” in a short passage but it was pointed out that this may have been an attempt at rhyme which had been successful on page 192. She had also interspersed some short chapters to highlight issues and themes – not unlike Steinbeck the month before.

Her story unfolded through dialogues which were largely believable (did she make any up?) and were short and well controlled. The people interviewed were quirky (because only they remained in such a depopulated area?) and varied greatly from simple, friendly individuals to mystics and several rascals as well as bad people e.g. some border guards and smugglers. She was lucky to meet these people as they were dying out.

As ever in country areas, you found great acts of kindness and hospitality but also great selfishness and cruelty. On page 331 she becomes very romantic, idealising an old couple – “The true spirit of the Balkans that hangs on, no matter how renamed and resettled, imagined and invented. Our bitter beloved borderless Balkans”. Is this why she returned?

She used colour – Black Sea, Red Resort, White Wind etc – to display this simple world and her scenic descriptions were good, a list of pen pics but some felt that photos would have enhanced the book. It would have been interesting if we had compared mental pictures of the characters!

The many topics touched upon included mythology, historical names (Thrace means Europe), peoples (the Romas were detested apart from their music!), agriculture (tobacco and sheep were very important), politics (Bulgaria right wing again), religion (the Ottoman’s tolerated Christianity), mysticism, consumption (Raki/Rakia and sweet Ottoman Baclava etc) and the shifting zone between East and West, North and South, Europe and Not-Europe, NATO and the Warsaw Pact, Christianity and Islam, Balkan and Mediterranean, made it very interesting.

Her views are balanced, not taking sides apart from being anti Communist, but the book is difficult to categorise. It has been described as a travel book but her route is untraceable. Someone related it to some of Scott’s novels with his myth and ritual in our borders. Anthropology is a possibility but it is more about herself. Maybe, we could just leave it as the journey of a poetic journalist making friends in an area which is part of her.

To conclude, all found it an engaging and enjoyable book of its time but unlikely to become a “classic”

 

Kundera, Milan: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

We began with the proposer’s revelation that he had first been led to the book by a friend who was a womanizer.  Perhaps the friend had found a kindred spirit in one of the book’s central characters, Tomas.  He revealed that Milan Kundera  has just had another book published (The Festival of Insignificance)– last year- at the age of 85.  This was considered admirable, although the book had not been well-received by critics apparently.

Our first commentator mentioned the disjointed nature of the narrative – for example the early revelation of the ultimate death of Tomas and Tereza in a car crash, which lent a poignancy to their relationship.  We followed up with some debate about the dreams in the book – and in particular whether or not the Petrin Hill incident was a dream, since unlike the other dreams it was not explicitly revealed to be such – only the nature of the events seemed unreal.

A general ignorance of Nietzche’s writings was acknowledged among the group, although this did not prevent us discussing the concept of multiple lives.

It was suggested  that the characters in the book were primarily pegs on which to hang philosophical ideas.  Kundera explicitly rejects the notion that his characters are anything other than artefacts of his imagination.  The book perhaps falls into a grey area between novel and philosophy – occasionally Kundera takes us off at a tangent (for example his discussion of kitsch).  However, we were nonetheless engaged by the four main characters as believable human beings going through a variety of life events.  It was also pointed out that Tereza’s dog Karenin was dealt with seriously.  Among the more overtly profound exploration of themes such as betrayal and love there was also attention paid to the relationships between people and dogs.

One of our group had just watched the film adaptation of the book, which Kundera had disliked and disowned.  The film had more or less jettisoned the philosophical material, but still, in the viewer’s opinion, created an interesting portrait of the characters and their lives.

Someone described The Unbearable Lightness of Being as curate’s egg of a book (i.e. ‘good in parts’)  They had found it quite difficult to read, and had not been as fully engaged by the characters as most of us. Tereza was widely agreed to be the most appealing character, with her vulnerability and dependency on Tomas’s love.

Returning to the philosophical content of the book, one reader suggested that it was like a firework show, with lots of colourful and interesting ideas thrown up into the air.  Unlike a philosopher, a novelist has no obligation to follow his ideas through to a logical conclusion.  He can simply scintillate.

We turned to the historical context of the book and talked about Eastern Europe in general and the current Syrian refugee crisis of 2015.  After this digression, we wondered if the nature of the book itself encouraged digression (a clever excuse for going off the point).  A member of the group brought us back on track, saying that the section of the book that particularly engaged him was the part dealing with Russian surveillance and their attempts to destroy Czech national feeling.  The operations of the secret police were well described.  It was pointed out that at the time Kundera was writing, there was no certainty that the communist bloc would ever come to an end.  Another reader found some of the most dramatic material in the book in this context – for example the conversations around Tomas’s possible retraction of his Oedipus article.

We were all amused by the remarks on academic dissertations on obscure topics, their pages unvisited “even on All Souls’ Day”.

It was mentioned that feminists had frequently objected to Kundera’s work .  We wondered if Tomas was a kind of male wish-fulfillment figure.  It was pointed out that he seemed easy to please, being contented as a surgeon, a window-cleaner, and latterly a country-dweller.  Window-cleaning, with its frequent opportunities for philandering, seemed to be best of all for him.

From this point, our conversational route became more of a spaghetti junction.  We got onto the nature of happiness, and the influence of climate.  All other things being equal, it was suggested that living within the tropics was conducive to happiness.  We then got onto the early youth of the proposer, and then to his proposal that in his experience Eastern Europeans were more intellectual that the British – ‘more thinkers than doers’.  We had insufficient statistical information to debate this further, but it took us onto the results of a supposed survey (probably mythical) of the IQs of American presidents (high score for Barack Obama here) and then onto the nature of Ghanaian Christian beliefs.  Having visited the west coast of Africa, by way of the Czech Republic and the United States, it was but a small further step into the Edinburgh night, as all the beer bottles were now emptied.

The Shadow of the Sun: Kapuscinski, Rysard

The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life” was first published in Poland in 1998 bringing together material written by Ryszard Kapuscinski in his forty years as a journalist in Africa. It was first published in translation into English in 2001.

africa

Africa was a subject to which the Book Group had often returned. We touched on it  in “The Undercover Economist”. We wrestled with its complex past in V.S. Naipaul’s “A Bend in the River”. We arrived in Ethiopia in comic mode in “Scoop”, and returned to Ethiopia in serious mode with “Digging for Stone”. And we were immersed in tribal life in Achebe’s masterpiece “Things Fall Apart”. Common themes of our discussion had been the sheer mystery of Africa, the impact of the slave trade and of colonialism, and why Africa had problems achieving economic growth. We had also wondered whether the questions we ask with our Western European mind-set were simply the wrong questions.

The proposer had been recommended “The Shadow of the Sun” to help resolve the mysteries of Africa. And the book had given him a clear and convincing explanation of, for example, the background to the Rwandan genocide, and much more besides. It brought out the geography clearly, and the impact of heat and water shortage on everything that happened.

Kapuscinski had been born in Pinsk, in what was then Poland but now part of Belarus, in 1932. He died in 2007. His early years had been marked by war, poverty, and fear as his family moved about struggling to keep themselves alive in the chaos that followed the Nazi invasion of Poland. Thereafter he had been brought up in a Poland under Communist control. He had been lucky that a controversial article criticizing regime policy had brought him prominence rather than disgrace. In 1957 he first went to Africa, and for much of the next forty years he was criss-crossing Africa as a poorly paid Polish journalist.

This book was ostensibly a collection of press articles that Kapuscinski had written from different African countries over the years. However, he kept two diaries as a journalist: one for the purposes of the reports he filed, and one a more private and literary journal. It was not clear to what degree this book consisted of press reports he had actually filed and to what extent he had reworked material by drawing on his private and more literary journal.

Kapuscinski described his work as “literary reportage”, and had gained international fame as an author. Many thought him the best Polish writer ever. Recently, however, his reputation had become mired in controversy. A fellow journalist, Artur Domoslawski, had written a book which “exposed” the real Kapuscinski. Domoslawski alleged that Kapuscinski had invented much that he had written as fact, embellishing the truth quite inappropriately. This allegation placed Kapuscinski somewhere in between a journalist and a writer of fiction.

He also claimed that Kapuscinski had made more accommodations with the Communist Government of Poland than he admitted later, even acting as a spy. Finally Domoslawski stated that Kapuscinski had been a womaniser on a large scale, regularly betraying his wife who remained in Poland bringing up his family.

The book was nevertheless well received by the group. It was captivating, riveting, fascinating, very enjoyable. It was also educational and insightful:

More than anything, one is struck by the light. Light everywhere. Brightness everywhere. Everywhere the sun…..Have we sufficiently considered the fact that northerners constitute a distinct minority on our planet?…The overwhelming majority live in hot climates…”

The problem of Africa is the dissonance between the environment and the human being, between the immensity of African space and the defenceless, barefoot, wretched man who inhabits it…. isolated and scattered over vast, hostile territories, in mortal peril from malaria, drought, heat, hunger….”

Individualism is highly prized in Europe and.. America; in Africa it is synonymous with being accursed. African tradition is collectivist, for only in a harmonious group could one face the obstacles continually thrown up by nature…

But how universally valid were such insights? Some felt the book was more a series of impressions, and the writer was inclined to over-generalize from one or two instances. He tended to dwell on the central areas of Africa, on an east-west axis, rather than describing the Maghreb or South Africa.

Others felt Kapuscinski had an exceptional ability to get inside the mind of Africans. His forte was to speak to people and get inside areas of African culture – such as attitudes to witchcraft and religion – that most of us do not grasp. And he himself had warned against the dangers of over-generalisation in his preface: “The continent is too large to describe… In reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist…”.

The book’s episodic structure meant it was perhaps better to dip into than read in a long session, but this made it no less enjoyable.

His descriptions of people and situations were, even in translation, believable and profound. Ernest Hemingway, that pervasive influence on twentieth century prose style, and another journalist turned author, had been an important influence of Kapuscinski’s prose style. For most the quality of his writing stood out, although one member found some of the descriptions too over-embroidered, too florid. By contrast another felt that the quality of Kapucinski’s writing was such that he had transcended the journalism genre.

We could see the force of the allegation that Kapuscinski had made things up. Some of the James Bond, or Ernest Hemingway, style adventures seemed highly implausible. There were factual inaccuracies about the history of Ethiopia. An axiom of journalistic style was to assert everything with great confidence, however shaky your knowledge, and Kapuscinski may have been guilty of this.

Kapuscinski might have been stronger on issues about people than on politics, but he was not afraid to tackle political issues head-on:

The government could, of course, have intervened, or allowed the rest of the world to do so, but for reasons of prestige the government did not want to admit that there was hunger in the land….A million people died in Ethiopia during this time

They attack women and children because women and children are the targets of international aid …whoever has weapons has food. Whoever has food, has power. We are not here among people who contemplate…the meaning of life. We are in a world in which man, crawling on the earth, tries to dig a few grains of wheat out of the mud, just to survive another day….

Many wars in Africa are waged without witnesses, secretively, in unreachable places, in silence, without the world’s knowledge, or even the slightest attention…”

The book was almost completely silent on the relationship between the sexes and sexual matters, despite their importance for a full understanding of African society and issues such as HIV/AIDS. Against this odd omission, the allegation that Kapusckinski had been a major philanderer had some traction.

However, the various allegations of Domoslawski, who had waited for Kapuscinski’s death before blackening his name, seemed to us fairly unimportant in the context of what we valued about the book.

Perhaps the most striking thing for us was the empathy that Kapuscinski had for ordinary Africans, and his ability to convey how they felt about life and the world:

the concept of breakfast does not exist here. If a child has something to eat, he eats it….the children share everything; usually the oldest girl in the group makes certain that everyone receives an equal share, even if it is only a crumb. The rest of the day will be a continuous search for food. These children are always hungry. They instantly swallow anything that is given to them, and immediately start looking for the next morsel…

Half the people in African towns don’t have defined occupations, permanent jobs. They sell this and that, work as porters, guard something. They’re everywhere, always at one’s disposal, ready to serve, for hire…”

The European and the African have an entirely different concept of time. In the European worldview, time exists outside man, exists objectively, and has measurable and linear characteristics…[For Africans] it is a much looser concept, more open, elastic, subjective. It is man who influences time… Therefore the African who boards a bus sits down in a vacant seat, and immediately falls into a state in which he spends a great portion of his life: a benumbed waiting…”

The basis for this capacity for empathy with the poor may have been the desperate childhood he had experienced during the Second World War. Indeed one of us had preferred this book to Kapucinski’s better known “The Emperor” (ostensibly about Halie Selassie, but also a disguised attack on the Polish Communist Government) as it displayed more humanity than the latter book.

But not everyone agreed that Kapuscinski had made the case for the African mind-set being fundamentally different to the Western European mind-set. Perhaps if, say, the Polish people were moved into Uganda, and subject to the same climate, they would behave in much the same way as Africans? For example become involved in endless obscure wars?

But against that what was different was the history that European peoples had been through. They too had been involved in endless wars, many now obscure, through the centuries. We hoped, perhaps unrealistically, that they had learnt from that and now were better at avoiding them. For example Europe had been through the phase of religious war for several centuries, and it was disappointing to see religious wars currently breaking out in the Middle East and in Africa. Was religious war a phase that societies could not avoid going through as they evolved?

And so the group wandered on through the great mystery of Africa; sometimes circling back to our starting point lost in the desert; sometimes pausing to stare at a scene of horror, such as child soldiers; sometimes spotting an oasis such as a desalination plant – or was it a mirage?; sometimes being stalked by a big beast such as the survival of the fittest…..

Enough!” said the guide. “Sum the book up in one word!”

Enlightening!”

Educational!”

No – impressionistic – educational would be more reliable!

“Impressions of people are reliable; only the facts are unreliable!

Great strengths are:

  • empathy with people

  • insights into African culture

  • readable. Language is enjoyable and rewarding. Sentences shorter than the eighty line examples in a recent book!” So we come back to the beginning. Who said that the Western European view of time was linear?

Kafka, Franz: The Trial and Metamorphosis

Introducing the novella “Metamorphosis” (published in 1915 – one of the few stories to be published in Kafka’s lifetime) and the novel  “The Trial” (published posthumously in 1925), the proposer said that he had only recently developed an interest in Kafka. This had started when he had bought a copy of “Metamorphosis” at the airport in Prague, and had found it fascinating.

Kafka had had an unhappy childhood in Prague, with a domineering father. Indeed a 47 page letter of protest that he had penned to his father could be found on the internet. (“You asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you. As usual, I was unable to think of any answer to your question, partly for the very reason that I am afraid of you, and partly because an explanation of the grounds for this fear would mean going into far more details than I could even approximately keep in mind while talking…”). He had given the letter to his mother who had never handed it over to his father.

Kafka had suffered from “clinical depression and social anxiety” throughout his life. He had tried chemistry at university, and then switched to law, in which he qualified. He had mainly worked in the insurance industry. He had died of tuberculosis in 1924 at the age of 40.

Amongst his influences he counted Dickens and Knut Hamsun. Kafka in turn is said to have influenced Samuel Beckett, Haruki Murakami and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, all of whom were writers recently discussed by the group.

The discussion that followed addressed both books together, with the bulk of the comments being about “The Trial”.

So what were they all about? One member had started by trying to interpret “The Trial” as a religious allegory, but soon moved to the  “s**t happens” school of interpretation. Both books were about the unpredictable change that could suddenly hit people trying to lead ordered lives in a random world. This was strikingly conveyed by the great opening sentences:

“When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect….” and

“Somebody must have made a false accusation against Joseph K., for he was arrested one morning without having done anything wrong…”.

The issue then posed was how the characters managed to deal with these climactic changes – not too successfully in either case. Some of his other short stories had a similar structure.

Another reader felt that the “court” in “The Trial” was really that of the community. Joseph K was notably high-handed and arrogant in his dealings with the rest of society, and never managed to change this style of behaviour despite his trial. Yet the other accused he met were notably much more humble and submissive in their response to their trial, and perhaps that was why they lasted longer. And if society judges you unacceptably arrogant, the most you could hope for was indeed a suspension of sentence, not an acquittal.

Some members were surprised to revisit “The Trial” and find it not really the prophetic denunciation of totalitarianism and overweening state power that they thought they remembered, and that the book is commonly held to be. It seemed to be more about the individual psyche and private neuroses than about the state of society.

Anxiety and uneasy guilt permeated “The Trial”. It had a dream-like (or perhaps nightmare) logic, as witnessed by the implausibility of Joseph finding the whippers in a room in the bank, and them still being there the next day when he opened the door again. Equally dreamlike was how he would go through a door in someone’s apartment suddenly to find a court meeting. Only the sudden violent ending seemed, inconsistently, to break out of this dream-like mode. In this vein one reader had detected early on suggestions that the court and its apparatus were a product of Joseph’s own imagination. And was it not common to find delusion linked to depression?

For another the story was not a dream – it was a metaphor for being alienated from society. Being rejected by a father generated a sense of others criticising or attacking us. It was a parable. But, hold on, didn’t his colleagues respect K. and get on well with him?

The animal world played a role in the books – obviously with the giant insect (in German literally “unclean animal not suitable for sacrifice”) in “Metamorphosis” – but also in the last lines of “The Trial” as K. is killed:

“ ‘Like a dog!’ he said. It was as if the shame would outlive him.”

Did this identification with animals reflect another neurosis – a sense of low self-esteem and self-abasement?

At least K. – despite his inner turmoil, and his mental anguish– did not commit suicide at the end as his killers tried to encourage him to do him. That was an achievement of a sort.

Our resident Freudian noted that a marked trait of Joseph K. was his sexually aggressive behaviour, for example in relation to Fraulein Burstner and Leni. (Together with his arrogance, this made him the opposite of what we understand Kafka was like in real life). The priest upbraids him for looking too much to women for help. Was one of the private neuroses the sense that sexual activity would be punished, the myth that sex would lead to death? Was this the nameless crime? (We know that Kafka started work on “The Trial” just after his engagement with Felice had been broken off by what he felt was a “court” of friends and relations).

Even Gregor Samsa seems troubled by sex, trying desperately to hold on to the picture of the pin-up on the wall. The ending of “Metamorphosis” (and the ending lines of the books seem as carefully crafted as the openings) is “And it was like a confirmation of their new dreams and good intentions when at the end of their journey their daughter was the first to rise and stretch her young body.” Gregor’s family have prospered as he has declined, and his sister, unlike him, is successfully moving into sexual maturity.

Or is it Kafka’s role as an author that leads him into a sense of alienation, of difference, from the rest of society? His role as an artist was clearly in conflict with his role as a son and insurance employee. Was K. not on trial for failing to conform? And didn’t Gregor also fail to conform in spectacular fashion? But then there was little to suggest that either Gregor or Joseph K. were conceived of as authors (at most, Joseph K. is said to have a little knowledge of art history).

Or perhaps it was Kafka’s Jewishness that underlies his characters’ alienation from society? Again, there was nothing in either book to suggest that the characters were conceived as specifically Jewish.

But hold on – tempting as it was – in going into Kafka’s biography to “explain” the books, were we not lapsing into the old fallacy of confusing the author and the book?

What then about going into the “parable” told by the priest in “The Trial” to explain the book? What was the point of that? At one level the lengthy (and boring) discussion of the meaning of the parable between K. and the priest was satire – satire of nit-picking scriptural exegesis, and further “Bleak House” style satire of the legal system.  But what of the central idea of the parable – that everyone had their own door into salvation, but failed to get past their own gatekeeper? Was it that our internal self blocked us from a full life? By guilt and anxiety, by the superego?

The door was clearly an important symbol for Kafka (and our resident Freudian of course found it easy to suggest a symbolic meaning). As well as the door in the parable, “The Trial” had several other scenes where there were unexpected results of going through doors, including the scene in the artist’s room where Kafka went out of his way to stress there were two doors! In “The Castle” K. fails to get through the door into the castle, and in “Metamorphosis” Gregor finds it very difficult to get through the door of his room once transformed.

(Cor blimey! All very perplexing, at least to this correspondent, who was already perspiring at the thought of having to make some sense of this bizarre discussion).

An additional problem in trying to elucidate the meaning of the books – if there were any meaning other than what was on the tin – was that we found we were using four or five different translations of the original German, and a few textual comparisons left us in doubt of ever pinning down subtle word connotations in any translated text.

We also looked at the historic and cultural context of the books, which might help to elucidate their meaning. Prague was at that time in the benevolent Hapsburg Empire. There was little in the way of anti-semitism or state brutality to protest about. The outbreak of the First World War More seemed to be more relevant factor in the historical context for Kafka.

A relatively short distance away in Vienna, there was a remarkable grouping of mainly Jewish intellectuals and artists. Freud, for example, had published six major works by 1913, and it might therefore not be unreasonable to detect his influence in Kafka’s work.

Surrealism (and both of Kafka’s works had a surreal quality) did not emerge as a movement until the twenties. However, its predecessor Dadaism, which rejected conventional art forms, began with the First World War, and it might be reasonable to see Kafka as loosely associated with it. However, if one needed to pigeon-hole Kakfa, it was simplest to see him as part of the modernist movement in literature which reached its height between 1900 and the mid 1920s.

“But isn’t this typical of modernism – everyone who reads the book has a quite different interpretation of it? Isn’t that a fatal weakness of such literature?” “Well, yes, it was a weakness, but also a strength: a strength in that it allowed every significant twentieth century ‘ism’ – from Marxism to Magic Realism – to claim Kafka as their own!”

Leaving aside the still unresolved question of their meaning, how did we rate the books? “Metamorphosis” was beautifully constructed, and a classic of its kind. But “The Trial” had proved more of a trial for some. “Went on and on – hate to think how long it would have been if he had ever finished it. And I’m not sure he could ever have finished it.” “It didn’t stand up as well as I hoped to a re-reading – didn’t really engage me intellectually or emotionally”. “These paragraphs that went on for pages were very irritating – a bad habit picked up from Hamsun and passed on to Beckett”.

On the other hand, many of the weaknesses of The Trial might simply reflect the problems Max Brod faced in trying to edit an unfinished manuscript. And it was certainly a very intriguing novel for a Book Group to discuss.

So was Kafka really worth his place in the canon? One reader saw “The Trial” as one of the first novels to deal not with conventional plot but with an individual facing an absurd world, as in Sartre’s “La Nausée” or Camus’ “L’Étranger”. And both books were remarkable products of the imagination.

But perhaps he owned his popularity partly to timing. He had been published at a time when he could be seen to embody the avant-garde. And now he was seen retrospectively – rightly or wrongly – as the author who had predicted the arbitrary abuses of state power; as the artist who, like the canary in the coal-mine, was the first to sense what was developing around him.

All a bit too complicated for your correspondent, and I put down my pen in mute protest. After all we could have been reading Katie Price instead. I was just nodding off, when I caught the following snippet:

“I know what it’s like to be a K. and have everyone disapproving of you” sallied forth one member, relaxing on his descent from the dizzying intellectual heights. “I’m always being disapproved of, what I do, what I say, what I wear…. and I don’t know why. I’m sensitive, and I pick up others’ negative reactions…

“And I’m also a member of a persecuted minority, because I’m left-handed…”

“Err, a persecuted minority….” your reporter woke up and rashly interjected…. “were there ever pogroms of the left-handed?”

“Not quite” responded another Mollydooker, “but all the bullying by teachers, all this stuff about “right” for the right and “sinister” for the left…..”

Well, only one word for this discussion: … Kafkaesque.

But don’t ask me what that means.

                                                            * * *

Later that evening, a hunch took me to Googling, and a few seconds later an amazing fact was revealed:

……………………………..Kafka was left-handed!!!

So there you have it.

A brand new literary theory, which with a modicum of development will I am sure explain the whole corpus of Kafka’s work.

You read it here first.

Kipling, Rudyard: Kim

Kim (Kipling’s masterpiece) came as a very pleasant surprise to those who came new to Kipling. It was a subtle, engaging, comic and moving tale of a young man’s development, set against a gorgeous backdrop of the teeming subcontinent. The novel showed great insight into India and its people, and contrary to reputation displayed no unpleasant imperialism.

 The proposer (with many family connections with India, including being conceived in Calcutta!) felt Kim was a magnificent introduction to India. The book was poetic in its evocation of India. Kim was also about love – not just the love between Kim and his lama, but about a love of India. He felt that Kipling’s biography shed interesting light on the novel, which was started in 1892 and finally published in book form in 1901. Kipling had been born in Bombay in 1865, and sent to school in England aged 5. He had not returned to India – to Lahore – until he was 16. He had then spent 8 years as a journalist in India, before marrying and moving to the USA and later England. He was the first English writer to gain the Nobel prize for literature.

 Kipling’s absence from his parents for 11 formative years must have given the novel much of its artistic energy. This absence shed light on his portrayal of Kim as a streetwise orphan meeting a series of father figures. Kipling must have had to re-create his relationship with his father, Lockwood Kipling, and his father, who was a curator in a museum, was no doubt the model for the curator in Chapter One. It was intriguing that his father had provided the illustrations for the early editions of Kim. Kipling’s dual Indian/English upbringing was surely reflected in Kim’s ambivalence between the Indian and English worlds, and his endless questioning of his identity.

 We all agreed that Kim, with its characteristic image of the roads streaming with humanity, provided a gloriously colourful picture of India. Against this vast, multi-coloured canvas was contrasted the detailed development of one individual soul, taking you right into the heart of a being. Kim’s search for identity in the foreign world of the English Sahib was reminiscent of Tom’s experience of an alien world in Jenkins’ “The Changeling”. The novel was multi-layered, mingling the picaresque, the pilgrimage, and the spy adventure, and creating a range of comic characters, such as the lama with his all too human foibles. We felt the prose was superb, although its fluency for the reader was reduced by the use of Indian dialect words and the archaic “thou” form. We compared “Kim” with Forster’s “A Passage to India”: whereas Forster took an outsider’s view of India and its mysteries, Kipling was much more of an insider, getting under the skin of India. Some of us felt that Kipling was in a number of respects more effective in conveying a sense of India.

 We found nothing of the tub-thumping imperialist we had expected. He showed deep insight into and sympathy for a whole range of Indians, while often satirising white people. Indians were not shown to be inferior, or the “white man’s burden”. While he did not challenge the political objectives of the spies (dealing with a serious Russian threat to British India), he did contrast their world with the spiritual life. At most he made a few affectionate, arch generalisations about Indians which might run foul of the politically correct brigade a century later, but there was no justification for the overblown comments on imperialism from critics we had come across. If this was imperialism, it was of a very benign nature. It was interesting to hear that an Indian had said that, although Kipling was no longer taught in Indian schools, every educated Indian would have a couple of books by Kipling in his or her house.

 We discussed, but did not reach consensus, on the significance of the plot structure of “Kim”. For some, the parallel stories of spy adventure and spiritual quest were not sufficiently integrated. Others felt that these were just two of the elements of Kim’s development, or that the plot structure was subordinate to the picaresque nature of the whole. A late Victorian audience would have a lot of interest in religious issues. Others felt that there was a deliberate tension between the spiritual and spy worlds. We did not agree with the view of one critic that the novel left open whether Kim would choose the spiritual or spy path. We felt that the father figure Kim would follow was definitely the spy Mahbub, not the spiritual lama. Perhaps the novel subtly portrayed a young man’s experience of a life option he was not yet ready to follow. Nor did we agree with the view of another critic that Kim had to experience Buddhist rejection of the world to be able to leave his childhood behind. We concluded that, like most works of art, the novel was capable of multiple interpretations.

 Thereafter the discussion ranged more widely as the evening wore on and the refreshments wore in. Points of note included that the British nowadays were more interested in India than the Indians in Britain. It often took an outsider to capture accurately a society, and Kipling, the great chronicler of Empire, had an Irish background, as had Kim. Other than in exceptional times the British controlled their Indian Empire with only 40,000 people. The Indian army in the Second World War – a volunteer army – was no less than two and a half million strong. And finally we noted that the English language was one of the main British legacies to India, and the richness of Kipling’s prose must have influenced the modern generation of Indian novelists writing in English.