So, the new decade has begun with a northern Europe-wide breakdown of the rhythms and routines of everyday life: snow, ice, abandoned vehicles, frozen fields, panic buying, power cuts, a threat to gas supplies – and in Germany, co-incidentally, a quarter of credit/debit cards malfunctioning, unable to adjust to the numbers ‘2010’, so unable to let people take money from ATMs. One way or another, a renewed awareness of our vulnerabilities, how much we are dependent on those weather gods and the vast hidden infrastructure of technology, as powerful and omnipresent as any of the invisible deities of old.
The weather might have a certain harsh beauty to it, even moments of inhospitable grandeur – dazzling modernist white on white, blurred edges of field and sky blending into each other, puffy laden hedges, careful wrapped-up walkers, carefree sledding children out of Breughel, defamilarised paths that are suddenly no-paths. Yet these, for me, are passing wonders. I’d already been musing on what this decade ahead might bring – so this week’s chaos seems almost too convenient a metaphor for thoughts about the decade to come, almost too apt a symbol with which to speak about my deeper concerns about these coming years.
Of course this notion of a ‘decade’ is a kind of fiction – a construct we use to stop time past dissolving into an undifferentiated pile of slush. We use the concept of a ‘decade’ to try to impose order on events, to generate meaning and gain perspective. And yet as artificial as it is to divide up history into chunks, as if it were a bar of chocolate, as long as we are aware of the artifice involved then the ‘decade’ can be a useful prism through which we can look back (or forward) as we try to create a narrative out of the confusion of events that slip by us, hour by hour, then suddenly year by year...
I’ve been reflecting on what it was like a century ago, in 1910 – and how unimaginable it would have been in Edwardian England, or Germany, or czarist Russia, in any part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, or the United States, to imagine what their new decade would bring to pass. Technological excitement was growing by the day: the aeroplane was still in its infancy, with Charles Rolls - he of Rolls Royce - making the first return flight over the Channel in April 1910 (and crashing to his death a few months later); then the first ascent to over 1000 metres that same year; and the first female aviator. On the roads, Henry Ford was producing 10,000 cars a day as the automobile industry began its imperious colonisation of the planet. The ‘kinema’ was still a relatively new wonder, still in the infancy of a revolution in mass entertainment and collective entrancement. And the 15 million European dead of the ‘Great War’ – the so-called ‘War To End All Wars’ – were youngsters dreaming of all these new possibilities of a world transforming itself in front of their hungry, eager eyes...
A truism to remember that the future is ever unknowable. Though still we scan the skies for what might come to pass. But the history of a whole decade is too much to imagine. Better to focus on the individual, an individual.
This year, 2010, I have decided on a project of my own devising: my own act of homage to slow reading ; and to the value of seeing the world through another’s eyes. I have decided to re-read - my first reading was as a teenager – my falling-to-pieces Penguin paperback edition of The Diaries of Franz Kafka (edited by Max Brod). The Diaries begin in 1910 and end with his death in 1923. But I intend to read them, and reflect on them a century on, in parallel to the date they were written, month by month, year by year. So, a thirteen year project - inshallah, deo volente, b’ezrat HaShem.
Why bother with such a quixotic meshuggeneh venture? Who can ever really say? Maybe I will find out as it proceeds...I am not so wedded to the notion of having to understand things beforehand.
Meanwhile, the beginning of the journey is easy: I can see that 1910 occupies only 25 paperback pages out of 487. So, lots of gaps, plenty of time to get into the journey of accompanying this singular and extra-ordinary man.
The early pages are undated, which is a bit disorientating for my project. How many do I read at a time? The first dated entry, some pages in, is May 1910. So I have a few months grace, some time to burrow into the text and see what is there to be uncovered.
The onlookers go rigid when the train goes past. First sentence in the diary. A line drawn beneath it. (This pattern is repeated throughout this first page, later pages have entries accompanied by squiggled line-drawings).
‘If he should forever ahsk me.’ The ah, released from the sentence, flew off like a ball on the meadow. Second sentence. A line drawn beneath it.
What are these sentences? Observations, apparently at random: things that Kafka has seen, or heard, that have struck him as worthy of recording (and thinking about). Why these in particular? (And not those, over there?) What strikes us each day that we then ignore? What does it mean to pay attention to what we see, or hear? The onlookers go rigid when the train goes past. Why? What is frightening? Is it the speed? The technology? We think about our response when a speeding train hurtles through the station. Do we go ‘rigid’? Kafka seems to observe the contrast between the movement of the train and the frozen response of the onlookers. He shows us this scene through his own onlooker’s eyes. Vision is refracted: we see him seeing them seeing the train. Does this sentence, this word picture, have any other meaning than the literal? I turn it over in my mind. I'm looking at the world through his eyes. Yes, it’s an everyday observation - but as so often in Kafka, the words hint at something beyond themselves, something hidden and unsaid.
The decade begins with a moment of fear. Yet there is no reason to be afraid. Or is there? The train goes past, time moves on - and we, watching and waiting, our bodies are tense, motionless, as if something might happen. What might happen? No choice but to wait, and watch - onlookers ourselves - wait and see what comes to pass...
Listen to how people talk. The inflections of their words. ‘If he should forever ahsk me.’ The ah, released from the sentence, flew off like a ball on the meadow. Language seems to have a life of its own, as solid as a ball flying through the air. Words have their own autonomy, they move beyond us as we speak. Writers know this, fleetingly – but Kafka catches it. The tiny moment that speaks a larger truth.
As 1910 progresses through the mind and pen of Franz Kafka, I will look forward to reporting back from time to time. As 2010 progresses, beyond the frozen now, I am hoping its opening weeks symbolise nothing, augur nothing, hint at nothing. The shelves of the shops this morning were almost empty, the newsagent did not look up as I left my money: I could have been a ghost, from the past, or even the future.