This is not an in-depth analyst of Belloc’s or Kafka’s work or their intellectual process. This is simply a surface comparison of how their internal joy, or lack of it, shaped their world view in a particular work of fiction. But a brief back ground of these two authors is in order to see that suffering was in both their lives and how they dealt with that shaped their art. (I know Furor just talked about Kafka, I guess our heads are on the same wavelength this week)
Hilaire Belloc served as a member of parliament from 1906-1910. During a campaign speech he made his famous defense of the Faith before a largely Protestant audience: "I am a Catholic. As far as possible I go to Mass every day. This [taking a rosary out of his pocket] is a rosary. As far as possible, I kneel down and tell these beads every day. If you reject me on account of my religion, I shall thank God that He has spared me the indignity of being your representative!"
After a shocked silence there was a roar of applause, and Belloc won the election. (Can you imagine any politician having the strength of faith or chutzpah to say that today?)
In 1890 Hilaire met his future wife, Elodie Hogan, an American who was visiting Europe with her mother. The following year he booked passage to New York from whence he tramped his way across the continent to Napa Valley, California, in order to make his proposal to Miss Hogan, (ahh the power of Love). Belloc returned to France in 1891 to spend a year as a soldier in the horse artillery, after which he went to Balliol College at Oxford. He graduated with top honors in History but due to his outspoken Catholic views was denied a fellowship.
Despite his outward exuberance as a writer and individual, Belloc faced a number of personal losses —the death of his wife Elodie in 1914, his sons Louis, in World War I, and Peter, in World War II. Belloc weathered these storms with that sort of hard-headed faith he once ascribed to St. Thomas More, who had "nothing to uphold him except resolve." In 1942, however, he suffered a stroke which put an end to his literary work though he continued to live in quiet retirement for another eleven years. This redoubtable Catholic genius died in his beloved Sussex on July 16, 1953. The BBC interrupted all its programmes to announce the passing away of one of England's greatest literary figures.
Franz Kafka, has come to be one of the most influential writers of this century. He is a fixture on most college reading lists. Virtually unknown during his lifetime, the works of Kafka have since been recognized as “symbolizing modern man's anxiety-ridden and grotesque alienation in an unintelligible, hostile, or indifferent world”. Kafka came from a middle-class Jewish family and grew up in the shadow of his domineering shopkeeper father, who impressed Kafka as an awesome patriarch. The feeling of impotence, even in his rebellion, was a syndrome that became a pervasive theme in his fiction. Kafka did well in the prestigious German high school in Prague and went on to receive a law degree in 1906. This allowed him to secure a livelihood that gave him time for writing, which he regarded as ‘the essence--both blessing and curse’--of his life. He soon found a position in the semipublic Workers' Accident Insurance institution, where he remained a loyal and successful employee until--beginning in 1917-- tuberculosis forced him to take repeated sick leaves and finally, in 1922, to retire. Kafka spent half his time after 1917 in sanatoriums and health resorts, his tuberculosis of the lungs finally spreading to the larynx. He died June 3, 1924.
Kafka lived his life in emotional dependence on his parents, whom he both loved and resented. None of his largely unhappy love affairs could wean him from this inner dependence; though he longed to marry, he never did. Sexually, he apparently oscillated between an ascetic aversion to intercourse, which he called "the punishment for being together," and an attraction to prostitutes. Sex in Kafka's writings is frequently connected with dirt or guilt and treated as an attractive abomination. Nevertheless, Kafka led a fairly active social life, including acquaintance with many prominent literary and intellectual figures of his era.
None of Kafka's novels were printed during his lifetime.
He was raised in the Jewish tradition however the reality of the transcendent never appears in his writings. This tradition is noticeably missing in his work not even in an overt satirical mode. This is strange to me and reminds me of the Groucho Marx story, “A Jew and a hunchback were walking down the street and as they passed a synagogue, the Jew said, “I used to be Jewish.” And the hunchback replied, “That’s interesting, I used to be a hunchback.”
Both men came to the height of their intellectual power at the same time, in the early part of the 20th century, and both were shaped by the same world events but came to two different conclusions.
I need to tell you that I like Kafka’s books especially his short stories, it is his essentially surrealist humor that I love. His style and use of language is on the genius level. His work is as fresh today as it was 100 years ago. Yes, his work is a dark tea but very tasty.
Why do I compare these two? Because I could not help but to be reminded of Kafka’s The Trial by time I was finished the first chapter of Belloc’s Post Master General. Here in both books we have bureaucracy, alienation and perpetual consuming guilt. Each of the lead characters are caught up in a system they can not understand, and yet they accept it and want to participate in it, a system by all accounts, is insane. Belloc describes this insanity from the outside, Kafka from the inside.
Both The Post Master General and Joseph K. try to play the system to their gain, one for money and security the later to save his life. In Kafka’s world the fight is futile – wheels are already in motion and no matter who he turns to, no matter how sympathetic they may be - nothing can be done. The farther up into the system K. gets there is less and less sympathy. K. becomes less and less human to them and to himself. His first name stops being used he is only a letter, K.. The Post Master General feels the same for whoever he turns to, turns against him. He is also known more for his title than his name (Good Belloc triva question: What is The Post Masters name?). Both are mice in a world of big cats.
Both characters are given several opportunities to escape but they are welded to the system in which they live and that thought never becomes solid. In both worlds the “enemies” hide their viciousness behind a façade of excruciating politeness, it is here that the humor of both books comes through. The only rule in these worlds is that it is OK to destroy an opponent but there is no need to be rude about it.
But the Postmaster never truly gives up hope. The problem in Belloc’s world is the reality of the Fall in Kafka’s it is the denial of the Fall. Evil for Belloc is not a concept that morphs with each new epoch. For him it is not evil but the Evil One. He knows that the Evil One has an intellect and a will and that will is to deprive God of what He loves most, us. For Kafka good and evil are relative they are not personified realities.
Loss is the universal human experience and both men tackle that experience. Belloc believes in the healing process of reconciliation, redemption, and resurrection. For Kafka there is no healing process. His main character is always caught up in the swirling sucking eddy of despair filled with false hope, broken promises and dashed dreams.
I knew that K. ultimately loses for this is Kafka’s world view –nobody wins (it is what endears him to the existentialists). So I thought The Post Master would lose too. But Belloc is different, he believes in friendship and its intercessory power and he believes in Love. And finally The Post Master General is “saved” by a powerful friend who does understand the system, (he has no problem with being rude), a man who asks for no thank you or anything in return because that is what friends do for each other. It was a friendship born of shared suffering. However Belloc does include a very Kafkaesque sub plot in The Postmaster General where one character, a member of parliament, is tolerated because his eccentricities are comic relief for the “real” politicians. But he eventually commits an unforgivable slander by putting the truth in a publication. He is put on trial where the guilty verdict is a forgone conclusion his final fate is the worse kind of thing that can happen in Belloc’s world, he reduced to being a theater critic. It was a truly comic turn.
In Belloc satire is sharp in Kafka it is cutting. In Belloc’s world there is Good in Kafka’s there is only opportunity.
If you are new to Belloc’s fiction try The Bad Child's Book of Beasts or Cautionary Tales For Children and yes do read them to your children.
For another interesting battle story see, BELLOC AND JUNG: A STUDY OF CONTRASTS by Paul Likoudis
A few last notes on the battle for Joy (yea, like I’m going to get off this bus), please remember that when we were Confirmed we were anointed with the Spirit of Joy in order to live an ordinary life in an extraordinary way.
“Sister Mary Karen of the Sisters of Life gave me some advice worth sharing. She said that, since the devil can't read your mind, if you're feeling yourself under spiritual attack — sad or anxious — you should smile. The reason for this is that once you smile, the devil will think that you are receiving grace from your suffering — and that will make him flee, because that's the last thing he wants.” - Dawn Eden
“We prove we are servants of God by great fortitude in times of suffering, (2 Cor. 6:4-10). To see a Christian believe in God’s Love when sorrow befalls him gives Hope. To see Joy on the face of a Christian beset with trials and problems, gives us a new concept of Faith. To see someone crushed but serene over the death of a loved one makes us realize there is another life. No matter what kind or what degree of pain and sorrow we must endure, we are capable of witnessing to the love of Jesus.” – Mother M. Angelica