1. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Short Story Club (11): A Hunger Artist by Franz Kafka

    Discussion in 'Book Discussion' started by thirdwind, Apr 26, 2013.

    For this discussion we'll be reading "A Hunger Artist" by Franz Kafka. I found two different translations of the story. The first one is a newer translation and can be found here. The second one was translated back in the 1950s if I'm not mistaken. You can find the PDF of it here.

    I'm sure all of you have heard of Kafka before. His most famous works are probably The Metamorphosis and The Trial. "A Hunger Artist" is a relatively short yet complex story, which is why I suggested it. Based on Wikipedia's description, the story "explores the familiar Kafka themes of death, art, isolation, asceticism, spiritual poverty, futility, personal failure, and the corruption of human relationships."
     
  2. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    I have always really loved this story, I think it's one of Kafka's best. I've always read it as a sort of existentialist story. It seems to indicate that the hunger artist made himself to suit the tastes of his audience, but eventually they grew bored and, thus, he had to find something else to do. Saying that trying to be what others want you to be is pointless, if not self destructive.
     
  3. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    This story reads sort of like an essay. You can see this from the first sentence alone.

    The hunger artist's art is esoteric for sure, and most, if not all, people don't understand it. The initial interest in him and his art is the result of curiosity more than anything else. Even the "permanent watchers" aren't that interested in him; they merely stick around to make sure the hunger artist follows his own rules (doesn't eat anything). I ultimately see the hunger artist as a tragic figure who's misunderstood and unappreciated by the public.

    It's interesting that Kafka chose hunger as a form of art. The hunger artist, in embracing his art, rejects life. Also, if I were to take this story literally (which I don't), I would have to question the validity of his art. The result of art is a piece that can be judged in some way. In the end, the hunger artist has nothing to show for his commitment to fasting (so then, is he an artist at all?). Perhaps the only people who understand him are other hunger artists.

    The very last paragraph does a good job of bringing the story to an end. The panther is full of life, and the food he likes is given to him. The panther and the hunger artist are at opposite extremes. The crowd loves the panther like they used to love the hunger artist, but I have to wonder how long their excitement will last (I'm going to take a literary guess and say 40 days).

    I don't know much about Kafka's life or the way he thought about his art, but I get the feeling he felt that his writing was esoteric in a way. This may be why he only published a few things during his life.
     
  4. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I just finished reading this story and I'm not done thinking about it yet. My first thoughts, as I was reading, were about how flagrantly Kafka is violating all the rules of writing fiction we keep talking about in the forum. The prose is very liberally salted with semicolons; the paragraphs are enormous; and in the first paragraph alone, there is a 245-word sentence! Are these elements present in Kafka's original German text, or were they provided by the translator? (I read the pdf version; it was easier to print, and I like to read paper copies of these stories so that I can make notes on them.)

    My second thought was that while Kafka emphasizes to us that the hunger artist is misunderstood, he makes practically no attempt to explain the hunger artist's art to the reader. What does this mean? It occurred to me that the hunger artist was actually insane, and there can be no possible rational explanation of what he's doing or why he regards it as so important. That would justify the lack of explanation of hunger art. It also occurred to me that the hunger artist doesn't actually exist even in the world of the story - he's merely a metaphor for Kafka's own artistic frustration. The spectators are real, but they're staring at a cage with a metaphor inside it.

    Third, I think Kafka was remarkably original in this story, presenting not only a highly-unusual concept -- the faster himself, referred to, excitingly, as a "hunger artist" -- but also the idea that the hunger artist does not suffer for his art; fasting for him is not suffering; not fasting is suffering. (Sorry about the semicolons; I'm heavily influenced by "The Hunger Artist" right now!) The only thing that makes him suffer during his fasting "performance" is not being appreciated by the audience.

    There's a tone of bitterness in this story. I almost got the impression that Kafka resents the panther he introduces at the end; that Kafka hates a creature so full of life. If this is the attitude Kafka takes in all his work, then I think a little of him goes a very long way, despite his originality. I enjoyed this story, but I'm not sure I'd like to read it again.
     
  5. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    There's also a lot of telling. But the fact that he broke all those rules makes me like the story even more. :)

    They're there in the original.

    Very true. It's interesting how he seeks positive reinforcement from the audience. It's like he's practicing this art not for himself but for the audience. To me, this means that he lacks confidence in his art.

    I've read most of his stories, and I get the impression that Kafka hates himself at times. The Metamorphosis, for example, draws heavily from Kafka's life. Kafka suffered from insomnia, migraines, anorexia, and tuberculosis (among other things), so he saw himself as a burden on his family. A lot of his characters are basically outcasts trying to fit in.
     
  6. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I just found out something interesting. Kafka was editing this story on his deathbed even though this story had already been published in 1922 (two years before his death). It looks like he wasn't satisfied with the published version. I imagine that not many writers go back and edit stuff they've already published.
     
  7. LordKyleOfEarth
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    LordKyleOfEarth Contributing Member Contributor

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    Pun intended?
     
  8. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    This might be more common than you think. Frank O'Connor was constantly revising his short stories even after they were published. In his Paris Review interview, he said he'd rewritten most of his published stories and wanted to publish the new versions as well.

    John Fowles published his novel The Magus in 1966, and it was very successful, but he continued to revise it afterwards, publishing a revised version in 1977.

    My guess is that many writers are unsatisfied with their published work, especially their early work. If they're obsessed enough, and some of them are, they'll keep at a story until they get it right, whether it's been published or not.
     
  9. Eliemme
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    Eliemme Member

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    Hi all,
    I half read this story and half listened to it on a audio book as I was running out of time...
    I think the essay style is not particularly engaging, and I think that Kafka wanted to concentrate more on the story than on the writing.
    I think Kafka is largely talking about his anorexia. I have some experience on the topic and I could recognize certain patterns... one can always eat less, one does not expect being understood and one cannot ''not do it'', in that sense fasting is ''easy''.
    I guess back then someone refusing food was a complete freak, the disorder was probably not recognised as such. Kafka proves to be ahead of his time in managing to frame it in the context of isolation, lack of understanding from others, etc. So many people going through this problem today are not able to see this quite as clearly without professional help. Sadly, Kafka's own understanding of what triggered his conditions was not enough for him to lead a more serene life... I think people in this century can learn so much from him...
     
  10. Michael O
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    Michael O Contributing Member

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    I thought Metamorphosis was an allegory. He becomes a roach because he's not a communist. Even his family turned against him.
     
  11. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I've seen a lot of interpretations of The Metamorphosis, but I've never seen anyone mention communism before (not saying that it isn't a valid interpretation, just that I've never seen it before). I have, however, seen people mention Marxism.
     

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