Tuesday, July 03, 2007

An odd pair of literary birthdays

July 3rd marks the birthdates of two writers I admire: Franz Kafka (1883) and Tom Stoppard (1937). Each authored a personal favorite work of fiction, and there is an element of existentialism and absurdity in both pieces, which is what drew me to them.

Kafka's work is much darker, and reflects the more tragic nature of his life and early death at the hands of Tuberculosis. He is probably best known for The Metamorphosis, his very odd tale of Gregor Samsa who one morning finds himself transformed into a giant insect. Gregor futiley tries to adjust to his new reality, which becomes a burden to him and his family. There's no attempt to explain how or why Gregor has changed, and the absurdity and irreversibility of his condition are accepted by himself and those around him. It's an interesting but depressing meditation on the fragility of self and the weight of circumstance.

Unlike Kafka, Tom Stoppard has had a long, prolific and popular run writing for the stage and screen. His first play was Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, which had particular appeal for me due to its riff on Shakespeare's Hamlet. The play's universe can be as absurd as Kafka's, but the action is lighter in mood. It's a much more playful pondering on destiny. The action focuses on what happened to these two minor Shakespearean characters while off-stage behnind the Bard's curtain.

Their untimely demise is sealed by the foretold lines of the framing piece, and although they have an inkling that something is not quite right in this state of Denmark, they meet their unwitting fate with undying charm and wit. The play opens with the two wagering over coin tosses. Incredibly, the coin keeps coming up heads, a fact that Guildenstern finds disturbing but that Rosencrantz sees as a mere coincidence. Sometimes Fate deals you a strange hand, but it's always best to make the most of what we're given. Even if it seems we don't have much say in the way things are playing out, we are always free to choose just how we'll face up to those sometimes daunting circumstances.
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