Kafka’s ‘The Married Couple’
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A businessman is addressing us. Business is bad, he tells us, so much so that he has taken to calling on his customers in person. We never learn what this business is, though he is clearly selling something physical, since he refers to his ‘case of samples’. This being a short story, we are given no more information than we need; this being Kafka, we begin to suspect by the end that he is giving us a bit less than that. None of the five characters has a name: the narrator’s client comes nearest to one, with just an initial, N, which sounds, to my middle-aged English ears, like the N or M of the Book of Common Prayer – standing for Name or Nomen. N., the client, is an unknown quantity, and the narrator tells us as much: his ‘business relations’ with this man have lapsed, for reasons he doesn’t understand, and so he resolves to call at N.’s house in an effort to put things right.

Something else in short supply is dialogue. There are only three lines of it in the whole story. Almost all the speech is reported speech – the narrative is a summary, telling rather than showing, to use the terminology of the creative writing class, filtered through the narrator’s consciousness. We get the incidents he thinks important told in his words and reflecting his interests and prejudices, monologue replacing dialogue. And his concerns, as he told us at the outset, are those of a businessman. This is a story about business versus the personal sphere, related by a man who can’t help letting the one get in the way of the other. He has decided to call at N.’s house, rather than his workplace, and at an unbusinesslike hour. All the tensions and mysteries stem from that.

There is a crisis at N.’s house: his son is sick and his parents are at the bedside. N., an old man, is unwell himself: he has just come in, tired and distressed. The speaker sees all this – in fact, as we are to learn by the end, he is far from insensitive, not a Pythonesque bowler-hatted caricature with no understanding of the personal sphere at all – but what almost crowds it out of his consciousness is the presence of a business rival, ‘the agent’, at the sick man’s bedside. This provokes him to a frenzy of salesmanship. He begins to walk up and down, making his pitch, though, we don’t get to hear what he says, only his reflections on it: ‘I was myself alarmed by the concessions I granted, concessions that had not even been asked for’. In this dialogueless world, we see the scene in dumbshow, a series of actions that, deprived of their natural soundtrack, come across as absurd, the agent repeatedly putting his hat on and taking it off again in a gesture as inappropriate to the domestic context as the speaker’s striding, N. twisting uncomfortably in his chair, the son alarmingly sitting up and shaking his fist.

Then, still in dumbshow, N. dies. Only the speaker, it seems, both understands this and is able to respond to it. The son retreats under the bedclothes; the wife, putting away her husband’s coat, is out of the room. It will fall to the speaker to break the news to her – death, after all, has its business aspect, too, and someone has to take charge of it.

It is as if Frau N. brings her husband back to life again, by doing what no one else has done in this story, speaking a line of dialogue. ‘He’s fallen asleep,’ she says, and, though our immediate response is to pity her misapprehension, it turns out to be true. For a moment the universe seems to flow backwards, the laws of the material world cancelled at a word – but it is just another human being briefly cutting through the hard outer covering of the speaker’s personality to reveal what is actually happening. Then we are back in dumbshow mode, as N exaggeratedly reads the newspaper, clicks his tongue and lies down in his son’s bed. It is only now that we realize we are reading a comedy.

The speaker, I have claimed, is not insensitive: he’s just someone who has let the business side of his life get in the way of the personal side at the wrong time and in the wrong place. Now, woken by dialogue and, at the same time, by femininity (in the story’s historical  context, after all, business and femininity were not supposed to have much to do with each other), he makes exactly the opposite mistake. The whole of his repressed personal side comes rushing back at once, in the form of a speech to Frau N. that gloriously conflates childhood, guilt, femininity, bereavement and a pre-rational belief in the miraculous. She reminds him of his mother, he tells her: ‘Whatever people say, she could do wonders. Things that we destroyed she could make whole again. I lost her when I was still a child.’   What is she supposed to make of this? Actually, she can’t make anything of it because she is deaf, and besides she has very little idea who he is, having confused him with the agent.

If ‘The Married Couple’ had been written in any other way, from another point of view or in the third person, or just with more dialogue, it would have been an entirely different story. One is tempted to say, more simply, it would have been a story, because it comes close to not being one. Whatever is going on in that bedroom, in the lives of N., his wife, his son and the agent of a rival business concern, we never really understand; we watch it as if on a television with the sound turned off because the person who tells us about it is so busy talking that he does not hear anything anyone else says. But when a word does get through, the effect on the speaker’s perceptions is so devastating that, for a moment, we slip into a different genre altogether: suddenly it’s a snippet of delusory magic realism (by the author of ‘The Metamorphosis’) about a man’s resurrection. In his speech to Frau N., he desperately tries to put the ingredients of another story together: the long-neglected tale of his own childhood, of whatever was destroyed that his mother put back together again, and of how he lost her. But it is too late now to tell it, and there is no sympathetic female ear to listen. He has condemned himself to a narrative outside the personal sphere, without the logic of plot and closure.  Modernist literature, perhaps most obviously in the work of Beckett, was soon to make familiar the rueful tragicomic note of that anti-ending: ‘Oh, how many business calls come to nothing, and yet one must keep going.’

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