Short story: “A Hunger Artist”

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“A Hunger Artist” or “The Hunger Artist,” among other translations (“Ein Hungerkünstler”), by Franz Kafka, translated by various

First published in Die neue rundschau in 1922; appeared in the Guardian short stories podcast on December 13, 2012 (the translation seems to be Joyce Crick’s, although I don’t see any attribution on the Guardian website; her Kafka collection is previewable on Google Books); translated by Willa and Edwin Muir here and on Scribd and by Ian Johnston here; the original German is available on Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive

Somewhere around 3,984 to 4,141 words in English

Some unorganized notes:

  • I love this aside (from Crick’s translation) very much: “—curiously, they were usually butchers—” I love the image of beefy, virile flesh-and-blood men standing outside the cage. At least one Kafka piece ends with the protagonist being butchered, but the hunger artist, like Gregor Samsa, is not even fit for slaughter. He’s a sacrificial animal without the fatting. The only person who bothers to sacrifice him is himself. I love the word “curiously,” in which the narrator adopts a pose of mild and uncomprehending surprise.
  • Speaking of which, studying this story has made me realize that my analysis of omniscient narration is inadequate—more on that later. The point of view here is often objective, or rather historical, but freely dips into the artist’s point of view, the impresario’s, the circus supervisor’s, and the crowds’.
  • I prefer “Hunger Artist” to “Metamorphosis” by a wide margin, partly, I think, for the superficial reason that it’s less widely known and homaged and parodied. Another likely reason that it has fewer characters. The focus stays on the nameless artist the entire time, with the other characters existing primarily for the sake of his story. And the saddest possible reason is that it is easier to analyze. Every symbol is obvious, dialed up to eleven. Actually, that’s not entirely a sad reason. The symbols are obvious because they glow with meaning, and I like stories that glow.
  • Crick’s translation uses the peculiar word “hungering” where I’m used to seeing “fasting.” I prefer “fasting,” but I wonder if Crick is trying to capture something clumsy and labored in the wording of the original. More likely, she’s just trying to make the verb match the established (and highly evocative) term “hunger artist.” (The same term has been translated as “fasting artist,” which doesn’t work at all—it lacks the connotation of suffering and unsatisfied desire—and “starvation artist,” which carries far too much of that connotation and even sounds whiny, self-pitying. Then again, like any rereader, I’m prejudiced in favor of what I’m used to. Grandiose self-pity is not entirely alien to this story, after all.)
  • I think every translation I’ve read renders this hilarious piece of self-punishment the same way: “It was the easiest thing in the world.” It’s all the better that the wording is so simple and arguably cliché. Somewhere on the spectrum of communication styles, cliché tends to blur into simplicity, so that instead of distancing the reader from the meaning conveyed, it brings them closer.
  • The whole story is hilarious, in roughly the same way “The Darling” is hilarious.
  • It’s rare for me to want to change a jot of Kafka, but there’s one bit I want to dial down, right at the end—the remark about how the keepers bring the panther its food. Reads like lily-gilding. (The earlier appearance of that same food, though— “the raw meat carried past him for the beasts of prey”—is perfect.)
  • I find it comforting that one of my favorite writers repeated himself so much from one work to the next.
  • I find it comforting to think that this story is complete, a world unto itself, independent of interpretation.