Josef K. was dreaming. Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you about it. Other people’s dreams are almost always insufferably boring. My heart sinks when somebody I barely know insists on telling me one of their dreams. It is akin to the horror I feel when buttonholed by somebody who is determined to read to me their “latest poem”. These poems are invariably codswallop. And so it is with dreams.
On the other hand we are, perhaps rightly, fascinated by our own dreams – as, I suppose, we are by our poems, if we are foolish enough to write them. Dreams churn up our memories, distort them, pluck them from where they belong and drop them into new and weird contexts. Because they belong to us, they are endlessly interesting. We try to wring sense from them, to act as our own Viennese quack and work out what the dream tells us about ourselves. Such navel-gazing is very pleasing, but you really don’t want to impose it on anybody else.
Pleasing, yes, but sometimes futile. God alone knows how I have wrestled with the deep, deep meaning of a dream I had a few years ago, in which I attacked the actor Roy Kinnear, bashing him over the head with a chair. I never met the late Mr Kinnear. It is, to date, his sole appearance in my dreamworld. I still have no idea what that dream meant, if it meant anything.
We might, if we are sufficiently engaged, find the dreams of fictional characters intriguing. I can’t remember the particular dream Josef K. had in A Dream by Franz Kafka, which is another reason I’m not telling you about it. But we ought to remember that fictional characters’ dreams aren’t real dreams – they’re made up by the author. They may well be based on actual dreams the author had, though there is no guarantee of that. In any case, you can bet on your sickly and wizened grandmother’s life that the author embroiders, and shapes the dream-narrative, through art.
Consider, as an example, the story in which fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol has a dream while taking a pre-polevaulting nap. As readers, we know that the dream has been planted in his (fictional) sleeping brain, probably by his coach, the cantankerous, chain-smoking, enovercoated, Homburg-hatted, and all too real Old Halob, a non-fictional character if ever there was one.
In the dream, Bobnit Tivol and Old Halob have somehow swapped identities. Thus, it is the coach who is polevaulting, an image so absurd and preposterous it is the epitome of dream-bizarrerie. This is what I mean by art. Fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol, meanwhile, in the persona of his coach, has gone to visit Old Halob’s sickly and wizened grandmother in her hovel. He explains to her, by thumps on her head, that he is going to gamble on her life in a sordid wager. The grandmother then takes off her thrum nightcap, and is revealed to be a large, fierce wolf, with gleaming and razor-sharp fangs.
Fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol screams. In real life, this is the point where a dreamer would be shocked awake. But in the story, the dream continues. Bobnit Tivol runs out of the hovel, runs and runs, and finds himself on a familiar running track. He runs round and round and round, in pursuit, now, of another runner, just ahead of him. Eventually the fictional athlete catches up with this runner, and they sprint across the finishing line at exactly the same moment. Panting, they turn to face each other, and Bobnit Tivol recognises his fellow-runner as the late actor Roy Kinnear.
Arm in arm, they repair to a sort of supersonic milk bar, where they order a couple of sort of supersonic milk-based drinks. They sit at a table. All of a sudden, the writer Frank Key comes charging in and attacks Roy Kinnear, bashing him over the head with a chair.
Frightened, Bobnit Tivol runs into a sort of supersonic milk bar pantry, locking the door behind him. He mops his fevered brow, first taking off his Homburg – remember, he is still in the guise of his coach Old Halob, who we assume is making up this dream. We might ask, then, at this point, whether the dream tells us more about (fictional) Bobnit Tivol or (non-fictional) Old Halob. We might ask the question of a Viennese quack, who would surely know the answer. But none is available, so instead, growing bored, we ask “how did the dream end?”
Having removed his Homburg, Bobnit Tivol, or Old Halob, looked down, and saw that his trouser-cuffs were dirty and his shoes were laced up wrong. Bending to retie the shoelaces, he bumped his head on a headbumper. So severe was the bump that stars appeared revolving around his fictional, dream head, as in an illustration in a children’s comic. They were such pretty stars! Oh, how they twinkled! Enchanted by the sight, he woke up.
The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Willa and Edwin Muir. Everything in between was not.