The Essay

by Hugh Kellett

Oxford 1977

The Senior Tutor at the Oxford college, who taught German, and whose specialist subject was Kafka, was known for his fondness for drink as much as the brilliance of his mind.

His rooms were the envy of his lesser colleagues, occupying the entire top floor of the college’s main tower, and reached via a broad but winding wooden staircase, shiny and worn down by the shuffling feet of centuries of undergraduates who had climbed this particular pathway to enlightenment. His windows looked out on all four points of the compass over the quad and spires and towers of the medieval city of learning, and were bordered by thick red velvet curtains that were often strategically drawn during the day to protect the occupant from the sun, although it was known by all that this tended to signal that the Senior Tutor was suffering one of his regular hangovers. Such indisposition did little to diminish his acuity during his tutorials, however, even if he would lie slouched deep into his armchair with legs stretched out in front of him and eyes closed tight, emitting small grunts, to all the world, asleep. And many was the undergraduate who assumed that he could get away with reading out some twaddle or other that he had penned in his weekly essay, only to be pulled up over this or that error, or challenged over a matter of opinion, by the Senior Tutor bestirring himself unexpectedly into life, albeit often with his eyes still closed.

The rooms themselves were of slightly threadbare grandeur, not dirty for they were cleaned regularly by Higgs, who was responsible for that staircase, but they had about them an air of time passing, the faint smell of camphor mixing with tobacco, leather-bound books and sherry.

As befitted the don’s specialism, the rooms were something of a shrine to Teutonic greatness. Clinging to shelves on every inch of the walls were multiple tomes of the German masters. On the mantelpiece a bust of Goethe and a bottle of port served as bookends for a work of Freud, and slightly incongruously, a copy of Animal Farm. Above this little ensemble hung a portrait of Beethoven, sullenly mercurial, all hair and brooding, and a framed black and white photograph of Kafka himself, with his pointy ears and haunted look, below which were printed his dates, 1884 -1923. In the grate lay an old leather football gathering stray soot.

In another place of its own, in the shadows, hung a massive and rather dusty oil painting of Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor, with his vast moustache and chestful of decorations.

A chiming clock sat in the middle of the mantelpiece and ticked by the sixty minutes that marked the length of each student’s weekly tutorial. It read ten past eleven as Christopher Tompkins, in his third year as an undergraduate reading German, came into the room in response to a scarcely audible grunt to enter. He had been deliberately late for the session, at which he should read aloud his essay to the Senior Tutor.

The curtains over the eastern window were drawn, as were they over the southern, as the Senior Tutor had reckoned on the movement of the sun. He himself was in his customary position for such occasions, low in his chair, eyes tight shut, a pot of black coffee beside him on an occasional table. A lock of hair hung down over his forehead and his fingers were dug deep into a purple velvet waistcoat.

“I am so sorry I am late,” began Tompkins in a blustery sort of way, “I couldn’t remember the combination to my bike lock, and found myself affixed to a lamp post.”
“A situation that Kafka himself would recognise all too well, Mr Tompkins,” said the great man without opening his eyes, “It is Kafka you’ve come to share your thoughts about this week, isn’t it?”
“Yes Sir,” said Tomkins, “but the essay’s been a bit of a… nightmare.”
“Neither funny nor that original, Mr Tompkins, please do take a seat and recite your essay, if possible in your quietest conceivable voice.”

Tompkins fumbled in his case for his work and chose a chair a suitable distance from the near lifeless don. He extracted a folder and opened it to read. And here was his problem, and the reason for his judicious tardiness. Although he knew very vaguely of Kafka, that he had a particularly nightmarish view of the human condition, to the extent that he had apparently written of himself being mysteriously metamorphosed into a beetle, and that he had died young with instructions for all his writing to be destroyed and never published, Tompkins himself had not read a single word of any of his works on which to base his essay. That week in Oxford had been packed with other more pleasurable diversions, and under the essay’s given heading, “Kafka – A Life Unfinished?” he had written but one word: “The”.

He cleared his throat as the clock ticked reproachfully.

“Would you mind very much if I used your lavatory?” asked Tompkins, playing for time.

The tutor huffed imperceptibly with a slight dribble and motioned at a door in the corner and the student made good his retreat, followed some five minutes later by the clank of chain and the gurgle of flushing water that seemed to reverberate around the tower. He returned and seated himself.

“Would it be possible for me to open the curtains just a shade, I am struggling to make out what I have written in this light,” asked Tompkins.
“Just move your chair nearer another window if you please,” came the anticipated reply and Tompkins spent a few valuable seconds making arrangements.
“I have heard countless essays on this subject Mr Tompkins, most of which, I have to say, were of conspicuous shallowness. Indeed, I have spent nearly my whole life trying to instil some sort of sense, appreciation, understanding into my pupils, but when it comes to Kafka, it’s all been to no avail. Were I to hear anything with a jot of intelligence on the subject I swear I would die of happiness.”
With these encouraging words ringing in his ears, Christopher Tompkins cleared his throat, as the clock tick-tocked imperceptibly to eleven-twenty.
“It’s not a frightfully long essay this time I am afraid, Sir,” said Tompkins.
“I confess I am not altogether displeased about that, Mr Tompkins, under the circumstances,” replied the tutor fumbling for his coffee cup. “Let us hope that what it lacks in length it more than makes up for in insight.”

And so he began.
“Kafka – A Life Unfinished?” he read, and then repeated himself, this time with additional gravitas, and a slightly more authentic pronunciation of Kafka: “ Kaf-ka – A Life Unfinished?”
“The…”, he read out in a tentative voice.
He looked around the room.
Pause. Then:
“The…question… is… does… an… essay actually need to be finished to count as an essay?” he blurted out, seemingly from nowhere, half pleading.
“An interesting existential question and a promising start to your composition, Mr Tompkins. I like a provocative beginning. Pray continue.”

Slightly stunned by the tutor’s misconstruing of his question, the student at least saw the ghost of an escape opportunity and continued in the same vein.
“What exactly do we mean when we use the word ‘finish’? What do we ever actually finish in this life? Can anything be said to be finished? Are all lives, by definition, incomplete? Are we not, every one of us, borne away with the sure knowledge that our lives are cut short and that that which we set out to achieve is inevitably wrested from us?”

Something seemed to stir in the older man who wriggled slightly lower in his chair so that he was almost horizontal. He drew out one hand from his waistcoat and used it to stroke his temple.

The undergraduate gazed around the room for inspiration. The clock seemed louder and the sunbeams battered at the curtains, but something chimed in his own head. “And what of time? There is man-made time and there is natural time? Which do we use to measure “finishedness?”
The football in the grate caught his eye.
“The fact is that man-made time is a contrivance, a convenience, so that we can put an end to things that we want to. A football match, for instance, can be said to be finished only because we apply this contrivance. An hour, or a tutorial, can be said to be finished because it exists only mathematically. And we say that a day is finished for the same reason, although it is clear that a day is never finished, it is just starting again in a new place, in the same way that a river flows. So it depends entirely on what we are using for measurement and where our perspective is, and what we are trying to prove. We use time to rationalise our existence…”
“I am sorry to interrupt your flow…” said the moribund body in the arm chair.
“No, no. Please…” said the relieved student.
“Is your contention that time is a fabrication and that all our efforts, our worldly deeds that mark the passage of time are operating in an illusory framework and are somehow imaginary?”
“Thank you for raising that important point,” said Tompkins as his eyes scoured the room for anything that might further trigger his impromptu ramblings, “I do come on to discuss that in more depth.”
“Excuse the interruption, pray proceed with the essay,” said the don as the clock chimed the half hour with a double ping. The student’s eyes were drawn to the mantelpiece.
“The measurement of our achievements is our way of preventing ourselves from going mad. As Freud presumably pointed out, we provide a framework in which we can validate our worth. Take a bottle of port for instance. In one way it is a specific quantity, sealed and corked in a certain sized bottle. Yet in another way it is just a quantity of liquid that we would struggle to measure without the bottle. And when the bottle is half done, is it half empty or half full?”

The student found himself floundering slightly, not sure where this particular aspect of his ad lib was taking him, but he was rescued by the tutor, whose eyes were now loosely shut and twitched slightly as if dreaming.
“It is a question that has vexed me on many occasions.”
“Equally, the port that’s left is still wine that is undiminished in itself just because some of the original contents of the bottle are missing.” His eyes moved from the bottle to the bust.
“We can look at this is another way. Is the Venus de Milo finished? Is any work finished? What if Goethe had added an additional stanza here and there, or…or, Kaf-ka, a single extra word, would anyone know?”
There, he was pleased to have got Kafka in at last.
“How does the artist come to the point of concluding anything? When does he put down his brush, wipe his hands and throw off his smock and say: ‘There it is done!’?
“And what if natural time, fate let’s call it, somehow conspires to remove an artist’s faculties ahead of his allotted span, by driving him mad or, taking Beethoven’s case as an example, by rendering him deaf? Is this the finish, or is it the start of something new, as indeed it was with the latter who composed much of his greatest work when he was as deaf as a post? These and other questions are at the heart of any real understanding of Kafka, who was of course plucked prematurely from this life in,” and here the student peered at the photograph from a distance and read, “1923,” and with a bit of quick mathematics, “at the still tender age of 40, which is to all intents and purposes the middle of life, half his life, at least in the sense we normally understand earthly life.”

There was a pause as Christopher Tompkins pretended to turn a page with the loudest rustle he could. The Senior Tutor lay still and peacefully composed, before saying, “This is a peculiarly good piece of work, Mr Tompkins, unusually well-conceived if I may say and fluently delivered. Perhaps all my years of teaching have not been in vain in your case. Contrary to how I felt at the beginning of our little session I hope we have sufficient time for your essay to come to its conclusion.”
“Thank you Sir, I very much hope so too.” His flow had been slightly hampered by the don’s words, and he was again grasping mentally for his next inspiration, but he blundered on.
“Of course, it follows from this that a conclusion itself is both real and imaginary, something that Kafka understood only too well. How we distinguish between the real and the unreal is also something of a convention, again to prevent ourselves falling into insanity.”
Tompkins eyes now fell on the floor.
“Let me elaborate. Were one to survey this carpet for instance, if one were to get down on one’s hands and knees, perhaps with a magnifying glass, possibly on the day before Higgs vacuums it, might we actually find it is home to beetles who are feasting quietly upon it? And might each of those beetles believe itself without hesitation to be Kafka himself?”

At this the great man stirred in his chair and emitted a small whistle as he digested the possibilities of this contention.
“It is no stranger,” continued Tompkins, “that this should be the case than the other way round, just we are not trained to consider life in such terms…”
“But a beetle is an insentient creature, Mr Tompkins, it can hardly be credited with the ability to conceive of itself as anything at all, far less the reincarnation of Kafka.”
“Ah, yes, and I do come on to cover this, for it is of course at the very core of Kafka’s world.”
“Forgive the intrusion,” said the don and motioned with a gently circular roll of his right hand for the student to continue.
“Thank you, Sir. Now where was I? Ah yes. It is only our human contention that a beetle cannot be Kafka, in the same way as it is clear that Kafka cannot be a beetle. Our grasp of the world is shaped by the convention of accumulated understanding of systems. We draw all our inspiration, everything we see and do, our guidance, from what we see around us, including from right here in this room, all of which we accept as true. What Kafka was no doubt trying to point out was that this system was at fault, the system was at fault: it was the thoughtless monster, and he the sentient beetle.”

Then, again lifting his thoughts from the mantelpiece, he pressed on, “If I may paraphrase the great George Orwell, what Kafka was almost certainly getting at, absurd as it may seem, was that two legs might be bad and four legs good, but six legs were unequivocally sentient.”
At this Tompkins smiled briefly at his achievement of getting two authors he had never read into one sentence.
“It is a significant revelation, a quite beguiling interpretation you are suggesting, and reminds us that the world of Kafka is unseen, but all around us,” said the tutor. “Perhaps I should ask Higgs to be more sparing with the hoover next time he comes and does the carpet.”
“And yet of course, the thing about us humans,” continued Tompkins, “as perhaps opposed to beetles, whether sentient or not, is that time forces the former to measure their worth, their contribution to the passage of time, their mortal justification, with little parcels of success, a drip feed of titbit milestones along the way, perhaps if lucky even a glorious apotheosis; whilst the beetle, or so we assume, is only intent on munching the carpet. And if we, the humans, don’t get our fill of these titbits, if we are forever misunderstood, if our purpose is thwarted, if we can’t measure our output, if the apotheosis never apotheates, we slowly decay away into nothing, and die – unrequited.”
“Buried in the carpet of life,” added the voice from the chair.
“Yes, quite so,” said Tompkins, astonished that the tutor was so receptive to his meanderings.

All but mentally exhausted, Tompkins had no real idea of what he was saying, but was at the same time desperately seeking closure. Perhaps, he thought, he had been temporarily visited by Kafka himself, who had become his familiar, and was guiding him with some black absurdity deeper into the hole he had dug himself.
By now the sun had hit the southern window and pinkish haze pervaded the room as it permeated the drapes. The portrait of Bismarck appeared as if summoned in a séance from its shadowy corner.

“The soldier, of course, does not have this problem for he dies requited, in situations outside the normal confines of day-to-day existence, or put another way he dies an extraordinary death. And even if he survives he knows his actions will no doubt result in a chestful of medals. Should he die, however, his worldly end is in fact the beginning of his immortality. But for the artist or the writer, if he is forever caught in a labyrinth of elusive milestones, if what he perceives as the perfect work constantly eludes him, he may well decide that his life itself is unrequited and worthless, indeed that his life can never be finished, and in such cases he may well feel the need to throw in the towel, work and all, for if life is meaningless, the work is meaningless too.”

Tompkins quite liked the ring of this last statement and the tutor seemed to nod and smile at the observation from his prone position, so the former drew breath and his tongue just kept on talking in the exploitation of his opportunity.

“The same thing could no doubt affect those with other callings, who have perhaps striven in vain for that one point, the apotheosis, when they recognise that what they have been called into being to do has in fact been – fulfilled.”
Here he hesitated briefly, before venturing: “I imagine, for instance, a university don could conceivably consider his own life in that way…”

He wondered if he had strayed a little far and got too personal on this particular tack, and paused briefly for any sign of a reaction from the chair, but he was rewarded by the sight of a slight raising of the scholar’s eyebrows, acknowledging some sort of tacit agreement, or at least an entertainment of the notion. So he continued, “… his world run by the calendar of the educational year, his life a succession of repetitive tutorials in which he might ceaselessly cast learned pearls before ignorant undergraduate swine, and who over his entire university career, spanning decades, and despite the excellence of his teaching, might never hear a single word of sense from his charges, let alone the perfect essay, and so never be able to reap his harvest or pick even one solitary grape from the vine.”

At that point the clock chimed the quarter to, and as if driven by some sort of Pavlovian signal by the word ‘vine’ the Senior Tutor roused himself from his chair and made for the port bottle on the mantelpiece.
“Do you mind? Would you care for one? ”
“No, thank you, but do please carry on yourself.”
The tutor shuffled back to his erstwhile position and allowed the fumes to waft tantalisingly over his nose before sinking back into his chair and draining the small glass. Then, shutting his eyes, he said: “Please do conclude in your own time.”

Tompkins took up again, trying to remember where he had left off.
“So, the conclusion of a piece of work can be considered as the conclusion of life, just with a different perspective of time. And this is why some artists often take so long to finish anything and sometimes don’t finish at all. When they do finish they are actually killing off their work, even if we, the receivers, believe they are giving it life.” Again, he was pleased with the way this particular passage had come out. “In some rare cases, such as Kafka’s,” and this was the one thing Tompkins did know about Kafka, “the artist is for some reason reluctant to allow their work to see the light of day at all, fearing, perhaps as Freud famously proposed, that it might somehow kill him if it did. This may make sense while the artist is alive but, confusingly, Kafka ordered all his writings to be destroyed after his death. I imagine in this extreme case, although we can never be sure, that he felt his life and his work, which as we have seen are to be considered the same, were shot through with such a peculiar, vivid and nightmarish Weltanschauung that it demanded to remain hidden forever; if he was not to live, then neither would his system-challenging Angst be allowed to disturb the peace of future generations. He owed mankind that much.”

Tompkins congratulated himself on getting two German words into one sentence, but he simultaneously thought: that’s a good point, maybe that is the point. So he went for his own finishing line.
“And that is it, that is the whole point when it comes to Kafka. Despite our own modern day fascination with him, he himself felt he had not written anything that was positive. To solve this riddle, to create his own milestone and apotheosis, he did the one thing he could do that was positive: he decided to destroy everything, in an act of what we might call deliberate positive-negativism. Fortunately for posterity, as we know, his trusted friend and executor denied him his dying wish. But Kafka, being already dead, and potentially quite happily dead, had no notion of this breach of faith. And that is the great irony, or poetic justice, of Kafka.”

The two hands of the clock kissed each other at these words and the bell began to chime an arpeggio of congratulations as Tompkins in some state of drained exaltation summed up. “So my conclusion is not so much that Kafka’s life was unfinished, but that it was a life that was never actually begun.” At this point he closed his folder and cleared his throat loudly to prompt the tutor that he himself had in fact – finished. To his surprise the tutor seemed to be weeping gently and small tears ran from his closed eyes down his cheek and into his collar.

“And under what circumstances do you feel Kafka might have reappraised his decision to destroy his works?” he asked in a quiet voice.
“It would only have taken one single piece that he felt reflected a positive in life and that would have marked him out as having contributed something to his fellow man.”
“Like listening to the perfect essay?” ventured the don half to himself as the clock stopped chiming.

This was the signal for the grateful Tompkins to be released and he closed his folder and stuffed it in his bag.

The Senior Tutor was motionless, but said, “Mr Tompkins, would you be so kind as to open the curtains ever so slightly. I think we need a little more light in here.”
“Ah…Mehr Licht!” said Tompkins, recalling Goethe’s famous last words as he obliged, letting a shaft of early afternoon sunlight play on the tutor’s face, and then, “See you next week Sir.”

He headed for the door, which he closed quietly behind him, and skipped down the staircase and out into the brightness of the quad and the rest of his life in Oxford.

Up in the tower, the Senior Tutor, with a small smile at the sides of his mouth, lay stone dead.

Hugh Kellett won the poetry prize at school and was delighted before learning he was the only entrant, but it set him on the road. He then studied languages at Oxford, where his plays and musicals were performed, and has been playing around with words in London advertising agencies most of his life. Hugh’s new book, The Dictionary of Posh, is due to be published in August 2019.

Oxford photo credit Ugur Akdemir via Unsplash.

If you like Hugh Kellett’s story please leave a comment for him below.

You might also like Saltwater, the winning story from the Winter Short Story Competition.

6 thoughts on “The Essay

  1. I loved this, the theme, the language, the way it was all pulled together – an excellent short story. And it strongly evoked those days amongst the dreaming spires.

  2. Deeply intelligent story that plays with the reader to the end. Cleverly evocative of a unique institution, the Oxbridge tutorial system. Slices the emotions with surgical precision, showing a part of British society that’s probably quite unchanged since the author’s Oxford days. Stellar.

    1. Very kind of you, and you’re right it was a unique institution…I wonder if it has changed, probably not as you say!

  3. I thought it a great piece of humor because I am always amazed by people who can orally fill time. Often students run in circles, but sometimes they follow a path that turns out to be an admirable discovery. I like that the story is a bit of a clash between old and young, traditions and moderns, and the student is ‘saved’ by the very traditional art of storytelling. An Ali Baba situational with a happy ending for all. An enjoyable read.

    1. Thank you very much for your kind remarks and it’s very good of you to have taken the trouble. I am delighted you enjoyed the story.All the best Hugh Kellett

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