Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In his important essay “Ernst Machs Max Ernst,” Guy Davenport points out that when he collected the stories for Tatlin! (1974), in which “The Aeroplanes at Brescia” appears, he consciously arranged these narratives to circumscribe the history of flight, from its early days to Commander Neil Armstrong’s first step onto the moon. His purpose, he notes, is to demonstrate that the “logos hides in technology in our time.” This view makes the airplane, the technological symbol of the twentieth century, representative of the essence of this society. It is at once both an exciting attraction and a fear-inducing new technology.

That the twentieth century’s predicament is troublesome for Kafka may be seen in the dichotomy Davenport establishes between Prague and Riva. In the former, older city, there is a “glittering richness,” yet one may discover only the “half-truths of the cut-glass sunlight”; in the latter, there is “truth in the light,” but as Kafka himself notices in Brescia, there is a disturbing emptiness and loneliness in this modern existence. Indeed, Kafka is the only character who shows, in his quiet tears at the story’s end, any emotion. In addition, his contact with others—including his good friends, the Brods—seems curiously sterile. Although many of the incidents in Brescia have a comic tone, Kafka is unable to communicate his innermost concerns—his daydreams, his nightmares, and his meditations about the aviators—to his fellow travelers.

As Davenport mentions in his essay, “The Aeroplanes at Brescia” evolved from a previous study of the writer Franz Kafka, who was, in 1909, actually suffering from a serious writer’s block. Davenport thus transmutes a real historical event—Kafka’s attendance at the airshow—into an imaginative re-creation of his protagonist’s inspiration from the aviators. Davenport’s Kafka begins to learn from those he watches: from Bleriot that perseverance is needed; from Rougier that a beginning writer must concern himself with many actions simultaneously; from Curtiss that a polished writer can gracefully provide fresh insight about familiar subjects. He learns from those he sees only imaginatively as well: from the Wright brothers of the need for study and pragmatic practice; even from Leonardo da Vinci’s and Icarus and Daedalus’s early errors. By examining these aspects of flight, he discovers that technology, like the writer’s imagination, must be actively employed if one is to survive in the modern world.