Kafka’s American Novel

Cover designed by Alvin Lustig in 1946

 

Amerika is the incomplete first novel of author Franz Kafka (1883–1924), written between 1911 and 1914 and published posthumously in 1927. The novel originally began as a short story titled The Stoker. The novel incorporates many details of the experiences of his relatives who had emigrated to the United States. In the story, the Statue of Liberty is holding a sword, and some scholars have interpreted this as a “might makes right” philosophy Kafka may have believed the United States holds.

In conversations Kafka used to refer to this book as his “American novel,” later he called it simply The Stoker, after the title of the first chapter, which appeared separately in 1913. Kafka’s working title was Der Verschollene (The Man Who Disappeared or The Missing Person) . The title Amerika was chosen by Kafka’s literary executor, Max Brod, who assembled the uncompleted manuscript and published it after his death. Brod donated the manuscript to the University of Oxford.

Kafka was fond of reading travel books and memoirs. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin was one of his favorite books, from which he liked reading passages aloud. Although he always had a longing for free space and distant lands, it is said that he never travelled farther than France and Upper Italy. Despite this, a rare photo shows Kafka with an unknown man at Marielyst beach, in Denmark.

Kafka, at the time, was also reading, or rereading, several novels by Charles Dickens and made the following remarks in his diary: “My intention was, as I now see, to write a Dickens novel, enriched by the sharper lights which I took from our modern times, and by the pallid ones I would have found in my own interior.”

Advertisements

True Blood Brothers

Max Brod and Franz Kafka, c. 1912

 
 

At the end of his first year of studies, Franz Kafka met Max Brod, a fellow law student who became a close friend for life. Brod soon noticed that, although Kafka was shy and seldom spoke, what he said was usually profound. Kafka was an avid reader throughout his life; together he and Brod read Plato‘s Protagoras in the original Greek, on Brod’s initiative, and Gustave Flaubert‘s L’éducation sentimentale (Sentimental Education) and La Tentation de St. Antoine (The Temptation of Saint Anthony) in French, at his own suggestion. Kafka considered Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Franz Grillparzer,[30] and Heinrich von Kleist to be his “true blood brothers”. Besides these, he took an interest in Czech literature and was also very fond of the works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Before the Trial

“Say what you like, but The Trial is my greatest work, even greater than Citizen Kane

Orson Welles

 
 

 
 

In 1960, Orson Welles was approached by producer Alexander Salkind and his brother Michael Salkind to make a film from a public domain literary choice. Salkind promised that Welles would have total artistic freedom and he would not interfere with Welles’ creation. Welles and Salkind agreed to create a film based on the Franz Kafka novel The Trial, only to discover later the text was not in the public domain and that they needed to obtain the rights to the property. Earlier that year Welles’s son, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, had casually mentioned an idea to Welles about adapting The Trial as a stage play, prompting Welles to state that The Trial was an important book and that he should re-read it.

 
 

 
 

Welles took six months to write the screenplay. In adapting the work, he rearranged the order of Kafka’s chapters. In this version, the chapter line-up read 1, 4, 2, 5, 6, 3, 8, 7, 9, 10. However, the order of Kafka’s chapters was arranged by his literary executor, Max Brod, after the writer’s death, and this order is not definitive. Welles also modernized several aspects of the story, introducing computer technology and changing Miss Burstner’s profession from a typist to a cabaret performer. The film begins with Welles narrating Kafka’s parable Before the Law. To illustrate this allegory, he used the pin screen animation of Alexandre Alexeieff, who created animated prints using thousands of pins.

The cast included Anthony Perkins as Josef K, Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider, Paola Mori and Akim Tamiroff. Welles initially hoped to cast U.S. comic actor Jackie Gleason as Hastler, but he took the role himself when Gleason rejected the part.

While filming exteriors in Zagreb, Welles was informed that the Salkinds had run out of money, meaning that there could be no set construction. No stranger to shooting on found locations, Welles soon filmed the interiors in the Gare d’Orsay, at that time an abandoned railway station in Paris. Welles thought the location possessed a “Jules Verne modernism” and a melancholy sense of “waiting”, both suitable for Kafka. The film failed at the box-office. Peter Bogdanovich would later observe that Welles found the film riotously funny. During the filming, Welles met Oja Kodar, who would later become his muse, star and mistress for the last twenty years of his life. Welles also stated in an interview with the BBC that it was his best film.

 
 

The Music that Kakfa Liked

Text by by Gustavo Artiles

 

Franz Kafka was not a music lover. But his old school friend and literary executor, Max Brod was, and he wanted to convert Franz to the glories of great music, high brow or classical music. But Franz says to him “I am not able to perceive the complexities of a large scale work”, and when Max takes him to hear the première of Gustav Mahler´s seventh symphony, which the composer himself conducted in Prague, where both friends live, on September 19th, 1908, Franz (then 35) still can not capture the secret threads of symphonic structures.

Brod tells us that Kafka was “an exception within the realm of genius… that he strained to vanish the last dissonance engendered by geniality”. But he kept that handicap, perhaps something insurmountable in spite of his intellectual efforts. It is equally possible that Kafka wanted to approach Mahler, the major symphonist of the period — “the greatest since Brahms and Bruckner”, a contemporary critic called him – because he knew him to be another Jew, as Max was too, and he might expect to find some affinities in him. But his reluctance towards the harmonic and structural complexities would hold him back, and they are especially acute in Mahler´s case!

Franz also says: ´I like American marches very much´. Which ones, he does not specify, perhaps he was not interested in registering their title or the name of the composer, but all points out to the marches already enjoyed and played in all open air concerts of military bands of Europe and, of course, the United States, i.e. those by John Philip Sousa, still enormously popular.

 
 

Sousa directed the Marine Corps Band for several years, then formed his own band which he led most of the rest of his life

 
 

The reason why Kafka felt attracted to Sousa is easy to understand, and I believe it has a connection with his work. One can detect a reflection of it specifically in his unfinished novel America, where we meet Karl, a young immigrant (i.e. the same young dreamer, K) who, at the end of the 19th century, arrives in the US searching for new horizons. An uncle of his, Jacob, is already there, but he does not know his address. After a series of events, Karl discovers one day a poster announcing a fantastic circus, the Great Natural Theatre of Oklahoma, also one of Kafka´s greatest inventions. What can a Great Natural Theatre be? It is Kafka´s conception of what that nation is like. The metaphor fits perfectly with a somewhat remote and diffuse perception of that country that was already becoming the proverbial melting pot, where boats from many parts of Europe and Asia, loaded with thousands of hopefuls to find a better life, far away from the oppressions and persecutions that perhaps they always had known in their own lands. And such assorted mixture of people come to meet in the same place, America. The poster says that ´All are welcome´, that ´Everyone can work in the Great Natural Theatre of Oklahoma´, no experience necessary. This is a second allusion to the prospects that, from the European point of view, one could expect to find on the other side of the Atlantic: ´great´ theatre. ´everyone can´. That is how America was, and still is, seen in general: countless opportunities for everyone. If everybody can work in the Great Theatre, it is not illogical for Karl to gradually meet, in the course of the rehearsals, persons he has already encountered during his long journey and later stay in the new land, including his lost uncle, Jacob.

The vastness of the American continent is another element in his mind. His vision of that Amerika is that of open horizons, infinite prairies, as well as towns that begin to be populous and puzzling.

Austrian, German and French marches of the period, generally pompous and imperialist, seem to shout ´Here we come, we, the unconquered, the most powerful, the greatest, our step says so, our mounts say so, our glorious colours say so; surrender and give us your respect and admiration, we expect no less´. Sousa´s marches say nothing of the sort: they speak about things like The Liberty Bell, The Washington Post, Hail to the Spirit of Freedom, The Belle of Chicago, Manhattan Beach, The Harmonica Wizard, La Flor de Sevilla, Hands Across the Ocean… even if a certain militarism or governmental quality seeps in too, something difficult to eradicate in what, after all, was the most famous band in history and that the American government did enthusiastically support. Thus The Man Behind the Gun, The Legionnaires, Globe and Eagle, Stars and Stripes Forever… But the fact is that all that music depicts the vigour and optimism of a nation in its early youth, and it abounds in joy and the celebration of a certain fraternity based on nationality, exempt from aristocracies and discriminations, more or less achieved thanks to equalitarian democracy. This is Sousa’s model. The model may appear a little rosy today, but that was the ´American Dream´. On the other hand, let us not forget that Sousa also wrote operettas (15), songs (70) and instrumental suites (11), a popular composer in the best sense of the word who knew the homage of the masses as no other before him. Sousa does not evoke scenic immensities or crowded towns, bur rather the essential spirit of optimism and confidence with which that nation faced the future. Sousa´s marches are the perfect circus marches for the Great Theatre.

Kafka saw the connection.

Kafka for Kids

Sylvia Plath believed it was never too early to dip children’s toes in the vast body of literature. But to plunge straight into Franz Kafka? Why not, which is precisely what Brooklyn-based writer and videogame designer Matthue Roth has done in My First Kafka: Runaways, Rodents, and Giant Bugs (public library) — a magnificent adaptation of Kafka for kids. With stunning black-and-white illustrations by London-based fine artist Rohan Daniel Eason, this gem falls — rises, rather — somewhere between Edward Gorey, Maurice Sendak, and the Graphic Canon series.

 
 

 
 

The idea came to Roth after he accidentally started reading Kafka to his two little girls, who grew enchanted with the stories. As for the choice to adapt Kafka’s characteristically dark sensibility for children, Roth clearly subscribes to the Sendakian belief that grown-ups project their own fears onto kids, who welcome rather than dread the dark. Indeed, it’s hard not to see Sendak’s fatherly echo in Eason’s beautifully haunting black-and-white drawings.

 
 


 
 

Much likeJonathan Safran Foer used Street of Crocodiles to create his brilliant Tree of Codes literary remix and Charles Darwin’s great-granddaughter adapted the legendary naturalist’s biography into verse, Roth scoured public domain texts and various translations of Kafka to find the perfect works for his singsong transformations: the short prose poem Excursion into the Mountains, the novella The Metamorphosis, which endures as Kafka’s best-known masterpiece, and Josefine the Singer, his final story.

 
 

“I don’t know!”
I cried without being heard.

“I do not know.”

If nobody comes,
then nobody comes.

I’ve done nobody any harm.
Nobody’s done me any harm.
But nobody will help me.

A pack of nobodies
would be rather fine,
on the other hand.

I’d love to go on a trip — why not? —
with a pack of nobodies.

Into the mountains, of course.
Where else?

 
 

In a way, the book — like most of Kafka’s writing — also bears the odd mesmerism of literary history’s letters and diaries, the semi-forbidden pleasure of which swells under the awareness that their writers never meant for us to read the very words we’re reading, never sought to invite us into their private worlds. Kafka wished for his entire world to remain private — he never finished any of his novels and burned the majority of his manuscripts; the rest he left with his closest friend and literary executor, Max Brod, whom he instructed to burn the remaining diaries, sketches, manuscripts, and letters. It was out of love that Brod chose not to, possibly displeasing his friend but eternally pleasing the literary public.

 
 

 
 

Though Kafka never wrote for children (in fact, one might argue, he never wrote for anyone but himself), My First Kafka transforms his surviving work into a fine addition to other notable children’s book by famous authors of “adult” literature, including Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, Anne Sexton, T. S. Eliot, and John Updike.

Double Meaning

Masturbation and Eros respectively, both by Egon Schiele, 1911

 
 

Another example of translations problem to English: Kafka’s use of the German noun Verkehr in the final sentence of Das Urteil (The Judgment). Literally, Verkehr means intercourse and, as in English, can have either a sexual or non-sexual meaning; in addition, it is used to mean transport or traffic. The sentence can be translated as: “At that moment an unending stream of traffic crossed over the bridge”. The double meaning of Verkehr is given added weight by Kafka’s confession to Max Brod that when he wrote that final line, he was thinking of “a violent ejaculation”.

A Liberating Influence

Gabriel García Márquez with a copy of  One Hundred Years of Solitude on his head.  Photograph by Isabel Steva Hernández

 
 

“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”

When Franz Kafka wrote these now famous words to his friend Oskar Pollak in 1904,  he unknowingly foreshadowed the impact of his as-yet-unpublished novella The Metamorphosis on a young writer reading him in translation as a university student in Bogotá, Colombia in the 1940s.

The influence of Kafka is  great among twentieth-century writers from Albert Camus to Jorge Luis Borges — the term Kafkaesque has even entered the vernacular as a way to describe events so bizarre they seem surreal — but the transformation of his protagonist Gregor Samsa from alienated bureaucrat into a gigantic insect over the course of one morning seems to have had the most profound impact on the literary output of Gabriel García Márquez, who cites the story as inspiring his vocation.

In Living to Tell the Tale, published in 2003 as the first of three projected volumes of his memoirs, taking him from birth through the age of twenty-eight, the Nobel-winning author of magical realist novels One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera describes a night his roommate came in with three books he had just bought:

“…and he lent me one chosen at random, as he often did to help me sleep. But this time the effect was just the opposite: I never again slept with my former serenity. The book was Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis… that determined a new direction for my life from its first line, which today is one of the great devices in world literature: ‘As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.’…When I finished reading The Metamorphosis I felt an irresistible longing to live in that alien paradise. The day found me at the portable typewriter… attempting to write something that would resemble Kafka’s poor bureaucrat changed into an enormous cockroach.”

More succinctly in a 1981 Paris Review interview, he says:

“When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So I immediately started writing short stories.”

That Kafka had such a liberating influence is especially striking given the strong possibility that his writings could easily have never reached García Márquez. As he was dying in 1924 at the age of forty, Kafka famously demanded that his friend Max Brod, a fellow German-speaking member of Prague’s Jewish community, burn all of his papers. Against his wishes, Brod published a selection of his manuscripts, bringing what is widely considered to be the most important body of work in twentieth-century German literature to the masses.