September 25, 2010

Kafka in the news

syndetics-lcOne of the funnier things that happened in the book world last year was someone publishing a book made up of the reports Franz Kafka wrote for his job at the Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute in Prague (see Books in the City's “The unexpected Kafka”). Now Kafka’s unpublished writings are again in the news, thanks to Elif Batuman (author of  The possessed: adventures with Russian books and the people who read them), who has been to Israel and gotten the story of a legal tug-of-war going on there between two aged sisters and the National Library of Israel for the papers of Max Brod, and thus Kafka's papers, and reported on it in a long and very readable article in The New York Times

Max Brod was the friend to whom the dying Kafka turned over his unpublished manuscripts, diaries etc. with the request to burn them. Taking this as the expression of a mood rather than a conviction, Brod got three of the manuscripts published (The Trial, Amerika and The Castle) and took the remaining papers with him when he escaped to Israel just as the Nazis were about to close the Czech borders.

Except Brod (dead), no one has really seen those papers except Esther Hoff, Brod’s assistant and “presumed” lover (also dead) and her two daughters (alive), who are holding onto them for dear life despite a strong claim by the National Library of Israel that Brod had never named their mother his heir, but only his literary executor. This would mean that on her death the papers would revert to his estate, which he had stipulated pass to a public library or archive in Israel. The sisters wish to sell the papers to the German Literature Archive in Marbach, Germany, to which their mother already sold the manuscript for The Trial for 2,000,000 USD.

I’ve never been able to think of Kafka’s works as German Literature, despite the fact that in libraries his books are classified as such because cataloguing rules, which cataloguers never ever break, classify literature by the language in which it is written. I suppose the classification which least startles me, when I have seen it in discussions of Kafka's work, is “Czech-Jewish”. Kafka’s family were Jews from Bohemia. His grandfather spoke Czech, his father spoke Czech, and he himself spoke fluent Czech. It was to be more upper-class in a country which had been conquered by Austro-Hungary that Hermann Kafka, a man of the middle class with ambitions for his children, decided they should speak German and that his son Franz should attend the prestigious German Gymnasium.

Most of all, when I think of Kafka, I think of his birthplace, and the city he hardly ever left, Prague. Prague with its enormous Jewish heritage -- at the start of  the 18th century more Jews lived in Prague than anywhere else in the world, Prague, one of the vertices (along with Turin and Lyon) of the white magic triangle of esoteric legend, Prague with its “Old New Synagogue” and a clock in the Jewish quarter with hands which run backwards, Prague whose old town has such tiny streets and houses that walking in it I felt as if I were Alice in Wonderland after eating the “Eat me” cake, and whose “new” town is medieval and crisscrossed by a maze of concealed passageways called things like the “Lantern” passage (where there is a statue of Wenceslas riding an upside-down horse), Prague with the golden roofs, but dark and mysterious too, the city Kafka called “this dear little mother” and then “with sharp claws”. "She never lets you go," he said.

Milan Kundera, in a very old Granta (1984!) which I got at a library withdrawn book sale, writes about how much Kafka is inseparable from Prague and Prague from Kafka. He tells a story to illustrate this. When a friend of his, the philosopher Karel Kosik, was accused of counter-revolutionary activities and expelled from Charles University after the Russians invaded, his sex life immediately "took off" (as Kundera puts it), his flat becoming besieged by admiring young women. Kundera asked one of them, a hairdresser, why. “All defendants are handsome” she replied, using the words of Leni in The Trial, amazing Kundera once again with how “the images, situations and even the individual sentences of Kafka’s novels are part of life in Prague.”

It was when I was reading this story that I realized for the first time that my grandfather would have been born almost exactly the same year as Kafka, and not far away, in a village just a hundred kilometers from Prague. I emailed my uncle to get the exact date so I could compare. The reply was “My father was born in 1886, so the blackbird was older" (blackbird being his colloquial translation of the Czech word ‘kavka’, the learned one being 'jackdaw'). So, just three years difference.

The blackbird/jackdaw is known to have frequented Karlovy Vary, the famous Czech spa which was also visited by Mozart and Casanova. I wonder if he was ever served by my grandfather, who worked there for a time as a waiter at the Grand Hotel Pupp, saving his money to buy a ticket to America, still just a boy, as they did in those days. That would likely have been the only place their paths could have crossed – not at the Prague coffee houses Kafka loved and certainly not at Charles University. But they did have one other thing in common, as did probably most young men of that time and place: authoritarian fathers.

Much is made of Kafka’s relationship with his authoritarian father – how when he published A Country Doctor, which he dedicated to his father, he gave him a copy and his father replied ‘Put it on the night table’. In our family story, when my grandfather was leaving the house at dawn to start his voyage to America, still in his teens, his father didn’t get out of bed to see him off, nor let his brothers do so. The story goes that the father said “We have to work tomorrow. We need our sleep.”

When I was little I took it literally: it was like a Grimm Brothers fairy tale, the youngest son of the exceedingly poor woodcutter family setting off to make his fortune, the father who worked so hard he couldn’t drag himself out of bed. But actually the family owned an inn, and when, older and aware of that, I heard the story again, I interpreted it differently: a father's integral, if harsh, statement of disagreement with his son’s decision,

Kafka is buried in the New Jewish cemetery in Prague. I assumed it would have been the Old Jewish Cemetery, which my mother had wanted to take us to visit when she first took us to Prague, but which the regime of the time had long kept closed, so that all we saw were photographs of it at the Jewish Museum. I only found out now that he is actually buried in the New Jewish Cemetery, as the Old Jewish Cemetery, as so often happens in Europe, was really old, having been founded by a King of Bohemia who appears in The Divine Comedy.

The New Jewish Cemetery was built in the 19th century and was planned to last one hundred years, the equivalent of 100,000 graves. Instead, it remains a sort of architectural monument which will probably never be completely filled. When the Nazis arrived in 1939, there were 118,000 Jews living in the Czech lands; 26,000 managed to get out, including Max Brod. Of those who remained, 80,000 were murdered by the Nazis, including all three of Kafka’s sisters.

Is this Kafkaesque or just Czech irony? According to Czech transport.com, the express train R 354 FRANZ KAFKA goes from Prague (Czech Republic) to Munich (Germany).

Recommended: Kafka's Prague : a travel reader by Klaus Wagenbach; translated by Shaun Whiteside

Ditulis Oleh : tosca // 03:30
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