By Stuart Mitchner
Say you’re on a dream tour of literary capitals. Instead of London, you get off the train in the ramshackle world of Dickens. Instead of Paris, you disembark in the swarming, exciting metropolis of Balzac. Each time your expectations will be satsfied and exceeded by a variety of metropolitan possibilities. But if the train stops at Kafka, it’s another, darker story. The skies will be grey, if not drizzling, the wind will be stiff and harsh, the station will have a dreary, haunted look, and two men in overcoats will intercept you before you have a chance to get your bearings. They want your papers, only you have the wrong papers it seems. But who’s complaining? This is the scene the guidebook promised. It’s only a dream, so enjoy your stay in Kafka, even if you don’t get out alive or in your right mind.
But imagine arriving in the sunlit splendor of another city with the same name, the station lined with smiling booksellers whose carts are stocked with volumes rich and strange. The station master not only shakes your hand, he gives you a hug. Everyone’s glad to see you. The girl driving the cab that takes you to your hotel is unthinkably charming, speaks English with an adorable accent, and offers to show you around town (by now the rain is gently falling), no strings attached, no design on your wallet. Would you be disappointed? Ask for your money back? Well, maybe.
Inspired by a Mistake
Just putting Kafka’s name at the top of this column is the equivalent of saying, “Close the curtains and prepare to be unnerved.” And it’s true that I’m returning to what might be called the scene of the crime, since a mistake is what set everything in motion. In my March 13 piece on Stanley Corngold’s new book Walter Kaufmann:Philosopher, Humanist, Heretic, I incorrectly attributed a quotation from Kafka to the “Letter to His Father” when in fact, the passage comes from Dearest Father (1953), a collection of writings centered on that famously unsent letter.
My atonement has been to read around in Kafka’s short fiction, sample some chapters from Amerika, his unfinished first novel (as are they all), and, in particular, plunge at random into The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1914-1923, edited by his close friend and executor Max Brod. As with the diary entries, I found the quotation in question at random, as if by accident, in the notes at the back of Corngold’s book. Here it is again: “I feel too tightly constricted in everything that signifies Myself: even the eternity that I am is too tight for me. But if, for instance, I read a good book, say, an account of travels, it rouses me, satisfies me, suffices me….From a certain stage of knowledge on, weariness, insufficiency, constriction, self-contempt must all vanish: namely at the point where I have the strength to recognize as my own nature what previously was something alien to myself that refreshed me, satisfied, liberated, and exalted me.” more