June 2, 2021

Franz Kafka Here, There, and Everywhere (July 3, 1883 — June 3, 1924)

By Stuart Mitchner

Not Kafka again!” says my wife when I mention my plans for this week’s column. It’s true. I find his presence everywhere, most recently haunting an article in the front section of Friday’s New York Times about the reopening of The Vessel, “the labyrinth of staircases at Hudson Yards that closed four months ago after several people killed themselves there.” Related Companies, the developer, “had put measures in place to reduce the risk of suicides” among visitors to the “150-foot spiraling sculpture,” with its “154 interconnecting flights of stairs and 80 landings.”

No need to reference Kafka in the article, he’s there. He can also be read into baseball (K the symbol for a strikeout), and the current conspiracy-theory twilight zone of American politics. The first place I look when I need close-up one-on-one Kafka, however, is in my copy of Diaries 1914-1923, edited by his friend Max Brod. Say you’re reading around in the summer of 1917, you’ve been trying to find words for the sound the Brood X cicadas are making in the summer of 2021, and you land on a single line set apart from the surrounding entries:

“The alarm trumpets of the void.”

Does it come close to the surreal magnitude of a sound so monstrously impending that you seem to be seeing what you’re hearing? Close enough I think. In German, it’s Die alarmtrumpeten der Leere. The translator of this edition of Diaries is listed as Martin Greenberg, “with the assistance of Hannah Arendt.” Where does the line come from? It might be a fragment from a work in progress such as “In the Penal Colony” or “The Great Wall of China.” Whoever, however, wherever, all I know is Kafka pitched another K, a nasty slider that just caught the outside corner of the strike zone.

Magic Changes

The wonder of the diaries is that something worth reading at least twice is always just around the corner. For instance, the “alarm trumpets of the void” comes a few days after a July 31 entry that begins, “Sit in a train, forget the fact, and live as if you were at home; but suddenly recollect where you are, feel the onward-rushing power of the train, change into a traveler, take a cap out of your bag, meet your fellow travelers with a more sovereign freedom, with more insistence, let yourself be carried toward your destination by no effort of your own, enjoy it like a child, become a darling of the women, feel the perpetual attraction of the window, always have at least one hand extended on the window sill. Same situation, more precisely stated: Forget that you forgot, change in an instant into a child traveling by itself on an express train around whom the speeding, trembling car materializes in its every fascinating detail as if out of a magician’s hand.”

And you’ve been sharing a compartment on the train of changes with a traveler, a child, a darling, and the author of The Metamorphosis.

Departed June 3

Summer is arrival-departure time for Kafka the traveler, born on July 3, 1883, died on June 3, 1924, leaving instructions for his dear friend Max to incinerate everything he’d left behind “in the way of notebooks, manuscripts, letters,” all “to be burned unread and to the last page.” I was reminded of this last request when I came to Brod’s note explaining that the particular “manuscript notebook” I’d been reading consisted of only a number of loose leaves due to the fact that “much of it was torn out by Kafka and destroyed.”

Reading the entries from 1917 that Kafka thought worth saving heightens the experience, as in the entry from September 15 following on the first medical confirmation of the tuberculosis that will kill him seven years later (“You have a chance, as far as it is at all possible, to make a new beginning. Don’t throw it away.”). Beyond that, it’s a reminder of what Brod was up against when confronted by his friend’s dying request. If not for his enlightened disobedience, there would be no diaries, no Castle, no Trial, none of the material that made possible Kafka’s impact on the 20th and 21st centuries — a presence so unique and pervasive that his biographer Reiner Stach can describe him as “virtually the only author to have a logo that is known throughout the world.”

An Imaginative Technique

In Kafka: The Early Years (Princeton Univ. Press $35), which was translated by Princeton resident  Shelley Frisch, Stach places the invention of the “famous logo, the man-sized bug,” in the first months of 1907 when Kafka was trying to work his way into a project with the unlikely title, “Wedding Preparations in the Country.” Eduard Raban, the city-dwelling narrator-protagonist isn’t looking forward to the event, imagines a “debacle,” and “would willingly let any obstacle, no matter how minor, stand in his way.” He recalls “an imaginative technique he’d resorted to as a child when summoned to participate in any dangerous business,” which was to send a stand-in, “a clothed body that will suffer the consequences,” not an I or a he but an it that “stumbles on the stairs, travels to the country sobbing, and eats its supper there in tears while the narrator will be lying in his bed, “smoothly covered over with a yellowish brown blanket, exposed to the air wafting in through the barely open window.”

At this point, perhaps prompted by the “yellowish brown” of the blanket, Kafka tries out “something completely different”: “Lying in bed I have the shape of a large beetle, a stag beetle or a cockchafer I think … A beetle’s large shape, yes. I would then pretend it was a matter of hibernating, and I would press my little legs to my bulbous belly. And I would whisper a small number of words, instructions to my sad body, which stands close beside me, bent over. Soon I’m done, it bows, it goes off swiftly, and it will manage everything in the best way while I rest.” 

In Stach’s words, “This, then, was the birth of the famous logo, the man-sized bug,” except that Kafka soon realized he had no use for it in the story: “It was only a thought experiment that provided a brief source of  entertainment for the author.” As for the character, he had “to get moving, so Kafka put his suitcase in his hand, had him board the train in drearily, drizzly weather, and alight in a rural town in the pouring rain.” As Stach notes, while  the rest of the pages are lost, enough remains to “reveal that Kafka had already given up the bug idea for this text.”   

  An Alarming Letter

In the “Backgrounds” section of his edition of The Metamorphosis (Modern Library 2013), which he also translated along with the related supplementary material, Stanley Corngold includes an October 8, 1912, letter that Max Brod felt he had to share with Kafka’s mother. What made Brod “seriously afraid for Franz’s life” was the reference to pressure from both parents and now even Kafka’s younger sister, who has “abandoned me, with a monstrous lack of judgment.” Kafka feels “a wave of bitterness” going through his “whole body” as he imagines two alternatives, one banal, family-and-work related, the other “waiting until everyone had gone to bed and then jumping out the window.” And although he resisted the temptation to kill himself and turn “this letter into a letter of farewell, … I stood at the window for a long time and pressed myself against the pane, and several times I felt like frightening the toll collector on the bridge with my fall. But the whole time I felt myself too solid for this decision to dash myself to pieces on the pavement.”

What’s of special interest in this letter, as Corngold points out, is the way Kafka’s reference to his sister’s abandonment figures in Grete’s abandonment of her brother Gregor, which “provokes his death,” at the end of The Metamorphosis. Who or what dies? Her brother, the “monstrous vermin”? Corngold ends his introduction  speaking for Gregor — “I am not anything you have ever held me to be. I am neither man nor beast. You have never seen the likes of me. I am, dear reader, your most frightful possibility.”

Kafka and Whitman

Max Brod referred to his friend of  22 years as a “Diesseitswunder,” an earthly miracle. A similar term in any language would also serve for Walt Whitman, who is usually the poet of the moment on his birthday, May 31, Memorial Day. In conversation with his friend Gustav Janouch, Kafka reportedly said that Whitman’s poetry “found an enormous echo throughout the world,” combining “the contemplation of nature and of civilization, which are apparently entirely contradictory, into a single intoxicating vision of life.” (Conversations with Kafka, translated by Goronwy Rees, New Directions, 1971.)

The 18th annual marathon reading of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” will take place on Sunday, June 6. This year’s readers include Rosanne Cash, who invokes Whitman in her new song, “The Killing Fields.” The live Zoom reading, from 4 to 7 p.m., will be broadcast on the Walt Whitman Initiative’s YouTube channel.  The reading will also be recorded and available on YouTube and at waltwhitmaninitiative.org