Franz Kafka - a stranger in his home town

25-07-2004

Franz Kafka t-shirts, Franz Kafka mugs, Franz Kafka postcards, Franz Kafka Russian dolls - you name it, you'll find it on Prague's Old Town Square. Throughout the city centre a million gloomy Kafkas stare out with sad black eyes from under that characteristic black trilby. Kafka has become an obsession of Prague's tourist industry - so much so that true lovers of Kafka's work must sometimes feel tempted to go out and vandalize a few of the stalls and return a sense of dignity to the city's most famous literary son.

For all the kitsch, it may come as a surprise to people who do not know Kafka's work that he hardly ever explicitly refers to his home town. In a life that spanned forty-one years, from 1883 to 1924, Kafka only rarely left his native Prague, but in his major writings the city is never named.

Yet Prague is not far below the surface. British academic and Kafka scholar, Leon Yudkin:

"He doesn't explicitly in his narrative writing articulate the presence of Prague, but it is of course an unspecified background figure throughout all his work. We are very much aware of the Prague atmosphere, the alleyways, the confusion, the complexity, the history of the sights and the context of the city. Of course, Kafka was a Prague man through-and-through. Although he travelled a little, he was always a Prague resident, born, bred and lived almost all his life there, except for brief excursions beyond. He was very much associated with Prague and he's very much a writer that absorbs the Prague atmosphere and refashions it in his own work without calling it by its name."

"I stand on the end platform of the tram and am completely unsure of my footing in this world, in this town, in my family. Not even casually could I indicate any claims that I might rightly advance in any direction. I have not even any defense to offer for standing on this platform, holding on to this strap, letting myself be carried along by this tram, nor for the people who give way to the tram or walk quietly along or stand gazing into shopwindows. Nobody asks me to put up a defense, indeed, but that is irrelevant.
The tram approaches a stopping place and a girl takes up her position near the step, ready to alight. She is as distinct to me as if I had run my hands over her. She is dressed in black. the pleats of her skirt hang almost still, her blouse is tight and has a collar of white fine-meshed lace, her left hand is braced flat against the side of the tram, the umbrella in her right hand rests on the second top step. Her face is brown, her nose, slightly pinched at the sides, has a broad round tip. She has a lot of brown hair and stray little tendrils on the right temple. Her small ear is close-set, but since I am near her I can see the whole ridge of the whole of her right ear and the shadow at the root of it.
Ar that point I asked myself: How is it that she is not amazed at herself, that she keeps her lips closed and makes no such remark?"

Leon YudkinLeon Yudkin As is well-known, Franz Kafka's father was a successful Jewish businessman with a shop on the Old Town Square. "Within this little circle, my whole life is contained" Kafka wrote, as he looked out of his window onto the square. But as a German-speaking Jew, Kafka was almost predestined to feel an outsider in the city he knew so intimately.

"Prague was clearly a very vibrant cultural centre, but it was also an extremely complex cultural centre. Two languages vied for central position: Czech, the majority language, German the minority language for the residue of the Habsburg Empire. In addition to the clash, conflict or inter-relationship of the two languages, there's a third element, the Jewish element, who were very often German culturally, but Czech by virtue of the language which they were often speaking. Kafka is a good case in point, because his father was primarily Czech-speaking, yet insistent on his children receiving a German-language education, presumably to put them in contact with the wider world. Kafka, through this German education was put in touch with German literature."

In Kafka's writing the narrator is nearly always searching, but without knowing precisely what he is searching for; he has a sense of guilt, but does not know what crime he has committed. The world around him has rules that have to be obeyed, and yet the narrator is forever the outsider, unable to identify with or understand these rules.

Kafka's friend - and later executor - Max Brod, claimed that the writer's quest was part of his Jewish identity, that it was a search for a homeland - in the Zionist sense.

In his diaries and correspondence, Kafka certainly wrote of a fascination with Europe's Jewish past - especially with the old Talmudic culture of Yiddish-speaking Jews from the East, who seemed so much closer to their ancient roots than the assimilated Jewish population of Prague. But Leon Yudkin finds little evidence for Max Brod's strictly Zionist interpretation of Kafka's work:

"On the basis of the texts as we have them - and I guess that's what we've got to be content with - these problems are not resolved, and in The Trial, for example - in the parable of the traveller from the country - his search is not consummated, the gate is closed before him and he dies at that point. Kafka himself, in one of his epigrams, said that the Messiah will come eventually, but will come not at the end of time, but beyond the end of time. That is, the issue will not be resolved for us. What Kafka seems to do in this parable of the traveller from the country is to reverse the traditional prayer of the Day of Atonement service, when the congregant asks for the gate to be opened so that we can come in through the gate, and says that the gates are in fact being closed."

"Before the law stands a doorkeeper. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment. The man thinks it over and then asks if he will be allowed in later. "It is possible," says the doorkeeper, "but not at the moment." Since the gate stands open, as usual, and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man stoops to peer through the gateway into the interior. Observing that, the doorkeeper laughs and says: "If you are so drawn to it, just try to go in despite my veto. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the least of the doorkeepers. From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last. The third doorkeeper is already so terrible that even I cannot bear to look at him." These are difficulties the man from the country has not expected; the Law, he thinks, should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone, but as he now takes a closer look at the doorkeeper in his fur coat, with his big sharp nose and long, thin, black Tartar beard, he decides that it is better to wait until he gets permission to enter."

"Many of the central images of Kafka narrative are taken from Jewish sources, like the liturgy and Hassidic tales and rabbinic sources, not so much from the Hebrew Bible itself. So the sources of Kafka's writings are not well known or accessible to a large proportion of the public, but they are there, embedded in the text. But what he seems to be doing, as I read it, is to suggest that these paths which were once available for access are no longer available to us, or at least not to K or at least not to the central character of the novel. Brod would suggest, I suppose, that they were becoming available to him, and that they would have been available had he lived longer, but that is, to a certain extent, either speculative, or dependent on Brod's acquaintance with Kafka, which is not available to us. But that's the way I tend to read most of his writing."

This sense of being, as Jorge Luis Borges would later put it, in a labyrinth without knowing the way out, has led millions of people to identify with Kafka's world. Whatever the forces and impulses that were driving the author as he wrote, he seems to go to the heart of 20th century experience. Leon Yudkin again:

"He's managed to create a vibrant narrative, which is on the one hand extremely close to a recognizable reality, but on the other, touches on all sorts of unspoken and unrealized fears and perceptions that are very difficult to put into words."

Perhaps the story that most captures Kafka's world is "The Judgment". The central character, Georg, is writing to a friend abroad to tell him he is going to be married. He tells his ailing father about the letter, and in a gradual and deeply unnerving way, the whole story is turned on its head. His father suddenly turns against him, accuses him of betraying his friend and the memory of his mother, and in a frightening climax the father tells the son: "I sentence you to death by drowning."

"It does raise so many of the Kafka motifs - relationship of the individual to others, to his friend, relationship - crucially - to his father, relationship of subjugation and domination by the father, the extreme precariousness of life and even the option for death, the sense of being crushed by the will of the father, and perhaps finally the way in which the mood of the narrative can switch so fundamentally and totally from one thing to another, even to its opposite, so that the conviction of your own rectitude can suddenly become conviction of your ultimate guilt."

Kafka's statue in PragueKafka's statue in Prague "Georg felt himself urged from the room, the crash with which his father fell on the bed behind him was still in his ears as he fled. On the staircase, which he rushed down as if its steps were an inclined plane, he ran into his charwoman on her way up to do the morning cleaning of the room "Jesus!" she cried, and covered her face with her apron, but he was already gone. Out of the front door he rushed, across the roadway, driven toward the water. Already he was grasping at the railings as a starving man clutches food. He swung himself over, like the distinguished gymnast he had once been in his youth, to his parents' pride. With weakening grip he was still holding on when he spied between the railings a motor-bus coming which would easily cover the noise of his fall, called in a low voice: "Dear parents, I have always loved you, all the same," and let himself drop.
At this moment an unending stream of traffic was just going over the bridge."

And that brings our short excursion into the labyrinth of Franz Kafka's world to an end. My special thanks to Leon Yudkin, who teaches Jewish and Hebrew literature in London.

 

Books for this programme supplied by Shakespeare and Sons.

25-07-2004

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