Tuesday, April 2, 2013

the outlines of a cathedral loomed enormous in a dense haze

I have never been to Prague, but many people seem to imply that it’s a solemn sort of place. Mighty Reader reported years ago that when she was in Prague, nobody made any effort to speak to her, and she gave me the impression that Prague was a silent city of bridges and baroque buildings, and I imagine the shuffling of feet, the idling of car engines, the lapping of waters against marble banks and the inconsolable sound of a lone violin at twilight, the player and indeed the whole of the city lost in fog. I also imagine the calling of crows, Prague being the city of Kafka. Is my imaginary Praha anything at all like the real city? One doubts.

Kafka, from his home in Prague, wrote a fragmentary novel in 1912 about an imagined version of America. The novel was first published in 1927, after Kafka’s death, under the title Amerika, the title Kafka’s friend Max Brod chose. Kafka’s working title translates to something like “The Missing” or “The One Who Went Missing.” Brod’s choice is better, if you ask me.

Amerika is a comic novel, something you might not expect from the author of “The Metamorphosis” and “The Hunger Artist” and “In the Penal Colony.” Or, if you see Kafka as a comic writer (which I generally do), Amerika isn’t the sort of comedy you might expect. The two novels that keep cropping up in my head to compare themselves to Kafka’s book are both by Nabokov: Pnin and The Luzhin Defense. The tone is similar, as are the bafflement of the protagonist in regards to the world and the motivations of the supporting cast. Pnin, too (and Lolita for that matter) offers an imagined, metaphorical America, but Nabokov’s versions of America were at least written by a man who’d spent years in this country. Kafka’s “America” is formed from a few magazine articles he’d read and a great many imaginative leaps on the part of the author.

Many of Kafka’s protagonists are thinly-veiled stand-ins for Kafka himself. The version of the author making his way through Amerika is Karl Rossman, a fairly narrow-minded young man (a teenager, really) without much of an education or even a curiosity about the world, who has been banished to America after becoming involved in a bewildering (to Karl) scandal with a house maid. That may strike someone who’s never read Kafka as an improbable premise, but wait a few pages into the story until Karl meets—by sheer coincidence—his wealthy uncle Jacob, who has received a letter from the house maid imploring him to take an interest in Karl. Things proceed from there, in a Kafkaesque manner, with the hero buffeted by social forces he cannot decipher, in a foreign land.

Kafka’s America, oddly enough, also reminds me of the America to be found in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: everything is immense, and overbuilt, and loud and wasteful. A mansion with a large staff is mostly empty and in the process of being rebuilt, the electricity only having been run in one portion of the ground floor. A supply/distribution company’s eight-story corporate headquarters has a floor dedicated to technicians who listen in groups to business phone calls and afterwards compare transcriptions of the conversations in order to eliminate any possible errors. Uncle Jacob has ten separate offices in this building. Karl is given English lessons, riding lessons, and is soon to have piano lessons though his piano playing is poor enough that Uncle Jacob suggests that Karl might want to study the violin instead, or perhaps the French horn. New York is big and brash and while it’s absolutely fictional, it’s also true to life in a strange way, at least for me who has visited New York but never lived there very long. Kafka’s America, that is, seems fairly accurate so far, even if it is possibly merely nothing more than an anti-Prague. But here is Manhattan:

A narrow outside balcony ran along the whole length of Karl’s room. But what would have been at home the highest vantage point in town allowed him here little more than a view of one street, which ran perfectly straight between two rows of squarely chopped buildings and therefore seemed to be fleeing into the distance, where the outlines of a cathedral loomed enormous in a dense haze. From morning to evening and far into the dreaming night that street was the channel for a constant stream of traffic which, seen from above, looked like an inextricable confusion, forever newly improvised, of foreshortened human figures and the roofs of all kinds of vehicles, sending into the upper air another confusion, more riotous and complicated, of noises, dust and smells, all of it enveloped and penetrated by a flood of light which the multitudinous objects in the street scattered, carried off and again busily brought back, with an effect as palpable to the dazzled eye as if a glass roof stretched over the street were being violently smashed into fragments at every moment.

It’s that glass roof permanently being smashed that first reminded me of Nabokov, and something of the atmosphere of Amerika seems to permeate Invitation to a Beheading. Had Nabokov read Kafka? I have no idea. It doesn’t matter. Amerika is pleasing me so far. I’m reading the 1946 Willa and Edwin Muir translation that I bought used somewhere last year. Maybe in Canada.


  1. I've always wanted to visit Prague. It just sounds like a cool place.

    Kafka sounds interesting. I've never read him, but with this post, I think I just might. I like his description of New York.

    It's funny to me how writers from Europe either "get" New York or they don't. (writers from any era). Yes, it's big and noisy all the time, but some miss the subtlety underneath the masses, the excitement, the drama, the cramming of 8 million people onto one small island. There's an undercurrent there that can't really be explained unless you've visited or lived there for any length of time. I think that's the nuance of New York and why outsiders just don't get it. They think it's just big and noisy, but really, it's its own tangient entity.

  2. I always thought that what most people get wrong when writing about New York--even authors who live in New York--is that New York is merely another place. It's no more outlandish or amazing than a small town in the middle of Kansas. It's got 8 million or whatever inhabitants, but those people are just like the people in a town of 300. Which is to say, mostly oblivious to their surroundings and assuming that however they are is the standard for being normal. Another way of saying all of this is that people obsess with the surface, and NYC has a big surface with a lot of facets but underneath, the magic is the same as the magic anywhere else. Yet another way of saying that is that every place is special.

  3. I also realize that Kafka's description of New York's harbor as viewed from shipboard is very much like the description given by Henry James from his 1914ish essay about the city. The details differ, but the sense of giganticism and busy-ness are there.

  4. Nabokov said he read Kafka later, in America, in English, that his German was insufficient to read Kafka while he, VN, lived in Berlin.

    Some scholars have raised doubts about this story.

    I believe that is the state of the art answer to your question.

    The hint of Gatsby is good. Fitzgerald often feels like he is about to slip into a satirical fantasy world, and once in a while he does.

  5. I am now up-to-date in re Kafka via VN; thanks!

    Gatsby's car--with all the tinted windows and stacks of compartments on the dashboard--is very much a Kafkamobile.

    I have an idea for a short story or novella wherein Chekhov visits Prague in 1900 and drops in on a physician of his acquaintance. One of this physician's patients is Franz Kafka. There's an interview, some follow-up visits, a few long discussions about writing, and each man attempts to use the other as a character in a story. There will also be dream sequences and Kafka will find himself in a Chekhovian scenario while Chekhov--predictably enough--will find himself suddenly prey to a faceless and inscrutable bureaucracy which refuses to return his passport. None of which has anything to do with Nabokov, I see.

  6. Mmm. I would like to read that novella.

  7. I would like time to write it. I see it published in a volume paired with my take on Moby-Dick (excerpts mostly in verse from Ahab's diaries about the final voyage of the Pequod, where his entire crew but Ishmael abandons him; Ishmael retreats to the crow's nest where peg-legged Ahab cannot follow, coming down only in the middle of the night to raid the galley). I haven't written the Moby-Dick thing yet, either, but I have a detailed outline. It's called "There Once Was a Man From Nantucket." I'm not kidding.

  8. I've only read one thing by Kafka, but I have been to Prague. They had a cookie shop there that my aunt said had the best cookies on the planet. She was write. I really do dream of going there again.

  9. I just wrote WRITE. I meant RIGHT. I need to go sleep.