To mark the anniversary of the publication one hundred years ago of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Radio 3 offered a week of varied and interesting programmes, collectively entitled In The Shadow Of Kafka which examined the legacy of the novella, with contemporary writers and dramatists exploring Kafka’s life and work.

Franz Kafka
Franz Kafka

The season opened with In the Shadow of Kafka: Prophet of Prague, a documentary presented by Misha Glenny, who worked as a journalist in Prague in the 1980s (I remember reading his first book The Rebirth of History, published in 1990, which sought to understand the reasons for the sudden collapse of the communist regimes in eastern Europe a year earlier and determine what the future post-communist political landscape of the region might look like.

In the programme Misha Glenny visited locations in Prague associated with Kafka and explored how the writer’s reputation and visibility there had varied with successive changes in the political climate.

Born in 1883, Kafka essentially lived his whole life within a square mile of the Old Town Square. The street on which he was born, in the former Jewish ghetto, is now named Namésti Franze Kafky (Franz Kafka Place), though the house is gone, since most of the quarter was demolished between 1893 and 1913 as part of an initiative to remodel the city on Paris.

Kafka's birthplace in Prague
Kafka’s birthplace in Prague

Misha Glenny noted that, having been born into a middle-class, German-speaking Jewish family, Kafka was an outsider twice over. Before the First World War, Prague was the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In Kafka’s lifetime, most of the population of Prague spoke Czech, and the division between Czech- and German-speaking people was a tangible reality, with both groups developing a strong sense of national identity. Kafka was fluent in both languages, and considered German his mother tongue.

Kafka home on Old Town Square
Dum U Minuty, the Kafka home on Old Town Square

When Kafka was six years old the family moved to a bigger apartment, and between 1889 and 1896, they lived at Dum U Minuty on Old Town Square.  After studying law at Prague university (where he met Max Brod, his life-long friend and future biographer), Kafka worked as an insurance lawyer for 14 years at the Workers Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia where his job involved investigating and assessing compensation for personal injury to industrial workers.

Golden Lane, site of another Kafka home.
Golden Lane, where Kafka lived from 1916 to 1917.

In 1916, Kafka rented a medieval cottage in Golden Lane with his sister Ottla. There, in the shadow of Prague Castle, writing in the evenings after work he found inspiration for The Castle. In his documentary, Misha Glenny examined the influences on Kafka’s ideas: the esoteric philosophies that circulated in Prague’s cafes, the politics and paranoia of an empire in decline, and the rising tide of Czech nationalism which threatened to engulf the Jewish old town where the Kafka lived.

What do I have in common with the Jews? I don’t even have anything in common with myself.
– Franz Kafka

Tracing Kafka’s legacy in Prague, Glenny discussed how the themes in his work – of alienation, panic and the struggle to make sense of the world – were thought so dangerous in the decades of Nazi occupation and post-war Soviet communism that his works were suppressed.

Then, in 1963, a conference held in Liblice on the eightieth anniversary of his birth, reassessed the importance of Kafka’s portrayal of bureaucracy. Unanticipated by the official organizers, the conference rejected the orthodox position – that Kafka’s depictions of alienation were no longer relevant in a society that had eliminated alienation. During impassioned debates, opinions ranged from the argument that he had satirised the bureaucratic bungling of a crumbling Austria-Hungarian Empire, to renewed emphasis on Kafka’s own expressions of socialist views.

With Kafka experts, Glenny discussed whether the writer had been a prophet of horrors to come, noting that Kafka’s three sisters died in Nazi concentration camps. Though Kafka lived at a time when the old Austro-Hungarian empire with its vast bureaucracies was disintegrating, Glenny concluded that his visionis timeless and universal.

Kafka's grave in Prague
Kafka’s grave in Prague

Complementing Misha Glenny’s survey, throughout the week The Essay on Radio 3 presented five writers’ interpretations of Kafka, ranging from Margaret Atwood (revisiting an essay she wrote on Kafka when she was 19 years old) to Liverpool-born playwright Jeff Young (whose play Bright Phoenix I saw at the Everyman last year). In his essay, entitled ‘Transformer‘, Young discussed the powerful impact that Kafka’s work has had on him as a reader and, to a degree, as a person and as a writer.

Jeff Young first encountered Kafka in the 1970s as a Liverpool teenage ‘scruff-bag’ when his art teacher put John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme on the turntable during an art lesson and read aloud from Metamorphosis, ‘intoning like a beat poet over Coltrane’s saxophone’:

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.

Young recalled how, after the lesson was over, he picked up the book from which his teacher had been reading – a Penguin Classic edition with a cover that featured a strange creature drawn by Max Ernst. For Young, the experience had been as if he had woken from his own uneasy dreams and passed from one state into another. Transformed.

One consequence was that, at a time when ‘there were at least a dozen bookshops in Liverpool’, he would haunt them on Saturdays and days skiving off school.  In a comic shop on Moorfields he found his own copy of Metamorphosis. Starting to read it for himself over a pint in the Masonic pub, Young realised that, from now on, he had to live ‘in a world of strange, wondrous things’.

Kafka Metamorphosis cover 1967 Max Ernst, Le Hibou
Metamorphosis: the 1967 Penguin cover featuring Max Ernst’s Le Hibou

Young devoted a good part of his essay to muse upon the nature of translation: not able to speak German, how did he know that the translator was telling the true story and not intervening between the writer and his original words? Young grew to feel that there was a space between the German language telling of the tale and its English translation – ‘a mysterious zone of misunderstanding’. But this uncertainty thrilled Young, making Kafka’s books even more strange and alien.

Over time, Young collected and compared every new edition. He came to understand the nature of translation: how it sits between the writer and the words and how, in that magical space, the reader can discover his or her own version of the author and his intention.

Young gave examples of how even the famous opening line of Metamorphosis has varied in translation, with Gregor awakening as an ‘insect’, a ‘cockroach’, a ‘bug’ and a ‘monstrous vermin’.  (When I read the book as a student in the sixties it must have been the ‘cockroach’ version, for that is how I’ve always imagined it since.)

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.

What did Kafka want us to imagine? Young wondered whether it was Kafka’s original intention to make us uncertain, unable to identify the nature of the beast that Samsa had become. From Max Brod’s diary we know that after Kafka had completed the novella in late 1912 he read sections of it baloud to his friends. They, and Kafka, referred to it as his ‘bug piece’.

Kafka’s protagonist, Gregor Samsa, is the quintessential Kafka anti-hero. He has worked himself to the point of utter exhaustion to pay off his parents’ debts, and his grotesque metamorphosis is the physical manifestation of his abasement. So what exactly has he been transformed into? Jeff Young pointed out that when the story was published, Kafka was adamant that no insect should be depicted on the book’s cover. Although he and his friends used the word ‘bug’ when referring casually to the story, the words he used in the German original have been carefully chosen to leave things vague. Kafka uses the term Ungeziefer to describe Samsa’s new state. But as the translator Susan Bernofsky pointed out in article for the New Yorker in 2014 this raises all kinds of difficulties for the translator:

The epithet ungeheueres Ungeziefer in the opening sentence poses one of the greatest challenges to the translator. Both the adjective ungeheuer (meaning “monstrous” or “huge”) and the noun Ungeziefer are negations – virtual nonentities -prefixed by un. Ungeziefer comes from the Middle High Germanungezibere, a negation of the Old High German zebar (related to the Old English ti’ber), meaning “sacrifice” or “sacrificial animal.” An ungezibere, then, is an unclean animal unfit for sacrifice, and Ungeziefer describes the class of nasty creepy-crawly things. The word in German suggests primarily six-legged critters, though it otherwise resembles the English word “vermin” (which refers primarily to rodents). Ungeziefer is also used informally as the equivalent of “bug,” though the connotation is “dirty, nasty bug”—you wouldn’t apply the word to cute, helpful creatures like ladybugs. In my translation, Gregor is transformed into “some sort of monstrous insect” with “some sort of” added to blur the borders of the somewhat too specific “insect”; I think Kafka wanted us to see Gregor’s new body and condition with the same hazy focus with which Gregor himself discovers them.

Jeff Young finished by suggesting that perhaps Kafka deliberately transformed his protagonist into something that can’t be accurately translated: Samsa doesn’t know what kind of creature he’s been transformed into, and neither do we – and neither should we. He is unnameable.

Young concluded, ‘I still don’t know what Kafka intended when he wrote his stories and I still don’t completely trust his translators.’ But, he said,  Metamorphosis had transformed him as a reader and, to a degree, as a person and as a writer, ‘opening me up to the alien spirit of strange imagination’.

In another essay, Karen Leeder, a translator and Professor of Modern German Literature at New College, Oxford, discussed Kafka’s use of messengers and messages and the significance of communication in his work. Often, argued Leeder, the point of the story in Kafka’s works is not so much its meaning as the act of conveying a message itself.

Leeder chose as her main example a short (very short!) piece by Kafka – A Message from the Emperor – that was new to me (in fact, listening to these talks made me realise how limited my reading of Kafka has been). Leeder described how Kafka’s tale begins with the emperor, from his deathbed, sends you a message, a message for you alone.

But, in a series of short sentences that read as if watching a film in slow-motion, Kafka reveals the impossibility of the message ever arriving. The palace has ring upon ring upon ring of walls, successive outer palaces, and the messenger has to get through one after the other.  But the palace is vast and the messenger will never succeed for beyond the palace ‘still lies the royal capital, the middle of the world, piled high in its sediment’. Kafka’s conclusion is haunting: you will never hear the message intended for you alone. Yet you sit at your window and dream of it every evening.

Here’s the story:

The Emperor—so they say—has sent a message, directly from his death bed, to you alone, his pathetic subject, a tiny shadow which has taken refuge at the furthest distance from the imperial sun. He ordered the herald to kneel down beside his bed and whispered the message in his ear. He thought it was so important that he had the herald speak it back to him. He confirmed the accuracy of verbal message by nodding his head. And in front of the entire crowd of those witnessing his death—all the obstructing walls have been broken down, and all the great ones of his empire are standing in a circle on the broad and high soaring flights of stairs—in front of all of them he dispatched his herald. The messenger started off at once, a powerful, tireless man. Sticking one arm out and then another, he makes his way through the crowd. If he runs into resistance, he points to his breast where there is a sign of the sun. So he moves forwards easily, unlike anyone else. But the crowd is so huge; its dwelling places are infinite. If there were an open field, how he would fly along, and soon you would hear the marvellous pounding of his fist on your door. But instead of that, how futile are all his efforts. He is still forcing his way through the private rooms of the innermost palace. Never will he win his way through. And if he did manage that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to fight his way down the steps, and, if he managed to do that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to stride through the courtyards, and after the courtyards through the second palace encircling the first, and, then again, through stairs and courtyards, and then, once again, a palace, and so on for thousands of years. And if he finally burst through the outermost door—but that can never, never happen—the royal capital city, the centre of the world, is still there in front of him, piled high and full of sediment. No one pushes his way through here, certainly not someone with a message from a dead man. But you sit at your window and dream of that message when evening comes.

The Trial: the doorkeeper at the entrance to the Law in the Orson Welles film
The Trial: the doorkeeper at the entrance to the Law in the Orson Welles film

Something about this story’s atmosphere made me think of The Trial, in which a man from the country comes to the capital and seeks to gain entry to the Law through a doorway guarded by a doorkeeper. The man waits by the door for years, bribing the doorkeeper with everything he has. The doorkeeper accepts the bribes, but tells the man that he accepts them only ‘so that you do not think you have failed to do anything.’ The man waits at the door until he is about to die:

Now he has not very long to live. Before he dies, all his experiences in these long years gather themselves in his head to one point, a question he has not yet asked the doorkeeper. He waves him nearer, since he can no longer raise his stiffening body. The doorkeeper has to bend low towards him, for the difference in height between them has altered much to the man’s disadvantage. “What do you want to know now?” asks the doorkeeper; “you are insatiable.” “Everyone strives to reach the Law,” says the man, “so how does it happen that for all these many years no one but myself has ever begged for admittance?” The doorkeeper recognizes that the man has reached his end, and to let his failing senses catch the words, roars in his ear: “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.”

Like many, I read Kafka as a student in the sixties, but my my reading was limited to Metamorphosis, The Castle and The Trial (the latter read, I think, after I had seen Orson Welles’ nightmarish film version.  A re-reading of those books is long overdue, I reckon – as well as an exploration of the works I never read.

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3 thoughts on “In The Shadow Of Kafka: the prophet of Prague

  1. When I first heard that Max Brod and other of Kafka’s friends roared with laughter at Kafka’s work I wondered what we were losing in the translation. The original German that you quote in the passage by Susan Bernofsky I find particularly illuminating by revealing another layer to the story. Gregor Samsa has sacrificed himself for his family but to no avail as he is treyf, unclean, non-kosher. So many layers! I must go back and re-read his books. Thanks.

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