At “Kafka in America” last Thursday evening in New York, a remarkable panel of writers gathered to celebrate a new translation of Kafka’s Amerika: the Missing Person, translated by Mark Harman. Participants included novelists Louis Begley, Norbert Gstrein, Lynne Tillman, and Colm Tóibín along with translator Harman and critic Jonathan Taylor, who served as moderator.
In ACF’s beautiful wood-paneled theater, ACF Director Andreas Stadler greeted us with a few words of welcome. Deputy Director and head of literary and film programs Martin Rauchbauer talked briefly about how the event came about. Then Taylor introduced the panelists, compressing his bios in the interest of time, and thereby omitting date-of-birth from all introductions except Tóibín’s, at which Tóibín feigned offense [laughter].
Harman opened with a few remarks about literary translation (“a solitary activity”) and how much Kafka enjoyed reading his works aloud, often laughing, and evoking laughter, as he did so. Harman then read aloud from the first five pages of his translation of the novel, in which hero Karl Rossmann lands in New York and immediately finds misadventure.
At the passage, “Karl … had heard a great deal about the dangers facing newcomers in America, especially from Irishman,” Harman pointed an accusing finger at County Wexford native Tóibín to his right, who in turn pointed back at his Dublin-born accuser. [Laughter.]
Noting Begley’s birth in pre-war Poland and immigration to New York in the 1940s, Taylor asked him to share his thoughts on Amerika.
Begley observed that Kafka was the son of the first generation of people from his background (German-speaking Jews) who had “made good in Bohemia.” German-speakers were a small minority in Bohemia, but they were in the ascendency. At the time, all attention in Europe was fixed on the United States. But when we talk about Kafka it’s a mistake to place too much emphasis on traditional notions of the immigrant’s dream of America. Middle-class Jews had a comfortable life in Prague. In fact, Kafka was always talking about going not to America but rather to Jerusalem. He didn’t go, because he was comfortable in Prague.
Begley went on to say that he had to disagree with Harman — referring not to Harman’s remarks at the event, but rather to Harman’s introduction to Amerika — “I think too much can be made of the fact that Kafka had read Holitscher.”
Kafka already knew about America from other sources — he had two distant cousins who had succeeded in America. But the important thing to remember is that Kafka set out to write an adventure story. It’s about his storytelling ability, not his sources.
After making these points, Begley smiled and said, “I’ll now sit down for the rebuttal.”
Harman responded genially that he wouldn’t disagree about Kafka’s storytelling ability, but Kafka being a conscientious sort — he was a lawyer, after all — he no doubt thought he should do some reading. There are several places, Harman pointed out, where Karl remarks on things he has read about America, which tells us that Kafka knew those sources as well.
Harman went on to note, however, that great writers don’t merely rest on their historical research — they also transform it. He said, “If you think of Joyce’s story ‘The Dead,’ ‘Furey’ is a west of Ireland name certainly, but ‘Furey’ also stands for passion.”
In closing, he reiterated that he didn’t completely disagree with Begley — at which point Begley interjected: “That’s good, because I’m right!” [Laughter.]
Taylor then addressed Tillman, noting that in her novel American Genius she had written about Kafka and the interplay of freedom and constraint. Tillman said she felt Amerika was “like Franz Kafka speaking through Lewis Carroll.” She pointed out that Amerika has a more optimistic hero than we find in Kafka’s other works. Nevertheless, in Kafka freedom is something that will always be withheld from one, because there is always a higher power. She quoted the line, “only the unimaginable is not expressly forbidden.”
Tóibín then spoke. He said that the characters in Amerika were “in constant struggle, constantly under threat.” “There are times I’ve wondered if the news were beginning to leak out” that America was in fact a frightening place. He noted that you see the same darkness in Henry James — the scale of the city as frightening and disturbing, the immigrant masses as inhuman (ants, insects) or dehumanized. Amerika seems like an anomaly in Kafka’s work — unless you recognize this darkness.
Finally, German novelist Norbert Gstrein, sitting at the far right of the stage, was asked for his thoughts.
“I’m not sure if the novel is set in America,” he began provocatively, though none of his fellow panelists took the bait. “I couldn’t help feeling that Karl in the novel is not heading west but rather east.”
He said he first read Amerika in his youth, and didn’t like it. Only on later rereading did he come to admire it.
Gstrein noted that the country Karl visits is rich but also totalitarian. Perhaps he’s not in New York but rather Moscow. In the final chapter ["The Nature Theater of Oklahoma"], it feels not like America but rather like the world of the dead, given the angels with trumpets, etc.
Harman noted, with regard to the last chapter, that Kafka misspelled “Oklahoma” more than once in his manuscript as “Oklahama” — a mistake which is also present in Holitscher.
Tillman noted, “It often makes you feel foolish to interpret Kafka,” given the multiplicity of meanings in his works.
Harman noted that the book had been neglected in the United States since its first publication here in 1940, and wondered whether the reason was that its portrait of America was not really very flattering. Another panelist mentioned that perhaps the date of publication was a problem, on the verge of a world war.
It was Begley who addressed the unspoken point — that perhaps the book was not very good. He said that, like Gstrein, he didn’t initially like Amerika when he first read it. “It seemed half-baked. I made many trips to Amerika,” he joked, before he came to admire the book. And indeed, the book is half-baked — but the reader is utimately won over by Kafka’s storytelling.
Begley also raised the interesting point that Kafka identified David Copperfield as one of the influences on Amerika. Begley compared Karl’s forced emigration to David being banished by Murdstone and sent to work in the blacking factory. The implication here was that Kafka didn’t need reports from America to learn about the miseries of urban life — he knew them already from Dickens.
Tóibín then talked about Nabokov’s copy of Metamorphosis, which is in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library. The copy has both Nabokov’s and his wife Vera’s handwriting in the margins, written as the two combed through the translation for weaknesses.
This is particularly funny, Tóibín noted, when you consider that Nabokov admitted that he had no German. [Laughter.] But maybe you don’t need to speak the language in order to critique a translation. [Laughter.] Maybe it’s even a hindrance! [Laughter.] But Tóibín said he loved thinking of Nabokov and Vera in this kind of “performance” together.
Changing subjects, Gstrein noted that literary studies had not served Kafka well in at least one respect — it has “robbed him of his body.” Kafka was physically active, he had fun, he participated in life — this is missing in our picture of Kafka.
At this point someone in the front row interrupted to note that The Office Writings provided a useful corrective, though we were all left to wonder how reading “Fixed-Rate Insurance Premiums for Small Farms Using Machinery” brought us closer to the flesh-and-blood Kafka.
Returning to his theme, Gstrein mentioned a scene in Philip Roth’s The Professor of Desire, in which Roth’s hero Kepesh, on a visit to Prague, dreams of meeting a prostitute whom Kafka himself had patronized. Kepesh asked the prostitute what services Kafka had requested. Gstrein’s translator, rendering his words into English, at this point smiled at Gstrein and asked “should I say it?” She did — in a slightly cleaned-up version that Gstrein explicated afterwards, over drinks.
(Cheers to Jonathan Taylor for the terrific job moderating the panel, and thanks to Bud Parr, my old lit-blogging confrere, and his Words Without Borders contributors Nicolle Elizabeth and David Varno for the stimulating company before and after the event.)