Why did America put Franz Kafka in such a good mood? As his friend Max Brod remembered, Kafka worked on his ultimately unfinished novel about the U.S. with “unending delight,” a noteworthy state for someone much more likely to be brooding about the big three (guilt, your father, corporeality) or writing pained letters to a distant love. In Amerika’s most upbeat passages, Kafka seems to take pleasure in romanticizing about the “New World,” imagining the U.S. as a beacon of equality and a decent hard day’s work. In this sense, the novel echoes plenty of earlier literature on America.
But more surprisingly, Amerika anticipates a newer form of Romanticism, one that is worth considering closely, because it has since become a major presence in fiction about the U.S. Briefly put, the New World got Kafka excited about the potential benefits—really, the transformational power—of being stupid: the magic of being out of touch.
This was something more than anti-intellectualism. This was pro-ignorance. Consider Amerika’s final chapter, in which the protagonist, a young immigrant named Karl, has reunited with friends and found a job with the “Nature Theatre of Oklahoma” after a long series of frustrating losses and wrong turns. According to Brod, this was Kafka’s favorite part of the book, a section he loved to read aloud. And although he never finished writing the chapter, he apparently would hint (with a big smile on his face) that “within this ‘almost limitless’ theatre his young hero was going to find again a profession, a stand-by, his freedom, even his old home and his parents, as if by some celestial witchery.” This was new territory for Kafka: magical thinking and happy endings.
But here’s what the happiness actually looks like: Karl and his friend Giacomo find themselves crammed into a train car on a long cross-country route. They become so giddy about the trip and the beautiful scenery they pass that they are completely oblivious to their immediate surroundings. The seats are so crowded they can barely move, and thick cigarette smoke makes it hard to breathe. Their cabinmates, who make fun of Karl’s and Giacomo’s naive excitement, pass the time by playing cards and grabbing and pinching their less-seasoned fellow travelers. Karl is stuck, in other words, in a low-paying and unpredictable job, in rough conditions, surrounded by people who get a kick out of harassing him. This trip is pretty clearly not going to be great. And the scene is able to suggest that Karl is rushing off to a blessed future only because he seems so dimly aware of what is actually taking place.
We’re familiar with the idea that ignorance is bliss, but, in the spirit of Amerika, the last century of fiction about the U.S. has flirted with the stronger notion that ignorance can heal. We will never learn exactly how Kafka’s dense traveler was going to reunite with family, friends, and home. But we now have a long list of novels that connect similar dots, turning states of density into moments of reunion and reparation.
My favorite example is Alberto Fuguet’s Las Peliculas de mi Vida, in which the 1992 Pauly Shore movie Encino Man becomes a symbol for finding love in America. The novel relates the life story of a disillusioned Chilean-American seismologist who is torn about returning to America after many years in Chile. When he finally decides to move to California to pursue a love interest he met at the beginning of the book—she’s an American immigration attorney, as if to hammer home the idea that the journey is national as well as personal—he writes her one last note: “I’d like and am afraid and hope” that we will meet again, he says, “P.S. I did see Encino Man … I thought it was pretty bad and—nevertheless—enjoyed it.” His hopes and fears speak to the possibility that love in the U.S. could change his life. His appreciation of what is arguably the most ridiculous movie of the ’90s shows that he’s ready.
Or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, in which the Nigerian protagonist, Ifemelu, falls in love for a while with Curt, a “relentlessly upbeat” American who “believed in good omens and positive thoughts and happy endings to films.” As Ifemelu explains, Curt is “admirable and repulsive in a way that only an American of his kind could be.” She eventually moves on. But her temporary attraction to Curt and the dense Americanism he represents helps the story eventually land where it does: “The best thing about America,” she claims near the end of the novel, “is that it gives you space. I like that you buy into the dream, it’s a lie but you buy into it and that’s all that matters.” Who knows what would have happened if Ifemelu had not found, albeit temporarily, this “space” of obliviousness?
This embracing of the forcefully unintellectual appears again in the conclusion of Michael Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, another novel about an immigrant’s journey to America. After a twisting and traumatic plot, Holocaust survivor Joe Kavalier has ended up living for several years as a recluse in Manhattan, unable to connect with his friends and family. And he returns to the fold by making a scene. In a stunt announced anonymously in the newspaper, he swings from the Empire State Building in an iridescent gold suit and mask.
The stunt, channeling the comic books Joe loves (and creates), makes no sense. But it works. When Joe’s estranged wife and cousin later ask why, he responds, “I guess this was the point … for me to come back. To end up sitting here with you, on Long Island, in this house, eating some noodles.” Somehow, the act of thrilling onlookers in a golden bathing suit and boots has enabled the refugee to rejoin the family he might not otherwise have seen again. It seems we can’t stop imagining stupid entryways into American life.
More recently, the second-generation Turkish-American Elif Batuman has styled herself as an idiot in The Idiot, an autobiographical narrative of her college years. In an interview, she refers to “moments of what felt like, in retrospect, stupidity” as distinguishing her path through Harvard to a successful career as a journalist and novelist.
We could go on: In Don Delillo’s White Noise, the goofy experiences of familial love that only seem possible in grocery stores; or the concluding image in Delillo’s Underworld, a novel steeped in issues of immigration and race in America: a billboard for orange juice that might or might not radiate divine forgiveness and plenitude after a tragic death (“they stared stupidly at the juice …’Did it look like her?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Are you sure?’ ‘I think so’”). Salman Rushdie’s American novels are more concerned with violent emotions that can’t be escaped (see: Fury), but he alludes to the healing powers of American unknowing when, in The Golden House, he has the narrator dream that he could be reunited with his son “and jump into Doc Brown’s DeLorean and fly back to the future and be free.”
I think this might be one of the last frontiers of Romanticism, informed by a stubborn unwillingness to give up on the idea that America is a place of new beginnings. Returns to childhood, the national volk, hedonism, intelligence: These have pretty clearly lost their punch. But ignorance, ironically enough, is a harder Romantic object to dismiss, because it’s the only mental state that can’t be accused of bad faith: It so obviously isn’t setting out to get anything done, so obviously isn’t part of a plan, how could it have an ulterior motive? Still, for perhaps obvious reasons, few literary or academic voices would admit to taking ignorance seriously. A notable exception is Avital Ronell, whose wide-ranging philosophical study, Stupidity, makes a case for its revolutionary potential. Ronell does not have much to say directly about American contexts, but at one point, referring to the blockbuster movie Forest Gump, she writes that “moral purity, American style, can be ensured only by radical ignorance.” This is, I think, the basic underlying hope that helps imagery of ignorance feel optimistic in fiction about the U.S. There’s something that feels desperate about all this fascination with American ignorance, especially at a time in which assaults against knowledge so powerfully shape our public culture—but Kafka’s brilliance was a form of desperation, too. And it will be interesting to see where the desperate Romanticism he foresaw ends up.
Image: Flickr/Rakkhi Samarasekera
On April 10, 1917, Dr. Siegfried Wolff of Berlin-Charlottenburg wrote to an unprolific but well-connected author about his recently republished story. The story had been originally rushed to publication under difficult wartime circumstances, but its author did have the opportunity to edit the galleys for a subsequent stand-alone volume. Anyway, Dr. Wolff was not interested in airy questions of prose style. He was unhappy:
You have made me unhappy.
I bought your “Metamorphosis” as a present for my cousin, but she doesn’t know what to make of this story. My cousin gave it to her mother, who doesn’t know what to make of it either. Her mother gave the book to my other cousin, and she doesn’t know what to make of it either. Now they’ve written to me. They want me to explain the story to them because I am the one with a doctorate in the family. But I am baffled.
Sir! I spent months fighting it out with the Russians in the trenches without flinching, but if my reputation among my cousins went to hell, I would not be able to bear it.
Only you can help me. You have to, because you are the one who landed me in this situation. So please tell me what my cousin ought to make of “The Metamorphosis.”
Dr. Siegfried Wolff
Though we have no record of Franz Kafka’s response, his biographer Reiner Stach points out that Dr. Wolff’s letter would be “a harmless harbringer of the enormous discursive surge that would descend upon [Kafka’s] posthumous writings a generation later.”
Several generations later, every student assigned to read “The Metamorphosis” is introduced to the myth: the quest to write a book that would serve as “an axe to break the frozen sea within us,” his unrecognized genius, the overbearing father, and the friend who refused to carry out his wish to have the unfinished work burned. Scholars and biographers have complicated that image without really challenging the myth. Kafka and friend and literary executor Max Brod, understandably, haven’t made their work easy. When he prepared Kafka’s work for publication, Brod excised passages from Kafka’s work that contained anti-Semitic material or details about brothel visits.
Even 40 years after Max Brod’s death, papers important to Kafka’s biographers were still mired in a long, complicated legal case. Towards the end of his life, Brod entrusted documents to his longtime lover Esther Hoffe. Instead of making them publicly available, she held onto almost all of the material until her death in 2008. Hoffe’s daughters inherited them and stated their intention to sell them to the German Literature Archive, which had bought The Trial from Esther Hoffe in 1988, rather than the National Library of Israel, to which Brod had ambiguously promised to donate them. The public debate about the papers has touched on Nazi history, Brod and Hoffe’s possible sexual debauchery, the “best interests of the scholars,” and the Hoffe daughters’ cat-lady reputations. Which is all to say, the Kafka trial was improbably Dickensian.
In 2012, the lawsuit was resolved, with the National Library of Israel being awarded the Kafka archives. Quoted in The New York Times, the Israeli writer Etgar Keret put it nicely, “The next best thing to having your stuff burned, if you’re ambivalent, is giving it to some guy who gives it to some lady who gives it to her daughters who keep it in an apartment full of cats, right?”
Biographer Reiner Stach held off on writing the first volume covering Kafka’s childhood until the lawsuit was resolved. That volume will draw on letters from Kafka’s childhood friends and Brod’s notebooks and diary that were held by the Hoffes. What Stach has given us so far are two-thirds of a brilliant, authoritative portrait: translated into English by Shelley Frisch, Reiner Stach’s Kafka: The Decisive Years and Kafka: The Years of Insight begin in 1910 and end with Kafka’s death in 1924.
Stach’s Kafka belonged to his contemporary world and stood estranged from it. In many of his stories, he masterfully reworked the Symbolist and Expressionist tropes that featured in his contemporaries’ writings — surreal transformations, enigmatic dialogue, alienated protagonists — as well as those of Jewish myth, Enlightenment philosophy, and the picaresque novel. Aside from the influence of Franz Grillparzer, Knut Hamsun, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (whom Kafka explicitly cited as influences), Stach also draws attention to the non-literary influences on Kafka’s work. He was an early cinephile.
Consider the Chaplin-esque sections in “Lawyer, Manufacturer, Painter,” (usually published as the seventh chapter of The Trial), in which lawyers charge up a flight of stairs only to be thrown down by a bouncer-like official:
On the other hand, any day not spent in court is a day lost for them and it was a matter of some importance to force their way inside. In the end, they agreed that they would try to tire the old man out. One lawyer after another was sent out to run up the steps and let himself be thrown down again, offering what resistance he could as long as it was passive resistance, and his colleagues would catch him at the bottom of the steps. That went on for about an hour until the old gentleman, who was already exhausted from working all night, was very tired and went back to his office.
His satire belies his own genius for legal work. Professionally, he was a diligent, detail-oriented bureaucrat. He spoke convincingly to groups of hostile entrepreneurs about the importance of insuring their employees at a time when the idea was exotic and strange. When he did choose to write prose that baffled Dr. Wolff, he did so with the same precision as he prepared legal memos.
Kafka’s interest in Yiddish theater also nourished his writing. He gave a successful speech before a performance by a group of “Eastern” Jewish theater troupes, pointing out the historical and literary significance of what amounted to “cultural exotica” for Jewish audiences in Prague. His performance, as a reporter described it, was remarkable: At the same time, he grew bored with or disenchanted with Yitzhak Löwy, a writer-actor who tried to bring artistic credibility to Yiddish theater.
Doubtlessly, his own personal mythology was an important source for his fiction. The biography is, of course, an exhausted corner of the vast Kafka industry. We know: in addition to being a zealous bureaucrat and an active member of Prague’s logrolling literati, Franz Kafka was an unusually fastidious craftsman of German prose. To wit, when he was near death, he demanded that his friend and literary executor Max Brod burn unfinished work, including The Trial, that did not meet his impossibly high standards.
But he had worked hard and felt “The Metamorphosis” had fulfilled its potential, if it still was not quite on par with “The Judgment.” Among all the myths surrounding Kafka, perhaps his own self-mythology is the most misleading and misled. Few readers would rate “The Judgment,” a frantic, claustrophobic, and humorless story, better than “The Metamorphosis.” Kafka though considered “The Judgment” a moment of transcendent creation. He wrote it in a single night, in the midst of an anxious, awkward courtship. Contrastingly, on January 19, 1914, he disparaged “The Metamorphosis,” the greater story of the two, which he had written in spurts, in his diary: “Great aversion. Unreadable ending. Imperfect almost to its core.”
Perhaps he was turning away from what his friends clearly recognized as autobiography. Or he was feinting. About “The Judgment,” he resisted the claim on technical grounds, saying “Then our father would have to be living in the toilet.” His Hebrew teacher recounts how, when speaking with someone who had read “The Metamorphosis,” Kafka “took a step back” and said “as though he were discussing a real occurrence, ‘That was a dreadful thing.’”
One of the successes of Stach’s biography is how well-drawn his friends and family are. Max Brod was a loyal friend and selfless promoter of others’ work. When Brod engaged in an ill-advised public dispute with Karl Kraus, though, you can sense his frustration at his standing in the larger republic of letters — a power-broker in a cultural outpost like Prague is considered a hack in Berlin.
His father, Hermann, who owned a luxury-goods store on Aldstader Ring, is also thoughtfully sketched. Clearly, he was a man who recognized the vulnerability of his social standing; in his lifetime, he was required to maintain his reputation in the community, overcome the financial imprudence of one son-in-law, distinguish himself at a time when anti-Semitism erupted regularly, and navigate the slow decline of the Austrian-Hungarian empire and the sudden emergence of Czech nationalism. To him, his son’s indifference to the family’s financial solvency and his own career advancement seemed like fatal dilettantism.
Kafka’s fiance, Felice Bauer, was a middle-class Berliner, sometimes dismissed by his biographers as unworthy of his devotions. She emerges as a complex figure in The Decisive Years. She was an accomplished office worker, comfortable with the sudden mechanization of the workplace. As Stach puts it, “Pragmatic, straightforward, and always grounded in reality, she oscillated daily between the pressure cooker of her family and the cold rationality of her office with no apparent ill effects. She seems to have adapted well to a professional world in which both maternal behavior and daintiness were scorned.”
She was pragmatic, even mercenary, in romance too. In the correspondence with Kafka, she also kept secrets to maintain an image of bourgeois propriety. From a private detective agency hired by Franz’s parents, she impressively managed to hide both an unstable brother and an unmarried, pregnant sister.
The clubby literary world of early-20th-century Prague, the anxious and unfulfilled courtship, the grinding filial obligations — none of it seems to promise an extraordinary literary career. What distinguished the Prague novelist and short-story writer from his contemporaries, the largely-forgotten Symbolist and Expressionist writers that he shared stage and page with?
He remains singular because his choices are not inevitable. There are no clear lines between his work and his aesthetics, history, biography, and philosophy. His literature is defiant, organic, and idiosyncratic. The ending of “The Metamorphosis” that he disliked so much is one of those singular moments that distilled the difference between Kafka and his peers: the Samsas, having rid themselves of Gregor, enjoy an idyll outside of their cramped apartment. Similarly, in “The Stoker,” the first chapter of Amerika, Kafka re-imagines the Statue of Liberty with a sword in its hand.
Despite setting his fiction in the U.S. or imperial colonies (neither of which he ever saw firsthand), it was Prague that he belonged to. Though Stach amply demonstrates how Kafka fully inhabited the city, its fringe theaters and its literary salons, Prague has had an uneasy relationship with its native son. He was Jewish and wrote highly personal fragments in German, which has not necessarily endeared him to later generations of nationalists. Yet there has been a reconciliation of sorts. Today, the Kafka Museum in Prague displays some of the seminal mementos of his life, including the unposted “Letter to His Father,” and scores of travel-visa requests when he was frantically trying to visit Germany during the war. It is located not far from the Charles Bridge, from which Kafka probably had Georg Bendemann leap to his doom.
That semblance of proximity is illusory though. As Stach points out in his epilogue, in the next 20 years,
The fate of many people he was close to was sealed, and countless traces of Kafka’s life that were left behind in the collective memory were wiped out. Letters, photographs, literary estates, even entire archives were destroyed. The violence that gripped the era often made it impossible to identify what was lost, and even to ascertain that it was lost. […] He would not have recognized anything left after the end of this catastrophic blow to civilization. His world no longer exists. Only his language lives.