Zippering Together Almost Everything

Henry Sussman, billed on the ABC’s (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) programme The Philosopher’s Zone as visiting professor in German literature and philosophy at Yale, makes some good points to the presenter Alan Saunders in an episode entitled ‘Kafka and Philosophy’, broadcast in March. To paraphrase: following Borges, Sussman contends that Kafka didn’t so much anticipate as somehow encapsulate the virtual world that has come to encapsulate us. He calls Kafka’s tales ‘isomorphic’, in the sense that they represent the ‘zipper’ that knits together two different worlds (or symbolic orders), encrypting and transferring congruent meaning from one to the other. So Kafka’s long shadow isn’t only cast over the Holocaust, or the last century’s totalitarianism in sum, but also drifts darkly through the screen you’re currently examining.

Elsewhere on the programme, Sussman is less impressive; to say of Kafka’s writings that they pit the essential modern individual in his singularity against the Kantian transcendental is to zipper together almost everything with nothing at all, and we all understand the frustration occasioned when we run out of teeth, or the zip snags.

I listen to The Philosopher’s Zone on my iPod, stumping across Clapham Common on the return leg of the school schlep. Sussman points out, as have many, that the uncanny ambience of Kafka’s tales derives from this: once you accept the initial fantastical premise all else follows logically, as in a syllogism. It was this – at age 16, babysitting for a 4-year-old boy in the drowsy, privet-stinking Hampstead Garden Suburb, and reading Metamorphosis for the first time – that struck me so savagely about Kafka. His writings, which I went on to consume in the sluttish, triple-decker peanut-butter-and-jam way you read at that age, were all approached by me tactically, as blueprints for possible fictions of my own. This was the same way I read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22; not as a novel per se, but as a pattern book.

Zippering from The Philosopher’s Zone to an audio recording of Metamorphosis made by Librivox, a non-profit organisation (and such a splendidly deadpan and stilted reader, with a sort of barely humanised Kindle text-to-speech voice that’s just perfect for the material, contra Max Brod’s portrayal of Kafka as a reader of his own work whose musicality was so consummate that it took the place of any other musical sense), I am plunged in again to the very practical problems faced by newly verminous Gregor. The pathos of the story surely lies in this: since his predicament is laid out in such painstaking physical detail, there must also be a physical solution. And this leads me back to naturalistic fiction, a genre I have more trouble with than any other, for, surely, it too depends on the same syllogistic reasoning as Kafka’s; only in the case of these novels the premises are entirely commonplace: we breathe, we talk, we come and go…

In Prague, David Rath, a physician and Poslanec, or Member of Parliament, for the Social Democratic party, is arrested and charged with a raft of offences to do with corruption. Seven million crowns were found in a wine box that Rath alleges was given to him after a function, and when his house was searched a further 7 million were discovered under some floorboards. Liba Taylor, who’s been guiding me and Ian Potts of the BBC around Prague and its environs as we gather digital material for Kafka’s Wound, tells me this as we stroll across the old town for the fourth or fifth time, crossing and re-crossing the ornate medieval cage within which Kafka strutted out his days. The estrangement of the contemporary Czech Republic is and is not that of Kafka: the belief in the widespread corruption of the government is just as pervasive. It’s rumoured that the president, Václav Klaus, is a former KGB informant. And, of course, Milan Kundera, once the darling of Western readers, has long since been tainted with the accusation that he was an informer for the Czechoslovakian communist regime. One Czech said to me during my brief stay in Prague: ‘Everyone here is like a child who believes that if he covers his eyes he can’t be seen doing malicious things.’

I link this sense of an omnipresent and obscuring miasma of corruption with a form of collective amnesia: I remember being in Vienna years ago and, on becoming drunk, shouting at my host – a perfectly amiable wonk from some state arts organisation or other – ‘Where’re all the Tutsis?’ (This was shortly after the Rwandan massacres.) The same thing might well be shouted in Prague, where the small Jewish community Kafka belonged to was wiped out by the Nazis between 1941 and 1945. The bulk of them – 70,000 or so – were transhipped through the ghetto-cum-concentration camp of Theresienstadt (Terezin). I had always intended to visit Theresienstadt if I ever got to Prague. The dark star-shape of an Austro-Hungarian fortress hunches in the Bohemian countryside, a minatory cynosure, drawing unto itself all the miasmas of Central European nastiness: not only the Prague Jews – including Kafka’s favourite sister, Ottla, who was impressed through its grotesque ghetto on her way to Auschwitz – but Gavril Princip, the Serbian assassin of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who, in another strange kind of foreshadowing, breathed his last in cell no. 1 of the so-called ‘small fortress’ in the dying days of the First World War. The cause of death: tuberculosis; his physician: Jewish of course, one Lansky, who in due course was consumed by the Holocaust.

In Prague, Kafka seems reduced to the status of a logo rather than an icon: his streamlined marine features, smoothed back into his slicked-down hair, stare down from wall plaques and are painfully anodised in bronzes and bas-reliefs. At the premises of the former Workers Insurance Association where he clerked away his days, an international hotel has touched down, complete with a Brasserie Felice. The inappositeness is beyond caricature: the object of the writer’s queered affections immortalised in a café patronised by the ebb and flow of tourism, rather than any named individuals. Just as Kafka in life both belonged inextricably to Prague, and was at the same time inconsolably alienated from it, so the annihilation of the community to which he belonged has left a howling vacuum: his works were, of course, anathema to the Nazis and the communists. He is still barely taught in Czech schools: the logos exist to indicate way stations on the route of those consumers of place who might just as well be clip-clopping in a carriage hired by the hour, or squinting through a digital hagioscope at some other saintly figure.

When I ask them whether they have read Kafka, the visitors – from Australia, from Japan, from Germany – look a little confused: might this be a trick question? By the cod-Surrealist statue (a little Franz on the shoulders of a large paternal figure whose inexistent upper body is cowled by rigid bronze) that stands near the Café Savoy where he first saw the Yiddish theatre troupe which catapulted him into a reappraisal of his own Jewish heritage, I encounter two Russian philologists: Yes, of course, they’ve read one or two of his works, but they didn’t make that strong an impression. After all, they were considering them largely from a philological perspective…

An Empire of Vicissitude

‘For a good part of his work consists of tentative steps towards perpetually changing possibilities of future. He does not acknowledge a single future, there are many: this multiplicity of futures paralyses him and burdens his step.’

Elias Canetti, Kafka’s Other Trial

I’ve been thinking about Kafka and digital technology. I’ve been thinking about fingers sliding, panels soundlessly moving over and under one another, fingers scrabbling on slick surfaces: all the furniture of Kafka’s fictional realms. It at once possesses the specificity of imagery glimpsed and gazed upon in virtual spaces – be here, now – and its odd sense of non-locatable ubiquity: they are legion, all these family snaps and teeming egos, not to mention the bibliographies compiled by academic self-advertisers. I’ve been considering Kafka the technophobe: ‘I find that even in ordinary telephone conversations I can say nothing owing to my total lack of quick-wittedness.’ The telephone bamboozled him: ‘this invention which is new to me and which I hardly know how to deal with.’

The ‘hardly know’ strikes me as willed – to some extent. As always with Brother K you can’t help but feel like giving him a brisk slap round the chops and telling him to pull himself together. A correspondent suggests that the wound in ‘A Country Doctor’ is of the sort Kafka would’ve witnessed when he visited the industrial regions to the north of Prague as an insurance assessor. Maybe, but everywhere in K’s diary entries, letters and stories are wounds, blows, incisions and more abstract – but for all that undoubtedly somatic – ‘punishments’. It seems to me that Kafka, a swaddled soul – swaddled in class, cloaked in a minority community within a minority community within a minority community – feels the outside world always as a sharp instrument auguring its way towards him.

I’ve been wondering whether it is in fact this empire of vicissitude, at once null and instantiated, that his fictions finger towards, just as they operate as a sort of perpetual-secondary-text generating machine. Or is it only that every generation manufactures the Kafka they want, and while in the middle of the last century, the Kafka whose minatory tales foreshadowed the Holocaust and Soviet totalitarianism was, in contemporary governmental-business jargon, fit for purpose, now we require another kind of Kafka altogether? The constant here, surely, is irony.

I certainly was thinking about this last week, with the sky over the Thames low enough, grey enough and phantasmal enough to gladden a Monet on Mogadon. In some suite tucked up on top of the Royal Festival Hall a posse of heavyweight arts functionaries were gathered to launch the Space website. There were speeches – I may have said a few words. There were certainly those miniature Danish pastries without which no serious breakfast-time convocation can function. They grabbed me, the Danish pastries, and I thought of those Scandinavian high-concept cop shows – The Killing, The Bridge – that radiate such chilly and parochial bleakness with their washed-out palates of blues and greys. I’m always inveighing against the screen when I watch these shows: ‘This can’t possibly be happening, all these murders – because there’re only five people in Copenhagen!’ Yet at gatherings such as these London strikes me as a parochial city – you stick around long enough and you know everyone, or at least think you know everyone – which is worse.

I’ve been talking about building a Kafka’s Wound realm inside Brunel University’s Second Life cantonment (probably not the technical term, but Kafka would get it). I like the idea of people logging on and getting assigned Kafka avatars – Max Brod, Felice Bauer, Hermann and Julie Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Canetti, naturlisch – and then wandering in to one room where they see poor Franz having his first tubercular haemorrhage, then into another where the boy lies calmly with his gaping wound, then entering that wound, only to re-emerge on the sixth floor of the Festival Hall, where they’re offered a miniature Danish pastry.

‘Somewhat Original’

After doing a Spanish American short story course at university, I was lucky enough to discover the Hispanic masters like Rulfo, Cortázar, García Márquez and, by extension, Borges. Following some extensive reading of the works of Borges, I came across his prose writings in The Total Library in which he cited Kafka as one of the main influences on his ideas and literary techniques, and, thinking this was a great endorsement by a renowned author, bought this book. In October 2001. And I didn’t finish it until yesterday (March 2002). It was that boring. I actually reread the article in ‘The Total Library’ again, just to make sure I’d read it properly, and, there it was, Borges endorsing these hideous stories…and then it all fell neatly into place. Borges hadn’t actually tried to work along the same lines as Kafka, but wisely took another root [sic], which I personally believe was a good career move.

Of the stories featured in this collection (‘Metamorphosis’, ‘The Great Wall of China’, ‘The Burrow’, ‘The Penal Settlement’, and ‘The Giant Mole’), not one really stands out as being any good. Maybe ‘Metamorphosis’ is somewhat original, albeit with a predictable twist at the end, and perhaps the same is true of ‘The Penal Settlement’, but ‘The Burrow’ is just awful, and ‘The Great Wall of China’ I can’t even remember (thankfully). ‘The Giant Mole’ wasn’t mind-blowing either.

Anyway, if you have enough money to buy this, make sure you have the sense not too. If you want some short stories, good ones, get Collected Stories by García Márquez, Labyrinths or The Book of Sand by Borges, or Blowup and Other Stories by Cortázar, but spare yourself this collection!

I’m not sure what the copyright issues are with quoting from an Amazon reader’s review of ‘Metamorphosis and Other Stories’ (in the Edwin Muir translation), but there’s something so very refreshing about the line ‘Maybe “Metamorphosis” is somewhat original.’ With this humble dyad ‘somewhat original’ the nameless reviewer brushes aside the entire ossified charnel house of Kafka hagiography; the presumption that the Master cannot be assailed on this front – as on so many others – has become an article of faith for generation after generation of those who minister to the canonical.

It all begins with ‘Metamorphosis’ for me: with ‘One morning Gregor Samsa awoke to discover he had been transformed into an enormous cockroach.’ (Or ‘vermin’ depending on which formulation you prefer.) I first read it at age 16 while babysitting for a four-year-old, who cropped up again years later in disturbing circumstances, and I mark this down as a key moment in my development as a writer. The point being: creating suspension of disbelief in a reader is pretty much a question of saying, take it or leave it, either you buy the man-bug transmogrification or you don’t. There’s not a lot I, the writer, can do to gussy it up. The willingness to rock out of bed with Gregor, to scuttle around on the floor with Gregor, to be vilified and persecuted and reviled alongside Gregor, this is all within your remit as a reader.

It seems to me it is this – the experiential basis of belief – that Kafka draws us back to again and again. That’s why movement is so crucial to him: without movement there can be no existence, without existence – for sure – there can be no belief. Kafka’s tales lash and curl, they undulate and flick. In ‘A Country Doctor’ the motion is instantaneous, hallucinogenic – we are here, then we are there. Perhaps the unnamed Amazon reader of ‘Metamorphosis’ should have tried approaching the text a pied; possibly he or she found it so ‘boring’, because he or she remained static throughout the experience, expecting ‘originality’ to be poured in as fluid is to a vessel.

This, then, from one of Kafka’s final letters to his twice-failed-fiancée Felice Bauer, dated Prague, 9 September 1917: ‘Here is the reason for my silence: two days after my last letter, precisely four weeks ago, at about 5.00 a.m., I had a haemorrhage of the lung. Fairly severe, for ten minutes or more it gushed out of my throat; I thought it would never stop.’ It was this haemorrhage that led directly to Kafka’s diagnosis of tuberculosis – as he puts it later in the same missive: ‘ultimately my maltreated blood had to burst forth.’ Ten days later, having been packed off to the country for a protracted rest, he writes in his diary: ‘It is the age of the infection rather than its depth and festering which makes it painful. To have it repeatedly ripped open in the same spot, though it has been operated on countless times, to have to see it taken under treatment again – that is what is bad.’

Six days later he writes: ‘I can still have passing satisfaction from works like ‘A Country Doctor’, provided I can still write such things at all (very improbable).’ And then goes, faintly nauseatingly on: ‘But happiness only if I can raise the world into the pure, the true and the immutable.’ It could be that Kafka is referring to the entire collection of which ‘A Country Doctor’ is the title story, but it seems more likely that the haemorrhage and the wound in the story are in some sense corresponding: speaking through the rent tegument of Kafka’s throat.

It’s not exactly ‘mind-blowing’, this transliteration of the fleshly, but then nor is it ‘somewhat original’.