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…