The Jackdaw Takes Flight

In Tarkovski’s Solaris the academicians discuss the preposterous claims made by Bertin, one of the space pilots who have investigated the eponymous planet, with its total covering of a colloidal ocean that mutates . . . What Bertin claims to have seen – formal gardens, a giant baby – is beside the point: it is the shot out of the window of the Academy, between Venetian blind slats, of a light-grey day, across which a blackbird, or possibly a jackdaw, heavily flutters. David Thompson said of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive that it was a movie he wouldn’t mind watching all the time, and that’s how I feel about Solaris, which I first saw, on general release, as a child (it was billed as ‘The Russian 2001’), and which I tend to view again most years.

The blackbird, or jackdaw, flutters across the Brutalist window. Inside I sit with the academicians; in this case they are from Brunel University and have been asked to a meeting where we will propose to them that they provide digital content for ‘Kafka’s Wound’. The first person to arrive, Andreas Kortenkamp, is a German-speaker of about my own age. I ask him about his relationship with Kafka, and he says he wasn’t much read by him or his contemporaries when they were young: Hesse was the mystical hymnist of the Terylene 1970s in the Federal Republic. It occurs to me, again, that it is in the English-speaking world that Kafka’s work has had the most impact.

In ones and twos the academicians arrive. I give my pitch: the digital essay is to be through-composed, I will post my thoughts on the blog, and respond to any input I receive, no matter how various. I sense a certain scepticism, but when I’ve finished speaking the composer Peter Weigold tells me that in this period in music the Modernist Czech composers – Janacek, Martinu et al. – struggled to reach the same sort of accommodation in music with the new technological realm as Kafka did in prose. For Kafka it was the juxtaposition of traditional shtetl and Hassidic tales with the techniques of montage that he saw in German Expressionist cinema, for the composers it was the dangling of wind-chime folk tunes in atonal wind that blew through from Vienna. Peter offers to compose and record a Kafkaesque klezmer piece, and one of his graduate students has the idea that the music can then be subjected to a computer algorithm that will make it ‘decay’ throughout the life of the project – much as the wound itself decays. I think this is a provocative idea.

The digital arts specialists offer their take. Vanja Garaj is already on board as the overall web designer, and Paulina Blahova from Multimedia Technology and Design offers to do the banner graphics necessary for the site. Brunel University also has its own cantonment in Second Life. It should be possible, they say, to create a ‘Kafka’s Wound’ exhibition space within this with links to the Space website. Colleagues from the Drama Department ask whether or not I would wish for a performance piece of some kind, an adaptation of some, or all, of the Kafka story? I say: bring it on. Already a colleague in the School of Arts, Sean Gaston, has written a short essay on the wound in the story and its Biblical antecedents, and this has got me thinking about religious iconography and the degree to which Kafka (who, Max Brod tells us, spent much of his childhood looking down from the family home in the Old City of Prague on a lifesize statue of the Madonna) would have been to exposed to it.

The physicist Akram Khan suggests that there are parallels between the fictional realm of ‘A Country Doctor’ and contemporaneous discoveries in theoretical physics and cosmology, specifically the notions of black holes and wormholes. We wonder the extent to which Kafka may have been aware of Einstein or Max Planck’s work – and I put it to Khan that he owes it to us to produce a physicist’s analysis of the text. The biologist Ian Kill has already offered a clinical view of the wound – it’s believable apart from the worms – and I hope to prevail upon him and his colleagues to offer more work on the medical environment, including Kafka’s own treatment for tuberculosis, in which the wound was conceived.

After the meeting I receive an email from Mary Richards in the Art Department who says she is considering producing a piece of puppetry, in the style of the Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer, lifting off from the story and Kafkaesque notions of the absurd. I am enthusiastic, as Svankmajer is one of my favourite filmmakers, and like many English people of my generation I was brought up on a steady diet of Czech puppetry and animation shown on the BBC. I also receive an email from Broderick Chow in the School of Arts. A performance specialist, Chow nonetheless writes initially at a theoretical level, noting that Slavoj Zizek has interpreted the wound in ‘A Country Doctor’ in a Lacanian fashion as a tear in the symbolic order through which the real breaks through. Chow also cites Deleuze and Guittari on Kafka, and their contention that estrangement – the unheimlich quality – of Kafka’s language springs from his being a Czech writing in German. Chow connects totalising the capability of language with the Lacanian symbolic, and then suggests that in Jewish jokes the punchline is itself a sort of wound or rent in the fabric of commonsensical (ideologically constructed?) reality. He proposes a crowd-sourcing exercise: he will get friends on the comedy circuit to tell their favourite Kafkaesque jokes and relate these to the symbolic order of contemporary British bureaucracy.

Once more I’m enthusiastic, not least because I like the idea of outsourcing these theoretical concerns. I feel at a deep level that the constant seesaw in Kafka’s writings between the plain-spoken and the gnomic can be conceived of as a sort of perpetual motion prose machine, sucking generation after generation of critics into a Borgesian – and self-evidently Kafkaesque – realm of over-interpretation.

The Brunel meeting threw up exciting ideas for the development of digital content. Meanwhile, the digital researcher Ollie Brock has been ferreting away in the Imperial Museum and the BBC’s archives, and is scheduled to make further visits to the Wellcome Trust and other Kafkaesque repositories. And I have been in discussion with Amanda Hopkinson of the British Centre for Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia with a view to setting up a sort of bull-session, at which translators from the German will, I hope, make it possible for me, a non-German reader, to understand the particular nuances of Kafka’s prose for the German-speaking world.

The jackdaw – ‘Kafka’ in Czech means ‘jackdaw’ – takes flight. The academicians sit and consider. The planet of Kafka’s writing remains thick and unknowable.

Multivalent Discourse

When I was asked to write a digital literary essay, I had been reading Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory as part of the research I was doing for my next novel, Umbrella. In his book, Fussell proposes the idea that in the first few weeks of the First World War there was manufactured – along with the industry of death itself – a quintessentially new form of mass sensibility: that in the juxtaposition between the armies of the Great Powers marching off to war, seemingly assured of their own speedy and righteous victory, and the quagmire of mechanised annihilation, lay all the absurdism, the compulsive ironising of Western culture in the remainder of the 20th century. 

Fussell adduces many examples of this ironic consciousness being spawned in the trenches of the Western Front, but he also cites the pivotal scene in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 as evidence of how – by the time of the Second World War – it had pullulated. The action in Catch-22 concerns the protagonist, Yossarian, trying to help the new tail gunner, Snowden, who joined their bombing mission within hours of arriving at the squadron and was subsequently hit by anti-aircraft fire. Yossarian thinks he has found the wound on Snowden’s chest, and treats this with antiseptic powder while comforting the young man, but he then notices bleeding from Snowden’s armpit, and on unbuttoning his flak jacket is appalled as Snowden’s guts fall onto the deck of the aircraft.

At around the same time I was reading Fussell, I was also rereading Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Other Stories in a new translation by Michael Hofmann. Hofmann’s translation had been published by Penguin, but I was writing a new introduction to it for a Folio Society edition. In the story ‘A Country Doctor’ I came across this description of a fresh wound, unexpectedly discovered by the eponymous narrator in the torso of a young male patient: ‘Pink, in many shades, a deep carmine at the centre, lightening towards the periphery, with a soft granular texture, the bleeding at irregular points, and the whole thing as gapingly obvious as a mine-shaft. From a distance, at any rate. Closer to, there’s a further complication. Who could take in such a thing without whistling softly? Worms, the length and thickness of my little finger, roseate and also coated in blood, are writhing against the inside of the wound, with little white heads, and many many little legs.’

Snowden’s wound and the country doctor’s patient’s wound: surely there was an equivalence here? Kafka is silent on the subject of the First World War – and yet the great efflorescence of his literary achievement begins in its immediate stages. Was Kafka perhaps the greatest proponent of the hollow laughter that rings down the decades – and is this also why we are so driven to regard him as the prophetic voice of the European 20th century, the scryer of its hecatombs and charnel houses? And as for that laughter, Hofmann, following Ernst Pawel, relates how Kafka would actually corpse while reading his own stories and fragments, his listeners also incapacitated with laughter. Yet such humour as exists in Kafka in translation is beyond hollow – it is an aftershock, the booming silence in which laughter once rang out. 

These then were the bare bones of my thinking: the two wounds, their ironic causality and the impossibility for me – not a reader of German, let alone one sufficiently attuned to the nuances of Kafka’s Prague German dialect – of ever piercing his humorous vein. Like all literary essays I conceived of this one as taking the reader – and myself – for a walk through a thicket of ideas: like so many writers of my generation, I feel myself to have been crucially influenced by Kafka. Of the writers with their own adjectives he is the most plangent – yet it seems to me that I hear the ascription ‘Kafkaesque’ less and less as the years pass. Have we finally crossed the border from that mittel-European, mid-century land of the absurd and the fabulous? Was it that we needed the existence of the Soviet Bloc to adumbrate our notion of the Kafkaesque and so throw it into relief? And if Kafka – while being the most accessible of writers, his tales having no sort of literary hinterland – nonetheless remained to me both ineffable and perversely gnomic, was it the case that I never really understood his writing at all?

My first thoughts on the digital components of the essay were that they were bells and whistles to be accessed via the text. But in the first few weeks of the project I find I have changed my mind. As writers we have our own methodology, and although we may draw on the visual, the aural and spatial – while a literary essay is not necessarily literary criticism – nonetheless the text is where it happens for us: texts, and our silent contemplation of their rustling together. Now that I’ve been called upon to talk to games designers, archive researchers, dramatists, graphic artists, to arrange interviews with translators from the German, and to contemplate a trip to Prague as well, it dawned on me that this would be a truly collaborative undertaking, that far from thinking in isolation, I would be embroiled in a continuous and multivalent discourse, in which work generated by others would feed back into my own.

In the days and weeks to come, until the completed essay is posted here, I will be writing a regular blog to keep those interested up to speed on my progress – and on whether the white and questing worms can be withdrawn from the inchoate mass of Kafka’s wound.