Wednesday, April 21, 2010

338. Amerika – Franz Kafka

History: This book was also known as Der Verschollene or The Man Who Disappeared, the incomplete first novel of author Franz Kafka, published posthumously in 1927.
Plot: The story describes the bizarre wanderings of a seventeen-year-old European emigrant named Karl Rossmann in the United States, who was forced to go to New York to escape the scandal of his seduction by a housemaid. As the ship arrives in America, he becomes friends with a stoker who is about to be dismissed from his job. Karl identifies with the stoker and decides to help him; together they go to see the captain of the ship. In a surreal turn of events, Karl's uncle, Senator Jacob, is in a meeting with the captain. Karl doesn't know that Senator Jacob is his uncle, but Mr. Jacob recognizes him and takes him away from the stoker.
Karl stays with his uncle for some time but is later abandoned by him after making a visit to his uncle's friend without his uncle's full approval. Wandering aimlessly, he becomes friends with two drifters named Robinson and Delamarche. They promise to find him a job, but Karl departs from them on bad terms after he's offered a job by a manageress at Hotel Occidental. He works there as a lift-boy but is fired one day after Robinson shows up drunk at his work asking him for money. Robinson, in turn, gets injured after fighting with some of the lift-boys.
Being dismissed, Karl leaves the hotel with Robinson to Delamarche's place. Once there, a police officer tries to chase him, but he gets away after Delamarche saves him. Delamarche now works for a wealthy lady named Brunelda. She wants to take in Karl as her servant. Karl refuses, but Delamarche physically forces him to stay. He decides to stay but looks for a good opportunity to escape.
One day he sees an advertisement for the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, which is looking for employees. The theatre promises to find employment for everyone and Karl is taken in by this. Karl applies for a job and gets engaged as a "technical worker". He is then sent to Oklahoma by train and is welcomed by the vastness of the valleys.
Review: In 1911 or so, the enigmatic Czech master began work on a novel tentatively called "The Man Who Disappeared" but abandoned it a few years later. After his death, his pal and self-appointed literary executor Max Brod "edited" the manuscript by adding some content of his own, then published the result in 1927.
Milan Kundera argues that we pay too much attention to The Trial, The Castle and Amerika, which the writer wanted burned along with various other fragments, and should instead focus our critical gaze more strictly on the finished work he actually published.
Going further, one could make the case that Kafka is less an effective storyteller, let alone a good novelist. What else do we remember of these stories beyond their initial premise (and their brilliant opening sentences)? Yet how much more do we really need or want?
Still, those haunting images, those unsettling meditations on the miseries of the soul, remain in our minds forever and are Kafka's glory:
Of course, Kafka is, for good or ill, much more than just a writer. He's an emblem, the poster boy of 20th-century alienation. The tubercular, haunted, noise-sensitive genius, living with his parents, working for an insurance company, unhappy in his skin, out of place in the world in every way. "Please look on me as a dream," he once told some sleeping people he had accidentally disturbed. And we do. He seems scarcely human to us, as sensitive and weird in his own way as Michael Jackson. It's always surprising to realize that people in our lifetime knew Kafka, heard him laugh, even went to bed with him. Nabokov thought he once glimpsed the writer on a Berlin streetcar in 1927. Einstein could have met him at a Prague salon they both used to visit.
While The Trial and The Castle are generally viewed as typically "Kafkaesque" -- the mysterious accusation from unknown authorities, the layers of feudal personnel and obfuscation surrounding the unseen but looming Castle -- Amerika (The Man Who Disappeared) is sometimes regarded as simply drolly picaresque. Certainly, it is less stultifying, less enclosed, less ponderous than the other two (Auden once said of Kafka that "in no other imaginary world, I think, is everything so heavy"). Parts of Amerika even approach comedy (and remind us that listeners laughed and laughed when Kafka read aloud from his fiction -- this seems almost incomprehensible). For instance, its central section, with Karl Rossmann working as a lift boy at the Hotel Occidental, takes on the pace of silent-movie humor, as things spin out of control after a drunk vomits down the elevator shaft. I can't help wondering if Thomas Mann used that chapter as a source for his own humorous (and very sexy) account of Felix Krull's career as an elevator operator.
This new English version of Amerika replaces the old 1928 standby of Willa and Edwin Muir. Though the husband-and-wife team were splendid translators, they worked from an incomplete text that had been over-edited by Kafka's friend and executor Max Brod (who also gave it the title Amerika; the writer himself always referred to it as Der Verschollene, "The Man Who Disappeared"). What's more, the Muirs aimed for a surface vividness that slightly improves on the plainness of Kakfa's original. Michael Hofmann -- a poet and critic, as well as the much-admired translator of Joseph Roth -- works from the full critical text and has produced what will doubtless become the definitive English version.
The book opens with 16- or 17-year-old Karl Rossmann arriving in America, having been sent abroad "because a maid had seduced him and had a child by him." As his ship sails into New York Harbor, he sees the Statue of Liberty, noting that "the sword in her hand seemed only just to have been raised aloft." Sword? One supposes a mistake, since Kafka never saw the monument. Yet it grows increasingly clear that Karl has landed in a nightmarish new world where everything is slightly off-kilter, skewed and disorienting. A bridge over the Hudson connects New York to Boston.
In the first chapter, published as "The Stoker: A Fragment" (and which Robert Musil found "enchanting"), the German stoker on Karl's ship faces a tribunal of officers when he complains about being bossed around by a Romanian. At the bizarre inquiry, Karl accidentally meets his rich uncle, who comes to dote on him; a few months later, he encounters an American plutocrat who invites him out to his country estate. While there, Karl learns that Uncle Jakob -- offended by his nephew's having accepted the rival businessman's invitation -- has cut him off entirely. So the boy takes to the open road and joins up with a couple of unemployed workers, Robinson and Delamarche, hardly more than tramps. After a quarrel with his companions, Karl next lands the elevator job at the Hotel Occidental and begins a tentative relationship with a former kitchen maid. Alas, Robinson reappears, Karl loses his position, and the two join a bizarre ménage centered on the enormously fat opera singer Brunelda, who can scarcely move on her own. In a final fragment, Karl enlists in the vast and mysterious Theater of Oklahoma, which ominously promises "a place for everyone."
So much for the plot, or rather what remains of it. Beyond its Candide-in-the-New-World quality, Amerika offers variations on Kafka's favorite theme: a son's fraught relationship with his father. In this case, Karl is alternately aided, rejected and manhandled by various father substitutes. More interestingly, perhaps, the novel churns with strange sexual undercurrents, though it's unclear just quite what we're to make of them. Is the uncle's love for his nephew as unnatural as it seems? Why do so many men keep stroking Karl's hand? Why does Karl always find himself in sadomasochistic tussles with women (or men), with much wrestling and entwining of limbs? Is it true that a pat on the cheek from Brunelda carries a thrill like nothing else? There are hints that Karl was intended, eventually, to end up working in a brothel.
Despite the New World venue, Amerika actually does strike ominous "Kafkaesque" notes: the endless corridors of the ship, the strange "trial" of the stoker, the series of empty rooms in Mr. Pollunder's country mansion, the two tramps who recall the comic and sinister "assistants" in The Castle, the cruelty of nameless authorities -- the Head Porter, the Head Waiter -- as they cross-examine the boy over imaginary crimes. In a particularly tantalizing moment, when Karl joins the "greatest theater in the world," he gives the name he's been using on his "last jobs": "Negro." Yet again one yearns for those unwritten portions of the novel. Sounding more than ever like his creator, near the end of all these fragments Karl looks "sadly down at the street, as though it were his own bottomless sadness."
Kafka wrote of his first published book, Meditations: "Ultimately, even with the greatest experience and the greatest keenness, the flaws in these pieces do not reveal themselves at first glance." This isn't true of Amerika (The Man Who Disappeared), which is quite evidently a thing of shreds and patches, suggesting at times silent film, theater of the absurd, J.G. Ballard's phantasmagoric Hello, America, sadomasochistic fantasy, Waiting for Godot and Kafka's own later fiction. For like Cervantes, Kafka has become one of those writers whose work we already know, or think we know, even when we haven't read a word of it. His fiction no longer shocks or surprises us: After all, "Kafkaesque" describes the world that every one of us, alas, now lives in. •
Opening Line: “As the seventeen- year –old Karl Rossman, who had been sent to America by his unfortunate parents because a maid had seduced him and had a child by him, sailed slowly into New York harbour, he suddenly saw the Statue of Liberty, which had already been in view for some time, as though in an intenser sunlight.”
Closing Line: “Broad mountain rivers swept forward in great waves over the craggy base, pushing along thousands of small foamy waves, plunging under the bridges over which the train passed, and coming so close that the breath of their chill made ones face quiver.”
Quotes: “A movement without end, a restlessness transmitted from the restless element to helpless human being and their works!”
Rating: Not Good.

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