Kafka Imagining America: A Preface
Endings did not come easily to Kafka. His notebooks abound in fragmentary stories and his three novels remain unfinished. The first, Amerika: The Missing Person, tells the story of a youth who is banished to America by his parents after having been seduced by a servant. Its appeal lies partly in the engaging, if prim, voice of the hero, from whose point of view the tale is largely narrated, and in the critical bite of its depiction of one immigrant’s experience in robber-baron America. The specificity of the setting and the even rhythm of the narrative distinguish this novel from those later masterpieces of obsession, The Trial and The Castle. Instead of an ending, there is a fragmentary description of a brothel-like organization called Enterprise Number 25, where Karl Rossmann is about to take on some lowly position; this is followed by a remarkable chapter featuring a mysterious theater, whereupon the story breaks off as the hero sets out on an uncertain journey through the Midwest. I hope that the following excerpt of that last completed chapter from my new translation—due out in the fall—will give a glimpse of the thematic range and stylistic texture of Kafka’s still neglected first novel while also suggesting the mixture of close identification and ironic bemusement in his treatment of the all-too-earnest young hero.
When in 1938 this novel first appeared in English in Edwin and Willa Muir’s beautiful translation, there was little awareness of what Kafka actually knew about America, and, since he himself had never set foot on these shores, it was easy to dismiss what he liked to call his “American novel” as sheer fantasy. However, thanks to meticulous scholarly reconstructions of the annihilated world of the German-speaking Prague Jews and of the literary and intellectual debates about religion, philosophy, Jewish identity, and Zionism in which Kafka participated—as well as his readings about the United States and his knowledge of family lore about his American relatives—his writing in general, and his vision of America in particular, no longer seem quite so ahistorical, nor so apolitical, as they once did.
Amerika: The Missing Person draws eclectically on the episodic or picaresque novel, utopian and dystopian German novels about America, and the classic Bildungsroman or novel of education or development, such as Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister and Dickens’s David Copperfield. In a diary entry of October 8, 1917, written several years after he had abandoned work on this novel, Kafka describes the first chapter, “The Stoker,” as “a sheer imitation of Dickens.” Yet he goes on to qualify that characteristically harsh—and unjust—self-assessment by criticizing Dickens’s “rude characterizations” and insisting that his own treatment of Rossmann’s fate is “enhanced by the sharper lights” associated with his own era.
Kafka seems to have toyed with at least two alternate endings. According to his friend Max Brod, he intended to end the novel in a conciliatory fashion, and used to hint with a smile on his face that within “this ‘almost limitless’ theatre his young hero was going to find again a profession, some backing, his freedom, even his old home and his parents, as if by some paradisiacal magic.” Perhaps. But, on the other hand, in a diary entry of September 29, 1915, Kafka explicitly compares the fates of the heroes in The Missing Person and The Trial: “Rossmann and K., the innocent and the guilty, both executed without distinction in the end, the innocent one with a gentler hand, more pushed aside than struck down.” Characteristically ambivalent about the kind of ending he wanted, and having worked on and off on the novel for three years, he may at some point have changed his mind about Karl’s fate. Moreover, as Kafka’s posthumous editor, it was Brod who came up with the title Amerika and gave the penultimate chapter the Romantic-sounding title “The Nature Theatre of Oklahoma”—though there is no chapter heading in the manuscript and no such phrase occurs in the novel. Whether consciously or not, these and other editorial interventions tended to skew readers’ interpretations toward Brod’s ultimately benign interpretation of the narrative logic of Kafka’s work.
At first glance, Karl’s encounters with figures from his past at the theater’s surreal admission offices might seem to bear out the plan for a positive ending reported by Brod. For instance, Rossmann comes upon a clerk who bears an odd resemblance to a much feared teacher in Prague, and meets a trumpet player called Fanny who recognizes him from some previous encounter that Kafka never got around to describing. Yet in this fragmentary novel there are also more ominous indications of where the hero may be heading. Thus, at one point Karl, who has lost his identification papers, identifies himself not by his surname Rossmann but as “Negro,” the nickname he claims was given him in some previous position which, incidentally, Kafka never described either. We now know that the insertion of the word Negro was a deliberate act on Kafka’s part, for he first wrote “Leo”—a coded allusion to himself in a fragmentary dialogue in a diary entry of August 15, 1913—then went back over the handwritten manuscript and changed the name nine times to “Negro.” How are we to understand this insistent alteration? A photograph in a 1912 travelogue by a Hungarian Jewish socialist named Arthur Holitscher, Amerika heute und morgen (America: Today and Tomorrow), might make one lean toward an ominous interpretation of this particular chapter—and of Karl’s final journey in general.
Kafka first read Holitscher’s influential account of his travels through North America in installments in the literary review Neue Rundschau, and, when it subsequently appeared as a book, he purchased it for his personal library, which surfaced mysteriously a number of years ago and is now housed at a university in Wuppertal, Germany. The photograph in question depicts the lynching of two blacks, with a group of grinning whites standing by, under the sarcastic title “Idyll aus Oklahama” (Idyll from Oklahama), and this title tellingly bears the same misspelling that Kafka consistently adopts in the novel.
Moreover, Kafka’s portrayal of the gigantic theater with its oddly religious trappings and its posters calling out in language reminiscent of revival meetings, may have been partly inspired by Holitscher’s sarcastic account of the pervasive presence of religion in Chicago: “every five paces apart the dear Lord has a different face and a different name.” Holitscher also describes in detail the plans of sect leader John Alexander Dowie (1847–1907)—founder of the city of Zion, Illinois, and “one of the great business geniuses of the new America”—to build a massive headquarters for his religious empire, with the goal, as Holitscher bluntly puts it, of “exploiting human stupidity.” However, in interpreting religious motifs in Kafka, it is important not to overplay the significance of such contextual information. His oblique use of biblical motifs in this chapter closely parallels his use of allusions to the New Testament in The Penal Colony, which he wrote in October 1914, on the same two-week holiday as the theater chapter, and which certainly owes nothing to his readings about America.
In this first novel Kafka’s irony and humor are not always immediately apparent. For one thing, the narrative is generally filtered through the consciousness of Karl, who is generally too caught up in his predicament to notice the comic elements in his quandary. Robert Musil, author of The Man Without Qualities, captures Karl’s earnestness and assiduity when he describes Karl’s voice as being imbued with a “feeling of excited children’s prayers and something of the uneasy zeal of carefully-done school exercises.” Fortunately, however, the discreet narrator—and behind him Kafka himself—does not take Karl quite so seriously. Switching back and forth between indirect interior monologue and an unobtrusive exterior narrator who occasionally winks to the reader over the hero’s head, he alerts us to an irony and humor beyond the awareness of the dutiful young Karl.
Having a bird name himself—Kafka can mean “jackdaw” in Czech—the author gives his youthful alter ego a hybrid surname: Rossmann or “horse-man,” thereby aligning him with other half-human, half-animal creatures such as Gregor Samsa, the insect-man, or Bucephalus, the former stallion of Alexander the Great, who is reincarnated as an attorney in the little known but seminal short prose piece “The New Lawyer.” This occasionally untranslatable dimension of humor is also evident in the surname Kafka assigns to the servant who pesters and seduces Karl, Johanna Brummer—which literally means “buzzer” and is used to describe large flies. Such wordplay can also shape entire episodes. Why, for instance, are applications for employment at the theater processed rather incongruously at a racetrack? Perhaps because Kafka is punning on the German word Laufbahn, which can mean “racetrack” as well as “career.” He uses that same pun in a 1909 letter about the Swiss maverick Robert Walser, whom he acknowledges alongside Dickens as an important influence on The Missing Person.
Kafka’s own title for the novel, Der Verschollene—my compromise is The Missing Person—is quite untranslatable. At once succinct—consisting solely of a noun derived from the past participle of a verb and the masculine definite article indicating the gender of the missing person—and paradoxical, it raises a metafictional question about the provenance of this story concerned with a youth who has gone missing, especially since the infinitive of the verb in question, namely, verschallen, means to “cease making a sound or to fade away.”
One of the challenges of translating this novel lies in recreating in English a style that would mimic what Kafka’s German biographer Reiner Stach calls his “provocatively ‘classic’ German.” The style is provocative as well as classic because it continually undermines the initial surface impression of natural ease. Whenever possible, I try to mirror this jarring effect, and I also try to be true to the original when Kafka seeks to remain deliberately ambiguous. Moreover, following the editors of the German critical edition, I have generally respected Kafka’s deviations in the manuscript from conventional norms—e.g., in the tell-tale misspelling of Oklahama—rather than ironing them out as Brod did in his editions, on which the Muirs were obliged to base their influential English translations.
Stepping aside, I shall leave you with Karl as he scrutinizes a poster advertising that oddly named theater. It claims that it can offer a place to all who apply. But how credible is this ambiguous organization, which some view as a model of religious redemption, others as a social utopia, still others as a surreal version of the American dream? As one might be tempted to expect even in this anti-Bildungsroman, will the Theater of Oklahama in the end allow Karl some form of fulfillment, or will it deal him a final blow?