Friday, January 18, 2019

A Translation of “Franz Kafka: Amerika,” a Radio Essay by Ingeborg Bachmann

Franz Kafka: Amerika.

SECOND SPEAKER: “As sixteen-year-old Karl Rosmann, who had been sent to America by his poor parents because a maidservant had seduced him and had a child by him, was entering New York harbor in the ship, which had already slowed to a crawl, he beheld the long-since sighted Statue of Liberty in sunlight that had suddenly become more glaring.  Her sword-bearing arm was thrusting skyward as though she had only just raised it, and the open air was wafting freely about her form.”

FIRST SPEAKER: Is this really the beginning of a book by Franz Kafka?

SECOND SPEAKER: “…and the open air was wafting freely about her form…”

FIRST SPEAKER: For we don’t encounter the “open air” anywhere else in his work, either earlier or later.  The novel called Amerika, as edited by Max Brod, and recently republished by Samuel Fischer, has remained an exceptional case.  Max Brod is well-informed enough to report:

SECOND SPEAKER: “Franz Kafka worked on this book with infinite gusto, mostly during the evening and well into the night.  Kafka was conscious of the fact that this novel was more sanguine and ‘lighter’ than anything he had written before.”

FIRST SPEAKER: Amerika is indeed a lighthearted book, even though a Trial is always pending for its young exiled hero; he is as unsuccessful as Josef K. and K. in the novels called The Trial and The Castle; he is met with and sorely tested by a series of mishaps.  To be sure, from time to time, the impression of humorousness, of occasional downright innocence, seems to be based on an optical illusion.  The deranged world in which Karl Rossmann finds himself is no less hostile, no less horrifying, than any other world ever devised by Kafka’s magical imagination.  But here whatever in The Trial and The Castle comes across as a manifestation of utter inscrutability and darkness is shrugged off by the reader as evidence of Karl’s childishness.  On almost every page, the reader is inclined to argue to himself: Naturally these things aren’t the way that Karl Rossmann is perceiving them.  If Karl were older, more rational, more experienced, then everything would become clear to him and make perfect sense once again.  In other words, the reader believes that the confusion isn’t actually a part of the book’s reality but merely the byproduct of an infantile perspective on it.  And in his relish for yarn-spinning Kafka does indeed often make young Karl Rossman react to his world in a manner that is innocent and indeed downright foolish, and the relations between certain things in that world undoubtedly would take on a different appearance if they were encountered by a more “rational” person.  But one mustn’t forget that this selfsame blind gullibility, which causes Rossmann to slide helplessly from one mishap to the next, is also constantly facilitating his access to the world.  In the end he makes quite a bit more headway than the savvy and the streetwise.  On the other hand, one admittedly may infer that innocence will not get a person very far in this American world, for as Günther Anders has remarked, in Kafka’s work it is women and chance alone that can ever be of any assistance, such that it is pointless to exercise one’s own initiative.  But this remarkable [----] is not emphatically thematized until those two great novels, The Castle and The Trial.  In these books it is not children, but rather clever, full-grown men who are confronted by a world that they are aiming to come to grips with, and there are no longer any such things as a redeeming court of highest appeal, the hope of an exit, and an exculpatory legal minority.  As I have already said, Karl Rossmann’s struggle to find a place in society and a foundation for his existence is more humble and more dedicated, albeit no less despair-ridden.  And he imparts his first scrap of insight in the following despair-ridden sentence:

SECOND SPEAKER: “It’s impossible to fight back without a good will.”

FIRST SPEAKER: It is only because owing to his youth and lack of experience he is inept at asserting his rights and hasn’t got a clue about how to make use of them that he is the only one of the heroes of Kafka’s three novels who manages to attain his goal.  Admittedly, he is spared nothing.  On the ship that is taking him to New York he chances to meet his American uncle.  Everything seems to fall miraculously into place.  He is introduced into a new way of life and into the operations of the shipping agency that has brought his uncle great wealth and social distinction—until one fine day he accepts an invitation to a party at a country house near New York, a party that takes a highly peculiar turn.  He instinctively realizes that his loyalty towards his uncle is being tested; he wants to go back home before it is too late and is then prevented from doing so.  A letter from his uncle is delivered to him:

SECOND SPEAKER: “You have decided to leave my house this evening in defiance of my will, but you must then abide by this decision for the rest of your life.”

FIRST SPEAKER: Thus begins the young man’s Via Dolorosa, a quest for gainful employment whose stations are the highway, a hotel, and the horrifying asylum offered by the singer Brunelda, whose tyrannical domination is gamely endured by her lover Delamarche and the diminutive Ire Robinson.  But Karl is repelled by everything base and vulgar, and his hope of finding a respectable occupation never fades.  In Kafka’s world, whose hopelessness is otherwise irresolvable, there turns out to be exactly one permissible solution:  in the celestial-cum-terrestrial project called the Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Karl’s bitterness and disappointment lose their weightiness; he is able to forget about everything that has happened to him so far.  The promise barked out by an advertising poster seeking personnel for this theater heralds a kind of Promised Land:

SECOND SPEAKER: “The great theater of Oklahoma is calling you!  It is calling you today alone, only once!  Anyone who misses this opportunity will miss it for all time!  Anyone who cares about his future should be one of us!  Everyone is welcome!  Anyone who wishes to become an artist, step right up!  We are the theater that can find a use, a place, for everyone!  To anyone who has decided to join us we extend our congratulations right here and now!  But do hurry, lest you miss our midnight deadline!  At twelve o’clock sharp all offers will be closed once and for all!  Let anyone who doesn’t believe us be damned!”

FIRST SPEAKER: Karl’s belief that he is destined to be welcomed somewhere compels him to answer the advertisement; his naïve confidence in the possibility of a life in a community was never greater, and this naïf attains the simplest and most elusive of goals: he gains acceptance.  To be sure, the world with all its disorder remains in place as a system of resistances, but people who, like Karl Rossmann, have stumbled upon this choice are vouchsafed security and tranquility.  A banquet reminiscent of a religious rite draws together those have been accepted into the theater.  They find the entrance, in contrast to the man who in Kafka’s parable of the doorkeeper is told:

SECOND SPEAKER: “This entrance was intended for you alone.  I am now about to close it.”

FIRST SPEAKER: The book concludes with Karl’s departure for Oklahoma and a panoramic description of a primeval landscape.

SECOND SPEAKER: “They traveled two days and two nights.  It was only now that Karl was finally getting a sense of America’s vastness.  He gazed indefatigably out the window, and his comrade Giacomo jostled against him there for a long time, until the lads sitting across from them and intensively preoccupied with a game of cards finally got tired of playing and spontaneously dislodged him from the window seat.  Karl thanked them—Giacomo’s English was not universally intelligible—and over the course of time they became much friendlier, as one cannot help becoming towards one’s compartment-mates; although their friendliness was often quite bothersome, because, for instance, whenever they dropped a card and went searching for it on the floor, they would pinch Karl or Giacomo in the leg with the utmost force.  Giacomo, ever freshly taken aback, would then let out a shriek and thrust his leg into the air; Karl once tried to reply with a kick but otherwise patiently put up with it all in silence.  Everything that was happening inside the tiny compartment, which even with its window open was brimming over with smoke, made a poor showing by comparison with what was to be seen outside.

On the first day they traveled through a range of tall mountains.  Massive blackish-blue wedges of rock were drawing ever closer to the train; one leaned out one’s window and tried in vain to locate their summits; dark, narrow, crevice-ridden valleys opened up; with one’s finger one traced the vector along which they disappeared into the depths; next came broad mountain rivers racing along the hilly terrain below in mighty undulations and propulsively refracting themselves into a thousand rivulets; they surged along their courses beneath the bridges traversed by the train, and they were so close that their chilly breath made one’s face shiver.”

FIRST SPEAKER: In 1913 Kafka published the first chapter, “The Stoker”; the following year he wrote the succeeding chapters—then he suddenly stopped working on the book and did not take it up again.  The novel remained unfinished, but we know that Kafka intended to give it an upbeat conclusion, that “little Karl Rossmann” was supposed to rediscover “a vocation, liberty, security—indeed, even his homeland and parents,” in the nature theater of Oklahoma.

Kafka had never been to America, and the America of his imagination was bound to fail to resemble the actual country in many respects.  Thus Karl is at one point interrogated by a policeman in a manner that would have been less credible in the New York of circa 1900.  But this is of no consequence.  In Amerika, Kafka quite convincingly created and disclosed to his hero a world full of vast expanses and vivid colors, full of joy in each and every act of observation and in the rich depiction of particulars.  This world is already no longer the natural world: its causality seems perforated, and the actions of its characters do not always any longer arise from motives as psychology has given us to understand them, even though everything that happens is “rationally” explicable and linked to everything else in a highly detailed network of collateral logic.   The divide between reality and unreality that is made much of in the two other Kafka novels is not yet discernible here, but even in this first book reality is decidedly dysfunctional.

This “dysfunctionality” is most plainly visible in the pure, pellucid style of the work, which orients itself towards the slightest minutiae in an almost pedantic fashion; indeed, the magic of Kafka’s work would be unintelligible in the absence of the peculiar phenomenon of his style and its manner of representation.

But we are not about to be fooled into appending yet another appraisal and interpretation to the innumerable existing appraisals of Kafka’s literary merits and innumerable existing interpretations of Kafka’s oeuvre.  Now that the “pro and contra” hullaballoo of the immediate postwar years has ended, we can make good use of this first interval of silence by rereading him.  True justice can be done to literary writers only in silence, for when all interpretations have fallen into obsolescence and all explanations have been consumed, their work is explicable in terms of the inconsumable truth to which it owes its existence.

Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2019 by Douglas Robertson

Source:  Ingeborg Bachmann, Werke, edited by Christine Koschel, Inge von Weidenbaum, and Clemens Münster (Munich: Piper, 1978), Vol. IV, pp. 316-322.

The essay was broadcast only once, as part of the Hessian Radio Frankfurt cultural affairs series “Das Buch der Woche,” on December 9, 1953.