Kafka’s Copperfield in Amerika

“My intention was . . . to write a Dickens novel, enriched by the sharper lights which I took from our modern times, and by the pallid ones I would have found in my own interior.” 

– Diaries (1946), qtd. in “Amerika (novel),” Wikipedia.

It is rarely my choice to read Franz Kafka all the way through.  Which is to say, I frequently express the intention of reading Kafka, and I read parts of his writings, but I tend to stumble upon reading any work of his in its entirety.  Amerika: or, The Missing Person (1927) was no exception – choosing it as my third read for the Turn of the Century Salon was a spontaneous decision, especially since I had previously determined not to read it in any case (I had very low expectations for a Kafka novel set in the U.S., rather than in Europe).

For this and many other reasons, irony is a good adjective to describe Amerika and Kafka in general.  To name one example – could anything be more ironic than Kafka writing a novel on a country he never visited?  But Kafka is Kafka, and he is one of the few who can do that and get away with it.  By some extraordinary talent – seemingly part insight and part intuition – Kafka paints a chic, rugged, ironic New York City, just after the turn of the century, with a timid self-confidence that is quite convincing.  Like Dickens’s America in Martin Chuzzlewit, Kafka’s America is a land of as much disappointment as fulfillment, and the influence of Europe is not so distant as it first appears.

We are introduced to Karl Rossmann, packed off to America by his parents that did not want to pay support for his child.  By chance, Karl runs into his wealthy uncle and an instant step up the social ladder, but this is not to be for long.  He eventually finds himself on the hunt for a job, with the added disadvantage of his youthful age and lack of experience.  If that weren’t enough, despite his hard work and good intentions Karl earns the ill will and grudge of a host of his superiors, placing him perilously close to the wrong side of the law.

That Amerika lacked some of the Kafkaesque magic of his European novels did not surprise me.  What did (more pleasantly) surprise me was the overall lighthearted tone of the book, at least in relation to The Trial or The Metamorphosis.  One of the reasons I find Kafka worth reading is his unique approach to dark themes, but Amerika was in this sense less remote and more human.  The relationship between Karl and his parents, and between Karl and Therese, was quite likely the first positive portrayal of an interpersonal relationship by Kafka I’ve read, and subsequently those were a couple of my favorite parts.  My other favorite scene was the conversation between Karl and the student who works by day and studies by night (“Oh, as for sleeping!” said the student, “I shall sleep once I’m finished with my studies.  As for now, I just drink black coffee . . . where would I be without it.”)

Karl is, indeed, a somewhat Dickensian hero, and though as is typical he appears to be based on the author, he is one of Kafka’s more likeable protagonists.  Wikipedia describes Karl as having been “seduced” by a housemaid, but as it is actually described, it sounds like he was a naive fifteen year-old assaulted by an almost middle-aged woman.  His prospective career as an engineer being over, he has to start all over again in America; yet everywhere he turns, he is harassed and swindled by obnoxious, domineering people.  His hard work and best plans rarely pay off.  Unlike “K.” from The Trial or The Castle, Karl does try his best to be successful, and I actually felt kind of bad for him. 

The translation I read is the 2008 translation by Mark Harman.  It seemed good to me.  I was particularly glad to see the conversation paragraphs (no paragraph breaks between characters’ lines) preserved; at first it’s a pain to read, but it’s classic Kafka and essential to his style.  Something important to note that the book was left unfinished at the time of his death, so the story ends abruptly.  There is some risqué behavior by various characters, so as usual with Kafka, I give this an older readers (17+) rating.  

4 out of 5 stars for Amerika.

Paris in the Twentieth Century

This is a remarkable book with an even stranger setting – written in 1863, set in 1960, and not published till 1994.  It’s not such a stretch, however, to include it in the Turn of the Century Salon, as Jules Verne was writing novels up through the early 1900s, and he is always associated with the original “steampunk” genre from this time period.  Paris in the Twentieth Century is classic steampunk: a coming-of-age story combining 20th century technology with late Victorian culture.

Avenue des Champs-Élysées
By Cezary Piwowarski (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

His reputation sullied by a school prize for Latin verse, young Michel Dufrénoy comes to live with his aunt and uncle, who hope to convert him into at least an adequate banker and a “practical man.”  Michel attempts to live up to his uncle’s expectations, but it is soon found he is unfit for even the lowliest job in commerce and industry.  Eagerly, he resigns himself to the life of a “starving artist,” gambling on his dream that Paris has left at least one corner of literature for his heartfelt, lyrical, yet unfashionable poetic writings.  

Imperfect though it is, Paris in the Twentieth Century is a book very dear to my heart.  I cannot say it is a page-turner, but Michel’s eccentricity and struggle to be himself resonate strongly with me.  Verne’s predictions of future technology are stunning, while the characters (except Lucy) are refreshingly unVernian.  The ending, a superb juxtaposition of 19th and 20th/21st centuries, is lovely; the melodrama is forgivable, because the tragedy feels true.

There is a lot of truth as well in Verne’s predictions about 20th century society.  Commercialism and the absence of a code of honor are a couple of them.  A subtle point that I think is not quite accurate is the apparent worship of technology; it seems to me that though we today use, say, smartphones and tablets extensively, they have not really replaced the humanities as inspiration for our art.  And, while I would agree that many bestselling books are poorly written (to put it mildly), the “great” literature of today is not chemistry or math-themed.  Still, society’s dying appreciation of classic literature and classical music is spot-on – how ironic, too, that artists whom Verne cites as modern (e.g. Wagner) are today considered classic.

The life of an artist, as depicted here, seems to be fairly accurate.  On the one hand, I have found that, within a university setting, non-science/math/computer majors seem to be well respected and often receive more visibility (through the campus newspaper and literary magazine).  On the other hand, it is absolutely true that making a living as an artist is difficult (sometimes impossible), and subsequently there is a bit of a stigma attached to humanities degrees.  Like Michel, most artists today must also follow mainstream trends and demands in order to be successful.

This is my second reading, and I think the main downside to the book is Michel’s surprise at technology he has been exposed to all his life.  It is hard to avoid this anachronism, but it can be done (e.g. Star Trek succeeds at making teleportation look natural).  If one can suspend disbelief of his disbelief, then it is a fascinating thing to view our modern world through a 19th century perspective.  I am not one who wishes I had been born in an earlier era, but for sure, there are some things about this century that make me feel as “old-fashioned” as Michel.  5 out of 5 stars.  

“…the men of 1960 were no longer lost in admiration of such marvels; they exploited them quite calmly, without being any the happier…”

Turn of the Century Salon – a literary event

Hosted by Katherine at November’s Autumn.  My participation may be sporadic, but I’m going to try to fit this challenge into my schedule.  🙂

Here’s my answers to the questionnaire/prompts for January (Introduction):

  • What draws you to read the Classics?

Classics are works of art, unlike most contemporary fiction.  I love reading, and though I also love the era I live in, I cannot relate to it in the same way that I relate to classic lit and classic authors.  On the other hand, classics have taught me a lot about the modern world (some things never change).  I hope for there to be great authors in the 21st century, but it is looking doubtful – the books of today tend to display “quantity over quality” characteristics.

  • What era have you mainly read? Georgian? Victorian? Which authors?

19th century British lit.  It’s great, but right now I’m eager to read more world literature (and non-fic)!

  • What Classics have you read from the 1880s-1930s? What did you think of them?

Sherlock Holmes, H. G. Wells, some later Jules Verne works – all fabulous stuff!  Recently I read Shackleton’s South, which was extremely interesting, and within the last few years Conrad and Kafka have become two of my favorite authors.  Forster’s A Passage to India was not my cup of tea; on the other hand, I loved Rebecca (1938) and Agatha Christie.  So far, I prefer Victorian works from this era, but that may very well change.

  • Name some books you’re looking forward to read for the salon.

It’s not set in stone, but these are on my list:

  • Verne: Paris in the Twentieth Century (not sure if it counts, but it is futuristic and Verne is very much associated with the turn of the century)
  • Dostoyevsky: The Brothers Karamazov (1880)
  • Abbott: Flatland (1884)
  • Melville: Billy Budd (1888–1891)
  • Kafka (18831924): Complete Short Stories, The Castle, Diaries (maybe)
  • Hesse: Beneath the Wheel (1906)
  • Conrad: The Inheritors (1901, co-authored by Ford Madox Ford), Lord Jim (1899–1900), etc.
  • Hemingway: A Farewell to Arms (1929) 
  • Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby
  • Which literary characters are you most akin to?

Marian Halcombe (The Woman in White), Tatyana Larina (Eugene Onegin), and Charlotte Bronte heroines.  Also, Sherlock Holmes and (to a certain degree) Razumov (Under Western Eyes).

  • Is your preference prose? poetry? both?

Thanks to Tolkien, I now love both.  Good poetry, however, is harder to find than good prose.