Newly Translated, Still Kafkaesque: A Comic Style Emerges in 'The Castle'
DINITIA SMITH, March 18, 1998
By the winter of 1922, Franz Kafka was a figure pitiful in his suffering. He had tuberculosis, boils, hemorrhoids and headaches. But there was also something distinctly modern about this writer's pain, in the neurotic way it emanated from his unquiet spirit. His circumstances were for the most part comfortable. He was from an assimilated middle-class Jewish family in Prague. He had a law degree. But so great was his inner turmoil that he could not bear loud voices or to eat in front of others. And it was because of his own hesitations that his love relationships, with Felice Bauer, with Julie Wohryzek, with Milena Jesenska-Polak, had failed.
''Impossible to sleep, impossible to stay awake, impossible to endure life,'' Kafka wrote in his diary on Jan. 16. Hoping for respite, he went to a ski resort in Spindelmuhle, near the Polish border. ''My situation in this world would seem to be a dreadful one, alone here,'' he wrote on Jan. 29, ''on a forsaken road, moreover, without an earthly goal.''
It was there he began to write what would be his last novel, ''The Castle,'' set in a snowy landscape reminiscent of Spindelmuhle. K., a surveyor, arrives one night at a village at the foot of a hilltop castle, thinking he has been hired by the count who inhabits it. But no orders have been given, and K. spends the novel trying to see the count, encountering a series of phantasmagoric nonevents that end in his failure to see him.
In 1924, Kafka died at the age of 40, with instructions to his friend Max Brod to burn his writings. But Brod saved them and assembled them for publication. Brod's compilation provided the matrix for translations into English by Edwin and Willa Muir. But the text and the translations have long been the subject of disagreement among scholars.
This month, Schocken Books will bring out a new translation of ''The Castle,'' by Mark Harman. It is the first volume in a vast retranslation of Kafka's novels, diaries (including previously expurgated sections) and correspondence. The new work is based on a fresh compilation of the manuscripts by Sir Malcolm Pasley, a scholar at Oxford University. And it shows a modernist Kafka, a precursor of Beckett, colloquial, even playful. For Mr. Harman, the work is also an expression of Kafka's increasing preoccupation with his Jewishness.
''This is the authentic Kafka,'' said Arthur Samuelson, the editorial director of Schocken, ''It will undo all of what Max Brod did.''
The second volume in the series, ''The Trial,'' translated by Breon Mitchell, is expected in September. And a series of related events and panel discussions is under way this month.
Kafka was born in 1883, a German-speaking Jew, in Prague. His father, Hermann, was a driven man, given to vulgarisms, constantly critical of his only son, a shy boy with sad, dark eyes who was terrified of him. Later, in his accusing work, ''Letter to His Father,'' Kafka encapsulated his feelings about his father: ''One night I kept constantly whimpering for water,'' Kafka wrote. ''When repeated and emphatic threats failed to work, you snatched me out of my bed, carried me out onto the balcony and left me there alone for a while in my nightgown, with the door locked.''
For years after, Kafka wrote, ''I kept being haunted by fantasies of this giant of a man, my father, the ultimate judge, coming to get me in the middle of the night,'' making him feel, like absolutely Nothing.''
Kafka attended an elite German-speaking school, earned a law degree at the German University in Prague and eventually went to work in the Statistical and Claims Department of the Workers' Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia.
In 1912, he was forced to take over the family asbestos factory. By then, so taxed was he by the drudgery of his work, and his symbiotic relationship with his parents, with whom he lived for most of his adult life, that he contemplated suicide.
But all through this, in order to save himself from going mad, Kafka worked on his writing. There was ''Metamorphosis,'' his tale of Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one morning to find himself turned into a giant insect, ''A Country Doctor,'' ''Amerika,'' ''The Trial,'' ''In the Penal Colony,'' ''A Hunger Artist.''
In 1923, Kafka met Dora Diamant and moved with her to Berlin. Together they dreamed of opening a restaurant in Palestine. Dora would be the cook, Kafka the waiter. He died of tuberculosis the next year.
Words Removed, Punctuation Added
In assembling the text for ''The Castle,'' Max Brod broke up Kafka's long paragraphs into smaller sections -- added standard High German punctuation, inserting semicolons, breaking up sentences -- and changed Kafka's demarcation of the chapters. Originally, Kafka had ended his novel in the middle of a sentence. But Brod created a new ending at the close of Chapter 20, omitting a fifth of Kafka's original text, so that the novel ended with a conversation between K. and his landlady. The omitted material was added as an appendix to a later edition.
Eventually, Brod gave the rights to Kafka's work to the publishing house Schocken Verlag, which was founded in 1931, by a Jewish department store magnate, Salman Schocken. During the Nazi period, Schocken was given the sole right to publish works by Jewish writers, on condition that they be sold only to Jews. Still, even as Nazism took hold throughout Europe, Kafka's odd vision of the world was still being disseminated to readers, until 1939, when Schocken was shut down.
Schocken reopened in New York, and Hannah Arendt and Nahum Glazer became its chief editors. In the 1970's, a group of scholars led by Sir Malcolm Pasley began reassembling the German text, and it was from this new text that Mark Harman, a critic of German and Irish literature, has done his translation.
The translation of ''The Castle'' shows a more comic Kafka. K. refers to his predicament as ''this comedy,'' for instance. Mr. Harman has also made it more faithful to Kafka's dreamlike style.
Gone is the High German punctuation of previous editions, with its semicolons. Mr. Harman has restored Kafka's original punctuation, in which he sometimes used only commas to break up sentences. Mr. Harman has also restored the original ending to the novel, at the moment when Kafka ceased working on the book, in the middle of a sentence.
Over the years, there have been many interpretations of ''The Castle.'' The Muirs' translation made the novel into an allegory about the search for divine grace, with K. a figure resembling Christian in Bunyan's 17th-century work ''Pilgrim's Progress.'' Other critics, like Simone de Beauvoir, saw the work as an existential allegory of 20th-century man caught in a nightmare maze of meaningless work and bureaucracy.
But Mr. Harman has a different interpretation. By the time he wrote ''The Castle,'' Kafka had become fascinated by Prague's Yiddish theater and had befriended Yiddish actors. All around him the Jews of Prague were arguing about Zionism and whether Jews should write in German.
Kafka's father, represented for him the ultimate assimilated Jew, a man who had turned away from the spiritual life in his quest for material goods. At the time Kafka wrote ''The Castle,'' he had begun to debate within himself the costs of assimilation and to explore aspects of Jewishness that were scorned by his father as reminders of ghetto life.
''For many years, Kafka's Jewishness was downplayed in mainstream scholarship,'' said Mr. Harman. ''But the relationship with Milena Jesenska-Polak, who was Christian, caused him to probe deeply into his relationship to the Jewish tradition.''
''I am as far as I know the most typical Western Jew,'' Kafka wrote in a letter to Milena. ''Nothing is granted me, everything has to be earned, not only the present and the future, but the past too.''
''By Western Jews,'' Mr. Harman said, ''he means Jews who have lost touch with vital, Jewish traditions. The Yiddish players with whom he had contact in Prague were the real Jews, but he had been assimilated.
''In 'The Castle,' there is no mention of the word Jew. But the Jewishness is under the surface, implicitly there.'' For example, in the name that Kafka gives to the unseen count, Count West-West, invoking Kafka's own description of himself as a Western Jew.
Creating 'A New Cabala'
In his diary entry of Jan. 16, 1922, Kafka says of his writing, ''All such writing is an assault on the frontiers; if Zionism had not intervened, it might easily have developed into a new secret doctrine, a cabala.''
Mr. Harman said, ''It was as if in his writing, he was trying to create a new cabala,'' a distinctly Jewish text.
And, despite the novel's rank despair, Mr. Harman sees a change in tone at the end, a lightening of the spirit that he said comes through more clearly in the new translation than in the Muirs' translation. ''K. seems to be saying that maybe he should not be so obsessed with 'The Castle,' '' said Mr. Harman.
In the new, restored ending, K. finds a kind of refuge with a coachman, Gerstacker: ''K. laughed, took Gerstacker's arm, and let himself be led through the darkness,'' Kafka writes. At Gerstacker's cottage, K. finds a fire going, and an old woman, Gerstacker's mother. ''She held out her trembling hand to K.,'' Kafka writes. ''And had him sit down beside her, she spoke with great difficulty, and it was difficult to understand her, but what she said'' And there, without even a punctuation mark, Kafka broke off.
Along with the new translation, a series of related events has been scheduled, including an exhibition, ''Franz Kafka and the Prague Circle'' now at the Leo Baeck Institute. On March 24, the Czech Center is sponsoring a panel on the relationship between Kafka and Czech literature, with an exhibition of illustrations from various works by Kafka, and a showing, not scheduled yet, of ''Amerika,'' a 1994 Czech film of Kafka's first novel, directed by Vladimir Michalek.
On March 26, the PEN American Center will sponsor a panel discussion at Town Hall, with Susan Sontag, E. L. Doctorow, Aharon Appelfeld, Christopher Plummer and Cynthia Ozick scheduled to be among the participants. On March 31, there will be a screening of the film ''The Castle,'' directed by Michael Haneke at the Anthology Film Archives.