100 years after Kafka

By | June 3, 2024

Guest post by Michelle Woods, Associate Professor of English at The State University of New York, New Paltz, USA.

When his friend, Robert Klopstock broke a tongue depressor checking Kafka’s throat, Kafka wrote “If I should go on living, you’ll break another ten on me.” Kafka died weeks later on June 3rd, 1924, in a small sanatorium in Kierling, near Vienna. A hundred years on from his death, his gargantuan reputation and influence on literature since seems at odds with the delicacy of some artefacts he left behind; certainly, the conversation slips kept by Klopstock, written when he was told not to talk to take pressure off his tubercular larynx. As he lay dying, spring intruded in his brief notes: the peonies and lilacs in his room, a dragonfly. He worried as much about the thirst of the flowers as of his own.

I think a lot about vulnerability when in the archives; not so much about the actual vulnerability of the materials (though I managed to drop a Willa Cather letter on the floor a couple of months ago and dropped, Buster Keaton-like, to the floor, slithering back up the desk, letter first as if it had just hovered there all along in mid-air), but about the basis humanness of their writing, of the living being who wrote them, the person behind the statues and the museums and the headstones and the Vessel-sized stacks of books written about them.

I’m thrilled then with the late fall visit of some of Kafka’s archives, when they’ll be shipped from Oxford to New York for the first time ever. The exhibit at the Morgan Library includes Kafka’s letters, diaries, notebooks, drawings, photos, and some of his manuscripts, such as “Metamorphosis,” “The Judgement,” Amerika and The Castle (two novels featuring travelers never quite getting to their destination, and poor Karl Rossman, whose box disappears and reappears in Amerika – with changing contents – nicked as it already was from Dickens’ David Copperfield, whose box is filched from him on his journey).

Sal Robinson, the Morgan’s curator of the exhibit (who I apologize to right now for any suggestions of filched boxes and non-arrivals), is keen to think about Kafka’s life and afterlife; those he cared about – including letters and postcards to his favorite sister, Ottla, and letters to his first translator and lover, Milena Jesenska; and those who continue to care about his work, including the many translators of it into English and other languages. I published Kafka Translated a decade ago, but it seems as if something of a golden age of Kafka translations was just beginning. The last few years have seen Ross Benjamin’s luminous translation of Kafka’s unabridged Diaries which has allowed English-language readers to see Kafka at work, slipping between fact and fiction, re-starting stories and abandoning them; exciting new translations of “Metamorphosis” by Susan Bernofsky and Mark Harman; and Shelley Frisch’s magisterial translation of Reiner Stach’s equally magisterial three-volume biography of Kafka.

A hundred years on from his death, Kafka seems like such an immutable institution, but the great pleasure of new translations or adaptations lets us read him again through another intimate reader with whom we can engage, someone to travel with on the endless journeys through corridors and snowbanks, strange villages, and the bewildering sights of Amerika. And here in “Newyork” where Karl Rossmann immediately lost an umbrella and found a millionaire dastardly uncle, we might see Kafka anew, as an always youngish man, writing away in his parents’ apartment after work, hoping that when he reads it aloud to his friends, they’ll laugh. Those very pages will be in front of us.

The Morgan Library exhibit, “Franz Kafka,” will run from November 22, 2024 through April 13, 2025: https://www.themorgan.org/exhibitions/franz-kafka

Michelle Woods is Associate Professor of English at The State University of New York, New Paltz, USA. Previously she was Director of the Centre for Translation and Textual Studies at Dublin City University, Republic of Ireland.

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