On July 3rd, Franz Kafka would have celebrated his 135th birthday. Today, Elana Wolff remembers him, and he says hello from beyond.
I’ve been tracking Franz Kafka—tracing his steps in places he lived, worked, wrote, and convalesced. His hometown, Prague, and beyond. Trying to summon him up. The spark was kindled outside the walls of a Toronto high school (Kafka wasn’t in the curriculum), in the pages of the quasi-Gothic novella, The Metamorphosis. It was the creaturely protagonist Gregor Samsa who first brought me to question what it means to be human. So unsettled was I by Kafka’s tale—dire from the first inimitable sentence—that reading would not be the same again.
In that Schocken edition (now bound by elastic bands), the opening sentence is translated from the German: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” The start of the physical metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung), from human being to bug, is announced off the top. The rest of the story relates the unhappy unfolding of the transformation. Kafka maintains vagueness as to the kind of bug Gregor turns into. The family charwoman calls him a “dung beetle,” and he’s often been depicted as a giant cockroach, but Kafka gave clear instructions to his publisher, Kurt Wolff, that the creature—the “ungeheueren Ungeziefer”—not be shown in any way. Apparently Kafka wanted readers to take up the task of imagining for themselves.
Some translators have rendered Kafka’s term for the creature literally: “monstrous vermin,” and with hindsight on the deadliest of centuries, Kafka’s choice of wording has been read as prophetic. Reduced to the label “vermin” by the Nazi state, human beings were exterminated as pests, Kafka’s sisters among them. Kafka had no lens on the extremities of World War Two, but he was prescient, and he knew that a person perceived as less than human is fair game for dehumanization, cancellation, removal / solution. Gregor attempts desperately to contend with his carapace, to remain in the world of the human family even after his physical transformation is complete. Inevitably, as “vermin,” he’s jettisoned.
Franz Kafka reinvented Gothic horror as social sur/realism. Fear as a presence in itself becomes fear of being excised by family and society. The Gothic paranormal becomes the terrifying real; the natural, stranger than the supernatural. Fear, dread, gloom, and death—Gothic topics—acquire anti-Romantic gravity in Kafka’s cool, precise writing. Kafka skews characteristic Gothic tropes. The tyrannical father figure (Kafka had serious father issues) appears in The Metamorphosis as a caricature—a blustering martinet who “refused to take off his uniform… with its many, many stains and its gold buttons radiant from constant polishing.” Gregor assumes the dual role of tragic anti-hero and damsel-in-distress. Debased and emasculated, there’s no one to save him and he can’t save himself.
Most of the action in The Metamorphosis takes place in the close quarters of the Samsa apartment, not under a Gothic moon on a dark and stormy night. Yet the castle and abbey—the architectural edifices from which Gothic literature takes its name—cast their shadows on the story’s streets. Kafka wrote The Metamorphosis in 1912. He was 29 at the time, living with his family in the House “Zum Schiff” (“Of the Ship”) at what was then 36 Niklas Street in Old Town Prague. This was one of the grand apartment buildings built in the razed area of the Jewish ghetto and the Kafka family rented a corner apartment on the fifth floor. They had a panoramic view of the Moldau (Vltava in Czech) and the Castle Quarter on Laurenziberg Hill (Petřín) on the river’s left bank. The layout of the rooms in The Metamorphosis—as scholar Hartmut Binder has mapped out—faithfully reproduces the layout of the Kafka apartment.
The “House of the Ship” was destroyed in 1945, at the end of the war, and the InterContinental Prague Hotel erected in its place in the 1970s at what is now 30 Parížská Street. Outside and in, the hotel is a modernist block that saves nothing of Old Town. My husband and I stayed in a corner room on the fifth floor for one night last summer. I wanted to experience the same (or similar) view as Kafka and Samsa had. My husband obliged, as he has throughout my quest (lately he’s come to take an interest of his own). Upon entering the room, we go straight to the window. Through the gloom of the day, we can see Castle Hill beyond the river; St.Vitus Cathedral, the area of the Royal Gardens by Chotek Park (Chotkovy Sady)—Prague’s first public park and one of Kafka’s favorite walking spots; also the former Civilian Swimming Pool building, now a Thai restaurant. Franz spent hours swimming and rowing in the Moldau. I feel a ripple of thrill seeing the river from this angle and am reminded of a letter he wrote to his first fiancée, Felice Bauer, in June 1913: “As I look out of the window… I can see, just opposite, outside the swimming baths, a strange youth rowing around in my boat. (As a matter fact this is something I’ve seen almost every day for the past three weeks, since I cannot get myself to replace the missing chain.)” Yes, this is the view Kafka had, and it’s exciting to see. But there is no ‘present sense’ of the author at the InterContinental. The apartment at the “House of the Ship” is adumbrated only in pages now—together with the specter of the author, perched somewhere above, like his grey-black avian namesake: ‘kavka’ in Czech means jackdaw—the smallest member of the crow family.
Crows and creatures of all kinds populate Kafka’s work: dogs, horses, jackals, apes, mice, moles, vermin… Creatures singing, shrieking, speaking, whistling, burrowing into themes key to their maker: the nature of power, alienation, the strangeness of modern life, the inescapability of cruelty, and death. Death as a major theme of the Gothic novel takes diverse forms. Death of a loved one, death of the unloved. Death as deterioration: broken buildings, ruined landscapes, rotting bones… the dried-up corpse of a “snuffed,” “thin,” “flat” protagonist—Gregor Samsa. Anything unknown. Death as the undead—the living dead.
But there is no ‘present sense’ of the author at the InterContinental.
Dust you are and to dust you return.
In his enigmatic fragmentary story, “The Huntsman Gracchus,” Kafka takes up the trope of the living dead, the ever-wandering soul. After a fatal accident while pursuing a mountain-goat on a hunt—centuries prior to events told in the story—the huntsman still sails the earthly seas in his death-vessel. Something went awry in the post-death passage and he’s permanently caught in transit, unable to sail away from the world of the living, unable to settle fully into death. “The Huntsman Gracchus” is one of only a few Kafka stories that names actual geographic settings: The Black Forest—where the fall occurs—and the port city of Riva on Lake Garda in northern Italy, where Kafka vacationed in 1909 and 1913. This story has been taken to be self-referential—not only because Kafka vacationed in Riva and had there, in 1913, a mysterious romantic encounter, but also because in Italian ‘gracchio’ (Gracchus) means grackle or jackdaw, like ‘kavka’ in Czech.
In a second, even more enigmatic fragment of the story, the wandering Gracchus tells the Mayor of Riva—that he (Gracchus) is “dead, dead, dead,” yet remains a “guardian spirit… who receives prayers…” “Don’t laugh,” Gracchus instructs the Mayor, and the latter replies, “Laugh? No, truly not.”
The tale of “The Huntsman Gracchus” returned to me with Gothic resonance on a previous visit to Prague. On an overcast late November day, my husband and I decided to visit Kafka’s resting place in the New Jewish Cemetery in Prague-Strašnice, outside the city centre. We opted to take the subway, for the experience; entered at Můstek Station, purchased two 90-minute tickets, descended the long escalator, boarded the eastbound train, and took the quick ride to Želivského Station. The gate of the New Jewish Cemetery came into view as we reached the street. The gilded Hebrew inscription above the entrance arch reads: Dust you are and to dust you return.
The grounds are enclosed in a stone wall punctuated with iron gates. We entered the main gate and stood before the Neo-Renaissance chapel; administrative buildings to our left, a rectangular bed of red roses to our right. All meticulously maintained. The roses—oddly still in bloom late in November—stood out against the backdrop of stone and foliage. There wasn’t a soul in sight.
A sign on a pole by the roses directed us to: Dr. Franz Kafka ➔ 250 M. (Dr. in recognition of Kafka’s doctor of laws degree.) We followed the arrow along the gravel path parallel the outside wall and soon came to a second sign: Dr. Franz Kafka ➔100 M. We could see the Kafka monument as we approached. It’s unique and photographs don’t fully capture its grace: a tall grey hexagonal column, tapering to a pyramidal point. The inscription, obfuscated slightly by lichen, translated from the Hebrew, reads:
Dr. Franz Kafka
Tuesday, June 3, 1924, First day of Sivan, 5684 on the Hebrew calendar
The glorious young man, Anschel, peace be upon him, passed on
Son of the respected Mr. Hennich Kafka
And the name of his mother, Yettl
May his soul be bound up in eternal life
There wasn’t a soul in sight.
Franz, please give a sign.
Kafka’s parents, who outlived their son, are buried in the same plot. A memorial plaque for Franz’s three younger sisters, Gabriele, Valerie, and Ottilie, all murdered in the death camps, rests at the base of the monument. Kafka’s Jewish name, Anschel—a variant of Asher, meaning happy—was after his maternal grandfather. (Interestingly, the name Amsel—similar to Anschel—means blackbird—similar to crow—in German.)
The monument stands in a square enclosure strewn with pebbles and filled with offerings: wreaths, pots, bouquets of hot-coloured fake flowers, votive candles, and notes. It is Jewish custom to recite a prayer at the graveside and place stones on the gravestone to mark one’s visit. But Kafka’s monument is smooth and comes to a point at the top—there’s no place on it for stones. My husband recited the memorial prayer. I submitted my own silent request: “Franz, please give a sign.” I wanted to feel a personalized connection, his presence. And I wanted to place a stone on the gravestone. I found a tiny pebble and managed to balance it at the top of the monument.
We left the plot—Area 21: Row: 14 Number: 21—and returned to the entrance. I admired the Neo-Renaissance chapel. It was locked so there was no viewing the interior. Dusk was falling and we had to get back into town. As we turned to go, I heard something like a little laugh from above. On top of one of the gate columns sat a compact black and grey bird.
“Look,” I called out to my husband, pointing.
“I think it’s a jackdaw!” he said, “a ‘kavka.’”
“It is a jackdaw,” I exclaimed. “How amazing is that! I wasn’t going to mention it, but I asked for a sign at the graveside, and here he is!”
My husband knows something of the way my mind works: I’m sensitive to resemblances, links, synchronicities, signs. They’re an affirmation of seeing and meaning; indications and answers. Sometimes the connections I see are weak, I have to admit. But in this case, the timing and likeness were just too right. This, to me, was a bona fide sign. A visitation.
The bird fluttered above us and landed in a leafless tree by the gate, sidled down to the end of a branch, close to where we were standing—his gaze clearly on us. He tottered nearer and nearer, as if waiting to be engaged, not at all afraid. My husband reached into his pocket.
“Look what I’ve got,” he announced to us both, “peanuts!” (He just happened to have peanuts in his pocket from our side-trip to Marienbad a few days before.) He tossed three nuts to the ground. The ‘kavka’ swooped down, gobbled two of them on the spot and ferried the third back up to the tree. He gave us the knowing eye, didn’t say another thing. For my part, the interaction was complete. I felt answered.
“That was pretty comical,” my husband mused on the subway back into town.
“Comical,” I said, “and amazing.” We were silent for a while, then my husband interjected,
“But what if that wasn’t a jackdaw? What do we know what a ‘kavka’ actually looks like? Maybe that was a magpie…”
“What does it matter,” I snapped, annoyed at the literalness. “They’re all in the family—crows, ‘kavkas’, magpies… grackles, I emphasized. I was, still am, unwilling to surrender the revenant’s presence.
As we turned to go, I heard something like a little laugh from above.
All photos submitted by Elana Wolff