Without a prayer
A good route into The Burrow, Michael Hofmann’s new collection of translations of Kafka’s short stories, is via the penultimate piece, “Homecoming”: “I have come home; I stride down the passageway and am looking about me. It is my father’s old farm. The puddle in the middle of the farmyard. A tangle of useless old gear blocking the steps up to the loft. The cat lurking by the balustrade”. These opening lines encapsulate the allure of Kafka’s prose: the tangible everyday quality of his narrative world, at once recognizable and strange, banal and unsettling. The text also contains several of Kafka’s core themes: the relationship between father and son; the perspective of the outside; and our ambiguous relationship with the world of animals and objects. To the narrator it seems that “the things stand there next to one another coldly, as though each were busy with its own concerns, which I have partly forgotten, partly never knew”.
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Kafka wrote “Homecoming” from 1923 to 1924, during the last winter of his life, which he spent with Dora Diamant in Berlin, having finally got away from Prague and his parents. The text is, above all, a meditation on Heimat – home, belonging, and the mixture of longing and alienation associated with this idea. Hofmann has the narrator walk “down the passageway”, though the German “Flur” more commonly means “hallway”. The word implies that the protagonist is already inside the house, and yet unable to cross over into the kitchen, its social centre. Homecoming, then, is not a straightforward act of arrival, but a hovering on the threshold, neither outside nor inside – a position which this narrator shares with so many of Kafka’s protagonists.
“Homecoming” is Kafka’s take on the parable of the Prodigal Son. Here, however, no one is expecting the son, no fatted calf is being slaughtered to celebrate his return. It is one of several parable-like texts in the volume, which hark back either to mythology (“The Silence of the Sirens”, “Poseidon”) or to the Bible. The latter group also includes the short piece “Night” (“Nachts”, 1920), which describes a “vast number of people, an army, a tribe”, who are camped out at night, “under a cold heaven on a cold earth”. Their sleep is overseen by the sentry, a solitary figure who is keeping watch. The scene evokes Israel’s flight from Egypt, yet as in “Homecoming”, God (the father) is absent, the pillar of fire guiding His chosen people replaced by a mere “driftwood fire”.
As Walter Benjamin wrote in 1934, Kafka’s characters “are sextons who have lost their house of prayer; his students are pupils who have lost the holy writ”. Although the divine is absent and unreachable in Kafka’s world, religion remains powerful as the foil against which his narratives of a cold, rootless modernity unfold.
Judaism underpins many of his texts in an indirect, allusive way, but there is only one in which it is an explicit theme: the story “In our Synagogue” (1920). A strange animal, pale turquoise and “about the size of a marten”, has made its home in the synagogue; the narrator describes it sitting “just behind the Ark”, looking into the congregation with “possibly lidless eyes , just looking into the direction of the dangers from which it may feel threatened”. Several of Kafka’s texts have been read as parables about the Jewish experience in a hostile, anti-Semitic world, but in this one the message is more ambiguous. Is the animal an intruder, an outsider to the community, or is it one of them, looking out for dangers which also threaten this congregation?
Kafka’s short prose texts are extremely varied in terms of their characters, setting, length and narrative voice. For all their formal and thematic diversity, however, they keep returning to the same questions. Whether the narrators are fathers or sons, animals or humans, outsiders or those speaking on behalf of the group, they are faced with a world which is subtly out of kilter, resisting any attempt at mastery or understanding – including on the part of the reader. The present collection is based on Roger Hermes’s reading edition Die Erzählungen und andere ausgewählte Prosa (1996), which in turn draws on the German critical edition of Kafka’s works. Where Hermes’s volume assembles both published and unpublished texts, The Burrow only contains those texts which remained unpublished in Kafka’s lifetime. These are arranged chronologically, starting with the early, expressionistic “In the City” (“Die städtische Welt”, 1911) and then leaping forward into more mature territory, to “The Village Schoolmaster” (“Der Dorfschullehrer”, 1914/5), which charts the narrator’s obsession with a (perhaps mythical) giant mole. This narrator is part of a group of researcher figures in Kafka’s prose – narrators who get lost in their own, labyrinthine deliberations. The most spectacular example of this self-destructive mindset, where vigilance turns into paranoia, is “The Burrow” (1923–4), the volume’s last and longest story.
As a collection The Burrow is an important addition to Kafka translations already available, assembling several texts which are not currently available in an English edition. Many of these texts are probably fragments, though we cannot be sure about this; in any case this doesn’t reduce their strange appeal. Hofmann’s translations are supple and briskly paced, reflecting the flowing, almost breathless rhythm of Kafka’s writing, as well as the pared-down tone of his prose. There are, however, occasional moments where the translation is free to the point of inaccuracy. Early on in the “The Burrow”, the narrator muses: “Freilich manche List ist so fein, daß sie sich selbst umbringt”, a remark which anticipates how in the course of the story the carefully constructed burrow will turn from a shelter into a trap, and then a tomb, for its inhabitant. Hofmann renders this sentence as “Many ruses are so obvious they are self-defeating”. Translating “fein” (“delicate”, “subtle”, “cunning”) as “obvious” obscures the underlying point: the way in which careful, meticulous planning, in its attention to detail, can turn self-destructive and self-defeating. In contrast, Joyce Crick in her 2012 translation for Oxford World’s Classics opts for the slower but more accurate “It is true, some stratagems are so subtle that they become self-defeating”. Neither version, incidentally, renders Kafka’s revealing choice of verb – the bluntness of “umbringen”, to kill (off), which gives a foretaste of things to come.
This new volume assembles some of Kafka’s most intriguing texts in a compact, well-structured volume. An engaging foreword by Hofmann draws attention to some of their core concerns: the dialectic between strength and weakness, for instance, and the importance of the night as the backdrop to Kafka’s writing process, and to the stories that emerged from it.
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