‘America’ by Franz Kafka (GLM VIII)

Although I would class Franz Kafka as one of my favourite authors I haven’t read anything by him for many years and I know very little about his life. The Trial was the first book that I read by Kafka which was then followed with The Castle, Amerika (I’m sure the copy I initially read retained the Germanic title though it must have been the same translation as here) and a few short stories including Metamorphosis, of course. I remember finding Amerika a bit dull in comparison to the other novels but recently I had begun to wonder what I’d make of it now—so I thought I’d read it for this year’s German Literature Month. My Penguin copy makes use of the 1938 translation by Willa and Edwin Muir together with an introduction by Edwin Muir and a short postscript by Max Brod, Kafka’s literary executor, both of which were informative. It should be noted that America was unfinished, it was abandoned by Kafka around 1914 and published posthumously in 1927.

Kafka sets the scene from the start. Here’s the first paragraph.

As Karl Rossmann, a poor boy of sixteen who had been packed off to America by his parents because a servant girl had seduced him and got herself with child by him, stood on the liner slowly entering the harbour of New York, a sudden burst of sunshine seemed to illumine the Statue of Liberty, so that he saw it in a new light, although he had sighted it long before. The arm with the sword rose up as if newly stretched aloft, and round the figure blew the free winds of heaven.

Kafka had never been to America but he read a lot of travel literature so we must assume that he knew that Liberty does not hold a sword. Anyway, the opening paragraph is certainly enticing and I was surprised, given my previous lack of enthusiasm for the book, to find it an excellent, and humorous, read. The novel follows Karl’s peregrinations through America, though he doesn’t travel far from New York. Karl is adrift, abandoned by his parents, in a strange land and has to make his own way. Similar to Kafka’s other protagonists Karl is faced with authority figures who make reasonable and unreasonable demands and whilst Karl can object to these demands and try to wriggle out of them, in the end he has to submit. The events in America are, however, presented in a much more realistic way than in The Trial or The Castle.

Even before he disembarks Karl ends up wandering about the ship and getting lost—it doesn’t bode well. He meets up with a stoker, Schubal, and helps him plead a grievance he has with his supervisor to the captain of the ship. Karl has some remarkably good luck in that his Uncle Jacob, a prosperous business man and Senator, recognises him and takes him to his luxurious house. Things are looking rosey for Karl! Uncle Jacob buys a piano for Karl and also arranges horse-riding lessons for him. Karl studies English as it is intended that Karl will work for his uncle; as his English improves he is introduced to some of his uncle’s business friends, Green and Pollunder. This is where things start to get a little, well Kafkaesque, as Karl is invited to visit Mr Pollunder, which Karl sees as a positive thing, but his uncle seems to be opposed to it but ultimately leaves it up to Karl to make the decision. Karl can’t satisfy both his uncle and Mr Pollunder. Here we have a dialogue between Karl and Pollunder on their way to Pollunder’s house.

   ‘My uncle wasn’t annoyed at my going?’
   ‘Not at all! He didn’t mean all that seriously. He has your education so much at heart.’
   ‘Did he tell you himself that he didn’t mean it seriously?’
   ‘Oh yes,’ said Mr Pollunder, drawling the words, and thus proving that he could not tell a lie.
   ‘It’s strange how unwilling he was to give me leave to visit you, although you are a friend of his.’
   Mr Pollunder too, although he did not admit it, could find no explanation for the problem, and both of them, as they drove through the warm evening in Mr Pollunder’s car, kept turning it over in their minds for a long time, although they spoke of other things.

Strange indeed. Karl doesn’t yet realise how much he has annoyed his uncle. During his short stay at Mr Pollunder’s house Karl manages to get on the wrong side of both Pollunder and his daughter Clara. In a marvellous scene Clara tries to seduce Karl and when he resists he gets wrestled to the floor by her and she threatens to box his ears. After getting lost in the huge building he eventually finds Pollunder and tells him he wishes to leave. Mr Green, who has turned up, ends up issuing Karl with a letter from his uncle stating that because Karl left him that evening to visit Mr Pollunder he wants nothing more to do with him. In one short evening Karl has managed to annoy his uncle, Clara and Pollunder and as a result he is turned out of the house with no more than his suitcase and umbrella. The letter from his uncle is priceless and as a taster here are the opening lines:

DEAR NEPHEW,
   As you will already have realized during our much too brief companionship, I am essentially a man of principle. That is unpleasant and depressing not only to those who come in contact with me, but also to myself as well. Yet it is my principles that have made me what I am, and no one can ask me to deny my fundamental self. Not even you, my dear nephew.

He ends the letter by saying that

…I have to keep telling myself again and again, Karl, that nothing good comes out of your family.

As good as this novel is so far it gets even better as Karl meets up with two disreputable characters, Delamarche and Robinson. He suspects they are out to rob him of the few possessions he owns and manages to ditch them by getting a job as a lift-boy in a hotel until, a few months later, an extremely drunk Robinson turns up and gets him the sack. There are some great scenes here; even when Karl is given the sack from the hotel he still can’t escape from the clutches of the sadistic Head Porter. When he does finally escape it is only to fall into the hands of Delamarche, who has wormed his way into the household, and affections, of a wealthy singer called Brunelda. Having virtually enslaved his old friend Robinson, Delamarche now intends to do the same with Karl.

The first seven chapters form a continuous narrative; but chapter eight, titled The Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, is a bit later in the story and according to Max Brod was intended to be the concluding chapter. This chapter has Karl attending a recruitment drive by a theatre company that is almost surreal. It is such a shame that Kafka decided to abandon this novel as I’m sure it would have been a success at the time. I shall have to find out why he stopped; Brod just states that he ‘broke off his work on this novel with unexpected suddenness.’ Does anyone know why he didn’t continue with it? as it seems to be so close to completion.

My previous read was Guignol’s Band by Céline and it was intersting to note the similarity in the themes of both books: both have a young man adrift in a foreign land who is basically morally good but who falls in with disreputable, though entertaining (for us), characters. Events seem to conspire against the protagonist though things have a way of working themselves out.

I read this as a contribution to this year’s German Literature Month.

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25 Comments

Filed under Kafka, Franz

25 responses to “‘America’ by Franz Kafka (GLM VIII)

  1. I believe he only wrote fragments of this novel and Max Brod then knit them together into something resembling a coherent narrative. I think one interpretation is that he wanted this novel to be more optimistic than his other ones and was going to it something resembling a happy ending. But then he couldn’t bring himself to do it. I wonder if there are more details about this in the Reiner Stach biography?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      That’s interesting Marina but didn’t he write Amerika before the others? It looks like he stopped writing this one to start on The Trial but I’ll have to read up on it. I feel a bit of a Kafka period approaching. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s psychological. Kafka did the same thing with all three novels. He would get fired up with an idea, and the writing would pour out of him until it dried up.
    Most of what we have of Amerika was written in a burst in 1912. In some sense, he stopped writing it to write Metamorphosis. He poked at Amerika a little bit in 1914, which is maybe why it could seem like he dropped it for The Trial. In his creative periods, Kafka was generally working on multiple stories. He has a story called “Eleven Sons” in which each son is really a story he has going at the moment.
    Kafka allowed the first chapter of Amerika, “The Stoker,” to be published as a chapbook in 1913. It was not a commercial success, but it won a major prize. It is hard for me to imagine Kafka as a success. I wonder how he would have reacted.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      Thanks Tom, that’s very interesting. I find it odd that ‘The Stoker’ was published as a short story as it doesn’t really work on its own. There are several scenes later on in the book which could have worked better as short stories, such as the fracas between Karl and the Head Porter or the meeting between Karl and the student on the balcony..

      I was thinking of it being a literary success rather than a commercial success, I suppose. 🙂 It’s strange that I was never really interested in Kafka’s life when I first read his books though I think it was because I saw him as essentially a dull person, whereas now, presumably from being much older, I find his life more interesting.

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  3. Very interesting, Jonathan. I’ve tried to read this a couple of times in the past but never very successfully. Maybe nowadays I would be more likely to succeed. As for Kafka’s life, I suspect you may have to be like Melissa and disappear down the rabbit hole of the three volume biography! 🤣

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    • Jonathan

      Yes, it might depend on how long ago it is since you last tried to read it. Do you like his more famous works? I can only assume that I didn’t think much of it as I read it after The Trial and The Castle and was disappointed because it wasn’t in the same style as those…the same may be true with his other short stories as I haven’t read any since then (about 25 years ago I guess).

      I could well end up disappearing down that rabbit hole. I noticed that Melissa was posting about Kafka but I avoided reading them whilst I was reading Amerika. I shall find time to read them now that I’ve finished it.

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      • I had read The Trial, The Castle and Metamorphosis first, yes – so I suspect like you I found the contrast too marked. I have a volume of his complete short stories which I’ve barely touched, so I should really give those a try too. As for that biography – I can only imagine how absorbing it must be. Look forward to your thoughts! 😂😂😂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Jonathan

        I think I’ll probably read some of his short stories again before tackling any biographical work…maybe The Castle as well as I’ve been meaning to re-read that for ages.

        I find some biographies are fascinating but many are a just tedious. I found the Flaubert biography I read earlier this year a bit dull. Plus with someone like Kafka I would be interested with the effect, or ‘life’, that his books had beyond his own life. I find it annoying sometimes when a biography is ‘just’ about the subject’s physical life—but it may be that I’m being unreasonable. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  4. There are good, short biographies of Kafka, too. You don’t have to commit to Stach!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I read a few of Kafka’s works back in my youth, but not this one. It can be interesting (if a little risky) to return to a favourite author after a reasonable break as our tastes can change as we grow older, so I’m glad to see that it out worked for you.

    There’s a museum devoted to Kafka in Prague, suitably Kafkaesque in its design and atmosphere. Definitely worth a visit if you ever find yourself in the city.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      I don’t mind returning to books whether they’re favourites or ones I didn’t like. A lot of my new favourite books are ones that I didn’t like (or more likely just weren’t right for that time) and I’ve found most that I used to like I still do now. It doesn’t bother me too much if I dislike a book I used to like as I can usually see why I used to like it. In some ways it can be informative about oneself.

      I’d love to visit Prague one day.

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  6. The Reading Life

    I have long been curious about this work. Your post has given me The confidence to try it. Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      By all means try it – just don’t expect it to be like The Trial. It’s still noticeably by Kafka thouh. I’m certainly glad I re-read it.

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  7. I read Kafka when I was young, which is to say nearly 50 years ago, and now I remember very little. Bit of wish fulfillment going on there – being seduced and packed off to America, I got sent to work on a dairy farm. By name-association the one book I read at uni that I must now re-read is Dos Passos, USA.

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    • Jonathan

      I think a lot of people read Kafka at an early age – I did as well. In fact, The Trial acted for me as a transition from sci-fi/horror to world literature. I still like Kafka and I still like sci-fi & horror.

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  8. While I’ve read all of his shorter works, I never read a novel. It sounds less dry than I thought it would. I’m just a bit worried about the structure. I have read Wagenbach’s biography ages ago. Very slim. But not bad as a start.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      I think America is more accessible than his other novels; it’s actually quite amusing at times. Before this re-read I would’ve advised that everyone should start with The Trial but I’m now inclined to say that some readers, for whom Kafka may not otherwise appeal, may enjoy this one more.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Sarah

    Maybe it’s because I’m reading this on my night shift and am experiencing early hours’ delirium, but this sounds unexpectedly hilarious. I’ve enjoyed reading Kafka in the past but have always felt the need to don a black polo neck and furrowed brow in preparation. This sounds like a blast. I shall have to explore further!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      It is a blast, I would even say it was fun. Although I can see humorous elements in most of his work this one is probably the least gloomy. Well worth a read.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Vishy

    Wonderful review, Jonathan! I haven’t read much of Kafka except for ‘The Metamorphosis’ and some short stories. This book looks very interesting and probably very different from the other works of Kafka. It is sad that he didn’t finish it during his lifetime. Is this the book that he gave Max Brod and asked him to burn it but Brod went ahead and published it? Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      Thanks Vishy. It’s a lot more positive than his other novels. It was fascinating reading it again and I was surprised just how good it is. All three of his novels were unfinsihed at his death and so all of them were saved from the flames by Max Brod. I wonder if Kafka meant it?

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      • Vishy

        Nice to know that. I didn’t know that all his three novels were unfinished. This one, The Trial, and The Castle? Amazing! One of the greatest writers of the 20th century, left us mostly unfinished works – so amazing! I will try to read ‘America’ soon. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

        Liked by 1 person

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