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:
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.