Anthony Northey: Kafka and the Geishas

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“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” The opening sentence of Franz Kafka’s story Metamorphosis is one of the most famous in world literature. But the writer himself will always be something of an enigma. Kafka was born in Prague in 1883 and spent nearly all his life in the city, dying at just 41 in a sanatorium near Vienna. A Kafka symposium was recently held in the Czech capital and one of the most interesting talks was given by the US-born Canadian academic, Anthony Northey. For many years he has been trying to piece together details of Kafka’s biography and has also been researching into the way Kafka interacted with his home city, at a time when Prague was going through rapid and dynamic change. He has managed to challenge some of the many myths that have become both the blessing and the curse of Prague’s most famous literary son. When I met Anthony Northey, he began by telling me more about his research into Kafka’s Prague.

Anthony Northey
“I’ve been at this now for over 34 years. When you discover something, a new little titbit, it’s part of a great mosaic. You start to put together little pieces and see that you can complete the image of Kafka a little bit more.”

Kafka is one of the icons of twentieth century literature. There is always a danger of the myth of Kafka becoming more important almost than the writings themselves or Kafka the person.

“Yes. Many Kafka scholars would say that it is unfortunate that we have this word Kafkaesque. It usually means anything bureaucratic, red tape, it means anything sombre, bizarre. It has come to mean that – and then when the name Kafka is mentioned, people immediately think of those things. They think of the Kafkaesque. That is unfortunate because it overstates and misstates what Kafka wanted to say in a lot of his work.”

One thing that is very interesting from the point of view of Prague is that Kafka was writing in German. Czechs have always had a rather complicated relationship to his writing. Under the communist regime it was for much of the time banned virtually altogether. Certainly there were very few editions of Kafka’s writings that were published in the entire forty years of communist rule. Also he has been seen quite often as a German writer and therefore “not one of us”. A lot of your research has focused on putting Kafka back into a Prague context, into the context of the reality of his time. Can you tell us a little more about this?

“In hindsight people misread history a little bit. I think that once you get into it you realize that Germans and Czechs were not always at each other’s throats. There was a certain amount of coexistence, especially among intellectuals. Many of the things that existed in Prague or took place in Prague and really belonged to his life were shared between Germans and Czechs. An example is the big exposition that was held in 1908.”

This was a major industrial exhibition, celebrating industry in the region…

“It was meant actually as a regional exposition, but it turned out to be much larger, and it involved a lot of things that fascinated Kafka too. He was fascinated by exotic things, and this exposition included, for example, some Abyssinians. They had set up a little village and they performed ceremonies and things like that, which fascinated him. There was a Japanese teahouse, and he says to Max Brod – ‘We’ve got to go back to the exposition to see the Geishas again!’”

And there was also a lot of new technology….

“The first incubator was shown to save young premature babies. There was even an outdoor cinema that was projected on the wall of one of the buildings, apparently. You could ascend in a hot-air balloon and view the exposition from above and all kind of things like that. The enthusiasm really went from top to bottom and from old to young.”

Of course the key question as far as Kafka’s writings are concerned is how does this interest come out in his short stories and novels?

“In the novel ‘America’, which has a lot of biographical elements the kernel of the story is a young man who goes to America, and while he’s there he makes these discoveries of all these new things. He is really overwhelmed in a way by the New World. In fact, you might even say that in the course of the novel he seems to get younger and younger, because he cannot cope with the New World. A lot of this is a matter of technology. The automobiles are described as incessant streams of cars going by, or at one point he is viewing a room with telephone operators that are handling many calls coming in and going out.”

People will often put writers in one of two camps, either those who embrace the new world and technology and innovation, and the societal changes that come with it, or those who tend to be more nostalgic for the past. I have a feeling that Kafka does not fit neatly into either camp.

“No, and I think that is probably what makes him a good author, because he will accept and at the same time he has reservations. Prague before the war was very lively, especially the competition between the Czechs and the Germans. I would say that Prague was a little bit like the company Avis when it was battling with Hertz and came up with the slogan - ‘We try harder”. Well, that is what Prague was! They tried harder. They had to fight between the giants like Vienna, of course, and Berlin on the other hand - and Paris, because the Czechs were very Francophile. They had to pull themselves up. Of course they could never get up to the status of those cities, but they tried. They tried very, very hard.”

I know that one thing you have been looking at is Kafka’s social and cultural life in Prague. He was a keen theatre-goer, he was a keen reader, he would go to bars, to cabarets, he would read all the latest cultural magazines voraciously. This must have had a significant influence on his world view.

“Again this is Prague, the lively place it was. I’m particularly interested in Kafka’s meeting up with popular culture, especially the variety theatre in Prague and certain cabarets, because you have to realize that the acts in all these places often came from abroad. Many of them came from France, from England, Italy, from North and South America.”

And what sort of things were these?

“For one there were slapstick comedian acts, there were juggling acts, there were balancing acts, but even singers. I think, because certain descriptions indicate it, that Kafka probably experienced the beginnings of jazz. He experienced ragtime. Kafka was very interested in all that. He wrote the novella ‘The Hunger Artist’, for example. Everyone says the idea of the hunger artist must be a figment of his bizarre imagination….”

We should explain that the hunger artist is literally an artist whose art is that he doesn’t eat - and people go to see him…

“Of course in typical Kafka fashion he really cogitates about this and comes to the conclusion that he doesn’t eat because he never liked to eat and that is cheating in some way. But he says I never cheated, as I never ate. So it depends how you define cheating in this case! That story goes back to a real hunger artist. There were actual hunger artists. I didn’t discover that, but I did discover the hunger artist that Kafka probably saw in Prague, a man by the name of Ricardo Sacco. He hungered for something like forty days, publicly, in a beer hall or somewhere like that, and it was pretty much the way Kafka described it. So it is not his bizarre imagination. That was a real thing. Of course, you have to realize at the end of “The Hunger Artist” that the hunger artist shrivels up into nothing and almost blows away, and what takes over in his cage is a wild animal that wants blood. And that is what the audience wants to see – blood. Here Kafka is referring to the atmosphere that came in with World War One.

“Well, clear this out now!” said the overseer, and they buried the hunger artist, straw and all. Into the cage they put a young panther. Even the most insensitive felt it refreshing to see this wild creature leaping around the cage that had so long been dreary. The panther was all right. The food he liked was brought to him without hesitation by the attendants; he seemed not even to miss his freedom; his noble body, furnished almost to the bursting point with all that it needed, seemed to carry freedom around with it too; somewhere in his jaws, it seemed to lurk; and the joy of life streamed with such ardent passion from his throat that for the onlookers it was not easy to stand the shock of it. But they braced themselves, crowded around the cage, and did not want ever to move away.

[trans. Willa and Edwin Muir]

Prague has always been, and I think still is, a city that loves fads…

“Yes. I think that precisely during that time when you had such a real plethora of technical things coming on the market, it got people all enthused, and it was really part of internationalism because this transcended nationality. Of course everyone was proud of their own aviators and so on, but generally they were just proud that humankind seemed to be going forward, progressing. Things were going to be new. We were on the verge of a new world. Perhaps some people thought we were on the verge of a new humaneness. Unfortunately they were sorely disappointed in 1914, because then technology was used in a very different way.”