It’s the 20th century that claimed Franz Kafka as one of its darkest / brightest modernist lights. But his years were 1883-1924. He lived more than a third of his short life in the long 19th century and drew deeply, by his own account, on that side—on naturalist masters Kleist, Flaubert, Dostoevsky and Dickens—even as he broke their modes. Kafka’s feet, as it were, were in the 19th, his trunk in the early 20th, head in prescient depths, and his aura—still in our midst.
I walk the streets of his hometown, Prague, take routes he knew, view views he viewed, and enter space he worked, lived and dreamt in. Wondering, can I filch a glimpse inside the man inside the writing, tap the veiled “tremendous world” he said he had in his head. Probably not, but I’m not put off from seeking.
Some might call it stalking.
In Prague I see commodification first: Kafka’s grave aesthetic face on walls and stacks of books and tchotchkes. Kafka—kitsched—on coffee mugs, Franz (like Amadeus) on boxes of chocolates, T-Shirts, plates, pralines. The remnant of Kafka’s birth-house on the edge of the former Jewish ghetto, advertised in letters cribbing his signature. The Franz Kafka Café, Franz Kafka Bookstore, Kafka Museum Shop—copies of the author’s ‘best’ in high demand translations: English, French and Spanish, Japanese. I’m surprised I don’t find, in the hotel lobby, a walking-tour map—lines connecting dots to all the Kafka spots in the city. If he knew, he’d be aggrieved (“I can believe it”).
A photo has me standing with my hand on the full-metal jacket of sculptor Jaroslav Róna’s belated tribute to Prague’s unsettled son. A bronze colossus, unveiled in 2003—3.75 metres high, 800 kilos—set on Vězeňská Street, on the spot where Old Town Prague meets New: the Church of the Holy Spirit on one side, the Spanish (Sephardic) Synagogue on the other. Kafka-in-between.
The statue shows a hatted dandy balanced on the shoulders of a huge suit. Róna found his inspiration in Kafka’s earliest extant work, “Description of a Struggle” (Beschreibung eines Kampfes). A story richly liminal, and the only work in the author’s oeuvre set explicitly in Prague. City streets and landmarks are named in the German of Kafka’s tongue and time: Ferdinandstrasse, the Laurenziberg, Franzenquai, the Schützeninsel, the Mühlenturm, Karlsbrücke, Karlsgasse, Kreuzherrenplatz, the Ringplatz, Seminarkirche.
Kafka laboured longer on “Struggle” than on any other work. The first version dates to 1904 when he was a law student at Charles University. He persevered at the novella (as he called it) on and off for seven years, maybe longer, before finally abandoning it in fragments. But he didn’t destroy it, as he did so much of his writing, and was satisfied enough with parts of it to extract a few for publication. Biographer Reiner Stach has deemed the work “no more than a footnote in literary history.” Others have noted its unique and complex structure, its value to Kafka as a testing ground, its importance to the unfolding of his creative process. In “Struggle” one can see the poetics of Kafka’s later work in gestation, recurrent themes and techniques: thedubiousness of the double, the competition of opposing drives and pulls, the dreamy and fantastical juxtaposed to the real (often violent), the city as site of disorientation, the non sequitur as tactic to surprise and destabilize. Physical, emotional, and discursive struggle. Overall ambivalence.
Jaroslav Róna was likely as drawn to the imagery of duality in “Description of a Struggle” as he was to the Prague setting of the story. And the episode he chose to represent is one of the most unsettling: the section titled ‘A Ride’, in which one young man—the narrator ‘I’—leaps onto the shoulders of another young man—the acquaintance—and ‘rides’ him through the city in a dreamy yet hyper-real sequence punctuated with acts of casual violence. In the Schocken edition translation the starkest part goes like this:
“I leapt onto the shoulders of my acquaintance, and by digging my fists into his back I urged him into a trot. But since he stumped forward rather reluctantly… I kicked him in the belly several times with my boots, to make him more lively… As soon as my acquaintance stumbled I pulled him up by the collar … and boxed his head… pressed my hands together and … made [him] choke… My acquaintance collapsed and… I discovered that he was badly wounded in the knee. Since he could no longer be of any use to me, I left him there on the stones without much regret and whistled down a few vultures with serious beaks…”
Róna invested his statue with the surreality of Kafka’s ‘ride’, while rendering it more civically friendly than the text. There’s no digging-in of fists, no belly-kicking, head-boxing, or choking. No wounding, no gesture of abandonment or whistling down of vultures. Róna’s sculpture preserves the alert realism of Kafka’s writing style while invoking a lighter take on the irrational aspects of the story. The figure on top—who bears a striking likeness to the actual Franz—is smartly attired in suit, vest and fedora (Kafka was a hat man), and perched jauntily on the shoulders of a much larger figure—a headless, handless, footless empty suit. The top figure has the appearance of a miniaturized man, almost like a child in adult dress. One wonders what he’s doing up there, sitting on a suit. And what does it mean that the little man-figure is pointing, right forefinger extended in gunslinger position… The Róna sculpture, like the Kafka story is ambiguous and invites interpretation.
There’s an English-speaking student group standing by the statue when I arrive. The students take turns posing with the Róna. The guide gives his spiel, noting that the sculptor based his creation on Kafka’s earliest, yet last to be published and little-known story, “Description of a Struggle.” In closing, he asks the students which of the figures they think is meant to be Kafka. “The one in the hat,” several volunteer. “Obviously,” another interjects: “The other is an empty suit, nobody.” The guide smiles and suggests, “Perhaps both figures are meant to be Kafka—the way that players in a dream are all aspects of the dreamer.” None of the students dispute this interpretation and the group moves on.
The idea of two-in-oneness is probably what Róna meant to embrace in inscribing his work, at the base, with the title Franz Kafka: The duality of Franz, the dreamy doubling of ‘the ride’. In fact, the textual episode does situate ‘the ride’ on the screen of the author’s mind—in the “interior of a vast but as yet unfinished landscape,” where things are left to “grow along the road.” The “nobody” that one of the students saw in the empty suit also makes an appearance in the episode: “… nobody among a pack of nobodies… everyone in frock coats…”
I step up to pose with the statue, reach to touch it as so many others have done before me. The bronze is lighter and shinier where it’s been touched most: the coattails, pant legs and crotch of the huge suit-figure. Also where the suit legs meet the bronze base, feet nowhere to be seen— somewhere below, cut off. I pose first with my hand on the big suit jacket. Franz-the-little-man on top is too high to touch, except for his shoes, and they are lightest and shiniest of all. It’s the shoes people have most wanted to feel. I too want to feel the shoes, to have that vicarious connection with the part of the art that’s most recognizably Franz.
In the photograph, my back is to the camera, arms upraised, hands holding the bronze shoes. It’s a very odd image. I’m wearing a black coat and my hands and wrists—extending out from the sleeves—cover the shoes, giving them the appearance of skin. My hands and wrists, exposed below the pant legs, look like Franz’s feet—abnormally long, bare and white. Not bronze statue-feet. Not human feet either. More like the amphibious, in-between feet of a frog / man dressed for cruising.
BIO: Elana Wolff is a Toronto-based writer, editor, translator, and designer and facilitator of social art courses. Her prose and poetry have appeared in Canadian and international publications and have garnered awards. Her fifth solo collection of poems, Everything Reminds You of Something Else, was released in spring 2017 with Guernica Editions. Her essay, “Paging Kafka’s Elegist,” won The New Quarterly 2015 Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest and is included in Tightrope Books Best Canadian Essays 2016. “Kafka at the Cemetery” was short listed for The Malahat Review 2016 Constance Rooke Prize for Creative Non-fiction. Elana’s recent Kafka-quest essays appear in current issues of New Madrid, journal of contemporary literature and Humber Literary Review.