Faithfully Seeking Franz by Elana Wolff

Faithfully Seeking Franz: Back at the Office

In November 2015 my husband and I were in Prague on an ‘indoor leg’ of my ongoing Franz Kafka quest. I’d booked a room at 7 Na Poříčí Street in the neo-Baroque building that had once housed the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute—the semi-governmental company where Kafka held positions as an insurance lawyer. The building now houses the Hotel Century Old Town and Room 214 is designated as Kafka’s office suite.

I was thrilled to be staying in a room where Kafka had worked as a much-admired and respected civil servant for 14 years—longer than he lived and wrote in any of his many residences around town. By the time he was pensioned off at 39, due to failing health, he’d been promoted to the eminent rank of senior secretary. Yet in his correspondence, he’d called the office “a dreadful impediment” to his real life’s work—his writing—and complained that “writing and the office cannot be reconciled.”

In fact, the office and Kafka’s writing could not be unreconciled. He lived and breathed the Institute so deeply that his writing—which he labored over at night—became suffused with its stamp and language. The office provided a trove of images, associations, and scenarios that made their way into his fiction. The posthumously published novels The Trial and The Castle, in particular, present refractions of the senseless, pedantic, frequently cruel and absurdly comical bureaucratic work-world that Kafka knew well, and that came to be characterized by the author’s name ‘adjectified’: Kafkaesque. Kafka’s restrained, legalistic, elliptical yet crystalline language can, to a large extent, be traced to the office.

Taking a cue from French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s lyrical work, The Poetics of Space, my aim during our 2015 stay was to check out the physical features of Kafka’s erstwhile workplace for what they might reveal. Bachelard held that there is active interplay between the mind and its surroundings, that the spaces we live and work in have great power for the integration of our thoughts, and that rooms a person spends time in can be put to what he termed “topoanalysis.” “Topoanalysis” asks: Is the room large? Is it cluttered? How is it appointed, and lit? Does it afford reverie? Reverie was important to Bachelard—as the state for seeding poetic creativity. Kafka would have concurred. For Franz, the boundary between dream, reverie and reality was constantly eroded.

Bachelard’s Poetics became the ‘hook’ for a creative nonfiction piece I wrote titled, “Faithfully Seeking Franz: The Office Stop,” that was published in the 2017 Summer Issue of New Madrid – journal of contemporary literature. The piece contained a blend of observation, evaluation and imagination. In the absence of photographic evidence, I imagined, for example, what Kafka might have had on his office walls. Diplomas maybe, a painting or two … I was reminded of Chapter 7 of The Trial,the comedic scene featuring the wily court painter Titorelli. The protagonist and Kafka-cipher, Josef K., purchases one, then two identical ‘Sunset over the Heath’ landscapes that Titorelli pulls out from the dust under the bed in his studio, sensing an unwitting buyer in the chief financial bank officer. “They’re beautiful landscapes,” says the bewildered Josef K. of the gloomy paintings. “I’ll buy them both and hang them in my office.”  Titorelli, eager to unload his surplus, then extracts all the identical heath paintings he has under his bed and Josef K., nonplused, agrees to take every one. Ha!

Making sure that I would not be without photographic evidence, I photographed the room—the layout, appointments and furnishings—from all angles. Then, standing at the tall open windows, imagining myself like Kafka—fresh-air zealot that he was—inhaling the cool autumn breeze, I was struck by what I saw on the neo-Baroque building across the street: a stone relief sculpture of a beautifully-hewn sheep, sitting realistically on an altar-like mound. Noble profile, solemn body—gray stone against a golden background. Relief sculptures are common in Prague. Many of the neo-Baroque buildings feature animals on their façades, too, and the buildings are often named for these decorative emblems—as in ‘House at the Unicorn’, ‘House at the Golden Pike’, ‘House at the Blue Goose’, ‘House at the White Swan’. Creatures are familiar features in Kafka’s work as well: dogs, horses, apes, jackals, mice, moles … There are few authors in whose work creatures play as prominent a role as they do in Kafka’s. Creatures that speak, whistle, sing, investigate, burrow into the issues important to the author: the nature of power and authority, alienation, the strangeness of modern life, the inescapability of cruelty and guilt.

I couldn’t—I wrote in that piece—recall any sheep in Kafka’s fiction. In a 1913 diary entry, however, Kafka writes obliquely: “I am really like a lost sheep … or like a sheep running after this sheep.” This sheep. I stared at the sheep on the building before me, a building of the same vintage as the former Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute, that Kafka would have viewed from his office window whenever he looked onto Na Poříčí Street. And I wondered if I was apprehending some thread of connection between the world of the office and Kafka’s ‘private’ diary-writing. (Kafka could not have imagined that the body of his meant-to-be private writings would be published and so closely scrutinized by generations of scholars and avid readers.)

“Imagination augments the value of reality,” writes Bachelard in The Poetics of Space. A part of me wanted to believe that this particular sheep-in-relief spoke to Kafka personally, and that I, all these years removed, was tapping into that connection. This part of me wanted to interject insight, to augment the literary value of the sheep for the sake of my search. I wanted to be addressed. I wanted there to be a message ‘out there’ for me, one that others may have missed. But plainer thoughts and questions prevailed: What can really be culled from a mutual view? And what can we truly know of the links between the seen, the perceived, the dreamed, and the written-down. These are mostly covert processes, obscured and unknown—even to writers themselves.

I looked long and hard at the sitting figure—the solemn, regal sheep. I took several photos. The stone did not disclose a thing; it remained as enigmatic as Kafka. I started to feel warm, thirsty, slightly addled. Then a shadow of doubt descended: that this room was ever Kafka’s actual office. Wouldn’t a senior civil servant have earned a room on a higher floor …I wrote in closing my previous piece. The editor who selected the essay for publication in New Madrid liked my open ending, which he saw as extending a Kafka-like literary ambivalence. Thing is: I ended on that note because I really did doubt that Suite 214 had once housed Kafka’s office.

Last summer, 2018, my husband and I were again in Prague—our base for a trek to Kafka destinations east of the capital. Once again I booked us at the Hotel Century Old Town, though this time I asked for a suite on the top floor, facing Na Poříčí Street: I wanted to see what view Kafka might actually have had.

former Workers' Accident Insurance Institute_now Hotel Century Old Town

The hotel had undergone renovations—the foyer now shiny and modernized, with ambient lighting, chrome-back chairs upholstered in green chenille, matching green carpets and low-standing round-mirror tables. The bronze sculpture of Kafka’s head, set on a stand in an enclave near the original, ornate staircase railing, seemed at first glance to be all that remained the same from our previous stay. “Yes,” says the receptionist—a tall friendly young man named Jan—as we’re checking in, “It was decided to give the hotel a more contemporary look.” I mention my Kafka-quest; tell him I’m not convinced that suite 214—still being advertised as the Kafka Suite—was in fact Kafka’s actual former office. “Wouldn’t a senior employee at the Institute have commanded an office on the top floor?” I ask. “You’re right,” Jan confirms. “Kafka did have an office on the top floor. But when he was starting out, his office was on the lower floor. Both locations are actual. Also,” he continues,” the Kafka Suite at 214 is currently being upgraded. It’s not as yet open to guests, but perhaps you’d like to see it as it is,” he offers. Well of course we would!

foyer_Century Hotel_2015
Former foyer

So there on the spot, Jan emerges from behind the reception desk and takes us up to Suite 214 for a tour of the renovation-in-progress. (Almost as if Kafka himself had arranged it.)

The suite looks nothing like it did back in 2015. Now much enlarged—two or three suites combined—with a sitting room, dining area, entrance nook, separate bedroom, spacious bathroom, built-in bookcase (containing only one title by Kafka as far as I can see). The décor is putty grey, black and white, the overall look—cool, minimalist. The renovation is close-to-complete. A painter is standing on a ladder by the window, applying finishing touches. There’s a large black and white portrait of Kafka on the floor, propped against the wall of the sitting room; behind it a larger, framed facsimile of a page from Kafka’s story, “The Judgement.” On the wall: a big decorative smear of black paint.

foyer_Century Hotel_2015_pre-reno

How much will it cost to stay here for a night?” my husband asks. “About 16,500 Czech crowns,” Jan informs us. I can’t figure out, in the moment, how much that is in dollars but it sounds way beyond our budget. I’m feeling fortunate to have had the opportunity, in 2015, to stay in the more economical model of Kafka’s office; fortunate, too, to be having this surprise glimpse into a renovation-in-progress that I’m able to document in photos.

As it turns out, the rooms at Hotel Century Old Town have all been renovated. The suites feature a swishy K logo on the walls; the main floor hallway a fragment of a Kafka text. Management is evidently banking on Kafka cachet. The hotel has been converted into a kind of ‘Kafka central’, with a Kafka lounge, accessible from the street, and conference rooms named for women in Kafka’s life: Felice, Milena, Dora. There’s still a vitrine on the main floor showcasing old photos, writing accoutrements and a typewriter from Kafka’s time. The hotel breakfast room is no longer called The Felice Patisserie, but Kafka’s “favorite cake”—Bábovka—is still being served. (During our 2015 stay, different versions of “favorite” were offered up each day. How many favorites did Kafka have?!)

Upstairs in our small suite, I lean out the window to photograph the regal sheep relief-sculpture on the building across the street … And now I’m wondering if that building was actually standing when Kafka worked in this one. Maybe when he stood at his office window, inhaling the crisp city air, he saw an open field instead …

BIO: Elana Wolff is a Toronto-based writer of poetry and creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Canadian and international publications and has garnered awards. Her most recent Kafka-quest pieces appear in Humber Literary Review, Cargo Literary Review, and Nashwaak Review. “Kafka-in-Between” was published in Wanderlust Journal on March 8, 2018.