While I wasn’t exactly thrilled with Kafka translator Michael Hoffman translating Ungeziefer as cockroach…
I am in definite accord with him on much of what he discusses in his introduction to METAMORPHOSIS AND OTHER STORIES, a collection translated by him consisting of all of Kafka’s stories that were published in Kafka’s lifetime.
For instance, when discussing how hard it is to translate Kafka, Hoffman tells us this is so because in Kafka’s work “there is no ‘voice’, no diction, no ‘style’ — certainly not in the literary sense of high style ….[Philip] Rahv describes him perfectly as a ‘master of narrative tone, of a subtle, judicious and ironically conservative style’.”
Obviously, as a single-tongued simpleton I can’t comment on the translation difficulties, but as a Kafka fanboy I do get what he means by the lack of high style, of how inobtrusive Kafka’s writing is.
As a writer myself, I rely far too much on literary devices such as metaphors and similes and on language such as adjectives and adverbs (yeah, I know, I know…), but Kafka’s writing is almost as if it isn’t there, as if it comes to us as a dream, without any distracting devices or large, literary words to destroy that deep, immersive verisimilitude that no other writer I find can create quite like him.
“If this is what Kafka is like,” Hoffman says, “then the big words in his stories are in fact the little words. Not verbs and nouns, much less adjectives and adverbs, but what are aptly termed ‘particles’…that change or reinforce the course of arguments in his prose.”
Which is why I was so surprised when I read such an overtly literary passage in one of Kafka’s earlier stories found early in the collection called “Unmasking a Confidence Trickster”:
I had an invitation, I had told him as much right away. I had been invited, furthermore, to come up, where I would have liked to have been for some time already, not standing around outside the gate gazing past the ears of my interlocutor. And now to lapse into silence with him too, as if we had decided on a long stay in just this spot. A silence to which the houses round about and the darkness that extended as far as the stars, all made their contribution. And the footfalls of unseen pedestrians, whose errands one did not like to guess at, the wind that kept pressing against the opposite side of the street, a gramophone that was singing against the sealed windows of one of the rooms somewhere – they all came to prominence in this silence, as though it belonged and had always belonged to them.
I had to stop after reading that passage, mostly because I felt it was such beautiful writing and I wanted to reread it, but also because I wasn’t quite sure what I had just read, what it was about, which is always a danger for me with highfalutin literary writing.
Even in this winding passage, I can still feel the underlying Kafkaian vibe to it, but the vibe is disrupted because of its “literariness,” because of the beauty of the writing. Usually, it’s not until after I stop reading Kafka for whatever reason – bathroom break, sleep, never because of disinterest – that I realize that Kafkian vibe had totally penetrated my psyche and has been humming deep within me without me even knowing it.
And this brings me to what I am particularly smitten with in Hoffman’s introduction, this concept he calls “Kafka time,” of how it’s always either too late, as it is for Gregor Samsa who has already metamorphosed by the time we meet him, or is never arriving, as how K. is never able to fulfill his land surveying duties for the castle.
Or, to put a twist on a point Hoffman made above, it’s in that slip of time it takes for the particles to change or reinforce the course of arguments in Kafka’s prose.
To me, it is from this sense of “Kafka time” where the Kafkaian vibe resonates most, creating this unsettling feeling of striving for something just beyond our grasp…
While traversing along a narrow, crumbling path barely wide enough for a foot to fall…
While high on a mountain’s edge…
While sightless from the thick and endless and suffocating clouds.
Hey, what can I say, I’m no Kafka, but i think you get what I’m trying to get at.
Anyway, Hoffman goes on to discuss the “middle moment” of Kafka’s writing, the time it takes to shift from the Muzak of normalcy to that initial, sweet, dissonant twang of that Kafkian vibe, as “the Zeno moment, the infinite possibility of infinitesimal change.”
The Zeno he is referring to of course is Zeno of Elea (as opposed to Zeno of Citium or Zeno of Southern Pennsylvania) who pretty much gave us way back (B)efore (C)hrist was even a sparkle in God’s eyes the definition of Kafkaesque, but which he less than humbly dubbed Zeno’s Dichotomy Paradox.
Actually, I think it was Plato who first gave Zeno his props so we should cut him some eponymous slack.
Anyway, Aristotle illustrates Zeno’s paradox thusly:
“Suppose Atalanta wishes to walk to the end of a path. Before she can get there, she must get halfway there. Before she can get halfway there, she must get a quarter of the way there. Before traveling a quarter, she must travel one-eighth; before an eighth, one-sixteenth; and so on.”
And by so on, I take it to mean Atalanta is never going to reach the end of that path.
Sounds like it could be the blurb for just about any of Kafka’s books, no?
But then, even Kafka himself lived on Kafka time as he was thrice engaged but never married, authored three novels but completed none, and then, sadly, his life was left incomplete by disease.
Yeah, there is so much more to discuss regarding Kafka and his time, but perhaps it’s best if we come to a conclusion with this one final thought…