Nobody has ever managed to annex
a single letter in the way that Kafka did.
As Joseph K. (“The Trial”) and K. (“The Castle”), specs
provided by his name conceals that he’s a Yid,
but when he changes how America is spelt,
replacing c with k, he changes what is my land
as well as your land into Jew-viewed jener Welt,
Amerika that is a frightful, fearful island
which represents a troubled world that’s so bizarre
sane men would either stay away from it or wreck it.
It is a place that should be banished from the mind, Hagar
compelled to wander in the wilderness that Beckett
described much later, using as his model not
America, but somewhere where men stand and wait,
with little rhyme or reason, planted without plot,
for something more ineffable than any state.
Inspired by an article by Adam Kirsch on “Der Verschollene,” Kafka first novel, which Schocken Books will publish with a new translation by Mark Harman (“America, ‘Amerika,’” NYT Book Review, January 4, 2009):
Most writers take years to become themselves, to transform their preoccupations and inherited mannerisms into a personal style. For Franz Kafka, who was an exception to so many rules of life and literature, it took a single night. On Sunday, Sept. 22, 1912, the day after Yom Kippur, the 29-year-old Kafka sat down at his desk and wrote “The Judgment,” his first masterpiece, in one all-night session. “Only in this way can writing be done,” he exulted, “only with such coherence, with such a complete opening out of the body and the soul.” Everyone who reads Kafka reads “The Judgment” and the companion story he wrote less than two months later, “The Metamorphosis.” In those stories, we already find the qualities the world would come to know as “Kafkaesque”: the nonchalant intrusion of the bizarre and horrible into everyday life, the subjection of ordinary people to an inscrutable fate. But readers have never been quite as sure what to make of the third major work Kafka began writing in the fall of 1912 — the novel he referred to as “Der Verschollene,” “The Missing Person,” which was published in 1927, three years after his death, by his friend and executor Max Brod, under the title “Amerika.”
The translator Michael Hofmann, whose English version of the book appeared in 1996, correctly called it “the least read, the least written about and the least ‘Kafka’ ” of his three novels. Now Schocken Books, which has been the main publisher of Kafka’s works since the 1930s, hopes to reintroduce his first novel to the world with a new translation, by Mark Harman. “If approached afresh,” Harman promises in his introduction, “this book could bear out the early claim by . . . Brod that ‘precisely this novel . . . will reveal a new way of understanding Kafka.’ ” Harman offers a compromise between Kafka’s intended title and Brod’s more familiar one by calling his version Amerika: The Missing Person ($25). And he follows previous English editions by retaining the German spelling of America, with a “k.” This lends the name, in American eyes, a more ominous and alien quality than it would have for the German reader. That “k” is hard to resist, however, and not just because readers have come to expect it. No writer has ever annexed a single letter the way Kafka did with “k.” Between the two in his own last name, Joseph K. of “The Trial” and K. of “The Castle,” the letter seems imbued with his own angular essence. Amerika is not America; it is a cipher for Kafka’s dream of a country he never visited.
© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/4/09