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Author Topic: Kafka's Dick at Las Vegas
Babbler # 1064

posted 04 January 2006 11:10 PM      Profile for 'lance     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
This bizarre thread touched briefly on Franz Kafka, but it obviously wasn't the time or place.

I mentioned that Alan Bennett (English playwright of "The Madness of George III/King George" fame) had written something about Kafka, called "Kafka at Las Vegas."

Actually he wrote two plays about Kafka, one for the stage called Kafka's Dick, and the other for TV, called The Insurance Man. In the process he wrote a lot of "sketches and speculations" about Kafka, "the kind of stuff that's always left over after writing a play." Thus "Kafka at Las Vegas." Here are some excerpts:

Kafka was fond of the cinema, and there are short stories, like Tales of a Red Indian, that have a feeling of the early movies. He died before the talkies came in and so before the Marx Brothers, but there is an exchange in Horse Feathers that sums up Kafka's relations with his father:
BEPPO: Dad, I'm proud to be your son.
GROUCHO: Son, you took the words out of my mouth. I'm ashamed to be your father.
The Kafka household could have been the setting for many Jewish jokes:
FATHER: Son, you hate me.
SON: Father, I love you.
MOTHER: Don't contradict your father.

Had Kafka the father emigrated to America, as so many of his contemporaries did, things might have turned out differently for Kafka the son. He was always stage-struck. Happily lugubrious, he might have turned out a stand-up Jewish comic. Kafka at Las Vegas.

It must have been a strange place, the Workers Accident Insurance Institute, a kingdom of the absurd where it did not pay to be well and loss determined gain; limbs became commodities, and to be given a clean bill of health was to be sent away empty-handed. There every man carried a price on his head, or on his arm or his leg, like the tariffs of ancient law. It was a world where to be deprived was to be endowed, to be disfigured was to be marked out for reward, and to trip was to jump every hurdle. In Kafka's place of work the whole man had something to hide, the real handicap was to have no handicap at all, whereas a genuine limp genuinely acquired cleared every obstacle and a helping hand was one that had first been severed from the body. The world as hospital: it is Nietzsche's nightmare.

The topography that oppressed Kafka does not oppress us. Kafka's fearful universe is constructed out of burrows and garrets and cubby-holes on back staircases. It is nearer to Dickens and Alice and even to the cosiness of The Wind in the Willows than it is to our own particular emptinesses. Our shorthand for desolation is quite different: the assembly line, the fence festooned with polythene rags, the dead land between the legs of the motorway. But it is ours. It isn't Kafka's. Or, to put it another way, the trouble with Kafka is that he didn't know the word Kafkaesque. However, those who see The Trial as a trailer for totalitarian bureaucracy might be confirmed in this view on finding that the premises in Dzherzhinsky Square in Moscow now [1987] occupied by the Lubyanka Prison formerly housed another institution, the Rossiya Insurance Company.

Death took no chances with Kafka and laid three traps for his life. Parched and voiceless from TB of the larynx, he was forty, the victim, as he himself said, of a conspiracy by his own body. But had his lungs not ganged up on him there was a second trap, twenty years down the line, when the agents of death would have shunted him, as they did his three sisters, into the gas chambers. That fate, though it was not to be his, is evident in his last photograph. It is a face that prefigures the concentration camp.

But say that in 1924 he cheats death and a spell in the sanatorium restores him to health. In 1938 he sees what is coming -- Kafka, after all, was more canny than he is given credit for, not least by Kafka himself -- and so he slips away from Prague in time. J.P. Stern imagines him fighting with the partisans; Philip Roth finds him a poor teacher of Hebrew in Newark, New Jersey. Whatever his future when he leaves Prague, he becomes what he has always been, a refugee. Maybe (for there is no harm in dreams) he even lives long enough to find himself the great man he never knew he was. Maybe (the most impossible dream of all) he actually succeeds in putting on weight. So where is death now? Waiting for Kafka in some Park Avenue consulting-room where he goes with what he takes to be a recurrence of his old chest complaint.

"Quite curable now, of course, TB. No problem. However, regarding your chest, you say you managed a factory once?"

"Yes. For my brother-in-law. For three or four years."

"When was that?"

"A long time ago. It closed in 1917. In Prague."

"What kind of factory was it?"

"Building materials. Asbestos."

This is just a dream of Kafka's death. He is famous, the owner of the best-known initial in literature, and we know he did not die like this. Others probably did. In Prague the consulting rooms are bleaker but the disease is the same and the treatment as futile. These patients have no names, though Kafka would have known them, those girls (old ladies now) whom he described brushing the thick asbestos dust from their overalls, the casualties of his brother-in-law's ill-starred business in which Hermann, his father, had invested. A good job his father isn't alive, the past master of "I told you so."

Full disclosure: I've read only one or two Kafka stories, too young to get much from them, and so long ago I can barely remember them. So for practical purposes I haven't read him at all (and have no insights other than those pinched from Bennett). But Bennett has something to say about this kind of thing, too:

Metamorphosis and The Trial are the two works of Kafka that are best known, are, if you like, classics. Classics -- and in particular modern classics -- are the books one thinks one ought to read, thinks one has read. In this category particularly for readers who were young in the fifties came Proust, Sartre, Orwell, Camus and Kafka. It isn't simply a matter of pretension. As a young man I genuinely felt I ought to read Proust and Eliot (though it did no harm to be seen reading them). However, a few pages convinced me that I had got the gist, and so they went on to the still uncluttered bookshelf beside Kafka, Camus, Orwell and the rest.

The theory (or one of them) these days is that the reader brings as much to the book as the author. So how much more do readers bring who have never managed to get through the book at all? It follows that the books one remembers best are the books one has never read. To be remembered but not read has been the fate of The Trial, despite it being the most readable of Kafka's books. Kafka on the whole is not very readable. But then to be readable does not help a classic. Great books are taken as read, or taken as having been read. If they are read, or read too often and too easily by too many, the likelihood is that they are not great books, or won't remain so for long. Read too much they crumble away as, nowadays, popular mountains are prone to do.

[ 04 January 2006: Message edited by: 'lance ]

From: that enchanted place on the top of the Forest | Registered: Jul 2001  |  IP: Logged
Babbler # 2534

posted 04 January 2006 11:28 PM      Profile for lagatta     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
'lance, could you provide a reference to this text? Seriously, I want to send it to a friend who is a Kafka scholar.

Not jus another "cut or uncut" thread...

From: Se non ora, quando? | Registered: Apr 2002  |  IP: Logged
Babbler # 1064

posted 04 January 2006 11:46 PM      Profile for 'lance     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Sure, it's in Writing Home (Faber & Faber, 1997).

This is a collection of the "talks, diaries and occasional journalism" Bennett wrote from about 1977 to 1997, "mostly for the BBC or the London Review of Books."

I'd never heard of Bennett before this book came out (though I'd seen The Madness of King George). But I bought it after I heard him promoting it on the radio, and became a big fan.

There isn't much Bennett online, unfortunately. Even subscribers can't get access to his writing on the LRB site, though it has just about everything else since 2000.

[ 04 January 2006: Message edited by: 'lance ]

From: that enchanted place on the top of the Forest | Registered: Jul 2001  |  IP: Logged

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